There’s been a healthy level of optimism among Broncos fans surrounding this upcoming season. The defense has an embarrassment of riches throughout despite losing Aqib Talib, the offense now has stability at the quarterback position as well as improved surrounding talent, and the coaching staff should be improved with a year under their belt.
Or at least, that was that was the hope. All of those ideas seemed to melt away as the team sleepwalked through one of the most humiliating Broncos preseason performances in recent memory. The defense allowed huge running plays, was unable to cover the Vikings’ running backs, and worst of all the “No Fly Zone” looked like a shadow of its former self.
Between the 2016 and 2017 seasons, the Broncos defense went from being the fifth-worst unit at stopping the run to being the fifth-best without major acquisitions along the defensive line. After last night’s game, it seems like the run defense has somewhat regressed. For the most part, the Broncos defensive line was able to fill gaps and suffocate the Vikings’ rushing attack, but they were also gashed a few times for big plays. The Vikings running backs picked up 72 yards on their five longest carries but gained just 56 yards on their other 30 carries.
The pass rush (which the Broncos need to be lights-out with the loss of Talib) was inconsistent and disappointing. The undermanned Vikings offensive line was able to outmuscle and contain a Broncos pass rush which it shouldn’t have been a match for. 2017 2nd-round pick DeMarcus Walker was a disappointing non-factor last year and stuck to form in the preseason opener. He didn’t make it on to the field until the second half, which should raise eyebrows considering his draft pedigree. One bright spot along the D-line was the play of Zach Kerr as well as Domata Peko who made tackle after tackle despite playing limited snaps.
Although some of the blame for the poor rushing defense falls on the defensive line, the majority of the blame falls on the linebackers. The two longest runs of the night for Minnesota (back-to-back Latavius Murray scampers around the right side) were opened up by the linebackers. On the first, Bradley Chubb got beat by his O-lineman and opened a seam. And on the second, Brandon Marshall made a poor read on the running back which created a lane. Those two plays alone made up nearly one-third of the Vikings rushing production.
However, the linebacking corp’s inability to match up and cover the Vikings running backs was a much bigger problem. This was most evident on Roc Thomas’ two touchdown receptions. A rub on Dymonte Thomas allowed Thomas to take a swing route to the house untouched and then, of course, there’s the screen he took 78 yards for a touchdown. On both plays, Thomas found himself all alone with an avenue straight to the end zone because of poor coverage by the linebackers (and one embarrassing angle by Will Parks). There was a lot of bad, but Josey Jewell stuck out as one positive. His lack of speed is a concern, though he compensates for it with incredible instincts. Jewell was tied for first on the team in total tackles (5) and flashed good strength by blowing up a Vikings offensive lineman to make a tackle on the running back on one play.
The most interesting position group for the Broncos defense has to be the defensive backs. There are so many questions that need to be answered. How will Justin Simmons do with a year of experience under his belt? Who will start at strong safety? Will Bradley Roby be able to replace Talib? Who will be the third cornerback? We won’t have those answers for at least two more weeks but we did get some hints last night.
Simmons looked much improved in coverage and made a couple of nice tackles, again, proving that the Broncos made the right move by letting go of T.J. Ward last season. As for strong safety, Su’a Cravens missed the game due to injury, but Parks and Darian Stewart each had good games for the most part. The exception being a horrible angle taken by Parks on Roc Thomas’ 78-yard bolt to the end zone. Roby didn’t play too many snaps, but his coverage looked consistently tight. Even if he did allow a complete pass to Stefon Diggs, one that appeared to have more to do with Diggs playing out of his mind and less to do with Roby. Isaac Yiadom struggled in his first game, allowing too many completions, but he’s still my favorite for the No. 3 corner spot. The coaches showed their faith in him by matching him up against Diggs multiple times. He lost those battles but still showed good positioning and coverage skills.
Overall, the defense struggled against Minnesota. Here’s hoping they improve in Week 2 of the preseason with the Chicago Bears coming to the Mile High City next Saturday.