MHS round table: Ed Donatell’s Denver defense earns deserved praise

Ed Donatell. Credit: DenverBroncos.com
Ed Donatell. Credit: DenverBroncos.com

The Denver Broncos defense finally is who we thought they’d be at the beginning of the season, even if it took half a year to get there.

Ed Donatell is a longtime defensive mind at the NFL level, and he’s good pals with head coach Vic Fangio; both came to the Mile High City from Chi-town after a great 2018 season with the Bears.

In Denver, the Broncos defense started slowly, failing to earn a single sack in the first three games of the season while simultaneously failing to force a turnover in the first three games. This is a defense with superstars like Von Miller, Chris Harris and Bradley Chubb, who was lost for the season due to injury after a Week 4 loss.

That Week 4 defeat was something special — in a bad way — as the Jacksonville Jaguars controlled the clock for 25 minutes of the second half and ran for a gut-wrenching 269 yards. Of course, Rich Scangarello’s offense could’ve earned a few first downs to help win that game, but let’s digress.

Since that loss, though, the defense has been stout all-around.

In the last five games, Denver allowed 90 yards or less on the ground and forced seven turnovers while giving up a mere 15.4 points per game. That’s all come without the help of Chubb and without big-time offseason acquisition Bryce Callahan, too.

Donatell grades

Rich Kurtzman (@RichKurtzman)

Grade: A

Considering this is Donatell’s first year running the defense, they’ve played at a very high level and he deserves a lot of praise. Inserting Alexander Johnson and Mike Purcell into the defense as starters has reinvigorated the unit and it shows the rest of the young guys that if they perform well enough, they’ll earn more playing time. That’s an essential message to convey, especially when the team is full of so much young talent and it’s difficult to discern which players to go with. There are some gripes; his defense needs to generate more sacks and pressure overall as well as more turnovers (10 is 3rd-worst).

Ronnie Kohrt (@RonnieKRadio)

Grade: B-

Donatell is an extension of Vic Fangio, so it’s hard to say how much credit should be divvied up between the two, but what is very apparent is the respect the players have for him, his style and his attention to detail. This was showcased quite a bit in training camp as Donatell works on the ‘little things’ while Fangio handles the big picture. The tantum is exciting to watch operate the defense as the Broncos unit slowly creeps towards the top ten in every statistical category you want to be in.

Aniello Piro (@MediaByAP)

Grade: B

Donatell and Fangio go together like two peas in a pod. Given Fangio’s role with the defense, Dontaell has been more of a micro-manager this season. Still, his influence paired with Fangio’s knowledge have resulted in the Broncos’ defense being solid week in and week out. Justin Simmons has emerged as a key contributor within the Broncos defense, along with some other players, in part because of Donatell. The jury is still out on Donatell, but he’s looked solid so far through his first year with Denver and should continue to develop the Broncos defense as he continues to get a feel of being an NFL coordinator.

Player who deserves more spotlight

Ronnie: Devontae Harris. While the love in the secondary has been going towards Justin Simmons and Chris Harris Jr. Harris has been an anchor for the Broncos stepping up after Isaac Yiadom’s struggles.

Rich: Kareem Jackson has been an absolute beast in the secondary, pairing well with Justin Simmons to make a dynamic duo back there. What makes Jackson special is he can cover receivers like a cornerback but he loves to hit; as evidenced by the touchdown-saving tackle against the Chargers in Week 6.

Aniello: Alexander Johnson deserves a  majority of the spotlight this season. Johnson has solidified himself as one of the best linebackers in the game this season and should be a part of the Broncos defense for years to come.

Position group who’s shined

Aniello: The secondary has been the best component of the Broncos defense. Veteran Chris Harris Jr. is playing as good as ever, and youngster Justin Simmons has emerged as a prime talent in the secondary. Denver’s pass rush has sputtered this season, but the secondary has picked up the slack and has kept the Broncos in just about every game this season.

Rich: I’m sticking with the safeties, although, it could be the entire secondary. Not only is Jackson playing lights-out, so is Simmons, who’s transitioned from “nice young player” to “rising superstar” this year.

Ronnie: Safety. Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are playing at a very high level and Simmons in particular is an All-Pro talent this year.

Position group who needs to step up

Ronnie: Linebacker. While Linebackers have excelled more than most expected because of Alexander Johnson, it remains critical that the linebackers continue to excel and improve for this defense to see success. If the Broncos defense is to take a step from “good” to “great,” it starts with tremendous linebacker play.

Rich: I, again, agree with Ronnie here. The linebackers have been so-so at best this year, and Denver would’ve been smart to draft an ILB in the first round of the draft back in April. Alas, Alexander Johnson has exploded onto the scene: Can he continue this great play or has his short time in the NFL been an outlier?

Aniello: The Broncos pass rush needs to improve. Losing Bradley Chubb for the season was a massive blow, but the pass rush collectively has been weak this season. Von Miller has been good this season, but not great. Without Chubb alongside Miller, the pass rush has struggled.

One thing to improve on in the second half of the season

Rich: After starting really slowly in terms of pass rush, the Broncos have come on. But, I’d like to see them double their sack production (19) and end up in the top half of the league.

Aniello: Down the stretch, the Broncos defense must continue to play consistently. Sunday’s matchup versus the Vikings will be a big test for the Broncos’ defense, but so far this season, they have shown an ability to hang with the best of the best. Should the Broncos defense finish the season strong, there should be plenty of optimism entering the new decade.

Ronnie: Build on a promising first half of the season and become the backbone of the Denver Broncos to be excited about in 2020.

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