The Donatell Diary: Denver Defense Gets Back on Track Against Washington

Nov 21, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) looks to pass as Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Shaq Thompson (7) and outside linebacker Haason Reddick (43) defend in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Leading up to Week 8, the Broncos had suffered 4 straight losses. As a result, their 3-0 record regressed to 3-4, showing the NFL that this was a team that wasn’t as formidable as previously believed. A game against Washington and Taylor Heinicke gave the Broncos the chance to end their losing streak.

Readers who haven’t been following along or who’d like a refresher can feel free to read the reports on the Broncos’ defensive performance in Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, Week 6, and Week 7. It’s now time to take on Week 8.

The Positives

Overall, Denver did a nice of job of bending but not breaking. Washington was able to move the ball but Denver held their opponent to a mere 10 points. Any defensive coordinator would gladly accept that outcome, so one has to think that Ed Donatell was feeling mostly positive about this performance.

Justin Simmons had a nice day, finishing with two interceptions and seven tackles. His late interception – which you can see below – should have sealed the game. Simmons made this play with less than a minute left on the clock, so the Broncos’ offense should have been able to easily drain the clock; they failed. The Broncos’ offense fumbled the football, a brutal sin for late-game football.

Thankfully, Denver was still able to hold on for the victory.

One aspect of the Donatell defense that fans will really like is the defensive line setup on obvious passing situations. When a team is in third and long, Denver commonly stacks one side of their defensive line. In so doing, they can force the offensive line into one-on-one situations. A NT is head-up on the center, the 3T is, well, in 3T, and then the EDGE is outside the tackle. On the other side there is a lone EDGE outside the tackle. Quite often, Denver brings their MLB in this situation, creating 5 one-on-one matchups across the board. They also run stunts to confuse the blocking assignments.

Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter can routinely win one-on-one matchups, so seeing creative ways to scheme up advantageous looks is a good thing.

Denver was without several of their middle linebackers. At EDGE, Bradley Chubb and Von Miller were also absent. Despite these obvious challenges, the Broncos still generated pressure throughout the night. Former Viking Stephen Weatherly got in on the fun:

After blocking a field goal last week, Denver blocked two against Washington. I know it’s technically a special teams play, but it’s the defensive linemen who were making the difference. One wonders if Donatell had any influence on the technique and/or alignment that helped generate these field goal blocks. Shelby Harris is an incredible player.

The Weaknesses

The flats can be exploited. Now, this is by design. The coverage Denver leans on intentionally leaves that area of the field open. The theory is that offenses don’t want to move down the field in four- or five-yard increments. Instead, offenses want explosive plays that efficiently eat up yardage, so Denver responds by devoting their resources toward nullifying plays down the field.

An issue arises when short passes to the flats go for big yardage. RB J.D. McKissic was a monster in this game, delighting fantasy managers everywhere with his 8 catches for 83 yards. He turned short passes to the flats into sizeable gains. Part of the issue was that the backup middle LBs just couldn’t keep up with him. One wonders if having Josey Jewell or Alexander Johnson would have made a noticeable difference. Regardless, the Broncos didn’t do a great job of responding to the challenge McKissic presented.

We also saw Heinicke hit DeAndre Carter for a tremendous touchdown:

Heinicke is reminiscent of Case Keenum. Not as accurate as Kirk Cousins, Heinecke plays with a lot of effort and swagger. I came away from the game thinking that he’s exactly who you want as your QB2. He can come in and rally the troops. He can also be quite mobile.

Crossing routes create some issues for the coverage Donatell will lean on. DBs follow their man across the formation, often leading to getting picked. An offensive player strategically gets in the DB’s way, impeding the defender’s ability to hang with their receiver. It’s a legal play that can be highly effective. The Vikings corners will need to really compete to get beyond their man just as a basketball player needs to fight through a screen.

The Send Off

The Week 8 win suffers from the same deficiency as the other wins: it came against a poor opponent. Denver, of course, can’t control its opponent. When a weaker team shows up on the schedule, it’s a good thing to overcome them. There is reason for pause, though, when all four wins come against poor teams and all four losses come against average-to-above-average teams.

Next week, the Broncos take on the Dallas Cowboys, at that time one of the better teams in the NFL. It’ll be another opportunity for Donatell’s group to show they’re back.

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