The rock in the middle of the Broncos’ defense. | Photo by Elsa/Getty Images
After a win against the Jets, we take a look at some positive trends through the first four games.
The Denver Broncos notched their first win of the season on Thursday night, and it also just so happens to be the first quarter of the season as well. With that in mind, Jeff Essary and I discussed on this week’s episode of Cover 2 Broncos who we think the have been the Broncos top defenders so far through the first four games.
Bryce Callahan in the slot.
Joe: For the first time in his NFL career the former Bear has worked primarily as a boundary corner. Since the injury to A.J. Bouye Callahan’s served as the lone veteran corner on the field for most of the last four games. That all changed when Essang Bassey was benched just before halftime last Thursday.
The last drive Essang Bassey played against the Jets. pic.twitter.com/HpZGyUo831
— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) October 6, 2020
With Bassey struggling to make switches and keep on his assignment, Fangio gave the undrafted rookie a seat. When De’Vante Bausby entered the game it made more sense for him to play the boundary, so Callahan slid inside. It’s no coincidence that the Broncos’ secondary clamped down over the remainder of the contest.
Even though he’s undersized, Callahan’s been criminally underrated outside. His short area quickness, ball skills, and spatial awareness has helped him to lock down his side for the most part. All those same skills as well as his willingness to mix it up once the ball’s in play should help him to look like the same elite slot corner he was for Fangio in 2018.
It will be interesting to see what the plan is for once Bouye is healthy enough to return. Until then, I expect Callahan to continue to man the nickel while Bausby and Michael Ojemudia to hold down the perimeter.
Jeff: Vic Fangio talked about this as well with Callahan that he’s essentially playing a different position outside. The nickel defender in Fangio’s defense is closer in responsibility to the linebackers and safeties (depending on the coverage) than a corner, so Callahan really is kind of playing two different positions when goes from outside to inside.
That said, I totally agree with you, Callahan was excellent in the slot in 2018 under Vic Fangio and I think any defensive personnel grouping that allows him to stay there is a win for Denver. Bausby and Ojemudia on the outside, with Bouye replacing one of them outside when he returns is probably the best secondary combo Denver has.
Bradley Chubb abusing overmatched tackles.
Joe: Chubb’s been working back from an ACL injury that ruined his 2019 season, and Fangio’s been clear that his recovery continues to be a work in progress. The coaches words did little other than badger fans who were angry about a lack of sacks to begin the season.
What got lost in the muck of an 0-3 start is how strong Chubb has looked. No, he didn’t bring Ryan Tannehill, Ben Roethlisberger, or Tom Brady down for a sack. Instead, he was getting some pressure here and there as the secondary tried to hide Essang Bassey and Josey Jewell.
He also looked miles ahead of where he was in 2019 when asked to drop in coverage. Even better, his hand placement has drastically improved which bleeds into every other thing he does. Keep in mind, the way Chubb wins will never look quite like Von Miller. The way 58 can bend the edge and threaten with his speed is so freaky it will be on his bust in Canton someday. Chubb wins with a combination of his explosiveness and power. As a rookie his best rushes came when he used the threat of him rushing outside to work into the gap between the guard and tackle. With his handwork improving, he’ll be so much better working to the outside.
Fortunately the Broncos’ star pass rusher came through in a big way to quiet the murmurs. He led the league with 10 individual pressures to go with his multi-sack performance. Even better, none of his effort as a pass rusher took away from the strong run defense and coverage play he’s shown this season.
Jeff: I’m a little torn on Bradley Chubb, only because I’m more excited to see what he can do over the next 12 games than what he’s done the first four. He has been a monster in the run game right out of the gate, and I agree with you on the pass rush, I thought he had his best game on Thursday night, but these first four games were kind of like his preseason. He’s still working his way back from injury, and I can’t wait to see what he can do for the rest of the season once he gets fully healthy and up to full speed.
We’ve never seen Shelby Harris play better.
Jeff: I think Joe said it best on the podcast when he said that the Shelby Harris we’re seeing now is the one we all expected last season. I think my biggest thing that has impressed me with Harris, is his consistency. We saw flashes of this level of play over the last two years in small spurts, but it was often surrounded by long stretches of drop off. This season, he has been consistently the best defensive lineman on the team.
Justin Simmons playing “Mr. Everything.”
Joe: The way you look at Justin Simmons play through 4 games probably says a lot about how you view the Broncos’ 2020 season. There is no disputing that he is not playing at quite at the level he reached in 2019 just yet. We all saw the missed tackle.
— John Breech (@johnbreech) October 2, 2020
What’s also beyond dispute is how invaluable Simmons is to this more aggressive Broncos defense. Over the last four weeks we’ve seen Simmons play single high, cover Mike Evans as a boundary corner, bat down a ball on a blitz against Ben Roethlisberger, and play with his usual sideline to sideline range against the run. His role’s expanded as Fangio’s looked for playmakers wherever he can get them.
Bradley Chubb owes Bryce Callahan and Justin Simmons each a beer for this sack. Great coverage on 4th down. pic.twitter.com/6MknJIt87r
— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) October 8, 2020
I’ve studied Simmons film every summer since 2017 now, and I do believe he’s best suited for last year’s role. He’ll need to do less of it to help the Broncos more in 2020. With practice squad players logging significant minutes Fangio needs him to help fill in gaps, even if it means less snaps in the coverage stopper role he played when there was more help around him.
It’s not an excuse to say every member of the Broncos defense now feels the sting of the injury bug at this point. Without Von Miller, the pass rush is dependent Fangio magic or two players wrecking their individual matchup to generate pressure. If you ever wanted to see Vic Fangio run a blitz heavy defense, 2020 will be fun. It will also lead to big plays in both directions.
Jeff: I agree with you for the most part. I wrote after week 1 how Denver had shifted more weight to Simmons in coverage to help stop the deep over routes and crossing routes that had been plaguing them, so he definitely has been asked to do different things this year.
It actually reminds me of 2018 when Vance Joseph and Joe Woods asked Simmons to do a little bit of everything.
That said, if you want to be paid as a top 5 safety in the NFL, you have to show up and make big plays when the team puts more responsibility on your back. You have to be able to show that you can shoulder that load.
I’ll cut Simmons a little slack since he was likely preparing most of the offseason for a different role in the defense and the injuries have shaken up the entire defense, especially the lack of pass rush, but now that their feet are under them and they have things ironed out, I expect to see him step up his play and really be that star in the back end that everyone expects. The versatility he brings to even play all of those roles is valuable, but now he needs to take the next step and ratchet up his level of impact when in those roles.
Honorable Mention: Alexander Johnson
Jeff: Joe and I debated this a little bit on the show this week, but I would probably put Alexander Johnson in my top four, maybe above Simmons or Callahan. Like we talked about with Simmons, Johnson has seen his role shift a little bit this year as Fangio adapts to the cards he’s been dealt on the defensive side.
Johnson has already been brought on a blitz 44 times this year, 22 of those coming on Thursday night. He was brought on a blitz 50 times total all of last year, so he is well on pace to triple that mark.
However, this shift fits Johnson’s skillset perfectly as he is very explosive and disruptive coming downhill, and has generated the 4th most pressure on the team, from his inside linebacker position.
Who have been your standout defensive players through the first four games? Any up here that we missed or you disagree with? Let us know!