Denver Broncos

Falcons executing Patriots’ plan poses issue for Broncos’ defense

October 9, 2016 - Denver, CO, USA - Atlanta Falcons running back Tevin Coleman eludes Denver Broncos defenders Brandon Marshall, left, and T.J. Ward on his way to the end zone on a 31-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Colo (Photo by Mark Reis/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Mark Reis/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Kyle Shanahan on Sunday basically carried out the blueprint Bill Belichick tried to execute against the Broncos’ defense in January. And thanks to a personnel advantage the Patriots didn’t enjoy, the Falcons made Denver’s defense look as bad as it has since at least last December.

When the Patriots relentlessly peppered the in-over-his-head James White with 16 targets, they were trying to exploit what they deemed was the Broncos’ cold zone defensively.

Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman are much better than White, and the Falcons exposed a weaker set of Broncos linebackers than what trotted out for the AFC title game.

While not many teams have the kind of backfield personnel Atlanta does, some do. And film now exists of Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis sprinting hopelessly behind Coleman after the reserve runner bedeviled them in coverage repeatedly.

For all of the Broncos’ defensive strengths that are still present — edge rushers, cornerbacks and safeties — there’s a problem up the middle, which makes sense given where the defections occurred this offseason, after the Falcons’ backs had their way on the ground and through the air.

Having Von Miller, Chris Harris, Aqib Talib and eventually DeMarcus Ware makes it tempting to categorize what happened in Week 5 as a first-world problem. It’s not quite on that cozy DefCon level. It looks like more of a second-world problem due to how ill-equipped Denver’s starting defense looked handling Atlanta’s running backs.

En route to a four-catch, 132-yard day, Coleman broke loose on two 45-plus-yard gains and scored on a 32-yard strike. Each time, the Broncos sent out one of their starting inside linebackers to cover him one-on-one. The blazing backup made both look like the rest of the field during the final 40 meters of Usain Bolt 100-meter dashes. Fortunately for Davis and Marshall, most viewers are not glued to inside linebackers’ play to the degree YouTube montage compilers are to NBA crossovers.

Because Coleman ventured onto that level Sunday.

The Falcons’ second-year backup’s deceptive shallow cross that cut under Austin Hooper’s route twisted up Denver’s starting ‘backers, with both following Atlanta’s No. 3 tight end instead of its explosive No. 2 back. That first-quarter catch-and-run was more about assignment than talent. But Coleman then toasted Marshall on a seam route for his third-stanza score, creating the kind of space that’s difficult when on an opponent’s 32-yard line and a defender is playing five yards off the ball.

He then blew past Davis on a slot go route in the fourth, managing to create more distance between him and his defender on a 49-yard gain to punctuate what was a rare mismatch an opponent exploited against the Broncos’ elite defense.

The last time a Broncos opponent preyed on a specific deficiency came in December, when Antonio Brown showed how far ahead of his peers he is by dominating Harris.

Of course, this came when the Broncos were missing both their starting safeties. But Brown not playing in the teams’ divisional-round game was a pretty big deal. And by the time Belichick and Josh McDaniels had the idea to devote a sizable portion of Tom Brady’s pass attempts (16 out of 56) to passes toward White — who caught five of those passes — Denver’s defense was operating on a higher plane.

Brady couldn’t take advantage of White-vs.-Marshall and Danny Trevathan because the Broncos featured a better linebacking duo, White is not an above-average back, and the Broncos’ pass rush besieged the Patriots’ quarterback. Malik Jackson and Ware not being part of the equation against Atlanta allowed Ryan to find Coleman easier.

Marshall has shown himself to be a higher-end coverage player among non-rush linebackers, ranking as one of the league’s best in that area in 2014 and a solid pass defender last season. He will be in Denver’s nickel and dime sets as long as he’s healthy, even if the recently extended talent had a rough day.

But Davis profiles more as a two-down thumper than a legitimate passing-down successor to Trevathan, which could create an issue as teams with quality receiving backs — the Raiders, Chiefs and Patriots profile as such — attempt to spread the Broncos out.

Denver has somewhat of a solution if Davis can’t come around: moving T.J. Ward into the second linebacker job alongside Marshall.

The Broncos would cede some size, but given Ward’s physicality, it’s not a significant drawback. Unfortunately, Denver now has two rookie safeties behind Ward and Darian Stewart, and one of them would have to prove capable of being ready for starter’s minutes, so to speak, if the Broncos are to trust this look in crunch time.

Justin Simmons hasn’t played extensively since breaking his hand, but the third-round pick did play in sub-packages in Week 1 to illustrate the coaching staff’s confidence in him. Will Parks earned those snaps as the third safety after Simmons went down. Both are intriguing, but neither provides the kind of security David Bruton did in three-safety looks in the past.

For when the higher-stakes games emerge, this is a set the Broncos should revisit, because Davis and Marshall together might be too much to exploit.

Brady came close to making White the hero of a comeback effort, but McDaniels didn’t have the kind of weapon Shanahan did and didn’t use him as well, either. The Patriots often lined White up outside and sent him on deep routes, which aren’t Brady’s specialty. The Falcons utilized Coleman on motions out of the backfield, forcing the Broncos’ linebackers to adjust quickly for a brutal slot cover.

This doesn’t sink the Broncos by any means; they have too much talent. But what the Falcons did qualifies as an ancillary concern.

Denver has the personnel to fare better against this type of attack, but its resources aren’t not being as plentiful as they were last season limits the Super Bowl champions’ options.

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