Bron­cos de­fense fed up with late-game fad­ing

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Cameron Wolfe

Cof­fee is for closers. Or in the Bron­cos’ case, the play­offs are for closers.

Den­ver’s de­fense, long the strength of the team, has squan­dered a lead late in each of its past two games. At New Or­leans, a blocked ex­tra point and score dis­tracted from an alarm­ing twominute col­lapse. And against Kansas City last week­end, there were no de­fen­sive hero­ics to save the day. Chiefs quar­ter­back Alex Smith marched his team to the ty­ing score late, then two field goals in over­time for a 30-27 vic­tory.

“If you give us an eight-point lead, I would bet my game check that no one would score on us, so I would have been in debt right now,” Bron­cos cor­ner­back Aqib Talib said, laugh­ing. “I’m go­ing to bet it ev­ery time. So we put that (loss to the Chiefs) on us.”

The Den­ver de­fense’s fo­cus now shifts to­ward fix­ing its prob­lem. Play­ers point to lapses in pass coverage, costly mis­takes in­clud­ing penal­ties, and be­ing too com­fort­able in their suc­cess the past year and a half as rea­sons for what’s gone wrong.

“You just as­sume that every­body is go­ing to do their job,” said de­fen­sive end Derek Wolfe. “This de­fense puts every­body in po­si­tion to make plays. You as­sume that per­son is go­ing to be in that po­si­tion at the right time to make that play. That didn’t hap­pen right there at the end.”

Inside line­backer Bran­don Mar­shall added: “That was the sec­ond game in a row. I don’t want to say we re­laxed. I know we’re play­ing more zone at the end of the game. We had a few men­tal er­rors, the coverage wasn’t tight enough, we didn’t tackle well.”

Den­ver has al­lowed only two scores in the last two min­utes of the fourth quar­ter this sea­son, one each in the past two games. Both came on drives where the op­po­nent had three min­utes or less re­main­ing and no time­outs left.

Of­ten in these sit­u­a­tions a de­fense will use the clock to its ad­van­tage and play softer coverage and al­low shorter routes in ex­change for more time com­ing off

the clock.

The Bron­cos, who usu­ally play man-to-man coverage, used a lot of zone coverage in the fi­nal two min­utes the past two games. Mar­shall said this was done to pre­vent Kansas City and New Or­leans from us­ing “pick” routes against manto-man coverage. Smith, though, picked the Bron­cos apart with 5- to 10-yard slants, outs and hitch routes.

“We played the same de­fense. We just didn’t play them as well,” said de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Wade Phillips.

The back­break­ing plays for the de­fense in the Kansas City game were al­low­ing two third-down con­ver­sions and an 11-yard re­cep­tion by Chiefs re­ceiver Tyreek Hill on a fourth-and-10 play just be­fore Hill caught a touch­down pass. On that fourth-and-10 play, cor­ner­back Bradley Roby was 15 yards off the line of scrim­mage, seem­ingly pro­tect­ing the end zone, and wasn’t able to get to Hill to push him out of bounds be­fore he got the first down. On the next play, Hill scored on a 3yard slant route.

Den­ver typ­i­cally thrives in these late-game sit­u­a­tions, let­ting loose a strong pass rush and hav­ing the sec­ondary feast on hur­ried passes. Cor­rec­tions in coverage busts, de­creas­ing a sea­son­high 15 penal­ties and per­haps more ag­gres­sion are the recipes of change the Bron­cos have talked about this week.

The mes­sage at Dove Val­ley, on both of sides of the ball, has been “fin­ish.” Fin­ish plays, fin­ish drives and fin­ish games.

“We have to be more fo­cused. We’re too lax in those sit­u­a­tions. We ex­pect some­one to make the play, but we have to ex­pect our­selves to make the play first,” safety T.J. Ward said. “It’s not last year’s team, so don’t com­pare us to last year.”

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