ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the big picture, defense has not been as much of an issue for the Denver Broncos as their offense during their current seven-season playoff drought. At least not for a team that hasn’t averaged more than 21 points a game since 2015.
But if there is anything that symbolizes the defense’s biggest migraine during that time, it would be covering tight ends. They are no strangers to Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce or former Las Vegas Raiders TE Darren Waller racing through the middle of the defense.
As Broncos general manager George Paton has often said, “It’s a space-and-cover league." One of defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s focal points this season is to find a way to lessen the damage tight ends like Kelce are doing in that space.
Joseph's new scheme comes with added responsibilities for linebackers such as rookie Drew Sanders and veteran edge rushers such as Randy Gregory.
“It’s a little different for sure,’’ Gregory said. “[Joseph] has got us dropping some [in pass coverage] and have been working on that, trying to get it right, but it’s a part of it.’’
An eight-time Pro Bowl selection like Kelce is certainly everybody’s problem. He's had nine career games with more than 130 yards receiving, with four of those games against the Broncos. Last season, Seattle Seahawks TE Will Dissly scored three touchdowns all season, one of those against the Broncos, while Los Angeles Rams TE Tyler Higbee scored three touchdowns all season, with two of those coming in the Christmas Day game against Denver.
"Got to get that down," outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper said. "... It's part of it, we're doing it more, at least so far, than we did last season."
It's been the Achilles' heel for a defense that has often finished among the league’s best red zone defenses -- No. 1 in 2019 and 2020, No. 3 in 2021 and No. 7 last season -- as well as among the top eight in total defense in five of the past eight seasons.
Sanders is an intriguing option for the Broncos. It’s a big ask to toss a rookie defender into that deep of a pool, but his height (6-foot-4⅜) and speed (4.66 seconds in the 40-yard dash at 235 pounds) make him physically one of the better TE matchup options the Broncos have had in recent seasons.
Offensive coordinators around the league agree the Broncos’ starting inside linebackers in their 3-4 look -- Josey Jewell and Alex Singleton -- are fierce tacklers at the point of attack who diagnose what's coming quickly. But isolating either one of them in coverage forces the Broncos’ hand defensively and can be a matchup problem down the field.
Sanders, an edge player and inside linebacker in college (Arkansas and Alabama), was quickly moved to inside linebacker with the Broncos when he arrived as a third-round pick in April. He was a unanimous All-American last season with the Razorbacks with 104 tackles to go with 9.5 sacks and six knocked-down passes.
“For a young player, there’s a learning curve and then the confidence starts happening,’’ coach Sean Payton said. “… He’s one of those guys that right before our eyes we're seeing gain confidence … He’s really athletic. It’s awfully important to him, so I’m encouraged."
Sanders flashed that playmaking in training camp as well as in preseason games. He dropped into coverage for a near interception in a joint practice with the Rams and just two days later made a similar drop in the preseason game against the Rams for an interception that he then returned for 31 yards.
He led the Broncos in tackles in the preseason with 12, and he was one of four inside linebackers -- with Jewell, Singleton and Justin Strnad -- to make the roster cut to 53 players.
“Just a talent, really smart, can really run," Joseph said. “We’ve not shown everything we’re going to do with him or everything in the defense, but I’ve said we’d have days he would make a play in practice nobody else could make. So, it’s about him learning, us teaching and getting him ready."
Sanders has tried to remain as under the radar off the field as possible. During the team’s rookie minicamp, Payton joked he would give a gift card to the rookie who gave the most boring interview and revealed the least. Sanders, he said, walked away with the P.F. Chang’s gift card after formulating "happy to be here" a variety of ways.
Later this summer, during another interview, Sanders was asked if he could win another one, and he said, “We’ll see how this goes."
“For him right now, it’s just time on task," Joseph said. “… Talent is obvious, and he works. So now we get to work."