Broncos coach Vic Fangio forced to take more risks on defense

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Denver Broncos hired Vic Fangio as their coach before the 2019 season, he was expected to bring an offense-wreckin', quarterback-sackin', turnover-forcin' defense.

After all, in his final year as the Chicago Bears' defensive coordinator in 2018, the Bears were No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 1 in interceptions, No. 1 in takeaways overall, No. 3 in sacks and No. 3 in total defense.

So good, so disruptive, Bears linebacker Khalil Mack simply called Fangio "an evil genius."

But the Broncos of 2020 have struggled to apply pressure. The minute linebacker Von Miller took an awkward step during a September practice, the Broncos' ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks and force turnovers took the most significant of hits -- as in a 106-sack, eight-time Pro Bowl selection kind of hit.

The Broncos rank in the bottom half of the league with 10 sacks and sit tied for last with just two turnovers. Without Miller, with Bradley Chubb still working his way back from a knee injury and with a rookie Michael Ojemudia starting at cornerback, Fangio has been put in an uncomfortable spot. In an effort to shake the ball loose from opposing offenses, Fangio is taking more risks in the pass rush, which isolates his young secondary.

"Any time you add a fifth guy [in the pass rush] it does create more one-on-ones because guys have to block," Fangio said. "The biggest question, and it's a week-to-week evaluation, is what you need to do to win a game ... we have that stuff available and will use it when necessary."

Against the winless New York Jets two weeks ago, the Broncos had a season-best six sacks, including 2.5 from Chubb, and they also used more five- and six-man rush packages -- 19, or 35% of the Jets' dropbacks, including scrambles and penalty snaps -- than they've used all season. Three of their six sacks came on those five- and six-man looks.

That was more five- and six-man pressures than the Broncos used in any game last season (16).

"We just wanted to bring pressure as much as we could, and Coach Fangio did a great job calling that game," Chubb said. "It allowed us to be more free on the edge and not get those double-teams as much. Hopefully we just continue to get the rushing and the coverage going like [that] and it'll be good for us on our side."

Even when the Broncos do rush four, Fangio has mixed and matched more players this season than he may have if Miller were lining up in his usual spot, often adding linebacker Alexander Johnson as the fourth rusher and dropping a defensive lineman in coverage. Against the Jets, linebacker Josey Jewell had his first career two-sack game.

"It's awesome when you're able to blitz and disrupt the quarterback and sack him and hopefully get a couple strip sacks," Jewel said. "It's been fun and we'll just see how the next couple of weeks come."

Last season, without Chubb for most of the year, the Broncos finished tied for 25th in the league in interceptions and tied for 27th in forced fumbles. This year, through four games without Miller, it's been even a slower pace given the Broncos have recovered one fumble and have one interception -- both in the Week 2 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Those turnovers led to 10 points, but the Broncos have lost the turnover battle in three of their games. Getting to the quarterback more is certainly a start, and the defensive backs catching their opportunities would help as well -- Ojemudia and Justin Simmons have had drops on interception opportunities.

"We've just got to keep pounding away at it and find a way to get them," Fangio said. "They haven't been coming our way, but we've got to make a conscious effort to get more. Our pass rush needs to be good enough to disrupt the passing game to cause some interceptions. We've got to have coverage that's tight enough to get interceptions. We've got to be searching for the ball when it's in an opponent's hands. We've just got to do all the things that we emphasize, and the players have been emphasizing it too, they just haven't come our way at this point."