They go by many names -- "explosives," "backbreakers," or just "bigs" -- but it’s all bad, and if it’s all the same to Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, he’d rather not see any in Thursday’s regular-season opener against the Baltimore Ravens, and beyond.
“Explosive plays, big plays, they’re always on the don’t-allow list," Del Rio said. “Explosive plays are always something we’re looking to limit. We stumbled in a couple of those games last year and it’s not usually a good well, it’s a barometer, really, that usually leads to a bad ending."
The Broncos did enough good work on the defensive side of the ball to close out the 2012 season as the league’s No. 2 defense overall, allowing 290.8 yards per game, and the No. 4 scoring defense, at 18.1 points allowed per game. Von Miller had 18.5 sacks, and Denver led the league in third-down defense, as opponents converted just 30.6 percent of the time. All quality stuff. But tucked away in there, the Broncos had three games when things blew up a bit -- games in which the defense allowed three pass plays of at least 30 yards. And the Ravens authored two of those efforts.
The Texans had pass plays of 60, 52 and 46 yards in a 31-25 Houston victory last September, a game that cost cornerback Tracy Porter his starting job before concerns over seizure symptoms cost him his season. In December, the Ravens had pass plays of 43, 31 and 61 yards -- two of those for touchdowns -- in a Broncos' win in Baltimore, with both scores in the fourth quarter, after the Broncos had built a 31-3 lead.
And then there was Denver's playoff loss to Baltimore in January, when the Ravens again broke out the fireworks with pass plays of 59, 32 and 70 yards. All three of those were touchdowns -- and the 70-yarder will be etched into the Broncos’ franchise memory as the one that allowed a potential Super Bowl trip to slip from the team’s grasp.
“Bottom line, if you’re a good defense, those plays don’t happen," cornerback Champ Bailey said. “We all need to own up to that and know that. Good defenses don’t give up the big ones -- you have to work too hard to keep offenses in check, you can't let them break out on you like that."
All told, the Broncos allowed just 17 pass plays of at least 30 yards last season, a quality total. But the Ravens, with Joe Flacco at quarterback, had six of them, or 35 percent. And Del Rio, a former linebacker who can ring the bell on the old school when he chooses to with his players, has boiled the antidote down to its simplest form. It's not some mystical solution, tucked in a pile of new-age analytics; it's simply effort, reliability and the often-lost art of tackling that can prevent big plays.
“You understand you’re going to get your share, where guys in this league make a tremendous throw, make a tremendous catch. You understand that, you don’t ever accept it, but you do realize in the probability table, that’s going to happen from time to time with great athletes," Del Rio said. “But you really want to understand where you should be and be able to get that done. If you understand where you belong and you tackle and you swarm, you’re going to minimize how many of those you’re going to get during the year. And we were good at that, but those games are examples of why that can’t happen."
Most frustrating, beyond the playoff loss, Del Rio said, were some of the plays that came before the touchdown tosses that could have changed the course of events. One of the most troubling, and often forgotten, was a third-and-13 the Ravens faced at their own 3-yard line late in the first overtime.
On that play, Flacco hit tight end Dennis Pitta for 24 yards. If the Broncos had held there, Peyton Manning and the offense would likely have had a short field for a potential game-winning field-goal try.
“Certainly, as we looked at the offseason and ourselves and how we can be better, obviously there’s the one play everybody wants to talk about, but we felt like even when we were ahead and in command, there were too many instances where people were kind of let off the hook and allowed to do some things," Del Rio said. “And maybe that led to them having a little more confidence in the other situations, who knows?
“I can’t speak for anybody else's approach, but from our approach, we don’t want to allow explosive plays. They are all bad."