DENVER -- For much of the last two seasons, the Denver Broncos defense has been a consistent quarterback-chasing, soul-crushing riddle for opposing offenses.
And when someone, anyone, finds a crease, a little space to get some work done against the Broncos, it’s going to get noticed by those who still must face their defense. So, consider what the Atlanta Falcons did Sunday on the fast track to make the rounds.
“They had a good scheme," Broncos linebacker Shane Ray said. “They did some things to get one-on-ones with our linebackers, and they were able to come out on top today. It’s nothing that concerns us. We’re going to go back to the drawing board and get better."
The Broncos will likely have to be better, or at least be prepared to see a similar approach again.
The Falcons, who came into the game with the league’s top-scoring offense, didn’t try to force the ball to their leading receiver, Julio Jones. They didn’t try to toss deep ball after ill-fated deep ball against the Broncos’ high-end secondary.
No, instead they sent their running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, into pass patterns and got them matched up on Broncos inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis. The result was 180 of Matt Ryan's 267 passing yards in the Falcons' 23-16 win went to the team’s running backs.
Coleman, especially, was a major thorn with 132 yards receiving on his four catches. Freeman added 35 yards on three receptions, and fullback Phillip DiMarco had a catch for 13 yards.
“They spread us out," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “The key problem was that they had time to get those guys down the field … for their backs to get down the field the way they did is going to take some time. You can’t ask ‘B-Marsh’ (Marshall) and those guys, Todd (Davis), to hold up that long. It was a very good job on their part … (the running backs) did a hell of a job."
As a result, on a day when the Broncos limited Jones, who was coming off a 300-yard receiving game, to two catches for 29 yards, the Falcons did particular damage with the strategy in the first half when building a 13-3 lead.
The Falcons’ running backs had 100 yards receiving -- of Ryan’s 124 yards passing -- in the first half alone. Coleman had a 48-yard catch-and-run in the Falcons’ first drive, and Freeman added a 14-yard reception as the Falcons went 75 yards in nine plays for a touchdown to open the game.
On their next possession, DiMarco had his reception and Freeman added another 13-yard catch as the Falcons closed that drive out with a field goal.
“They just made plays," Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “(Coleman), he had a hell of a game. You have to tip your hat to him, and next time we play a receiving running back like that we’ll have something for him."
Harris compared it to when the Broncos faced the New England Patriots last November and Patriots running back Brandon Bolden had 84 yards receiving in the game, including a 63-yard catch-and-run that looked a lot like Coleman’s big play Sunday.
When the Broncos faced the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game less than two months later, Boldin had two catches for 29 yards while running back James White had five receptions for 45 yards, but neither scored in the passing game. Harris believes not every team has the kind of players to even make the strategy work, but he also knows that the Broncos must do some work of their own as well in the weeks to come.
“The Patriots ran it; a lot of teams that have receiving running backs always try to test our linebackers," Harris said. “They’ll be ready. Of course they know that they didn’t play their best game, but I trust those guys. I love (Marshall) and Todd (Davis). I love how they’ve been playing this year, so we all expect those guys to bounce back."
Added Broncos linebacker Von Miller: “Coming into the game, I said that Devonta Freeman was pretty good. You would just look at the film and tell that he is one of the premier backs in the league … We’ve been great at adjusting. (Sunday), for whatever reason we weren’t able to get it done."