ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It has been a scene played out play after play in this Broncos’ season.
A yellow flag hits the ground as the Broncos defensive back nearest the laundry turns, arms extended, palms up, incredulous look on face, to ask the official what happened and why.
“No question it’s different than when I first came into the league,’’ is how Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has put it. “You could do things 10 years ago, you can’t do now. They want points, they want receivers to get the ball. You have to adjust, but I’d say they’re getting what they want.’’
Many defensive players as well as defensive coaches around the league have wondered all season if at least some of the astronomical passing numbers already on the board this season, led by Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, weren’t due to an additional crackdown on the already-in-place crackdown on contact with wide receivers. After the five-yard chuck zone, life has simply gotten more difficult for defensive backs in this pass-happy world. So much so that this past week was still the highest scoring week in NFL history (763 combined points in the games) even as the New York Giants were shut out.
But it comes to light as a battered Broncos’ defense, which has not had its planned-for 11 starters in any game this season and won’t the rest of the way with defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson (hip) now on injured reserve, continues to search for answers across the board in pursuit of a title.
The Broncos expect Bailey to be back in the lineup Sunday in Houston -- he has played in just three games because of a left foot injury he suffered in the preseason -- but rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster will not be after surgery Friday to repair a fractured right thumb. They have moved people around in the lineup for weeks with Webster having replaced Tony Carter in the rotation at cornerback, with Omar Bolden now in at safety to help in coverage and linebacker Wesley Woodyard having his playing time adjusted as well.
And the Broncos have still arrived to their 15th game of the season 28th in the league in pass defense (266.1 yards allowed per game), 24th in scoring defense (26.6 points allowed per game) with one of the most penalized secondaries in the league.
“We have some things to clean up, no doubt,’’ said Broncos head coach John Fox, a former defensive backs coach for Hall of Famer Chuck Noll. “We’re like everybody trying to get better each week. We don’t have things the way we we’d like them all around, we continue to emphasize it, work on it and we want it to be better. We’re not satisfied.’’
Nor should they be. The Broncos currently lead the league with 13 defensive holding penalties, including those that have been declined, eight of those assessed to the team's defensive backs. They have added nine pass interference penalties -- all nine from defensive backs -- to the pile and three illegal contact penalties.
Many of those have simply been lapses in technique, a stumble here, a blown assignment there, but some have been a part of the bigger picture, a picture the Broncos are going to have to find a way to deal with as they move toward the postseason. And an analysis by ESPN’s Stats and Information Group shows that more illegal contact, defensive pass interference and defensive holding penalties combined are being called than at any point since 2001.
There have been 1.75 of those penalties per game thus far this season, up from the 1.71 of last season and rather a significant jump from 1.5 in 2011 and 1.4 in 2009.
“You just try to play it how they’re calling it,’’ said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. “It’s tough sometimes and you get frustrated, especially if you feel like it was a contested ball or you had the position to make a play.’’
It has become increasingly difficult for the defensive backs working in the high-traffic areas from the slot or down in the scoring zone. Offenses like the Broncos have made a point-scoring living with rub plays or outright pick plays (that’s where many defensive coaches are leaning in their descriptions) to get receivers free against the defensive backs across from them.
And while most in the league feel fewer penalties get called in the postseason on contested plays, just look at the San Francisco 49ers' last series in the Super Bowl last February for proof of that, the quarterbacks a defense faces are a far bigger issue for a wobbly secondary. Those passers are better, more prepared, more accurate with more impact targets in the pattern.
“That’s why it all has to work together, the rush and what we do on the back end,’’ Bailey said. “They need us to hold it so they can get to the quarterback and we need them to get those guys uncomfortable back there. Because now if you let the quarterbacks in this league, especially in the playoffs, stand back there and pick away at you, you can’t stop that. They’re too accurate and a lot of times the real experience ones will throw a ball not because a guy is open, but because they think they’re going to get a flag and a first down with it.’’