Art of the tipped pass: How the Broncos got so good

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the swirl of humanity that is the line of scrimmage -- the pushing, shoving and that's-why-you-lift-all-those-weights collisions -- sometimes the winning move is to simply raise a hand.

Or two.

When a sack is no longer an option, the play can still be won when a pass is simply knocked down. It's something at which the Denver Broncos excel.

"Oh yeah, we take it serious -- always have," Broncos defensive line coach Bill Kollar said of the tipped pass. "We work on it, really, just about every day. Why? Because it's so important."

Since the start of the 2015 season -- Kollar's first year with the Broncos -- no team has had its defensive linemen knock down more passes at the line of scrimmage than the Broncos' 73. And the Broncos lead the league this year after six games with seven. Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris led the league last season with nine tipped passes and already has three this season, including one that led to an interception by a diving 292-pound DeShawn Williams in the Broncos' Week 5 win over the New England Patriots.

"If you can make a QB do something that's not the normal, you've already won," Harris said. "If he has to adjust the way he throws the ball, if he has to try to throw it over your hand, you've already won."

Jurrell Casey, a five-time Pro Bowl selection in his first nine seasons in the league, never had more than five batted passes in a year before he arrived in Denver this season. Casey knocked down three passes over three games to open the season before he went to injured reserve with a biceps injury.

"I was telling him, 'Man, that's my job,'" Harris said with a laugh earlier this season. "Leave one thing to me, just please. Let me get one thing."

Most any day at practice, during the early individual periods, the Broncos' defensive linemen are tucked away on a side field next to the blocking sled. Kollar glares at them through sunglasses, putting them through the paces.

Eventually the group will form up to do a tipped pass drill. One of the linemen tips a pass thrown over him and another behind him tries to catch the deflected ball. It's a drill that brings howls of laughter at the many failed attempts for an interception.

"They like it, they always have," Kollar said of the drill. "I don't know if Jurrell had more than a couple batted balls in any year and in the first three games here he had three batted balls. He said 'I can't believe the difference when it's at the front of your mind.'"

Kollar, in his four decades as an NFL defensive line coach, has always pushed the deflected pass toward the top of the to-do list for his players. In his tenure with the Houston Texans, J.J. Watt won two Defensive Player of the Year awards. Watt knocked down an almost ridiculous 16 passes in 2012 and 10 in 2014 when Kollar was there -- his two highest career totals and the only two seasons he hit double digits.

For the Broncos, Harris has become the alpha deflector. Having been waived six times, by three different teams, Harris has carved out a starting spot with the Broncos because of a combination of power, timing and the consistent arrival to the right spot.

"There is a secret, but I can't tell you because it wouldn't be a secret anymore, you feel me?" Harris said. "Honestly, what it really is it's -- I don't know if you guys know this, but I'm my high school's all-time leader in blocked shots for basketball, so I feel like it kind of all rolls over together just with the hand-eye coordination and the eye contact and really just focusing on the ball."

"He's really good at it," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "He's probably the best I've been around in that regard. I think the thing with Shelby is that he's playing a lot better, too, this year. His overall game is better, and when your overall game is better, you're going to get more opportunities to bat some balls."

Even without the team's best defensive player -- Von Miller had ankle surgery just before the start of the regular season -- or Casey, who will miss the remainder of the season, the Broncos' defense has cobbled together some quality efforts. They are tied for ninth in total defense, tied for ninth in run defense and tied for eighth in sacks. Perhaps unnoticed during Sunday's 27-point blowout loss to the Chiefs was that the Broncos didn't surrender a third-down conversion and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes had a season-low 15 completions. They did not, however, have a tipped pass, but given recent history that's likely to be an outlier game.

Kollar confesses that part of him loves seeing a pass knocked away most of all.

"You know, last season, the last game, [Harris] ends up knocking a ball down on a two-point play, and if [the Raiders] get that play it costs us the game," Kollar said. "I tell them, 'They're as important as a sack.' If you can knock a ball down, or get the interception like we did [against the Patriots] ... you're changing the momentum."