Sep 7, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos outside linebacker Nate Irving (56) steps over Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) following a sack in the second quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High . Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
A late fourth quarter comeback by Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts put a veil on what was otherwise a dominant performance by the Denver Broncos’ defense, which led 31-10 midway through the fourth quarter, if you’ll remember.
Luck engineered two really quick touchdown drives late in the game, one just at the midway point of the quarter and one immediately after that on a recovered onside kick, which was actually dropped by Julius Thomas.
Because the end of the game headlines favored the Colts’ comeback in such a strong way, nobody is really talking about the dominant performance of fourth-year linebacker Nate Irving, a former third round pick out of North Carolina State who, up to this point, has been somewhat of a disappointment.
That all changed on Sunday night as Irving turned in the best performance of his career despite missing nearly half of the Broncos’ defensive snaps. He finished the game with five tackles, two for a loss, one sack, and a QB hit. Irving had the highest grade of his NFL career according to Pro Football Focus, and perhaps he’s in line this season to be the Broncos’ next breakout linebacker after guys like Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard came out of the woodwork.
"Nate Irving, LB: +2.6Breakdown: His game was interrupted by injury, limiting him to 39 of the Broncos’ 76 snaps on defense, but he made his mark in those limited snaps. Irving led the team with five defensive stops including two back to back early in the second quarter. Grading positively in each phase of the game Irving’s +2.6 overall was the best of his career.Signature Play: Capitalizing on a blown protection, Irving started off the Colts’ first drive of the second quarter (14.13) with an uncontested sack, taking Luck down for an 8-yard loss."
For Irving, this is a much needed development. He actually left the game due to what was called a lower leg injury, but returned later and provided the Broncos with a huge spark against Andrew Luck and the Colts. Working as the backup SAM linebacker to Von Miller and getting replaced on the inside by guys like Keith Brooking, Wesley Woodyard, and Paris Lenon, it’s been a tough road for Irving, but his experience filling in for Von Miller has given him a nose for making plays in the backfield.
And on Sunday Night Football, he did just that. Irving took a stranglehold on the Broncos’ inside linebacker spot, and having played as well as he did, actually gives us optimism that he can perform at a really high level all year.
In a Tuesday night film study, it’s clear that Irving has a strong knowledge of where he’s supposed to be, but I love his attacking mentality when working upfield. He hits like a ton of bricks, and is a guy who tries to force the issue. His experience the last couple of years rushing the quarterback from the SAM linebacker spot has given him a much better grasp on shedding offensive linemen, too.
Of course, we all remember Irving’s strong coverage play in an otherwise forgettable Super Bowl also.
Irving is in a contract year with the Broncos. They should be able to re-sign him at a pretty reasonable price, and this year is essentially an audition for a possible long-term contract with the team.
He’s off to a good start.