Broncos defensive schemes through the years

Happy Friday, friends.  Today, I’m going to continue our look back at Broncos schemes through history.  On Tuesday, Doug sent a link to my offense article to Neil Payne at PFR.

Neil and I disagree on what the sweet spot is for identifying a scheme; he wants to group together as many as possible to evaluate splits, which is what you’d expect from a stats guy.

As I mentioned in the offense article, I am fine with that conceptually, up to a point, but you eventually start grouping schemes that are really dissimilar together.  Neil said he wanted to fit the Manning Offense into either Erhardt-Perkins, West Coast, or Air Coryell, and that he felt like Air Coryell is the closest fit.

I think that that’s like saying a human is more similar to a hog than it is to a horsefly or a ficus.  True, humans and hogs are both ambulatory members of the animal kingdom, which possess endoskeletons, and weigh more than five pounds.

At some point, if you are grouping items at too superficial a level, and the similarities are too loose, the exercise loses its value.  I don’t want to make the case that every offense is so unique that none can be grouped together.  I do reject the arbitrary notion that everything has to be put into one of three categories, though. 

Stats should tell a story about data; we should be very careful about trying to manipulate and rationalize the nature of the data to serve the stats.  When you’re a stats website, producing stats seems like the end goal, rather than a tool to aid in a football watcher’s end goal.  Therefore, don’t be a stats website; be a website that endeavors to explain football in maximally useful ways. 

I think that’s what we are here at IAOFM.  I can tell you right now, there’s been tension at times between the film guy (me) and the stats guy (Doug) on how to best explain football.  That tension is good for our end product, and it forces us, as a site, to consider every angle possible.

I’m not saying this to knock Neil or PFR – I consider both to be vital sources of NFL information.  I’m just trying to expand on my thoughts on the comparability of schemes.  I think that it’s difficult to do, and that care should be taken when trying to use such comparisons to conduct analysis.

As I mentioned Tuesday, defenses tend to be grouped into two categories by the football commentariat.  You have your 4-3, which features four down defensive linemen and three linebackers.  You also have your 3-4, which features three down linemen, and four linebackers.  For reasons I explained Tuesday, this is completely insufficient.

The 2012 Denver Broncos nominally played a 4-3.  From the film, the defensive scheme that I found to be most comparable to the Broncos (at least up front) was the Baltimore Ravens, which nominally play a 3-4.  Both teams two-gapped a lot up front in base downs, and tried (mostly successfully) to play the run with seven men in the box.

Still, there were a lot of differences.  The Broncos play mostly man-to-man coverage, and the Ravens play a lot of different zone looks.  When the Broncos blitzed, it was likely to be two men (say, Chris Harris and Wesley Woodyard) coming off of one edge, usually the open side.  The Ravens like to run a lot of fire-zone stuff, with up-the-middle pressure from crossing inside linebackers.

My next article is going to propose a better way to categorize defenses, but for now, let’s get on with considering the Broncos’ recent history on the defensive side of the ball.  As on Tuesday, I can only go back to 1987 here, so the recollections of older fans are welcome in the comments.

1987 to 1988 – The End of the Joe Collier Era

Joe Collier was a true practitioner of the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 framework, which emphasizes two-gapping up front and varying the direction of the fourth pass-rusher.  In general, there wasn’t a lot of exotic blitz schemes or fire-zones.

I think the Broncos mainly played zone defense in this era, from the film I’ve seen recently, but I’m not 100% sure on that.

Collier was the Broncos' defensive coordinator from 1972 to 1988, and he presided over the Orange Crush group, and coached the defense in three Super Bowls.  He provided rare scheme continuity, and it’s surprising that he never got a second chance as a head coach, after coaching the Bills for two-plus seasons in the 60s.

1989 to 1994 – Wade Phillips and a different kind of 3-4

In traditional terms, the Phillips 3-4 was the first departure from the “traditional” Fairbanks-Bullough concept, which went all the way back to the 70s.

Wade’s father Bum had had the idea to play a one-gap style with an odd front, and to align his defensive linemen in gaps, rather than head-up on offensive linemen.  Basically, it plays like a traditional 4-3, but with only three down linemen.

Wade was the defensive coordinator under Dan Reeves from 1989 to 1992, and then he was named head coach for the 1993 and 1994 seasons.  Charlie Waters was the defensive coordinator those last two years, but the scheme remained the Phillips scheme.

1995 to 2000 – Stability and success with Greg Robinson

Greg Robinson is kind of a vilified name in several parts of the football world.  Ask your average Syracuse or Michigan fan about him, and they’ll call him everything but a child of the homie Jesus.  For the Broncos, he was a good defensive coordinator, and his defenses contributed to the only two Super Bowl championships in franchise history.

Robinson converted a team that had been playing an odd front for about 20 years to an even front, right as stalwart 3-4 guys like Karl Mecklenburg and Simon Fletcher were winding down their careers.  It was kind of good timing to turn over the defense, and the Broncos did so quickly. 

They brought in players like Alfred Williams, Michael Dean Perry, Bill Romanowski, John Mobley, and Allen Aldridge, and by 1996, a functional even-front team was in place.  The constant through the transition was FS Steve Atwater, of course.

The Broncos played a good deal of zone coverage on the back end, and they frequently varied their looks, which was a testament to Robinson’s creativity.  In Super Bowl XXXIII, one of Darrien Gordon’s interceptions came on a play where the Broncos dropped the corners deep, and had the safeties take the squat zones, basically switching places in a Cover 2 look.  The Broncos didn’t show that look all season, and it confused Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler.

Eventually, Mike Shanahan stopped winning Super Bowls, and his first move toward a regrettable pattern was firing Robinson after the 2000 season, during which the Broncos had gone 11-5.  The defense was bad that year, for the first (and last) time of Robinson’s tenure.

2001 to 2002 – Ray Rhodes, step right up!

Rhodes came in and ran a similar 4-3 scheme to the one that Robinson had left behind.  The players didn’t change all that much, and neither did the tactics, aside from a bit more tendency to blitz.

Al Wilson did start asserting himself as the MLB under Rhodes, and he and Ian Gold each had more than five sacks in 2002, which is quite rare for linebackers in a traditional 4-3.

It’s fair to say that Rhodes didn’t move the needle much, and he presided over two average defenses during his time in Denver.

2003 to 2006 – It’s Larry Coyer Time!

Rhodes left to join his old boss Mike Holmgren in Seattle, and Larry Coyer was promoted to defensive coordinator.  The Broncos played a very similar 4-3 scheme, and the team got much better…in the regular season, that is.

The Broncos acquired both John Lynch and Champ Bailey during Coyer’s tenure, and those kind of acquisitions will help improve a defense.

Some guy named Peyton Manning kept tearing up the Broncos in the playoffs during the Coyer era, and it was very frustrating for Broncos fans.  The team started off the 2006 season on a historically excellent pace for six games, allowing only 44 total points, and then completely melted down for the last ten, allowing 261.

Do you know where the slide started?  The Broncos lost a home game to Manning and the Colts 34-31.  That damn Peyton Manning!  Anyway, Shanahan whacked Coyer, because he had another guy waiting in the wings.

2007 to 2008 – Failure, thy name be Bob Slowik

Bob Slowik might be the least accomplished defensive coordinator in the history of the NFL.  Using PFR’s Simple Rating System, check out the results of the teams he’s coordinated at the NFL level:

Year Team DSRS
1993 Bears 4.3
1994 Bears 1.3
1995 Bears -0.8
1996 Bears 1.2
1997 Bears -5.3
1998 Bears -0.3
1999 Browns -6.5
2004 Packers -4.0
2007 Broncos -3.8
2008 Broncos -6.5

That’s pretty brutal, right?  Slowik is lucky that the McCaskey family is cheap, and that they allowed him and Dave Wannstedt to be mediocre or worse for so long in Chicago.

With the Broncos, Slowik ran a very similar 4-3 scheme as his predecessors, but with less talent on hand, and with less schematic soundness.

The 2007 scheme was heavily influenced by Jim Bates, even as Slowik held the DC title, and it was terrible.

I still have nightmares of the 2008 defense, with guys like Calvin Lowry taking terrible angles to the ball, and other guys like Marquand Manuel and Marlon McCree constantly missing open field tackles, after nobody up front could stop anybody, either. 

The Slowik era was so bad that it got an untouchable head coach in Mike Shanahan fired.  It was beyond terrible.

2009 – Encouragement by Mike Nolan

In 2009, as part of the total overhaul planned by Josh McDaniels, the Broncos switched back to a Fairbanks-Bullough-flavored 3-4 scheme.  Mike Nolan was hired as the defensive coordinator, and despite having a defensive roster that needed to be almost completely turned over after the 2008 debacle.

The Nolan defense was pretty solid, all things considered, and it helped the Broncos get off to a 6-0 start, and wasn’t really all that responsible for their 2-8 finish.  After the season, Nolan split to go work in Miami for a year by mutual agreement with McDaniels.

One major change that happened was that the defense got to be much more likely to play man-to-man coverage.  I remember McDaniels saying that Champ Bailey had spent his career as an outstanding zone cornerback, and that the Broncos had asked him to become an outstanding man cornerback, and that he’d done so.  That change has largely persisted until the present day.

2010 – Unsoundness by Wink Martindale

The 2010 season saw a return to debacling status under former linebackers coach Don “Wink” Martindale, who is sometimes considered to be the third Ryan brother.  Like the other two, he favors a lot of blitzing and gambling on defense, and it was telling when Norv Turner said that he thought the Broncos defense was fundamentally unsound in 2010.

The Broncos of 2010 really felt the loss of Elvis Dumervil to his torn pectoral muscle, and they couldn’t generate any pass rush with four men.  That led them to blitz all the time, but they were quite ineffective at doing so.

Wink only lasted one year as defensive coordinator, and wasn’t retained by John Fox after the season.  He is now employed by Baltimore as linebackers coach.

2011 – Resurgence and a grouping change with Dennis Allen

In 2011, Dennis Allen came in from New Orleans, where he’d been the secondary coach.  Right away, he and John Fox set about returning the Broncos to more of an even-front team.  What they found was that they had the players to do it, because the full McDaniels overhaul never got all the way there.  The Broncos still had some guys like Elvis Dumervil, Robert Ayers, Marcus Thomas, and Kevin Vickerson who had played in an odd front for them, but were probably more natural even-front guys.

In Allen’s one year as coordinator, the Broncos were pretty solid on defense, and that unit was the bigger reason for the team’s impressive winning streak than Tim Tebow’s late-game heroics.  They kept the team in the game long enough to overcome all the three-and-outs that the offense had, and that got Allen hired as Oakland's head coach. 

There are actually now two head coaches in the NFL who got themselves noticed by overcoming the shortcomings of a Tebow-led offense.  Don’t ever let anybody say that Timmy failed to make an impact in the NFL.

2012-2013 – Quality with Jack Del Rio

In 2012, Jack Del Rio came in as defensive coordinator, fresh off a nine-year stint as head coach in Jacksonville.  He could have been excused for just sticking with what had worked pretty well under Allen, but he changed the defense pretty significantly.  Under Allen, Ayers had started at left defensive end, but Del Rio wanted more size and power at the position, and he wanted to play more of an open-vs-closed split rather than left-vs-right. 

This was enabled by the drafting of Derek Wolfe to play DE on the closed side.  Ayers was viewed as an open-side guy, and backed up Dumervil.  With Wolfe, Vickerson, and Justin Bannan as the starters, the Broncos two-gapped frequently on base downs with those three guys, and effectively played the run similarly to how Baltimore does, out of their nominal 3-4 scheme.

Dumervil had his hand on the ground most of the time, but who cares?  If he’d stood up and played the same responsibilities, it would make no difference.  More on this in my next article.

The Del Rio scheme featured mostly man coverage, but some zones, ranging between Cover 2, Cover 3, and Cover 6.  They’d mix in some blitzes, particularly off the open-side slot, and the Broncos tied for the NFL lead in sacks.

The loss of Dumervil could be big in 2013, but I don’t think he’s irreplaceable by any means.  Between Ayers and Shaun Phillips, the Broncos can likely replace Dumervil’s sack production, and they can definitely be better against the run than Elvis was.

It will be interesting if Sylvester Williams and Quanterus Smith can add pressure, and if Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can maximize his potential outside.  The 2013 Broncos defense has the potential to be one of the best in the NFL once again.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

Follow me on Twitter  While you’re at it, Like our Facebook page

Ted's Analysis

Featured Stories

Offseason Coverage