Happy Friday, friends. I was going to write an article today breaking down the Broncos-Bucs game, but Andy Benoit did a really good job of it yesterday for Football Outsiders, and I don’t really feel like it’s necessary to go over the same ground he just plowed.
Instead, I want to write about a topic I’ve been meaning to get to for a few weeks, which is the unusual multiplicity of the Broncos defense this year. Two passages from the aforementioned Benoit article get to this topic. Here is the first one that jumped out at me:
Laudable as Denver’s offense has been, it’s the defense that has this team looking like Super Bowl favorites in the AFC. It’s almost fruitless trying to analyze this scheme, as John Fox and Jack Del Rio have sprinkled it with so many different flavors.
The Broncos are really doing a bunch of stuff on defense this year. They’re switching their fronts, and subtly adjusting their alignments, and mixing up their coverages, and varying their blitzes. It’s to the point that offenses can’t really get a good read on what the Broncos are doing defensively, because they’re doing a bit of everything.
Here is the other passage that I took notice of:
The Broncos were in their base 3-4. They dictated a one-on-one matchup on the left side by having Miller align inside the tight end. Next to him was Derek Wolfe, who was aligned in the three-technique.
This one cracks me up, because the Broncos have been more of an odd-front team all year than an even-front team, despite the fact that most people say they play a "4-3 defense." If you look at it on film, and you know what you’re looking at, it’s really noticeable. The guys who are usually playing true “lineman” assignments are the “bigs,” meaning Wolfe, Kevin Vickerson, Justin Bannan, and Mitch Unrein. Elvis Dumervil has played a lot in a wide-nine alignment, and even when his hand is on the ground, his responsibilities tend to be a lot like those of a 3-4 OLB.
When the Broncos play nickel, they tend to take a "big" off the field, and play with only two of them. The diagram from Benoit’s article, from which I got the above text, shows that kind of look. You have a three-technique (Wolfe), a one-technique nose tackle (Vickerson), and a wide-nine DE (Robert Ayers). Von Miller is in a five-technique on the closed side, playing linebacker responsibilities.
When media people describe a 3-4, they always seem to like to call DEs “five-techniques.” That is because they don’t know what a five-technique is. Here is a short article I wrote about the topic in 2010, which explains gaps and line techniques. I actually didn’t mention wide-nine in that articl, because it hadn’t really come into vogue yet, but it would be the outside shoulder of a stacked second TE, if there were one (as I showed last year). It’s very wide from the formation.
Anyway, the traditional perception of a 3-4 is that there’s a zero-technique NT, and two five-technique defensive ends. That’s a major oversimplification, as all schemes subtly adjust alignments, but it’s directionally correct. If the NT is in a one-technique, and one of the DEs is in a four-technique, that’s not abnormal, which is why I don’t like the term “five-technique” being used as if it equals “3-4 DE.”
Before the 2012 season, Mark Kiszla wrote a silly article, as he is known to do. In it, he suggested that the Broncos were using the wrong defensive scheme, and that if they’d only listen to him, they’d be better off. I wrote an article responding to his, which you can see here.
You know the whole thing about having some versatile guys, and being able to mostly play either front? That’s exactly what the Broncos have done this season. They’re leveraging their versatile guys and moving them around, and the less versatile guys are filling into more traditional spots around them.
The Broncos aren’t constrained with traditional schematic orthodoxy, and as such, there’s no boilerplate way to prepare for their defense. You’re just as likely to see an even front as an odd front, and running games tend to try to block each differently.
From my article in August:
Now, before I close, there’s one thing I want to add. I think it’s very interesting that the Broncos view Derek Wolfe as a DE in their base packages, and not as a DT. During the broadcast of Saturday’s game, Dave Logan indicated that Robert Ayers is viewed more as an open-side DE, and that’s why they have him behind Dumervil on the depth chart. Reading between the lines, Jack Del Rio is viewing the archetype for the closed-side DE as a bigger guy. That will presumably make the Broncos 4-3 play more like a traditional 3-4, at least from the size perspective. I'll be watching closely for gap control methods once the regular season starts, and maybe we'll even be able to spot something on Sunday, when the starters play more snaps.
That suggests to me that they want to play similarly to Seattle, in that their closed-side DE two-gaps against the OT. You do that if you want to avoid bringing an eighth defender into the box in the run game, because it theoretically allows seven box defenders to control eight gaps.
Wolfe has been a big key to what the Broncos are doing in run defense all season. He has been frequently two-gapping on the closed side, and it has allowed the Broncos to play the run with seven men.
His ability to play well while moving from three-, to four-, to five-technique based on the specific call has been huge. The diagram that Benoit shows with Wolfe taking on a double-team (and holding the point of attack) while Miller beat Greg Olsen to blow up a run play was a classic example of how the Broncos have used their "bigs" this year. Wolfe owns the loss on that play as much as Miller does, because he did his job selflessly, and it set up a mismatch outside. The best defenses always work that way.
I’ve been wondering what Del Rio would have been able to do in Jacksonville if he ever had the kind of front-seven talent he has in Denver. He never had talented guys like Miller (who does?), Dumervil, Ayers, Wolfe, Wesley Woodyard, or D.J. Williams, and he had some pretty solid defenses that kept his bad offenses in quite a few games. Now that he has a lot of talented guys, I’m hopeful that he’ll feel like sticking around Denver for a few years, and building this defense into even more of a beast than it is today.