Mike Lombardi is a longtime NFL personnel man who most recently worked for the Broncos for about a year. I'm not sure what the circumstances surrounding his departure were, but he now writes for SI.com, and he's got a surprisingly nice writing style for a football man. Imagine Shannon Sharpe as a graduate of Syracuse University's broadcast journalism program.
I'm posting this, because he makes the point that if he ran the Broncos, he'd be looking to inject more size into the offensive line, and I fundamentally agree with his thinking. I'm kind of a QBs/WRs guy when it comes to where my real knowledge lies, but I've been doing a lof of posting about offensive line play on here. In this case, I'm going to talk about defense in order to explain my position.
Most of us know the basic difference between a 4-3 and a 3-4 defense, but for those who may not, a 4-3 defense (or 40 front as it's sometimes called) features 4 defensive linemen and three linebackers. The 3-4 (or 30 front) conversely features three defensive linemen and four linebackers. This sounds simple, but personnel-wise, there is a whole different type of player you're looking for in each scheme.
With a 4-3, because there are 4 linemen, each player tends to be leaner and quicker, rather than bigger and bulkier. Essentially, in a pass rush situation, you're playing 4 rushers against 5 offensive linemen, and it generally isn't too confusing, it's a case of the best man winning the individual battle up front. If you think of Jason Taylor, he's a prototype for the modern 4-3 defensive end, very long and tall, and very quick off the ball. The fact that he probably weighs 245 pounds at 6 foot 6 is not really an issue, because even if he gets blocked in the running game, he occupies a blocker, and the linebackers are clean to run to the ball.
There are differences in 4-3 schemes relative to what DTs are called upon to do. Some schemes play a nose tackle and a 1-gap three-technique. Any of the Tampa 2 schemes feature this. Think of classic Tampa Bay where Anthony McFarland played on the Nose and Warren Sapp was the penetrator. Others play with evenly spaced DTs lined up on both guards (two-technique,) and responsible for the gaps on either side of the guard they're lined up across from. The Jim Bates scheme (which didn't work out too well for us) was this sort of 40 front. As an aside, I actually favor this approach if you have the right kind of DTs, because its aim is to stop the run with only 7 in the box, thereby making you more sound against the pass. It's a really good idea if you can manage it, and at its best, you have the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. I don't exactly know how to find it in the archives, but Hoosierteacher had an excellent post detailing defensive line play, and what terms like three-technique and two-gap mean.
The overall point I am making is that a 40 front tends to feature a smaller, faster front 7. The linemen are penetrators, and the linebackers are pursuers. A 4-3 tends to be sound and non-gimmicky. Philosophically, it's about winning man-to-man battles on the line, covering a lot of groun in pursuit, and executing assignments.
Against the 4-3, what is at a premium is the ability for an offensive lineman to hit a 4-3 defender while he moves laterally. It's a matter of using a large, fast man's own leverage and momentum against him. The Broncos' zone blocking scheme was born out of this realization, and it was born at a time when all but a couple teams were using 4-3 defenses. This is not a coincidence, and neither is the fact that the Broncos had their best success running the ball against such a preponderance of 40 fronts.
Paradigms shift, and there has been a big shift back to the 3-4. The key player in this scheme is the nose tackle, who plays directly over the center, and whose primary job is to demand a double team and occupy two blockers, while getting push backward. A good NT almost singlehandedly makes a team difficult to run against. The two ends in a 30 look tend to be the size of tackles in a 4-3, and the linebackers are often the size of 4-3 defensive ends. Whereas the LBs in a 4-3 are typically run-and-hit pursuit players, a 3-4 LB has to be a more of a gap plugger, and must be good at directly taking on blocks from guards and tackles. The linemen penetrate less and occupy blockers more. This is how a good 4-3 player like Jonathan Vilma or Dewayne Robertson struggles in a 3-4 for the Jets, and then gets sold off for pennies on the dollar. The players aren't interchangeable, and I frankly have some doubts about Kris Jenkins and Shaun Rodgers as 3-4 Nose Tackles.
If you look at the state of the league, 9 teams presently feature 3-4 defenses. This is in contrast to the late 90s when only Pittsburgh and Carolina ran the 3-4. A further look shows that six of the nine 3-4 teams reside in the AFC (New England, NY Jets, Miami, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and San Diego.) It's no secret that the Broncos struggle to run against the 3-4, and the reason is because of size and strength. When a 350 pound man is trying to move laterally, you can knock him down using his own momentum and lack of balance. When he is two-gapping you straight up, trying to control YOUR movement, all you can do is wrestle with him, and the Broncos linemen lose those battles all the time.
In pass protection, the size deficit is especially evident. All of the Broncos' linemen are particularly vulnerable to bull rush techniques and rip moves. Lombardi makes a good point that our QB is best suited for dropping straight back and having a clean launch point from which to throw the ball. Jay's definitely a good enough athlete to bootleg a lot, but his best attribute is the way that he can stand tall and fire the football accurately. The present makeup of the O-Line is not really conducive to this kind of protection.
To cut to the chase, I'm not calling for the abandonment of the zone blocking scheme. What I am calling for is the rethinking of size prototypes, and the willingness to incorporate some athletic, mobile, larger, stronger linemen into the fold. We don't have to be good at either run blocking or pass protection. We should aim to be good at both, and we haven't seen consistently good pass protection since the days of Gary Zimmerman and Tony Jones. I'll take a guy who has to work hard to be a good zone run blocker, but is a good pass blocker, over a a good ZB guy who sucks in pass protection. I just think this is something that needs to happen. I've been reluctant to do this so far, but I've done all the research and watched all of the video available to me. I'll take Ryan Clady or Jeff Otah tomorrow afternoon.