One gap or two?
Now that the Broncos have hired Jack Del Rio as their defensive coordinator, will they continue to run the aggressive one-gap 4-3 that Dennis Allen favored, or the rumored and virtually extinct two-gap version?
In order to get an idea, I went to the tape of twelve of the Jacksonville Jaguars' games over the last two years. That's because Mel Tucker, the Jags' defensive coordinator, had been rumored to be contemplating a switch to a two-gap system, but it never happened under Del Rio's leadership. And despite articles claiming that Tucker and Del Rio were running a 4-3 two-gap system in Jacksonville, I never saw it.
Play after play, game after game, when the Jags weren't in nickel or dime facing three- and four-wide receiver sets, they played a standard one gap 4-3. They often favored the 4-3 Over. For a review of both the 4-3 Over and the 4-3 Under, you can click our Fat Camp feature on them from earlier in the season.
Here's just one example from their Week 7 game against the Baltimore Ravens:
Note the positions of the two defensive tackles. One is playing a 3-technique on the strong side. The other is playing a 1-technique on the weak side of the formation. As Brian Dawkins would say, it's "Attack attack attack, one-gap, beat your cat."
Here's a similar scheme the Broncos employed against the Raiders in Week 1:
Just like the Jags, the Broncos employ their defensive tackles in a 3-technique to the strong side and a 1-technique on the weak side. This is the classic 4-3 Over position. Really, the biggest distinction between these two frames lies in the position of the strong safety in the box. Otherwise, they are similar.
This isn't to suggest that Jack Del Rio and Dennis Allen are exactly the same, but they are a lot closer in philosophy than one might think. Again, Mel Tucker was the Jags defensive coordinator for the last two seasons. Yet, I have a hard time believing that Del Rio favored a 2-gap 4-3, given the propensity for the Jags to use their defensive tackles as one gappers. With this in mind, I just don't see the Broncos making the switch to a two-gap system either.
There's also the issue of personnel. Going to a two-gap scheme wouldn't make sense for the Broncos from a personnel standpoint if they want to re-sign Marcus Thomas and/or Brodrick Bunkley. Bunkley would be average, at best, and Thomas would go from above average to below average. We saw how he struggled in a 3-4 two-gap system. Even if he was playing a 4-3 two gap, he would face similar issues. He's simply not a read and react guy. In fact, none of the Broncos' current group of tackles is suited to the two-gap system.
As Monte Kiffin, one of the greatest defensive coordinators the game has ever seen, once said:
In all my years in college and pros, I have never coached 2-gap football. If you do that you are telling your player to line head up and play both gaps on his left and right. That takes a great football player. The year you are even with the offense in talent you will lose.
I am a firm believer in what Kiffin is saying here: read and react football is a difficult proposition. It's both easier to play and easier to draft athletes that attack. Unless the Broncos are going to spend their first three draft picks and their free agency dollars pursing two-gap stallions, it's just not worth the time and energy.
So what are the differences between Allen and Del Rio likely to be? That's a difficult question since Del Rio's last coordinator opportunity was in 2002. But if the Jags over the last two seasons are any indication, I'd go out on a limb and speculate on the following points:
- Del Rio will run blitz more often on first down with the linebackers.
- Del Rio will employ more stunting to get to the quarterback with the front four.
- Del Rio will play more zone coverage on the back end of the defense. This makes sense given point #2.
Dennis Allen, like his mentor Gregg Williams, used a lot of overload and double A-gap blitzes. I don't think we'll see as much of that with Del Rio. In a perfect world, Del Rio wants to get pressure with his front four, and who doesn't? This means that Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller, Robert Ayers, and whatever pair of tackles the Broncos plug in will need to get the job done.
Whatever the job, it's likely to be a one-gap affair.