Tackling the fundamentals

Jack Del Rio hadn’t been with the Denver Broncos for long when he announced flatly that the team was going to stress defensive fundamentals in 2012. The two areas that he mentioned directly were establishing a much stronger emphasis on proper tackling and a game-shaping recognition that the best pass defense is a defensive line that constantly harrasses the quarterback. Rookies Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson were the choices for strengthening the defensive line. In the team’s choices for potential linebackers out of the 2011 class, Del Rio has gained the people to attack both problems.

As I’ve mentioned before, sixth-round linebacker Danny Trevathan was playing with the first string nickel package during the last of the June OTAs. Trevathan, you’ll recall, led the SEC in tackling over both the 2010 (144 tackles) and 2011 (143 tackles) seasons. Danny also led the nation’s linebackers with five forced fumbles last year.

He added three sacks and nine passes defensed in 2011, and he’s not shy about getting into pass coverage or attacking the quarterback, either. Wesley Woodyard is both mentoring him and competing against him, prompting Trevathan to say Wesley is “just born to be a leader." Kudos to WW to have the team-first attitude and leadership mentality of his own to be mentoring Danny even as he’s competing with him. JDR’s reasoning in putting Trevathan on the first team nickel? Said John Fox:

(Trevathan) has attacked it really well as far as in the meeting rooms, in his playbook. This game is so mental, and for a young guy, he's caught on pretty quickly.

If Trevathan's qualities of disruption and tackling transfer to the NFL level of competition, Denver may be seeing a different level of play from the Will position as he comes into his own.

Woodyard also commented,

I knew what we were going to be getting (in the draft). Danny was a great player in college. Him coming here, getting a chance, and him watching me in college and coming in and stepping in my shoes—it’s a great opportunity for the both of us. We’re both going to compete. And I know what type of player he is. Coming from a school that I went to, I know he’s going to give it his all every time he’s on the field. So it’s an honor to have a guy like him on our team.

If you’ve missed them, here are three YouTubes that can feed your need to know him better:

A Kansas linebacker was also added to the team in the person of 6-1, 239-pound Steven Johnson, who had spent most of his time in college at outside linebacker. Johnson had become a team captain for the Jayhawks in 2011 and his coaches say that he shows natural leadership abilities. The Broncos have been using him at middle linebacker with the second team and said that he’s also been impressive in his ability to pick up the playbook. Said the Chicago Tribune, prior to the draft:

Johnson led the Big 12 Conference in tackles in 2011 and finished the season ranked 16th in the NCAA in that category with 124 stops in 12 games. 66 of them were solo, putting him in the top 25 in the nation. Johnson earned both second team and third team all-league honors following the season. He also finished in the top 25 nationally in solo tackles with 66 on the season. Additionally, the Media, Pa., native finished with 6.0 TFLs for minus 10 yards, two forced fumbles, two pass breakups, one interception, one fumble recovery and one quarterback hurry.

If you’re wondering why he wasn’t drafted after that performance, the fact is that Denver tried to trade for a seventh-round pick to take him, but when they weren’t able to, they spoke to him on the phone.  He agreed to join the team as an undrafted free agent and has been showing everyone why the Broncos were interested.

The knock on him coming out of college was a lingering question by some scouts as to whether he can continue to develop athletically and improve on his size, strength and skills the way that he has over the last four years. Johnson was originally a skinny walk-on who worked his way up to ranking in the nation’s top 25 players in multiple categories, so he’s far from a novice at having people doubt him - and has a way of overcoming it so far. He’ll get a chance to prove that he can make the leap to the NFL during this training camp; one more potential college free agent much like his ex-Jayhawks teammate Chris Harris. You can see some of Johnson in these selections from YouTube:

As Bill Parcells once said,

I like linebackers. I collect 'em. You can't have too many good ones.

I couldn’t agree more, and it’s good to see that Denver seems to have gotten that message loud and clear.

It’s all very different when you’re in full pads and actually hitting people, but it’s still good to see two of the kind of faster, more disruptive linebackers who excel at tackling that both John Fox and JDR have been talking about stepping up right from the beginning. Competition is really going to be at its peak this training camp. I’d expect both players to fight for special teams time at the very least. Nate Irving and even Wes Woodyard (who’s up to 229 lb and still gaining muscle) are going to have to step up their games to keep their positions.

Although it would be much too premature to read anything into it, nothing came out of the few OTAs that media were permitted into regarding the 6-1 245-pound Jerry Franklin, an undrafted middle linebacker out of Arkansas. Franklin started 50 games for Arkansas and had 376 tackles over the time. He was on the All-SEC Second Team and is known as a big hitter who sometimes bites too hard on fakes. I wish the man well, but does he sound somewhat like someone the Broncos already have?  I only saw Arkansas a couple of times and didn’t focus on him, so here are some snippets of ESPN’s take on him:

Plays with discipline. Knows his gap assignments and usually plays within the scheme. Is frequently a quarter-count late finding the ball on misdirections and in the option game. Doesn't always trust his keys and will get caught peeking in the backfield. Can be slow to diagnose play-action. Awareness in underneath zone coverage is adequate-to-good.

A very sound wrap-up tackler when in good position entering the point of attack. He gets his head around, wraps up and drives his legs through contact. More of a thumper than an explosive striker. Has long arms and a strong upper body. Will not fall off many tackles. Only trouble he gets into is when he's in too much space versus quicker ball carriers, as he struggles to change directions quickly and maintain his balance.

Shows adequate straight-line speed for his size but is not a great athlete. He has stiffness in his hips and struggles if he needs to recover from false steps. Will have some one-on-one matchup limitations in the NFL, especially versus quicker RBs.

You can see Franklin (#34) against Auburn and Vanderbilt, and in an NFL Draft preview:

Right now, the hard-hitting 5-11, 250-pound Joe Mays seems to have the starting Mike position solidified on first and second downs. Jack Del Rio has said that they’re going to make some schematic changes to minimize his weakness in coverage, and continue to develop Mays and teach him how to spot a fake. Since last year was his first as a starting Mike, he’s still very much in a learning curve and the Broncos seem inclined to give him time to absorb the position.

The 6-3, 245-pound position-versatile linebacker Mike Mohamed seems to currently be entrenched as the backup Sam to Von Miller, but nothing is assured. If his position holds true, he has a job that mostly demands that he stay in top shape and remain constantly ready in case Von is injured.

That doesn’t make Mohamed immune to competition, though. If Denver sees a ‘backer that they think can do the job better in the unenviable possibility that Miller goes down, Mike knows that he’ll be replaced. It’s a merciless Darwinian process that’s designed to bring out the best in all of the candidates. That’s what competition is all about.

In the end, Denver fans can look forward to having a stronger corps at the linebacker position this coming year. One position at a time, that’s what turning a team around is all about.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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