Defensive alignment concepts from the Broncos’ preseason opener

Happy Tuesday, friends.  As expected, I had a crazy two-wedding weekend, and it just ended around midnight Tuesday morning.  I caught the garter at the Cleveland wedding, because I catch a disproportionate number of garters at weddings, and I now have a Cleveland Browns garter on my man-cave bulletin board, next to the other two I’ve gotten in recent years.  People sure love their football.

Logistically speaking, I watched the Thursday night game live and participated in the Chewing the Fat discussion that you read a couple days ago.  That ended around midnight ET, and I had to be up 4.5 hours later for a 6 AM flight on Friday morning.  There was another early morning flight Saturday morning, hustling to get to the second wedding, a drunk/disheveled wakeup in a hotel Sunday, marked by explaining why my drunk friend got mad and punched the glass out of a picture that was in a room under my name and credit card (accident, of course!), followed by recovery, and then an opening-to-closing visit to Cedar Point amusement park on Monday.  It was a really good weekend.

Of course, I’ve known all summer that it would pretty much be my off-the-grid weekend of the year, so I haven’t had time to do much football or website activities.  Last night when I arrived home at midnight, I re-watched the two first-team series from Thursday’s game in detail, and I decided that I would use that activity as the basis for a short post today as I get back into my regular routine of extreme, but scheduled, busyness.  Here are some observations.

1.  Smart IAOFM readers know that 4-3 is simply a personnel grouping, and not a scheme, because I beat them over the head with that concept frequently.  Doug recently pointed to a PFF article where the writer Sam Monson likened the Broncos defense to a 3-4.  While Monson clearly watched the game, and has a point, he’s oversimplifying things, and I want to get into some clarification on what I saw.

First of all, think about the Broncos’ base grouping, which is essentially their best 11 defensive players.  This is what I think we all expect it to be:

Robert Ayers

Brodrick Bunkley

Marcus Thomas

Elvis Dumervil

Von Miller

Joe Mays

D.J. Williams (actually Wesley Woodyard on Thursday)

Champ Bailey

Andre’ Goodman

Rahim Moore

Brian Dawkins

I didn’t label these players with positions for a reason, because I want to make a point.  What do you call that grouping?  I would call it a 4-3 grouping, but that’s very, very debatable, because there are a couple of players there who play different positions in different alignments.  I focused on nine first-unit plays, and I found some key alignment concepts that I wanted to go over. 

I’m going to name them as descriptively as I can, and I’m going to keep using these names in future writings, because we’re going to come back to this repeatedly.

Base 40

The Broncos aligned in a base look for four consecutive of the nine plays we’re looking at.  There was a defensive line of Ayers, Bunkley, Thomas, and Dumervil.  Five yards behind them were linebackers Miller, Mays, and Woodyard.  Ayers and Dumervil each played on both sides among the 4 snaps.

On two of the four plays, Brian Dawkins played at the line of scrimmage, and on those plays, Bailey and Goodman had press alignment.  When Dawkins played outside the box areas, both CBs played off-coverage alignment.

Standup 50

The front looked exactly the same as Base 40, but Miller played at the line of scrimmage standing up.  Mays and Woodyard were still five yards deep.  This 50-front look was used for the first two defensive snaps, and on 2nd and 8, Dawkins was at the line of scrimmage as a wide 9-technique, outside of Miller.  Both players dropped into zone coverage on the play, seemingly into the same zone.

This alignment was used again later in the series against 22 personnel on 1st and 10.  Both times the Cowboys ran the ball against this 50 look, they got stuffed.  The one time they threw it, they gained 10 yards and a first down.

Rush 40 Nickel

This alignment featured Miller as a DE with his hand down and Ayers inside as a DT, along with Thomas and Dumervil.  This was run once against 11 personnel, with Tony Romo in the shotgun.  Miller ran right by Cowboys RT Tyron Smith, but Romo was on a quick drop, and Miller slipped trying to bend back toward him.

Bailey covered the slot, and Cassius Vaughn played as the nickelback, but moved outside to LCB.  This reminded me a lot of what the Packers do with Charles Woodson, and since Bailey is so good in run support, it has the effect of being able to play with four down linemen and three LBs, even if one of the linemen is really a LB, and one of the LBs is really a CB.  The Broncos played off alignment on the outside, and played man coverage, with the two safeties taking deep halves.

Rush 60 Nickel

This was used on 3rd and 10, and was very successful.  The front was the same as Rush 40 Nickel, with Mays and Woodyard also crowding the line, along with Dawkins and Bailey, who was in the slot.  Moore was single-high, and Vaughn and Goodman played off.  The Broncos got good pressure, and the pass was incomplete.

Remember these four alignment concepts.  I’m only scratching the surface of the details here, because I didn’t have days to analyze it all, and it’s a small sample size anyway.  I expect that these are the primary personnel and alignment concepts that we’ll see this season on defense, though.

Interestingly, if you consider Miller a LB, then Rush 40 Nickel is actually a 3-3 grouping.  I consider him a hybrid player, and when I say 40, I simply mean that there are four front-seven players on the line of scrimmage.  When I say 60, I mean that there are six of them.  I don’t count secondary players in the classification of the front for this purpose, because a slot guy like Bailey is there to play press and re-route his man, more than he is to blitz usually.  Dawkins is going to play near the line a lot, but he moves around a lot - dropping, blitzing, and playing the run.

This all has the potential to be a really interesting and effective defense.  The drafting of Miller was criticized by football commentators who mostly don’t know what they’re talking about, because they’re convinced that he’s not a scheme fit, but he’s quickly going to become the centerpiece player that the scheme is built around.

When you’re subbing out a NT for a nickelback, what you have is a very fast nickel grouping, the kind that you can do all kinds of creative and disruptive things with.  If Vaughn or Perrish Cox can play well outside in those groupings, I think that it has the potential to be among the best in the NFL, along with the Packers.

2.  I really liked what I saw out of the Strong Safety position on Thursday.  Between Dawkins, Kyle McCarthy, and Quinton Carter, all three players were very active and involved in what the defense was trying to do.  All three played very well, and McCarthy was especially impressive.

It’s a great luxury, being able to use a SS all over the place, but it’s dependent upon strong play by the FS in the middle of the field.  Troy Polamalu can’t do what he does if Ryan Clark can’t hold up sideline to sideline.  Rahim Moore has a tall order in trying to be this guy as a rookie, but he looked decisive on Thursday, and most reports from camp say he’s been impressive.

3.  It defies conventional wisdom, but I like Eric Decker better in the slot than I do Eddie Royal, and I like Royal better outside than I do Decker.  I don’t think that Royal took very well to the route tree that he was asked to run the last two years, and that he was most effective outside as a rookie.  He’s a lot like Steve Smith, in terms of build, speed, and strength, so I expect John Fox and Mike McCoy to know how to use him out there.

Decker is big, and CW says that slot guys must always be small, but he’s fluid in his routes, and he has an outstanding natural feel for finding soft spots in zones.  Plus, nickel CBs are usually smaller, to cover smurfy slot receivers, and I like the idea of having a size/strength mismatch inside.

I'm out of time, but I'll be delving more deeply into the video as the week goes on, and I'll see you Friday in anticipation of Saturday night's game.  Have a great couple days.

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.

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Ted's Analysis