Where to now? Part II - Players, coaches and defense

Yesterday, we talked about the state of the offense - what the new coach will have to work with, and areas where we might be strong or weak. Today, I’d like to talk for a moment about defensive concepts and options, and then take a look at our players and consider what might need to be done. 

I’ll come clean - I love the tales of offensive strategy,  and learning its history. Stories of the birth of formations and systems that are often a century or more old -- and yet are new again, rearranged, adapted and yet vital and still effective  -- are a pleasure to learn. It’s a long series of remarkable lives, about men who changed the game and the sagas of so many great legends:  both those among the living and those who came before.  The stories never cease to amaze me. There’s really nothing like it, with the endless competition, the human interest, the quest for mastery in every season and the constant drama. It’s a game that has a certain percentage of outcomes within a mathematical certainty that people like TJ and Doug can quantify, yet carries with its outcomes an endless percentage of disciplined chaos that changes, puzzles and constantly entertains me. At its heart, it’s still a more civilized form of unarmed territorial warfare. It’s not a coincidence that they refer to the contest in ways that connote battle.  

But in truth, I grew up watching defense, and therein lies my greatest interest. I loved how they spread out or worked together, threw themselves at the offensive players and fought to deny them yards and inches through desire and impassioned stands. There’s nothing quite like it - it’s just football, yet it can be a constant metaphor for life itself. We all have victories and defeats. How you deal with it and push ahead says more about whom you are or who an organization is than any other measure. I’m a defense guy at heart. Here are a few things that I’ve learned. 

Although not all fans follow this aspect, there are as many defensive options as offensive schemes. Major divisions into the 3-4 and 4-3 are often bandied about as if they were sufficient to explain the scheme that a given team uses. That’s unfortunate, but one of the great advantages of modern internet access is that anyone with the interest and the time can learn about the various offensive and defensive schemes. Web sites on the subject are plentiful, and you don’t need to be able to understand the sometimes arcane language and concepts that football system books are often written in to develop a good understanding of the basics. I’d like to touch briefly on some of those basics in terms of where the Denver Broncos are now and where they are best prepared to go. I’m going to keep this fairly simple - more specifics will require knowing the coach-to-be.

Defense

First and foremost, I’d like to address the most common misconception that you’ll be reading ad nausem when the search for a new coach gets fully underway:  just because a certain coach or coordinator has a history in the 4-3 or 3-4 doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll have any difficulty in running the other option. Modern defenses can be organized in a multitude of ways. Some of them are hybrids of the 3-4 and 4-3, weighting one or the other sides of the defensive line, and players may be in down or upright positions. There’s the 5-2 that the Broncos ran last year and the zone-blitz magic performed by Dick Le Beau, who makes quarterbacks disappear. You can apply the zone blitz in 3-4 or 4-3 defenses. Some systems blitz heavily, such as those designed by Le Beau or implemented by Jim Johnson or Steve Spagnuolo. Each will require certain types and skillsets of players.

There is, for example, the Run Contain system, designed by Jim Bates. He’s struggled to make it work - it requires two huge DT guys in the center with a tough, fast MLB behind them. Those two linemen don’t even have passing assignments: they’re there to clog the middle and take up offensive linemen, creating a daunting clutter that frustrates running backs. All of the runs are funneled to the middle by the OLBs, to those monsters and the LB behind them. It’s based on cutting off the running lanes before they develop and preventing the RB from ever - ever! - getting to the outside.  It hopes to make the game one dimensional and then to send the OLBs, CBs and safeties after the QB. 

Without the right personnel, though, it’s hard to make it work. The personnel needs are very specific, and the players are hard to find. Bates even changes the concept of defense from gaps and assignments into what he calls ‘vectors’. The OLBs push the runner back into the middle, and the CBs take over some of the responsibilities of the OLBs. It’s a very unusual approach, but he made it work for a while in Miami. It’s been a disaster elsewhere -  without the perfect personnel, it all tends to fall apart. That’s a tough one to overcome. 

I’m using this illustration because it’s an unusually clear example of a very important principle - you have to match your defense and your personnel. Even the best of coaches and coordinators will require the right talent: height, weight, skill set, injury history, speed requirements, vertical leap requirements, character traits,leadership and intellect - they all matter when designing a defense (or an offense, but that was yesterday). Here are some thoughts on our defensive personnel, as best as I’ve seen them. 

Defensive Line

You know, I honestly think that the Broncos are closer here than we often think. On thing is missing from the front seven, and I mentioned it yesterday - every top defense I can recall had at least one player who was essentially a force of nature. I’m talking a Julius Pepper, Ray Lewis, Al Wilson, Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton, Dick Butkus kind of player. I know - it’s easy to say, but it’s harder to find them. With Pittsburgh, Dick Le Beau is like putting an extra player on the field, most Sundays, but their lineup is also top drawer. That’s the advantage of keeping to a certain scheme over a long time - Pitt has had continuity for well over a decade, and it shows. It’s clear that Denver is better designed for the 3-4. Phillips or Bullough? Actually, they could still go either way, even if they were acquired for the Bullough. 

Denver’s line has a heck of a player in Bannan, but I think they need more. Jamal Williams is starting to play better as the season wears on, and that’s exciting. Ron Fields has been a little more pedestrian than I expected this year and Marcus Thomas is useful because he’s more of a single gap, penetrating player, yet he can line up at all three DL positions and draws frequent double teams. Denver does have some solid rotational players. For my money, what Denver has is essentially not fully fish or fowl yet - they have played a 4-3 effectively at times only to mask a weakness brought on by injuries. Doing so full time would work against the return of Elvis Dumervil, and it doesn’t match the players in the linebacking corps. I think the line only lacks a very powerful player that other teams need to scheme for, week in and week out. 

Pardon the kvetch, but I didn’t feel like there was enough emphasis on this in the 2010 draft. With the kind of talent and depth that was available on the DL,and holding two first round picks, taking a top WR and a potential QB project (none of us really know yet), may not have been the most efficient use of draft picks.  It ignored the priorities of rebuilding the essence of the defense - the middle. 

Robert Ayers (thanks for catching that, my friend) was a good choice, but he is an OLB. To me, it’s the middle - ILB and NT - where Denver really needs an impact player. Walton, Beadles and Kuper are a good troop for the middle of the offense, but the defensive middle got a great player who is approaching - possibly in a few years, perhaps after 2010 - the end of his career. That’s not solving the problem, nor planning for its solution. I mean no disrespect to a long-time great player in Jamal Williams, but it has looked like more of a band-aid than a long-term solution. Unless you get a long-term solution in place, another QB who can’t play in 2010 doesn’t really do it for me. It could just be me, but I see the middle as the territory where the game is usually won. The weakness of the 3-4 is usually power running up the middle. Someone needs to be there who just can’t be pushed aside.

Linebacker

The Broncos' pattern is simple - big (averaging about 265), intelligent, powerful men who aren’t fast afoot. It’s a team that is built for the 3-4, and at least Denver has a direction now. Joe Mays will be back, and he looks like a long-term solution, in rotation at the least (his coverage skills are suspect, but he reads plays very quickly). Mario Haggan is the leader in many ways, and he’s the oldest. Wesley Woodyard was quickly becoming a leader before his own injury. He’s probably the fastest linebacker in coverage. 

Could they move to a 4-3? As I’ve noted, probably not. They lack a true Mike linebacker - DJ Williams was developing there, but the move to a 3-4 has not brought out his best as expected. I tend to wonder if his salary and his talent level work out - it’s hard to say. It’s also true that Denver won’t want to nullify the advantage that Doom as an OLB creates in the 3-4. That leaves the choice among the various 3-4 options and a potential hybrid defense. 

Could they move to a single gap, penetrating style, such as a Phillips 3-4? I think they could - you can run that system with larger players if they buy into that style of play. Most of the Broncos linebackers are in or approaching the prime of their careers, which is a very good thing. Many players could take pride in the attacking style that the Phillips brings. I’d like to note that either way, adding more of a zone blitz aspect to the system might be worth considering. I haven’t seen Denver fooling anyone recently, and that shows in the loss of turnovers. Stealing a few pages from LeBeau’s playbook might help. The zone blitz can be utterly unpredictable in very effective ways. 

The best thing is that the next time there’s football, Elvis ‘Doom’ Dumervil is due back. It’s like getting another first round pick at a position of vast weakness - the Broncos pass rush has been tepid at best. Ayers has seemed talented at pushing the pile. With Doom across from him at OLB, Denver has a player that you have to account for on passing downs. He still needs to work a little on his run game, getting washed out of position too often, but he’s only had one year playing in space - he deserves some time to work that area out. 

A final note - Jason Hunter changed from a 4-3 DE to a 3-4 OLB on the fly, without even a training camp to help work it out, and yet he started some games and played well. I hope that Denver keeps and develops him - he’s done a heck of a job, given his situation. With an offseason, OTAs and training camp under his belt to help him play in space, he could help really improve the rotation. 

Cornerbacks

Losing Andre Goodman this year was a huge issue. His tackling has been a problem, but his coverage skills, combined with Champ Bailey’s, made for a tremendous man-coverage tandem. Cox is still a developmental player with speed issues, and that concerns me in the long term: still, he’s done some very good things, and like most rookies, he’s getting lessons on Sundays. The new coach will have to look at what is best with Champ Bailey, a player who may ask to move on, wanting a SB ring more than another rebuilding job. He’d be likely to bring a decent price, too - there are teams on the cusp of the playoffs who would benefit from an 11 time Pro Bowler who can still shut down Dewayne Bowe all day long. I’d really miss him, but it’s going to be a cost/benefit question. It also begs the question of how you replace him. 

Syd’Quan Thompson brings special teams skills to the table - he’s an option in the return game, and I noticed him making a stellar ‘pass defended’ against Kansas City. I’ll be interested to see how he develops. Despite Nate Jones’ versatility at CB and safety, he’s often a step slow and may not be a good fit down the road. Cassius Vaughn has seen limited action, but he’s done some good things with his length and has some special teams skill as well. I’d like to see more of him - the next training camp could be interesting. CFAs don’t always play as well as he has.

Safety

Here’s a place where the times really may be a’changing:  I’m concerned that Brian Dawkins seems to finally be showing his age. He’s still an inspirational leader who loves to teach the younger players how to be successful NFL safeties, how to work and how to put in the hours in the film room, but the play of David Bruton is starting to make it look like he’s a solid part of the future. Darcel McBath is a highly intelligent, talented young player, both on special teams (where he led the team in tackles over the 2009 season) and on the regular field. Renaldo Hill is constantly under-rated:  Brian Dawkins said that he’s one of the most intelligent safeties that Dawk has ever met. Rotating the younger players with Hill may be a solid approach. I can’t fault in any way the McX’s approach to the safety position. I’m not going to suggest that Dawk is done - just that it’s time to bolster the younger players and prepare them to move up.

Kyle McCarthy has done some good work on STs and had a few good plays in regulation defense as well. It’s very hard to say much else without some kind of evidence on film. He may or may not stay on - I’d expect that getting another safety ready, whether he or another, is a priority, though.

Conclusion

There you have it. It’s not rocket science to know that the Broncos aren’t scaring anyone. They aren’t getting to the QB and they’re not, Champ’s unreal and masterful performance in the KC game aside, covering as well as they need to make up for that. As I’ve said, losing Andre’ Goodman was a serious blow. Losing Doom was an even worse blow, and losing Joe Mays is a big hit. That’s a long list that I won’t fully go through:  the point here is to look to the future. 

In short, running either the Phillips or the Bullough is possible, but moving to a 4-3 would probably be a long-term disaster. Either way, you need to scare people and/or confuse people. The zone blitz, a scheme in which any of the DL or LB players either blitz or drop back in coverage might make up for part of the talent level. There are obviously holes in the middle and currently at cornerback. Linebacker could use an upgrade (getting Doom back and Ayers healthy would be a very fast start), but it’s going to be in better shape than the first two mentioned just through getting healthy for a while. 

Safety? It might be the strength of the team over the next few years with Bruton and McBath both learning and coming along. They’ve made a very good start, McBath’s broken arm not withstanding. There was forethought and logic in the picks of our young safeties. Cornerback remains a concern, though. 

The key point here is that whether Denver moves to a Phillips 3-4, or keeps the Bullough, they need to obtain exactly what the draft is set up to provide for losing teams - the Broncos need the best DL player that is in the draft. Denver needs to find a player who can create havoc, if one is available. There’s been too little of that this year - and truly, it’s been that way since Al Wilson went down. When you can’t get to the QB or cover the receivers, and when your middle is also suspect and the rushing offense has gashed you, it’s time for a change.

Change, as it turns out, is in the air. While I’m as uncomfortable as the next fan with the recent actions of the front office, I also know that sometimes, the real reason for things is kept hidden for a while. The final fact is, there is a lot more talent on defense than there was when Shanahan left. The framework is mostly finished, as long as the new HC stays with one of the 3-4 options. 

If not, it will be a long transition. If I can see it, though, I’m going to bet that the next coach will too. He’s going to know a lot more than I about the game. I hope that Denver finds a coach who can motivate the players, not try to be in five places at once. There is the start of a very good defense here - it just needs some help in the middle, from the NT on back through cornerback. If the defense starts to contribute to the ideal of complementary football, you might see a quick improvement in the offense, as well. Playing from behind, often with poor field position, is a recipe for losing. 

The Broncos’ defense has talent and it has also holes. It’s a big improvement over what McDaniels found when he got to Denver. That’s really not a bad legacy for a coach who was never truly given a chance. Be well, my friends. 

Doc

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

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