You Got Served: Are the Broncos using the right defensive scheme?

The question of the day is whether Mark Kiszla knows what he’s talking about, when it comes to football.

Are you done laughing yet?

I’ll wait. 

Okay then, welcome back.  Since we know the answer is that he doesn’t know anything beyond the most basic level, we can pat him on the head like a good little dullard, and at least explore whether the basic point he was making is valid.

Kiszla thinks the Broncos have better personnel to play a 3-4 than they do a 4-3.  If you’ve read this site for long, you know that there’s no monolithic 3-4 that half the NFL uses, and there’s similarly no monolithic 4-3 in use by the other half.  There are 3-4’s that play like traditional 4-3’s (such as Houston and Dallas), 4-3’s that play like traditional 3-4’s (like Seattle and Miami), and then there are teams that play both fronts, most notably New England and Baltimore.

For the sake of keeping this simple, let’s make the assumption that Kiszla means a Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4, which features two-gapping from the defensive line, and a read-and-react mentality by all defenders.  Let’s further assume that he means the Tom Landry 4-3, which features one-gap play from the defensive line, and a more aggressive mentality.

Here is a quick breakdown of the position archetypes for each of the front-seven positions in the assumed variants of the two defenses:

Position Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 Landry 4-3 Broncos who fit 3-4 archetype Broncos who fit 4-3 archetype
DE 6-5, 290+; Power players with long arms, and the ability to anchor and shed a block. 6-3, 270; Speed players who can hold up enough in run support to set the edge, but who can beat an OT in the pass rush.

Derek Wolfe, Ty Warren, Malik Jackson, Ben Garland, Kevin Vickerson, Justin Bannan

Elvis Dumervil, Robert Ayers, Jamie Blatnick, Jason Hunter, Jeremy Beal, Von Miller
DT 6-5, 325; Power player who can consistently win against double teams. Must be able to anchor and hold the point of attack. 6-5, 290+; Players who can penetrate their gaps and disrupt running plays, while also generating inside pass rush. Sealver Siliga, Justin Bannan (neither does very well) Derek Wolfe, Ty Warren, Malik Jackson, Ben Garland, Kevin Vickerson, Justin Bannan, Sealver Siliga, Mitch Unrein
OLB 6-3, 270; Must be versatile between coverage ability and pass rush ability. The ability to cover at the needed size is difficult to find. 6-2, 225; Speed players who will mostly flow to the ball on run plays and cover receivers or zones on pass plays. Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, Robert Ayers, Jason Hunter Von Miller, Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathan, D.J. Williams, Mike Mohamed
ILB/MLB 6-2, 250; Power players who can take on an iso block and still make a tackle in the hole. Mostly coverage players in the pass game. 6-2, 235; Speed players who will mostly flow to the ball on run plays and cover receivers or zones on pass plays. Joe Mays, Nate Irving, Keith Brooking Joe Mays, Nate Irving, Keith Brooking

I would say that the Broncos have sufficient personnel to play both kinds of fronts, if you ignore the fact that they don’t have a real 0-technique nose tackle to use in an odd front.  Since we can’t ignore that, the 4-3 has an edge in its efficacy.

You also have to consider that the coaches on defense are all even-front coaches, and that the players drafted in the last two drafts were picked to play in an even front.  A guy like Danny Trevathan gets less interesting if you suddenly want him to be taking on fullbacks at the point of attack.  So does a holdover like Wesley Woodyard, who got by playing inside, but wasn’t really very good at it.

A lot of people get wrapped up in the fact that 3-4 OLBs generate sacks and think that’s the coolest thing ever. So if you’ve got good pass rushers, it’s better to play them at LB, so that they can make Pro Bowls over other OLBs who don’t rush the passer.

Whee!  Making the Pro Bowl means you’re good!

The way I see it, the Broncos have three hybrid players in their front seven – Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, and Robert Ayers.  Miller is scheme-indifferent, because he’s so talented that he can be useful doing anything you ask him to do.  Wolfe is scheme-indifferent, because he can play with the power necessary to be a 3-4 DE, but I think that would be wasting his natural pass rush ability.  Ayers is somewhat scheme-indifferent because he’s proven to be able to play either on or away from the line.  I think he’s better in a 4-3 with his hand on the ground, though, especially as a pass rusher.

I don’t buy that Elvis Dumervil is scheme-indifferent, because I never thought he was a good all-around 3-4 OLB.  He was an excellent pass rusher, but most of his best work came from lining up as a DE in sub packages.  He frequently got buried at the edge when teams ran at him, and I like his ability to play with good leverage much better from a three-point stance.

Which front you employ doesn’t matter as much as what you’re trying to do with your players, particularly in the passing game.  When I think of an effective 3-4 in the passing game, I think of Pittsburgh - and what they’re trying to do is vary who they bring against the QB, and where they’re coming from.  All of their front-seven guys except the NT can cover a little bit, in the zone schemes they’re asked to play in.

Do the Broncos really want to vary who is rushing the passer very much?

I would say no, they don’t.

When their sub package is in, and it’s third and nine, they want Miller coming from one edge, Dumervil from the other, Wolfe inside, and probably Ayers as the fourth guy inside, when it’s all said and done.  Do they really want to drop Miller, Dumervil, and Wolfe into zone coverage, and bring Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathan, Ayers, and Rahim Moore?  That’s the kind of thing the Steelers frequently do.

I just don’t see it for the Broncos.

James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are just as good in zone coverage as they are rushing the passer.  That’s not at all true of Miller or Dumervil.

There’s this nagging wrongness out there that was popularized by draftniks who said that Miller would only be good in an odd front.  If the Broncos wanted to use Miller the way the Bucs used Derrick Brooks, I’d be the first guy to tell you that they’re wasting his pass rush ability, which is the best thing about him.  That’s not what they’re doing, though.  They mostly use him as a traditional OLB on base downs, and as a DE on sub-package downs. 

It’s basically no different than how a 3-4 team would use him, except that he gets to roam more in a 4-3, because the DE usually has contain responsibilities, not the OLB.  He also plays closer to the middle of the field, so he can be more of a factor on run plays that go the other way, by giving him less ground to make up.  I think the Broncos are using Von in the most ideal way possible. 

Yes, 3-4 OLBs tend to get more sacks than 4-3 OLBs, but not because they’re 3-4 OLBs coming from a standup position.  It’s because they’re frequently assigned to rush the passer, and most 4-3 OLBs aren’t.  Von Miller is a special case, and it makes him more difficult for offenses to account for, because he has to be located on every play.

I think Kiszla is basically all wet, when it comes down to it.  The Broncos have a team full of front-seven defenders who are natural one-gap players.  Really, only Ty Warren and Justin Bannan are more experienced in odd fronts than even fronts among the whole team.  They have a coaching staff which has always coached one-gap/even-front schemes.  They played a one-gap scheme in 2011, and improved greatly from where they were in 2010, when they were still trying to two-gap.

Now, before I close, there’s one thing I want to add.  I think it’s very interesting that the Broncos view Derek Wolfe as a DE in their base packages, and not as a DT.  During the broadcast of Saturday’s game, Dave Logan indicated that Robert Ayers is viewed more as an open-side DE, and that’s why they have him behind Dumervil on the depth chart.  Reading between the lines, Jack Del Rio is viewing the archetype for the closed-side DE as a bigger guy.  That will presumably make the Broncos 4-3 play more like a traditional 3-4, at least from the size perspective.  I'll be watching closely for gap control methods once the regular season starts, and maybe we'll even be able to spot something on Sunday, when the starters play more snaps.

That suggests to me that they want to play similarly to Seattle, in that their closed-side DE two-gaps against the OT.  You do that if you want to avoid bringing an eighth defender into the box in the run game, because it theoretically allows seven box defenders to control eight gaps.

I’m a big fan of Wolfe, and I think he’s going to be very successful as a base DE, and as a DT on passing downs.  He reminds me a lot of Justin Smith, with his combination of power, movement skills, hand use, stamina, and motor, and I think he’s going to be an absolute monster once he learns the NFL game. 

The Broncos defense is headed in the right direction, and the notion that changing schemes would improve the output is silly.

Example number 43,563,231 that columnists are a waste of money for newspapers – Mark Kiszla.

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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