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Published on 06/21/2010 at Mon Jun 21 22:43.
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The Denver Broncos defense huddles during a game against the Dallas Cowboys on October 4th 2009. (Photo Paul Cloud)

The Denver Broncos defense huddles during a game against the Dallas Cowboys on October 4th 2009. (Photo Paul Cloud)

For as long as recent memory serves, the Broncos have run a 4-3 defense with success, up until about two years ago. After losing key defensive players such as Al Wilson and Trever Pryce, the Broncos 4-3 defense struggled, ranking second to last in the NFL in points allowed after allowing 448 points in the 2008 season, while earning a Takeaway/Giveaway Differential of -17, ranking 31st in the League.

When Josh McDaniels was named Head Coach after the 2008 season, he inherited a hurting defense. Along with then-defensive cordinator Mike Nolan, McDaniels and the Broncos decided to make the switch to a 3-4 defense, a switch many defenses had made. It was not the first time the Broncos used a 3-4, the infamous ‘Orange Crush’ was one of the first versions of a 3-4 defense. Entering the 2010 season, 15 teams use 3-4 defensive schemes. In modern football times, a 4-3 defensive scheme has been the most popular, as it is often successful against the run. Yet, with the pass-happy movement of late, almost half of the League has switched to 3-4, which defends well against the pass. Like every other defensive formation though, the 3-4 has pros and cons. Without the proper personnel, a 3-4 can have trouble stopping the run, last season the Broncos ranked 3rd against the pass, while finishing 27th defending the pass.

In order to have a good pass defending 3-4 defense, and be able to stop the run at the same time, 3 key players are needed. The first two players are the inside linebackers, the third is player is the Nose Tackle, the defensive tackle is hands down the most important player in a 3-4 scheme. A powerful NT to generate a pass rush, and clog up the run is vital, and something the Broncos lacked last season. Ronald Fields and Chris Baker were the Broncos’ Nose Tackles in 2009, and didn’t generate a pass rush, or slow down the run. Towards the end of 2009 the Broncos defense, particularly its rush defense, really began to slow down, lacking a true 3-4 nose tackle. To address this problem, the Broncos have revamped the defensive line, bringing in some defensive ends in the off-season, and signing free agent 3-4 NT Jamal Williams, who fits the defense perfectly.

For those of you who aren’t aware, a “3-4” defesive aliment simply means a defense with 3 defensive linemen and 4 linebackers, thus the name, 3-4. In a 3-4, the three down linemen always rush, filling the “A”, “B” or “C” gab(s), a term used for the space between the offensive linemen. Not only do the down linemen rush, but often one or more of the linebackers, most often the outside ‘backers. A variation of the 3-4 is the 5-2, a defensive set the Broncos used numerous times last season. While using the same personnel, in a 5-2 there is still 4 linebackers, but up to two of them have their hands on the ground. The ILB’s can then rush or drop into coverage. Pro Bowl ILB Elvis Dumervil had his hand on the ground nearly every play last season, causing havoc for opposing quarterbacks. The outside linebackers don’t always rush though, it’s not rare to see a blitz from the inside linebackers right in the “A” gap, a play D.J. Williams has profected.

A little more information on the defensive line, linebackers, and secondary:

  • Defensive line,

In a 3-4 defense, the front 3 have to be big fellas, in order to fill the space that 4 linemen would occupy in a 4-3. The two outside linemen are the defensive ends, and the big man in the middle the nose, or defensive tackle. A 3-4 defensive end is often a former 4-3 defensivetackle, needing more bulk to play DE in a three-four. Because they most often line up directly in front of an offensive linemen, the defensiveends need to be strong and powerful, withtheir first duty being the run, filling their gaps is important. Back to the NT, his job is the most demanding in football, often taking on two linemen, he is still expected to generate a rush, or almost every offensiveplaywill go for a gain. His sole responsibility is the “A” gap between the center and guards, if the Nose Tackle can’t generate any leverage, or even worse, get pushed back into his linebackers, a break away run is almost guaranteed. When an offensive runs towards the “A” gap, the NT’s job is either to stop the RB at the line, or if he can’t he has to prevent the Guard from moving on to block the linebackers, that is why it is so often you see holding penalties on defensive tackles. Last season the Broncos front three rotated, but mainly consisted of Ronald Fields, Kenny Peterson, and Ryan McBean. Those three players are not ideal 3-4 defensive linemen, but for the most part did what was asked of them. This season the front three may be a whole new set of players, offseason acquisitions Justin Bannan, Jarvis Green, and Jamal Williams havethesize and potential to be the three down linemen this year, and improve the Broncos front penetration.

  • Linebackers,

The linebackers in Denver’s 3-4 consist of two outside, and two inside linebackers. The outside (OLB) linebackers often line up closer to the line of scrimmage preparing to rush, while it is just as likely for them to line up at the same depth of the inside linebackers (ILB). All four ‘backers can be called upon to help in pass coverage, while one usually is a full time pass rusher, in Denver’s case that man is Elvis Dumervil. One of the strengths of a 3-4 is the ability to disguise which 4 players will be rushing on each player. Against a 4-3, an offense knows it has to block  the four down linemen, but against a 3-4 you never know where the 4thplayer will be rushing from (if he rushes at all). This is something the Broncos excelled in last season, mixing up what linebackers blitzed, and when. Against the Chargers in week six of the 2009 season, the Broncos confused San Diego’s offensiveline, sacked Phillip Rivers fivetimes, withfourdifferent players recording them. With 4 linebackers and 4 defenisve backs, the Broncos also have the ability to send a corner or safteyon a blitz, without leaving a WR open, safteyAndre’ Goodman was one of the four that sacked Rivers in week six. As noted above, defending the rush in Denver’s scheme can often be hard. The defensive linemen, and two of the linebackers havetooccupy the 5 offensive linemen, allowing two of the linebackers, most often the inside linebackers, to make the tackle. Entering his 7th NFL season, D.J. Williams has flourished as the tackling linebacker. Hybred DE/OLB’s such as Robert Ayers and Elvis Dumervilare on paper too small to play DefensiveEndin the NFL, yet not quite fluid enough to be a complete linebacker either. With that said, such players make excellent pass rushers, and the OLB’susuallylead their respective teams in sacks. The Broncos linebackingcorps made the 3-4 switch to perfection last season, and withadded depth aquired over the offseason, should improve this fall, reakinghavoc with blitzs, and filling in run gaps shutting down rushing attacks.

  • Secondary,

At most times, four defensive backs are  used in Denver’s 3-4 defense, two safeties, and two corners. The cornerbacks’ responsibility varies depending on the coverage called. Often the corners play up, and “jam” WR’s off the ball, while safeties cover their zone(s). The free safety (FS), in Denver’s case Brian Dawkins, is responsible for deciphering the offensive plays, and watching for the deep pass. Though not as much as the strong saftey, the FS is called upon for run support as well. The Strong Saftey(SS) is usually lined up closer to the offense than the FS, and is more than not used in run support, and covering Tight Ends. The three most common coverages are, Cover 3 (0r 4), Cover 1, and Cover 2.  The cover 3/4 scheme is a “zone” coverage, with the field divided into three (or four depending on the amount of defensive backs) zones. The corners in this coverage are responsible for the field behind them, nobody should get behind them, because they help over top from the safeties, they can be aggresive and jump routes. The linebackers have “flats”,  so in a zone coverage all the corner really has to worry about is the deepest man. The safeties have deep zone, and watch for the run. If one saftey blitzs (or only one safety is in on the play), a cover 3 is devided into 3 deep zones. If there are two safeties it is a cover 4, and is divided into four zones.  Cover 1 is man coverage, and the name makes it pretty self-explanatory. Each cornerback locks on his man, and that is his only responsibility. The linebackers often pick up the Tight ends and Running Backs, the safeties often cover the Backs and Tight Ends as well, or even man up on receivers. In cover 1 free the safeties have a zone, much like the zone they are responsible for in cover 3/4. In cover 2, the corners do not have man, or deep, rather 10-15 yards and what ever is in front of them. The outside ‘backers again have “flats” (picking up outs, running backs and short routes), while the inside linebackers have short middle, picking up slants, Tight End sits, and such. The safeties have deep, and haveto particularly watch for skinny posts, and deep routes. No matter what the coverage, communication is key, a big offensiveplayresults from blown coverage, which more often than not, results from miscommunication, or lack of communication. Last season the Broncos secondary ranked as one of the best in the NFL, with veterans Bailey, Dawkins, Hill, Goodman, and young talent such as Darcel McBath, Alphonso Smith, Perrish Cox, Syd’QuanThompson, and Kyle McCarthy, the Broncos secondary looks to become even better, withsomeof the best secondary depth in the league.

Denver Broncos linebackers coach Don Martindale watches from the sidelines during the game against the Oakland Raiders at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. (Photo via Newscom)

Denver Broncos linebackers coach Don Martindale watches from the sidelines during a game against the Oakland Raiders. (Photo via Newscom)

The Broncos 2008 defense compared to the 2009 defense is like night and day. The switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 can be fully credited for that. After allowing over 400 points, and ranking next to last in the NFL during the 2008 season, the Broncos allowed 324 points, ranking 12th in the NFL, while ranking 7th in Takeawy/Giveaway Differential with +7. Last season Denver was just one sack shy of 40, while intercepting 17 passes. Under new defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale the Broncos defense is not expected to have as much success in the 3-4 as it did under Nolan, the Broncos’ argue otherwise. “Wink”, the Broncos former linebacker coach, knows Denvers’ defense, and has perfected linebacker blitzs, under him the defense should not just do as well as it did last season, but even better. Head Coach Josh McDaniels said he expects Martindale to call aggresive plays, translating into an aggressvive defenese.

“We want to be disciplined yet attack, attack, attack — that’s what our focus is going to be on,” McDaniels said. “It’s always good to add some things that allow your players to play fast, and we think we’ve done that this offseason with what we’ve tried to add with our scheme.”

Don Martindale won’t be changing much of the Broncos defensive terminology that made the defense successful last season, he will though enhance it, helping the Broncos to not only come up big against the pass, but also to stop the run. The offseason is time for otimismn, and I expect the Denver Broncos 2010, 3-4 defense to become one of the best in the NFL.

  • Robert Ethan

    Great article. Most informative for the casual fan. Thanks.

  • Jon

    Thanks, I had fun writing it. I noticed two things while I was watching film and picture searching, first, the Broncos use 5-2 formations a Lot, with the ILB's either rushing or dropping into coverage, and really messing up the offensives line, second, Don Martindale kinda looks a lot like Tom Cable.

  • DenversFinest

    you should grammar and spell check, but other than that pretty good.

  • love the cos

    your grammar as well as your obvious ” bronco koolaid” are both quite disturbing

  • kerry

    expect Denvers 3-4 to be one of the best or maybe the best in the NFL?! come on man. Martindale hasnt called a defensive play ever. that right there brings the defense down a notch. not to mention 3-4 DE's who have never been accused of being good, an old NT, Robert Ayers who is on the sidelines in favor of Moss (i still laugh at that one) and NOBODY next to DJ Williams. best in the NFL? not even close. when is all said and done, we may not have the best 3-4 IN OUR DIVISION, let alone all of football.

  • Bradley

    Too bad the Broncos didn't draft Dan Williams, the big and athletic DT from Tennessee, instead of Tebow (Arizona took Williams with the next pick).

  • MrEast

    The Broncos already have a one year wonder who underachieved his whole career from Tennessee.

  • MrEast

    Sadly you are right about our division. However the Charger's D is beginning to fade and their offense is in chaos with V-Jack and McNeil holding out. A.J. Smith will not pay them and they will sit 10 games or get traded.

  • Darwin

    Denver has good but not superior talent at all three levels. Champ and Dawk are not at the top of their positions anymore. Still good but not great. DJ Williams is a stat master but does not dominate in the middle. Doom is a great pass rusher but not a great all round linebacker. Jamal Williams has not been healthy the last several seasons. The rest of the lineman are OK but not great.
    Every year there is talk of a more aggressive defense but when push comes to shove you have to have superior talent to be aggressive. Look at the Jets and they have outstanding talent in their linebackers and secondary.
    Even though I question Denver's talent I think they will be as good as any team in the AFC West defensively. I just don't see them standing above any of these teams let alone the Jets, Bengals, Ravens, and Steelers. They all have 'far' superior talent on defense.

  • MrEast

    Great analysis, I completely agree.

    “DJ Williams is a stat master but does not dominate in the middle.”

    That is the perfect way to put it. There are plently of LBs out there who rack up the stats but don't terrorize the field. Only a few really do both of those things, those being Patrick Willis, David Harris, and Ray Lewis.

  • Jon

    Thanks, working on both.

  • Kelleyp

    Brian Dawkins play strong safety for the Broncos, not free safety. I don't think he has played free safety since college.

    Also, Chris Baker dressed for one game in 2009 (Pittsburgh). Can't blame him for any of the Broncos problems at that position. Broncos primary NT's for 2009 were Ron Fields and Marcus Thomas. Marcus Thomas was a liability down the stretch, and I don't think you'll see him at NT at all this year – he'll make it at DE or get cut.

    Jarvis Green was mostly a third down/passing down DE in recent years. I don't think you'll see him starting at DE – he'll be a situational guy that comes in off the bench. I still see McBean or Thomas starting over at RDE, not Green. I don't think McBean is getting as much credit from folks as he should. He played well last year vs. the run, and when he was out injured, the defense seemed to suffer noticeably.

    Hill and Goodman played well in pass coverage last year, but had tackling issues against the run. Will be interesting to see if they keep their starting jobs for all of 2010.

  • guest

    “The Broncos 2008 defense compared to the 2009 defense is like night and day. The switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 can be fully credited for that.”

    Your mileage may vary- but i would guess that at least some credit for the upgrade would go to Champ and DJ, our 2 best defenders, playing 32 games in 2009 vs. around 19 games in 2008. Having that much talent, not to mention % of your team salary, on the bench for half the season will lead to the demise of most defenses in the league. For example, the steelers gave up 5 more points a game in 2009 than 2008 with polamalu out for 11+ games.

    You toss in 7 RB's hitting the IR, and you are looking at one of the most unlucky breaks I've ever seen a team face. Going 8-8 that season was actually quite an accomplishment.

  • MONDRE69


  • MrEast

    Going 8-8 that season was a miracle. Denver was a 4-12 team that year with or without the RBs injured. That defense was one of the worst I've ever seen play football. If it wasn't for that Cutler fumble and the missed Saints offsides call, Denver wouldn't have been even mentioning the playoffs all season.


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