Friday, July 13, 2012

Denver Broncos Defensive Line, The Who and The What

Now that the basics of the 4-3 Defense are defined, let’s look at the Denver Broncos defensive line and some of the roles that need to be filled.  Then we’ll look into what Bronco’s can fill those roles in the 4-3 defense alignment.  Hold on for the ride!

The following is the typical alignment of the 4-3 defense.  The bold positions are the defensive positions that we will focus on in this post.

Linebackers:                               W             M             S
Defensive Line:                     DE       DT       DT       DE
Line of Scrimmage:       ---------------------------------------------------
Offensive Line:                       OT       OG     C    OG      OT      TE
Quarterback:                                               QB
Fullback:                                                     FB
Running Back:                                             RB

Weak Side                |              Strong Side 

Position Descriptions

Starting with the defensive line, there are two positions on either side of the ball, strong side and weak side.  On the side of the ball where the tight end (TE) is lined up is known as the strong side of the formation.  From right to left there is the strong side defensive end (DE) and defensive tackle (DT), then the weak side defensive tackle (DT) and defensive end (DE).  And with the linebackers, there is the strong side linebacker (S), the middle linebacker (M), and the weak side linebacker (W); also known as the Sam, Mike, and Will backers.

Each position requires certain skills, body type, and traits to fill that given role.  We won’t get into the details of each element required, but I will give basic outlines of each position and which Denver Bronco fits this description and role.

Strong Side

The strong side defensive lineman need to be the best run and power run stoppers.  The offense will typically line up and run behind the strong side of the line because the tight end creates and extra blocker for the offense.  This allows the offensive line to out number the defense on this side of the line and therefore force more power through this area of the offensive line.
Defensive End
The defensive end on the strong side of the formation needs to be strong enough against the run to command a double team every now and then with the offensive tackle (OT) and the tight end as well as fast enough to push up filed to rush the passer when the tight end releases on a pass route.  This defensive end needs to be resilient and strong enough to shed blockers and make a tackle on the line of scrimmage on either side of the offensive linemen that are tryig to block him.  If he is not, this will require more linebackers to fill the gaps around the DE therefore causing inefficiencies in the defense.

Denver Broncos that fit this position: 
Robert Ayers – He has played this position the last 3 years.  He has not shown a lot of pass rush abilities, but is better than average against the run.  He could use some more speed to be an effective pass rusher. 
Jason Hunter – He has been filling in at this role off and on over the last couple of seasons.  His potential is yet to be tapped, but he has shown flashes of speed and strength.
Von Miller – Typically a strong side linebacker, he fills the strong side defensive end role on passing downs where speed and bull rushes can knock a right offensive tackle off their feet our out of position because they are not used to pass blocking against such quick speed to power to speed transitions in one 250 lb individual.  Von is a special player and looks to be one of the best ever to wear a Broncos Uniform at this position.  He was selected to a Pro Bowl and was Defensive Rookie of the Year last year.

Defensive Tackle
The strong side defensive tackle needs to be a humble, persistent, consistent, powerful human being that looks forward to being double teamed and shedding blockers to stop the run and break up the quarterback passing pocket.  This defensive linemen needs to have flawless technique to get their hands in the right position and have the strength to shed blockers and push them up field to tackle a running back or force the quarterback outside of the pocket and into the arms of the attacking defensive ends.  This position gets consistently double teamed with a center and an offensive guard.  Look for the defensive tackle to be around 300 lbs and be quick in the hands and powerful in the arms and legs.  Speed isn’t necessarily a requirement in this position, heart and power are needed to make plays at this defensive line position as most runs will be aimed at him and most passes will be thrown over him.  The ideal DT would be a disruptive machine that brings it on every down.  They don’t have to have a lot of sacks or tackles, they just need to command a double team on every down.  This will free the other linemen to make plays on the quarterback.

Denver Broncos that fit this position:
Ty Warren – He was once thought of as a top DT three years ago before he injured his hip and then his tricep in two back to back season ending injuries.  He hasn’t seen playing time since 2009 and will need to be the comeback player of the year (over Peyton Manning?) to make a difference to be a Pro Bowl selection like he once was.  The potential is there, but will he be able to come back and play well following sitting on the side lines for the last two years?  We’ll see come September.
Justin Bannan – He was a starter for the Broncos two years ago at defensive end in a 3-4 alignment before they parted separate ways.  The 3-4 defensive end is similar to the 4-3 strong side defensive tackle as they both need to occupy space and tackle well to make a difference.  Justin is one of my favorite players because he’s a work horse; he doesn’t crave a spotlight and just wants to execute flawless football to win games.  Ultimate team player and can make a difference.  He can be an impact player if he gets the work in and starts being dominant.  I don’t see him as a perennial force, but with the pairing of Justin and Ty, they could be a duo to be reckoned with on the inside that could cause some teams some trouble in trying to stop the run and passes that require a short drop from the line (think red zone or hot routes).

Weak Side

The weak side is typically the pass rushing side of the defensive line.  Most of the time, an offensive line will pull a offensive guard from the left side of the formation to lead as a blocker through the gap between the right offensive guard and offensive tackle.  This is what’s call a power run scheme.  With that being said, the weak side takes a little more speed to play with more awareness of what the offense is doing to stop the cutback runs.

Defensive Tackle
The weak side defensive tackle does not need to be as strong and powerful as the strong side as most runs will run away from him.  Yet, he needs to play tall and read the offense and execute assignment football to make a difference.  By playing tall, I don’t mean physically tall, I mean he needs to have the commanding presence that a quarterback feels if someone were to knock down footballs from passing lanes be there to smother the quarterback if he tries to escape an outside defender by stepping inside the pocket.  Cutback runs across his face in a zone or power run scheme can be a real problem for the weak side defensive tackle.  If the running play was designed to naturally move the defensive line towards the strong side of the offense and then have a running back carrying the ball cutback behind the right guard or center or behind an up field pressing weak side defensive tackle taking the tackle by surprise.  It is the defensive tackle’s responsibility to not pursue up field towards the quarterback and step into the cutback lane to stop this run if read correctly.  The DT will only do this if he reads the play at the line of scrimmage and throughout his pursuit.  This way he can position himself to contain the running lane or gap and force the play into his chest or outside to a different gap that is covered by another defender.  On passing downs, this DT needs to collapse the pocket and help free the weak side defensive end.  IT helps if this DT has more speed to allow for defensive stunts and be able to drop back in coverage if needed.

Denver Broncos that fit this position:
Kevin Vickerson – He has played the 4-3 DT position very well before and was a great run defender at the beginning of the year last season.  He went down with an injury and just didn’t return to form like he was prior to the injury.  With a full off season and time to recover, he should be good to start the season at full health.  He may be a surprise coming out of training camp as the starting weak side DT over the rookie Derek Wolfe; though it wouldn’t surprise me if they rotate the position with Vickerson filling in on run downs and Wolfe on passing downs.
Derek Wolfe – The Broncos’ first pick this year in the draft.  He was a DT not everyone in the media had high on their draft boards, but some teams had him as low first round or high second round talent.  He led collegiate football DT’s with 9.5 sacks and 22 tackles for a loss last year.  He was double teamed on most plays and was still able to get to the quarterback.  He has a high motor and strong work ethic.  He’s a little smaller than some DTs, but his motor and drive will propel him to have a successful NFL season.  I see him filling in on passing downs to help occupy the line to free up the outside DE’s to get to the quarterback.  It will take some time to coach him to play assignment football and not over pursue on the pass and get caught with the draw or delayed run.  Look for him to help bring a better pass rush on third and longs.

Defensive End
This is where the money is on the defensive line.  The weak side defensive end is usually the defender that is paid to rush the passer.  He is typically the “blind side” of the quarterback as most are right handed and needs to be quick and powerful to get past the offensive left tackle who is paid just a little more than the DE because he takes these guys on one on one.  The prototypical DE in this role is 6’3”  275 lb and runs the forty yard dash in 4.6 – 4.7 seconds.  He’s fast for his size with great balance and has long arms to create separation.  With these measurements and an excellent work ethic, the DE should get to the quarterback 8 – 14 times a year, and if he’s a special player, he can rack up 17 to 18 sacks a year.  This player typically is highlighted on Monday Night Football and is heralded as “a guy to watch out for”, but he doesn’t get this status without the rest of the line causing mayhem next to him. 

Denver Broncos that fit this position:
Elvis Dumervil – Elvis is a very unique defensive end, just like Robert Mathis from Indianapolis.  He’s short, 5’ 10” with cleats on, light about 255 lb on game day, and isn’t a rock star when you turn on the light, so not your typical defensive end.  He’s been viewed as a guy with potential but not big enough to make a difference.  Well the Broncos thought enough of him to pick him up in the draft and he’s been lighting up quarterbacks ever since (See the hit he made on Tom Brady when the Patriots played the Broncos at home in 2011, that was a perfect hit and it displayed how every DE should attack the quarterback!).  Elvis’ arms are scary long and he can bend over, sideways, backwards, going full speed on a bull rush better than anyone in the league.  His balance and effort matches those of the greats.  Elvis is again one of my favorite players, and barring any injury, will be in the top of the AFC West with Von Miller to the highest sack counts.  He could lead the league again, but it looks unlikely as Von will get some sacks before Elvis just because he is faster and will get to the quarterback sooner.  Elvis will be standing over him when it happens though!
Jason Hunter – Jason again is a rotational backup that will fill in for Elvis.  He has some potential but he hasn’t broken out of his shell to earn him more playing time.  Time will tell with this athlete.

For the most part, you’ll be seeing these players on a week to week basis come game days.  You may have noticed that some players were not mentioned and didn’t make it to this list.  The following are the wild card players that I just don’t know enough about to place them in a role they could play at come game day.

Sealver Siliga – DT – He was a practice squad player last year trying to break onto the opening day roster.  Not quite sure of his position on the defensive line.  Could be rotational DT, but he impressed the coaches enough to start during off season training activities (OTAs).
Ben Garland – DT/ Strong Side DE Rushing Downs – He’s a rookie and haven’t seen enough film on him to be sold on his abilities to play in the NFL yet.  He’s from Air Force  and has a chance to play for Denver after serving this great Nation for the past two years.
Mitch Unrein – DT – He was a rotational backup that did a decent job filling in as a defensive tackle.  We need to see him more to get a good feel for how he can fill in on the line.  He could be a difference maker in the run game.
Jeremy Beal – DE – Another rotational player that could see some playing time, but hasn’t consistently played to his abilities.
Malik Jackson – DE – Rookie from Tennessee that played the same position as Robert Ayers when he was in Tennessee; could be an interesting story line if he was able to become a rotational DE with Robert.
Cyril Obiozor – DE – Rookie from Texas A&M; we don’t know anything about him.  Hopefully he turns some heads during preseason to even get a shot at the practice squad.
Jamie Blatnick – DE – Rookie from Oklahoma State that we have yet to see perform in the NFL.  That fourth preseason game will help give you a glimpse into who he can be on the line.

Time will tell with these players and the Denver Broncos defensive line.  We can all hope that they turn into the Broncos depth that will play a pivotal role to win Denver another Super Bowl!

My feeling about the Denver Broncos defense is that it will be a top 10 defense overall with these players anchoring the front line.  Barring major injuries to the defensive front, it’s possible the Broncos will be able to put on a run like the Giants did this last year all because of the play of the big guys up front.  Game one against the Steelers (great quarterback and playmaker) and game two against the Falcons (promising young quarterback with a strong offensive line that will run all over you), both playoff teams from last year like the Broncos, will be big clues as how the Broncos will do this year against tough opponents on defense.  I think they can and will open with two close wins setting the stage and confidence for the rest of the season. 

Go Broncos!


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