Friday, July 13, 2012

Denver Broncos Defensive Linebackers, The Who and The Where

In the last two posts about defense, I explained a basic concept of the 4-3 Defense, and then I lined out the defensive line positions and which Broncos could fill those positions.  In this post we’ll look at the Denver Broncos linebacker roles and the personnel that may fill these roles of the 4-3 defense. 

The following is the typical alignment of the 4-3 defense as shown previously.  The bold positions are the defensive positions we will discuss in this post specifically.  As a general note; the Broncos back-up linebackers are relatively young and inexperienced so the amount of information available on these players is limited.

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

Restating the positions across the defensive line and the linebackers, 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 measureables, 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.

Overview of Linebackers

The linebackers in a 4-3 defense are typically smaller and more athletic than most of the defensive line.  Though it isn’t uncommon for a linebacker to become a defensive end for a play or visa versa.  The linebackers are traditionally responsible for filling the gaps created by the offensive line for running lanes as well as assisting in coverage of the quarterback, running back, full back, and tight ends on passing routes.  All positions are critical for a 4-3 defense to succeed as most of the coverage and run stopping responsibilities rest on the backers to avoid big gains made by the offense.

Linebacker’s need to make more reads than most defensive linemen because a wrong read will leave a linebacker many yards out of position to make a play.  They need to react to a running play and play their gap responsibilities, react to a passing play and move to their coverage responsibilities, and not get fooled by a play-action pass where the offense looks as though the play is a run (to get the linebackers to make a wrong read), but it is then faked and becomes a pass (to where the linebacker should have been with coverage responsibility).

Sam Backer

The Sam has outside run responsibilities and typically the flat passing pattern coverage responsibilities.  The Sam backer needs to stop an outside run if the running back is to run an off tackle running play or a sweep to the right or strong side of the offensive line.  He needs to be able to hold his ground from the tight end to the side line to make a play on these plays. 

In the scenario that the running back is called to run an inside power run between the right guard and the right tackle following the left guard and full back, but the defensive end and tackle stop this initial play, the running back will either cutback across the face of the defense into the arms of the weak side defensive tackle or bounce outside to the right into the flat outside of the tight end.  The Sam backer needs to be at that position in the flat to stop this run from making ground up field.  The Sam can either tackle him at the line or run the back horizontally off the field to the sidelines and out of bounds. 

On passing downs, the Sam backer must read the play and watch tight end and the running back and either cover them man to man or cover a zone where an anticipated throw will occur in the flat (the area between the tight end and the sideline, typically 5-8 yards deep) depending on the defensive call.  It is also the Sam’s responsibility to mimic the running back on a strong side screen play to make a tackle near the line of scrimmage in some defensive play calls and scenarios.

The Sam backer should be about 240 lbs and have the speed to get into the flat and help cover smaller faster running backs.  He needs to have average coverage skills and better than average tackling ability.

Denver Broncos that fit this position:
Von Miller – Von is the starting strong side or Sam linebacker.  He had some hiccups in his rookie season getting caught pursing the quarterback on an impromptu blitz and not getting to the flat assignment to stop an outside run or a pass.  He was actually benched in the San Diego game early in the season because he missed some crucial assignments of this type.  If there is anywhere that Miller needs to improve, it’s his reading and coverage abilities.  This will come this year with a full off season to work on it.  Remember that last year he didn’t have an off season because of the lock out, but he was able to play well without having this part of his game refined.  Not to mention his pass rushing abilities and the threat he posses as a blitz to opposing quarterbacks will make it easier for him to cover the flat.  Look for him to improve in this area and force opposing teams to audible out of outside runs and screens to his side while adding tight ends and running backs to assist in blocking him off the line of scrimmage.
Mike Mohamad – I haven’t seen much of Mike over the last two years.  He was drafted in the same draft class as Von Miller.  He will need to improve see some playing time on obvious passing downs when Von moves down to DE to rush the passer.

Mike Backer

The middle linebacker or Mike backer, is the run defender and quarterback of the defense.  The Mike must take blocks by the full back or pulling left (weak side) offensive guard on a power run play, disengage these blocks, and take down the ball carrier in pursuit of a hole created by the lead block (See how Ray Lewis plays.  Ray Lewis is the best Mike backer to every play the game.  He can blow up and shed blocks to nail the ball carrier better than anyone in recent history.). 

Not only does the Mike need to be flawless in run defense, he needs to realign the defense based on the offensive alignment and personnel.  If the offense audibles or shifts personnel into another formation before the snap, he is responsible for making sure the defense responds with the correct defensive calls and alignments.  If you have a chance to watch the 2011 Pro Bowl, Ray Lewis is the starting Mike backer and you can hear him shouting out orders at the beginning of every play making sure he communicates the responsibilities and calls with the entire defense just like a quarterback does!  The last thing you want as a middle linebacker is a play to result in a big gain from a mismatch that you could have prevented if you communicated the correct defensive alignment call.  If the Mike backer quarterbacking responsibility is ignored or poorly communicated, the offense can create quick match-up problems either in the run game or passing game that will result in a big gain for the offense.  Remember, the offense shifts for a reason; to create match up problems on the defense.  If this shift can be negated by a smart Mike, it makes the defenses job much easier.

On passing downs, the Mike either has the quarterback spy, running back or short or long throws over the middle zone responsibility.  Brian Urlacher, Mike backer for the Chicago Bears had QB spy responsibility on Tim Tebow last year when the Bears played the Broncos.  He kept Tebow from breaking any long running plays when he tucked the ball and ran from a pass play.  This hampered the Denver offense as most of it relied on Tebow’s long, game breaking scrambles in the time of need.

The Mike needs to be smart, big, strong, and be able to disengage blocks to make a play on the ball through power or technique.

Denver Broncos that fit this position:
Joe Mays – Who?  That’s right Joe Mays.  I knew Joe was going to be a starting middle linebacker two seasons ago when he substituted during a San Diego Chargers game for an injured Bronco.  He made several excellent tackles on the ball carrier after shedding blockers at the point of attack during that game.  For the game he was in the top three with tackles and stopped the run reliably.  For the first time in his career in the NFL, Joe was the starting Mike backer this last season and was one of the best in the league at stopping the run.  He wasn’t talked about too much by the media because he isn’t a loud player and he was overshadowed by the great play of Von Miller and others on the defense.  Joe was a free agent this last off season, but the Broncos didn’t let him run away to Indianapolis or the New Orleans for more money.  They smartly and rightly locked him up for the next few seasons and paid him like a starting middle linebacker.  Acquiring Joe Mays from the Eagles was one of the smarter personnel moves by the last Broncos head office of Josh McDaniels and Brian Xanders.  Joe’s a strong and physical guy that seems to be a smart quarterback of the defense.  Look for him to improve his tackling technique and gain close to 90 tackle this year while barking out orders from the Mike position this season.
Nate IrvingDenver drafted Nate in last year’s draft class and he hasn’t seen the field much over last season.  Mike backer is one of the hardest positions to learn and without an entire off season of coaching, this slower learning curve is expected.  We may be able to see if he’s improved this off season when he is substituted into the game to give Joe a break.

Will Backer

The weak side linebacker or Will backer is the coverage linebacker in the 4-3 defense.  He’s going to have the best coverage skills and hopefully be the linebacker that can match up man to man on the receiving tight end of the opponents.  In the running game, his responsibility will be to seal the left outside edge of the line.  He is also responsible for cutback runs and misdirection runs to the weak side.  A misdirection run is when the offensive line and rest of the offensive backfield moves to one side on a play and then the running back runs to the other side in the opposite direction of the flow.

Will backers need to have skills like a defensive back.  These skills are quickness in back peddling coverage, be able to turn their hips with ease out of the pack peddle into a run break on the ball, and have closing speed out of their back peddle to make a play on the ball while it’s in the air on it’s way to their receiver.  The Will also needs to have the size to take on a full back and stop the run.  The measureables of the Will is typically around 225 lbs, about 6’ 0”, and run the forty around 4.6s. 

On running plays the Will needs to be ready to help the weak side defensive line by occupying the outside gaps off tackle and be ready to apply angled pursuit on runs that break through the middle of the line and middle backer.  If the Will can read the play correctly and get to their assignment quickly, this can help the defensive line get to the quarterback because some of the passing routes will be covered immediately thus forcing the QB to move through his progressions which takes precious time.

Denver Broncos that fit this position:
D.J. Williams – Williams has been a starting linebacker for the Broncos for the last 9 years and continues to play solid in most instances.  He’s facing at least a 6 game suspension this year, if not longer based on an outcome of a DUI hearing later this year as it will be a repeated offense.  The Broncos need to find a new long term solution for the Will backer.  D.J. may be a solution towards the end of the year and he may be able to add depth to the linebacker core as the Broncos make a run for it in the playoffs, be he shouldn’t be around after a year or two.
Wesley Woodyard – Woodyard was an undrafted free agent when he first stepped foot onto the Broncos Dove Valley complex.  He made the team as a special teams standout and has been a quality backup and special teams captain for the last couple of years.  (Side note: He bought a Black Camaro when he first made the team; quite the nice ride.  He’s also an accomplished Brian Dawkins actor.  Search for his skit on YouTube with him playing Brian Dawkins, the X-Factor.)  Wesley could be the answer the Broncos are looking for to replace D.J.. He was also a free agent this last off season, but the Broncos didn’t let him get far.  Chances are if Wesley can fend off the younger linebackers from the last two draft classes to start this season as Will backer.  He will only get better with this extra experience.  Look for him to be the Will starter come September 9th against the Steelers.

The remaining linebackers are all rookies and we haven’t seen enough of them on film or in the books to understand where they will play or how well they will perform.  Here’s the quick list of the remaining linebackers.

Elliot Coffey – Rookie from Baylor that has the measureables of a Will backer.
Jerry Franklin – Rookie from Arkansas that weight of a Sam or Mike backer.
Steven Johnson – Rookie from Kansas with the size of a Sam or Will backer.
Danny Trevathan – Rookie drafted in the fourth round this last year from Kentucky.  He was known as a tackling machine and could work his way into the rotation as a Mike backer if he puts on a little weight.  He has the knack for being around the ball.  Danny will need to make the team the way Wesley did; being a special teams standout.

Many things have been said of the Denver Broncos weaknesses on the defense this year.  Most media types believe the defensive line is the Broncos weakness on defense because of a lack of talent at DT.  I believe it is actually the linebacking core that will be the weakness of the Denver Broncos defense.  The starting linebackers are solid, but there is little to no depth on the Denver roster.  The Broncos should hope that some members from the last two draft classes step up and can contribute as quality back-ups.  Otherwise, one injury could really expose a large weakness in the Broncos roster.  With that being said, there is enough youth in the linebackers, the Broncos can hope that these guys stick around and gain experience and be the next hot linebacker group in the league for the 4-3 defense.

Go Broncos!


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