In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple months and deprived of the latest going-ons of the Denver Broncos, they’re switching from an even 4-3 front base defense to an odd 3-4. The primary reason being that the team hired Wade Phillips to be the defensive coordinator and the 3-4 is the scheme he deploys.
Any time a defense switches their base scheme, it creates apprehension in the fanbase (to varying degrees). Whether or not the team has the personnel to fit the new scheme is usually the biggest mitigating factor.
However, the Broncos are well poised to make the switch, at least at the starting spots. The team has two natural 5-Tech defensive ends in the 6-foot-5, 293 pound Malik Jackson and 6-foot-5, 290 pound Derek Wolfe. Phillips’ defense traditionally calls for an “undersized” 0-Tech nose tackle—one who can play one-gap defense and utilize their athleticism to penetrate the backfield. At 6-foot-2, 313 pounds, Sylvester Williams fits that bill.
Behind these three starters on the defensive line, the Broncos have two well-suited players who can be part of the rotation, but beyond them, the scheme fit is poor. Marvin Austin can play nose tackle or defensive end. Newcomer Vance Walker can play anywhere up front. The Broncos let Terrance Knighton and Mitch Unrein walk in free agency, and were it not for that, the team would have the requisite depth to feel confident.
The Broncos will have to look to the draft for depth, however, because the backup defensive ends left on the roster are too small for the 3-4 and project as outside linebackers in 2015. Guys like Quanterus Smith, Lerentee McCray, Shaquil Barrett and Kenny Anunike will battle for the backup OLB spots.
At linebacker, the Broncos are set to transition well to the 3-4. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware will become mayhem-creating animals at outside linebacker under Phillips. Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall, although a little on the light side, will handle the load at the two inside linebacker spots.
Head coach Gary Kubiak recently talked about the team’s plan to move to a 3-4 defense at the annual Owners Meetings in Tempe, AZ and why he’s confident it’ll serve the Broncos best.
“We actually started in a 4-3 [scheme] in Houston,” Kubiak opined. “I’ve become a believer. I think when your roster is set for a 3-4 defense you’ve obviously got a lot more athletes as far as guys that can run. Linebackers on your football team—you’re a little bit heavier in that position. I think it helps you [with] special teams. Does that mean you’re always going to be one way? No. Sometimes head coaching, maybe it’s a coordinator that you’re chasing to try and put on your staff, and you feel good about him and he’s a 4-3 guy. But I know from a roster standpoint, I think the 3-4 gives you a lot more athletic guys number-wise at the linebacker position that can help you be a better special-teams unit.”
Trevathan and Marshall each have excellent in-game speed and instincts and with Miller and Ware, the defense will be replete with explosive athletes up front. It will certainly create more opportunities to attack and create turnovers. And more linebackers on-roster certainly helps the special teams’ capabilities.
The Broncos have plenty of bodies behind Trevathan and Marshall at inside linebacker, but none of them instill a lot of confidence. Corey Nelson flashed as a rookie and Lamin Barrow and Todd Davis have potential, but you don’t want guys like Steven Johnson and Reggie Walker starting many games at ILB, even though they’re veterans.
The Broncos secondary is one of the best in the NFL, sending three of the four starters to the Pro Bowl in 2014. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, Jr., as cover artists, will be able to take advantage of the pressure that Phillips and the front seven will put on the quarterback.
T.J. Ward will likely be used mostly in the box, where he’s best suited, rather than in coverage a whole lot, because he struggled in that area in 2014. At free safety, we could see a combination of newcomer Darian Stewart, David Bruton, Bradley Roby and maybe even Kayvon Webster battling it out.
As for depth, the Broncos have plenty at cornerback, but Ward, Bruton and Stewart are the only pure safeties the team has on-roster. Roby and Webster could shine in the role, but as of this moment, they represent an unknown quantity.
It must be pointed out that in today's NFL, where teams spend most of their snaps in nickel sub-packages to defend against the pass, some might question whether the base scheme deployed is still relevant. Kubiak spoke to that earlier this week.
"If you’re a 3-4 team and go to nickel and play a four-man front," Kubiak said, "you might play more four-man front than three-man front during the course of the year...You have to have a lot of guys that can swing, so to speak and put their hand down. [LB] DeMarcus [Ware] can put his hand down and play up. Von [Miller] can do that...That’s part of the deal nowadays. It just depends on who you’re playing. You start with your division, so you know exactly how you’ll be played in your division. You’re probably going to play a lot more nickel with San Diego and Kansas City. Outside of our division this year, we’re playing, what do we have the AFC North and the NFC North? I know the AFC North you may play against a lot of base. You may play a lot of 3-4. You never know.”
It's a good thing the Broncos have a well-stocked secondary. They're right at home in nickel. Behind Ware and Miller the Broncos have plenty of young high-ceiling players, as mentioned above. But on the defensive line and at inside linebacker, there are more questions than answers. What I take from this is that the Broncos have the starting personnel to profitably make the switch to the 3-4 defense, but it’s the lack of depth and scheme fit, behind the starters, that concerns me.
However, John Elway has the benefit of 10 selections in the upcoming draft. He’ll use many of them to bring in scheme appropriate players to push the guys behind the starters. It’s unlikely that Elway will use each selection on a player, because there are only 53 spots on the final roster. More likely, he’ll use the team’s original picks as capital to trade up when the situation calls for it on draft day, because compensatory selections cannot be traded.
On paper, the Broncos are poised to make the switch to the 3-4 with smashing success. But to assuage the concerns of many, they’ll need to upgrade their depth before the season kicks off this fall.
Towards the end of the video below, John Elway talks about his belief that the Broncos have the personnel to go "both ways", meaning either 4-3 or 3-4 defense, under Wade Phillips.
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