A Time of Transition

A sincere thanks to Broncobear who edited this post and to HT, thank you both for your insight and knowledge.

20 years ago, the 1988 Denver Broncos defense was a much-maligned unit. The '88 team came off a bad season that saw them ranked 22nd out of only 28 NFL teams. The run defense wasn't very strong, yielding an average of 4.6 yards against opposing running backs. They also surrendered 22 points a game, ranking them 20th in the NFL in that category. The pass defense was solid, ranking 7th in total yards, while the run defense was ranked 27th. The Broncos needed some changes after finishing 8-8 and out of the playoffs. So Pat Bowlen fired then Defensive Coordinator Joe Collier and hired Wade Phillips to run the unit. During that transition, Mike Nolan was retained to work with Wade Phillips as the Broncos Linebackers and Special Teams coach. The same Mike Nolan was recently hired to be Denver's new Defensive Coordinator. SlowWhiteGuy's post on Mike Nolan is an in depth look at his career in coaching.

Let's look into the offseason changes and break down the roster that Phillips and Nolan built. First the holdovers, starting with Nose Tackle. Greg Kragen, was the anchor of the unit. At 263 pounds, Kragen would be considered very "lite" for today's standards.  Andre Townsend was the Right Defense End (RDE). The two Interior Linebacker (ILB) were Karl Mecklenburg and Rick Dennison with Marc Munford rotating in. The Left Outside Linebacker (LOLB) position was manned by Simon Fletcher. The Strong Safety (SS) position was locked down by the hard hitting Dennis Smith.

The starting defensive unit had some new faces as well. Alphonso Carreker came over to the Broncos from the Green Bay Packers. He was drafted in 1984 in the first round, 12th overall. Carreker was listed at 6-6 and 268 pounds. Carreker played Left Defensive End (LDE) and took the spot of Walt Bowyer. At ROLB was second year player, Michael Brooks. Brooks was a rookie in 1988 after being drafted in the 3rd round out of LSU and he made quite an impact for the '89 Broncos.  Both Cornerbacks(CB) were replaced, out was Mark Haynes and Jeremiah Castille. They were replaced by Tyrone Braxton, who in 1988 was drafted by the Broncos in the 12th round, 334th overall. After being on the sidelines for most of '88, Braxton brought his hard nose mentality to the starting lineup. At the other CB position, Wymon Henderson came to Denver after spending two years in Minnesota. He was an undrafted player out of UNLV. The final piece to the puzzle was Steve Atwater. Atwater was drafted in the 1st Round of the 1989 NFL Draft from the University of Arkansas and quickly replaced Mike Harden on the depth chart.

The 1989 Broncos defense was much improved. They finished the season ranked 3rd in total defense (yards) but were the number 1 scoring unit in the NFL. The tie that binds is Mike Nolan. Nolan was with the Broncos for their Super Bowl year in 1987, he saw the downfall of the defense in 1988 and the successful rebuilding of the unit in '89. Nolan returns to the Denver Broncos and most likely will instill some form of 3-4 defense.

Let's look at  the '89 defensive production. Karl Mecklenburg led all Broncos in tackles that season with 143 and also added 7.5 sacks. Simon Fletcher was the team leader in sacks tallying 12 and finishing 5th on the team in tackles with 105. Steve Atwater, finished the 1989 season 2nd on the team in tackles with 129 and came in 2nd in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, losing out to Derrick Thomas from the Kansas City Chiefs. Michael Brooks, in his first year as a starter had 123 tackles. Factor in Tyrone Braxton's 111 tackles and the Denver Broncos had 5 players finish with over 100 tackles.

To garner information about what the change to a 3-4 defense means to the Broncos, I have decided to interview MileHighReport's, HoosierTeacher, for some expert coaching insight. His responses are in italics.

Does the change to a 3-4 mean an overhaul in the personnel?

Somewhat. With all of the holes on defense, we'll likely see a man coverage type of CB. We have enough of a challenge fixing the front seven, so it's impossible to imagine that we'll drop Bailey and Bly (man coverage guys) for a zone pass system.

With the current SAFs, we have the flexibility to run any type of system. (Even if one buys the argument that our SAFs aren't very good, we have a current mix of coverage and run stop / big hit guys.)

We have several LBs that are likely keepers (DJ and Woodyard look obvious, possibly Larsen [if not used at FB], possibly Bailey [fine if not injured]). The nice thing about a 3-4 is that regardless of the type of LB a team has, it is pretty easy to fit a scheme around the players that exist. With a 4-3, the coach is more locked in to what he must use.But the D-line will be a major effort. Clearly the NT is at the heart of the problem for a team that didn't have much going on at DT. The available DEs (including the possibility of converting a DT or two to DE) helps, and the coaches have a lot of options because they can look at different variations of DEs in coordination with corresponding OLBs. But because the NT is so critical (and hard to obtain), it makes the overall effort to change the defense very difficult. A major help for the coaching staff is the adage that a 3-4 can feature 4 "average" LBs if the DL is very good (unlike the 4-3, where the 3 LBs must feature at least two very good players). The added LB in the 3-4 adds a lot in flexibility, but also allows the LBs as a whole to be a little less talented (even though that isn't the goal).

What clearly sticks out is the need for a quality Nose Tackle. The 1989 team had already found their NT in Kragen. A young prospect that is gaining much traction is B.J. Raji from Boston College. Here is Raji's MHR Draftivus profile . Raji offers the size and strength needed to be an effective anchor in the 3-4 Nose Tackle position. One issue with targeting Raji is the other teams ahead of Denver in the draft may select him before we get a chance. A talented Nose Tackle doesn't stay on draft boards very long. Another option gaining a lot of attention is Raji's teammate, Ron Brace.  Look for Denver to try find the staple of their new defense.

What about Safety? We all remember Steve Atwater and Dennis Smith. They were both dominant hitters who made receivers pay for coming over the middle and running backs tumble for finding the hole. This clip of Steve Atwater blasting Christian "The Nigerian Nightmare" Okoye is proof of how Atwater used to sacrifice his body and simply crush his opponent.

Atwater crushes Okoye

Do we have the safeties we need for this change to a 3-4?

How does the current lack of a physical Safety affect the 3-4's run stopping ability? Specifically is a "Steve Atwater Type" safety more of a need in a 3-4 than any other style defense?

That really depends on a lot of factors.  If we run a 3-4 that is more geared towards stopping the run, we won't need to prioritize run stopping SAFs so much.  Also, regardless of system, if we just have a very good group of personnel at the front 7, we also diminish the need for run stopping SAFs.

The ideal that a defensive coordinator goes for (in most systems) is to have a front seven that is consistently able to shut down the run so that both SAFs can play coverage and prevent big pass plays.  Very few systems actually scheme for having a run stopping SAF.

Another variable to consider is whether our LBs are going to be zone or man oriented, and how aggressive the system will be.  If we blitz a lot, we may need a SAF that can pick up the run (since a RB can often get a lot of yards if the play is a run and the defense blitzes).  If we don't man the RB (because our ILBs are playing zones), we may also need a SAF that trades a little bit of coverage ability for the ability to bring down a big RB.

Ok, so very few systems scheme for a specific type of safety and ultimately a dominant front seven is ideal. One safety that would have been nice to land this year was Taylor Mays, who decided to return to the University of Southern California. Taylor Mays plays with the kind of tenacity and brings the same attitude that Steve Atwater brought to the Broncos defense. Another safety moving up on some draft boards is Louis Delmas. MHR member Donbok1 did a fantastic piece on Delmas. Out of Western Michigan scouting reports say that Delmas is all over the field and always near the action. The type of defender who can play well against the run and pass. Other options in the draft include Patrick Chung or Rashad Johnson. 

At Cornerback, the '89 Broncos added two new players, but the 2009 team should be set, for one more year at least. Champ Bailey is still great and Dre Bly, if used properly, is still one of the better CB's in the game.  Josh Bell looked impressive in his rookie campaign and may be a factor in the future as a Nickelback.

MHR member, FirstFan, reminds us during his in-season special, In The Trenches, the front seven is where it all starts. So what about our front seven, are the LB's and Defensive Lineman really that bad? The '89 Broncos had new additions in Alphonso Carreker at LDE and Michael Brooks cracked the starting lineup at ROLB in his second year with the Broncos, maybe along the same path as Wesley Woodward? Is there anything that can be salvaged? Back to HT...

Are there any current players that excite you, as a coach, with a focus on Carlton Powell playing NT, Jarvis Moss and Elvis Dumervil, perhaps Spencer Larson or Wesley Woodyard?

I'm excited about seeing something new, and I'm excited because I expect some elements of the Broncos to improve for the better. But at this point, I'm not yet excited about certain prospects because it's still too early to tell what's going to happen.For one, for all of the speculation surrounding the defense, we aren't yet completely sure the defense will even go 3-4 (though I would concede it looks likely). The draft will give us players to get excited about, and we don't yet know what's coming there. We also don't know what will happen in the FA market.Here is what I'm predicting so far (and I'm not a good fortune teller, so bear with me). I see Woodyard as a good prospect for ROLB, with DJ next to him at RILB. Wodyard has the speed and energy to play ROLB in just about any 3-4, and DJ is athletic enough to blind side most right handed QBs, but powerful enough to play ILB (he did well at MLB in a 4-3). But Woodyard might just as easily line up at LOLB. It's very hard to guess.Powell is a mystery to me. He didn't play in his rookie year, so I have no idea what he brings to the table as a pro. He had a better chance of making the team in a 4-3. In a 3-4, he either has to be one heck of a player to make NT, or has to be explosive enough to play DE in a 3-4. He's also a year behind in development.Doom would fit a Phillips or Lebeau system nicely, but could struggle in a more physical Fairbanks Bullough. Moss is underrated (in my opinion) and might have surprised folks in his second year on the field in a 4-3, but in a 3-4 he faces a tougher challenge. Ekuban has the explosiveness (and the physical play) to be a good DE in any type of 3-4, but his time is limited with his age.Larson would be a good fit at an ILB position, but he's also a solid FB. Our running game would benefit with Larson at FB, and would improve the chances that Hillis moves from FB to RB. Larsen will contribute well in either position.I sound like a broken record, but my focus (and my hopes) are almost entirely based on what happens at NT. I really think a sound NT will improve our defense from the last few years. It will be hard to see solid play from the LBs (and by extension, the rest of the defense) if the NT position isn't filled with a superb talent. (For the record, I don't think that talent is, nor should it be, Haynesworth).

We also don't know who will stay or go (for instance, Boss might stay because he is fast and helps to ensure a good contract extension for Champ, but he might go because he is injury prone or doesn't fit our new coach's vision for the team).

A final point to ponder (making predictions harder) is the ability of the coaching staff to move a DE to OLB, or even and OLB to DE.I'm excited about the defense for '09, but not yet about any players. Let's see what happens in the draft and in FA to get a better picture.

The Linebacker position has many possibilities. Elvis Dumervil is an intriguing prospect in the 3-4 outside LB position due to his natural pass rushing skills. He will have to be used correctly however and as HT pointed out he could struggle in the wrong system. Dumervil has said before that he naturally likes to play with his hand on the ground as a Defensive End, so if he does move to LB where he will have to stand up, expect a learning curve at the bear minimum.

Another intriguing prospect for the 3-4 is Jarvis Moss, who is roughly the same height but is heavier than the '89 version of Simon Fletcher. Jarvis has been a bit of an underachiever thus far in his career. Reports out of college imply that Denver may have misused Moss all along. This information is from a scouting report done by the Pittsburgh Steelers who inquired about his ability to play standing up...

"I told them I’m up for whatever (position)," Moss said. "Whatever my need is called and whatever is going to help the team win, I’m ready for it."

Had he ever dropped into coverage as a Gator?

"My position was called ‘The Fox,’ where I would drop into coverage during our fire zones," he said. "I did some when I was working out in Orlando. We did some linebacker-specific drills. It’s something I enjoy. My body moves well and I can run well and I’m really athletic, so it’s something I really enjoy. I’m looking forward to it if it’s my calling."

A scouting report from

"Moss has a tremendous upside and playmaker potential as a pass rusher off the edge.. He displays a quick burst off the edge, which allows him to set up wide of the tackle and easily shed the block to disrupt the quarterback. His quickness and agility allows him to slide down the line of scrimmage in pursuit of the ball carrier. Moss has the ability to drop into coverage based in athleticism and natural instincts. He will clearly need to bulk up to compete as an every down defensive end at the next level. Moss also lacks the upper body strength of most defensive linemen, thus often has difficulty shedding offensive linemen once engaged. He needs to develop additional pass rushing moves and avoid his dependency to beat his opponents on sheer speed alone. Moss is probably better suited to move to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme to showcase his athleticism and play making abilities"

Multiple scouting reports from the 2007 NFL Combine implied that Moss showed fluid hips and great movement in coverage, he was labeled a "tweener". Perhaps this change to a 3-4 may be like adding a first round pick from 2007, it was just on lay away. HT clearly said in his response that he thought Moss was "underrated" but in a 3-4 defense "could face a tougher challenge". Clarity is needed...

HT would you please elaborate?

Here is my reasoning (and I'm glad that you asked). I think the jury is still out.

First, I made a point of saying he is underrated because I think a lot of MHR readers don't see the potential in Moss that I do. I think Moss will continue to improve and has the chance to be a top tier DE.

But the reason I think his chances decrease with Denver in a 3-4 go deeper than that. I agree with you that Moss is a 3-4 guy. But his track record so far isn't great, and in a 3-4 the DEs have even less chance to make a name for themselves. This is because much of their work is blocking for the LBs instead of making tackles and sacks on their own. A 3-4 DE is often an unappreciated position (even though it is important). Given Moss's injury last year, and his lack of "flash" this year, he may not get the chance he deserves. But in a 4-3 (and with another year of experience) I would expect him to show a lot more and to gain more notice.

Another point is that he's going to have to make some adjustments to how he plays his position. He's going to play DE a little differently than he played DE in a 4-3, and their may be an adjustment period. For a guy with only one year on the field, it may be asking a lot.

Between Dumervil, Moss, Jamie Winborn, Wesley Woodyard, D.J. Williams and Boss Bailey the OLB position looks stacked with capable athletes. Dumervil and Moss as the pass rushers while Woodyard, Williams and Bailey are good coverage guys. Boss Bailey's injury history does make him a question mark.  The ILB position is more in flux, we may have the answers currently in the versatile D.J. Williams and Spencer Larson. Both seem able to play anywhere on the field but the need for size may be too strong to pass up if a big ILB is available in the draft. If you add a young player like the 260 pound Rey Maualuga into the mix the Inside linebacking core is suddenly looking like a boon and not a burden. At the very least we should have good competition and great depth. To learn more about Rey Maualuga here is his MHR Draftivus profile.

Are these LB's interchangeable, do we have an excess at this point? To answer that I have to ask HT one more question...

In the 3-4 do the OLB interact with each other, are they interchangeable or do they each have their own responsibilities and therefor have an individual unique skill set.

For the most part, a LB will play his own position consistently.  Part of this is because of the complexity of pro-level playbooks, and part of it is the importance of specializing in what each position is responsible for. 

However, a fun aspect of the 3-4 is the ability to build plays around the existing personnel.  The 4-3 has the disadvantage of requiring certain rigid skill sets at each LB position, and those must fit a system.  But in the 3-4, a coach still has a system, but with the major difference that it easier to fiddle around with the system because the higher number of LBs allow the coach to be less rigid in play book development.

For instance, in a 4-3 my LBs may have certain responsibilities that are applicable to most situations I will face in a given game.  But in the 3-4, I can use a unique combination of coverage or run stoppers (or even gap fillers) to mix and match for my own special take on the overall system I always run.  For that reason, it is harder for an offensive coordinator (and the offense) to get a good hold on what I am going to do.  My team may run the same Fairbanks Bullough system that the team in New England does (for instance), but I do it with a different mix of player types at each LB position.

Using a unique combination of run stoppers and coverage guys shows that a variety of LB's may be very useful in improving the front seven. Also interesting is the aspect that the 3-4 defense has the ability to build plays around the existing personnel.  For more knowledge from HoosierTeacher see the MHR University piece on position responsibilities.

These are exciting times for Bronco Nation. The return of Mike Nolan to the Mile High City will perhaps open a window in history that may just help us see our future. We have some interesting prospects in Elvis Dumervil and Jarvis Moss, versatile players like Spencer Larson and D.J. Williams and a variety of skill sets in the secondary. With a glaring need on the Defensive line at the NT position we still have our work cut out and need to add a few new pieces to the new puzzle. Rest assured Bronco Nation, this time of transition has been done before and has been proven to work.


This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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