Over the past few months I have repeatedly made the comment, "stop thinking 3-4 and think 5-2." That's a vague statement; what does it really mean? Let me describe the evolution of my own thinking before getting into what I meant by that statement. Last January I went over the state of Denver's defense and my thoughts about our needs here, here, and here. Once it was announced that we would be shifting to a 3-4 defense one of the biggest question marks I had was what to do with tweeners like Doom and Moss who didn't fit well in a traditional 3-4 scheme. Then we signed Reid, another tweener and drafted Ayers yet another tweener. Word from OTAs was that Crowder was also being tried out at LB with the rest of the tweeners. What the heck were the Broncos thinking? Then I got some insight - the Broncos weren't planning on a 3-4, at least not what most people think of when they think of the 3-4. They were going to run a variation of the old 5-2 for their base - at least that seemed to be a useful way to think about it.
The Oklahoma 52
In the old days of football players played both ways. Defensive formations were a mirror image of the offense using the same players. Most offenses used 7 players on the line and 4 backs so most defenses had 7 players on the line and 4 defensive backs. When teams were running the single-wing this worked out well enough. Then along came the T-formation.
The T-formation introduced significantly more fakes and misdirection. Teams were finding that their defensive line, especially the interior linemen, were getting caught inside and long gains to the outside became more frequent. Bud Wilkinson, head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners had a solution. Wilkinson had his two defensive guards stand up and back off the line to back up the defensive line. The modern linebacker was born. With his new 5-2 defense Wilkinson's Sooners ran off a 31-game winning streak from 1948 to 1950. After two off years they then ran off a 47-game winning streak from 1953 to 1957. Over an 11 year period the Sooners went 107-8-2. To put this is perspective, no other team in NCAA history has ever won more than 35 games.
Wilkinson had a defensive assistant, Chuck Fairbanks, who went on to become head coach of the Sooners and later head coach of the NE Patriots in the NFL. Fairbanks made further adjustments to the system. First he had his defensive ends stand up so they could read the backfield better and drop off into coverage. Later he replaced the DEs with LBs and the modern 3-4 was born. Even today many Division 2 and HS teams run variations on the Oklahoma 5-2.
So Denver's gonna run a high school defense?
No we did that last year. I don't actually think the Broncos will run a 5-2 defense. But it provides a useful metaphor for looking at their off-season moves. And it's not without precedent. When Joe Collier first instituted the 3-4 in Denver he was blessed with an amazing linebacker corps - Jackson, Swenson, Gradishar, and Rizzo may have been the best linebacker corps ever assembled. Even with this amazing group, Collier didn't blitz that often. Primarily he relied on his D-line, Alzado, Carter, Chavous, Smith, etc, to bring the heat; and they did.
Eventually the studs that made up the Orange Crush succumbed to age, injuries, or other distractions. Collier, always the innovator had to adjust. As he looked to adjust he found two defensive linemen, Karl Mecklenburg and Simon Fletcher. Both were great athletes, great defenders, though undersized for the D-line. Collier turned both into "linebackers" but not just ordinary linebackers - hybrid linebackers. He would move them around, line them up on the line, back them off, use them to rush the passer or drop them into coverage. They disrupted the defense while Jackson, Ryan, Dennison, Brooks, Croel, would race around making tackles. Collier found a way to put 5 linemen on the field with only 2 true linebackers and create havoc for opposing teams. An active participant in this defensive madness was then Linebackers Coach Mike Nolan - the current DC.
Thanks for the History Lesson But So What
Well while most observers have been wondering what Denver was going to do with all those misfit tweeners, the Broncos have been out acquiring more instead of picking up the linebackers they really needed. Why? Well maybe they they don't think they need more linebackers. What if the Broncos want tweeners? For a moment consider what a base 5-2 defense would look like: NT - Fields and maybe Thomas or Powell; DT they have Peterson, Thomas, Clemons, McBean, etc. Inside LB they have Davis, DJ, Larsen, Woodyard. And on the outside they have these hybrid DE/LBs - Doom, Moss, Crowder, Reid, Ayers. As a base defense that's close to a ton of run stopping beef combined with some serious speed. In a pass rushing scenario there's some major protection problems that Arid just won't solve.
Base defense - what's that?
Prior to the 70s NFL teams played the same 11 players on defense, in the same formation, for almost the entire game. This was changed largely by George Allen and Tom Landry. Allen was the defensive coordinator for the Bears and later head coach for the Rams and the Redskins. Allen noticed that opposing offenses would often find themselves in obvious passing situations. Knowing that the opponent had to pass, Allen would bring in a 5th defensive back or "nickel" back. (He actually stole this idea form the Eagles, but since Allen was the first to make it an integral part of his defensive system he is generally given credit for it).
When Allen coached the Redskins, Tom Landry would face his nickel defense at least twice a year. Landry countered the nickel with the Shotgun formation and 3 wide receivers. Allen countered with the Dime back, etc. Soon every team in the league was using nickel and dime packages. By the late 80s situational substitutions, special player packages and formations were the rule. Some teams, like the Bengals and Bills resorted to no-huddle offenses to keep these situational defenses from being deployed.
Today, situational defenses are still the norm. Most teams have packages for obvious run situations, obvious passing situations, red-zones, etc. Still, every team has a basic package that they tend to resort to more than others, their base package or base defense. Teams will use their base defense on 1st and 10 or other essentially balanced down-and-distance combinations such as 2nd and 5-to-7 yards to go. But when discussing the Broncos, or any other team, it's helpful to remember that teams only use their base defense about 40% of the time. The rest of the time they are in one of their specialty packages. Hence a 4-3 defense may look like a 3-4 in certain situations. If you watched closely, the Steelers were often in a defense that looked like a 4-3 many times during the Super Bowl.
So Where Does Boss Play?
Actually I wouldn't be surprised if Boss winds up on the PUP list, but that's not the point. With the 5-2 concept I envision, the Broncos can show a bewildering array of different fronts with creative substitutions. Back the DE/LBs off the line and you have a traditional 3-4 look. Pull either of the DE/LBs for a true LB and you have a 4-3. Pull the NT or a DT and you have a different 4-3 look. The combinations are almost endless. Who does the offense block in pass protection? Add in some zone blitzes (Thomas already has 2 INTs in his career) and the challenges become even greater. Suddenly all those tweeners aren't misfits - they're assets.
When you think about it, the very moves the MSM has criticised start to make sense.
A special thanks to hoosierteacher for his assistance with this article.