I'm making a pretty bold pronouncement. I do not believe that the Denver Broncos are running a true 3-4 defense at all, despite what the mainstream media may be reporting. I believe that the Broncos are running a 5-2, and I believe this for more than one reason. Below the fold, I will explain why I believe this to be true, and I will also explain some concepts about the 5-2 and also the system that seems to be emerging in Denver. I will also cover counters, as well as personnel considerations.
I have also received a lot of requests for information about the 5-2 under other posts. If I've left out a question, please accept my apologies and post it under this story. I will do my best to get to every question.
Defining the 5-2
Allow me to borrow from a comment I made under another post...
There are two ways to look at how a player is defined. Coaches will argue this point until they are blue in the face.
1. A player is strictly defined by where he lines up. If Peyton Hillis lines up in the slot, he is a slot receiver – period.
2. A player is defined by the position he is best suited for and defined by the team as. If Hillis lines up in the slot he is "a HB lined up in the slot".
My training placed me in the second camp, but there are very good coaches who were brought up either way.
Now back to the 5-2. My point was that, regardless of which school of though you come from, the Broncos are running a 5-2. Here’s why….
If you belong to the first camp – we have five players on the line. By definition, five on the line is automatically a 5-2.
If you belong to the second camp (mine) – we are using true DEs at DE, NOT OLBs! If we were some kind of 3-4 with the OLBs cheating up to the line, it might be a trickier analysis. But we aren’t! We’re not training guys like Elvis Dumervil or Tim Crowder to play at OLB at all! They’re playing their natural role as DEs on the line! (If Doom plays like an OLB, it is only because he’ll get dropped back in a zone blitz, or because the formation changes).
For me to see this unfolding and to realize what was going on was like a light turning on. In another words, no matter how you slice it (and reasonable people will slice it in different ways), this HAS to be a 5-2.
Ever notice how some 3-4 formations have both LBs come up to the line? Well, two coaches could reasonably debate if the formation has become a 5-2, or a modified 3-4. But in our case, those two outside guys on the line are DEs to start with (such as Elvis Dumervil).
I will say that Denver's own site is calling the DEs "OLBs" on the depth chart. By what standard, I don't know. Perhaps the use of terms like "defensive guard" would raise more eyebrows in the media than the team really needs.
Across the bottom, from left to right - RDE, RDG, NT, LDG, LDE
The outermost players, left to right - #2 CB, #1 CB
Behind the line left to right - WLB, SLB
And in the deep secondary, left to right - FS, SS
What should be new to many football watchers are the terms "Right and Left Defensive Guards". You see them in the above diagram on either side of the Nose Tackle.
Note that the two LBs are labeled "weak side" and "strong side". They can collectively be referred to as Linebackers or Inside Linebackers (even though there are no true "outside" linebackers in the formation). However, when referring to them individually, it is correct to call each one either "weak side" or "strong side", "Left" or "Right", or (less commonly in the 5-2, but still done) LILB and LOLB. They would not be correctly called "middle linebackers" in this formation.
The 5-2 is common at the HS level (along with the 4-4), and some colleges use it on obvious passing downs. The 5-2 is older than both the 4-3 and 3-4, but faded as passing came to the fore. With the better athleticism of modern players, and with schemes developed since the creation of the 3-4, the 5-2 can be a good modern formation as a base against both pass and run. In Denver's case, elite DBs take care of the passing game, while the five linemen provide a daunting rush. This is the balance to the natural run-stopping bias of the 5-2.
Let's start with the obvious. There are five linemen, so more gaps can be controlled to prevent the running game. This should aid the inside run defense of any team very much.
Second, in a case like Denver's (where D-Line talent was considered lacking this year), there is compensation for poor line play by adding a D-Lineman, and the LB corps is narrowed down to the few LBs who are truly good at what they do. This was a good move to adapt for the existing players Denver has now. Let me elaborate.
The rule of thumb for DL / OL matchups is that one defensive lineman has the ability of 1.5 offensive linemen (because of rules dictating what each may do). In a 3-4 (defense 4.5 against offense 5), the DL must try to force double teams, and will try to blitz a fourth player on most plays. In a 4-3, the rush is fairly even (defense 6 against offense 5), so blitzes aren't required as much. But in a 5-2 (defense 7.5 against offense 5), the pressure is tremendous. This doesn't require skill as much on the DL, since they now have pure numbers. That is why the formation complements Denver's DL from last year. Because of this, some players on the bubble (like Jarvis Moss) may have another shot at looking good.
The pass rush is more effective. While it doesn't possess the deceptive blitz schemes of a 3-4 or even 4-3, the existing pass rush should be strong enough to disregard the need for much blitzing from any other positions. Opposing offenses that don't run quick pass plays will have trouble against Denver.
Simplicity is a nice hallmark of the 5-2. Everything is straightforward; five guys rush, two guys (the LBs) play either zone or man (more likely zone), and the DBs play their own game.
All formations have weaknesses. The major weaknesses of the 5-2 are in two parts.
First, the pass rush needs to be effective because there are less LBs to cover zones in the center of the mid-range field. This weakness can be over the middle or in the seams - wherever the LBs aren't.
Second, while the 5 D-Linemen up front are a good barrier against the run, a failure to tackle can lead to a larger gain (because there are less LBs to make a second contact).
Denver Personnel and Considerations
I'm not going to cover every player, but will instead make a few notes on certain players.
Elvis Dumervil (RDE) - Perfect in the 5-2. Has been getting a lot of pressure on QBs. (Did a fantastic job against Orlando Pace, one of the most notable LTs in the game). His speed and agility are utilized by having him play out wider, but he even showed some great bull-rushing moves against the Bears in preseason game 3.
Ronald Fields (NT) - Some folks questioned if Fields is the right man to be a nose tackle. The jury should be out if this was a true 3-4. But now, Fields is only being asked to hold the center in a 5-2. If he gets doubled (and teams thinking that we're still running a 3-4 will), this will get him pushed around, but will also free up other defensive players.
Robert Ayers (LDE) - I was in a small minority thinking that Ayers should be at DE instead of OLB. When I thought the team was going towards a hybrid 3-4, it looked like he would be an OLB. But since the team has been keeping all of the so-called "OLBs" on the line (and they are mostly guys who have always played DE anyway), it became clear to me that I was likely right after all. There is early criticism about his rush, but I'm not sure it is fair. He's on the strong side, where run stopping is at a premium. I wrote before the preseason that I don't see Ayers as a pass rusher, and would like to see him stopping runs on the weak side. My only worry was that (as an OLB) he might not be able to handle TEs in coverage. With Ayers at DE, the TE problem is not an issue.
Andra Davis (SLB) - If Denver gives a 3-4 look, he can still Ted block. But in the 5-2, he should use his abilities to focus on stopping the run. He isn't known for speed, and won't do much in passing zones (as Denver fans are used to seeing from LBs). As long as he plays man on either the RB or FB, he can be a good addition. (He may come out on long downs). He frees up D.J. Williams to cover zones elsewhere on the field in the event of play action.
Andre' Goodman (#2 CB) - While not a player that is key to the 5-2, I just want to point out how well he's looked so far. Great pickup by Denver!
Brian Dawkins (FS) - There are a few things to note about Dawkins (Weapon X). First, he's injured. Having a hand in a cast is bad enough, but it looks like his wrist is immobilized too. I can't imagine how a defensive player can play with his wrist frozen in place. Second, he's now in a two-safety program (unlike the Eagles 46 defense, which features only one deep safety). That means that Dawkins shouldn't be able to shine as much, right?
Despite all of that, Dawkins is a killer. In the 3rd preseason game against the Bears (his first since the injury), we saw him come up from the deep SAF position to stop a run at the line, and twice saw him leap over a receiver to bat away a pass. (The second time his deflection turned into a major hit, midair, and the ball was knocked loose). Dawkins was all over the place.
The DBs as a whole - Now we know why Denver went after Goodman and Dawkins. The 5-2 is a natural run stopper, so the defensive secondary must be very, very good. With the pass rush in place, the INTs should follow soon.
The 5-2 has a reputation for being effective, but simple. This doesn't mean that it can't be used in very exotic ways. The most notable schemes are the following:
At any time, one or both DEs can drop back into coverage. This leaves the NT and both DGs to rush, with an additional blitz from either LB or rush from the opposite DE. This is the most common scheme run out of the 5-2 on pass plays, making the zone blitz the most common system for 5-2s when the 5-2 isn't used exclusively for running plays.
As if that isn't enough, remember that one of the LBs can blitz, while one or both of the DEs drop back. If the defense starts overcompensating for rushes from the edge, the defense can try this trick. Now the OTs are blocking thin air, while the heavy blitz comes up the center.
A lot of DEs in 5-2 will receive a contain assignment. They move outside the line and attempt to force any run play to the inside. The DE does not make the tackle until the runner cuts back. (The reason is that if he misses the tackle, there is no help towards the sideline). When the runner cuts back, he should be facing the rest of the defense. This is only a schemed containment, and not a full-blown containment system.
Opposing teams are likely to use RBs and TEs (one or two) to defend against the rush. This keeps those players from taking routes, and frees up the DBs to focus on WRs. The defense can adjust for teams that want to send TEs into routes by either playing the DE like a LB (coverage), or adjusting the gap assignments to pull the O-Linemen away from the DE over the TE (allowing a more effective rush).
While the seams can be a weakness for the defense, the rush lanes for the DEs place them in the passing lanes for the throws to the seams. This can create a bat-down or INT.
How do teams attack the 5-2? For starters, they run to the edges, speed up their passes, and make shorter throws (to the seams and flats) if they throw to a RB or TE. Let's look at each.
First, the run up the middle is hard against a 5-2. Not only does the OL have its hands full, but any trickery (such as a trap play) will practically invite a D-Lineman across the line. Offenses will try to run east / west against a 5-2, and beat the DE and nearest LB around the edge.
The defensive counter - The LBs are very well protected, and should be able to match the RB to the edge. Also, on obvious running plays, the DEs may play containment (as noted earlier).
The offense will face a dangerous pass rush. This means that elaborate pass plays and deep pass plays are more in danger of becoming sacks or INTs. To counter, the opposing QB will need to make his passes quickly. If he isn't on a team based on quick passing, the offense is in trouble.
The defensive counter - None, really. The defense is straightforward in desiring an effective pass rush. The battle becomes one over which team imposes its will - either good pressure from the defense (and good coverage) or the offense's ability to pass quickly.
Seams and flats are the areas to throw to against a 5-2. There are only two LBs, and both are more centered than an OLB in either the 4-3 or 3-4. What's a 5-2 to do?
The defensive counter - There are two counters. One is the straightforward pass rush. "Throw wherever you want, if you think you have the time." The second relies on trickery. At any time, the 5-2 can seemingly morph into a 3-4 or 4-3 type play, where one (or both) DEs drop back into man or zone, potentially taking away the desired pass lane. (This happened on a notable play in the last SB, causing a return that went the length of the field).
Also, the seams and flats are only exposed to the TEs and RBs. The WRs are still being covered in man. (In the cover-two systems, such as the Tampa 2, the CBs are in zone, which allows WRs to sneak to the seams). But the RBs and TEs take a chance when they go into a route - there is little left to protect the QB from the five-man rush.
Do Other Teams Run The 5-2 as a Base Formation?
Ask yourself this. Are those teams that look like a 5-2 formation using true DEs on the end of their defensive lines, or are they using true LBs? I don't track every team in the NFL (unless we're about to play them), so a sharp reader can probably answer better than I can. I will say that more and more 3-4s are bringing their OLBs to the line. In such a case, it is a matter of definition.
What System Will We Run?
I'm still not certain, and won't be until we see some actual regular season games. But with the emphasis on the DEs to learn to act like OLBs, and with the drop (into coverage) of DEs being one of the most common schemes for a modern 5-2, it looks to me like the system will be a zone blitz.
I hope this article was useful. If I forgot any questions, or if you have any new ones (or comments, corrections, criticism, and of course praise) I'd be glad to hear from you!
All the best,