Introduction to the 5-2 Defense
This is one topic I've been wanting to write about for some time. Before the season started I felt that the Broncos switching tot he 5-2 defense would be a smart move with their current roster and during the season my thoughts were confirmed. But having said that I wanted to go into the basics of the 5-2 defense a bit so we can apply it to the Broncos.
The 5-2 defense is five defensive lineman and two linebackers, five and two. There are two defensive ends (E), two defensive tackles (T) and a nose tackle (N). There are two linebackers behind the lineman, the middle linebacker and what is referred to as the weak side linebacker, similar to his label in a 4-3 defense. Here's a quick graphic:
This formation is fairly old but has come back in recent years because of the undersized, quick defensive ends/outside linebackers entering the NFL, Elvis Dumervil is a great example of this type of player. What used to be a defensive end a decade or so ago has become more of an inside player, this would include the Broncos own Derek Wolfe or the All-Pro JJ Watt, both who are listed as defensive ends but spent the majority of their snaps inside the defensive ends. These players are still athletic and can rush the passer but by moving them inside to the tackle position they are able to go after the guards instead of the tackles. This is where the nose tackle comes in. Similar to a 3-4 nose tackle, a 5-2 nose tackle needs to be a space eater, he won't get after the quarterback or rack up the tackles, but when you line him against a center, the center will usually require a guard to help him, as we can see here:
From here we can see the basic attack of the 5-2 and how it's able to create a situation where the nose tackle demanding a double team which allows at least one other player to go after the quarterback with little to stop him. By the defense going one on one along the line, the offense is forced to either keep a tight end or back in to protect the quarterback and also forces them to adjust their running attack.
When a defense is able to dictate the use of the tight end they are often able to dictate the entire field. By removing the most flexible player on the field the defense is now able to use it's linebackers as it wills. Compare that to most defenses which are forced to adjust themselves depending on the tight ends. It's always better to control your opponents gameplan than let him control you.
Now let's look at this from the view of the entire defense and offense.
When you look at this defense from this view, you can begin to see the gap responsibilities for each player. Each defensive tackle was aligned over their tackle, the same goes for the nose tackle who is aligned over the center. By aligning over a player instead of a specific gap the players have flexibility in where to attack the offensive line. Each defensive end aligns outside the tackles, just outside the tight end. By doing this they allow the ends the flexibility to either shift into coverage or purely rush the passer.
That brings us to the secondary. In the original 5-2 defense they used their strong safety as a player designated the Monster, which was also the old name of the 5-2. This player was pretty much a pass rusher who would roam around the box, if it was a run play he played the run and if it was a pass he'd look for a hole and attack the quarterback. This was actually more of a 5-3 defense than it's 5-2 namesake. But this was the biggest weakness of the old 5-2 defense, leaving only three defensive backs in coverage. But the new 5-2 has seen the Monster player disappear in favor of a 2nd free safety. By swapping out an in-the-box safety for a quick coverage free safety this defense takes a whole new form. Let's compare these two different forms of the 5-2.
5-2 Monster Formation
When you look at this you see a very aggressive Cover 3 defense where your three defensive backs drop into a deep coverage of one third of the field each. The linebackers would spy the play call and if it was a pass they'd rush and if it was a run they'd try and guard against the run. And while it was very successful at getting to the quarterback and stopping the run, it was incredible weak against the quick passing game, especially the West Coast offense. The 5-2 fell out of style and needed to be changed. Hence the 5-2 changes we'll now look at. Some teams still run it, here's the Seattle Seahawks running it with Earl Thomas as the Monster moving up onto the line of scrimmage.
5-2 Modern Formation
This changes the secondary to create more of a Cover 2 Man where the corners play man on the receivers and the safeties either drop into deep Cover 2 zones. This allows the linebackers more flexibility to play the quarterback. Depending on the offensive formation the two linebackers can change what they do, if the offense is using a slot wide receiver or tight end in the passing game the linebackers will move to cover them.
This brings us to one of the big keys for the success of the modern 5-2 defense.
The 5-2 Requires a True Field General at MLB or FS
Because of the flexibility the 5-2 has, having an incredible smart middle linebacker or free safety to organize and give out assignments is vital to it's success. In most defenses the middle linebacker or free safety is the player who receives the call from the side line than adjusts the play before the scrimmage, that responsibility grows in the 5-2. The reason the flexible Peyton Offense is so successful is because of Peyton's incredible intelligence that allows him to read the defense and adjust depending on what he see's. The modern 5-2 is very similar, how the linebackers are supposed to align and how the defensive ends are to play largely depends on the middle linebacker or free safety reading the offense and calling defensive audibles.
Now currently the only Bronco really experienced enough to do this is Mike Adams, this is a bit disheartening since DJ Williams used to be this player but with his suspension and subsequent release he's no longer on the team. Now obviously Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter have the potential to do this job, especially Quinton Carter who is known to have an extremely high football IQ.
This is probably the biggest impediment to more teams implementing the 5-2 since many of the great MLB's and safeties of the league have retired in the past few years but there are a rising number and we've seen teams like Seattle and Carolina begin to use this defense more because they now have the leadership and ability to run it, at least in terms of leadership.
But this isn't the only big hurdle of the 5-2, one more remains.
The 5-2 Demands Two Quality Man-Coverage Corners and Two Quality Zone Coverage Safeties
The one aspect of the nature of the 5-2 is that the corners are designed to play tight man-to-man coverage, this is because there are only four defensive backs on the field. Normally there are two corners and two safeties, there are variants that rely on three corners and one safety.
This allows the team which is deeper at corner than safety to offset that weakness and still be able to combat the spread offense. This formation tends to not rely on zone coverage from linebackers and defensive ends, at least not pre-snap though those positions can adjust depending on how the play develops or if the field caller (MLB or S) decides to change things up.
Since the modern 5-2 largely eliminates the need for run defense from the safeties they are regulated zone coverage. This requires the team to have more safeties that are better in coverage, or what most coordinators see as free safeties.
A Few Other Quick Thoughts
- From this basic formation it is possible to run zone blitz's but due to the skill set of some defensive ends it isn't always the best task for this formation, it entirely depends on the team.
- The linebackers have the most flexibility of the players because they should be able to do it all but for the most part they are either defending the run or playing coverage, they are almost never rushing the passer because the defense has already committed five players to that job.
- One of the biggest issues fans may have with this is recognizing the defense. The Broncos actually ran the 5-2 quite often last season but because Von Miller didn't always have his hand down it just wasn't seen exactly that way. These players are largely still 5-2 plays because while it's true Von almost never puts his hand in the dirt he still plays like a DE. If you consider the role of a DE in this defense is entirely run defense or rushing the passer, something Von did on 85.2% of his snaps, he largely played as a DE most of the season. Often times the 5-2 is seen as 3-4 with the linebackers at the line of scrimmage, which is partly true since the 5-2 and 3-4 are generally using similar players.
- The 5-2 provides a natural defense against the option offense since it provides a spread out defensive front to counter quick outside runs and linebackers who are usually spying the play, allowing them to not be caught flat footed against the option.
Applying This to the Broncos
Now when I look at this defense I already see it in use because of it's prevalence last season but I wanted to lay out what it might look like with the current Broncos roster.
In the secondary it will be a bit tough since it's unclear how healthy Quinton Carter is but let's assume that Rahim Moore and he will be the starting safeties since Carter actually played free safety in 2011 prior to his injury. There is also the option to use Champ at safety but that's a whole other argument. At corner you have Champ and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. Actually Champ at safety might be best since that would still leave two very solid corners in DRC and Harris. Either way corner is set no matter who is playing while safety is a bit more up in the air. I personally like the three corner, one safety look since it puts the best players on the field.
At linebacker the two best coverage linebackers are easily Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan. The current crop of Broncos middle linebackers are fine two-down players but none can cover to save their lives. But there is the new addition of Shaun Phillips who has the coverage ability to play weak side linebacker in this scheme. He could also play defensive end in this defense, but for now he wouldn't likely be a starter, rather a very good situational player.
Now for the real meat, the defensive line. The only true nose tackle on the roster is the newly acquired Terrance Knighton, he's done this before and is built to require double teams and take space, which is what we want. At the defensive tackle position you have rookie Sylvester Williams and likely Derek Wolfe. Now last season both Wolfe and Ayers spent time at both DT and DE but Wolfe is a more nature defensive tackle. He has apparently added about 5-7 pounds so far this off-season and may be preparing for that transition already. Wolfe and Williams at those DT spots will be able to both play the run very, very well and when called upon be able to rush the passer. At the defensive end spot the Broncos may be the most set with Robert Ayers and Von Miller manning those spots, because really, do you want to see Von doing anything besides crushing the QB. Also something to keep in mind, Ayers was actually the 2nd best pass rusher on a per play basis last season along the defensive line behind only Elvis Dumervil. Has Ayers played the number of snaps that Derek Wolfe played he'd have 7 sacks and an even higher count of pressures and hits. He and Von will easily seal the edge. Shaun Phillips might also be a situational pass rusher from this position
Let's take a look at that defensive front. Now each player is denoted by there initials so Champ Bailey is C.B and Derek Wolfe is D.W and so on.
Obviously there are still questions about using this as the main formation for the Broncos and training camp will work out the kinks but if last season is any indicator, we could see the Broncos continue to use this defense into the future. And remember, this last bit is purely my thoughts and are not sanctioned by MHR University.