Emotions run high among the various fanbases of the NFL. We live in a fast-paced world of media that's driven by instant gratification. In an environment like that nothing sells like sensationalism. Very rarely do we settle down and take a rational look at what's going on. That's what I'm going to attempt here by dissecting the Broncos big three defensive acquisitions from free agency and what they really mean.
This will not be a short missive. It will not be flowery. It will, however, be concise and rooted in logic and good football sense.
We hear a lot in today's NFL about the Seattle Seahawks defense and how, since we live in a copy-cat league, everyone is trying to be like them. Never is this more applied than to the team we love, perhaps due to the pounding we took in the Super Bowl from that very team. Many a comment has appeared from pundits and fans alike that would lead us to believe that we're simply following a trend; a sort of "if you can't beat'em, join'em" mentality. If you look at our free agent acquisitions, this would seem to be the case, right? Before diving into the acquisitions themselves, I want to take a look at this ugly and misguided concept.
How do the Seahawks do defense? Simple; press-man on the outside, a deep FS to go along with a box SS and a four-man rush that can get home. Is this some new, magic formula that the Seahawks have discovered? No. It is simply put the simplest, most efficient defense a team can play. It is football defense in it's most basic form. It ties pass-rush and coverage together so that they rely on each other and make one another more effective; coverage delays receivers entering routes allowing the pass-rush time to get home, while pressure from the pass rush makes it less effective for receivers to run deep routes or dangerous double-moves, allowing coverage personnel to play tighter. So why do so many teams take different approaches? Why doesn't everybody just line up and take on the man in front of them the way the Seahawks do? The answer is just as simple; you absolutely have to have the right personnel. It's not that the Seahawks invented the system, they just went out and got the players that fit with it.
Who else do we know that prefers this type of defense? We have no further to look than our own Jack Del Rio who has been trying to install this defensive philosophy since day-one on the job.
Enter our new signees.
First, let's deal with Talib and why he was signed instead of DRC. DRC seemed the obvious choice for the Broncos. We got excellent production out of him last year. And then there's the oft brought-up fact that he "knows the system," right? So, why not just sign him and be done with it? Aside from the retirement talk, wanting more money than we were offering and general red flags about desire and giving him a big guaranteed contract, there's this simple fact; knowing the system is different from and inferior to fitting the system. DRC is a fantastic off-man corner. He plays best when he's able to backpedal and watch a receiver enter his break, then use his elite recovery speed to close and break up the pass. He is absolutely not a specialist in press-man coverage, the type of disruptive coverage that is most effective in conjunction with an elite pass-rush element.
Enter Talib, a player that, as a press-man specialist, fits the system like no other CB available in free agency. We can talk about red flags, and between both DRC and Talib, there are a truck-load. But in pure terms of philosophy this shows that the Broncos FO and coaches are united on that front and I see it as a team merely using the resources they have to get the best player available to fit their scheme.
Another concept that gets thrown around without any real context is that of becoming "tougher" on defense. But really, what does this mean? We all have a general idea, but I want to talk about the tactical significance of "toughness" and how it applies in a practical sense.
One way "toughness" can be defined in a practical sense is what we've talked about above when it comes to the Talib vs. DRC argument. Both are fine players, but DRC specializes in finesse-y off-man, while Talib plays "tough," press-man. In this way, being "tough" can be equated to being disruptive. This means acting first and forcing the offensive player in front of you to react to what your doing which is exactly the opposite of what an offense wants to do.
Another big way to be "tough," or disruptive is field presence. Enter T.J. Ward, the epitome of Denver's efforts to get "tougher." Field presence is a simple concept; be near the ball at all times and make whoever is carrying the ball at the time wish that he wasn't. Ward is someone we can use to disrupt whatever part of the game an offense wishes to focus on: be it the run game, short routes to receivers, or feeding their TE. Wherever the offense wants to go, they're going to have to account for a guy like this along the way.
Perhaps the biggest element to playing the sort of "tough" defensive philosophy we're seeing be installed in Denver is an elite pass-rush. This was the biggest element missing from last year. We all love Shaun Philips for big production at a low cost (not to mention vocal leadership that you can't put a dollar value on), but it was obvious he racked up 10 coverage sacks last year. We need guys who can get in a QB's face, not just be able to be around to clean up when a QB is forced to stay in the pocket too long. The idea with press-man is to delay receivers' routes by 1-1.5 seconds or longer if possible. This gives the pass-rush time to get home and disrupt the pass in 2-2.5 seconds. However, if you don't have a front four that can get there in 2-2.5 seconds, your DBs and LBs, who are playing tight on their man will be exposed to deep routes and double-moves.
In 2012, when we had a highly disruptive pass-rush duo, our DBs were able to stick to their man into the first cut of a route because it was simply unlikely they'd have time to go into a second cut. It was a beautiful thing and was all the difference between a 2nd place finish in 2012 and being in the bottom half of the league in 2013.
Enter DeMarcus Ware. Last year, despite a down year statistically after returning from injury and playing on a Dallas defense that had absolutely no one to take attention away from him in a system that he was new to, D-Ware still managed to be a top-ten 4-3 DE in PFF's rankings, coming in at number 8. This was on the strength of his all-around play, proving disruptive in the pass-rush as well as in run defense. As PFF puts it in their free agency rundown, "Pairing him and Von Miller together almost seems unfair. Who’d be a tackle in the AFC West?"
In summary what some people may see is a team over-spending in free agency in a gut reaction to a Super Bowl melt-down, trying to buy their way back to the Super Bowl with big FA contracts. Sure, that's the line that sells. The less glamorous line is simply this; the Broncos are a team, as I see it, with a FO and coaches that are united on a defensive philosophy and are using the resources at hand to acquire the players available that fit that philosophy.