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Linebacker: The Broncos Scheme and Needs

Understanding Linebacker Play Within the Broncos Scheme

One of the big questions going into the 2010 offseason is deciding exactly what, if anything, the Broncos are going to do about their linebacker position. Given that Coach Don Martindale has been named to the defensive coordinator position, it's clear that that Broncos both like his style of coaching and appreciate what he's done with a group that was cobbled together from continuing players, castoffs from other squads  and players from Denver moving from different positions.

It says here that Martindale has been one of the top coaches on the team, and if they move him up to DC, I hope that they can find someone nearly as good to take his place. By the way, for those who asked - the style of defense and the terminology were part of the package that Josh McDaniels impressed Pat Bowlen, Joe Ellis and Jim Goodman with. It's not going to change, so there will be continuity.

But the linebacking corps still needs work, and I think that the LB squad would agree. As most MHR members seem to concur, there is a problem at inside linebacker. Andra Davis seemed to fade a bit down the road and may be experiencing the only opponent that always wins - age. DJ Williams, on the other hand, was at his fourth position in 6 seasons and still managed to lead the team in tackles.

Even so, close viewing of game film showed certain problems with his play. In fairness - can't we give the poor guy more than one seasons to learn yet another danged position? On the other hand, there's no doubt in my mind that we need at least a third ILB, and preferably one who can quickly start for Davis. Davis is a wonderful influence in the locker room and a talented backup, but it's my own feeling that we need to upgrade this position.

To help this make more sense, I'm going to start by establishing the role of the outside linebackers.  Getting clear on their role is essential to understanding why we require an additional top rated inside linebacker.  On the way, I'm going to talk briefly about the different aspects of the defense and what our situation might mean in terms of where we decide to prioritize this change.

This was a blurb out of a nice article from a guy who knows his football, Frank Schwab of the Colorado Springs Gazette:

ENGLEWOOD - On most running plays, Denver Broncos outside linebacker Mario Haggan is not instructed to make a tackle.

The coaches won't scold him if he does, but that isn't his job. In Denver's defensive scheme, the outside linebackers are there to sacrifice. They "set the edge," or keep running backs and quarterbacks in the pocket, funneling plays inside so others such as inside linebackers D.J. Williams and Andra Davis can make the tackle.

Going into today's game against Philadelphia, Davis and Williams have combined for 184 tackles. Haggan, who has started all 14 games, has 44 tackles. Haggan made one of the better plays last week against Oakland when he kept running back Darren McFadden from getting outside on fourth and 1. He forced McFadden to pause and cut inside but had to share the tackle with Davis.

That's typical, but the outside linebackers understand their roles.

"No disrespect to any other position, but I feel like the outside linebacker is probably the most vital position on the defense," Haggan said. "We don't put up big tackles, but if you watch film and watch what we do every day, when you watch D.J. or Andra come across and make a tackle for a loss - if the edge was set well, it's going to end up being a big play."

From what I've seen, he's right. I'll leave it to Steve Nichols to decide if this is true a Run Contain defense but certainly there is that element. Run Contain, which the Broncos briefly flirted with when Jim Bates was defensive coordinator, was overall a disaster in Denver. One of the basic issues of the system is that you need very specific types of players, including an 18-wheeler or two at DT and dump trucks at DE, which Denver's 4-3 defense lacked. Just as you can borrow some zone blitzes from Dick LeBeau's approach (the Steelers' defensive coordinator) without running a zone blitz scheme, you can also borrow some thoughts from Bates' Run Contain without using his overall system. That's exactly what I see the Broncos doing now, and for the first six games and two more later, it worked fine. It also became obvious that we are giving up too many big running plays, and some are going right past Davis and Williams. The edge wasn't always set, either. Both of those problems have to stop.

So, where do they go to from here? To decide, let's start by looking at the needs of the defensive squad of the team, one position at a time.

Where are the Broncos biggest needs on defense? At the safety position, I'd call us pretty well set, especially if they start using Barrett on the TEs to cover them. We have a guy setting behind Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill - Darcel McBath - who can start for a lot of teams. We have a special teams ace - David Bruton - who is learning, and seems to be learning fast from what little I've seen. Sound pretty set? Sure, another, big time safety is always welcome, but we want to do as much as possible with JAGs (Just a Guy's). I know - Dawkins won't be around forever. But I do expect him back next year, and McBath, Barrett and Bruton will be considerably more ready by the time he retires. I know -- I'd love a top safety, but Eric Berry will be gone and I'm not really sold on Taylor Mays. Not for that 1st round price, certainly. And, I'm still not sure that Darcel McBath won't be a top safety - the early findings are very good, in addition to his skills at special teams.

Cornerback. We need to get at least one, perhaps (preferably, in fact) two. This could be from the draft, but I'd like one via free agency (FA). There is the age factor, but no one in the league looks forward to going up against Champ Bailey and Andre' Goodman, other than his occasional tackling, is flat out great. Alphonso Smith will be an argument until he produces, but Tony Carter showed in his short time that he doesn't play short at all. The man looks like a winner. That doesn't mean that bringing in competition is a bad thing, though. We have two good players who are on the north side of 30.

The D-Line - I've talked about this. We have a lot of beef - Carlton Powell, J'Vonne Parker (all 336 lbs of him), Chris Baker, who doesn't necessarily pass on dessert either at 326 and they're all sitting and awaiting a chance. We also have Everette Pedescleaux on PSIR. We should give them that chance, or move them on, unless they show a lot of promise. Last year, Ryan McBean went from a DE on the PS to starter, and a darned good one so it can happen. But it's time to figure out what to do with all that size that isn't playing on Sunday.

Vonnie Holliday did some good things, but also struggled at other times. Sadly, I think that we can do better than a guy who I absolutely admire as a person, in Kenny Peterson. I don't think that Le Kevin Smith showed what we had hoped either. We need to upgrade, and I think that we need to badly - mostly on the ends. McBean is a keeper. I feel the same way about Fields (NT, without question) and although it may not be popular, I feel that way about Thomas, too, whether we keep him at NT or move him back to DE. The others? We need some help.

But then we come back to the linebackers' role, and, I believe, to the heart of the defensive matter.

Against Oakland, the outside linebackers had to share some blame for the losses. The Raiders rushed for 240+ yards, the 2nd most this season against the Broncos, mainly because they had seven big running plays. Five of those came on cutback runs, which the outside linebackers are asked to contain and the ILBs to stop. Against Kansas City, the Broncos were run over for over 300 yards. ; Jamal Charles. For the most part, the outside linebackers have played well. The defense improved in many ways over the previous year. However, they are a long way from where the Broncos need them to be, and the running game was probably our biggest weakness on defense.

Haggan had to learn the new position. Like anyone, he made his mistakes and will be better next season. He also noted that it takes more than brute force to set the edge. The linebacker must recognize plays while also staying aware of timing, figuring out when it's OK to shed the blocker. If you do that too early, it opens a hole to the outside.

"They trust me on the edge," he said. "They don't worry about when things come my way.""

He's right, too. It's more on the inside that I'm concerned. However - if the perfect OLB comes along, would I mind some competition at that position? Surely you jest....

What we have now, though, is a two edged sword. Doom, on one edge, is turning into a very good linebacker. One of his weaknesses as a defensive end was that he had trouble stopping the run. Moving him further to the outside has reduced this problem considerably. It improves his vision of the play and it gives him more time to get the correct angle on his tackles, too. Over the course of the season, I noticed that he was also improving in his pass coverage. Because of these improvements, I consider him to be a high quality starting outside linebacker. Given his league leading total of sacks, Elvis has made himself a very valuable quantity who the Broncos should and almost certainly will keep. And, on the other side, Mario Haggan has shown us just what a valuable player he has been over the course of the last season. That gives us two very good starting linebackers in the outside positions.

As an aside:  This also brings up two examples of one important point. The first example relates to Mario Haggan. Mario Haggan was chosen by the Buffalo Bills as an outside linebacker. However, while wanted him to mostly play the Sam position, they also moved him to middle linebacker. While they valued him on special teams, they played in a 4-3 defensive front, and never truly had a place for him. Neither did Denver, until the Josh McDaniels group took over. Since Mario was drafted as a classic tweener, who was not properly prepared to play either defensive end or outside linebacker, you cannot blame the city of Buffalo's team for not knowing how to use him. That problem was solved when the Broncos moved to a 30 front defense. This is a good reminder - establish carefully at what kind of player you want at a position - as in, write a danged manual - before you waste a draft pick.

The second relates to Elvis Dumervil, and the principle is the same. Elvis Dumervil was a classic outside linebacker for a 3-4 (or 5-2) front formation. He is slightly short, but not as short as has been reported. He is a hair under 6 feet tall. He weighs 248 pounds. In other words, he is about the size of your normal middle linebacker. Or, about the size of your average Sam linebacker. He was drafted for a 4-3 defense and still managed to do well, but not as well as he could have. My point is that in both cases listed above, it was an issue with how they were used, not whether they were talented. It happens all over the NFL every day. What the Broncos really need on their linebacking corp is a true 3-4 ILB - one with size, speed, a love of contact and the tackling nastiness of a Dick Butkus (without that whole 'biting the guy's leg in the pile' sort of business).

While this also leaves us with two good starting linebackers, could we definitely use more depth? On the one side, rookie Robert Ayers showed early signs of tremendous promise. Like you, I read a lot of comments from members complaining that they didn't see him enough. I believe that the actual problem was not that he was not seen enough, but that the job of an outside linebacker in this particular system is not to ring up statistics or to make highlight reels. It is to set the edge, contain the run, drop into coverage when needed and make sure that no big plays get past you. While there were the inevitable rookie mistakes, I saw Ayers doing just exactly that many times. I also saw him dropping into coverage and holding his zone several times. Unless the pass is thrown in that direction, Ayers will not make any highlight reels when he does that. But, who cares? He is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing.

I also like Darrell Reid in the outside linebacker position. Yes, I know that he was not always at his best during the 2009 season. On the other hand, wasn't that to be expected? It was his first year playing at that position. Even so, he made quite a number of good plays. The question will be whether or not he improves next season. If he does that's all well and good. If not, we are going to need a better player to replace him. and if there is someone that we can bring in to challenge him, that's fine too.

Of these four, I see Darrell Reid as the weakest. That does not mean that I think that we should drop or replace him right away. It means that he's the one I will be keeping an eye on more than any other. It means that if a player comes into training camp and has the skill to beat him out Josh McDaniels will have to make a decision as to whether or not to keep Reid on his special teams basis. Because someone else will be playing linebacker and that's as it should be.

But all of this brings us back to the start of our discussion of the inside linebacker positions. Hopefully, this also explains to those who had trouble understanding why we would be interested in a player like Rolando McClain. If you look back at the Oakland game, for example, Denver gave up over 240 yards on the ground. There were quite a few culprits, but Andra Davis and DJ Williams were involved in several of the seven plays that went for long yardage. That is what we need to improve. The entire system is set up to funnel running backs directly from the edges into the middle where the tackles are to be made. That means that the play of the inside linebacker positions are going to be one of the big keys to getting our team to the next level. Other two players, DJ is clearly a much better player in my mind. That means that to get to the next level we need to find a better player than Davis.

There you have it. When we talk about free agency and the NFL draft, and we look at the linebacking positions on the Denver Broncos, to me there's only one spot that stands out as requiring immediate attention, and that's Davis. Other people will argue that Darrell Reid also needs to be replaced, yet I find this argument premature. After all, he only has one year at the position and did a lot of good things. It was asking a great deal for him to be moved into that position and to play as well as he did. However, I would agree that too often he did not set the edge well enough on the run. As I have said, either that will improve or he'll have to be replaced. But after only one year, I believe that he's earned a chance at the position. Besides, he is still one heck of a special teams player. I won't bet against him. If we found a gem at OLB, it wouldn't break my heart either, but Haggan has played very well in his first year at the 5-2 OLB and Reid was pretty good too. Competition for either slot is always a good thing, though.

That only leaves the inside linebacking position. Whether you decide to use a high draft pick and go after a player like Rolando McClain, or whether you decide to use the higher picks for other purposes and to go after some of the mid round talent at the same position (there are some interesting folks out there, as many of the 'mocks' have noted) is a separate question. It will be answered by the actions of the team and it will undoubtedly be debated on this and many other sites.

I'd also say that Andra Davis should be retained if it is at all possible. He is a leader in the locker room. He helps the younger players to become the kind of NFL players that we need: professional, hardworking, always in the weight room or film room, and he helps them with technique as well. Andra Davis is like an additional coach, whether out on the field or in the locker room. This is in no way a knock on that player. It is just a fact of life: players age. In many ways, I wish we had him years ago. But since this is the way things have gone down, it's time to find an upgrade at that position.

I hope we can find one who has half as good an influence on the team as the man he will replace.