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"Wink" not a 3-4 Specialist -- Whatever That Means, and the Story Behind It

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New Defensive Coordinator Don Martindale may be a harbinger of aggressive, 1-gap things to come.
New Defensive Coordinator Don Martindale may be a harbinger of aggressive, 1-gap things to come.

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Lost in your regularly scheduled blathering on NFLN yesterday was a terrific opportunity to talk about something significant happening to the Denver Bronco defense.

 And no, I'm not talking about the revelation that Don Martindale isn't a "3-4 specialist," whatever that means.  Dukes' comment that there are only a handful of good signal callers for the 3-4 in the NFL doesn't hold water at first glance, which is all I plan on giving it, but I'll leave Steve Nichols with the final word on that subject.  From his MHR University 3-4 post:

 So is the 3-4 a "coach driven" scheme, or is it based on personnel?

The truth is, any defensive coordinator can run a 4-3 or 3-4 indifferently. While coaches have preferences, they more often defer to what they have available. If the team could go either way, the coordinator is probably going with what he is more comfortable with.

 In a discussion on points of interest to watch for as several teams begin their OTAs, NFLN missed a wide-open opportunity to talk about something that definitely is interesting, and simultaneously they managed to bring up Wink without getting close to the real story in Denver, which Wink also happens to be central to.

 The story of the defense isn't one of a defensive coordinator promoted beyond his means, it is a story of a defense finishing its conversion to something completely different...

 Mike Nolan was the first step in the reinvention of the Denver defense, and a better contractor couldn't have been found for the task.  Nolan has come to be known as one of the pre-eminent "fix-it" men in the league, with multiple stops under his belt, preaching the gospel of the 3-4 conversion in true troubadour style.  His specialty was the hybridized 3-4/4-3/whatever-the-heck-else-might-work, and in Denver that happened to be a 3-4/5-2 combo that used existing personnel in a way that would benefit them, and the team, the most.

It also put the focus on a more bend-but-don't break architecture, with down-lineman playing 2-gap football.  This was classic Fairbanks-Bullough, with strong contain concepts, limited blitzing, and rare LB pressure on the QB.  Nolan brought pressure into the scheme by adding the 5-2 part of the equation, which brought a numbers overload on the DL, while opening up opportunities for some tweaked zone-blitz concepts.  This gave the Denver defense equal parts conservative mindset and skills, via the 3-4, and a more aggressive mindset via the 5-2.  It was also a relatively simple system to install on a defense which had 7-8 new starters.

 It wasn't meant to last.  It was simply the first step in transition.

 Along with all the other Bronco Assistant Coaches, Nolan's contract was set to expire after 2011, part of the Broncos' plan not to lock in too many things during a transition period.  As part of this plan, they also took on the idea that if assistant's could get promoted elsewhere, the team would be open and encouraging to that promotion.  When the Broncos received  a written request to interview Nolan from the Dolphins, applying the attitude about wanting what was best for their assistants led to them opening up the decision for Nolan to make a lateral move, as reported by the NFL's Sam Wyche:

The Dolphins sent the Broncos a written request to interview Nolan. McDaniels approached Nolan with the request and, in a nutshell, asked him if he’d rather be in Miami or Denver. Nolan said he would like to interview with the Dolphins. McDaniels then granted Nolan permission and wished him well.

For Nolan, the decision involved a number of factors, not the least of which was that his contract was set to expire on the eve of a possible lockout in 2011.  But perhaps equally as important was the fact that Miami needed him, for exactly the sort of job he seemed to excel at, with  unique new challenge for him.  The Dolphins, who already ran a 3-4/4-3 hybrid, wanted to start getting some pressure from it without having to invest to heavily at NT, so Nolan was brought in to "tweak" them into shape.  His solution so far seems to be a heavier emphasis on some 2-gap concepts, as well as visualizing multiple roles for interior linemen like rookie Jared Odrick.

Meanwhile, in Denver, Don Martindale's promotion heralded something similar.  Martindale's background, as Warren Sapp correctly notes in the NFLN piece referenced above, was as a coordinator for 4-3 defenses, which are one-gap, penetrating schemes.  Along with Martindale's promotion, multiple DL signings carried intrigue.  On the one hand the late season fade of the DL was a major contributor in the Denver rush defense dropping from 2nd in the league through the 1st 9 weeks of the season to 31st over the last 7.  The added depth that the signings represents is, of course, vital.

But certain additions, like Jamal Williams, represent allegiance to 1-gap principles, especially when one considers that the coach for the DL will be none other than Wayne Nunnely, who ran a penetrating attack style Phillips 3-4 in San Diego, where Williams also made his name.  Hoosierteacher adds the following about Phillips' system:

 Phillips was an innovator who turned the 3-4 upside down. His system is one-gap. The DL penetrates, and is charged with constant harrasment of the QB. The LBs are typically fast, and at least one of them will blitz on any given play.

The reason for the near constant 1-LB blitz is to account for the fact that the outnumbered DL is also relatively undersized and only one-gapping. However, the adjustments work out well. The OL never knows who the blitzer will be, or where he will come from. The Phillips is more aggressive that the Bullough. The school of thought for the Phillips 3-4 is the need to pressure against the QB to stop the pass threat, and this is done by varying who the "fourth rusher" (who is really a blitzer) is.

Add another blitzer in here and there, and the speedy/aggressive Phillips system is a threat to QBs, and attempts to get turnovers by slashing the time that a QB has to make decisions.

 Existing players like Marcus Thomas, who's natural talent is as a 1-gap style penetrator, could be expected to thrive, whether at end or inside.  New additions like Jarvis Green are players that could get a lot more mileage in a Phillips D compared to their limited situational rusher roles in a Fairbanks-Bullough.

 Now, this all makes a decent case for a move to a Phillips 3-4, but of course, in Denver it is never as simple as that.  This defense will be expected to know the 1-gap 3-4 as well as the 2-gap 3-4, and be able to shift between the two ideas seamlessly, either from game to game, or possibly even play to play.  All part of the amoeba concept.  The 5-2 variation on the Denver defense may get phased out, or it may be retained for its zone-blitz concepts, but it is doubtful to be used anywhere near as much as last year, which will make the defense more complicated to game-plan for, and hopefully, more effective as the season wears on.

 Now, isn't that a much better story than "Wink isn't a 3-4 specialist?"

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