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It has before!

Broncos blend with the NFL trend

By Mike Klis
The Denver Post
Posted: 02/23/2009 12:30:00 AM MST
The Broncos surrendered 448 points in 2008, the second-highest total in the franchise's 49-year history. (Denver Post file photo)

INDIANAPOLIS - The schematic symbol of the 1960s was the power sweep.

In the 1980s, it was the West Coast offense.

The first decade of the 21st century has become about the 3-4 defense.

In 2004, the San Diego Chargers became the fifth NFL team to convert from the traditional 4-3 defense to the 3-4. For the 2009 season, there will be 13 teams using the 3-4. That includes Arizona and San Francisco - both will use a 4- 3/3-4 hybrid. And the growing list of trend followers includes the Broncos, who - based on the players they will pursue in free agency and evaluate in the draft - are about to make a full conversion to the 3-4.

Why in the name of the Fearsome Foursome and Purple People Eaters are so many teams essentially moving their four-man set from the front line to just behind the line?

"You don't win by saying this is what we do and not changing," new Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels said. "Because if you don't change in this league, somebody will figure out a way to beat you."

If the difference between the 3-4 and 4-3 were limited to a sequence of numbers, nearly every team would change its defense from week to week. But only the Broncos made the odd decision to convert their defense in midseason last year.

After 14 years of building a roster for a 4-3 defense, the Broncos' in-season foray to the 3-4 failed miserably. The Broncos surrendered 448 points in 2008, the second-highest total in the franchise's 49-year history.

There were many reasons the Broncos failed to make the playoffs last season. Overlooked was their insistence of trying to force round pegs into square holes.

"All your defensive line and all your linebackers are different," said Kevin Colbert, who built the 3-4 defensive roster for the Super Bowl-champion Pittsburgh Steelers. "And your secondary, to a certain extent because of what goes on up front, they have to play a little bit differently as well. But it's mainly those front seven guys.

Post Poll - 3-4 Defense

Now that Broncos coach Josh McDaniels has acknowledged the team will implement a 3-4 defense, what area should Denver address first in the offseason?

Total Votes = 2685Nose tackle: Sign the Titans' Albert Haynesworth or draft Boston College's B.J. Raji.   55.56 %Middle linebacker: Sign a top free agent (Kawika Mitchell, Mark Simoneau or Dan Morgan) or draft Rey Maualuga of USC.   35.41 %Cornerback: Draft Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, Vanderbilt's D.J. Moore or Alphonso Smith of Wake Forest.   9.013 %They will have different roles for sure."

This is the greatest challenge in converting from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. The requisite characteristics of those front seven players differ dramatically. For the Broncos, Elvis Dumervil and Jarvis Moss were considered prototype pass-rushing defensive ends in the 4-3. In the 3-4, they will have to learn how to play outside linebacker, whose standard assignment is to stand up and drop into coverage on first and second downs, and drop into a three-point stance and rush the passer on third down.

Making pieces fit

The greatest adjustments are at defensive end, defensive tackle and outside linebacker. In fact, the 3-4 has increased the number of defensive positions from 11 to 14. Added are the nose tackle, the outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid and the five-technique defensive end.

The need for a 3-4 nose tackle is expected to stimulate the free-agent market for the likes of Atlanta's Grady Jackson, who recently turned 36, and Green Bay's Colin Cole and New England's Mike Wright, who are considered backups.

It's also why Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji could be propelled to a top-five overall draft pick and Mississippi's Peria Jerry may not fall past the first round.

"B.J. Raji is a good start for them, Day One," draft analyst Mike Mayock said when asked about the Broncos' wish list with their No. 12 overall pick.

More than at any other time, this year's scouting combine has its own "Shawne Merriman-James Harrison" category. The top hybrid prospects this year are Aaron Curry, Aaron Maybin, Brian Orakpo, Everette Brown, Larry English and Brian Cushing. All are projected as first-round picks, in part because of the increased demand for their position created by the increased number of teams using the 3-4.

It's one thing for the Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs to convert because their new football bosses, McDaniels and general manager Scott Pioli, respectively, came from New England's 3-4 system. The surprise is the Green Bay Packers, who went 13-3 and reached overtime of the NFC championship game just a year ago. In an industry in which head coaches must win today, tomorrow and next week, wasn't Packers coach Mike McCarthy apprehensive about abruptly demolishing and reconstructing his defense four years into his reign?

"It was a scheme that I've always felt challenged competing against from an offensive perspective," said McCarthy, an offensive-oriented coach who hired 3-4 guru Dom Capers to become his new defensive coordinator. "I think it not only helps our defense, it helps our football teams as far as our special teams because there's more linebacker body types on our roster. It's a philosophical change that I strongly believe in."

Linebackers get a boost

In theory and practice, backup linebackers are to special teams what receivers are to the passing game. The Broncos' best special-teams players last year were rookie linebackers Spencer Larsen and Wesley Woodyard.

Among all current Broncos linebackers, Larsen may benefit the most by the 3-4 conversion. A ferocious hitter, Larsen doesn't quite have the range to play every down as a 4-3 middle 'backer. But with the extra linebacker help in the 3-4, he can narrow his task to unloading on the running game.

"It just gives some more balanced rushes," McDaniels said. "You never feel like you're out of whack in terms of the rotation. There are as many guys on this side as there are on that side, and it gives you more flexibility. The challenge is finding the players that fit really well in it, and that's what we're after. That will be ongoing from this point forward."

Mike Klis: 303-954-1055 or mklis@denverpost.com

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