After the Broncos defeated the Steelers on Sunday night, much was made of John Fox’s acceptance of new concepts regarding Peyton Manning.
We talked about his compromise, adopting the no-huddle offense while still employing a healthy dose of the ground game and Willis McGahee.
Of course, it is easy for Fox to change his offensive philosophy with Manning as the de facto offensive coordinator.
Clyde Christiansen spent two years as the “offensive coordinator” for the Colts. In 2010 the offense was still up to snuff.
But when Manning went down in 2011 Christiansen was exposed for the glorified quarterback coach that he was.
He gladly accepted a demotion under the Colts’ new regime back to quarterback coach.
On the other side of the ball, John Fox turns to a man who was his defensive coordinator in Fox’s first season as the Panthers’ head coach: Jack Del Rio.
During Fox’s time in Carolina, he became known for his heavy use of a Cover 2 zone defense with a four-man, gap-shooting front.
During Del Rio’s single season under Fox he did not rock the boat, staying within the defensive-minded Fox’s standard Cover 2 zone system. Their backgrounds were quite different, however, with Fox arriving from the conservative Jim Haslett’s staff with Giants, while Del Rio cut his teeth under Marvin Lewis and Mike Nolan in Baltimore.
Developing Del Rio's Hybrid Defense
With his background as a former linebacker and a disciple of the Ravens’ multiple fronts, schemes, coverages and blitz-packages, Del Rio is steeped in a faster and more attacking philosophy.
In fact, in 2009 Del Rio tinkered with a 3-4 package in addition to his standard 4-3 front, a similar system as that which Nolan is currently running in Atlanta.
The wrinkle that Del Rio added in 2009 is a key to what kept Ben Roethlisberger’s and Todd Haley’s offense grounded in the Mile High City on Sunday night.
Manning probably remembers a wrinkle quite well, which Del Rio employed mainly against the Colts and Manning’s precision attack. Adding it to a base 4-3 alignment provided a host of opportunities for disrupting an offense.
The 3-3-5 defense that originated in the college ranks as an answer to spread offenses was integrated into Jacksonville’s game plan against Manning. Although the Jaguars lost the Week 1 match-up, they held the Colts to 14 points and Manning to 1 TD pass and 1 INT.
How the Broncos Kept Roethlisberger Guessing
The Broncos' version varies from the original scheme, but takes advantage of the versatile personnel, including some, like Elvis Dumervil, who had experience in the 3-4 front Denver ran a couple years ago.
Von Miller is the best example, as a player who has the size, speed and pass-rushing ability to play the role of defensive end, linebacker, or in-the-box safety.
The Broncos took advantage of the scheme to counter the short, timing plays that Pittsburgh was running and take advantage of a horrendous offensive line.
The 3-3-5 is all about disguising the blitzes and coverage using fire-zone blitzes and employing personnel in different assignments out of the same base personnel.
Unlike a traditional 3-4, the 3-3 front is a one-gap defense, creating more penetration and movement to disrupt man-blocking schemes in the passing and running game.
The Steelers employ a great deal of man-blocking in their power-running game, as well as in pass protection.
The Broncos knew Roethlisberger would have to make a quick read and ran different coverages to disrupt him, taking advantage of the ability of cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter to be isolated in coverage in either a sparse zone or man coverage.
With a variety of safeties with different skill sets in Rahim Moore, Jim Leonard, Mike Adams and Quinton Carter, the Broncos often employed three safeties when Miller played on the line instead of his 'tweener role.
With one safety high, one intermediate and one in the box, and occasionally linebacker Wesley Woodyard, with his outstanding coverage skills, played one of the hybrid safety-linebacker roles. This allowed veteran Keith Brooking to enter the game and focus on playing downhill.
The Broncos also kept Roethlisberger uncomfortable using overload blitzes, often disguised to confuse the Steelers’ blockers and trick them into moving to block players dropping into coverage and allowing a pass rusher to enter unblocked.
They also moved Miller around to take advantage of match-ups, even aligning him on Dumervil's outside hip when Dumervil was aligned in a 7-technique outside the offensive tackle.
If the Steelers did pick up the initial pass rush, then a delayed pass rush from underneath zone defenders would often deploy, reaching Roethlisberger just after every blocker was occupied and Big Ben had finally dodged the first wave. This delayed pass rush hurried Roethlisberger into throwing the game-sealing pick-six to Porter.
The strategy is a perfect counter-move to Roethlisberger’s unbelievable pocket presence that allows him to dodge the initial pass rush then reset his feet to make the throw. Cornerback Chris Harris appears to have carved out a niche as a second-wave rusher based on his excellence Sunday night.
Jack Del Rio: Modern Day Defensive Mind
While Del Rio has never received credit for being a forward-thinking coach, and Fox even less so, credit should be given where it is due. With so many offensive coordinators employing spread and zone-read concepts adapted from the college ranks for the new generation of quarterbacks, many defensive coordinators have been forced to play nickel defensive as their base package.
The drawback is, however, that those nickel defenses feature an extra cornerback that has trouble shedding blocks and making open-field tackles on bubble screens and quick-hit passes. Those concepts are a large part of Haley’s and many others’ offenses. With the hybrid defenders that are so prevalent on Denver’s defense, they appear to be one step ahead of the curve in an increasingly pass-oriented game.