John Elway found his new leader for the Denver Broncos in Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. Amidst the fans’ clamoring for someone to fix one of the worst offenses in the NFL over the past two years, Elway was convinced that Joseph was the man for the job.
It’s worth mentioning that Joseph comes from a 4-3 background in Cincinnati and continued that scheme as defensive coordinator in Miami. He has said he values “players first, scheme second” and that he doesn’t want to call the defensive plays. For argument’s sake, let’s say that he does decide to implement the scheme he had in Miami.
If Joseph does, Denver will be going back to a 4-3 defense, after having such huge success in a 3-4 scheme over the past two years. Unfortunately for fans of the Mile High City, the Broncos’ current roster has all of the makings of a 3-4 defense, not that of a 4-3.
Taking a look at each position group, Denver may need some more offseason help if they intend to make Joseph’s system work.
We start with the defensive line. Currently a mess, evidenced by Denver’s putrid 28th ranked run defense, Denver’s current personnel seem to be an “average” fit for a 4-3 front at best. Vance Walker, known for his versatility, could possibly anchor one side of the ball, but is currently coming back from season-ending surgery. Sylvester Williams may not even be back, and wasn’t very effective in Jack Del Rio’s 4-3 scheme in the years he ran it. Derek Wolfe is the only player who has effectively played well in both a 3-4 and a 4-3, though it should be noted that he played much better at DE in Wade Phillip’s 3-4.
Another option for the Broncos would be to convert one of their plethora of pass rushers at the linebacker position to defensive end. Unfortunately, none of the linebackers under contract fit well for a 4-3 end. DeMarcus Ware has shown he can be an effective 4-3 end or a stand-up 3-4 linebacker, but is no longer under contract (and it doesn’t appear that Elway will retain him). Shaq Barrett and Shane Ray both lack the size to line up with their hands in the dirt, and their strengths clearly fall in being pure pass rushers.
Though Ray has taken huge strides in his sophomore campaign, and saw success at Missouri at defensive end, one of the areas he has struggled with this year is being swallowed up by larger, more physical offensive linemen. Ray shows promise, but registered only 4 sacks over the second half of the season. The best player on the Broncos’ roster, Von Miller, has been close to unstoppable as a 3-4 rusher. A switch to a 4-3 defense would mean Miller playing the “Will” (weak side) linebacker that he did for the first few years of his pro career.
Inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis could possible provide for “Sam” (strong side) and “Mike” (middle) linebackers, respectively. With Marshall better off at the “Sam” position, Davis is bound to struggle at the Mike position as he was routinely abused in coverage this year, while only registering 64 tackles and 0.5 sacks.
With former secondary coach Joe Woods now the defensive coordinator, the secondary shouldn’t see too much change or drop in production. However, a dip in production from the pass rush would hurt the play of the secondary. That said, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris should continue their all-pro play. An advantage of a 3-4 defense is that safety T.J. Ward would come down into the box and help with run defense, blitz, or disguise the coverage from opposing offenses. In a 4-3, there will be fewer opportunities for Ward to disrupt offenses like fans are accustomed to seeing him.
When the Broncos ended their season at 9-7 and watched an emotional Gary Kubiak retire, fans knew it was going to be a long offseason. Now, with the hire of Vance Joseph, fans should also brace themselves to see the famed “Orange Crush” defense take a couple of years to get the right personnel for Joseph’s defense, if they decide to switch to a 4-3, that is.