ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – If the guy Bill Belichick has said taught him the 3-4 defense says something is important, well, then it is.
So, if Joe Collier, longtime Denver Broncos defensive coordinator with an accomplished tenure that included the team’s fabled Orange Crush group, says the nose tackle is the most important position in the scheme, well, then it is.
And Collier has said over and over through the years "You can’t play the defense without one,’’ so with a new 3-4 defense in place the current Broncos certainly need to find one of the do-it-all variety or several who can each fill a down-and-distance role.
“I don’t think they’re going to make decisions until training camp,’’ said Sylvester Williams, who is one of the players Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has tried at nose tackle plenty through the team’s OTA practices. “I think they’re looking at a lot of things. … You just want to show what you can and see what happens.’’
When the Broncos made the move from a 4-3 defense to the 3-4, both coach Gary Kubiak and Phillips said they liked the personnel the Broncos already had on hand and each believed the transition would be fairly seamless. The Broncos had played plenty of snaps on defense with 3-4 principles in John Fox’s tenure as coach, even breaking out a traditional 3-4 look at times against some run-heavy teams.
They had Pro Bowl edge rushers would could easily move to the outside linebacker spots in DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. They had players who could line up at defensive end in Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson, a secondary with three Pro Bowl selections in it and Kubiak said Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan were just the kind of players he’d want at inside linebacker.
So, check, check and check. All except a nose tackle.
Asked in recent weeks where things stood as the team closed in on this week's mandatory minicamp, Phillips said: “‘Sly [Williams] has been at the nose, but we’ve alternated those guys in. Malik is an end, obviously, size-wise. [Vance] Walker has come in and played some nose. We’ve alternated most of the other guys if they can play nose or [defensive end] we’ve alternated those guys.’’
The Broncos also used a sixth-round pick on Darius Kilgo, who played nose tackle in Maryland’s 3-4 defense during his collegiate career.
The Broncos have offered the we-don’t-play-until-September response to most lineup questions during the offseason program, as you would expect from a new staff getting to know its roster. Kubiak has also cited Phillips’ use, at various times in Phillips’ four-decade career as an NFL coach, of a traditional mammoth nose tackle who is asked to be a two-gap player as he repeatedly takes on double teams, aligned directly over the offense’s center as well as a lighter nose tackle, aligned more to one shoulder of the center.
“Wade has done it both ways, he’s had both kinds of players,’’ Kubiak said. “I know we will be productive with whatever decisions we make.’’
By most accounts, Williams has received the most snaps at nose tackle thus far in what would be early down personnel groupings and would present the homegrown solution – he was the team’s first-round draft pick in 2013. Williams is also one of the Broncos younger players the team expects the biggest jump from this season. Defensive line coach Bill Kollar, an intense sort, has taken a particular interest in lifting Williams’ game.
Or as executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway put it; “[Williams] is going to be coached hard, it’s a big year for him.’’
“We’ll see this year,’’ Williams said. “I’m looking forward to just going out there this year and being able to make plays. I’m focused on getting strong, getting in shape.’’
Signing Walker in free agency – he has played both inside and outside in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses – as well as Kilgo’s selection in the draft are meant to cover the bases as well. And when the Broncos go to their pass rusher looks, players such as Jackson could certainly find themselves on the inside as well.
“We don’t have the pads on yet, we’ve got a long ways to go,’’ Phillips said when asked if he has seen enough to believe the Broncos have a solution. “ … But I like the way they’re working. I look at their movement skills. We’re going to get them to give great effort. That’s a mark hopefully of our defense always is we’re going to have a lot of guys flying to the football. And those guys have bought in to that. They’re really doing a good job. As big as they are you don’t expect them to be down all over the field. We do.’’