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Mike Nolan and the 2009 Broncos defense: What happened?

Mike Nolan

Mike Nolan


I do realize that these two topics may have already been discussed at the end of the season, but due to recent comments on blogs. It seems like the firing of Mike Nolan was another big mistake in the eyes of some Broncos fans, and its a topic that is still burning people. I am going to explain the Nolan firing from a scheme perspective and why it made sense, and give my theory as to why the Broncos collapsed last year. As most Broncos fans have heard, Josh McDaniels and Mike Nolan had philosophical differences. The root cause of these philosophical differences came from a scheme perspective. Mike Nolan is a hybrid 3-4 defensive coach rather than a pure 3-4 defensive coach. JoshMcDaniels like most Parcells/Belichick coaches is a believer in the 3-4, but he is a believer in the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 system which is a bend but don’t break defense. Mike Nolan’s version of the 3-4 defense doesn’t believe in playing bend but don’t break type of defense. Nolan believes in attacking the quarterback whenever possible and using a combination of a 1-gap and 2-gap system at times. He likes to try and confuse the quarterback with exotic blitzing, where as Josh was taught to confuse a quarterback by disguising coverages instead of relying on the blitz.

In the system that Josh was taught, the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4, you don’t blitz as much as you do in the other four versions of the 3-4 defense. The other four versions of the 3-4 are the “Zone Blitz 3-4”, “Phillips 3-4”, “Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4” and the “Hybrid 3-4”. A good example of a Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 defense is the Patriots defense. The Fairbanks-Bullough is commonly referred to as an 2-gap 3-4 system that gives teams the greatest amount of flexibility compared to other 3-4’s. The linebackers in this system are extremely versatile and are capable of doing any and everything on the field. (I.e.; Mike Vrabel) When you mix the roles of the four linebackers from play to play, you can cause mass confusion for an offense. The reason this system is a 2-gap system, is because the defensive lineman are required to cover the gaps on both sides of an offensive lineman. The defensive linemen in this 3-4 are very stout so that they can occupy the offensive lineman, and allow the linebackers can make plays. As you compare the philosophies, you can see how and why Josh and Mike didn’t see eye to eye at times during the year.

What happened to the defense?

My theory as to what happened to the defense here in Denver is this. As one person who commented on a previous blog that I wrote said; the lack of depth is one reason why the Broncos defense collapsed. I also think the philisophical differences also played a role in the demise of the defense. They also were trying to run a 3-4 defense with 4-3 defensive players. That’s hard to do since it takes specific types of players to run a 3-4 defense. In a 3-4 defense, you have to build it from the inside out. The nose tackle and the two inside linebackers are the three most important players on the defense. This is why the Broncos were gashed in the second half of the season by teams running the ball on them. Seriously folks, when the Philadelphia Eagles rush for over 100 yards on you in a game, your defense is weak up the middle. Andy Reid maybe only calls five running plays a game. If you noticed during the offseason, Josh’s first roster moves were bolstering the middle of that defense, not addressing the offense despite there being good offensive free agents available.

In addition to all of this, teams simply just figured out the Broncos defense after the first half of the season. Situations like this happen all of the time. Team “X” will implement something new that teams haven’t seen them run before, and it will cause issues for the opponent until teams get a “book” on what team “X” is doing. Once teams figured out what Denver’s play calling tendencies were in certain down and distances, and what formations they ran certain plays out of, Denver was no longer a mystery on defense. They figured out ways to exploit their weaknesses which was by running the ball on them and exploiting Denver’s lack of a true 3-4 personnel. This same situation happened with the New Orleans Saints this past season. The first half of the season teams were getting embarrassed by the Saints. In the second half of the season, teams were able to actually keep games close and give the Saints problems and/or beat them.

Hopefully I was able to shed some light as to why the Mike Nolan firing made sense despite how good the defense played in the first half of the season. During training camp I will give my outlook on what to expect from the Broncos defense this year. I realize that some will comment that Mike could have come back this year and put together a great defense now that Denver has better 3-4 personnel. But it still wouldn’t have worked between Nolan and McDaniels when you look at how they like to run a 3-4 defense.

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