Will. Jack. Mike. Sam.
These four names are the titles of the linebacker positions in a 3-4 defense. The Denver Broncos are now acquainted with these titles and the defense as a whole. You see the Broncos are no longer Mike Shannahan's team, they are Josh McDaniel's team.
While many people focus on the offensive changes that are occurring on the Broncos, such as the loss of Pro-Bowl QB Jay Cutler and the addition of Kyle Orton an even more important change has occurred. That is the evolution of the Denver defense that was ranked 29th yardage wise and 30th point wise last season under Slowik.
As the Defensive Coordinator for the Denver Broncos, Mike Nolan will have the difficult task of turning one of the worst defenses in the league to a championship caliber defense. The first thing to do was to change the 4-3 the Broncos were previously using, and make that into a 3-4, a model familiar to Head Coach McDaniels and Mike Nolan.
Now, this article is primarily focusing on one singular part of the 3-4 defense, possibly the most important part. We're going to focus on the playmakers in this rare defense: the linebackers. Now, in the 3-4 defense, there are four linebacker positions Will, Jack, Mike, and Sam.
Will is the weakside outside linebacker or the outside linebacker that is on the opposite side of where the Tight End would line up.
Jack is the weakside inside linebacker or the inside linebacker away from the Tight End position as well.
Mike is the strongside inside linebacker that is the inside linebacker that is closer to the Tight End.
Lastly there is Sam, the strongside outside linebacker or the linebacker that lines up on the outside directly against the Tight End.
Position by position, this is how we would fill each position, based on depth charts, training camp performances, and educated guesses.
So the first position to talk about is the weakside outside linebacker. Now for the most part this is the position that will get the most sacks because they will be going up against no TE so they have a clearer path to the QB.
So we are looking for a guy that can rush the QB, play athletically, have good speed, and still be able to cover the field if needed to make an open field tackle. Right now there are two real candidates for this position, which is Elvis Dumervil the front-runner and Jarvis Moss the backup right now.
Both are former defensive ends that have had to convert to become the outside linebackers for this team. Dumervil is more of a tweener, too small to play a 4-3 end and linebacker, but the right size for a 3-4 outside linebackers.
Moss was actually recognized as the fit for a 3-4 outside linebacker in the draft, before being drafted as a 4-3 defensive end. Now Dumervil had 8.5/12.5 sacks in his first two years as an undersized defensive end, using wonderful moves and his quickness. Now being able to hide under the big defensive ends in the 3-4 gives him a distinct advantage.
He also has been smooth in coverage, which has been very important in this transition. Moss is a 6'6" monster, who has been labeled a bust seeing as he has failed to produce over the past year. He has size, speed, and athleticism that weren't used well during his time as a defensive end.
Both have attacked the role with enthusiasm, but in the end I am expect Jarvis Moss to come as the starting weakside outside linebacker because his talent will be more balanced for the position.
Elvis Dumervil will still be a good pass rusher so expect him to be woven in on blitz packages, using his speed, size, and moves he should be effective on passing downs.
There is no competition at the Jack spot which is the weakside inside linebacker in the 3-4 on the Denver Broncos. It has been claimed by the Broncos most formidable linebacker in all these years, D.J Williams.
In 11 games, he recorded 93 tackles and 2.5 sacks. He also had a beastly game against the Saints recording 16 tackles. He was able to accumulate all these stats while injured a good part of those 11 games.
Now remember, when Nolan changed the 49er's defense, he made Patrick Willis the same position as D.J will play. Under Nolan's guide, Willis became a Pro-Bowler something that could very well happen to D.J seeing as both of them are comparable. D.J has already attacked his role with excitement stating in this position he can," Go to the ball and make plays."
Now Mike is the strongside inside linebacker, this is probably one of the most important positions for the 3-4 defense.
Because the strongside inside linebacker does a lot more running stopping it is very crucial to be able to start the tempo early, meaning that not only does the strongside have to stop the run, and make plays but they also have to generally face more blockers.
Now on the Broncos there are three players that are vying for the starting spot, that is Andra Davis, Wesley Woodyard, and Spencer Larsen.
Davis is the veteran of these three, and will most likely be the one who starts from day one but because the position is backed up by both expect that both will get significant playing time early in the year and then one will most likely steal the spot by the halfway point.
I expect this will be Wesley Woodyard, he has been a beast, making plays all over the field and at the same time being able to hold his ground and stop the runs even with more blockers.
Behind him Spencer Larsen will still get some playing time, but because he is used more as a utility for a couple different positions he won't be starting as an inside linebacker, but rotating between his positions. Davis will be the starter for the first five or so weeks but then expect it to be Woodyard.
The last position is Sam, the strongside outside linebacker. This is a position that also gets sacks, but it is also a position that deals a lot with the running game that tries to cut to the outside.
For Sam to do the job properly, the position needs to be played by someone who is a bit bigger but at the same time has athletic ability to make the plays in the backfield and to the quarterback.
There is also a large possibility that a lot of the QB's blindsides are protected by extra blockers, which means that the strongside outside linebacker must be able to get past through power and skill with speed in order to pressure the QB. Now right now there is a front runner for this position as well, it is Darrell Reid.
He used to be the former defensive tackle in a 4-3 for the Colts, so he obviously has the size. The big question has been his ability to add speed and athleticism to that frame and make the plays that are needed.
Yet he has shown the coaches so far that he is capable of that. Like the inside linebacker this is a position that is subject to change because behind him is the first-round pick for the Broncos, Robert Ayers. Ayers is the definition of Sam, he is a big guy, but he also possesses a lot of athleticism that is required to play the position.
Another big point in his favor is the fact that he is familiar with the Five-Technique that is often used to set up in a 3-4. With this experience, his youth, his frame, and talent do not expect him to be a backup for very long.
Even as a backup he will get plenty of playing time as a strongside outside linebacker, the thing is though he will have to prove himself ready for the big leagues. Reid to start, Ayers to take over eventually.
This is the most important part to a 3-4, the linebackers are the heart and soul of the 3-4, if they fail the team will fail. In the end the defensive line maybe very important but they are just there to take up space and really provide a smokescreen for the defense.
I don't know if the linebackers will succeed but the linebackers will be the ones that will have to pick up the slack and make the plays to lead this team to victory.
At the end of the day, the linebackers are the core of this team, and they must be strong so the defense and ultimately the team can build off them.