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D-line looks to build with smooth transition to 3-4

Posted Feb 3, 2015

The Broncos' defensive line coach is no stranger to helping a team change from a 4-3 defensive scheme to a 3-4. We sat down with him to discuss the future of the Broncos' defensive line.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —Not too long ago, new Broncos defensive line coach Bill Kollar was with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips implementing a defensive shift under Head Coach Gary Kubiak, much like they’ll do soon in Denver albeit in a very different situation. After a rough 2010 season, Houston needed a defensive change desperately after the Texans ranked 31st in yards per play allowed, 29th in points allowed, 31st in passing yards per play allowed, 25th in interception rate and 26th in sacks per pass attempt.

With Phillips' arrival, he brought about a schematic change from the traditional 4-3 defense with four down linemen to a 3-4 with three down linemen and four linebackers. The results paint a pretty clear picture: Houston ranked third in yards per play allowed, second in passing yards per play allowed, 14th in interception rate and fifth in sacks per pass attempt in 2011. The defense got much more pressure and penetration to opposing backfields, which helped not only get sacks but also hurry throws and stop runs. With rookie J.J. Watt, who would become one of the most dominant pass rushers in today's league, the Texans' defense helped the team reverse their record from 6-10 to 10-6 to earn the franchise's first playoff appearance and then their first playoff win.

The Broncos don't need any kind of comprehensive turnaround like that—they were the NFL's second-best defense by yards-per-play measurements—but a transition to the 3-4 defense could bring some added aggressiveness.

Kollar is reunited with Phillips and Kubiak this year in Denver, and he anticipates the defensive change will be easier than some might think. From watching the Broncos last year, Kollar noticed that they already played with a bunch of 3-4 tendencies anyway.

"The type of 3-4 that we played in Houston and that we’re going to end up playing here — the players, believe it or not, will be a lot more familiar with what we do than you think," he said.

"Just like in Houston when we did it, the biggest [change] turned out to be Mario [Williams] going from defensive end to outside linebacker, but one of the outside linebackers in this defense [Miller] rushes more than anything else anyhow. So it’s not like it’s a big difference for them like you would think, like going from a 4-3 to a 3-4. With the guys that we have here and stuff, I really don’t see much of a problem at all."

In Phillips' particular brand of 3-4, the emphasis for the defensive line becomes penetrating through the offensive line from each lineman's angle. In a normal 3-4, the nose tackle focuses on clogging the middle of the line, but in this scheme, the nose tackle will line up to shade the center's shoulder and get a one-gap rush.

"We’re not a two-gap nose man where you’re sitting head up on the center where you’re trying to keep the center off of everybody in the world," Kollar said. "I mean, we’re more on the shade of the center and trying to get penetration, trying to get in the backfield and mess run plays up instead of sitting and grabbing the center and holding on to him and don’t let him off and stuff. It’s a little different defense that way in our 3-4 compared to others. There are very few 3-4 defenses that play that way anymore where you just try to grab the center."

With that, he said the change will bring plenty of benefits for the edge rushers like DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, who harried quarterbacks all season.

"I think this will be a good scheme; it gives the outside guys, the two outside linebackers in Ware and Miller a real chance to get after the passer, then obviously we go to the sub package when you get into three wide receiver sets and stuff and you’ll have two defensive linemen inside, also. But they’ll be pretty familiar, really, with this defense."

With changes on the horizon for the defensive line, the familiarity the coaching staff has with each other serves as a firm foundation for next season's preparation, and Kollar is excited to get to work with the talented group the Broncos have in the trenches to build back to deeper playoff runs.

"It’s great to have an opportunity to get around with the coaches that I’ve worked with before that I really respected and who have done a good job," Kollar said. "We’ve got quite a few good players on the team and you hope we can end up gelling and obviously make a big run next year. We’re not sitting here saying, 'Hey, we’re just trying to, you know, do this or do that and end up having a great year next year.'"

Their plans to rework the defense aren't set on simply rebuilding it, but building to a new level in a different way.