ENGLEWOOD – On most running plays, Denver Broncos outside linebacker Mario Haggan is not instructed to make a tackle.
The coaches won’t scold him if he does, but that isn’t his job. In Denver’s defensive scheme, the outside linebackers are there to sacrifice. They “set the edge,” or keep running backs and quarterbacks in the pocket, funneling plays inside so others such as inside linebackers D.J. Williams and Andra Davis can make the tackle.
Going into today’s game against Philadelphia, Davis and Williams have combined for 184 tackles. Haggan, who has started all 14 games, has 44 tackles. Haggan made one of the better plays last week against Oakland when he kept running back Darren McFadden from getting outside on fourth and 1. He forced McFadden to pause and cut inside but had to share the tackle with Davis.
That’s typical, but the outside linebackers understand their roles.
“No disrespect to any other position, but I feel like the outside linebacker is probably the most vital position on the defense,” Haggan said. “We don’t put up big tackles, but if you watch film and watch what we do every day, when you watch D.J. or Andra come across and make a tackle for a loss – if the edge was set well, it’s going to end up being a big play.”
Some outside linebackers receive glory. Elvis Dumervil leads the NFL with 15 sacks, but he has only 45 tackles. While outside linebackers are key to the pass rush, Haggan comes out in passing situations so his work gets little recognition.
“Just to get that whole concept that you have to do something that may not be very glamorous, but it’s going to allow somebody else to make tackles, takes a little while to get used to,” coach Josh McDaniels said. “In other schemes, you try to get to the ball all the time. We’re trying to condense running lanes.”
Last week, the outside linebackers had to share some blame for the loss. The Raiders rushed for 241 yards, the most this season against the Broncos, mainly because they had seven big running plays. Five of those came on cutback runs, which the outside linebackers are asked to contain. For the most part, the outside linebackers have played well as the defense ranks third in the NFL in yards allowed.
Haggan had to learn the nuances of the position and noted that it takes more than brute force to set the edge. The linebacker must recognize plays while also staying aware of timing, figuring out when it’s OK to shed the blocker. Do that too early, and it could open up a hole to the outside.
Haggan might not make many highlights today against the Eagles, but his role in stopping Philadelphia’s big-play offense is essential.
“They trust me on the edge," he said. "They don’t worry about when things come my way.”