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Joe Collier’s Defensive Schemes

The Game Before the Money Podcast spoke with Karl Mecklenburg about defensive coordinator Joe Collier’s leadership— in Episode 28 of the football history podcast. 

Joe Collier’s Impressive Career

Joe Collier was a defensive coach for the back-to-back AFL champion Buffalo Bills in the mid-1960s and eventually led them to an AFL championship game as their head coach. Collier later worked for the Broncos and was the architect of the Orange Crush defense. He played a huge part in Karl Mecklenburg’s success. Mecklenburg opened up about Collier’s leadership as Denver’s defensive coordinator and Collier’s willingness to adapt his defense to his players’ strengths.

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Identifying a Player’s Strengths

Joe Collier was a defensive assistant for the Denver Broncos for 20 years,” Mecklenburg said. “Five different head coaches came and went while he was still on that staff. He had an unbelievable understanding of football. And this is a characteristic I think most leaders should look for: (Collier had) the ability to look at somebody, to study them and figure out things they didn’t even know about themselves as far as talents and abilities and skills.”

Mecklenburg added: “I had never played linebacker until my third year in the NFL. The Broncos drafted me as a lineman. I’d been a lineman all the way through. At every level of football, I’d always been a lineman. Joe looked at me and said, ‘You know what? Yeah, you’re not fast, but you’re quick, and you make decisions quickly.’ A lot of defensive coordinators would not have moved me to linebacker just because they’d have been afraid I’d get matched up on a speed back or a speed tight end and get beat deep.

“Instead, Joe looked at me and said, this is a guy who can make a bunch of plays. He’s a guy that is a great tackler, a guy that reads things fast. It’s my job to figure out how to put a defense around him that protects him from getting beat deep. I’m going to use the strength of the individual to help the team and use the strengths of the team to cover for the weaknesses of the individual. And that’s what great leaders do.”

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Karl Mecklenburg as a VERY Versatile NFL Player

Karl Mecklenburg worked as the major chess piece in Joe Collier’s defensive schemes in Denver. Mecklenburg stood as one of the most versatile playmakers of the era. The game programs always listed him as a linebacker. In reality, Mecklenburg played pretty much every position in Denver’s front seven.

“I got to play seven different defensive positions. And a few times (that was) in a single game. He (Collier) would move me inside, outside, up, down, back and forth, based on where he thought the ball was going. Based on what he thought the best matchup situations would be based on trying to confuse the other offense.”

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Looking for a great NFL history book? Check out The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL available at — Amazon.com – Barnes and Noble – University of Nebraska Press

Like sports history? Listen to The Game Before the Money Podcast! Most episodes include stories from legendary football stars.

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