NFL Scout David Syvertsen takes a look at those teams changing from the 4-3 defense to the suddenly trendy 3-4.Every offseason the gap between the amounts of 4-3 fronts vs. 3-4 fronts seems to decrease. While searching for the league’s top defensive units, it is hard to look past the dominance a strong 3-4 scheme has on the game. Each year more and more organizations are opting for the multiple-look base defense that makes it easier to put pressure on the quarterback and keep the opposing offense guessing. This season, there are three teams attempting the move in an effort to better their underachieving defense.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Situation/Coaching Change: After a 2008 campaign in which the Packers allowed 380 points and ranked 20th overall, General Manager Ted Thompson and Head Coach Mike McCarthy made the decision to bring in one of the most respected defensive minds in the game. Dom Capers has a history of turning around defensive units with his complex, multiple look 3-4 scheme. His best years were in Pittsburgh (1992-1994) where no team allowed fewer touchdowns than the unit he was calling the shots for. Two of his standouts from those teams, Kevin Greene and Darren Perry, have been hired by Green Bay to work under Capers in an effort to try and bring some of that success to the team.
Personnel: It usually takes at least two offseasons for a team making the transition to the 3-4 before the proper personnel is set in place. However thanks to an already versatuile group of front seven defenders on top of creative player acquisition, the Packers have the proper players to be a strong unit in 2009. The linebackers are as deep as a coach could hope for and the problems they have there are ones Capers is glad to deal with. There are so many talented players that fit the scheme well, the issue will be getting them all on the field. AJ Hawk and Nick Barnett are tough run defenders in the middle that have the athleticism to own the tackle-to-tackle box. Aaron Kampman has one of the outside spots locked up while Jeremy Thompson, Brady Poppinga, and rookie Clay Matthews all have skill sets that could make an impact within the scheme. The pressure can come from all angles with these linebackers on the field and that fact alone will heavily improve the performance of the unit in 2009.
Up front the Packers were fortunate to already have big bodies that can play multiple roles. The addition of top ten pick BJ Raji gives the team a true 3-4 nose tackle, arguably the most vital aspect of the scheme. He and Ryan Pickett will split time over center while Raji has the versatility to play defensive end. Cullen Jenkins was out of place at defensive end in the 4-3, but he could potentially be a top notch 3-4 end considering his ability to eat up blocks and stuff the run. Johnny Jolly and Justin Harrell are both big bodies that, if they can buy into what the scheme is all bout, could be outstanding role players hat allow the linebackers to fly around and make plays. If there is a group on the defense that holds this unit as a whole back, it will be up front. While the bodies are there, these players are going to be asked to do things they are not used to. While the linebackers are the most important group of the defense in this scheme, every play starts up front.
Key Player: Aaron Kampman – OLB
If the outside linebackers are not getting pressure on the quarterback, this scheme will be a complete failure. Kampman, the team’s featured pass rusher, is making the move from defensive end to outside linebacker a la Jayson Taylor in 2006 (under the familiar Dom Capers). While he does not have a low number in the age column (30 in November), Kampman ranks third in the NFL with 37 sacks over the past three years behind only DeMarcus Ware and Jared Allen. Kampman is a hard nosed technician that understands all aspects of getting to the passer and expect Capers to use him in the most efficient ways to keep him a productive player.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Situation/Coaching Change: The Chiefs put in a record setting performance in 2008. But not in the way they were hoping as they totaled just 10 sacks all year, the lowest number over a 16 game schedule in NFL history. Head coach Todd Haley opted to bring with him his colleague from Arizona, Clancy Pendergast, to lead the team’s transition to the attacking 3-4 defense. While Arizona was not known for their defense throughout Pendergast’s tenure, he did improve the unit in to a dominant force during their playoff run in January. While most 3-4 defenses are all about attacking from different angles, Pendergast uses unique rotations to take full advantage of mismatches across the offensive line. He likes to use speed, explosion, and physicality to create this problems for the opposing offense. By doing so, he forces quartberbacks in to quick decisions that lead to a hefty amount of turnovers if the playmakers are there in the secondary. Turnovers are so related to wins in the NFL, and Pendergast will aim to get the ball in the hands of his defenders. His situation will be tough to handle as the Chiefs were 31st in defense in 2008, next to last.
Personnel: The transition to the 3-4 is not going to be a quick fix in Kansas City mainly due to the lack of true 3-4 personnel. While the acquisitions of veteran linebackers Mike Vrabel and Zach Thomas will aid the process of developing younger players, neither are on the right side of 30 and both of their games are noticeably on the decline. The team spent two early picks on defensive lineman that fit the scheme very well however. Tyson Jackson reminds scouts of the Patriots’ Richard Seymour and even though he has struggled to pick up certain assignments with consistency, he has the talent and mind set to be a strong force right away. Alex Magee did not have an overly productive career at Purdue, but he plays the game like a 3-4 end should and his transition to the NFL should be an easy one. He’ll be behind second year top five pick Glenn Dorsey who struggled vs. the double teams as 4-3 interior lineman but the hope is that he can be more of a factor as he will now be in space which will enable his ability to move in space and pursue ball carriers without as much traffic to get through. Tank Tyler and Ron Edwards are fighting for the starting nose tackle position, but neither have played with the consistency to give Haley enough confidence to hand the job over.
Vrabel and Thomas will give the Chiefs dependability and experience within the scheme, but neither will make plays and run around with the kind of athleticism that Pendergast wants. While more pieces are put in to place through the next couple of offseasons, they will be reliable enough to keep the defense on an improving scale. Derek Johnson will play next to Thomas and while the former first round pick has not exactly been deserving of the bust label, the jury is still out on him. He can fly around and make plays with a strong 3-4 defensive line in front of him, but that remains to be seen. Tamba Hali, the team’s top pas rusher, will play right outside linebacker. His ability to rush the edge is certainly there, thus the move for him should be a simple one. The struggle will be when he needs to play in space, especially in coverage as he has been a down lineman his entire football career dating back to high school.
Key Player: Derek Johnson – ILB
In the scheme that Pendergast is implementing, Johnson is going to play the role that Karlos Dansby did in Arizona. An inside linebacker that will be moved around within the box with a variety of roles. Johnson is a good blitzer that can take advantage of mismatches inside and out, yet he also has the ability to make plays in the middle. With Thomas next to him, he will be able to roam more and make plays all over the field. If he can get halfway decent play in front of him in the trenches, he could be a potential pro-bowler in this scheme.
Situation/Coaching Change: Since the Broncos AFC Championship game appearance in 2005, the Mile High defense has been on the steep and steady decline. A lack of quality personnel acquisition and four different defensive coordinators in as many years made it nearly impossible for the unit to thrive. Enter Mike Nolan, one of the games most respected defensive minds. While his 18-37 record as a head coach in San Francisco does not spell confidence, his history of turning around defenses (Jets in 2000) and maintaining/improving already strong units (Ravens 2002-2004) leads one to believe that he is in his element when his sole responsibility resides on the defensive side of the ball. He is taking on quite the ask as the Denver defense was ranked 29th in the league and 30th in scoring in 2008. The run defense was non-existent and the pass rush was inconsistent which led to the team’s mere 13 takeaways, the second lowest in 30 years since the NFL moved to a 16 game schedule. He plans to implement an attacking style of 3-4 that moves players around, keeping running lanes to a minimum. The Broncos could have made the playoffs with a week 17 victory against the Chargers last December, but the defense allowed 52 points. With Nolan calling the shots, that would have never happened.
The Broncos’ defensive line has been abysmal throughout their downfall since the 2005 season. The lack of physicality against the run can be directly attributed to the lack of quality football players in the trenches. Unfortunately, the first offseason after the change to the 3-4 did not bring in a lot of talent to line and it will likely be the team’s downfall in 2008. While there are a couple of interesting athletes that are worth giving a shot (Tim Crowder, Ryan McBean, Marcus Thomas, Le Kevin Smith) at defensive end, there is a good shot none of the above mentioned players will be starting in 2010. The team lacks a true nose tackle and will try to make due with Ronald Fields and rookie Chris Baker. Without that plug in the middle however, the rest of the unit is going to need to elevate their level of play. With the scheme being new and the personnel not exactly fitting the bill, the lack of a true nose tackle could be the Achilles heal of a defense that has really struggled to stuff the run consistently.
If the Broncos defense does turn it around in eyar one under Mike Nolan, the back seven will deserve the meat of the credit. The team’s rotation at outside linebacker features two pass rushers that could combine for well over 20 sacks in Elvis Dumervil and Jarvis Moss. If an injury occurs to either one of those edge rushers, the Broncos have no depth to speak of. Inside, Andra Davis has plenty of experience as an inside ‘backer within the 3-4 from his days in Cleveland and appears to be much more comfortable than in the 4-3. The interesting component to the linebacker core will be DJ Williams, a former first round pick that excelled within the 4-3. With one less down lineman in front of him, Williams will have to fight off more direct blocks, something he seems to be struggling with during preseason. If he cannot fix that issue in his game, the Broncos run defense is going to be that much easier to run on. Robert Ayers, another first round pick from the 2009 class, will be moved around as a blitzing linebacker on third downs and if he along with Dumervil and Moss can pressure the passer, the veteran secondary will come down with plenty of turnovers. A lot depends on this unit and even though the depth is sorely lacking, the swarming/aggressive group could lead the charge towards a new attitude in Denver.
Key Player: Elvis Dumervil – OLB
After playing his entire career as a down lineman, Dumervil has made a seamless transition to the outside linebacker position. His 12.5 sacks in 2007 is a number that could easily be reached with his new role, one similar to what we see out of fellow short edge rusher James Harrison in Pittsburgh. His low center of gravity and smaller area for pass blockers to hold onto will make it much easier for Dumervil to reach the quarterback. With the likes of Andre Goodman, Champ Bailey, and Brian Dawkins roaming the outfield, Dumervil’s pressure potential is something that could bring the defense to another level quickly.