So after watching the draft unfold and imagining the possibilities of our new acquisitions, I started to think how do these players fit in the long term? How do the current rookies and the current roster fit into a long term model for success? I began to read over the scouting reports of our newly acquired rookies, and I noticed a small trend. Versatility.
Most of our acquisitions were thought to be system versatile in the 4-3 or 3-4, and some were felt to be a better fit in the 3-4. This naturally peaked my interest and thus begun my quest to look at scouting reports from our recent FA signees, previous draftees, and the commonality between the wide nine and the rest of the defensive system Juan employs as opposed to the 3-4.
A little statistical background on the 3-4:
14 current NFL teams run some version of the 3-4 within their defensive package. 12 of them use the 3-4 as their base defense. The chart found at the site below shows these teams; although Seattle is glaringly missing from it, as they have several 3-4 packages incorporated into their defense.
I wanted to see how, defensively, these teams fared last year and found the following.
7 of these teams finished in the top 10 for total yards allowed. Pittsburgh, Houston, Baltimore, San Francisco, New York Jets, Seattle, and Cincinnati.
These teams also dominated the top 10 in both rushing and passing defense individually as 6 placed for each category.
Rushing defense: San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati
Passing defense: Pittsburgh, Houston, Baltimore, New York Jets, Kansas City, Cincinnati
Yardage is all good and pretty but I always base a defense on how well they keep points off the board. Once again 6 of these teams placed in the top 10 for points allowed per game: Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston, Seattle, Cincinnati
Out of these teams there are some common names that have been stout defensively for years but look at the anomalies. Houston who in 2010 played a 4-3 and was a terrible defense (Total yards: 30th, Passing yards: 32nd, Rushing yards: 13th, PPG: 29th), Cincinnati and Seattle who both are based out of a 4-3 but run some 3-4 packages, Dallas who has its up and downs, we all know how terrible their passing defense has been, and Kansas City who seems to be making the right moves, not including the recent disaster waiting to happen that is drafting Poe at 11. I didn't want to base my results on one year of findings so I decided to look at 2010 as well. (Yes I instead based my results off of 2 years of findings.)
In 2010 the following 3-4 teams placed in the top 10.
Total yards: San Diego, Pittsburgh, New York Jets, Green Bay, Miami, Baltimore
Pass yards: San Diego, Oakland, Buffalo, Green Bay, New York Jets, Miami
Rush yards: Pittsburgh, New York Jets, San Diego, Baltimore, San Francisco, Miami
PPG: Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Baltimore, New York Jets, New England, San Diego
Once again 60 percent of the top 10 ran a 3-4 or had elements of the 3-4 incorporated with in their defensive system.
Looking back over the last 5 years, I wanted to find the number 1 team in each category and again 3-4 dominated the results.
2010 San Diego
2009 New York Jets
2011 San Francisco
2009 Green Bay
2008 (Minnesota) a 4-3 team
2007 (Minnesota) a 4-3 team
2010 San Diego
2009 New York Jets
2007 (Tampa Bay) a 4-3 team
2009 New York Jets
2007 (Indianapolis) a 4-3 team
If the league is truly a copycat league, the surge of 3-4 teams, Houston changed last year; Indianapolis is changing this year, looks to be a trend well worth following. Of course not everybody has the head start Pittsburgh or Baltimore has, although Baltimore seems to be playing a lot more 4-3 packages as their players get older, but as Houston has proven the turn around to success can be short. The 3-4 has regained serious traction since the success of the 2001 Steelers.
"In fact, the Steelers were the only NFL team to use the 3-4 defense during the 2001 NFL season, but finished the season as the number one defense in the NFL. It is believed that the Steelers success with the 3-4 defense is the primary reason why many NFL teams have started returning to the formation."
"That's all fine and dandy Talon but to completely rebuild a defense would take years."
Generally this is true but what if the Eagles have been looking towards this transition for some time now? Perhaps as soon as this year, they might start incorporating little 3-4 looks here and there. It sounds fine in theory but let me show you some "proof".
First let's look at the 3-4 a little and see what it takes to run it. Prepare for some obvious statements here but it is necessary. A 3-4 gets its namesake from the fact that there are 3 down linemen and 4 LB's. In general the idea is to add an extra hidden rusher to confuse the QB's reads. More plainly one of or both of the OLB's are usually tasked with rushing the passer. There are also 2 CB's a SS, and a FS, like any standard defense. The difference here though is the type of player looked for at each position.
Defensive End: In a 3-4 the defensive end is often a converted DT from a more formal 4-3. They are big and hulking and it is because they are required to do a few different things from your 4-3 DE. The 3-4 DE must be able to get a push on the T and contend with double teams. They need to be able to control these T's to allow their OLB a free shot at rushing the QB. They have to be able to fight off blocks so they control their designated gap against the run thus pushing the run outside. Their strength must be very good so they can compete with the T's.
NT: The NT is a supersized DT. Ideally a NT will be 320 lbs. or more and have great strength. They have 2 gaps to cover against the run, constantly face double teams, and need to be able to fight out of those to jam the correct gap or allow their ILB's a chance to plug the correct gap without being swallowed by a G or C. They must have tree sized lower limbs, and the strength to go with it, so they aren't pushed back into their LB's.
OLB: Often times a 3-4 OLB is a very athletic 4-3 DE. Another way to say it is he is an undersized DE. The 3-4 OLBs do need some cover skills, primarily as a zone responsibility, but their biggest asset comes from rushing the passer. Speed and agility is what separates a 3-4 OLB from a 4-3 DE, because they rely more on rips then a bull rush. They also need to be athletic enough to track down the runner when the play is forced to the outside.
ILB: ILB in a 3-4 come in a variety of shapes and sizes. However the ideal 3-4 ILB is speedy and instinctive, choosing the correct gap to plug behind their NT. They need to be able to shed blockers well if the run does get past the DL, and make the sure stop. They are considered sideline to sideline players and it is preferred to have their coverage ability based in zone.
CB: In a 3-4 the key is timing. Receivers need to be slowed down enough to allow the rushers the 2 to 3 seconds needed to reach the QB. For this reason a cornerback who is excellent at man press is the most sought after type of CB. A corner is often left one on one for a significant amount of time with the receiver so this is where the fluidity in hip movements, good change of direction ability, and well-disciplined behavior is vital.
SS: A thumper and run stopper is most often sought for the SS position. The SS plays close to the line to give ample run support but also to track the TE. Once again zone coverage is the biggest asset here although for plays that take longer to develop, man may be required. This all depends on the FS's current responsibility. A SS who is an effective blitzer gives even more of a headache.
FS: The FS in a 3-4 must be one of the most instinctive players on the field. He is often times roaming in the middle and must correctly judge where the QB may go with the ball and then react to give his CB's, LB's, or SS the help needed. A solid tackler is also preferred as the FS becomes the last line of defense against the run.
So that in a nutshell is the 3-4. I prefer the Pittsburgh method which relies more on the OLB's and the SS as a rusher as opposed to generating the pressure from the DE spots as well as the LB spot. In Pittsburgh's scheme, the ends are more body controllers and as the stats above show, it seems to work well.
The next thing I looked at was the tools needed to run a successful wide nine as the defensive line scheme. I wanted to compare and contrast the positions to see how easy it would be to make the switch. A wide nine references numbers along the defensive line. The biggest difference here is how far out (wide) the DE's line up. They line up in what is known as the nine position or on the outside shoulder of the TE or T. They have one responsibility in this formation and that is to rush the passer. Brian Billick explains it in a nice little 3 or 4 minutes video better than I could.
So after reading several articles and then a couple more, I got a pretty good gist at what is required from our defensive components and the similarities were noticeable to what is required from the 3-4 components.
DE: The defensive ends are purely rushers when they are lined up in the 9 position. Having the instincts to track down the wide run is an asset. Their primary tools are rip and swim moves because a bull rush would take too long in most cases.
DT: The defensive tackles are responsible for generating some pressure to push the QB back into the path of the oncoming DE but are primarily focused on plugging up their assigned gaps to prevent the running play. They focus against the G's and C mostly and are responsible for the tackle or allowing their LB's the opportunity to plug the open gaps and make the tackle.
LB: Linebackers need to be able to shed blocks well as they usually have to contend with at least one G or C. They need this ability for an effective wide nine role, to stop the runner since there are wider gaps for him to use. Their instincts must be top notch because they are responsible for multiple gaps and must choose the right ones.
CB: Juan likes to employ press man coverage to allow his DE time to get to the QB. In the wide nine, that delay is the difference.
SS: The SS playing behind the wide nine needs to be a good tackler. He has to be able to successfully play close to the line of scrimmage as he has his own gap responsibility.
FS: The free safety has to be able to roam and use his instincts as well as provide over the top help to his CB's. The SS playing so close to the line to assist in the run and cover the TE make the FS one of the more pivotal roles. His instincts come into play because if the receiver gets off on a quick slant or some underneath route, he needs to be there for the quick tackle at the least. He also assumes the role of last defender in case the runner breaks through the LB's.
Now in general, most defenses look for similar caliber players, but the closely worded desires from the position as well as the responsibilities of the positions are staggeringly similar to what the 3-4 looks for from its personnel. This makes it seem to me, that the transition from playing the wide nine to a 3-4 might not only be relatively smooth but perhaps we have been building towards this for a while. This caused me to look at our personnel and look at their scouting reports as they were getting ready to be drafted.
As I previously stated, I would expect this transition to take 3 to 4 years, so I am going to focus on the players I believe might be around and the starters at that time.
NT: Antonio Dixon: Dixon is ideal size and has the ideal attributes for the NT position. He's 320 lbs., very strong, and was our best run defender in 2010 as his ability to play 2 gaps is fantastic. Of course his injury is a concern but if he comes back fully healthy, he could play the NT position in a 3-4. (I could not find a scouting report on Dixon so sorry.)
DE: Fletcher Cox: Cox is described as strong at the point of attack. He can generate a good pass rush, is very athletic for his size, and is strong enough to wrestle with most T's. He would be able to fit in as a 3-4 DE with no problem.
"Cox succeeds by shooting gaps and getting into the backfield, so he needs to be placed in a defense that allows him to freelance as opposed to eating up blocks. For 3-4 defenses, that's called a one-gap scheme."
DE: Cedric Thornton: The coaches love him but he is kind of an unknown entity to us. Thornton has good athleticism and will be able to push the run wide. He needs to up his strength though so he's not tossed aside giving the tackle a free block on the OLB.
"Thornton has a large frame and a quick first step. Possesses the range to make plays outside of the tackle box. Delivers an effective initial punch and has long arms to keep blockers at bay. Flashes a powerful bull rush and the burst to get after the quarterback"
OLB: Brandon Graham: Graham has good athleticism and some key attributes that would be needed as a 3-4 OLB. He is good at getting off blocks using spins and rips. He has a very quick first step and moves well laterally. His instincts are solid and he has always played the run well. He might be a liability in coverage however and he has already expressed his desire to be a 4-3 end. However I think he is professional enough to play whatever position he is designated, and I believe he can do it well.
"Graham is a physical pass rusher who never quits. Frequently gets pressure, even when facing chip blocking. Gets very low to the ground, but maintains good balance coming around the edge. Benefited some at Michigan because he was allowed to line up wide and beat slower tackles. Has a very good inside counter move."
OLB: Vinny Curry: Curry isn't the fastest speed wise but makes up with that with a deadly arsenal of moves including the rip and swim. He has also been used in zone coverage before and played it effectively. He does need to get better at defending against the run though.
"Curry is a dangerous edge rusher who commands a lot of blocking attention. He has a great get-off when the ball is snapped with a good combination of moves to beat offensive tackles."
ILB: Mychal Kendricks: Kendricks is a solid sure tackler, and possess' pretty good instincts. His speed is tremendous so it would be an asset in coverage. He looks more comfortable playing man coverage though as opposed to zone. Kendricks does need to get better at shedding blocks, but it is more a technique issue then a strength and maneuverability issue.
"He's an undersized inside linebacker who will have some scheme versatility in 3-4 defenses. Kendricks is an aggressive tackler with good range. Great first step and does well to stay small and penetrate the line of scrimmage."
ILB: Casey Matthews: Coming out of college Matthews was praised for his instincts. He reads plays very well and makes the correct call more often than not. He's pretty good at fighting off blockers and can play zone coverage well. He isn't a great tackler so that could present a problem.
"Matthews has the versatility to be a sack artist like Clay in the 4-3 or the 3-4, but has the play recognition skills of a Ray Lewis or a Patrick Willis type linebacker which is why he is better suited on the inside."
CB: Dominique-Rodgers Cromartrie: At this point in his career DRC plays man press well. Coming out of school he wasn't quite strong enough to do it but has since grown into the role well. He's a big CB, but it does not detract from his athleticism. He is very fluid in his movements, and has borderline shut down capabilities making him able to stay in one on one coverage for a while.
Needs to get stronger in his press technique, but he is smooth turning on the ball thanks to above average hip flexibility, as he transitions with no wasted motion"
CB: Curtis Marsh: Marsh is another corner who has pretty good size. He loves to use physicality when covering, giving an effective jam at the line of scrimmage. His movements are smooth so staying with his man isn't a problem. He is still developing though but has the traits to get very good. His big deficiency right now is he loses track of the ball, so awareness must be improved.
"Physical and aggressive - best fit man be in a press scheme"
SS: Jaiquwan Jarrett: Is touted as an excellent run stopper. He delivers a pop when he tackles although he needs to get better at making the sure wrap up. He plays zone coverage fairly well but needs to get better in man.
"- Great tackler
- Packs a punch as a hitter
- Comes down hard in run support"
FS: Nate Allen: Was said to possess a high football I'Q. and look comfortable diagnosing plays. He has good enough speed to be able to patrol sideline to sideline and is very reactive to what is developing. His coverage ability is wide ranging and combined with his speed he can get where he needs to be. Overall he is a decent tackler although we have all seen him get trucked a few times so improving his tackling is a must.
"Reads QB well and gets good breaks on the football"
So looking over this roster I'd say we have the start of a good enough foundation to play a little 3-4. I think getting a more pure NT, a better ILB, and perhaps a surer CB might be needed before making a full time switch but as a sub package, I think we can be effective now. (Note; click on the players' names to see the scouting reports where I got the quotes)
So there you have it, my thoughts on what could be an oncoming switch to the 3-4. Is it one hundred percent convincing? No. Is it factual in anyway or even based upon rumors? Absolutely not. Is it a thought based on the delirium of working 20 straight days, with 4 of those days being doubles and knowing I still have another 8 days and 2 more doubles before I get a day off? Perhaps. What it is though for certain is an idea. So what say you?