May 29, 2010

Will The Transition To A 3-4 Defense Pay Off?

Within the Washington Redskins organization rarely does anything come without a huge splash accompanying it.

As new head coach Mike Shanahan assembled his staff over the past several months, rumors abounded that the Redskins were looking to change their base defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

A 4-3 defense has been the only thing that has been rock solidly consistent over this franchise's existence. Throughout the team's history they have never strayed from operating out of the most classic defensive front in football.

However, the hiring of Jim Haslett as defensive coordinator confirmed that the Redskins' one constant would be abandoned.

All of the defenses Haslett has been involved in ran under some pretense of the 3-4. Washington will be no different as the coaching staff has already discussed with the media the upcoming transition to a 3-4.

Today, in a pass-first NFL, it makes sense to adapt as so many teams have. A well run 3-4 defense poses more problems for opposing quarterbacks than a 4-3 and teams are taking notice of this.

A 3-4 defense consists of four linebackers and three down linemen, meaning that defensive coordinators are much more versatile in what they can do with their schemes.

It allows for more complex blitz packages, more bodies in coverage and more general chaos downfield. All of these things add up to a quarterback's worst nightmare and given the recent abundance of pass-first teams, the entire NFL is slowly but surely transitioning to the 3-4.

However, the 3-4 doesn't guarantee success against passing teams. It requires athletic, versatile linebackers, a strong pass rush that supports the secondary and most importantly, a dominant nose tackle.

It may sound easy, but there is no quick method to developing a great 3-4 defense. Finding at least four linebackers talented enough to play in a 3-4 is incredibly difficult especially now with every team in the market for them.

The Redskins have several pieces in place for their 3-4 defense, but it is far from a finished product.

Last year, Washington drafted Brian Orakpo from Texas and he excelled at rushing the passer from a three-point stance. Now Orakpo will line up as the rush end in the 3-4, a position that should suit his burst and skill set.

Orakpo will only build on his impressive rookie season in which he notched 11 sacks and 50 tackles, playing at both DE and LB. The OLB position in the 3-4 will allow him to rush the passer from different angles, and as he gains experience and strength, Orakpo could end up drawing comparisons to the likes of DeMarcus Ware or a Pre-injury Shawne Merriman.

The rest of the linebacking corps isn't set in stone for the long-term, but the depth and experience is there.

London Fletcher still possesses the ability to be one of the NFL's premiere run pluggers at middle linebacker (or inside linebacker in a 3-4), but he is fast approaching the end of his career.

Fletcher is a 12-year vet who makes 100+ tackles every year. He isn't as capable in coverage, but when it comes to plugging up the middle, no one is better than Fletcher.

However, Fletcher will need a big body in front of him in order to leave him free to make plays on the ballcarrier.

A great nose tackle is essential to a successful 3-4. The Ravens and Cowboys linebackers can attest to the fact that having a force on the line of scrimmage increases what they can do at the point of attack.

Haloti Ngata (Ravens) and Jay Ratliff (Cowboys) both command double or even triple teams at the line of scrimmage, meaning players like Ray Lewis and Keith Brooking are left unblocked.

Washington will need to determine which of the nose tackles on their roster can best wreak havoc up front. If they can't find anyone able to command double teams, then Haslett's 3-4 will suffer.

Albert Haynesworth would seem to be the ideal choice for nose tackle as he possesses the size and strength necessary to take the pounding in the middle. Yet Haynesworth seems adverse to taking said pounding. He has repeatedly said he does not want to play in a 3-4 and it has been suggested that he will play defensive end instead of nose tackle.

Howard Green, formerly of the Jets, lined up as the starter during the team's minicamps, but it's Ma'ake Kemoeatu who could be the answer should he recover fully from an Achilles injury suffered last season.

Kemoeatu has the size (6-5, 345) to play in the middle, and he flashed dominance at times with the Carolina Panthers.

"He is a prototypical nose tackle," Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said of Kemoeatu. "He's working extremely hard. I think next week, he'll get more reps. The key is getting ready for summer camp. And there's not a question he's full speed, ready to go."

Kemoeatu learned to play nose tackle under defensive wizard Rex Ryan in Baltimore, and he is expected to be a huge part of the Redskins' 3-4.

The nose tackle is essential as he occupies blockers and disrupts assignments. This not only benefits the ILBs, but it can leave edge rushers in one-on-one situations.

The Redskins have Orakpo, but they lack an explosive rusher off of the other side.

Andre Carter has straightline speed and is a relentless in pursuit, but it remains to be seen if he possesses the quickness to play off the edge. Note, however, that he struggled adapting to a 3-4 in San Francisco (albeit a different scheme).

Carter will likely get the nod starting opposite Orakpo. Chris Wilson and Lorenzo Alexander are both terrific role players, yet they aren't everydown players. They will fill in as situational pass rushers along with Jeremy Jarmon and Robert Henson.

Rocky McIntosh would be an option at OLB, but he would be better suited playing alongside Fletcher as the other ILB. McIntosh is a solid linebacker who is good in coverage. He isn't much of a pass rusher so it makes sense to move him into the middle.

Free agent acquisition Chris Draft, HB Blades and rookie Perry Riley will provide quality depth in the middle, rounding out what looks to be an adequate LB corps.

I'll wrap up my look at the 3-4 with preview of the secondary and then give my expectations for the defense in the coming days.

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