Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why Is the 3-4 Defense So Sticky-Sexy-Sweet?

At this rate, the 3-4 defense will overtake the ol’ 4-3 base defense in a couple seasons. With my favorite team in the process of converting to the 3-4, I have run through denial, anger and I guess now I’m in confusion.

After all, Washington has had solid defense for ten years and we just spent $100 million on the best 1-gap DT in the league. In 2010, my 4-12 team was #1 in the league defending the red zone and 4th down conversions: they were impregnable in short yardage.

Last year, four teams converted to the 3-4 including the Jaguars, who will be desperately switching back to their old 4-3 after a truly wretched season. This year, fourteen teams will have a base 3-4, with three new additions. The Ravens are a special case, because they run a true hybrid of 4-3, 3-4 and 46.

But hey – what the hell are we talking about anyway?

The 4-3 Aligment

Each defender controls one gap in run defense. DE is the vital position in this defense. They must possess size, strength and speed. They are the primary pass rushers but must also hold their contain on the edge. These kinds of athletes (R. White, D. Manley, J. Peppers) are hard to come by, and getting two is nearly impossible.

If the DE’s aren’t rushing the passer, the team must blitz from man coverage, and that can be dangerous. If the DE’s aren’t holding contain, fast RBs and mobile QBs can kill them.

The 3-4 Alignment

The three down lineman are responsible for two gaps in run defense. This is a hard job, especially for the nose tackle who can be triple-teamed. However, the four linebackers are faster in pursuit and can gang tackle. The OLBs provide better contain and the extra pair of hands at linebacker depth can slow down the popular West Coast offense.

However, the 3-4 has weaknesses against aggressive passing attacks. Speed and quickness can elude LBs in coverage; zones are common in this alignment and can be exploited by good offenses.

The linemen don’t provide a rush, so at least one LB is usually pumped in. This does have the positive benefit of surprise. LBs can be blitzed from rotating zone coverage, which is confusing and safer versus short routes.

Unmovable linemen and outstanding talent at LB can make a 3-4 very dangerous; without that talent, the defense is spread too thin at the point of attack.

So Why Is The 3-4 So Sticky-Sexy-Sweet?

The Steelers and Patriots, two exceptional 3-4 teams, have won five championships since the 2001 season. Everybody wants to be like them … except for the Saints, Colts, Giants and Bucs, 4-3 teams who took the other four trophies.

That doesn’t convince me. Perhaps the statistics can offer a clear-cut answer?

In 2010, 3-4 teams gave up 19.9 ppg and forced 1.61 turnovers.
In 2010, 4-3 teams gave up 22.7 ppg and forced 1.67 turnovers.

2.8 points per game difference may not be inconsequential, but it definitely isn’t sexy. Considering that all the worst defenses in the league ran a 4-3 but would have been equally terrible in a 3-4, there doesn’t seem to be any real edge statistically.

And that makes sense. It isn’t the scheme, alignment or play call that wins or loses. It’s the players: talent, preparation & execution. The team must have good personnel for the scheme, they must coach it well and execute it properly. Which is damn hard to do when eleven other men are attacking you with a scheme of their own. This, by the way, is why I love football.

Washington’s Conversion to the 3-4

Head Coach Mike Shanahan comes from the offensive side (check out this outstanding explanation of “zone blocking”) but he has always had a 4-3 defense. Until his last season in Denver: the conversion to a 3-4 was a disaster and cost him his job.

Defensive Coordinator Jim Haslett was the coordinator in Pittsburgh before they won championships, and that was the last time he’s run a 3-4. As a head coach the last eleven years, he has exclusively run the 4-3.

It took Washington years to finally pull together a dominant 4-3 defensive line. They were heading into the season with only a hole at strongside LB.

By converting to the 3-4, Washington may only keep one of last year’s linemen as a starter (Daniels). Andre Carter and Brian Orakpo, two excellent 4-3 pass-rush & contain DE’s (remember how rare that is), will now play OLB despite their lack of coverage skills. The ILBs are not a good fit for this scheme either, at least on paper.

It sounds like Haslett might be working on a hybrid such as Baltimore’s. He has already hinted that the FS & SS positions are interchangeable and flexible. Perhaps there is a future in that.

But I just don’t understand blowing up a pretty good defense for a trendy scheme. I don’t remember Joe Gibbs going hog-wild for the Run-and-Shoot (which, by the way, won zero championships), or whatever “Hot Topic” was being copied league-wide.

Of course, Coach Shanahan and Coach Haslett know planets more about football than I do. Naturally, I will root for the 3-4 defense as ardently as ever, and hope for the best.

But I just don’t get it.

Unless it’s as simple as the fact that the Dallas Cowboys run a dominant 3-4, and held Washington to six points in two games last year?

That couldn’t be it. Right?

* these good diagrams by Mark Lawrence at Football.Calsci.com


Andrew Wice said...

Well, I was waiting for someone to make the point that the Packers achieved some notable success in switching to a 3-4 last year.

I would counter by pointing out the Chiefs and Jags, who were slaughtered by converting to the 3-4 without proper personnel in place. I worry that the latter scenario is more like Washington, and not just because all their icons represent oppressed species.

John Lawrence said...

Hey, I really enjoyed this post. Especially because I am a native and current resident of Washington, DC, but an avid and rabid fan of the Philadelphia Eagles. I've been looking into this debate between the 3-4 defense and the 4-3 defense for a while. I think the Redskins have made a considerable mistake in switching to the 3-4 defense for a few reasons.
Like you said, the Redskins just do not have the players to fill a 3-4 roster with much competence. That being said, I also think it would have been nice if they had left the defense alone for a year while they made the monumental transition on offense to Donovan McNabb (a large conflict within myself). After seeing how that went, maybe then they could have switched up the defense. What the Redskins are doing this season is an experiment. In a good experiment, you only change one factor. Donovan McNabb + a 3-4 transition is too much of a change. Offense and Defense feed off of each other; if this season is a bust the Redskins will not know what went wrong.
Secondly, it seems to me that the 3-4 base defense goes from ho-hum to suffocating with phenomenal free safety play (see Ed Reed or Troy however-his-last-name-is-spelled-lu). The Redskins do not have that kind of safety, so I'm afraid they shouldn't expect too much out of the 3-4.
But we shall see. This will be an interesting year of football.