The Washington Redskins’ change from the 4-3 to the 3-4 defensive scheme has been the topic of conversation for fans and media in one way or another the entire off-season.
There’s no way to know if the change is going to be successful but Rich Campbell of Fredericksburg.com does a good job of breaking down the elements to better understand how the 3-4 works.
Shanahan was smart to bring in defensive coordinator Jim Haslett to make the change. According to Campbell, the head coach and Haslett met while Shanahan was still unemployed and they discussed the scheme at length. Haslett is familiar with the 3-4 from playing it as linebacker with the Buffalo Bills as well as being defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers (who have run the 3-4 longer than any NFL team) for 3 years.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, and I’m glad that I have somebody with the experience to actually implement it,” Shanahan said during offseason activities.
The 3-4 is a popular scheme. This season, Buffalo is also converting to it. Green Bay, Denver and Kansas City made the switch to the 3-4 alignment in 2009. This season, there will be 15 teams running that defense or some form of it.
Campbell points out that not all versions of the 3-4 are the same.
There are “one-gap” and “two gap” versions. In the “one gap”, linemen attempt to penetrate through a specific gap between offensive linemen while linebackers account for others. In the “two gap” version, defensive linemen line up directly in front of an offensive lineman and are responsible for the gaps on both sides of him. The “one gap” is a more aggressive approach.
Haslett has said that the Redskins will run a 3-4 that is more of a “one gap” and is comparable to Pittsburgh’s and Green Bay’s.
There are also the hybrid 3-4 defenses which regularly alternate between the 4-3 and the 3-4 schemes depending on the situation and personnel. Arizona and San Francisco ran hybrids recently in order to smooth the conversion from the 4-3 to 3-4 over multiple seasons. The Baltimore Ravens, one of the most successful defenses in the league, use the alternating approach in their defense.
This “one gap”, alternating type of defense is what Shanahan calls “Redskins Defense.”
One reason the 3-4 is so successful is because it provides flexibility and is more confusing to opposing offenses.
Campbell gives an ‘oversimplified example’ of how a pass rush situation could be confusing in the 3-4 scheme. In a 4-3, the four rushers would usually be the four defensive linemen. However in a 3-4, the three linemen can be joined on the rush by one of four linebackers.
Detroit Lions’ head coach Jim Schwartz describes it this way: “When you’re a 3-4 team and you can potentially bring one of several people, and that guy is just your fourth rusher, it makes it so a lot of times you have to block something as a blitz even though it’s not a blitz. It may be a four-man pass rush, but because a certain player came that you weren’t accounting for in your count, so to speak, it spreads you a little thin.”
Campbell gives us a hypothetical situation: Haslett has a bulky defensive end line up against the left tackle and uses Orakpo to rush from that side. The left tackle ideally would be occupied by the defensive end, while Orakpo would use his speed to get around the edge. If successful, there’s your effective outside pass rush.
Another reason why the 3-4 is appealing is that a powerful pass rush will result in more turnovers via errant throws or stripped balls, which is where the Redskins need to improve this year.
“The big thing that we are emphasizing is that we need to get more turnovers,” Haslett said. “That is the No. 1 thing that we need to get through to them.”
Campbell goes on to caution against thinking that this switch is going to magically make the Redskins defense wildly successful. Other teams have tried to make the transition and failed. Jacksonville tried last season and failed so miserably, that they went back to the 4-3 mid-season. There have been mixed results in Cleveland, Kansas City and Arizona but success in Green Bay, New England and Dallas.
It’s all about the personnel. No defensive scheme in and of itself will thrive if a team doesn’t have the right personnel playing in it.
And the Redskins do have concerns in the personnel department. Andre Carter, Lorenzo Alexander and Jeremy Jarmon are all making the transition from defensive line/end to linebacker in order to facilitate this scheme change. This doesn’t always work although reports throughout the off-season indicate the players are making the changes well.
Also, there’s no lack of concern about the Redskins finding a solid nose tackle – one of the most important positions on a 3-4 defense according to coaches – who can take up linemen and space so that a player like middle linebacker London Fletcher can use his amazing tackling skills elsewhere.
But the nose tackle position doesn’t create great highlight reels for the player doing it.
As we know, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth wants no part of being a nose tackle in a 3-4 defense, though he could do it well if he put his mind to it. The Redskins have brought in players who can fill the position, namely nose tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Howard Green. Kemoeatu has been working hard this off season to rehab from a torn Achilles tendon so he will be watched carefully during training camp.
On one hand, the transition to the “Redskins Defense” is likely going to make it hard for opposing offenses to plan against the team. On the other, the Redskins have been fairly successful with their defensive scheme the last several seasons. Let’s hope that the transition from the 4-3 defense isn’t a situation where something that wasn’t ‘broke’ becomes so.