Over the last three years, there has been a lot of chatter from fans about the Redskins switching back to the 4-3 defense. I am a tad bit biased because I grew up playing in a four or five man front, and have previously coached a 4-3 when I was part of a powerhouse program in Pennsylvania. When I moved to Connecticut three years ago, I started coaching at a high school that ran a spread offense, and a 3-3-5 defense. Last season, we ran a more traditional 3-4. This season, for the first time in my playing/coaching career, I will be experimenting with something I am completely unfamiliar with; a 4-2 defense.
All that aside, I wanted to put together a post outlying what I feel are the pros and cons of both the 4-3 and 3-4 defense for the Washington Redskins. I have watched the team play in our current defense for a few years now, so I have an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses as it relates to our current players abilities. I also hope to give my perspective from someone who has played, coached and studied both fronts.
4-3: This front uses the more traditional 3-technique defensive tackles, and the "hand-in-the-dirt, edge-setting" defensive ends. First, let's take a look at the defensive tackles needed to run this defensive effectively.
The 3-technique defensive tackle is usually lined up over the offensive guard, or shaded to the inside or outside eye. Sometimes(in certain packages)they can be asked to be a two-gapper, and kick into the A gap. What sets these players apart from a 3-4 defensive tackle, is that they are asked to penetrate the line of scrimmage, opposed to occupying blockers. In a traditional 3-4, the defensive tackles have gap responsibility, meaning they are usually asked to plug a gap, while occupying more than one blocker. The 4-3 defensive tackle is usually a quicker, more agile play-maker, who has the ability to beat a one-on-one block, and make plays in the oppositions backfield. One of the best 3-technique defensive tackles I grew up watching was Warren Sapp. Sapp was so quick off the ball, and had a repertoire of moves to counter any offensive lineman's set-up. When I think of a traditional 3-technique defensive tackle, Warren Sapp is the first name that comes to mind.
The defensive end is the most important linemen in a 4-3 defense. These players are usually 6' 3" or taller, and weigh between 260-280 pounds(on average). 15-20 years ago, the defensive ends in a four front were bigger, run-stuffing animals, who looked like defensive tackles, but played with the agility and quickness of a linebacker. Reggie White and Howie Long were two defensive ends that fit this description. Over the last 10 years, the position has changed quite a bit. Today's defensive ends in a 4-3 defensive have to be multi-dimensional athletes, who are strong enough to set the edge against the run, but are also agile enough to use their quickness, body lean, and flexion to beat offensive tackles on their way to the quarterback.
The 4-3 defensive employs three linebackers. The middle linebacker is referred to as the MIKE. He is the player normally tasked with calling out the offensive strength call, and gets the defensive linemen and other linebackers in the right position. This player is often referred to as the quarterback of the defense. He must be multi-dimensional, as he is often asked to take on centers, guards and fullback at the point of attack, but also must be able to drop back into high-hole coverage, cover a back out of the backfield, or even spy a quarterback. The strong side linebacker is called the SAM. He can almost be interchangeable with the MIKE, as his responsibilities are often the same. He may be a good pass rusher, but also needs to be able to come up and set the edge on stretch or tosses, or when there is a defensive line stunt where the defensive end is asked to pinch or slant inside. The SAM is also asked to jam, and cover in-line tight ends in passing situations. The weak side linebacker is called the WILL. This is usually the teams most athletic linebacker, who excels in coverage. The WILL is asked to be versatile as well, as they are often used in a variety of blitz packages, but could also be responsible for leverage coverage on slot receivers, and flat coverage in zone defenses.
Pros: Tough defensive to run against if defensive ends are playing their role correctly. Linebackers are huge in their responsibility against heavy passing teams. Allows a more evenly distributed zone defense with each linebacker having a defined area. Defensive ends don't have to read and react as much. Linemen are able to pin their ears back, and just play football.
Cons: Not as easy to disguise fronts and blitz packages. Takes the element of "confusion" away from some defensive coordinators. Relies heavily on defensive tackles ability to generate pressure on quarterbacks(if you don't have good 3-techniques, this defense can become a liability).
3-4: This defensive front uses three defensive tackles, and four linebackers(2 inside and 2 outside). The roles of the players change dramatically compared to the 4-3.
The nose tackle is an important part of any 3-4 defense. This player is normally a "space-eater", who plays over the nose of the center, or shaded to either A gap(although many teams are now going for a quicker, lighter more agile gap-penetrator). The nose tackle is asked to absorb double teams from the center and play-side guard, and like the defensive tackles, he often goes unnoticed, as his job is to free up the middle linebackers to make plays in the run game.
The 3-4 defensive end is a much different position than the 4-3 defensive end. These players are usually larger, slower space-eaters, who again, are asked to absorb more blockers, than to create havoc in opposing backfields. The main difference between a 3-4 defensive end, and a 4-3 defensive end, is that the defender does not have contain responsibilities. They are able to follow the flow of the play without having to worry about cut-back responsibilities. All three of the defensive linemen in a 3-4 are usually tasked with gap responsibilities. They are asked to occupy an area on the line of scrimmage, and control that area with their size and strength, often absorbing multiple blockers. This allows the middle linebackers more freedom to play sideline to sideline.
The outside linebackers in a 3-4 are more like defensive ends in a 4-3. They are the players who set the edge against the run, and also rush the passer. Unlike their counterparts, the 3-4 outside linebackers are required to play in space, as they must have the ability to match-up against tight ends, and drop into flat or seam coverage. These players are often labeled as "tweeners", and have become more prevalent in the college game due to the popularity of the spread. The 3-4 outside linebacker is usually lighter and more agile than the 4-3 defensive end, but also needs to have the strength to anchor the play side against the run. These guys were usually the pass-rushing linebackers or under-sized defensive ends in college.
Finally the two middle linebackers in a 3-4 are the field generals. They are very similar to the SAM and MIKE in a 4-3, and are very instrumental in both stopping the run, and setting up in high and low-hole zone coverage against the pass.
Pros: The 3-4 allows more versatile blitz packages and exotic defensive fronts, designed to confuse offenses. If the proper personnel is in place, it can be a tough defensive to run inside against. This defense can generate a lot of quarterback sacks and hurries from the outside linebacker position.
Cons: Outside zone, stretch and tosses can exploit this defense if the outside linebackers are not disciplined. Teams who run a zone blocking scheme are often successful running the ball against 3-4 teams, as there are often cutback lanes along the line. Linebackers are more susceptible to play-action passes. Tight ends can exploit weaknesses in coverages. Outside linebackers NEED to be able to drop into coverage, or the offense can easily find mismatches in the passing game. It is very hard to find players who excel at both rushing the passer, and playing coverage.
A lot of fans were upset when the Redskins decided to implement the 3-4 defense. Many felt we had already built a solid foundation of players who fit into the 4-3. Jim Haslett was able to hand-pick guys to fit his defense. He chose Barry Cofield, and former 4-3 defensive tackle, to be his new nose tackle. Cofield is not your typical 3-4 nose tackle, but he is exactly what Haslett wants; a player who is versatile enough to penetrate the A gap, yet strong enough to take on double teams at the point of attack. Both Bowen and Carriker are best suited for the role of 3-4 defensive end, and have done well at that position. Neither are pass-rushing specialists, and both can play the run, and eat up space fairly effectively. Jenkins is another versatile player who can play either defensive end or nose tackle.
The outside linebackers are the key to this defense. Both Orakpo and Kerrigan were former college defensive ends, who were asked to make the switch to outside linebacker in the NFL. Both have done a great job so far in their young careers, but neither possess elite coverage abilities, which we often see exploited by opposing offenses.
London Fletcher is a rare player, who would do well in any defensive you put him in. Sure he's getting a bit long in the tooth, but he is still elite at his position. Riley is a guy who fits in very well as a MIKE backer in a 3-4, but he could also be a good SAM in a 4-3.
How our current Redskins personnel could fit into a 4-3:
I believe the Redskins have better players for a 4-3 defense than a 3-4. I think both Orakpo and Kerrigan could be excellent 4-3 defensive ends. They fit perfectly into the mold of today's 4-3 defensive ends. Both excel at rushing the passer, and both are solid in setting the edge against the run. Either one has the ability to put their hand in the dirt, and beat an offensive tackle with either quickness or power. It's their first step off the ball, lower center of gravity and motors that could make them very effective in this role. Neither are great in pass coverage, so taking this responsibility off their plate could be a huge advantage to their game.
Cofield has the ability to line up at a variety of positions along the defensive line, but his best attribute is his quick first step, which could be best utilized as a 3-technique defensive tackle. Jenkins has similar versatility to Cofield, in that he can line up anywhere along the defensive front, and like Coefield, I think he can be very effective in the 3-technique.
Our linebackers would be excellent in a 4-3. Now obviously we won't have Fletcher forever, but while we do, he'd make a great MIKE in a 4-3. Riley is everything you'd look for in a SAM linebacker, and Robinson could be a great WILL, especially with his coverage ability.
As for some of our reserves: Jackson would be a good 4-3 defensive end. Kehl can play either MIKE or SAM in a 4-3. Golston can play the 3-technique equally as good as the 5-technique defensive end.
Some guys who could be left out of a switch to a 4-3 would be both Bowen and Carriker. Both are better suited as 3-4 defensive ends, and although they potentially could line up at either defensive tackle or defensive end in a 4-3, I don't think they would be as effective.
I'm not advocating a switch back to a 4-3 defensive for the Redskins anytime soon, but if it were to happen, or if we wanted to experiment with some 4-3 looks like the Patriots did last season, I think we could be very effective.