Something a lot of people confuse is thinking all 3-4 defenses are the same. They have the same big bodies on the defensive line, the same pass rushing OLBs, and the same tackling machines at ILB, with just some decent DBs who can cover for three seconds until the blitz gets there. What a lot of people don't see is how a few key players really determine the identity of a 3-4 defense. I'm going to break down a few 3-4s with notable (superstar) players to help predict where the Redskins will play their 3-4. I will be looking at the 2009 Jets', Ravens', Steelers', and 49ers' 3-4 to see how the Skins can find success.
New York Jets: Looking at their defense, the first player you think of is Darrelle Revis. While Kris Jenkins is a very good 3-4 NT, the team focuses around the ability to keep Darrelle Revis always one-on-one, and allow extra guys to cover other threatening receivers and tight ends. It's easy to think that the Jets were the #1 passing defense, at 154 YPG, and one would probably assume that their OLBs were monsters. That is a mistake though: their OLBs only picked up 10 sacks last year (if you count Carter as an OLB, we would have had 22 in comparison). The Jets focus their 3-4 defense around pass coverage. With an elite CB, they can cover any other threats and smother the opposing offense by leaving no passing options open. Then, their defensive line led by Jenkins will eventually penetrate and force a bad throw or sack. With strong defensive back play, the Jets created a lockdown pass defense that truly shutdown any opponent.
Baltimore Ravens: Whew, who is the best player on this defense? Haloti Ngata? Ray Lewis? Ed Reed? This team is stacked with strong players everywhere, and their defensive stats proved it: 93 rushing YPG and 207 passing YPG. Where is this team's focus though, one may ask; it is clear it must be in the front seven. With a focus on both strong linebacker play from each position as well as defensive line play, this team puts a focus on physical, rough defense bent on tearing an offense to pieces. While Ed Reed is a stunning free safety, injuries to him have forced the Ravens to learn to play with a very poor secondary. Their pass rush is strong, though they don't pull in too many sacks (10.5 this year). Their inside backers are machines (180 total tackles) that help clean up the run, as well as take some hits on receivers catching passes to the middle of the field. Their defensive line helps clog up opposing offensive lines and this helps their linebackers impose their will. Here, the front seven makes a critical rush defense, but actually succeeds in strengthening a very poor secondary without Ed Reed.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh is good all around, decent corners, safeties (Polamalu was injured too much this year to give their safeties more then decent), defensive line, and inside linebackers, but their strength was easily at the outside linebacker position with LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. They racked up a total, punishing 23.5 sacks (only 1.5 more then our two current OLBs got). Similar to the Ravens, this team has a good front seven play, and their large defensive line and good inside backers help clog up the run well. Even with such a strong sack total, Pittsburgh actually ranked 16th in pass defense. They had to deal with some shaky play, and they weren't used to missing Polamalu for such a period of time.
San Francisco 49ers: Well, if you know two names on this defense, you've done yourself a good job. Patrick Willis is the best inside linebacker in the game, no argument. While San Fran was far from the best defense, they were 6th in the run. Takeo Spikes and Patrick Willis totaled 227 total tackles this year. The key to their run defense is a line just strong enough to keep too many from blocking them, then their inside backers have cleaned up the job.
So, breaking it down position by position, how does each position affect the defense?
Defensive Line: They are the key to the linebacker play. They won't directly impact rushing or passing defense, but they sure as hell impact the guys who do.
Inside Linebackers: The complete keys to the run. If you have two tackling machines, (San Fran) or just one (Baltimore), you can really create one hell of a rushing defense. As long as the defensive line ties up the offensive line, they are almost all that matters for a good rush defense.
Outside Linebackers: While important to the pass, a big sack total doesn't tell the whole story. QB pressure is equally important as sacks. It is easy to say big sack guys are all that is important, but anyone who gets pressure does the job (New York, Baltimore).
Defensive Backs: Having one great back helps take the pressure off the rest of the defense, especially if you can constantly one-on-one a good receiver (tight end or wideout). A good secondary is very important, but if you have a successful outside backer corps, you don't need a successful secondary, and vice versa.
Finally: Where the Redskins Stand: As long as Haynesworth plays, the defensive line will meet what you need for the 3-4 so linebackers can make plays. We have two very good inside backers, with Fletcher being one of the best in the game. As long as Carter can make the transition, we also would have a very good outside backer corps. Secondary, with questions at FS, and Landry never a big cover guy, we have a slight liability outside of the cornerback position. So, how will the Redskins do, you may ask? I foresee a defense that looks like the Ravens or Steelers, more likely being the Steelers. While the Ravens have similar superstars as us, the Steelers have as much in common with us as many teams. So, essentially, I am predicting a great rush defense, but still needing work on the pass. With two great pass rushers of our own, a good backing squad, and Haynesworth being our Casey Hampton, we really have many similarities that could lead to a strong transition to this new defense.