Much has been made about the Redskins 3-4 defense. There are three type of fans when it comes to this defensive philosophy: 1) Those who can’t stand it, and realize we have better personnel for the 4-3; 2) Those who accept it, and want a true nose tackle; 3) Those who don’t accept it, and realize we are in our base defense less than 30% of the time.
I fall into category three.
Are the Redskins a true base 3-4 team? No, and here is why.
The spread offense has hit the NFL, and it is here to stay. In 2017, the most common personnel grouping was 11 personnel, meaning there was one running back, one tight end, and three receivers. This formation was used 58 percent of the time by teams in 2017. The next most common grouping was 12 personnel, which has one running back, two tight ends and two receivers. This was used 20 percent of the time in 2017. Teams were in 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends), just four percent of the time in 2017.
The NFL is the ultimate game of chess. With skill-players becoming more versatile - tight ends who can run routes like wide receiver and running back who can not only take it to the house on any play, but can also catch the ball out of the backfield, downhill run-stuffing linebackers and box safeties are becoming a major liability on every play. The same can be said with true nose tackles who two-gap in odd fronts. These players, who are known to command double teams to free up the defensive linemen and linebackers around them, usually require defenses to remove a defensive back or inside linebacker to accommodate for their presence on the field. When offensive coordinators see this, they can easily attack the team where they are weakest - the back half of the defense.
Examining the teams in our division, you’ll see that each foe is above the average with at least three receivers on the field.
Cowboys - 63 percent of the time with in at least three wide receiver sets.
Eagles - 62 percent of the time in at least three wide receiver sets.
Giants - 66 percent of the time in at least three wide receiver sets.
So what does this mean for the defense?
In 2017, against the Redskins, opponents passed 59% of the time, versus 41% running. The league average is 58:42. So the percentage of passes against us was higher than the league average, despite us being dead last in the league in rushing yards per game allowed at 134.1 - and this is with the Redskins playing from behind over 65% of the time.
Seeing that offenses are not moving away from the pass anytime soon, staying in a base 3-4 defense, and having slow, lumbering defensive personnel on the field, will play right into the hands of offenses. It is vital to have versatile defenders on the back end who can play well against the run, but are not liabilities in the passing game.
In 2017, the Redskins played in their base odd-front less than 30 percent of the time. This is about the same as we saw in 2016, despite having a new defensive coordinator in Greg Manusky. The 4-2-5 defense (or Nickel look), is the Redskins new base defense.
Since Mike Shanahan implemented the 3-4 defense in 2010, the Redskins have never had a true nose tackle (with the exception of Terrance Knighton in 2015). Every year, the team seems intent on finding one, yet ever year they fail miserably.
It’s time to stop the madness!
This team is set up to be a even-front unit. We have two former starting defensive ends who made their names in college in a 4-3 base as 7-technique defensive players. Forcing these guys to drop into coverage is ludicrous. We have a 6’3” 288 pound defensive linemen in Jonathan Allen who is disruptive, agile and violent. He is the definition of a gap-penetrator, and would be best used abusing guards as a pure 3-technique. In Ioannidis, you have a scheme diverse defensive linemen who can play the 1-technique in an under front as well as the 3-technique in base looks.
As for the linebackers... Why not simply add another versatile linebacker to go alongside Mason Foster (MIKE), and Zack Brown (if we can re-sign him), and call it a true 4-3. Cravens (if he returns to the team) or Josh Harvey-Clemons would make a great WILL backer, who can play the run, cover a back out of the backfield, or latch onto a tight end down the seam. On obvious passing downs, when we go into a true Nickel defense, we sub out Foster for an extra defensive back, and have Cravens or Harvey-Clemons play as a hybrid safety/linebacker.
The importance of being able to get pressure these days by rushing just four is imperative. When you look at the success the Philadelphia Eagles had this year doing just that, you see how effective an even-front defense can be. We had a combined 21 sacks last season between Kerrigan and Smith alone. Ioannidis chipped in 4.5, and a healthy Allen should be able to collect at least five. Surprisingly, second year pro Anthony Lanier added five himself.
The Eagles top five rushers last year generated 27.5 sacks. In comparison, the Redskins top rushers had 31.5 (this is with Allen playing in just five games). So, as you can see, we have the ability to generate pressure and get sacks by just rushing four.
This Redskins team may be one without a current identity. On offense, we are set to enter 2018 with a new quarterback. We have very little resemblance of a running game, and have no receiver to strike fear in the heart of any defense. On the other side of the ball, we are just as undefined. We can’t stop the run, we struggle on the back-end, and can’t seem to get off the field on third down.
Maybe a new identity is something this team needs. As the old saying goes: Defense wins Championships - so this may be a great place to start!