FAB 3. Finding 3-4 Defense Personnel Is Becoming Easier
Over the past two decades the 3-4 defense has become more prevalent across the league as nearly half the league – Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Oakland, Kansas City, Baltimore, Arizona, Indianapolis, Kansas City, New York Jets, Washington, Denver, Tennessee, Houston, Chicago and the Los Angeles Rams – deploy it as their base defense. There are still several potent 4-3 defenses across the NFL landscape with teams like Jacksonville, Minnesota, Carolina, New England, Seattle, New Orleans and Atlanta all in the playoffs or in playoff contention as a result.
There will be plenty of teams that run a 3-4 defense in the postseason too, including the Steelers, the Chiefs, the Rams and either Baltimore or Tennessee, and the 3-4 defense comprises half of the top 10 teams in terms of total defense, scoring defense and sacks, which are areas the Bucs have struggled mightily in during the 2017 campaign.
The 3-4 teams are listed in bold.
2017 Total Defense Rankings
1. Minnesota – 280.9
2. Denver – 284.1 YPG
3. Jacksonville – 289.7 YPG
4. Pittsburgh – 302.4 YPG
5. Philadelphia – 306.9 YPG
6. Arizona – 311.9 YPG
7. Carolina – 313.5 YPG
8. Chicago – 318.6 YPG
9. Baltimore – 318.6 YPG
10. Atlanta – 323.1 YPG
2017 Scoring Defense Rankings
1. Minnesota – 16.1 PPG
2. Jacksonville – 16.9 PPG
3. LA Chargers – 17.5 PPG
4. Baltimore – 18.1 PPG
5. Pittsburgh – 18.9 PPG
6. Philadelphia – 19.3
7. New England – 19.31
8. Los Angeles Rams – 19.7
8. New Orleans Saints – 19.7
10. Chicago – 19.8
2017 Sack Rankings
1. Jacksonville – 52
2. Pittsburgh – 50
3. Carolina – 49
4. LA Rams – 48
5. LA Chargers – 41
5. Tennessee – 41
7. Baltimore – 40
7. Chicago – 40
7. Washington – 40
7. Cincinnati – 40
7. New Orleans – 40
Heading into the 2017 finale, the Bucs rank 31st in total defense, allowing 381.7 yards per game. Tampa Bay ranks 24th in scoring defense, surrendering an average of 23.9 points per game, and is last in sacks with just 20 this year.
Whether it’s a 4-3 scheme or a 3-4 scheme, the signature for any great defense is the amount of pressure a defense can put on a quarterback with its front seven defenders. That has been sorely lacking in Tampa Bay this year.
If there is a weakness to a 4-3 defensive scheme in modern day football it’s that it has to operate with a stud three-technique defensive tackle and a stud pass-rushing defensive end. It really can’t have one without the other anymore.
Jacksonville has two stellar defensive ends in Calais Campbell (14.5 sacks) and Yannick Ngakoue (12 sacks) along with defensive tackle Malik Jackson (eight sacks). It’s the same way in Carolina with defensive tackle Kwann Short (7.5 sacks) and defensive ends Julius Peppers (11 sacks) and Mario Addison (10.5 sacks). Minnesota has Linval Joseph (3.5 sacks) inside with Everson Griffen (13 sacks) and Danielle Hunter (seven sacks) outside.
In Tampa Bay where the Bucs don’t have an elite defensive end to pair with Pro Bowl Gerald McCoy, and on other teams that use a 4-3 defense, the 4-3 scheme is not nearly as effective. The fact that there aren’t as many high-caliber pass-rushing defensive tackles as there used to be coming out of college football, and there aren’t as many elite defensive ends with the size necessary to play in a 4-3 scheme makes it more difficult to deploy a quality 4-3 system in the pros.
However, simply switching schemes won’t be the instant fix to make Tampa Bay’s defensive rankings go up. It will take the right coaching staff – and even more importantly – the right personnel to make the 3-4 defense work. Finding players that can play in a 3-4 defensive in the NFL is becoming easier, even though the majority of college teams that run a 4-3 scheme significantly outnumber the teams that deploy a 3-4. Here’s why.
Top pass rushing defensive ends in college are getting smaller and faster. This is something that Bucs offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Todd Monken acknowledged in a previous press conference.
Oklahoma defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who has the talent to be an early-round pick, will be on the center stage in the College Football Playoffs on New Year’s Day, and leads the Sooners with eight sacks, a year after finishing with a career-high nine quarterback captures. But at 6-foot, 240 pounds, Okronkwo is too small to play the 4-3 defensive end spot he currently plays at Oklahoma and is destined to play as a 3-4 rush linebacker in the NFL.
Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith and Central Michigan defensive end Joe Ostman are currently tied for the NCAA lead in sacks with 14. Smith, a sophomore, is 6-foot, 225 pounds and will have to transition a 3-4 outside linebacker due to his size if he’s going to make it in the NFL. At 6-foot-3, 255, Ostman, a senior, might have to do the same thing, as college defensive ends that weigh less than 260 pounds often are asked to work out for NFL scouts as 4-3 ends and 3-4 outside linebackers at the NFL Scouting Combine and pro days.
Arkansas State defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones has 13 sacks this year, and is listed as 6-foot-2, 231 pounds. Boise State defensive end Curtis Weaver is slightly bigger at 6-foot-2, 252 pounds. All four of these pass rushers are prime candidates to play outside rush linebackers in a 3-4 scheme.
Boston College defensive end Harold Landry, who is regarded as a potential first-round pick after the nation in sacks in 2016 with 16.5, is also on the fence between a 3-4 outside linebacker and a 4-3 defensive end at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds.
The 2018 NFL Draft will have a few 4-3 defensive ends with first-round grades in North Carolina State senior Bradley Chubb (6-3, 275), who has 10 sacks for the second straight year, LSU junior Arden Key (6-5, 260), who has four QB captures after posting 11 in 2016, and Clemson junior Clelin Ferrell (6-4, 260), who has 8.5 sacks this season. A few highly-rated edge rushers like UTEP senior Marcus Davenport (6-6, 245), who has 8.5 sacks, and Wyoming junior Carl Granderson (6-5, 243), who has 9.5 sacks, could be projects as 4-3 defensive ends with added size and bulk in the NFL, or better immediate fits as 3-4 defensive ends like former first-round defensive end Leonard Floyd (6-4, 251) was as he transitioned to a 3-4 outside linebacker in Chicago.
Let’s take a look at the personnel of the three of the top defenses that use a 3-4 Under scheme in the NFL. In Baltimore, the Ravens’ three starting defensive linemen are all over 300 pounds, (they average 330 pounds) and occupy blockers while their outside linebackers – led by Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs’ 11 sacks and Matt Judon’s seven sacks – blitz and rush the passer. Baltimore’s linebackers account for 25.5 of the team’s 40 sacks. The other 14.5 sacks come from blitzing corners and safeties.
Five of Baltimore’s eight linebackers consist of former 4-3 defensive ends in college in Suggs, Judon, Kamalei Correa, Za’Darius Smith and Tyus Bowser.
The Steelers use the same scheme, but have different personnel as the three down linemen are lighter and average just under 300 pounds. Led by Heyward’s 12 sacks, the Steelers get pass rush contributions from the three defensive linemen (20 combined sacks) and their four linebackers. Vince Williams has seven, while former first-round picks Bud Dupree and rookie T.J. Watt each have six sacks this season.
Dupree, a former first-round pick, was a defensive end at Kentucky and transitioned to 3-4 outside linebacker.
The Rams switched to a 3-4 scheme this year with the arrival of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Ethan Westbrooks is an undersized nose tackle at 283 pounds, but when Phillips wants more size in the middle he can switch to 310-pound Tyrunn Walker. Michael Brockers, a former 305-pound nose tackle in the Rams’ 4-3 scheme, moved to strongside defensive end where he plays the 5-technique, opposite Donald, who plays the three-technique on the weakside.
Like the Steelers, the Rams are a bit lighter up front and the defensive tackles contribute more sacks (23 sacks) than the Ravens’ defensive line does (zero sacks). In fact, the Rams’ linebackers barely edge the defensive line with a total of 25 sacks, led by 8.5 from Robert Quinn, a former Pro Bowl defensive end, who transitioned to weakside outside linebacker.
Something else that could prompt the change is the lack of available talent in 2018. There is a decent crop of 4-3 defensive ends in draft, but not many 4-3 edge rushers in free agency outside of Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence, who will be franchised by the Cowboys if they can’t reach a long-term contract extension, and Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah, who has 11 sacks in 2017 and will be 29 next year.
Without a superb pass-rushing defensive end to play alongside McCoy, the 4-3 defensive scheme will continue to get mediocre results in Tampa Bay. Perhaps it’s time to jump on the 3-4 train, and see where a quartet of blitzing linebackers can take the Bucs’ pass rush.