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.

Bucs DT Gerald McCoy – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs DT Gerald McCoy – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

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.

OU DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo - Photo by: Getty Images
OU DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo – Photo by: Getty Images

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.

Ravens OLBs Terrell Suggs and Matthew Judon - Photo by: Getty Images
Ravens OLBs Terrell Suggs and Matthew Judon – Photo by: Getty Images

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.

Lions DE Ezekiel Ansah and Bucs LT Donovan Smith - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Lions DE Ezekiel Ansah and Bucs LT Donovan Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

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.

1
2
3
4
5
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]
Subscribe
Notify of
34 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Pete Wood

I don’t want to fire Koetter or Smith. The only change I want is for Koetter to turn over play calling to OC.
I do not think Gruden is the answer.
Okay. I’m waiting for the angry villagers to storm my house with pitchforks and torches.

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
Darrell

Who are the stick carriers? I wish y’all at PR would have a general consensus about this subject. Some say he’s definitely gone and now maybe not. I was hoping you had more insight than the rest of us lol.

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
tpeluso

My feeling all along has been exactly what you said here and what the Pewter Poll should be changed to reflect: The ONLY reason to fire Koetter is if Gruden is already boxed, wrapped, tied up with a bow and waiting for us under the Christmas tree the day after Black Monday. If Gruden decides not to leave ESPN or chooses another team for his comeback, then Koetter should stay with appropriate changes (turning over play-calling, a new DC that runs a 3-4 that fits our defensive talent better).

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
Ken Grant

Our personnel does NOT fit a 34 front. Spence on the edge is about it. The rest are pure 43 guys. Awful idea.

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
BucWild02

I disagree with you Mr. Ken Grant. The Bucs have beef up front in McCoy, Baker, and Golston. Plus they will get Stevie Touiloulou(sp?) back next year and have Siliga currently. At LB, the Bucs have David, Alexander, Beckwith, and Spence. Thats a pretty good 3-4 lineup. Bucs could bring pressure from all over and finally(!!!) get their sack numbers up.

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
surferdudes

Scott you contradict yourself a lot. You mention not having Martin for the G.B. game, yet admit he’s not very good anymore. Like having him that game would’ve made a difference. You want Smith, and Hayes gone, but want to keep Licht who hasn’t given them any help up front. Our D line sucks, that’s on Licht, he hasn’t paid much attention to that unit. You’re expecting Smith to get blood from a stone. I’m for cleaning house. Licht’s record speaks for itself, he’s been out drafted by all of our South counter parts the last four years. Koetter won’t… Read more »

Horse

Surderdudes, what is your real condifence percentages Gruden will actually Coach in Tampa? I’m about 10%. Even Scott has pulled back based on this weeks FAB 5.

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
chipbuc

Scott the problem with keeping Koetter and firing Smith is, i don’t think any good defensive coordinator is coming in for maybe a one year stint if the bucs have another bad year. If your going to change the D coordinator i think you almost have to bring in a new head coach to bring in a quality coach to run the D.

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
macabee

Sometimes you should just say nothing. The smart thing to do is to wait until Monday. However, perhaps inviting the wrath of my friends surferdudes and matador, I will say again, I will have no objection if Koetter is given another year as HC, but not if he refuses to change the DC. I have no expertise selecting DCs, but I can read. The consensus is that John Fox will not return as HC in Chicago. Fox has had a top 10 defense at Carolina, Denver, and Chicago. And he has expertise coaching the 3-4 scheme. Fox would be my… Read more »

Horse

Macabee; right with you.

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
MudManVA

Amen mac

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
MudManVA

Thanks Scott for the enjoyable read once again. I do think the Bucs best option is a 3-4 with all its talent at LB and Spence. The McCoy could be a beast at DE. I share the same thoughts as my PR readers above that we hoped you had insight into the coaching situation. You have been pretty hard in your stance that koetter would be fired & Gruden would be back up until this article. NOW you are backpedaling like our soft corners!!! LoL I would like stability at TB but I don’t think our current staff is the… Read more »

Horse

Koetter should stay only if he fires his DC and much of that coaching staff. I’m for changing to a 3-4, but I don’t see Spence in either the 3-4 or 4-3. He’s too small to play the 4-3 and not talented enough to play the 3-4 as he’s not that quick when it comes to reacting. Golhston is still aproblem whether it’s a 3-4 or a 4-3; he’s really just a rotational guy at best. We need two DE’s regardless of a 3-4 or a 4-3 in the very early rounds regardless of who we might sign in Free… Read more »

nitey

I’ve been in Koetter’s corner mostly up to the last game. He either needs to be Head Coach and give up play calling or resign himself to being a OC somewhere else. It’s apparent he can’t do both. I also believe if Koetter is retained it’s apparent his play calling hasn’t put his offensive players in their best position to succeed. His use of Jackson and Martin this season is more than enough evidence that he just didn’t do well enough. He speculated at his season ending conference last year that maybe he should give up play calling and if… Read more »

devasher

12/24/2017 – Scott Reynold’s 2-Point Conversion “STATEMENT 1: Gruden Returns In 2018 Notice how this is under the “Big Statement” section rather than under the “Bold Prediction” department? That’s right. This is a statement, not a prediction anymore.” QUESTION 2: What Happened Before Halftime With Koetter’s Clock Management? But the biggest factor in my opinion came in the first half when the Bucs had to settle for three field goals in the red zone. Yes, Koetter did stink in the red zone, and that’s been a recurring theme over the past two years, but in 2017 especially as the Bucs’… Read more »

JustaBuc

Dude, you beat me to quoting those exact quotes myself. Scott’s been riding Gruden’s jock all year and I hardly find it a coincidence that he SUDDENLY walks back on all of it when it’s heard that Koetter is coming back.

I wish I could be in the room myself if Reynolds and Koetter meets up. Scott gambled and lost big like I thought he would when you don’t put yourself on the team’s pulse and instead make conjectures. Learn your lesson Scott! Sources!

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
stlbucsfan

Definitely disagree that there aren’t other candidates that can do a better job. I’ve mentioned Harbaugh on several occasions and think he’s 10x the coach Dirk has shown himself to be. I use the same logic with my Bucs as I did with my Gators. Why keep an offensive minded HC when the offense is trash/unproductive. With all the tools we have I’m sure Jeff Fisher could stumble through the season with similar results. You don’t fire a coach bc “well Im not sure what else we can get” you fire a coach bc he is not doing his job.… Read more »

Ken Grant

There is some truth here. Fab1 feels like some serious backtracking from the 2-pt. conversion piece.

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
devasher

Scott could have just admitted he received information that he was wrong and stood on his previous critiques about Koetter, many of which are very reasonable. Scott could have pointed to things he was hopeful Koetter would improve on and how to get there, he could have discussed how the OC/DC’s of New England were great candidates that he still stood by but the Glazers were rumored to be interested in one more year with the current regime. But instead Scott spun like a top only 5 days after guaranteeing that Koetter would be fired, nary a mention about why… Read more »

JustaBuc

Amen yet again. Couldn’t have said it better myself devasher.

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
Ken Grant

Gotta say Fab1 gives some excuses for Koetter that I don’t think hold up. Was the team hit with a sizeable amount of misfortune? Sure. Did Koetter make the appropriate adjustments both throughout the season and during games. Not ever close. We have watched conservative decision making, erratic play-calling, and stubborn gameplan approaches doom this team to loss after loss. Remember when in 2016 the defense “turned the page” and was allowed to speak up and communicate with each other and adjust the scheme to their strengths? Anyone wanna tell me why 2017 felt like deja vu only this time… Read more »

FilmBuc

Ok. Firing Smith for a guy like Horton – who has NEVER had an elte defense – makes zero sense. Smith has had better success in the past than Horton at almost every stop. Scott made a lot of excuses as to why Horton didn’t succeed in Tennese and why he was fired after one year stints TWICE – but doesn’t afford the same level of excuse for Smith who not only was not given any aditional pass rushers this offseason, but lost the only sem–mediocre ones he had to injury. I completely agree that Koetter should only be fired… Read more »

jongruden

I said from the start I did not think Koetter is head coach material I knew him well from his days here at ASU, Gruden has a resume which includes 3 division champs and a sb winner, I know he was successful in Oakland don’t know the exact record. This is not even a debate how could it be when comparing Gruden to a “hasn’t done squat coach” in Koetter? Gruden does well with vets and I would consider by next yr we have vets at key positions like Qb, WR, DT, LB O line etc he would bring a… Read more »

Horse

It’s been awhile Jon Gruden; now that we know he isn’t coming, hope to hear from you again. Where have you been?

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
cgmaster27

This one is tough for me as I do like Koetter and I think Jameis can benefit from constant stability, but as some stated above, there would have to be other things in place. Mike Smith will clearly have to go and I really like Mac’s idea of getting John fox in there. Great idea Mac! Koetter would also need to give up play calling. His play calling in the red zone has been awful for the last two years for sure. That was he can focus on improving things more on his end of the time management side of… Read more »

drdneast

You mentioned three coaches the team has quit on since firing Gruden but you left out one very important coach in theat equation. Jon Gruden himself. As I recall, after Monte Kiffen announced he wouldn’t return to the Bucs the next year, the Bucs, who were 9-3 at the time, rolled over and played dead by losing four straight, including the final game against probably one of the worst QB’s ever in the NFL and a third or fourth string RB. The Bucs defense has been the overwhelming reason the Bucs have lost this year and Koetter has had no… Read more »

scubog

We always seem to agree on football related topics. If not Jon Gruden (mostly because of the “juice” his hiring would inject in the fandom), keeping Koetter and bringing in an entirely new defensive staff and maybe even some new special teams coaches is probably the right direction. I too don’t think Donovan Smith is anywhere near as bad as he’s portrayed; although he did struggle a bit against the Panthers. The O-line’s problem is in the middle.

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
e

Nice article Scott… I don’t envy the position that the Glazers are in on Monday. I’m a fan of consistency, but what other names could be out there by weeks end? There always seems to be a big surprise at the end of every coaching carousel. As far as the 3-4 change… I could see that turning into a lost season of acclamation for the players on that, even though it makes sense on paper. Happy New Year’s to you, Mark, Trevor and staff and keep up the great work in ’18! Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes… Read more »

surferdudes

Horse my feeling on Gruden is about 90% he returns to coach the Bucs. I don’t see him wanting to leave for another city with his son entering his senior year. This is his home. I think he’s had his fill of broadcasting, and at his age, it’s now or never. The guy is a competitor, it’s his passion, said it himself a few weeks ago. Gruden has never said it publicly, but he’s heard it forever, he won with Dungy’s team. I think that statement sticks in his craw. Should he take over a 4-12 Buc team to winning… Read more »

macabee

Come on PR report the latest news. The Glazers have named Dirk Koetter as the 2018 Bucs head coach.

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
martinii

Mac, I haven’t posted anything because I am reading this late in the day and don’t want to bust anybody’s bubble.

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
Jake from state farm

Stupid idea. Make Gerald McCoy a 2 gap defender? His strength is his get off and penetration skills. Making him a two-gap defender negates that. That’s just not using players to their strength. Hense, the reason why we are where we are always.

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
buddah

Finally a balanced assessment. Good analysis. I prefer Koetter but would root for Gruden. All teams in today’s NFL are flawed. jo

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...
GoldsonAges

Thank God Koetter is coming back. Maybe PR can hit on a 2 point conversion because ever since they started up the Gruden hype the articles have been unreadable trash, coming from a life long PR fan

0
0
No votes yet.
Please wait...