For the last few years, it seems as though another team or two drops their old reliable 4-3 defense in the offseason to join the ranks of those abiding by the 3-4 philosophy. The 3-4 package does provide flexibility, but let us remember that both teams in the Super Bowl -- the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts -- lined up in 4-3 defenses.
This year the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins have joined the 3-4 club, pushing the number of teams that run the defensive formation to 15. When you look at teams like the Seattle Seahawks playing a hybrid package there are a lot of personnel people looking for the same type of players right now.
The Bills and Redskins made the switch at the risk of converting 4-3 defensive ends into 3-4 outside linebackers, who are critical components to a successful conversion. The players slated to play outside linebacker for the Bills and Redskins were drafted to rush the passer with their hand in the ground as defensive ends. So rest assured that there is always a risk for failure.
Washington got 22 sacks from Andre Carter and Brian Orakpo last season. Carter as a full-time defensive end, and Orakpo as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end, who tallied most of his sacks when lining up in a three-point stance. Now both men will be standing up in a two-point stance, and the Redskins are hoping they increase their sack production, or at least maintain what they produced in 2009 (Note: Carter spent time in the 3-4 once before in San Francisco, which is why he wound up in Washington).
Last year, when the Green Bay Packers tried converting their best pass-rushing defensive end, Aaron Kampman, he really wanted nothing to do with standing up to rush, while having to deal with pass-coverage responsibilities, too. When talking to Kampman about the issues, he was quick to point out how he came to be an effective rusher, able to use leverage in close quarters hugged up to an offensive tackle. All of that changes when a pass rusher approaches the same tackle from a two-point stance. No surprise that Kampman left for Jacksonville and its 4-3 defense this offseason.
At this point, it appears Aaron Schobel of the Bills is having the same struggles, and is contemplating retirement. He had 10 sacks last year and 78 in 128 NFL starts. Without him in the lineup, the Bills return just five sacks produced by their outside linebackers. That's a big risk, but they aren't alone when it comes to gambling at the position.
The Miami Dolphins, in their 3-4 defense, were tied for third in the NFL with 44 sacks last year, and they parted ways with Joey Porter and Jason Taylor who were responsible for 16 of them. All that remains of the team's outside linebacker production are 8.5 sacks from Cameron Wake, Charlie Anderson and Quentin Moses. Miami added second-round pick Koa Misi to the position, and the team doesn't appear anxious about letting the veteran production go elsewhere.
As one retired general manager recently said to me when discussing the issues of building a 3-4 defense, "Just look to the Steelers for the blueprint for that defense. They never change the way they look at talent."
So what do the Steelers do that always makes their package so good? They never stop bringing in young outside linebackers, even when they have the most effective tandem in the NFL. Pittsburgh's starting duo of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley accounted for 23.5 sacks last year, but that didn't stop the team from drafting Jason Worilds in the second round and Thaddeus Gibson in the fourth round. Add to that group the fact that Lawrence Timmons has been a very effective outside linebacker in certain situations, and the Steelers are loaded once again.
Not one team in a 3-4 defense used a first-round draft pick on an outside linebacker, which is interesting when you consider that Brandon Graham and Jerry Hughes both went in the first round to 4-3 teams but were projected as 3-4 OLBs. Only two teams hit the veteran market to improve the outside backer position, yet Adalius Thomas, Chike Okeafor and even Greg Ellis are still on the street. Between them they accounted for 14.5 sacks last year.
Finally, as one 4-3 defensive coordinator said to me, "My GM asked me if I would consider converting to a 3-4. I said with 15 teams now after the same type of players for the outside linebacker position, there has been some relief for the 4-3 teams in search of pass rushers, and it's not the time to switch."
Hey, he's got a good point.