2009 NFL Draft: Rise of the 3-4
Total Pro Sports – The Steelers have dominated with it. The Packers and Chiefs are transitioning to it. The Browns, Cowboys, Chargers, Jets and Patriots also use it. So what makes the 3-4 system so attractive for defensive coordinators, and what can the talented crop of hybrid linebackers do in the upcoming season?
Fundamentally, you’re substituting pressure from your lineman in a conventional 4-3 for a more versatile and fluid linebacker core in the 3-4. At the base of a 4-3 you are pressuring with 4 downed lineman and maybe one or two blitzing linebackers, but the offense has a good idea where the pressure is coming from, can match up accordingly and any QB worth his contract will pick apart the exposed holes that the blitzing linebackers leave. The 3-4 on the other hand doesn’t rely on pressure from the front 3. Instead, a combination of any of the 4 linebackers plus safety blitzing whilst the rest drop in coverage, offering innumerable options and permutations making pickups much harder for the opposition QB and his personal protector (a tail or fullback). Crucially, you are bringing at least one of the two outside linebackers in pressure each and every down to either stop the run inside, outside or rush the quarterback. Sounds perfect, but there are two provisos for this system to work. Your three defensive linemen must occupy all 5 offensive linemen, and your linebacking core has to be athletic enough to make plays in the open field or cover the zones left open by other blitzing linebackers.
As you can see, the 3-4 players require a specifically defined skillset to work. Your front 3 has to be more physically imposing than a regular 4 since their priorities shift from sacks and tackles to simply occupying offensive lineman; hopefully leaving your linebackers to outnumber the remaining blockers. The cornerstone of this system is the monstrous nose tackle that occupies the attention of the centre, guards and lead blocker, whom without you’ll concede the soft 5 yard run all game long. Shaun Rogers, Vince Wilfork and Casey Hampton all tip the scale upwards of 320lbs, the prototypical size for a dominant nose tackle, and at 337lbs Boston College’s BJ Raji would comfortably fit at the head of the newly converted Packers’ 3-4 at 9 overall. However, outside of Raji nose tackle pickings are slim but suitors are plenty; Ron Brace is a second round prospect, whilst the other tackles are more conventional in their size and play – you may see Hampton’s Chris Baker being reached for in the mid second. I also want to offer a moment of silence for Glenn Dorsey’s career; too lightweight for a 0 technique tackle, and too big to play end. Where does he fit in Pioli’s new 3-4 defence?
I talked about the versatility the 3-4 gives you and if you want evidence of that look at how highly regarded the ultra talented hybrid linebacker/defensive end class is; athletic enough to play linebacker and drop in coverage, but physical enough to put their hand in the ground and rush like a conventional end. Orakpo heads this class and fits perfectly with the Browns at 5, whilst Everette Brown and the much hyped Aaron Maybin hurt their stock by poor combine showings: instead of the physical freak we’re used to seeing Maybin looked heavy and slow, and at 6ft1 Brown might get bullied by a big left tackle. Clintin Smith, Larry English and man of the combine Connor Barwin could also fill this role. You have to expect the Packers, Chiefs and Patriots to look for these guys early, whilst the Browns may even select two and switch between a 3-4 and 5-2 formation on the fly.
It’s a risk reward system filled with risk reward players making the chance of all 6 prospects succeeding as a hybrid slim, but I guarantee it’ll make for some explosive plays and an intriguing draft day story.