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Is Time Right For Move To 3-4 D?

Posted Jan 3, 2013

Everything is on the table, as Jeffrey Lurie says when it comes to hiring a new coach, so why not take a leap of faith and think that the same applies when it comes to the 2013 defensive scheme? ...

We have talked about this a long time, the idea of changing out of the traditional -- in Philadelphia, at least -- 4-3 scheme and moving to a 3-4. It's a possibility that exists whether we agree or not, based on what the new head coach and defensive coordinator feel comfortable running.

It's also safe to suggest that there are going to be some sweeping changes in the defensive personnel for '13, whether the Eagles keep the 4-3 or change the scheme entirely.

"There were definitely chemistry problems. You saw it out there," said general manager Howie Roseman. "We saw more independent contractors than guys playing as a team."

So, reading between the lines, the Eagles aren't necessarily opposed to blowing it up, in a football sense, and starting over on defense.

How much of the current personnel, then, would translate to a 3-4 scheme?

Up front, it's easy to see Fletcher Cox moving to end. He's big, powerful and could occupy blockers while the linebackers find the lanes to get to the football. The question of whether using Cox as a 3-4 end would "waste" his substantial talent is a legitimate one, however. Cox has the makings of a dominating 4-3 tackle, so would it best serve his skill set to play as a 3-4 end?

"He could play end in a 3-4 and he could play it very well," said defensive line coach Tommy Brasher, who worked with Cox in the last month of the season and spoke about the defensive line shortly after he was hired. "He's a talented player. He's got the skills to do either."

Cullen Jenkins would be an OK fit at one end spot in a 3-4, and Mike Patterson is stout enough to play there as well. At nose tackle, Antonio Dixon has the requisite bulk to hunker down and hold the middle, and he played with fresh legs and great energy in a productive season finale against the Giants. Dixon needs to get in shape for 2013 to see if he can get back to where he was a few years ago when many deemed him a rising interior defensive line talent.

Could Cedric Thornton play end in a 3-4? Maybe. He continues to work hard and improve. Derek Landri seems more suited to play in a 4-3, but he's going to scrap and fight and give you everything he has at the line of scrimmage.

Clearly, though, to do it ideally, the Eagles would need to find a standout nose tackle to anchor the line of scrimmage against the run and occupy two blockers on every snap of the football. The Eagles don't have perfect fits flanking nose tackle, so they would probably have to look for pieces there, too.

What about linebacker? This is a tricky proposition, but the Eagles have some options on paper. Trent Cole and Brandon Graham were projected as 3-4 edge rushers by many when they were in the draft conversation. Both have speed off the edge and both have some experience dropping into coverage when the Eagles dialed up zone blitzes. Phillip Hunt is also a smaller defensive end with some speed who could play well in space. I'm not sure about Vinny Curry, who has the body to play more effectively with his hand in the dirt in a 4-3.

Inside, Mychal Kendricks would be a good fit in a 3-4, but the big question is DeMeco Ryans. He is a natural middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. He was traded away from Houston when the Texans determined that his range and effectiveness was limited playing inside in a 3-4. Is that a roadblock to changing to a 3-4, especially with Ryans' contract spiking in 2013?

Maybe it doesn't matter, because it's likely the Eagles will invest heavily on the defensive side of the ball regardless of the scheme they're playing. They need help on defense, plain and simple. The lack of takeaways in 2012 was alarming and clearly a reflection of a lack of pressure placed on the opposing offense. The Eagles couldn't generate a consistent pass rush, didn't get home on the blitz and hardly challenged in the secondary. It's fair to say that the team's chemistry will be addressed, and that means the Eagles won't be shy to replace personnel.

It's all up to the new coach, of course, but for the sake of conversation there are some pieces in place to get the defense up and started in a 3-4. There are options here, in other words. This may be the time when the Eagles decide to scrap what they've run for years and use a 3-4, as, by the unofficial count here, 11 teams in the NFL currently use.

The majority of the league still believes in the 4-3, and that's fine, too. The bottom line is that to get back in the Super Bowl-contending game, the Eagles have a lot of work to do on defense, regardless of their preference for 4-3 vs. 3-4.

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