The Eagles recently held a Chalk Talk for local members of the media. Coaches explained their schemes, strategies and ideas. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott made mention of a couple of things that peaked my interest. While our base defense remains the 4-3, he told reporters that we might mix in some 3-4 looks this year as well as use a five-man defensive line on occasion.
Let's start with the 3-4. I don't recall us running a true 3-4 look at all last year. We do use a three-man line on a regular basis. It is part of our nickel and dime packages. People have a habit of mistaking a 3-man defensive line for a 3-4. There is a big difference. The 3-4 is a base scheme. We use only specialized packages. The most common look we use is a 3-3-5. That is three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.
Why mix in some 3-4? Basically, to give opposing quarterbacks something else to have to deal with. Offense is all about preparation and timing. The quarterback and play-caller want to know what they'll be facing in a given situation. If the offense has spent all week preparing for a 4-3 and they walk out and see a 3-4, it can throw them for a loop. Good NFL quarterbacks aren't going to be overwhelmed by a new look, but defensive coaches want to see if they can catch the offense off-guard. Confusion is the name of the game. If you can put just a little doubt into the heads of offensive players and coaches you can affect them, even if it isn't in a drastic way.
The Saints played a lot of 3-4 in the Super Bowl. They ran a base 4-3 all year, but Gregg Williams decided he needed to do anything he could to slow down the Colts. The 3-4 look didn't stop the Colts or Peyton Manning. He still went 31-of-45 for 333 yards. The weird look did affect him. He only threw one touchdown and the Colts only scored 17 points. Clearly the Saints offense had a lot to do with that game because of their ability to sustain drives and keep Manning on the sideline. Still, that defense wasn't what Manning had planned for. He focused on the Saints' base defense that he'd seen all year. Manning is good enough as a quarterback to keep the chains moving when caught off-guard, but 432 yards of offense only led to 17 points. The 3-4 scheme had something to do with that.
Don't get overly focused on the fact it was a 3-4. Remember that in the AFC title game Manning shredded the Jets top-ranked defense and their 3-4 scheme. He was 26-of-39 for 377 and three touchdowns as the Colts scored 30 points.
The point isn't to run a 3-4, but rather to mix up what you do. We run a base 4-3 defense. We do a lot of exotic stuff in nickel and dime packages. The one way left for us to get creative is to adjust the base with some 3-4 looks. What makes the 3-4 tough when it is run well is that the quarterback doesn't know who is rushing the passer. Generally the three defensive linemen are attacking upfield. Which linebacker will come off the edge, the guy on the right or left? Sometimes you send one. Sometimes both. Occasionally you can drop both into coverage. The 3-4 allows you to really be creative with who you rush. You have four linebackers, two inside and two outside, who can attack or drop back.
The fact you have so many linebackers standing up prior to the snap allows you to do a lot of stemming. That is when defenders move around and try to fake out the quarterback and blockers as to who is coming and where they will attack. The more uncertainty you create, the more likely you are to affect the rhythm of the play.
The 3-4 gets exponentially trickier when you mix in zone blitzing. In this set-up, the defense can rush any combination of players. You generally will rush at least two guys, but could also rush as many as five or six. What makes it so tough is that the defense mixes up which players go after the quarterback. The nose tackle may drop into coverage while both inside linebackers blitz up the middle. Maybe a cornerback attacks off the edge and the linebacker drops into his zone. The quarterback now isn't sure who is coming or how many are coming. The way offenses combat blitzes is by having hot reads. These are short, safe passes that are intended to get the ball out quickly. They can eat up a blitzing team. Think back to Joe Montana picking apart Buddy Ryan's Gang Green attack. The hot reads don't work as well against a zone blitz because there may be a defender dropping right into the throwing area.
Zone blitzing is something that every team does. It is the reason that Andy Reid hired Jim Johnson back in 1999. Reid thought Johnson did a great job with keeping offenses confused and quarterbacks uneasy. We did this from the 4-3. Doing it from the 3-4 can be deadlier. The key difference is the fact you've got four defenders standing up prior to the snap. That gives the coach a ton of ways to be creative. He can have the inside linebackers attack the same gap. He can have them twist and loop to confuse blockers. The outside linebackers can twist and loop with the defensive ends or even inside 'backers. You can run any number of games or stunts with the guys you send. Also, the fact you are dropping linebackers into coverage generally means they will be more effective than pure defensive linemen.
Our roster is built to play the 4-3, but just for fun let's try to imagine who will line up where when we do go 3-4. The base of the 3-4 is the nose tackle. Brodrick Bunkley would likely get the nod at that spot. We played a lot of three-man line against the Patriots back in 2007 and Bunkley was the nose for most of the time. He doesn't have ideal nose tackle size, but Bunkley is a powerful guy that can eat up blocks and hold his ground. Antonio Dixon is the guy to watch. He has the size, strength and build to be a good nose tackle.
The defensive end spots are hard to fill. We could use Juqua Parker, Bunkley or Mike Patterson. The best fit is Victor Abiamiri. We just need to see if he's healthy. Rookie Daniel Te'o-Nesheim would also be a good fit. Remember, the ends in a 3-4 aren't the same as in a 4-3. You want players who can take on blockers and be tough.
The outside linebackers would likely be Trent Cole and Brandon Graham. They can get after the quarterback when allowed to attack, but each guy is athletic enough to drop back and be effective in coverage. Darryl Tapp and Parker could also see time. Rookie Ricky Sapp would be ideal in this role.
We should have a good set of inside linebackers. Stewart Bradley would be equally good in a 4-3 or 3-4. The other spot would likely go to Moise Fokou or Akeem Jordan. Both guys are tough, physical players that could handle playing between the tackles. We could try Ernie Sims, but I think he might be lost in a 3-4. Omar Gaither could also fit the bill, if healthy. He's recovering from a season-ending foot injury. Joe Mays and Jamar Chaney would remain backups in a 3-4 look.
We don't have the personnel to make the full-time move to a 3-4. I do think McDermott is smart to mix in some different looks. He was creative last year and it paid off at times. Two of Trent Cole's sacks came when he lined up as an inside linebacker and blitzed up the middle. The 3-4 gives you that kind of flexibility and creativity. McDermott is an aggressive, creative coach. He has versatile, athletic players to work with. Why limit yourself?
We did run some five-man defensive line at times last year. It wasn't a regular look on defense, but we did mix it in from time to time. Again, keep things as creative as possible, but within the framework of the defense. Don't get too crazy. I just happened to re-watch part of an old Super Bowl on the NFL Network this weekend and the Patriots mixed in a 5-man line effectively against the Rams back in 2001. You force the offense to keep in extra blockers or you guarantee that each pass rusher will only face single blocking. You take away one coverage defender and that's a risk, but can be worth it if you hit the quarterback.
I'm sure some of you will come away from this wanting to switch to the 3-4 defense. Not me. I firmly believe in the 4-3. The best defense I ever saw was the 1985 Chicago Bears. They ran the 4-3. So did Gang Green. So did the Steel Curtain, Doomsday Defense and the Purple People Eaters. The lowest point totals allowed in the 14- and 16-game seasons were set by 4-3 defenses. The sack record is held by a 4-3 defense. As successful as the Ravens have been with their hybrid 3-4 and exotic looks the best unit they ever had was Marvin Lewis running a basic 4-3. Three of the last four Super Bowl winners ran the 4-3. Tom Landry invented the 4-3 defense. Buddy Ryan perfected it. I don't see a reason to change.