For a long, long time I’ve been saying that I like our 3-4 defense. What I should’ve been saying was that I like 3-4 defenses in general, as the Jim Haslett run version of the 3-4 defense has left a lot to be desired, and the Redskins have been looking for answers on how to hide the incredible deficiency in the back half of our defense.
Our transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 team has not been easy, nor has it ever appeared to be that easy for any team to make that transition. That is, except for the Wade Phillips led defense of the Houston Texans. In 2010, the Texans fielded a historically bad defense (which was then surpassed by the New England Patriots in 2011), but moved from 30th in total defense in 2010 to 2nd in the league in 2011, behind the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
The best player the Texans picked up in the 2011 NFL Draft to help improve their defense was Wisconsin defensive end J.J Watt, and their best defensive free agent additions were cornerback Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning. Otherwise, their defensive line remained largely unchanged, as did their secondary.
The Texans have similiar 3-4 personnel to what the Redskins have. Nose tackles Barry Cofield and Shaun Cody both where somewhere around 310 pounds. Defensive end JJ Watt and Stephen Bowen are also about the same height, weight and shape, as are Antonio Smith and Jarvis Jenkins. Outside linebackers Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed are about the same height and body type as Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo would be.
So what gives? What makes them go from worst to first and us only mediocre on the best of days when they had to make the same transition?
Simple; Wade Phillips technically plays a 3-4 defense, but really, his defense plays a 4-3 Under defense.
To recap, a 3-4 scheme is typically a two-gap scheme; meaning the defensive linemen in a 3-4 defense are typically responsible for the two gaps on either side of the offensive linemen they are lined up on. The job of the d-line is a 3-4 defensive friend is to absorb blockers; the nose tackle is supposed to command double teams from the center and one of the guards (typically) while the other defensive ends occupy the other three blockers. This frees up gaps in a protection scheme that allow the more athletic linebackers to clog running lanes and rush the passer, as well as allowing for secondary blitzes.
The Houston Texans line up and play a base 3-4 Under formation, which is a one-gap scheme. This means that the outside linebackers and the defensive line are each responsible for the offensive lineman in front of them; essentially, playing a 4-3 defense without actually calling it a 4-3.
Two tight end sets and spread formations with quick passes have essentially destroyed the Redskins pass rush. Barry Cofield does command double teams at times, but can’t seem to beat the center one-on-one, and he doesn’t get enough push up the middle. If Cofield gets single blocked by the center, that means the defensive ends get double teamed. That leaves tight ends and running backs to pickWe get pass rush off the edges, but the quarterback still has a clean pocket to step up into. Meanwhile, our zone defenses get picked apart.
To keep tight ends in check (as great as London Fletcher is, he’s still overmatched against more athletic tight ends), we have to double them with Fletcher and Gomes. That leaves Madieu Williams as the single-high safety, which almost always leaves our cornerbacks on an island where they’re at a disadvantage.
Here we see the Texans base defense. It is, for all intents and purposes, still a 3-4 defense. But look closely at how the Texans defense is lined up.
Outside linebackers Brooks Reed and and Connor Barwin are as close to a having a hand in the dirt as possible without actually having their hands in the dirt. In a traditional 3-4, the nose tackle would be lined up directly over the center, but Shaun Cody is lined up in the strong side (on the offense lines right in this case) “A” gap, while the defensive ends line up over the weakside “B” gap and the strongside “C” gap respect. Barwin is lined up over the left tackle.
Compare that to how we look in a base defense.
Here, Barry Cofield is lined up directly over the center. Stephen Bowen is lined up directly over the left tackle, and Kedric Golston lines up over the right tackle.
As it stands now, it sees like our defense is better suited to do things the Wade Phillips way. Barry Cofield’s skillset could be a little better used if he wasn’t lined up directly over the center, and instead he would be allowed to penetrate and shout gaps. Without Brian Orakpo, we have Rob Jackson, Chris Wilson and Markus White, all of whom would probably be better as pass rushers, could just straight up rush the passer on nearly every down without worry about dropping too often.
Stephen Bowen could still be disruptive, perhaps even more so, and would command double teams that could free up the outside linebackers. Instead of putting London Fletcher on the tight end and forcing Gomes to help him, it could maybe allow us to put Ryan Kerrigan in those situation; perhaps not the best answer to that problem, but maybe it would allow us to play 2 deep safeties and not leave Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall on an island, will allowing us to play more straight man coverage and bump-and-run, not needing to rely on zone blitzes to get home.
We could also have more tradition 4-down-linemen sets in nickel situations, getting the strength of the defensive line (Cofield, Bowen, Baker and Jarvis Jenkins) on the field.
Would it solve all this defenses problems? No. Is it the kind of schematic shift you could implement in the middle of the week. Probably not. But zone blitzing and praying it gets home before the offense picks us a part, and the Cover 0 blitz is becoming more and more maligned by fans and players alike.
I like the 3-4 defense. But maybe it’s time to return to something a little more familiar to work to our defenses strengths. No guarantees that it’d work.
Let me know what you think by following on Twitter @kcclyburn.