- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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A few teams dabbled with new 3-4 defensive packages, but scaled back their efforts as the season progressed. The Chargers, however, committed a full scale change to the three-man line.
The results have been stunning. A year ago, the Chargers ranked 27th on defense, giving up 349.6 yards and 27.5 points a game. The Chargers finished 4-12. Enter Wade Phillips. The long-time defensive coordinator and former head coach is a master of the simplistic 3-4 defense.
Though he's used both during his long career, Phillips says the only difference between the 3-4 and 4-3 is one guy plays in the 3-4 with his hand off the ground. Though it's not as simple as that, Phillips' 3-4 scheme has been one of the reasons the Chargers are 10-3 and are closing in on the AFC West title.
Defensively, the Chargers rank 14th, giving up 324.8 yards a game. They're giving up one less touchdown a game, allowing 20.2 points. The biggest improvement is against the run where a year ago, the Chargers allowed 138.6 yards a game. This year, they are stifling running backs, holding them to a league-best 77.5.
"I think the 3-4 defense -- and I would have people who would disagree with this -- gives you the best opportunity to have a really good run defense," Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "You have a really good run defense because you can have a guy now who stands up and can run 4.6 or 4.65 at 260 pounds like Steve Foley and still has the ability to rush the passer. I think the 3-4 teams, and you look at Pittsburgh, you look at New England, people don't run the ball effectively against that front."
At Atlanta, Phillips made an amazing turnaround of the Falcons by switching to a 3-4 in 2002 and going to the playoffs. Unfortunately, the roster and front office wasn't committed to stocking to a 3-4 for the long run. Brady Smith and Patrick Kerney weren't prototype 3-4 ends. They were too light because they were drafted to play ends in the 4-3. The Falcons didn't have that space-eating, heavy nose tackle like Jamal Williams of the Chargers.
While the Falcons wore down in the second year of the 3-4, the Chargers don't plan to do that. They are committed to stocking the defense with 3-4 personnel for years to come. That means bigger linebackers. Those 260-pound ends in the 4-3 could end up outside linebackers in the 3-4.
"To have a 3-4, you need an anchor and we have one in Jamal Williams," general manager A.J. Smith said of the nose tackle. "We drafted Igor Olshansky and he's playing end. He's a combination guy who can play end and, if needed, can move over to the nose. I think as he develops, he's going to be a good one. I wouldn't be surprised in a couple of years if he has a chance to be a Pro Bowler."
As the Falcons found out, it's hard for 260- or 270-pound players to hold up as ends in the 3-4. They were worn down by 340-pound offensive tackles, and with so many teams using two tight end sets, those light ends often get double teamed. As much as Smith and Kerney loved playing for Phillips, they were happy to return to the 4-3 scheme this year under Jim Mora.
The Chargers had a couple of linebackers who worked nicely in the four linebacker set. Ben Leber is a young linebacker on the rise. Donnie Edwards is light in 3-4 terms, but he has been known for having as much range as any linebacker in football. Two weeks ago against the Broncos, Edwards chased down enough plays to get 20 tackles.
"Wade brought in a very simple scheme, and that's great because we have a young team trying to pick up a scheme," Edwards said. "Our defense is pretty much rush or not rush, cover two, cover three, cover four, cover five. We have really good people fitting in doing their job. Guys are doing their responsibilities and everybody is running to the ball."
Smith made two key moves during the offseason in signing linebackers Foley and Randall Godfrey. Foley is the ideal rush linebacker who spent most of his time on benches in Cincinnati and Houston. When he did play for the Bengals, he was a big 3-4 linebacker playing at a time Cincy was converting to a 4-3.
With the Chargers, he's having a Pro Bowl season.
"Look at Steve Foley," Edwards said. "He's about 270 pounds and he can move. He can get back in coverage when necessary and he can rush the quarterback."
Foley and Godfrey brought a toughness to the defense. Smith, from his days in Buffalo, loves those tough, nasty type players. When they hit, they hit hard. Foley takes down quarterbacks with a clean but powerful approach because he's hitting them while on the run. Godfrey added the toughness in the middle of the run defense at inside linebacker.
Godfrey is 31 and Foley is 29, but Smith believes they have two-four years left, giving the Chargers time to keep building around them on defense along with Williams at tackle.
As illustrated in the Broncos game, the 3-4 defense is the perfect one to cause fits for shorter quarterbacks such as Jake Plummer, whose game is moving and getting outside of the pocket to make plays. With the 3-4, the front seven spreads out beyond the offensive tackles.
Foley started the game by rushing Plummer and taking away his ability to move outside the pocket from one side. As a pocket passer, Plummer loses the ability to be as accurate. If the defensive linemen keep their hands up, Plummer or any quarterback 6-foot-2 or shorter, can't see as well downfield.
Instead of completing 60 percent of his passes by throwing on the move, Plummer had to stay in the pocket and completed only 40 percent that day.
"We tried to keep somebody up in his face all day," Foley said. "We got outside the tackles and tried to rush."
The only downside to a 3-4 is its impact on the salary cap. Normally, teams that use the 3-4 for years have to become teams that spend more on defense and scrimp on offense. Two or three of the linebackers need to be paid premiums because 3-4 defenses need a rush linebacker, a playmaking inside linebacker who can rush the quarterback and a tough outside linebacker to fight off tight ends.
Two of three of the defensive linemen need good paychecks. The nose tackle has to be good enough to consistently occupy two blockers to free up the movement of the linebackers. One of the defensive ends needs to be like Aaron Smith of the Steelers, a big lineman good enough to stop the run but who has the quickness and mobility to rush the quarterback. Good players also need to be paid in the secondary.
That's not a worry to the Chargers.
"You just go out and find good football players," A.J. Smith said. "We have some good young players who are on the rise. We're really happy with how this all worked out this season."
Next year, the Chargers will be on the lookout for a defensive end with pass-rushing ability and a free safety. They are committed to the 3-4, and like Pittsburgh, New England, Baltimore and Houston, the Chargers will build through drafting and signing players to fit that scheme.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The Chargers' 3-4 scheme has improved their overall defense and made them No. 1 in stopping the run.