Teams suddenly going back to 3-4 scheme
Warren Sapp and rookie Jason Babin are among the players in the process of adjusting to 3-4 defenses.
During all four college seasons, Jason Babin lined up at defensive end, so the former Western Michigan star and Houston Texans first-round draft choice can be forgiven the confusion and awkwardness that accompanied his recent NFL baptism at mini-camp.
Having played his entire career in a three-point stance, with his hand on the ground and his perspective on the quarterback gleaned by glancing up at a slightly cocked angle, Babin now attacks the pocket from an upright position. He is, of course, an outside linebacker now in the 3-4 alignment long preferred by Houston coach Dom Caper and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the latest hybrid-type player to make a position switch that he likened to learning to walk again.
Ironically, the native of Paw Paw, Mich., won't be getting his two paws nearly as dirty anymore, because he'll spend most of his time in a two-point stance now.
The thing is, Babin is young and pliable and not as rigid in his ways, and he'll grow into his new position. Around the league, though, veteran defenders are being asked to break old habits and learn new maneuvers as more coordinators plan to either overhaul entirely to the 3-4 front or to at least incorporate it into their repertoires.
After playing tackle in Tampa Bay for nine Hall of Fame seasons, Warren Sapp will log snaps as a 3-4 end in Oakland this year. On the flip side, Raiders end DeLawrence Grant, a disappointment as a down lineman in his first three league seasons, will get a chance to revitalize his career at linebacker. In Atlanta, three-time Pro Bowl player Keith Brooking is moving back to weak-side linebacker after three seasons playing inside in the 3-4. And conversely, San Diego weak-side standout Donnie Edwards will switch to an inside spot.
"There are some old dogs, man, who are going to have to learn some new tricks," noted former Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Robaire Smith, who will see time at end with Houston, where he signed as an unrestricted free agent.
Once the flavor of the month for scheming defensive coordinators -- or, more accurately, the double-dip scoop of the late 1970s and early '80s -- the 3-4 front eventually went the way of the wide-tackle six and the "52" look. By the conclusion of the '80s, more than half the NFL had employed the 3-4 as its base defense and all but four clubs used it as at least a changeup scheme. And then, for two decades, it suffered a de-evolution of sorts.
And now, like those nettlesome cicadas chirping incessantly outside your window every night after a blessed 17-year absence, the 3-4 defense has returned.
To a group that in '03 included Pittsburgh, Houston and Baltimore, add San Diego, which hired longtime 3-4 aficionado Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator in the offseason, as a franchise that will deploy in the front this year. At least five more teams will mix in the 3-4 as an element of their defensive bag of tricks.
Blame the makeover, in part at least, on the New England Patriots, a team that is incredibly adept at disguising its fronts, and which jumps between three- and four-man lines with remarkable facility. The concept of Darwinism posits that the strongest survive. In the NFL version of Darwinism, teams survive by copying the fittest among them, by taking what succeeded for the latest Super Bowl champion and adopting it as one's own.
In a league where there really is nothing new under the sun, and all things are eventually regurgitated, the once-eclipsed 3-4 is definitely back out of the shadows. Its return makes some sense, since it remains difficult to secure depth in the defensive line, and hard to fill the end spots with the kind of 300-pounders it takes to play the "under" schemes that are so preponderant across the league. In the 3-4, players who traditionally lined up at tackle now play end. Plus the college game continues to turn out plenty of 250- and 260-pound pass rushers, defenders who lack bulk to play end in the NFL, but who can compress the pocket from the edge.
"It's just a lot easier to find a 250[-pound] guy who's a terrific athlete, quick off the edge and with some versatility, than to get a bunch of 300-pounders to fill out your line," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a longtime 3-4 proponent. "You have to adapt to the player trends, figure out the best way to play the hand you're dealt, and [the 3-4] provides you a lot of flexibility."
The increased deployment of the 3-4 almost certainly will mandate the return of some of the zone-blitz looks that had also ebbed in recent seasons.
But just because so many more teams will play the 3-4 front in 2004 doesn't necessarily mean they will play it well. As Phillips found out the hard way in Atlanta, where his unit statistically ranked 19th in 2002 but faded to last in the NFL in '03, you can't camouflage deficiencies forever, can't succeed with smoke and mirrors all the time, if you don't possess the appropriate player components for the 3-4 scheme. For all his talk of quickness overcoming size shortcomings, Phillips struggled because he tried to play the 3-4 with 275-pound ends, and that is a poor fit.
In fact, there are skeptics who question the Chargers' transformation to a 3-4 defense for this season, because they suggest San Diego doesn't have round pegs in round holes. The team's best lineman, Jamal Williams, will be just a guy now who tries to eat up blockers, drawing the double team but not making many plays. And the top playmaker, Edwards, could be relegated to just an inside run-stuffer.
Moving to the 3-4 also means a personnel department must evaluate players, and project them as well, into an altered landscape. For years, the Steelers, who have played the 3-4 since head coach Bill Cowher arrived in 1992, have been superb in unearthing college ends and morphing them into 3-4 linebackers. There has been a steady stream of such players in the Pittsburgh defense, with current star Joey Porter following in a lineage that includes predecessors like Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown and Jason Gildon.
Not every franchise, though, will be able to re-adjust its player evaluation principles and guidelines, and to locate defenders who fit snugly into a re-tooled scheme.
"My bet is that you're going to see a lot of busts, as teams scramble to find the kind of guys they need to play the 3-4," said one veteran scout whose team remains entrenched in the more conventional four-man front. "I mean, not every 250-pound college [defender] can just jump right into the 3-4. The transition to the NFL is a big enough step. So now you're telling kids, 'Uh, look, you're a linebacker now, man.' It's not that simple."
First-time coordinator Rob Ryan, who moved to the Raiders after serving as the Patriots linebackers coach, will attest to that. Borrowing a page from the New England playbook, Ryan will incorporate some 3-4 fronts into the standard 4-3 schemes to which Oakland players are more accustomed. But that first meant incorporating several veterans capable of playing the 3-4.
Enter mammoth nose tackle Ted Washington, who anchored the inside for the Patriots in 2003, Sapp, and, just this week, another former New England lineman, Bobby Hamilton. Suddenly the Raiders, who ranked dead last in stopping the run in 2003, possess a pretty formidable mix upfront. Under the tutelage of Ryan, the Raiders figure to adapt nicely to the addition of some 3-4 looks.
Not every team moving to the 3-4 front as its base defense or a change of pace, however, figures to make such a speedy transition. Just because coordinators are reaching back for an old standby defense doesn't mean their players will embrace it like it is old hat. The 3-4 is back but, whether it's back with a bang, well, that remains to be seen.
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Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.