New personnel not helping units

The Texans and Raiders have struggled in the 3-4 defense because not enough guys are making big plays.

Updated: December 15, 2004, 1:01 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

In his first decade as an NFL coordinator or head coach, Dom Capers presided over defenses that always rated in the top half of the league's statistical pecking order. During that stretch, he stewarded five top 10 defenses, and three top five units. His aggressive defenses averaged 41.2 sacks and twice led the NFL in that critical category.

And then in 2003, the bottom basically fell out on Capers, as his Houston Texans defense plummeted to No. 31, posted a paltry 19 sacks, the second-lowest total in the league, and surrendered a too-generous 380 points.

Origin of 3-4 defense
Originated in the 1940s by legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson, in part to compensate for a lack of depth on the defensive line, the 3-4 scheme was slow to make its way to the NFL, and actually might not have gained popularity were it not for the 1970 merger with the AFL.

Many of the AFL teams deployed the 3-4 front and brought it with them in the merger and, by the early 1980s, approximately two-thirds of NFL franchises were deploying it as their primary defense. Even former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll, who had won four Super Bowl titles with the conventional four-man front as his base defense, moved to the 3-4 late in his career.

The preponderance of 3-4 fronts was, in part, attributable to the difficulty in locating defensive linemen. But just as much, it was because coaches believed the 3-4 scheme lent them more flexibility and could be better camouflaged. Because it permitted coaches to employ hybrid-type defenders on the edge -- often undersized college defensive ends who could make the transition to linebacker and play in a two-point stance -- the 3-4 offered the chance to place attacking rushers closer to the line of scrimmage. Most of the great 3-4 linebackers, in fact, have been up-field players capable of attacking the pocket.

But the defense, which requires bigger defensive ends and a nose tackle who can anchor the interior, has also been effective against the run. It is a confusing scheme, difficult to play against because not as many teams use it now, and because it demands that blocking schemes be altered.

In the 1980s and '90s, NFL teams seemed to move away from the 3-4 and back to the more traditional four-linemen scheme. But the success of long-time 3-4 teams (such as Pittsburgh), and coaches (like Bill Belichick of New England), has promulgated a kind of revisiting of the defense. Coaches like the versatility of the front and, as always, it seems easier to locate 240-pound defenders who can chase the ball than it is to unearth a lot of 300-pound linemen.

Two of the three 12-1 teams in the league, New England and Pittsburgh, use the 3-4 look. Three of the four division leaders in the AFC employ it. In all, six teams use the 3-4 as their primary defense now and another four or five teams this year incorporated it into their defensive packages.
-- Len Pasquarelli

Houston brass reacted to that meltdown the way most good franchises would, bringing in new front seven players, reshuffling some returning defenders. Owner Bob McNair went deep into the coffers to extend the contract of end Gary Walker and to pry emerging young lineman Robaire Smith away from the Tennessee Titans. The team traded for an additional choice in the first round so it could land Western Michigan end Jason Babin, the perfect hybrid-type player to switch to linebacker in Capers' trademark 3-4 scheme. Veteran linebacker Kailee Wong was switched from the left to the right side to get more pass rush opportunities.

So with three weeks remaining in the 2004 season, less than a month remaining in the third season of the NFL's most recent expansion franchise, what kind of dividends have Capers and the Texans gotten from those investments? Oh, there has been improvement.

Assuming, that is, you consider a move all the way up to No. 30 in the league's defensive rankings a notable upgrade.

With a 5-8 record, and out of the playoffs again, Houston has surrendered, on average, 13.6 fewer yards per game, but 0.2 more points per outing, than in 2003. The team has 18 sacks, just one shy of its total for the entire 2003 season, but still far less than the gaudy numbers that Capers' defenses once produced, like when the Pittsburgh Steelers collected 55 quarterback kills in 1994 or the Jacksonville Jaguars 57 in 1999.

Indeed, in a 2004 season when the 3-4 defense has enjoyed a comeback of sorts -- two of the league's three 12-1 franchises employ it as their "base" defense and it is the scheme used by three of the AFC's four division leaders -- it has been a comedown again for the Texans and no one seems able to pinpoint exactly why.

"It's not as if the coaches suddenly got dumb or forgot how to teach it," said nose tackle Seth Payne. "I mean, in (Capers) and (coordinator) Vic Fangio, you've got a couple guys who helped bring the defense back to prominence. It's, you know, what they know best."

There have been some superb 3-4 practitioners in the league over the past three decades and it's fair to say that Capers and Fangio rank among them. But in employing a scheme that, as Payne noted, "they know best," they've gotten some of the worst overall results in the NFL over the past two seasons.

So what has been the problem in Houston, where the fans and some media members now openly question the wisdom of sticking with a scheme that is the principal defense for just six of 32 teams and which has only two franchises among the top 10 defenses? Well, as is the case for another 3-4 that has failed miserably this year, the Oakland Raiders, it seems to be a dearth of playmakers.

There was a time, not all that long ago, in fact, when the 3-4 scheme seemed to enhance the performances of some players. Veteran defensive schemers like Capers and Dick LeBeau, Wade Phillips and Bill Belichick drew up Byzantine and exotic game plans that paralyzed opposition offenses and turned some ordinary defenders into playmakers. But there are enough franchises playing the 3-4 now, or at least a derivation of it in situations, that the surprise factor has been a bit blunted.

In a league where everything is cyclical, and where evolution means staying a step ahead in the learning curve, you can't always "out-scheme" an offense anymore. While that is not meant to diminish the significance of coaches who think outside the box, or to throw water on the keen defensive innovators who still work in the league, it is to suggest that you still need good personnel.

Dom Capers has watched his Texans have another tough year defensively.
The teams who are playing the 3-4 so miserably in 2004, most notably the Texans and the Raiders, clearly don't have enough good people. Unless you've got pertinent personnel, the 3-4 isn't necessarily a panacea.

At its best, like with the Steelers and perhaps more so the Patriots, the 3-4 defense is like an amoeba. One of its strengths is its chameleon-like personality, the ability to change shape, but to maintain function. It is a terribly versatile defense, one that allows teams to defend a variety of situations, but without wholesale substitution. But without the right kind of people, the 3-4 can be terrible, period. Its amoeba qualities can become riddled with germs and rendered unproductive by an epidemic of misplays.

One club official in Houston hinted last weekend that some of the high-profile Texans defenders, especially in the front seven, have gotten old fast. If that is the case, especially at the linebacker spot, it might explain some of the team's shortcomings.

Like every defense, the success of the blueprint begins up front, with players who can stop the run. The scheme demands 300-pounders across the board, a nose tackle who can eat up blockers like a latter-day Pac Man and ends who can anchor. But the playmakers in the 3-4 defense are the linebackers, especially hybrid defenders on the edge, guys who perhaps were 245-pound ends in college but who can convert to playing in a two-point stance.

As a defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh and later Jacksonville, and as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers at their birth, Capers had those kinds of players. Greg Lloyd. Kevin Greene. Lamar Lathon. Chad Brown. Bryce Paup.

See any of those kinds of "edge" rushers on the Houston roster? It is a linebacker corps that includes not a single player who has ever posted double-digit sacks in a season. Fact is, the lone Texans defender who has ever registered 10 sacks in a year is Walker, and he did it just once. Said one offensive coordinator whose team faced the Texans earlier this year: "No one in that front seven scares you. They're really not that athletic, not nearly as versatile as the better (3-4) teams in the league."

Oakland, which hired former New England linebackers coach Rob Ryan to coordinate its switch from the traditional 4-3 front to the 3-4 this year, has similar shortcomings.

The Raiders signed massive nose tackle Ted Washington, one of the premier 3-4 players of all-time, as a free agent to anchor their interior. Good start. But then they also added Warren Sapp, a life-long "three technique" tackle who had essentially spent his entire pro career in a one-gap, 4-3 up-field design, to play end in the 3-4. They clearly counted on the scheme to elevate the play of their linebackers. But among those linebackers, there was not a single big-time playmaker.

And so the Raiders, in yet another miserable season, have just 17 sacks, lowest total in the NFL. They are tied for the NFL worst in takeaways, with only 12, and their defense is ranked 28th, an improvement of just two spots from 2003.

Like many teams before them, the Raiders fell into the trap of believing that the O's that coaches draw up on a grease board are as important as the real-life people the scribbles represent on Sunday afternoons.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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