The Case for a 3-4 Defense

Lions Cunningham Football
The Detroit coaching staff has been pretty cagey when discussing their plans for the defense in 2009. Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham has stated he wants to do more blitzing, and most fans hope to see a more aggressive defensive unit this year. Lions coaches have also indicated that, though they will continue to use a base 4-3 defense, they will utilize a 3-4 from time to time based on the situation.

A full time switch to a 3-4 would be a better choice.

More and more teams have been switching to a 3-4 base defense in the past decade. Continuing the trend, the Green Bay Packers have announced that they will be switching to a 3-4 in 2009. Both a 4-3 set and a 3-4 set can be fearsome (think of the Bears 4-3 and the Steelers 3-4), and each have their strengths and weaknesses. The Lions would be smart to switch to a 3-4 not because it is a better scheme, but because their personnel are more suited to it.

Ask any Lions insider what the team’s main defensive weakness is this year and they will point to the defensive line (except for the truly cynical who will just say “all of it”). Our defensive tackles are either raw or near the end of their careers. Some of our defensive ends are good against the run, and others are good pass rushers – none are both. A 4-3 defensive set requires two defensive tackles that can provide a consistent push in the middle of the line, with two defensive ends that can play run or pass equally well.

Moving to a 3-4 would immediately allow us to better map the defensive scheme to the talent on the roster. Grady Jackson and Sammie Lee Hill would provide a strong platoon at the all important nose tackle position. They each have the size and strength to clog the middle and force double teams. By only having one on the field at a time, we can keep Jackson fresher and give Hill some playing time to grow into the role. DeWayne White and Jared DeVries have the size (each over 270 pounds) to play the defensive end position in a 3-4 set. While both are able to rush the passer, they would not be relied upon so heavily to pressure the quarterback in passing situations – something the Lions defensive ends failed to do last year.

The new Lions linebacking corps is what really makes the 3-4 appealing. Julian Peterson has the ability to be a monster at the strongside outside linebacker spot. He has the strength to take on blockers in running situations, the agility to drop back into pass coverage, and the explosive speed to rush the passer. On the weak side, Ernie Sims and Cliff Avril could both make an impact here. Sims is a rocket whose instincts and speed could be put to best use from this position. Avril flashed his potential as a pass rusher last season, but struggled to play the run when having to take on an offensive tackle. He played both linebacker and defensive end in college, but he has the size, speed and ability to be a prototypical outside linebacker in a 3-4 pro scheme.

Larry Foote has played most of his career as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme at Pittsburgh, so he should have no trouble reprising that role in Detroit. The question mark would be the second inside linebacker spot. Rookies DeAndre Levy and Zack Follett could potentially find a home here, and Sims or even Avril could be moved inside (though it would not make for the best use of their talents). Personnel-wise, the #2 ILB is the weak link of a 3-4 plan for Detroit.

Potential free agents who could fill that void include Matt Wilhelm, who was released by the Chargers earlier this week, and Nate Webster, who played last year for the Broncos. An interesting longshot would be signing 37 year old Willie McGinest, who said recently that he would consider playing one more year if the right offer was made. Ostensibly, McGinest was talking about returning to the Patriots, and he would likely be less than excited about the prospect of playing for an 0-16 team. Still, after seeing what veterans like Junior Seau, Mike Vrabel and Takeo Spikes have been able to accomplish after age 30, it might be worth phone call to McGinest’s agent.

I certainly cannot make the case that a 3-4 is the answer to all Detroit’s defensive woes. It would take a great deal of effort to implement the change, and just like the switch to the Tampa 2, it would take time for the players to adjust and master the new system. However, unlike the Tampa 2, at least the Lions would be emulating a defensive scheme that it on the rise rather than on the way out.

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