These guys know 3-4

With Mike Nolan making an early declaration that the 49ers will run a 3-4 defense in 2005, it's nice to know the team now has in place some men who actually can teach and administer the scheme. That wasn't the case last year when San Francisco's half-hearted attempt to implement the dynamic 3-4 was doomed from the start.

It made sense to everybody last year when former coach Dennis Erickson talked about the 49ers "investigating" the 3-4 scheme after he hired Willy Robinson away from the Pittsburgh Steelers to replace Jim Mora as San Francisco's defensive coordinator.

Robinson, a long-time Erickson coaching comrade, had spent the previous four seasons with the Steelers, where he ostensibly picked up the finer details of the 3-4 scheme in its purest form. Pittsburgh, after all, is the home of the 3-4, the place where the complicated yet effective system was born, bred and developed into one of the finer arts of defensive football.

Heck, just ask Billy Davis, the man Nolan tabbed at the end of last week as his new defensive coordinator. Davis is one of the NFL's young 3-4 gurus, and his concepts of the scheme and the variations of it he brings to San Francisco come right out of Pittsburgh.

Davis, after all, began his NFL coaching career as a defensive assistant/secondary coach/linebackers coach with the Steelers from 1992-94. Davis readily admitted that two of the biggest influences on the coach he is today are Dom Capers (whom he coached with at Carolina in 1995-98) and Tim Lewis (whom he coached with last year in New York). What do Capers and Lewis have in common? They both are former Pittsburgh defensive coordinators, both protégés of the defensive philosophy Bill Cowher instilled with the Steelers when he became head coach there in 1992.

But going strictly on what we saw last year, Robinson – who coached four years under defensive coordinator Lewis in Pittsburgh – apparently missed the boat during his time with the Steelers.

With Robinson running the defense, the Niners experimented with the 3-4 during training camp last year. But – even though the top talent on the entire roster was at linebacker – they never seemed compelled to make any kind of commitment to it.

When the Niners trotted out the 3-4 during the exhibition season for what seemed like a token appearance, it was a complete joke.

The players were lost in the scheme, some of them clearly having no clue what their assignments were. The defense was summarily gashed as the preseason reached its climax, and Erickson and his coaches quickly explained away the situation, saying the 49ers didn't have the "right personnel" to run the 3-4.

Oh, no? Versatile, athletic and dynamic outside linebackers Julian Peterson and Jamie Winborn, along with tough inside backers Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich, couldn't run this scheme? Are you kidding me? The 3-4 would have been a rather ingenious way to take advantage of their skills and highlight their strengths – along with getting them all on the field at the same time.

It's true that the 49ers didn't have great personnel up front to run the 3-4, but tackles Bryant Young and Anthony Adams at least gave them two adequate parts of the three-piece front puzzle. Still, the Niners made little attempt to effectively integrate the 3-4 into their system.

The problem? Nobody knew how to do it. Robinson, in his first season as a NFL coordinator, didn't have a clue. He was overmatched trying to teach the finer details of a system he apparently never really got a handle on himself during his days in Pittsburgh.

That was one of the reasons Robinson imploded as a rookie coordinator, taking the San Francisco defense down with him. By late November, with his defensive charges getting hammered each Sunday and Robinson contributing to the demise with blown calls in crucial situations, Robinson himself admitted, "It's unfortunate that this group has to deal with a guy that's never been at that (defensive coordinator) position at this level before."

Enter Nolan, and the Niners hardly are so unfortunate anymore, even though they'll unveil another rookie defensive coordinator this year with Davis.

Nolan just completed three seasons as Baltimore's defensive coordinator, where the Ravens ran one of the best – and, certainly, most effective - hybrids of the 3-4 system seen in the NFL today. Before that, Nolan had eight seasons of experience as a defensive coordinator with three other NFL teams.

Add Nolan's 3-4 ideas with those that Davis has picked up over the years and … Well, let's just say the 49ers might be on to something here in 2005.

They obviously weren't under the previous coaching regime.

While remaining true to his character – that is, straightforward but also diplomatic – Nolan didn't come right out and laugh at the 49ers' meager attempt to run a 3-4 last year. But he didn't exactly mince words, either.

"I think you have to know it to do it," Nolan said when asked about San Francisco's problems trying to implement the 3-4 scheme last year. "It's easy to claim. As I look at the film, to be perfectly honest with you, there is very little attempt to run it. They may have talked a good game, but I don't know as I look at it. … Boy, I'll tell you, I don't want to say there is none, but there is very little."

There will be a lot more in 2005, and Nolan already is giving concrete plans of how it will work – something you never heard from the Niners last year even when they were in mid-summer design.

Nolan's already talking of how Adams and Isaac Sopoaga can play at nose tackle, how Young can slide out to end. To be sure, the Niners will be on the lookout for a big, sturdy defensive lineman in the draft or free agency who can be a legitimate end in a 3-4 formation – perhaps even Baltimore free agent Marques Douglas, who at 290 pounds handled that role nicely for the Ravens last year. Douglas, by the way, has spoken very highly of Nolan since his departure.

And, while Nolan stresses that it is "very important to utilize the personnel that you have," and that San Francisco's linebackers corps "is the strength of our team," he and Davis will be installing a 3-4 system that has built-in flexibility.

"The way you run it, there are effective ways to do everything," Nolan said. "There's good 4-3s and bad 4-3s. There's good 3-4s and bad ones. The key to the whole thing is making sure you do what fits your players. Our 3-4 at Baltimore for the last three years has leaned more 4-3, but you can do that out of a 3-4 to protect your people."

And, to show he's not just tossing words around, Nolan explained further: "If you have injuries, it's the snap of a finger and you're right to the 4-3 defense. But, the other way doesn't work. To be a 4-3 and tweak it to go 3-4, I haven't seen it work successfully in all my years. It doesn't work. Structurally, at least, if you start 3-4, you could jump to 4-3 in a heartbeat and never miss a lick. You can just keep on going. But, if you start the other way and you say, ‘Boy, I sure would like to go back to a 3-4,' you're kind of dead in the water. It ain't gonna fly."

It certainly didn't fly last year. Of course, that's because the 49ers were going about it all wrong. Now they're being guided by guys who know all about the 3-4 at its very core – and, even better yet, know the right way to run it.

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