I touched on this topic briefly last week, but I feel it's again worth stating how ridiculously dated fan comments have become around the Browns' little corner of the Internet. The latest example comes from Cleveland.com (where else?) and poses the following directive to the new Browns' regime:
"I liked the way the 4-3 D was working last year. Now we'll have to draft lots of LB's. Hopefully he can get the NEW D to jell very quickly. I'm tired of all these constant changes."
Thanks, C-Town. So…exactly how many linebackers do the Browns need?
Like, more than one or less than an entire locker room?
We might be here for a while.
I don't mean to exclusively pick on one virtual Browns' fan, but C-Town is not alone in thinking that somehow the Browns are going to have to completely overhaul their current roster to accommodate Ray Horton's new 3-4 "hybrid" defense.
This type of thinking is warranted if only based on our recent experience in watching Phil Savage and Eric Mangini make clumsy attempts at doing such a thing. However, this evidence is either 4 or 7 years old – which in NFL terms may as well be two decades.
It's certainly not worth revisiting all the failed draft picks and free agent signings of supposedly 3-4 specific types of players – the majority of which didn't pan out in Cleveland. Instead, let's briefly visit the most basic numbers of the situation.
Last season, the Browns carried 6-8 linebackers on their roster and depending on a given game, dressed anywhere from 5-7. These numbers are excluding Emmanuel Acho and Chris Gocong, who spent the season on injured reserve. And if you choose to do so, you can throw in Scott Fuita, who extended his retirement for a third year in 2012. This amount of linebackers reflected the team's 4-3 alignment and Special Teams needs.
For a review, here are the team's 2012 linebackers:
It's likely that every linebacker except Maiava (free agent) will at least compete for a roster spot in 2013. Depending on cap concerns and the actions of the new personnel people in charge, Gocong can be added, which would bring the skeletal list to 7. If you want, go ahead and throw Jabaal Sheard in as a "linebacker" – at least if you're a stickler for categorizing defenders.
For a comparison, the gold standard of 3-4 defenses – the Steelers – carried anywhere from 8 to 10 linebackers in 2012 and regularly suited up 6 to 8 per game. Horton's Cardinals carried 7 to 9.
So, to move on from a simple numbers argument, the Browns basically need to draft one linebacker and probably find another in free agency. Lucky for the Browns, they have 6 draft picks (7 if you include the conditional David Sims pick) and some 40 million dollars in cap money.
In other words, I think the Browns are going to be okay in this regard.
More important is another idea that has been lost on the majority of Browns' fans.
Simply put, the question of 3-4 or 4-3 is becoming a dead argument.
In case you haven't noticed over the last fifteen years, the NFL has become a passing league. The majority of teams (both good and bad) pass nearly 60% of the time and regularly line up 3 to 4 wide receivers. This has become more than just a trend – despite some teams adopting more college zone read/spread attacks. Naturally, the league's smarter defenses have stocked up on defensive backs and have adopted more flexible schemes.
But if you really consider the amount of plays run in a game (60 to 80), then the 3-4 or 4-3 argument further weakens. Adding obvious short yardage and goal line situations to the already high number of Nickel and Dime packages, how many plays truly justify defenses using a base 4-3 or 3-4?
Maybe 30-40% of the time?
If you follow my logic here, then why are we still having the same tired 4-3 or 3-4 conversation? Have people not noticed that NFL base defenses have become Nickel packages?
At least one guy has. Here's new Browns' Head Coach Rob Chudzinski on this subject:
"Sometimes, you are in your base defense only on first down. After that you morph into what the offense is doing."
So now, the question becomes – how do NFL defenses best cover and best rush the passer – after first down, that is?
Or, how does an NFL defense help a team win a Super Bowl?
I'm not sure the answer is to load up on linebackers. Again, for the sake of a familiar comparison, even the Steelers' linebackers only produced 20 total sacks. Instead, the idea is to make a defense flexible enough to cover, adaptive enough to stop the occasional run-heavy team and creative enough to rush the passer in all types of situations.
If you're basing your argument in traditional 3-4 or 4-3 schemes, then you've already lost. Of course, since we've only experienced more traditional 1980's based 3-4 schemes (Romeo Crennel and some Eric Mangini) and a dated 4-3 variety (Dick Jauron), it's easy to fall in line with past experience. Or, even if you've really studied this season's playoffs, you may not even be aware of the base defenses that each team runs – simply because the better defenses have more specific game plans and/or NFL offenses tend to dictate defensive packages.
However, if you're truly interested in the type of scheme the Browns may run, here's a quick primer. (Thanks to Zack Luby).
In the Browns' specific case, maybe the only real taste of contemporary defensive thinking to occur during the expansion era came with Rob Ryan's brief 2010 run against the Saints and Patriots. The "Amoeba Defense", flexible line formations and multiple blitzes seemed to counter traditional alignments, but again were based more on specific game plans (and really a lack of quality defenders) than a base defense. Anyway, the game has evolved and a team's personnel needs have similarly changed – making the following positions vital for a successful team:
1. Pass Rushers
Be it a down lineman or outside linebacker, the point is that teams who rush the passer tend to win championships. The best evidence can be found in the Giants' two Super Bowl wins and the Patriots' most recent Super Bowl losses.
2. Slot Cornerbacks
The slot cornerback has evolved into a value that's likely greater than a solid "number two" corner. In fact, a lot of teams (the Ravens) have masked their cornerback depth by placing their third best corner on the outside – something that was unheard of in the past. However, players like Wes Welker, Victor Cruz and Danny Amendola are now in positions to dominate games. And considering that Horton likes to use elements of Dick LeBeau's zone blitz scheme, the Browns' corners are going to playing more man coverage – which yet again, is pretty much becoming the norm around the league.
3. Hybrid Safeties
On Sunday, we'll watch a dying breed in Baltimore's Ed Reed. The more prototypical NFL safety today is basically more of a linebacker than anything else. Or, just keep an eye on San Francisco's safeties – players who are basically interchangeable between run defense and over the middle coverage. Luckily in Cleveland, the Browns have one of the league's better versions of this new kind of safety in T.J. Ward. Certainly, Horton's defense gives Ward even more opportunities to do what he does best – which is play close to the line of scrimmage.
And speaking of changes, the following positions aren't as valuable anymore:
1. Middle Linebacker
Naturally, the Super Bowl presents a counter to this argument in regards to Navarro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis. However, the league-wide trend is a de-emphasis on the position in favor of finding more versatile linebackers who can rush the passer and cover running backs and tight ends. Regardless of a real or perceived lack of linebacker depth, it doesn't make a lot of sense to load up linebackers during April's draft. A quick check of the last few drafts shows how teams have mostly stayed away from drafting non-pass rushing linebackers.
2. Free Safety
It seems unnatural, but with a rise in passing, the role of an NFL free safety has actually been reduced. Given the increasing number of defensive backs on the field, there is little job description beyond "playing center field" left for a free safety. After all, the dearth of talent left at free safety means that a knucklehead like Usama Young is actually considered proficient (sometimes).
And if we're again talking about what has become a "third down on every down" league, then base defenses aren't as important as the value a lot of us attach to them. Defenses need to figure out who their top four or five pass rushers are and line them up in the best positions. If that means the Browns' 3-4 defense calls for Sheard to line up as a 4-3 defensive end – so be it. Or, if Billy Winn rotates from tackle to end, great. Anything else is just a dumb attempt to categorize players into familiar boxes.
Or, if the Browns' new personnel people are realists, they will quickly figure out that this is a team that needs to create pressure from the outside. Naturally, in the hands of some fans, this topic will regress into whether a college defensive end can play outside linebacker or vice versa – or whether there is a Cleveland Browns' time machine stuck in 2005. But again – the idea is simple. The Browns need to pressure opposing quarterbacks in order to consistently win games – something that hasn't regularly occurred in 14 seasons.
A similar principle relates to coverage in the secondary. In a league where multiple receiver sets necessitate more man coverage, the value attached to any solid coverage cornerback has appreciated. And much like a season ago (or even two years ago), the Browns are still thin at corner beyond Joe Haden. Regardless of any 3-4 talk, the new Browns' defensive philosophy appears to be blitz heavy – which requires solid coverage all over the field.
And some talented defensive players.
Or "lots" of linebackers. Either way.