Swerb: Thinking 3-4

If the Browns are going to switch to Romeo Crennel's preferred 3-4 defensive scheme this year, a lot of changes are in store for the Browns. How would the defensive scheme effect the Browns roster and the jobs of guys like Andra Davis (pictured)? Rich Swerbinsky offers his thoughts...

In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, new Browns head coach Romeo Crennel mentioned his preference for the 3-4 defense on media day, saying "it's been good to me".  In this week's press conference, where Romeo was officially named the 11th head coach in Browns history, he slightly backed off those statements from last week ... saying the team may not start out in a 3-4.  He went on to say that the decision ultimately depended on their evaluations of the talent currently here, and that the team would likely "transition" to a 3-4 base defense over time.

His trepidation likely stemmed from a brief glance at the existing roster following the Patriots 24-21 Super Bowl victory over the Eagles, Crennel's fifth title as an assistant. 

How much work do we still need to do here on the personnel side to get to the point where we can make the transition?  Let's come back to that.

Personally, I'm excited about a switch.  Only eleven NFL teams held ball carriers to less than four yards per carry last season, and five of those teams (New England, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego, and Oakland) played a 3-4.  There one was one glaring characteristic all of these 3-4 teams shared that led to their success against the run.

They didn't give up the big play on the ground.

If you look at the teams that allowed the fewest runs of 20 + yards last season, the five stingiest teams were the aforementioned quintet!  San Diego allowed just two long runs all season, followed by Baltimore ... who allowed only three.  Next were New England at four, Pittsburgh with five and Oakland at six.  In addition, all five teams ranked in the top ten in rushing yards allowed per game.

The only 3-4 team not to be ranked amongst the leagues best run defense units was Houston, who allowed 4.4 yards per carry and ten runs of twenty or more yards. 

Proponents of the 3-4 say that it is an inherently better defense against the run because you have better athletes on the field - guys who can run and take the big play away from your opponent.  They will tell you that the system is better suited for the rigors and inevitable injuries of an NFL campaign because the reliance is more on scheme than individual players. 

They will also tell you that it's a more cap-friendly defensive scheme as well ... because defensive tackles are paid much higher on average than linebackers.  Also, big ticket defensive ends who post consistently high sack totals are also murder on the salary cap.  The 3-4 is not reliant on those types of expensive edge rushing quarterback killers.

The NFL is a copycat league, and the defensive success of the teams using that set will likely lead to more teams starting to use it.  We will eventually use it here.  Dallas and Minnesota have already speculated about changing to a 3-4 next season.  By the start of next season, we could see ten to twelve teams using it as their base defense, and several others using it occasionally as a change of pace.

But it's not just as simple as saying you're going to make the change.  The success of the scheme is reliant on having the right personnel in place.

The linebackers are the key, and the success of any 3-4 defense lies with that unit.  Every team that plays the 3-4 carries nine to ten linebackers on the roster and eight usually get regular playing time.  The outside linebackers are relied on to apply most of your quarterback pressure, and your inside guys need to be solid tacklers that have a nose for getting to the football.  You ask your front three to do everything possible to make those linebackers jobs as easy as possible.

Looking at the Browns current roster, it's clear that the team's biggest obstacle to overcome in making the switch to a 3-4 is upgrading the linebacker unit with the right types of guys.  Andra Davis and Chaun Thompson are locks for one of the inside and outside spots respectively, but outside of those two … all you'll find are question marks.  The only other two linebackers likely assured of spots with the team next year are Brant Boyer (great special teams' player, good versatility, relatively cheap) and Ben Taylor.  Here's a quick look at the other current members of the Browns LB unit:

Warrick Holdman-unrestricted free agent
Eric Westmoreland-unrestricted free agent
Kevin Bentley-restricted free agent
Mason Unck-under contract/league minimum
Sherrod Coates-under contract/close to league minimum

Another factor to keep in mind is that in many cases, defensive ends are converted to outside linebackers in the 3-4.  The Patriots two outside linebackers, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest, were both defensive end coverts.  In Pittsburgh, both Clark Haggans and Joey Porter played defensive end in college.  Here in Cleveland, I see three potential candidates for such a change:  Courtney Brown, Ebenezer Ekuban, and Corey Jackson.

An obvious quick fix would be for the Browns to use the #3 overall selection on Texas OLB Derrick Johnson.  While he lacks the size of a prototypical 3-4 OLB, it is not uncommon for outside backers like Johnson to add 15-20 pounds in the first year or two in the league with better weight and strength training.  Johnson is a terror, and should be an immediate impact player in this league.  Despite the fact he has slipped on some draft boards as of late, there's no question he is one of the players Phil and Romeo will take a long hard look at in the first round.

Additionally, there are some very intriguing unrestricted free agent linebackers that will be available come March 2nd.  Adalius Thomas, Edgerton Hartwell, and Kendrell Bell are names you are likely to hear tossed around a lot between now and then.  Not only do they come from a 3-4 set, but they also come from division rivals.  Some other linebackers who will become unrestricted free agents are Rob Morris and David Thornton from Indianapolis, Chris Claiborne from Minnesota, Keith Adams from Philadelphia, and Will Witherspoon and Mark Fields from Carolina.

While your linebackers are your playmakers, you count on your front three to do all your dirty work for you.  There is no glamour, and you ask those guys up front to be judged not by their numbers (which will fall off), but to be judged by the numbers of the guys playing behind them.  It's paramount that you have a group of unselfish guys up front that fully understand (and are able to execute) the increased gap responsibilities of a 3-4 defensive lineman, which ideally will prevent blockers from getting to the second level, and create open lanes for your linebackers to get to the football.

A 3-4 defensive end is almost more like being a defensive tackle, and knowing that, it's not surprising that the Patriots defensive ends, Richard Seymour and Ty Warren, both were drafted as defensive tackles.  Once again taking a look at this roster, Orpheus Roye appears to be a perfect candidate to make such a switch.  It's also very likely that Alvin McKinley and Michael Myers will be looked at as defensive ends under Crennel, as both players lack the girth to play that nose position.  Decisions will have to be made on the aforementioned Courtney Brown and Ebenezer Ekuban as well.  Amon Gordon and Nick Eason are also guys that will likely come to camp with the team in the hopes of securing one of the final roster spots.

Assuming John Abraham and Shaun Rogers get franchised (Corey Simon got the tag yesterday), the top unrestricted free agent defensive linemen are as follows:  Chike Okeafor (Sea), Darren Howard (NO), Reggie Hayward (Den), Chris Hovan (Min), and Derrick Burgess from Philadelphia.  And while I reserve the right to change this opinion after the combines, there are no defensive linemen who appear to be strong enough to justify a pick at #3 overall in the NFL Draft.

That leaves us with just the nose tackle position, and coincidentally, we've yet to mention Gerard Warren's name in this space. 

Without a shadow of a doubt, Gerard is the only player presently on this roster both big and talented enough to play the middle.  But does Gerard harbor the intestinal fortitude and unselfishness to excel in that role?  Would he also possibly be better suited for a spot as a defensive end in this set?

These are important questions.  Gerard has always been a guy that has played much better when "set free" and relieved of gap responsibilities, so it is foolish to assume he can resuscitate his career here in a defense that is predicated on the exact thing he has struggled with?  Also, two nose tackles are needed, not just one.  I would put that spot as one of the team's biggest needs this off-season, as assuming Gerard could successfully make the transition is akin to Charlie Brown trusting that Lucy will not pull the ball away when he goes to kick it.

Two other unrestricted free agent names to remember as possible stopgaps in the middle for us are Seth Payne from Houston and Pat Williams from Buffalo.

While there are many uncertainties with this roster as we head into yet another off-season of hope … one thing is for certain. 

The next six months should be incredibly interesting.

Rich Swerbinsky

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