The 3-4: Making The Switch

Since Scott Pioli was hired, talk that the Chiefs will transition from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 base defense has increased. What would such a shift entail?

Before we dive into the Chiefs' current defensive roster, let's take a quick look at the 3-4 defense itself. The terms "4-3" and "3-4" refer to the number of defensive linemen and linebackers used in a defensive scheme. A 4-3 defensive front places four down linemen (two defensive tackles inside flanked by two defensive ends) along the line of scrimmage, supported by three linebackers (two outside linebackers on each side, along with a true "middle" linebacker).

Conversely, a 3-4 defensive front utilizes three linemen (a nose tackle and two defensive ends), with four linebackers (two outside linebackers, and two inside linebackers). The 3-4 defense was the most prevalent base defensive scheme in the NFL through much of the 1970's and 1980's, before declining in the 1990's, nearly to the point of extinction. The most notable of the 3-4 stalwarts is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The 4-3 was the scheme of choice for nearly the entire league throughout the 1990's and into the new millennium, but when the New England Patriots went on a run of three Super Bowl titles in four years behind a 3-4 defensive front, the "copycat" nature of the NFL brought about a 3-4 resurgence.

Now, over the last several seasons, about one-third of NFL teams either use the 3-4 as their base defense or have mixed elements of the 3-4 into their defensive schemes. With word going around that the Chiefs are looking to make the change from the 4-3 to the 3-4, it not only indicates a shift in defensive philosophy, but it also necessitates a substantial overhaul of the defensive personnel.

Which current Chiefs can find themselves a spot in a 3-4 scheme? Which players will find themselves without a suitable role? What players may be available to fill in any gaps? Let's start with the man in the middle.


Nose Tackle

Though not accompanied by much glitz or glamour, the 3-4 nose tackle is the linchpin of the scheme. Winning begins at the line of scrimmage. Traditionally, 3-4 nose tackles are massive space-eaters. Not all of them are necessarily tall, but even shorter nose tackles normally possess an immense amount of bulk to clog the middle of the line.

When it comes to prototype 3-4 nose tackles in the NFL today, most of the attention goes to players like Casey Hampton (6-foot-1, 325 pounds) of the Steelers, Vince Wilfork (6-foot-2, 325 pounds) of the Patriots, and Jamal Williams (6-foot-3, 348 pounds) of the Chargers.

Who do the Chiefs have to fill the nose tackle spot in a 3-4? That's a difficult question to answer. Some have discounted the notion of using Glenn Dorsey in such a position, and while he may be completely miscast as a 3-4 nose tackle, compared to the rest of the league, his size shouldn't necessarily disqualify him. While it's true that several nose tackles are downright mammoth (Cleveland's Shaun Rogers is listed at 6-foot-4 and 350 pounds while Kris Jenkins of the Jets is listed at 6-foot-4 and 349 pounds), other players of the same position (Hampton and Wilfork) aren't "tall" by NFL standards.

The Chiefs' official roster lists Dorsey at 6-foot-1 and 297 pounds, but Dorsey's weight was listed as high as 316 pounds at the time of the NFL Scouting Combine last spring. If Dorsey could pack on 20-25 pounds of bulk, it could increase his chances of fitting in as a nose tackle in a 3-4 front. Other nose tackles in the NFL, such as the Ravens' Kelly Gregg (315 pounds) and the Cowboys' Jay Ratliff (302 pounds), perform well despite not qualifying as "monsters."

The weight issue aside, it would also remain to be seen if Dorsey could actually play the position. While he drew comparisons to Warren Sapp, Dorsey was actually more of a block-occupying load than a gap-shooting penetrator in college at LSU. Any lack of strength may keep Dorsey from holding up against NFL-level centers and guards, so he remains a question mark as a potential nose tackle.

The other candidates are limited to Tank Tyler and Ron Edwards. Tyler's size (6-foot-2 and 306 pounds) may be considered modest among defensive tackles, but several NFL teams scouted Tyler as a potential 3-4 nose tackle before he was drafted. Though he might need to pack on some weight, he already possesses good strength. Edwards has played in a 4-3 throughout his career, and as a backup/rotational player, it would likely be a surprise if he were capable of anchoring a three-man front.

As for potential nose tackles from outside the current roster, the free agent market offers next to nothing. Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth is set to be available, but will cost an absolute fortune to sign (early predictions are in the ballpark of $30 million guaranteed), and would also be a question mark as a nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme. Shelling out a record-setting contract to bring a player you plan to "test out" at a new position hardly sounds like a prudent decision for a franchise looking to climb out of a hole.

The draft provides much more intriguing prospects, particularly a pair of college teammates. B.J. Raji and Ron Brace, both from Boston College, are looked at as potential 3-4 nose tackles. Raji (6-foot-1, 334 pounds) has been a fast-riser in the media, and has been mentioned as the best nose tackle prospect in the draft. Brace (6-foot-3 and 328 pounds) has been projected to go in the second round, with the possibility of sneaking into the bottom of the first round, depending on his workouts.

Next Week: The 3-4 defensive end.

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