A Redskins switch to 3-4 defense could require new talent, techniques

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; D03

Though change has shaken the dust from most corners of Redskins Park, the roster has remained relatively untouched since Mike Shanahan set up shop in January. Finally, after more than eight weeks as coach, Shanahan can begin to reconcile his coaching vision with the roster.

As Shanahan prepares an overhaul of defensive philosophy, he'll have to decide which of the existing parts fit his plans and what holes he must fill from outside. Shanahan is expected to utilize a largely 3-4 front, relying mostly on three linemen and four linebackers. That collection of talent for such a defense hasn't grown much, though, even as more teams seek specialty players who can thrive in a 3-4 base.

"It looks like half the league is employing some 3-4 type of configuration," said Nick Caserio, the New England Patriots' director of player personnel. "It kind of evolves. . . . And it is becoming more challenging because there are more teams that are essentially looking at the same pool of players. So it kind of limits your opportunities because you realize you're competing really with the rest of the league on that front."

While Shanahan says he'll run the best defense he can with the personnel available, he'll begin this week seeking out the pieces that will enable him to run his preferred style. He could find some of those players on the free-agent market, which opens for business at midnight Friday.

A year after the Redskins made the biggest free agency splash by signing Albert Haynesworth to a record contract, multiple league sources have said the organization could be among the teams pursuing Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, and many other teams around the league will be curious to see how aggressively the Redskins go after him.

Tampering rules prevent anyone from the Redskins from publicly commenting on Peppers, but there are some in the organization who think Peppers would be a good fit with the defense Shanahan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett envision. A skilled pass rusher like Peppers would give the team another quarterback hunter on the edge, opposite Brian Orakpo, but would also force coaches to make a decision on Andre Carter, who'd likely move from defensive end to linebacker in a 3-4 alignment.

The team will also have a big decision to make on the middle of the line. The 3-4 revolves around a strong nose tackle who can eat up space and consume multiple blockers. There aren't many available in free agency, as three nose tackles were slapped with franchise tags and another was locked into a multi-year deal.

"A base 3-4, the nose is very, very important. It sets up the whole interior there," said San Francisco General Manager Scot McCloughan.

It's a tough spot to fill in the draft because 3-4 defenses are a rarity at the college level. Plus, the nose tackle is as demanding as any position on the field.

"Power, play at the point, take on a double team and just do the dirty work all day," McCloughan said. "The thing I've realized the last couple of years, it's the instincts, the blocking instincts. What you're doing, you're not going to be dynamic. If you are, there are two or three in the league."

Talking to other coaches who run the 3-4, it would seem the nose tackle position could be one of the biggest offseason decisions the new Redskins coaching staff has to make. And they're not the only ones. Every year, several defensive coordinators find themselves coveting just one or two guys. There are never enough quality nose tackles to go around.

"Everybody's looking for a certain type of guy, and we all are looking for that guy, those of us in the 3-4, and there's not a lot of 'em to be perfectly honest," said Buffalo Coach Chan Gailey, whose team will use a 3-4. "So you have to take people you have and adapt the way you play. You don't have to play the same type of 3-4, you can adjust to what people do best.

"So I think that while we're all looking for that prototypical nose guy, there's a lot of good football players out there that don't fit that prototype but at the same time are very good football players and can be productive players for you on the field. So if you can't get it, you adjust."

Haynesworth would seem like the most likely candidate to fill that hole. But even if the team sees him as a short-term solution and would prefer to eventually play Haynesworth at defensive end, there are at least three nose tackles in the draft who are generating buzz -- and one has ties to Haynesworth.

While defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy could be the top picks, analysts say the draft's best nose tackles are Tennessee's Dan Williams, Alabama's Terrence Cody and North Carolina's Cam Thomas.

Williams attended the same college as the Redskins' defensive tackle and, in fact, worked out with Haynesworth before last season. "He showed me some tips," Williams, a 326-pounder, said at the NFL Scouting Combine last week. "He kind of helped me out a little bit before the season started."

There are many versions of the 3-4 defense, multiple hybrid alignments, and essentially every linebacker and defensive lineman could be called on to learn new responsibilities and techniques.

The Redskins would likely need to find another inside linebacker to play next to London Fletcher, and there's also the matter of finding the perfect pair of defensive ends. The Redskins are trying to sign Phillip Daniels to a new contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, but they'd still have to identify their second starting end.

"You have to look at their size, their athleticism, their intensity," said Kevin Colbert, the Pittsburgh Steelers' director of football operations. "You're not worried too much about their techniques because, for the most part, they're going to be broken down from what they did in their college schemes to what we do in our schemes. It's a whole new learning technique."

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