Washington Redskins aren't only NFL team to have bumpy transition to 3-4 defense

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 9:32 PM

The transition from a four-lineman, three-linebacker defensive scheme to a 3-4 setup under new coordinator Jim Haslett has been far from smooth for the Washington Redskins, who are ranked last in the league in total defense entering Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.

But that's not all that surprising to people around the league who have been through such an overhaul. They say a major change in defensive approach takes time to implement, and a 3-4 defense must have the right players in place at key positions before it will work properly.

"In most cases, any time you have a coordinator change, you don't get the full gist of the defense until the second year," said Pete Bercich, a former linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings who later was a defensive assistant coach for the team. "Every scheme is taught from the fundamentals up. The first year, you spend so much time talking about the fundamentals. With a move to a 3-4, you bring some new people in the first year. But the second year, you bring in a whole lot of new people.

"What Jim will do, I'm sure, is bring in a lot of people he knows next year. . . . The guys up front, they literally have to learn how to walk all over again. On the back end, the guys in the secondary, they have to learn all new coverages."

Coaches must reteach, and players must relearn, everything from basic techniques to assignments and responsibilities on certain plays and in various situations. A lineman may be responsible for different gaps. A perimeter player might begin plays as a stand-up outside linebacker instead of as a defensive end with one hand on the turf. A defensive back may have to play more zone coverage and less man-to-man.

And all defenders may have to adapt to more zone blitzes, in which a lineman drops into pass coverage while a linebacker or defensive back rushes the passer. That may require teams to find players better suited to the demands of the new system.

Bercich, now a broadcaster for the Vikings' radio network, saw Minnesota beat the Green Bay Packers twice last season as the Packers made the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense under coordinator Dom Capers.

In some ways, the transition was seamless for the Packers. They ranked second in the NFL in total defense during the regular season last year and reached the playoffs. But there were problems. The Packers couldn't stop the Arizona Cardinals in a first-round NFC playoff game and lost in overtime, 51-45.

According to research by Doug Farrar and Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders, 12 of the 17 teams that switched from 4-3 to 3-4 defenses between the 1996 and 2009 seasons showed statistical improvement in the year they made the change. The biggest improvements were made by last season's Packers, New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos. But the effort doesn't always produce immediate results, as the Redskins are learning.

One issue for the Packers last season was that Aaron Kampman didn't thrive as an outside linebacker after playing as a top pass-rushing defensive end in a 4-3 alignment. Kampman managed only 31/2 sacks in nine games for the Packers last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He totaled 37 sacks in the three seasons before that at defensive end. He's now with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Bercich said Kampman illustrates that not all good pass-rushing defensive ends in 4-3 defenses can be successful pass-rushing outside linebackers in a 3-4 setup.

"Especially if you have a guy pass rushing from a two-point stance instead of a three-point stance," Bercich said. "Little things like that can mess those guys up."

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