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."
Experts say having outside linebackers who can get to the quarterback - like Clay Matthews, who has six sacks for the Packers in three games this season - is the key to being successful in the 3-4.
"You need two guys on the outside who not only can pass rush but also can cover, someone like Clay Matthews," Bercich said. "If you're blitzing Clay Matthews off the edge, it's one thing. If you're blitzing his backup, it's not the same thing. You've got to have special players at those outside spots."
Said former NFL coach Dan Reeves: "It's definitely a different kind of personnel. When Wade Phillips came to work for me, he'd been coaching a four-man line. We had the personnel for a three-man line. Then you try to start drafting people for what you're doing. You've got to have the Lawrence Taylor, James Harrison, DeMarcus Ware, that type of player on the outside. If you don't have that, you have a problem."
Phillips, now the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, formerly served as Reeves's defensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons and became known as a guru of the 3-4 defense. The Cowboys run a 3-4 defense under Phillips and ranked ninth in the league in total defense last season. They're ranked eighth this season.
"Look at what Wade has now in Dallas," Reeves said. "He has DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer on the outside, and he has [Jay] Ratliff at nose tackle. Those are the key positions you have to have. When Bill Parcells went to Miami, he took a guy with him [Jason Ferguson] to play nose tackle. If you don't have those positions, it's tough to play a good 3-4.
"If you look at the good 3-4 defenses, they have that nose tackle," Reeves said. "We had Rubin Carter in Denver. You've got to have the nose tackle, and you've got to have those outside rush guys. The other positions are kind of similar."
The Redskins seem to be well stocked at those positions, with Brian Orakpo and Andre Carter at outside linebacker and Albert Haynesworth or Ma'ake Kemoeatu at nose tackle.
Orakpo and Carter had 11 sacks each last season as the Redskins ranked 10th in the league in total defense. They've totaled only two in three games this season, both by Orakpo. Haynesworth hasn't been the answer at nose tackle, one season after arriving in D.C. as a high-priced free agent who wants to be a play-making defensive tackle in a 4-3 setup.
Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Redskins and Houston Texans, estimated about half the teams in the NFL now use the 3-4 as their base defense. Casserly said the Redskins may be having short-term difficulties because Haynesworth, Carter and linebackers London Fletcher and Rocky McIntosh all contributed more in the 4-3 than they are in the 3-4.
"All of them were playing better and contributing more in the 4-3 than they are now," he said. "The carryover two years from now might be only one guy in the front seven, and that's Orakpo."
Bercich said any team playing a 3-4 defense should be able to locate a serviceable nose tackle without having to spend a large amount of money to fill the position.
"It's a lot easier to find a nose tackle than one of those outside guys," Bercich said. "To me, it's a misallocation of your [budget] to spend a lot of money on an interior defensive lineman. You can find those guys. They're out there. It's important to have a good one, but you can find those guys."
The Redskins head to Philadelphia to face an Eagles offense that has thrived with Michael Vick starting at quarterback. The strategic advantage of a 3-4 defense is the ability to be creative with blitzes. Vick said during the week that dealing with the Redskins' blitzes will be among the keys Sunday for the Eagles.
"As a quarterback, you just have to be able to pinpoint where the open areas are," Vick said. "We'll game-plan that and make sure we're on top of it, and make sure we see every look and pick it up first and foremost in protection. I think that's where it all starts."
Eagles Coach Andy Reid said he believes the Redskins defense is better than the early-season numbers indicate.
"It's early in the year, man," Reid said at midweek. "Our players know that they're an explosive bunch. They've got good players. They've got a good coach. We understand that. We know how good they can be."