New Orleans Saints: How Change to 3-4 Scheme Will Impact Defense

Ethan GrantAnalyst IJanuary 24, 2013

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 18:  Will Smith #91, Jonathan Vilma #51, Brodrick Bunkley #77, and Curtis Lofton #50 of the New Orleans Saints stand on the sidelines during their game against the Oakland Raiders at Coliseum on November 18, 2012 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Sean Payton is back in the saddle for the New Orleans Saints, and after suffering in silence while his team's defense struggled mightily in the 2012 season, changes are afoot in the Big Easy.

The Saints have announced, per this tweet from the team's official handle via Payton, that the team is making the switch from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 base defense:

Sean Payton: “Philosophically we are changing our defense to a 3-4 alignment” #Saints

— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) January 24, 2013

Once-interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo has been relieved of his duties as defensive coordinator, per this report from the team's official website. As Payton mentions in the press release, a change of defensive schemes is prudent at the current point in time—the Saints finished dead last in total defense in 2012.

Spagnuolo oversaw the defense during that time, and it's not like he or the team could claim there were enough positives to stick it out under his leadership. The Saints were 31st in both passing and rushing yards allowed per game. Blame injuries and the Jonathan Vilma absence all you want—but those numbers don't get it done.

It's clear that the team's brass feel the need to utilize some of the current pieces in place in a more efficient manner. That being said, making the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 can take years of planning and hard work in free agency, coaching and the NFL draft.

All that being said, where do the Saints go from here?

For starters, a defensive coordinator is going to have to be hired—one with the experience and know-how to turn this thing around sooner rather than later.

Ex-Dallas Cowboys DC Rob Ryan might have been a good fit given the circumstances, but he reportedly will be the next DC for the St. Louis Rams, as of Thursday evening (h/t ESPN). Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis will have their hands full with finding a qualified candidate to fix this current mess.

Elsewhere, the Saints are going to have to replace seven defensive free agents through signing new players and the 2013 NFL draft. As B/R's own Matt Miller notes on Twitter, that's a tall task to accomplish without a full complement of seven draft picks:

Important to note: #Saints have no 2nd round pick. Incredibly valuable in offseason where they're changing to a 3-4 defense.

— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 24, 2013

On the flip side, there are several positives that figure to make this easier for the entire franchise and the new defensive coordinator—whoever that might be.

One is the emergence of DE Cameron Jordan. Not thought of as anything more than a run-stuffing 4-3 DE coming out of college, he's emerged as a candidate to take over the role of feared pass-rusher in this new 3-4 attack.

Jordan came on strong in 2012, totaling eight sacks and three forced fumbles while also collecting 66 total tackles. At 6'4", 287 pounds, he could be asked to drop weight and move to the No. 1 contender for OLB in this system, but even as a 3-4 DE his versatility makes for a nice addition as the team tries to put together the pieces of an evolving defense.

Elsewhere, Vilma won't have any trouble switching to a 3-4 ILB. He's a seasoned veteran that played in this scheme for the New York Jets under Donnie Henderson—making for an easier transition with Vilma's leadership already in place.

Will Smith, Sedrick Ellis and Brodrick Bunkley are three guys that will be counted on along the interior line, but reserve DT Akiem Hicks (6'5", 324 lbs) will likely be asked to take over the crucial nose tackle position that good 3-4s usually have.

The draft concerns are there as the Saints will need to start selecting players differently, but with some strong pieces in place, a successful draft and a good free-agent period, the Saints shouldn't have much trouble rising (or falling, depending on your perspective) out of the 32nd hole in which they currently reside when it comes to defense.


Ethan Grant is a featured columnist for B/R's Breaking News Team.