Can the Cleveland Browns Successfully Transition to a 3-4 Defense This Year?

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Can the Cleveland Browns Successfully Transition to a 3-4 Defense This Year?
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Now that Ray Horton is the Browns defensive coordinator, the team will be switching from a 4-3 base to a 3-4.

New Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton confirmed on Thursday that the team will be switching from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 this year.

Though head coach Rob Chudzinski still seems convinced that there will be a more hybrid approach to the defense, Horton's comments were backed up by owner Jimmy Haslam, making it all but certain that the Browns will be returning to a 3-4 front after spending the last two seasons in the 4-3.

From 2005 through 2010—the Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini years—the Browns ran a 3-4 defense, but it never quite came together. Moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4 is a more demanding change than the other way around, requiring not just adaptation from the players already on the roster but also a major draft and free-agency effort to have the right personnel in place, and their earlier attempts in both areas fell short.

That doesn't necessarily mean it will this time around, however. But there's no doubt there will be a time of transition, another wrinkle in the Browns' attempt to yet again rebuild and finally become a contender in the AFC North. 

At the very least, the Browns will need to use the draft as well as free agency to pick up linebackers who are better-suited for the 3-4 defense—pass-rushers instead of dedicated run-stoppers, fast players with coverage skills, and, if Horton is going to create a version of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense he worked with from 2004 to 2010, defenders who can blitz.

The coverage aspect of the linebackers in a 3-4 and 4-3 are rather similar, the only difference being that in a 4-3, all linebackers are spending about half their time in coverage and half against the run, while in a 3-4, the inside linebackers are most responsible for coverage and the run game, while the two on the outside perform pass-rushing duties with run-stopping their secondary concern. 

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It will be necessary for D'Qwell Jackson to make a smooth transition from a job in a 4-3 defense to the 3-4.

Considering their current personnel, 4-3 middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson should have little trouble moving to 3-4 inside linebacker—of his 1,154 snaps in 2012, the majority of them (582) were in coverage. The same goes for Craig Robertson, who also had more coverage snaps than snaps against the run.

The future gets murkier for other linebackers currently on the Browns roster. Kaluka Maiava was their best all-around linebacker in 2012, but with only 166 of his 304 snaps coming in coverage, he will either have to prove he can indeed cover receivers and tight ends, rush the passer effectively, move to the defensive line or head out of Cleveland—he'll be an unrestricted free agent when the league year begins.

And what of that defensive line? Nine players had at least 100 snaps at either defensive end or tackle in 2012, whereas the Steelers had just five total defensive linemen take the field over the course of the season. The Browns will need to pare down that part of the roster, which, on one hand, frees up spots for 3-4-specialized defensive talent, but on the other, means they'll need to gut an area they've spent years trying to bolster.

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The shift to a 3-4 could very well mean impending free agent linebacker Kaluka Maiava moves on.

Odds are that Phil Taylor won't be going anywhere. Though he missed much of the 2012 season after tearing his pectoral last May and played just 273 snaps as a result, he's Cleveland's best defensive lineman and like his 3-4 counterparts, spends most of his time in run defense and pass rush, though in a different ratio—with the switch, he'll have fewer pass-rushing snaps and more against the run.

Five of the nine defensive linemen to get significant snaps in 2012 all were defensive tackles—Taylor, rookies Billy Winn and John Hughes, veteran Ahtyba Rubin and free-agency acquisition Ishmaa'ily Kitchen. The rookies aren't likely out of jobs—and between the two, Hughes is the most safe.

Hughes played defensive end and tackle in college at Cincinnati, in a hybrid (4-3 and 3-4) alignment, which is why he moved to 4-3 defensive tackle for the Browns. He will just need to shift back to end in the Browns' new 3-4 scheme.

Winn was a defensive tackle in college and just a sixth-round pick last year, so it's possible he becomes an odd man out; however, he performed well in his 10 starts in 2012, which means it's likely the Browns try to mold him into a backup 3-4 end rather than cut ties with him right away. His experience in a 3-3-5 at Boise State makes him moldable.

Rubin, however, could be out of Cleveland. Of his 691 snaps in 2012, 427 were in the pass rush. While he has a very real chance of being the Browns' 3-4 nose tackle, he might also have to prove that he can handle 3-4 outside linebacker duties—especially considering that the Browns will be scouring both the free-agent market and the draft for players who come from a 3-4 background to begin with.

What may save Rubin, though, is the fact that he's the Browns' second-highest paid player; they cannot simply cut him considering the cap hit. They'll need to trade him if they find he's not a right fit in the new scheme.

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Can Jabaal Sheard be effective in coverage?

The Browns in general had an issue with the pass rush in 2012. No one player had a double-digit sack total, which should be a priority when it comes to who they'll put at outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard led the team in sacks with seven, but he had only 19 snaps in coverage.

Though 3-4 outside backers have coverage as their third priority (for example, Pittsburgh's James Harrison played 837 snaps in 2012, with 338 against the run, 310 in pass rush and 189 in coverage), Sheard still hasn't been in coverage as much as a 3-4 outside backer generally is.

The same goes with fellow ends Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker. Parker is a free agent in 2013 and was brought on to bolster the Browns' defensive end depth in 2012, so we can likely pencil in his departure; Rucker's job security is also questionable because he's made such a name for himself as a 4-3 end.

Obviously, changes to Cleveland's defensive roster are coming. It won't be completely seamless for the team to make the switch from 3-4 to 4-3 and it might not pay off major dividends in the first year.

There are ways to make the change less painless—for example, better play from the offense can help mask any problems that may arise from 4-3 defenders switching to a 3-4, and the fact that the Browns have a lot of cap room to work with means they have a better chance of landing 3-4 veterans in free agency—but it will likely take more than just one season for Horton's vision to come to life. 

We're not talking another five-year plan here, by any means, but this latest change means that patience must remain a virtue in Cleveland.

 

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