The Washington Redskins would be smart to part ways with head coach Mike Shanahan at the end of the season. But they would be foolish to ditch the 3-4 defensive scheme he employed when he took over in 2010.
Shanahan should be out of excuses and second and third chances following three losing seasons out of four. But, like many things in the Shanahan era, his idea to switch to the 3-4 was a good one but has been poorly executed.
The Washington defense has been among the NFL's worst in terms of points since Shanahan made the schematic change.
|2010||21st||377 points||23.6 points per game|
|2011||21st||367 points||22.9 points per game|
|2012||22nd||388 points||24.2 points per game|
|2013||31st||362 points||30.2 points per game|
The challenge of finding the right personnel to fit the front has led to a prolonged transition. So have consistently poor performances from Shanahan's chosen defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.
Hiring and then sticking with Haslett, even after multiple seasons of underachievement, is just one more argument in favor of ending Shanahan's tenure in D.C.
But the 3-4 can still work and now is the wrong time to switch this defense back to a 4-3. The reasons are simple and again involve finding personnel that fits.
After four seasons of trying, the Redskins now have more players suited to a 3-4 than a 4-3. To be clear, this part of the conversation focuses solely on the front seven.
Up front, defensive end Stephen Bowen is a career-long practitioner of the 3-4. Before singing with Washington in 2011, Bowen learned about the 3-4 from two of the masters of the system, Wade Phillips and Bill Parcells.
Suitability for the 3-4 is even more obvious at linebacker. Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, despite playing 4-3 in college, are natural rush linebackers for a 3-4.
They have the frames and quickness ideally suited to the position. Orakpo is currently thriving as a standing pass-rusher in the scheme.
Although he is in a contract year, Orakpo has indicated he is eager to remain in Washington, according to The Washington Post's Mark Maske. Keeping Orakpo is only a smart move if the team retains the scheme that is helping him flourish.
That point is just as clear at inside linebacker. Veteran leader London Fletcher can no longer man the middle of a 4-3 on his own. He needs the support a partner on the inside that the 3-4 provides.
It is also difficult to imagine Perry Riley Jr. thriving as the Mike in a four-man-front defense. He has yet to show the range and authority for that kind of isolation.
Of course, many would contend that all of these players could fit just as well in a 4-3. But that is a very dangerous assumption.
Reading through the comments of recent articles, more than a few have called for the team to hire Lovie Smith to run the defense and bring his Tampa-2 scheme to Washington.
Frankly, trying to run the Tampa 2 with this personnel would be an outright disaster. The Tampa 2 needs elite-level talent at specific positions, without it the system cannot function.
For instance, where is the weak-side pass-rushing defensive end in Washington? The Julius Peppers-, Simeon Rice-style pressure specialist off the edge the scheme needs?
It is not as simple as assuming Orakpo will be that player just because he gets to put his hand in the dirt more often. Without the freedom to move around the formation and rush from a standing position that the 3-4 offers, Orakpo could well falter.
Just as important, where is the dynamic three-technique defensive tackle? The Warren Sapp-, Henry Melton-type interior pass-rusher the Tampa 2 must always feature?
Neither Bowen, Barry Cofield or Jarvis Jenkins are adept enough as pass-rushers for this key role. Without these two players up front, the Tampa 2 would fail.
The entire basis of the scheme is the ability to generate consistent, heavy pressure with just a four-man rush. The Redskins are currently ill-equipped to do that.
Things are even more unsuitable behind the front line. There is no Brian Urlacher-like athletic middle linebacker to act as the centerpiece of the coverage scheme.
More importantly, there is no versatile weak-side playmaker in the mold of Lance Briggs and Derrick Brooks. This player is essential to the Tampa 2, as the scheme funnels a lot of plays his way as The New York Times' Jene Bramel noted:
With the underneath zone responsibility including some of the area vacated by the MLB who drops toward the deep middle, the WLB in a Tampa-2 4-3 gets more coverage opportunities. It’s not uncommon for the WLB to read a quarterback coming to a receiver over the middle and jump the route for an interception.
For the Redskins to make a Tampa 2, or any 4-3 scheme work, would require major investment in free agency. The team will have greater cap room this offseason with their two-year penalty finally lifted, but finding pieces for the 4-3 would soon drain those resources.
The likes of Melton and Dallas Cowboys star Jason Hatcher will be on the market as premier three-technique pass-rushers, but neither would come cheap.
The Redskins would need all of these type of players, and maybe more, to make a 4-3 work. Contrast that with the few moves they would need to make to significantly improve their 3-4.
They need a playmaker up front. No lineman, with the occasional exception of Cofield, is making enough plays in the backfield.
The Redskins could look for that impact-move lineman many 3-4 teams now feature. If so, then Arthur Jones of the Baltimore Ravens would be an excellent investment.
Another option might be to shift Cofield outside and sign a beefier, more natural two-gapper at nose tackle. Both Paul Soliai of the Miami Dolphins and Cam Thomas of the San Diego Chargers are excellent options on the market.
The only other player the Redskins might need is a new inside linebacker if Fletcher decides to call it a day. But as the Ravens found out this season with Daryl Smith, it is easier to find a savvy veteran to slot into a linebacker-friendly scheme.
Critics of the 3-4 will argue that a four-man line is the best way to repair the team's dreadful secondary. But this is another dangerous argument.
For one thing, the secondary and its coverage schemes usually don't change dependent on the front seven. Coverage is coverage whether a team relies on a three- or four-man front.
It is also true that a pass-rushing front four won't always mask a poor secondary. The Detroit Lions have fielded imposing four-man lines since 2010, yet their pass defense has never ranked above 11th in that time. The Lions are currently 26th against the pass.
What the Washington defense needs more than a change in front is improved coaching. The unit needs a coordinator who will both stress the importance of fundamentals and call some imaginative plays.
A 3-4 featuring more one-gap fronts and greater freedom and movement for pass-rushers like Orakpo would soon produce a good defense.
It is also important not to get too attached to notions of one front being better than the other. In a modern NFL littered with hybrid players and schemes, how many teams really lean on their base defense anymore?
Changing to a 4-3 would dedicate too many resources to overhauling a decent front seven. That would take money and maybe draft picks away from upgrading the secondary and offensive line.
The best signing the team can make on defense this offseason is an aggressive, creative coordinator. A 3-4 veteran who can ease the burden on a new quarterback-friendly head coach should be the priority.
Those who will rush to criticize should remember that this author spent a long time on the other side of the argument, lobbying for a switch back to the 4-3.
But it is just too convenient to assume the Redskins already have enough of the right pieces for that switch. Attempting it now would be a dangerous move that would waste the best players on this defense.