Keeping 3-4 Defense Is Jay Gruden's 1st Smart Move with Washington Redskins

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2014

ASHBURN, VA - JANUARY 09:  Jay Gruden speaks as he is introduced as the new head coach of the Washington Redskins during a press conference at Redskins Park on January 9, 2014 in Ashburn, Virginia.  (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Jay Gruden has made his first smart move as the new Washington Redskins head coach. He will keep the team's 3-4 defensive scheme, according to Mike Jones of The Washington Post.

That shows Gruden is prepared to tailor schemes to his personnel and not the other way around. It already makes him different and refreshing from his predecessor Mike Shanahan.

It was Shanahan's decision to switch defenses back in 2010 that alienated players and forced others out of position.

He inherited a top-10 unit, featuring the likes of Andre Carter, Rocky McIntosh, Cornelius Griffin and arch malcontent Albert Haynesworth. All four were more comfortable playing in a 4-3, but Shanahan had to have it his way.

His insistence on switching schemes rendered Carter, Griffin and McIntosh useless. It also contrived to make Haynesworth even more miserable and a major distraction.

Shanahan pushed ahead with a scheme switch even though he didn't have the players for it. But while his 3-4 experiment never really worked and his defenses have been near the bottom of the league rankings the last four years, the post-Shanahan Redskins now have more pieces for a three-man-front scheme than they do a 4-3.

Gruden is not prepared to ignore that simple fact, per the report in The Post:

This team is built for the 3-4. They've been a 3-4 for a while and I love the 3-4. I actually hate the 3-4 as an offensive coordinator. So I think with the players in place here, I would love to stay a 3-4. That'll be evaluated. I just got the job here. But I know that when we played against the Washington Redskins, I know it's very difficult to run against them. There were some issues in the back end here and there. But there is a core foundation in place. They're well coached on defense and I'm excited to have a chance to talk to all of the candidates to still instill a 3-4 defense.

Gruden is acknowledging one core principle of team building and coaching that was missing during the Shanahan era, namely, playing to the strength of the players.

It only makes sense not to waste the talent of outside pass-rushers like Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. Orakpo finished the season strong to register 10 sacks and finally looks like ready to dominate in the 3-4. Kerrigan has appeared comfortable in the scheme since he was drafted in 2011.

The 3-4 is a better fit for linebackers like Brian Orakpo and Perry Riley Jr.
The 3-4 is a better fit for linebackers like Brian Orakpo and Perry Riley Jr.Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Although the pair have experience in the 4-3 from their college days, their frames are more suited to 3-4 outside linebacker in the pros.

Just as Shanahan's ditching the 4-3 necessitated an overhaul of personnel, switching back would commit Washington to retool its front seven. The D-line would need at least one player, preferably a quick and skilled three-technique defensive tackle.

Even more would be needed at the linebacker level. Perry Riley Jr. would no doubt fit in most schemes, but aside from 2010's fourth-round pick, the Redskins don't possess the right linebackers for a 4-3.

What they have are bulky pass-rushers who have converted from 4-3 defensive end, such as Darryl Tapp and Rob Jackson. But these are not the players with the necessary sideline-to-sideline speed to thrive in a 4-3.

By keeping the 3-4, the Redskins can almost leave their front seven untouched, save for finding a replacement for retiring leader London Fletcher.

But capable inside linebackers can be found for relatively cheap. The Baltimore Ravens proved that this season with Daryl Smith. The New York Giants did the same with Jon Beason.

Washington could even hunt for Fletcher's successor in the draft, especially now that Riley has matured into a potential signal-caller.

Where the Redskins need to spend their free-agency dollars is to fix a dreadful secondary. But finding more talent for the defensive backfield would remain a priority no matter what front the defense plays.

Avoiding another needless scheme change means the Redskins can likely afford to boost their pass defense and still have resources to fix a feeble offensive line and maybe even add some talent at wide receiver.

Keeping the 3-4 is a good move, but the same cannot be said of the apparent decision to leave Jim Haslett running the defense. He has flopped in four seasons as coordinator but somehow survived the purge of the Shanahan regime.

There won't be many happy to see Jim Haslett still running the defense.
There won't be many happy to see Jim Haslett still running the defense.Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps greater autonomy than he likely enjoyed under Shanahan can help Haslett finally get it right. At least he won't be hamstrung by yet more wholesale personnel changes.

There might even still be a sliver of hope for those eager to see the back of Haslett. Gruden's phrase about talking to "candidates to instill a 3-4 defense," could be a hint of a potential change at the coordinator level.

Let's hope Wade Phillips and Todd Bowles are on Gruden's speed dial.

Even as a skeptic toward Gruden's hiring, it's easy to be a little encouraged by his initial call on the defense.

Had he immediately declared his intention to force his preference on the players—the way Shanahan did four years ago—alarm bells would be ringing.

But sticking with what suits core players best is a promising first move by Gruden and the new regime in Washington.