Why the Oakland Raiders Must Embrace 3-4, Overhaul Defense
A great football coach is one that puts his players in position to make plays by allowing them to do what they do best. Hue Jackson came to Raider Nation last year as an offensive coordinator and was promoted to head coach for his vast improvement of the offense.
He was able to make such an improvement in the offense by putting its best player, running back Darren McFadden, in position to make plays. A few changes in the Raiders offensive playbook and an extremely talented player goes from bust-watch to superstar-watch.
There are a lot of extremely talented Raiders on defense, but they remain one of the worst units in the NFL. The Raiders defense this season has given up big leads, medium-sized leads, and last Saturday, a small lead.
So obviously, the Raiders defense, with all the talent they have, need to be put in position to make plays. I have believed for quite some time now that they have the perfect personnel fit to run the 3-4.
Bill Williamson of ESPN.com has recently reported that Jackson wouldn't be opposed to making such a switch for 2012.
Turn the page to see why I think he should embrace it.
John Henderson to Nose Tackle
The nose tackle is one of, if not the most important position in a 3-4 defense, and you need a huge man that can't be moved at the position. When a nose tackle can't be blocked, opposing offenses can't run the ball and the passing game suffers because the quarterback's pocket gets pushed back into him.
From what I've seen of "Big" John Henderson, he is the perfect candidate for the position, and it looks like he has a few more years left in him. At 32, he's a couple of years younger than Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton.
Opposing centers will not be able to move the 6'7", 340 pounder, and he will require at least a double-team. Even then, the middle of the line of scrimmage will go backwards just like it does in Pittsburgh.
Henderson's huge size alone makes him a quintessential three-gap defensive lineman. I believe that he can give the Raiders at least two more years, which at that time, the Raiders have first-round pick.
There's always a free agent or even someone already on the team.
Tommy Kelly to Defensive End
Tommy Kelly snuck into the NFL as an undrafted free agent as a 3-4 defensive end for the Raiders. Whether it be the 3-4 or 4-3, he gets penetration, but I think he is most effective as a two-gap defensive end.
Rob Ryan was the Raiders defensive coordinator, running the 3-4 when Kelly arrived, then went to to the 4-3 to fit Warren Sapp, who gave the Raiders nothing anyway. Kelly already leads the Raiders in sacks with 7.5 this season as a 4-3 defensive tackle, so I believe that number would go up as a 3-4 end.
The fact that Kelly was a 3-4 end originally means there would be no transition for him. It would even be nice to see him move around and play on the nose occasionally, giving opposing offensive lineman different looks.
They would have to make a lot of adjustments during the course of a game. You know what happens when a football player thinks too much.
Richard Seymour Back to Defensive End
Coming off of two field-goal blocks, Richard Seymour doesn't look like he's lost anything at age 32. He was a perennial Pro Bowler as a 3-4 defensive end and looks to be just as dominant as a defensive tackle.
A move back to 3-4 defensive end would enhance his legend as one of the most dominant defensive linemen of his generation. Seymour's domination of multiple positions on the defensive line takes Raider Nation back to the Howie Long days.
All five opposing offensive lineman would have to prepare for him just like Long in the '80s. He could line up on the nose on occasion and line up at tackle when the Raiders go to their nickel defense.
But for the most part, he will get to go back to what he has done best over his career. With the strength of the team being the defensive line, you may ask, "Why run a 3-4 if the strength of the team is the defensive line."
The answer there is three-fold.
One, the best edge pass-rushers on the team are their outside linebackers, not their defensive ends. Secondly, the Raiders' two best defensive lineman both came into the NFL as 3-4 defensive ends.
To top it all off, with the defensive lineman being so good, they should be given more responsibility. In the 4-3, all of the defensive lineman have only one gap, needing only to get up the field.
In the 3-4, Henderson would have three gaps, while Seymour and Kelly have two apiece.
Aaron Curry to 3-4 Outside Linebacker
Aaron Curry has done a good job at outside linebacker for the Raiders since coming over and playing right away in Week 6 vs the Cleveland Browns. He sets the edge well against the run and he really hasn't been that bad in pass coverage.
However, Curry would do much better if he had more opportunities to blitz and put heat on the quarterback. His tremendous speed off the edge and a running start at the quarterback can mean only one thing.
The opposing quarterback will go down and he will go down hard.
That had to be what Al Davis envisioned when he wanted Curry in the first round of the 2009 draft. Darrius Heyward-Bey would have been the Raiders second-round pick if Curry were still available for the Raiders.
The Raiders now have them both and need to let Curry do what he does best.
Kamerion Wimbley to 3-4 Outside Linebacker
Outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley has done a good job as an all-around linebacker since coming to Oakland, but the big contract that he got wasn't to just be a good all-around outside linebacker.
That contract was all about sacking the quarterback, as he had nine quarterback sacks last year. He puts his hand in the ground as an end in 3rd-and-long situations, but doesn't do a heck of a whole lot of blitzing.
Playing in a 3-4 would allow Wimbley to do what he does best—rush the passer more, like DeMarcus Ware, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. Wimbley is unquestionably the best edge rusher the Raiders have, so lining up up as a 3-4 outside linebacker would be putting him in position to make plays.
Giving Wimbley more opportunities to rush the passer, especially if the opposing offense isn't sure when he's coming, would heavily increase his sack numbers. That would obviously give Wimbley a chance to give the Raiders more value for the big contract they gave him.
It's just what he does best anyway.
The Other Inside Linebacker
At 6'3", 265 pounds, outside linebacker Quentin Groves is extremely talented and would do well as an inside linebacker. Before you talk about how horrible he as as a linebacker, remember last year was his first year playing the position.
He showed improvement this year against the run, but still hasn't gotten the hang of pass coverage. The converted defensive end runs a 4.4 40-yard dash and beat speedy fullback Marcel Reece in a race after practice.
With that kind of athleticism, I expect his pass coverage to improve with reps and coaching. When the Raiders ran their 4-3 over, Groves shot and filled gaps nicely, blowing up running plays for little to no gain.
For those that aren't familiar with 4-3 over, the strong-side linebacker lines up over the tight end, the weak-side defensive end lines up wider, and the other two linebackers line up pretty much as if they are inside backers.
If Groves improves this offseason in coverage as much as he improved against the run last offseason, the 2012 linebacker corps will be special.
Rolando McClain Back Home to Inside Linebacker
Rolando McClain, the 2010 No. 8 overall pick, has been so-so this year after looking completely lost last year. Many in Raider Nation have been critical of McClain's play so far as a Raider and I can't argue about it.
This can't-miss prospect that ran a pro-style defense at the University of Alabama is already among the most physical players in the league. His work ethic is one that has never been questioned in college or since he has been with the Raiders.
But you can't get much out of a player without putting him in position to do what he does best. McClain is a downhill, physical, thumper linebacker—not a sideline-to-sideline guy like Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher.
What he brings as a blitzer up the middle with his timing would serve the Raiders well in a 3-4, too. If you chalk it all up, McClain is more like Matt Millen, who won two Super Bowls with the Raiders in a 3-4.
Next year is McClain's third, so to avoid the bust list, the he needs to move to inside linebacker, his natural position. McFadden avoided the list because Jackson gave him more power running plays instead of zone.
Darrius Heyward-Bey looks like he may get off the list because he gets more short passes instead of so many deep balls. Now we have McClain, who would be better as an inside linebacker than middle linebacker.
It's time to help him help you now.
With the front seven taken care of, we can now turn our attention to the secondary.
From the '60s on, the Raiders have always been, first and foremost, a bump-and-run, man coverage team. They have always looked for the best athletes they could find to jam a receiver at the line and stay with him.
Now suddenly, the Raiders are asking their defensive backs to drop into and area, read the quarterback's eyes and break on the ball, getting there before the ball to make the play. With an exception or two by way of Jackson, Davis put this current team together and he didn't choose read-and-react corners.
Davis brought in athletes with blazing speed, quick feet, loose hips and stronger upper bodies to jam receivers at the line. Instead of having to think, Davis wanted his corners to simply disrupt the timing of the quarterbacks with their receivers stay on the receivers, and simply not let them catch the ball.
With this approach, no matter how bad the Raiders were as a team in recent years, they were usually one of the top pass defenses in the NFL. In 2010, the Raiders were ranked No. 2 in the NFL, using man coverage almost 100 percent of the time.
Nnamdi Asomugha is in Philadelphia now and even he is struggling with the zone and off-man coverages. The Raiders still have enough pieces to be a successful man-coverage team, but this zone coverage is killing them.
Again, let your players do what they do best.
I have openly criticized Tyvon Branch for a couple of years now, but it's not because I don't think he's a good football player. I actually think he's a great football player that's being put in situations that he shouldn't be in.
The man is all over the place with his blazing speed. He tackles well and has mightily improved in man-to-man coverage. If you look at those attributes, you'd think, "Those are the characteristics you need in a strong safety."
But he's lacking the most important characteristic for a strong safety in a man coverage scheme: covering the tight end. With all of the tight ends exploding in the NFL these days, you have to be able to cover them.
Branch is listed at 6'0" and 205 pounds. He came out of UConn running a 4.31 40, with only a 34-inch vertical leap. The speed is obviously there, but 6'0", 205 pounds is too short and too light to cover a tight end, and a 34-inch vertical leap isn't enough to make up for the height discrepancy.
His speed gives him the range that a single-high safety needs and his tackling makes him a reliable last line of defense.
Free safety is where Branch should be.
Davis drafted Mike Mitchell in the second round back in 2009 for a reason. He knocked people silly at the University of Ohio and it made Davis think back to the good ole days when he had Jack Tatum.
The 6'1", 220-pound Mitchell is an intimidator that separates the ball from the receiver that catches the ball in his area. The hit that he put on Detroit Lions running back Kevin Smith on a toss play was something horrible.
But back to pass defense, where Mitchell uses his 4.4 wheels and 38-inch vertical leap to shut down tight ends. I'm pretty sure that his size and strength helps him in jamming tight ends at the line of scrimmage too.
This year, Mitchell has shut down tight ends like Jermichael Finley, Ben Watson, Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski and Visanthe Shiancoe.
Finley didn't even have a catch against Mitchell.
The Raiders would lose nothing in the run defense, which is suspect anyway with Mitchell because he's a bigger, better fit in the box with his size.
Huff has struggled with injuries this year after being named a second-team All-Pro last year. He isn't the most reliable tackler at free safety and was far from the league lead in interceptions.
So how do Huff end up making the All-Pro team?
Huff has the ability to play man-to-man coverage so it wasn't necessary for the Raiders to bring in a slot-corner on third down. He has continued to play slot-corner for the Raiders this year and done a great job when healthy.
Huff won the Jim Thorpe Award for his ability to play free safety and be a shut-down corner while at the University of Texas. It was there that he shut down All-American receiver Mark Clayton and speedster Ted Ginn Jr.
I always thought Huff should have been moved to corner as his skill set for the position was better than that of Nnamdi Asomugha coming out of college. He actually has more speed, better feet and flips his hips better than Asomugha, who's longer and gets a better jam on receivers.
But with Asomugha gone, Huff should definitely move to corner now.
He has the skill set and the salary of one already.
Stanford Routt needs to play better, but he should definitely be left where he is as the Raiders' No. 1 corner. He went into Sunday's game against the Chiefs with a burn percentage of 44, giving up seven touchdowns.
The burn percentage is on par with the elite corners in the NFL, but the seven touchdowns is way too much. The good thing about that is most of the touchdowns he gave up weren't from a substantial distance.
Overall, Routt hasn't been a bad corner at all—I just expected better and think Raider Nation will get it next year. He did have some pretty big shoes to fill and this was his first year of trying to do so.
I'm looking for a Pro Bowl for Routt in 2012.
The Oakland Raiders defense should get a major league overhaul by 2012, as they already have the personnel for a 3-4. As far as defensive coordinators go, Mike Nolan, Tony Sparano and Green Bay Packers linebackers coach Winston Moss sound good.
Chuck Bresnahan has shown Raider Nation that he is absolutely not the man for the job. As a matter of fact, the Raiders would have been much better served to have John Marshall back for another year.
On the back end of the defense, Huff has such a great skill set for the corner position. He may be the best corner on the team, and we don't know it. Before Huff re-signed during camp, the Raiders had Branch at free safety and Mitchell at strong safety.
Mitchell hurt his knee in camp shortly after Huff came back to the team and the Raiders went back to Branch at strong safety and Huff at free. Seeing the way Mitchell has played this year, I have to wonder if Huff's move to corner would have happened this season.
One thing I can see is that Huff at one corner, Routt at the other, Mitchell at strong and Branch at free gets the Raiders best 11 defensive players on the field. Not only that, but it gets best the guys on the field doing what they do best. That's what the Raiders need.
I actually think they should try some 3-4 alignments now—it's not like what they're doing now is working. But if the defensive riddle is solved this offseason and they stay healthy on offense, this is a Super Bowl team in 2012.
Just win, baby!