Why the Oakland Raiders Should Transition to 3-4 Base Defense

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJuly 24, 2015

Ken Norton Jr.
Ken Norton Jr.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. should consider stirring the pot—not for the sake of stirring but to maximize the ingredients in this defensive stew.

People are resistant to change until they reap the benefits. Switching to a 3-4 base defense comes off the tongue as awkward for Raider Nation, but Del Rio isn’t a stranger to operating out of a four-linebacker defensive set, per NBCBayArea.com writer Doug Williams:

Del Rio has coached both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, and in Denver the front is constantly shifting. So, he’s comfortable with both. It’s possible that under Del Rio, a 3-4 scheme could give Oakland a newer, fresher, more attacking look. Mack and Moore have shown their ability to move and pressure the quarterback. This could give them more freedom. After all, getting the most out of Mack – one of the NFL’s best rookies in 2014 – could be the foundation of future defensive success.

This new Del Rio regime is all about changing the culture, isn’t it? As Williams pointed out in the quote above, a refreshed defensive design could usher in a new era for the Silver and Black.

Influx of Linebackers and Hybrids

Malcolm Smith
Malcolm SmithMichael Thomas/Getty Images

Del Rio entered and brought immediate philosophical changes, specifically on the defensive side of the ball. The front office signed outside linebacker Malcolm Smith and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton during free agency.

Three consecutive mid-round draft picks were either linebackers or hybrid defensive linemen: Ben Heeney, Neiron Ball and Max Valles. Linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong has also turned some heads during the offseason, according to Eddie Paskal of Raiders.com.

How can the Raiders possibly maximize all of the undeveloped linebacker talent, while keeping Sio Moore and Khalil Mack in the forefront of the action?

A switch to the 3-4 allows more creativity with schemes and adds another linebacker on the field. The Raiders have some question marks on the defensive line as far as pass-rushing efficiency goes, placing the onus on the linebackers to make impact plays makes more sense.

Who are the Premier Playmakers?

The defensive scheme should be tailored to suit the players not the other way around. You don’t want square pegs in circular holes. The pieces have to fit for optimal production.

The Raiders' best pass-rushers are currently playing as outside linebackers where they’re expected to take on lead blocks, pursue ball-carriers and drop back into pass coverage on running backs and tight ends. The multitude of duties hurt Mack’s sack total last year.

Mack is the top playmaker on the defense and should be placed in a position to make an impact on every snap. He’s solid against the run but capable of single-handedly elevating the Raiders defense with his pass-rushing skills.

Mack accumulated 28.5 career sacks at Buffalo. Moore has 16 career sacks on his collegiate resume and made light contributions to the Raiders pass rush with 7.5 sacks over the last two seasons.

Sio Moore sacks Colin Kaepernick
Sio Moore sacks Colin KaepernickThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Both their sack numbers should increase as playmaking 3-4 outside linebackers free to attack the quarterback as stand-up defensive ends. You'd expect Moore and Mack to compile more sacks than Justin Tuck and Mario Edwards Jr. It doesn’t take a math major to figure that out.

Other NFL teams have identified their premier linebackers and showcased them in a 3-4 alignment with the exception of Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller and New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette:

Outside Linebacker Sack Totals (10 or more)
PlayerTeamBase DefenseSacks
Von MillerDenver Broncos4-315
Junior GaletteNew Orleans Saints3-3-510
Justin HoustonKansas City Chiefs3-423
Elvis DumervilBaltimore Ravens3-419
Connor BarwinPhiladelphia Eagles3-416
Terrell SuggsBaltimore Ravens3-414
Ryan KerriganWashington Redskins3-413
Clay MatthewsGreen Bay Packers3-412
Paul KrugerCleveland Browns3-412
Pro Football Focus

The Broncos new defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, plans to implement his 3-4 alignment, per DenverBroncos.com writer Lauren Giudice:

In addition to Ware, Phillips will have the opportunity to coach another top-notch edge rusher in Von Miller, whose “arrow is going up and he’s a really super player already,” according to Phillips. These two players will be key components of the 3-4 defense that Phillips will implement. He recalled coaching Simon Fletcher in the late 90s, who is the Broncos’ franchise leader with 97.5 career sacks, and said he will utilize talent all over the field to contribute to the pass rush.

As Williams noted, at the top of the very top of this article, Del Rio constantly shifts the defense. He blurred the lines of a 4-3 and 3-4 setup to maximize his star player.

As for the rest of the table, all the other linebackers brought terror to quarterbacks in some form of a 3-4 base defense. This would be a moot point if the Raiders defensive ends were dominant, but Tuck is on the downside of his career, and Edwards lacks pass-rushing prowess.

Mario Edwards Better Fit as a 3-4 DE

The urge to point out the potential pitfalls when inserting Edwards into a 4-3 alignment as a defensive end isn’t unprovoked hate against the collegiate underachiever. Norton must utilize Edwards’ strengths instead of trying to re-mold his game to fit in. He fits the mold of a 3-4 defensive end responsible for occupying blockers without the direct responsibility of compiling sack numbers.

We’ll use former Football Outsiders and current Bleacher Report writer Mike Tanier’s basic understanding of the 3-4 defense going forward, and how it’s tailored to fit Oakland’s personnel. Here’s the first principle from Tanier:

The defensive ends in a 3-4 alignment have jobs similar to that of the nose tackle: they want to take up space, fill gaps, and occupy blockers. In a 4-3 system, linemen are supposed to occupy blockers, but they are also expected to free themselves to make tackles and sacks. In the 3-4, linemen aren't expect to make many sacks or tackles. Most of the playmaking responsibilities fall upon the linebackers.

Edwards wasn’t known as a sack leader at Florida State, but he’s great at redirecting ball-carriers. If he’s going to occupy blockers to ease Mack’s passageway to the quarterback, why not do it as a 3-4 defensive end? He won’t be expected to accumulate many sacks and maintains his duty as the setup lineman engaging blockers for Mack’s benefit. That role fits him like a glove. He’s not the guy who’s beating tackles off the edge and harassing quarterbacks as a 4-3 defensive end.

Optimizing All 3 Inside Linebackers:

Here’s another principle from Tanier comparing the 3-4 to the 4-3:

The 3-4 alignment is popular now because it allows defenses to zone blitz effectively. The "zone blitz" is just what it sounds like: some defenders blitz, the rest drop into zone coverage. In a 4-3 system, zone blitzing is tricky: the linebacker or safety who blitzes leaves a zone unoccupied. Another player can take over in the unoccupied zone, but a) that defender is stretched pretty thin, with an extra-large zone to defend, and b) the quarterback can usually see what's happening. Many a smart quarterback has defeated a zone blitz by waiting for a linebacker to attack, then dropping a soft pass into the part of the field that the linebacker usually defends. But with an extra linebacker on the field, the defensive coordinator has more flexibility. The faster linebackers can rotate quickly at the snap of the ball, filling each other's zones.

We’ll divide this into two separate benefits for all three of the Raiders inside linebackers. Many have asked what’s going on with Heeney and Ball. Both rookies possess qualities of NFL inside linebackers: athletic, adequate in pass coverage and instinctive.

Within a 4-3, Lofton is the only inside linebacker getting significant snaps. In a 3-4, he’s accompanied by another inside linebacker to divide coverage in the middle of the field. ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson noted Heeney was quite comfortable organizing the defense during mandatory minicamp. He would serve as a solid sidekick to Lofton in a 3-4.

As Tanier noted, zone blitzing becomes an easier task in a 3-4 alignment. Norton can unleash Ball in clever blitz schemes due to his unique combination of attributes, per NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein:

Willing to take on lead blockers and play physically against the run. Plays with toughness. Played outside 'backer in a 3-4 and 4-3 and took reps at inside 'backer. Stays square to line of scrimmage, using controlled footwork to slide along line of scrimmage. Has ability to cover man to man. Doesn't quit on a play. Will continue bird-dogging a play until whistle sounds. Has speed to close out on perimeter and uses same burst as decent pass rusher.

Ball’s skill set fits the role of a situational zone-blitz linebacker. The Raiders would reap tremendous benefits putting him on the field on obvious passing downs to add spark to the pass rush.

Many wonder why Norton would place Lofton in another 3-4 situation? Lofton faltered in New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense, but it wasn’t truly a 3-4 defense in most cases, per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett:

I expect the Saints to continue what they've been doing in the first two seasons under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, which is to blur the lines between a 3-4 and 4-3 front.

It's kind of a moot point since the Saints spend about 75 percent of the time in nickel defense with five defensive backs on the field, two true linebackers in the middle, and outside linebacker Junior Galette rushing the passer.

The Saints placed five defensive backs on the field leaving a 3-3 ratio between the defensive linemen and linebackers. It was imperative for Galette to pursue the quarterback continuously as the best pass-rusher on defense. That left Lofton and one other linebacker to split run and pass-coverage duties from sideline to sideline.

Unfortunately, the constant demand on Lofton to cover extra ground caused plenty of lapses in intermediate pass coverage. He led the league among inside linebackers in surrendering yards after the catch (439), per PFF.

Linebacker Curtis Lofton pursuing running back Eddie Lacy
Linebacker Curtis Lofton pursuing running back Eddie LacyChris Graythen/Getty Images

This concept alludes to Tanier’s principle (noted above) when he discusses the danger of spreading a linebacker too thin with an unoccupied zone vacated by a pass-rushing linebacker.

The Raiders could lean on either Moore or Mack pursuing the quarterback on any given play with an occasional push from Tuck or Edwards up front. The non pass-rushing linebacker can drop back into coverage to aid Lofton if necessary.

What Happens to Justin Ellis?

Justin Ellis
Justin EllisEric Risberg/Associated Press

There’s a thorn in every rose, right? The one major sacrifice when transitioning to the 3-4 would be defensive tackle Justin Ellis. Dan Williams is the better fit at nose tackle capable of taking on two blockers on every down. Fortunately, he proved to be one of the best in that role. He ranked eighth against the run as a nose tackle for the Arizona Cardinals in 2014, per PFF.

Although Williams does his job quite well, he’s a 330-pounder liable to run out of steam at some point. He started in nine of 16 games, while playing a total 426 snaps in 2014. There are major gaps for Ellis to fill in a rotation at nose tackle. The pair of 300-pounders could alternate to keep each other fresh throughout the game at a physically demanding position in the trenches.

Change can be difficult to embrace, but the Raiders have the personnel to make adjustments for the better. Most teams don't employ a strict 3-4 or 4-3 base, but the Raiders could gain significant benefits from utilizing the 3-4 more frequently. Why not stir the pot, taste the spoon and make an assessment on whether the ingredients mix well?

How do you feel about the 3-4 defense? All comments are welcome below. Follow Maurice Moton on Twitter for NFL and Raiders news.

All statistics are provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

Player measurements courtesy of Raiders.com.

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