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New Orleans Saints' switch to 3-4 defense inspired by dominance of teams like San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens

this is a discussion within the Saints Community Forum; t's not hard to understand why New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton decided to switch to a 3-4 defensive alignment. All you have to do is look at the two teams who will be invading his home turf in the ...

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Old 01-31-2013, 06:49 AM   #1
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t's not hard to understand why New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton decided to switch to a 3-4 defensive alignment. All you have to do is look at the two teams who will be invading his home turf in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for Super Bowl 2013 - the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens.





The 49ers have arguably the NFL's most dominant defense right now. And though the Ravens are starting to show signs of age, they've had arguably the most dominant defense of the past decade - either them or the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And all of those teams feature a 3-4 defensive front, which is favored by roughly half of the NFL's 32 teams. Among them are teams like the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers, who used switches to 3-4 schemes to help vault them to greater production in recent years.

An estimated 15 NFL teams will also run as their primary alignment in 2013. Several others will run a hybrid between the 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. (See this chart for a complete breakdown).

Of course everyone here in New Orleans considers the switch a no-brainer, whether they harken back to the days of the Saints' "Dome Patrol" linebacking corps -- or simply notice how often the Saints' current offense has struggled against 3-4 teams.

"Just my experience playing against it is the teams that really do it well, the 3-4 allows you to do some more things with those rushers," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "You really have at least five rushers on the field at all times instead of four, with the ability to bring a lot of pressures where you've got all these hybrid guys on the field that, 'Hey are they gonna rush the passer? You don't really want your running back blocking them. Are they dropping in coverage?' So they can be more multiple, I'd say, which can be more problematic for an offense.

"But it's really all about execution. Just because you throw a 3-4 out there doesn't mean you're going to be successful. You've got to execute it."

League-wide, the defense du jour has been a constant evolution.

San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who began his NFL career as the Saints' linebackers coach in 1986, said only about three or four teams were running 4-3 defenses at that time. Then into the mid-to-late 1990s, it flipped to where most teams were running 4-3 defenses.

"And then slowly in the 2000s it's become to where it's pretty balanced, almost 50-50," Fangio said. "You know, the 3-4 does allow you some versatility. You have another guy on the field, who has pass responsibility as his job description. So you can mix and match a little bit better that way. The angles are a little different in the running game, as far the offense to block it. But really it all comes down to players.

"You have a front seven, and whether it's 3-4 or 4-3, you know, the good players, the good teams, will make it work."

And there's the rub.

It's kind of pointless to talk to guys like Fangio, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees and head coaches Jim and John Harbaugh about why they prefer the 3-4. Both teams are so loaded with talent that they could succeed with any front.

But what they have more than anything else that makes the 3-4 work are the special athletes who can fill those outside linebacker roles that are so crucial to making the 3-4 work.

The 49ers have a first-team All-Pro in outside linebacker Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks this year) and a second-team All-Pro in Ahmad Brooks (6.5 sacks). The Ravens have the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year in outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (2.0 sacks while battling injury this year, but a combined 25 in the two previous years).

The Ravens also have one of the all-time great 3-4 nose tackles in perennial All-Pro Haloti Ngata.

"When you watch our defense you'll see that it is all based on personnel," said John Harbaugh, who made the easy choice to maintain the 3-4 system the Ravens were already running when he became head coach in 2008 -- even though he had previously spent years as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, who ran a dominant 4-3 defense under legendary coordinator Jim Johnson.

"That's the main thing, the personnel and the guys you have," Harbaugh continued. "We try to set all of our schemes up, in all three phases, around the guys that we have to put them in position to do the things that they do best. But there are a lot of elements of the 4-3 in what we do as well. We've been in over fronts plenty of times this year. We've been in under fronts plenty of times this year. Terrell Suggs is such a hybrid type of player, he allows you to do so many different things. He can play like a defensive end and he can play like a drop outside linebacker. And you know (backup rush linebacker) Paul Kruger is very versatile too, as is (strong-side linebacker) Courtney Upshaw. So those guys give you the ability - I would call us more of a multiple front."

The 3-4 has regained popularity around the league in recent years for a number of reasons. It allows teams to be more versatile, with two edge linebackers who can either rush the passer or drop into coverage. It's generally considered the more difficult front to run against, since the linebackers are spread out wider, with an extra big body up front.

But perhaps most importantly, the talent out of college is starting to fit 3-4 fronts better than it did in the past.

As Fangio said, the college game is really the NFL's "farm system." And he said personnel people have always resisted the idea of the 3-4 defense because it's so hard to find guys capable of playing that outside linebacker role that requires the skill set to rush and cover.

"You have to end up projecting some of those guys," Fangio said. "Aldon Smith actually played more defensive tackle in college than he played defensive end in college. He had never been a linebacker at any level. We had to project, and luckily we were correct, and he's been able to do that."

Longtime NFL draft guru Gil Brandt, who now works as an analyst for NFL.com, said he does see more pass rushers who fit the 3-4 system coming out of college these days.

But he said that probably only played a small part in the Saints' decision to switch defenses after their historically-poor performance in 2012 under first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

"Probably what Sean felt, that when you give up 7,000 yards and all those things, you gotta try something different," Brandt said. "And the No. 1 thing about Sean, he doesn't let any grass grow under his feet."

Both Brandt and former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said they like what they've seen from third-year Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who definitely has the versatility to help make the transition to the 3-4.

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Old 01-31-2013, 08:37 AM   #2
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Re: New Orleans Saints' switch to 3-4 defense inspired by dominance of teams like San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens

I understand NT is the cornerstone of the 3-4 but we have got to find that outside rusher on D who can make an impact on QB decisions.

Considering the lack of 2nd rounder, knowing our needs and the fact that Sean Payton is a gambler - this draft will have me on the edge of my seat!
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Old 01-31-2013, 08:43 AM   #3
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Re: New Orleans Saints' switch to 3-4 defense inspired by dominance of teams like San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens

Originally Posted by saintsfan1976 View Post
I understand NT is the cornerstone of the 3-4 but we have got to find that outside rusher on D who can make an impact on QB decisions.

Considering the lack of 2nd rounder, knowing our needs and the fact that Sean Payton is a gambler - this draft will have me on the edge of my seat!
Me too, but I think the real excitement will be free agency. I can see several shake-ups coming due to cap problems and personnel mismatches.

We have quite a few players that don't fit a 3-4, and quite a few over-paid, so I can see a lot of movement coming. Mostly mid-tier role players but its still gonna be fun to watch.

I suspect the draft may disappoint a bit since we'll address needs in free-agency and draft BPA like we do every season.

I'm sure there will be a couple WTF's come draft day.
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Old 01-31-2013, 03:51 PM   #4
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Re: New Orleans Saints' switch to 3-4 defense inspired by dominance of teams like San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens

this is cap driven

Drew must be protected

how do we do it with Bushrod a FA?

Switch to a 34 defense and dump the high dollar vets. On the plus side we have been drafting tweener for years that can play the 34. look at this way, we can not be any worse in 2013 than we were in 2012.

problem solved.
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Old 01-31-2013, 05:09 PM   #5
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Re: New Orleans Saints' switch to 3-4 defense inspired by dominance of teams like San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens

Originally Posted by hagan714 View Post
this is cap driven

Drew must be protected

how do we do it with Bushrod a FA?

Switch to a 34 defense and dump the high dollar vets. On the plus side we have been drafting tweener for years that can play the 34. look at this way, we can not be any worse in 2013 than we were in 2012.

problem solved.
That's kinda where I'm at - well, and like Danno said it'll be fun to watch, but heck, there's no way we're going to do any worse than we did last year.
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Old 01-31-2013, 06:48 PM   #6
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Re: New Orleans Saints' switch to 3-4 defense inspired by dominance of teams like San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens

Originally Posted by hagan714 View Post
this is cap driven

Drew must be protected

how do we do it with Bushrod a FA?

Switch to a 34 defense and dump the high dollar vets. On the plus side we have been drafting tweener for years that can play the 34. look at this way, we can not be any worse in 2013 than we were in 2012.

problem solved.
I fully agree.
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