The Same Old Argument

I touched on this topic briefly last week, but I feel it’s again worth stating how ridiculously dated fan comments have become around the Browns’ little corner of the Internet. The latest example comes from Cleveland.com (where else?) and poses the following directive to the new Browns’ regime:

Cleveland.com – Comment of the Day

“I liked the way the 4-3 D was working last year. Now we’ll have to draft lots of LB’s. Hopefully he can get the NEW D to jell very quickly. I’m tired of all these constant changes.”

Thanks, C-Town. So…exactly how many linebackers do the Browns need?

“Lots.”

Like, more than one or less than an entire locker room?

“Lots.”

We might be here for a while.

I don’t mean to exclusively pick on one virtual Browns’ fan, but C-Town is not alone in thinking that somehow the Browns are going to have to completely overhaul their current roster to accommodate Ray Horton’s new 3-4 “hybrid” defense.

This type of thinking is warranted if only based on our recent experience in watching Phil Savage and George Kokinis Eric Mangini make clumsy attempts at doing such a thing. However, this evidence is either 4 or 7 years old – which in NFL terms may as well be two decades.

It’s certainly not worth revisiting all the failed draft picks and free agent signings of supposedly 3-4 specific types of players – the majority of which didn’t pan out in Cleveland. Instead, let’s briefly visit the most basic numbers of the situation.

Last season, the Browns carried 6-8 linebackers on their roster and depending on a given game, dressed anywhere from 5-7. These numbers are excluding Emmanuel Acho and Chris Gocong, who spent the season on injured reserve. And if you choose to do so, you can throw in Scott Fuita, who extended his retirement for a third year in 2012. This amount of linebackers reflected the team’s 4-3 alignment and Special Teams needs.

For a review, here are the team’s 2012 linebackers:

MLB – D’Qwell Jackson, James Michael Johnson, Tank Carder
OLB – L.J. Fort, Craig Robertson, Kaluka Maiava
IR – Chris Gocong, Emmanuel Acho

It’s likely that every linebacker except Maiava (free agent) will at least compete for a roster spot in 2013. Depending on cap concerns and the actions of the new personnel people in charge, Gocong can be added, which would bring the skeletal list to 7. If you want, go ahead and throw Jabaal Sheard in as a “linebacker” – at least if you’re a stickler for categorizing defenders.

For a comparison, the gold standard of 3-4 defenses – the Steelers – carried anywhere from 8 to 10 linebackers in 2012 and regularly suited up 6 to 8 per game. Horton’s Cardinals carried 7 to 9.

So, to move on from a simple numbers argument, the Browns basically need to draft one linebacker and probably find another in free agency. Lucky for the Browns, they have 6 draft picks (7 if you include the conditional David Sims pick) and some 40 million dollars in cap money.

In other words, I think the Browns are going to be okay in this regard.

More important is another idea that has been lost on the majority of Browns’ fans.

Simply put, the question of 3-4 or 4-3 is becoming a dead argument.

Deader than….Nope. All still alive.

In case you haven’t noticed over the last few fifteen years, the NFL has become a passing league. The majority of teams (both good and bad) pass nearly 60% of the time and regularly line up 3 to 4 wide receivers. This has become more than just a trend – despite some teams adopting more college zone read/spread attacks. Naturally, the league’s smarter defenses have stocked up on defensive backs and have adopted more flexible schemes.

But if you really consider the amount of plays run in a game (60 to 80), then the 3-4 or 4-3 argument further weakens. Adding obvious short yardage and goal line situations to the already high number of Nickel and Dime packages, how many plays truly justify defenses using a base 4-3 or 3-4?

Maybe 30-40% of the time?

If you follow my logic here, then why are we still having the same tired 4-3 or 3-4 conversation? Have people not noticed that NFL base defenses have become Nickel packages?

At least one guy has. Here’s new Browns’ Head Coach Rob Chudzinski on this subject:

“Sometimes, you are in your base defense only on first down. After that you morph into what the offense is doing.”

So now, the question becomes – how do NFL defenses best cover and best rush the passer – after first down, that is?

Or, how does an NFL defense help a team win a Super Bowl?

I’m not sure the answer is to load up on linebackers. Again, for the sake of a familiar comparison, even the Steelers’ linebackers only produced 20 total sacks. Instead, the idea is to make a defense flexible enough to cover, adaptive enough to stop the occasional run-heavy team and creative enough to rush the passer in all types of situations.

If you’re basing your argument in traditional 3-4 or 4-3 schemes, then you’ve already lost. Of course, since we’ve only experienced more traditional 1980′s based 3-4 schemes (Romeo Crennel and some Eric Mangini) and a dated 4-3 variety (Dick Jauron), it’s easy to fall in line with past experience. Or, even if you’ve really studied this season’s playoffs, you may not even be aware of the base defenses that each team runs – simply because the better defenses have more specific game plans and/or NFL offenses tend to dictate defensive packages.

However, if you’re truly interested in the type of scheme the Browns may run, here’s a quick primer. (Thanks to Zack Luby).

In the Browns’ specific case, maybe the only real taste of contemporary defensive thinking to occur during the expansion era came with Rob Ryan’s brief 2010 run against the Saints and Patriots. The “Amoeba Defense”, flexible line formations and multiple blitzes seemed to counter traditional alignments, but again were based more on specific game plans (and really a lack of quality defenders) than a base defense. Anyway, the game has evolved and a team’s personnel needs have similarly changed – making the following positions vital for a successful team:

1. Pass Rushers
Be it a down lineman or outside linebacker, the point is that teams who rush the passer tend to win championships. The best evidence can be found in the Giants’ two Super Bowl wins and the Patriots’ most recent Super Bowl losses.

2. Slot Cornerbacks
The slot cornerback has evolved into a value that’s likely greater than a solid “number two” corner. In fact, a lot of teams (the Ravens) have masked their cornerback depth by placing their third best corner on the outside – something that was unheard of in the past. However, players like Wes Welker, Victor Cruz and Danny Amendola are now in positions to dominate games. And considering that Horton likes to use elements of Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz scheme, the Browns’ corners are going to playing more man coverage – which yet again, is pretty much becoming the norm around the league.

3. Hybrid Safeties
On Sunday, we’ll watch a dying breed in Baltimore’s Ed Reed. The more prototypical NFL safety today is basically more of a linebacker than anything else. Or, just keep an eye on San Francisco’s safeties – players who are basically interchangeable between run defense and over the middle coverage. Luckily in Cleveland, the Browns have one of the league’s better versions of this new kind of safety in T.J. Ward. Certainly, Horton’s defense gives Ward even more opportunities to do what he does best – which is play close to the line of scrimmage.

And speaking of changes, the following positions aren’t as valuable anymore:

1. Middle Linebacker
Naturally, the Super Bowl presents a counter to this argument in regards to Navarro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis. However, the league-wide trend is a de-emphasis on the position in favor of finding more versatile linebackers who can rush the passer and cover running backs and tight ends. Regardless of a real or perceived lack of linebacker depth, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to load up linebackers during April’s draft. A quick check of the last few drafts shows how teams have mostly stayed away from drafting non-pass rushing linebackers.

2. Free Safety
It seems unnatural, but with a rise in passing, the role of an NFL free safety has actually been reduced. Given the increasing number of defensive backs on the field, there is little job description beyond “playing center field” left for a free safety. After all, the dearth of talent left at free safety means that a knucklehead like Usama Young is actually considered proficient (sometimes).

And if we’re again talking about what has become a “third down on every down” league, then base defenses aren’t as important as the value a lot of us attach to them. Defenses need to figure out who their top four or five pass rushers are and line them up in the best positions. If that means the Browns’ 3-4 defense calls for Sheard to line up as a 4-3 defensive end – so be it. Or, if Billy Winn rotates from tackle to end, great. Anything else is just a dumb attempt to categorize players into familiar boxes.

Or, if the Browns’ new personnel people are realists, they will quickly figure out that this is a team that needs to create pressure from the outside. Naturally, in the hands of some fans, this topic will regress into whether a college defensive end can play outside linebacker or vice versa – or whether there is a Cleveland Browns’ time machine stuck in 2005. But again – the idea is simple. The Browns need to pressure opposing quarterbacks in order to consistently win games – something that hasn’t regularly occurred in 14 seasons.

A similar principle relates to coverage in the secondary. In a league where multiple receiver sets necessitate more man coverage, the value attached to any solid coverage cornerback has appreciated. And much like a season ago (or even two years ago), the Browns are still thin at corner beyond Joe Haden. Regardless of any 3-4 talk, the new Browns’ defensive philosophy appears to be blitz heavy – which requires solid coverage all over the field.

And some talented defensive players.

Or “lots” of linebackers. Either way.

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Comments (17)

  1. MOAR LINEBACKERS PLEEZ. – C-Town

    The thinking fan shouldn’t be freaked out by a change from Dick Jauron to Ray Horton. We have talent on the defensive side of the ball, and, miraculously, our talent lines up pretty damn well with what the scheme demands – save for the pieces that we needed no matter what (bookend pass rusher, bookend corner, and free safety).

    I don’t generally like to blame the media for things, but I think that this “3-4 means more change which we keep having over and over and i am sick of change when is it going to stop the 3-4 didn’t work when Mangini was here why would it work now joe banner is ruining the browns” stuff comes from having football writers that really have no understanding of the game of football. The articles get written about the change and how “the Browns are going to have to overhaul personnel again” and then fans just take that and run. Nothing wrong with that, they are still big fans of the team, but they probably ALSO don’t understand the game of football that well. The writers don’t take the time to actually read about Dick Lebeau and Ray Horton’s schemes, so they write about the emotional touchstones for the fans – the change, the personnel, the constant rebooting.

    That aside, I look at what the smart coaches are running as their base defenses, and think there is no way that the Browns can become a dominant defensive team using the Jauron approach. Every team with a truly intelligent HC runs a 3-4 base. Belichick and the Harbaughs. Sean Payton comes back this year to Saints and immediately fires Spagnuolo and is transitioning the team into the 3-4. (Chip Kelly too, although I am just projecting that he will be intelligent in NFL). The guys that are coaching to save their jobs instead of win championships are keeping their 4-3 base defenses.

    I couldn’t be happier with the Horton hire. I would have been fine if he was our HC, so to have him come on as DC is a huge win for the organization. I think it’s been the best move of the offseason by a wide margin.

    • It is a really EASY way to stir up “Reader Comments of the Day.” But right, more teams are not only moving towards a 3-4, but using it in more modern ways. I’m pretty sure the Romeo Crennel 3-4 days are being phased out and it’s always interesting to see how far Belichick has distanced himself from the 3-4 (starting about 5-6 years ago). I think the trend will become more modified versions of what Nick Saban’s and plenty of other college coaches run – simply due to way offenses can control games.

      I think Horton was a good hire and Chudzinski’s quote reaffirmed my belief that the Browns may have actually hired a coach who recognizes 2013 football.

  2. MadElf

    Nailed it like a prom date!

  3. fubar

    Let’s set aside the whole, “Oh, great. Now we need more linebackers. We’re gonna suck.”, issue.

    How’s the defensive backfield looking these days? I mean, after all, it is a passing league and you need a strong group of nickle backs, right? As a group, the Browns defensive backfield is weak.

    Soooo….. now we have to reboot and do the whole 4-3 to 3-4 conversion thing AND get better defensive backs. Great. Just great.

    • Reboot what?

      Had the Browns played a “4-3″, they still would have needed a pass rusher, linebackers and secondary help. Really – what’s the difference? Now, 48-year old Juqua Parker doesn’t have a role?

  4. jimkanicki

    every time i try be reasonable and accepting that implementing the 3-4 is no big deal, i throw up in my mouth the same way i did when pat shurmur was hired.
    ‘welp, nothing we can do about it now. no need for snark.’
    let’s embrace making dq, jmj, tank, fort, maiava, gocong the focal point of the defense; let’s be ok de-emphasizing rubin, taylor, hughes, sheard, rucker.
    [damn.. couldnt even go five minutes without snark.]

    • pdxscott

      i’m with kanicki on this. this “reasonable transition” is just a projection.

      that’s not to say that it won’t work, but we are trading something we know was respectable last year (with some injuries, a lot of rookies, and in its first full year of implementation) for a question mark.

      • I get the point of continuity, but just like with the pro-Heckert talk, let’s not suggest that the Browns’ 2012 defense was anything other than occasionally good. This is still the defense that was destroyed by Andy Dalton and Kirk Cousins. AND this was still the defense that needed upgrades (pass rusher, LB’s and secondary) regardless of coordinator, head coach or scheme.

    • I’m approaching from this from the standpoint that we’re talking about a base defense that is on the field for maybe 40% of the time. Sure, the DL depth was impressive last year, but Taylor can be a monster 3-man line DE and Rubin and Hughes are closer to NT’s anyway. Let Sheard rush from the outside and give the young LB’s a chance to do more versatile things. Regardless of the transition, you have to admit that Jauron’s defense was pretty limited. And again, we’re talking about a formation that the Browns will not use every down.

      • jimkanicki

        hey buddy i hear you. i hear everything. the goodness of horton. the flexibility and superiority of the 3-4. being able to fool qbs making reads at the line. i hear all of it. open minded and hoping for the best.

        but in the last fifteen years of the browns, when something has smelled like horse shit, it turned out to been horse shit.

        • True (West Coast Offense, Romeo as a “player’s coach”, Phil Savage, etc.). I’m just thinking that even the typical media “Comment of the Day” bait shit doesn’t apply here. It’s way above the heads of a Mary Kay to realize that the league is changing to a point where traditional schemes aren’t AS important as they used to be. Anything else is just a slightly more elevated discussion of Weeden vs. McCoy.

          But then again, I could be projecting progressive ideas onto the new regime. It’s very likely that even though Chudzinski sounds a bit contemporary that the new FO may start dealing away DL’s and looking for the next Kamerion Wimbley. If so, all bets are off.

        • pdxscott

          amen.

          i think the safe money is on an underwhelming 2013-2014 browns D.

          • I’m not sure right now. I think with a few key additions, this could be an interesting defense. Scheme-wise, I’m more excited about the PROSPECT of Horton at least compared to the reality of Jauron….for what that’s worth.

  5. rodofdisaster

    Dave-

    Nice post and lots of good comments here. In reading your post, a couple of thoughts arise:

    1) The problem with switching to the 3-4 is NOT the scheme. Any scheme can work if you have the correct players to run it. The bigger problem with the Browns switching to the 3-4 is that I don’t see D’Qwell Jackson finding a role in it and I daresay that JMJ, Gocong and Maiava will have a hard time being successful in it. I would also say that anything Acho gives you outside of special teams will be a bonus. It’s not that the 3-4 stinks. It’s that you need to scrap 4 or 5 of these guys because they won’t be able to fit the scheme. That’s the pessimist’s view, of course but they certainly don’t fit the mold.

    2) Jabaal Sheard is going to have to take his hand off the ground and rush the passer from an outside spot. Not the end of the world but he’s going to have to figure out how to play in space.

    3) Comparing the Crennel/Mangini 3-4 to others and calling it the “1980s 3-4″ is probably more precisely stated as calling it the “bullough” or 2-gap system. There is also the “Phillips” or 1-gap as coached by Bum and Wade as well as Georgia DC Todd Grantham. There’s a third, the “LeBeau” which relies heavily on the zone-blitz principles. Here is a great summary: http://www.milehighreport.com/2008/5/7/481970/mhr-university-modern-3-4

    4) My personal feeling is that you’ll see more teams shifting to 3-4 to get more athleticism on the field. The pistol and the zone read may demand this adjustment. Look at who’s switched. New Orleans will switch as apparently the Eagles are preparing to do. St. Louis is bringing 3-4 principles with Rob Ryan to their 4-3. Why? Look at who plays in those divisions: Cam Newton, RGIII, Kapaernick. It’s the natural progression to take out a less athletic 4-3 tackle and replace him with a more athletic linebacker. Don’t forget that a more athletic 11 may hold up better conditioning-wise when faced with up-tempo offense.

    5) A lot of #4 may be moot however as you point out that sub-packages (nickel, big nickel and dime) are making up a larger percentage of the matchups.

    • Always great to hear from you, Rod. I’ll put it out here: If you ever want to contribute posts to Reboot, just let me know at davekolonich@gmail.com. I would love to have you expand on these thoughts – as would most Reboot readers.

      As for your feedback, I’m interested in seeing how the current Browns’ linebackers play in this new defense. I get your point on D’Qwell, but I’m still curious if Horton’s version may be more suited to him. I look at Daryl Washington blitzing and having a huge year in 2012 and wonder if Jackson or JMJ could be used in a similar manner. I think we all are guilty of associating Horton with LeBeau (naturally), but then we link the Steelers’ prototype linebacker (huge guys) with all other types of 3-4 linebackers. I think there still is a role for linebackers who are not 250 lbs. plus.

      I’m really interested to see a newer blend of 3-4 in Cleveland. Again, I still think the whole idea of a base defense is overblown, but at the same time, it will be refreshing to move from a Parcells-esque 3-4 to one that attacks more. I guess we saw shades of this with Rob Ryan, but then again the personnel the 2009-2010 Browns’ defense had was lacking. Even though Bowens, Fujita, Barton, etc. were more prototypical sized 3-4 linebackers, there was much lost in athletic ability.

      But regardless of scheme, Nickel packages are becoming far more important. Here’s where the Browns really need to improve in the secondary. Another year of S. Brown and Skrine won’t be enough. This is another big point – either way – 4-3 or 3-4, Tom Heckert or Mike Lombardi, the Browns were going to have to add a pass rusher, cornerbacks and linebackers.

      And another idea – although it is purely subjective at this point: What exactly was the ceiling for Dick Jauron?

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