To 3-4, or not to 3-4... that is the question

Wade Phillips turned Mario Williams into an OLB with success in 2011, but is the same possible for Charles Johnson? (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Speaking with the media today defensive coordinator Sean McDermott stated that the Carolina Panthers will be utilizing the 3-4 more moving forward this season. While we always knew this would be a possibility with Ron Rivera's familiarity with the system (he ran a 3-4 in 2009 and 2010 in San Diego) I'm really not a fan of making the move at this time.

On Sunday in Atlanta the Panthers used the 3-4 on several occasions. In this scheme Frank Kearse played the nose tackle flanked by Terrell McClain and Greg Hardy with Antwan Applewhite and Charles Johnson serving as the outside linebackers. In terms the effect it had on the game it was minimal, but Applewhite flourished in the scheme, which raises a number of questions about how the 3-4 could be executed. I'll look at how a 3-4 would work...

After the jump

Let me begin completely disagreeing with Charlotte Observer beat writer Joseph Person. This afternoon on Twitter he wrote the following

Ron Fields and Frank Kearse both are true noseguards.

Just because a player has played 3-4 NT in the past doesn't mean they're suited to that position. This applies to the aforementioned Fields and Kearse, as well as Ron Edwards who played NT in Kansas City before signing with Carolina as a free agent. All three players are fan better suited to playing in a 4-3 scheme. I say this for one key reason: None of them have been reliable at holding the point of attack in a 3-4, otherwise they wouldn't have been let go.

In moving to a three DL scheme you're putting the most amount of pressure on your NT who is needing to hold the point of attack against a center and a guard with regularity. So far we haven't seen a DT be able to hold the line in a 4-3, so why do we think someone could do it without help? I'm okay with the 3-4 being used as a curiosity, but it scares me to use it often.

This takes us to the next factor which is the linebacking personnel. In the Panthers 3-4 on Sunday it was James Anderson and a combination of Dan Connor, Thomas Williams and Jason Williams who all took turns playing ILB. In reality, I'm not concerned with the ILBs because with Beason back in 2012 he and James Anderson can hold the middle fine.

Big Money, Big Problem?

On the surface it may seem like a waste of his talents to move CJ into a 3-4 defense, however it might surprise you to hear that Charles Johnson could be extremely successful as a 3-4 OLB. While he doesn't have the lateral speed needed in coverage he can more than deal with rushing the passer. His 10 yard split at the 2007 combine was 1.63 seconds. While this doesn't stack up with the elite 3-4 times in the NFL like Clay Matthews' 1.49, he does compare favorably with DeMarcus Ware (1.62) and Mario Williams (1.70). In short, he will be able to get to the passer a lot in this scheme. When you combine this speed off the line with his strength we could really see many multi-sack games from Big Money.

 

Caging the Kraken

This is probably the area I like the least in moving to a 3-4. Despite being a fan favorite, Greg Hardy is also the spark on defense when others can't seem to make plays. The problem with Hardy is the 10 yard split I talked about in reference to Charles Johnson. Hardy's greatest attribute as a pass rusher is his rip move, it's absolutely amazing and it's this that allows him to get out of his stance and make it pass tackles. However, he doesn't have the speed off the line to play outside linebacker. At the 2010 combine he registered a 1.71 second 10 yard split, and while that is close to Mario Williams' number he doesn't have Williams' strength.

We saw this on Sunday when the coaching staff asked the faster Applewhite (1.61 10-yard) to play OLB opposite CJ while the Kraken played DE. I'm not a fan of this because even the most dominant 3-4 DEs don't get the opportunity to make many plays from their position, and the fact is we need Kraken to be a spark at times.

 

Remember to practice safe sacks

Think it's a coincidence that the Baltimore Ravens have Ed Reed, or the Pittsburgh Steelers have Troy Polamalu? What about Eric Weddle in San Diego, or Eric Berry for the Chiefs? On thing that the 3-4 relies on his having a stout, hard hitting, reliable safety who can basically play to his position title and being the safe guard in case a running back hits the second level, or the QB gets an outlet pass out against a full blitz.

Think about those guys: Reed, Polamalu, Weddle, Berry.... now imagine if our legitimate last line of defense relied on Charles Godfrey making a smart tackle. The thought of it is pretty ugly because of the way Godfrey plays; he can dish out the hits, and 50% of the time he'll stop someone in their tracks, or he'll take a bad angle which takes an 8 yard gain and makes it a 30 yard one. One wonders with Chris Harris reportedly demanding a trade whether the Hitman could be a temporary answer, but it would require us to really go out and invest a high pick in a safety in order for it to work.

 

Time will tell whether the McDermott 3-4 experiment will be for 10 snaps, or 30- but regardless I'm not sure we have the personnel right now to pull it off. As it  stands we desperately need a NT and a true SS before we can even hope the guys moving position can make plays. It's a ballsy move, and it could throw some teams off out of the gate but I'll admit the idea scares me a lot right now.

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