New Panthers HC Ron Rivera (BAMF) has coached a 4-3 defense and a 3-4 defense both to #1 overall defensive rankings. This is impressive. So he knows, clearly, how to make both schemes work. Because of this, I think the Panthers would be remiss to not use any 3-4 wrinkles along with our 4-3 base defense.
Chances are Rivera and new DC Sean McDermott will have some 3-4 looks up their sleeves, if nothing else than to give the opposing offenses another 'something' to prepare for during the week.
Check out the situations in which we might use the 3-4, and who the personnel might be when we use it...after the jump.
When will we run it you ask? Well, the 3-4 is a good scheme against the run. It is easier to disguise a blitz in a 3-4 defense. So we may see the 3-4 defense often on first down, when teams run the ball about 50-60% of the time.
As stated above, we may also see a 3-4 set when we decide to blitz--whether it be a run blitz or a pass blitz. With four linebackers, there are more combinations of blitzers who you can send to sack the QB (or stuff the run). Because the offensive line does not know who is blitzing, it is easier to get a free rusher, untouched to the QB (or ball-carrier).
Typically, from play to play, 3-4 defenses will frequently blitz at least one of their four LBs in a 3-4 set, and more often they'll blitz one of the outside LBs from the edge, specifically if he is matched up against a smaller TE or a RB.
If I had to guess, I'd say that we will use a 3-4 set a maximum of 8-10 times a game. The reason we can't run it more than that is simple:
We do not have the personnel to do so. But, let's take a look at how the defensive players on our roster fit (or don't fit) into a 3-4 scheme...
In a 3-4 you have a massive nose tackle sitting right over the offensive center who's job is to occupy as many offensive lineman as he can. He is the anchor of the entire defense. When he is moved off his spot, the defense is much more susceptible to longer runs, and the QB has a cleaner pocket to step-up into.
We don't really have a guy who is the prototypical NFL NT. Seone Fua, a third-round pick out of Stanford is the closest thing we have to a nose tackle. He played the position at Stanford, in their base 3-4 defense. He is only about 310 pounds, however, and ideally you want your NT to be at least 330 pounds. Good NTs never reach free agency, so it may be hard to add any quality to this position before the season starts. So, when the Panthers align in the 3-4, Fua will need to play big and dig in. The NT fulfilling his role is essential to the success of a 3-4 set.
3-4 Defensive End
Your 3-4 defensive ends are usually a little bigger than 4-3 ends, as they need to anchor against the run, and need to be able to hold the point against a OT/OG double team. They will spend the majority of their snaps battling a guard or a tackle (or both), so you want them to be 280 pounds or more (ideally closer to 300).
Charles Johnson could play "the 5-technique" with his strength and power, even if he is a little on the small side for the position.
Greg Hardy needs to develop a little physically, but we could sit him on the right side (typically the weak-side) of the formation where he could chase instead of having to anchor.
We might also see third-round pick Terrell McClain (South Florida) play some 5-tech, as he is the perfect size at 6'3" or 6'4" and 300lbs.
So despite what you may think on the first glance, we do actually have two or three guys on the D-line who could play DE in a 3-4 look. The trend now is to find more athletic 3-4 DEs, and if Johnson and Hardy are one thing it is athletic.
3-4 Outside Linebacker
The 3-4 OLBs are basically 4-3 DEs who excel at both rushing the passer and dropping back into coverage. When teams are in obvious passing situations, one or both of the 3-4 OLB will more than likely be free to rush the passer, as these two players are supposed to be the best pure pass rushers on the defense.
A 3-4 OLB will usually be rushing the QB against an OT (the offense's best pass blockers). Because of this, 3-4 OLBs are larger than 4-3 OLBs (and closer in size to 4-3 DEs). The ideal size is probably 6'3" and about 250-265 lbs.
Everette Brown fell in the draft because teams considered him a little "to stiff" to play 3-4 OLB. But, he has the speed to chase plays down from the back-side, and he has enough awareness and agility to sit in the flat when asked to drop into coverage. Obviously if the Panthers line-up in a 3-4 set and Brown is playing OLB, the play would be designed for him to rush the passer. He could do so quite effectively, particularly when the offense decided to try and block him with a TE or back.
Eric Norwood fell a little in the draft as well because teams had doubts about his coverage ability, hence making him a better fit as a 4-3 DE. He, like Brown, is athletic enough to cover a flat and chase a play from the backside. He, in my opinion, is a better pure pass rusher than Brown, because he has power moves to counter his finesse game. Norwood should be unleashed to rush the passer or ball-carrier if he sees playing-time as a 3-4 OLB, so the coverage concerns frankly would not concern me.
Even with their perceived weaknesses, I think we would be able to line Brown and Norwood up at OLB in our 3-4 look a few times a game and be fine. But they are, due to coverage inadequacies, not ideal fits in an every-down 3-4 defense.
In case you think I forgot about them, our projected starters at OLB in our base 4-3 (Thomas Davis and James Anderson) are not great fits as 3-4 OLBs. Neither Davis or Anderson is big enough to effectively rush the passer against an offensive tackle. Both players would be better utilized as 3-4 MLBs--if/when we're in a 3-4 set.
3-4 Middle Linebacker
Middle linebackers in a 3-4 vary in size, because you have two of them with different responsibilities. Most 3-4 teams will refer to one of them as the "Mike" and the other one as the "Jack." The Mike is the true MLB. He is generally quite big for a MLB because with only three men on the DL, at least one of the five offensive lineman will make it to the second level. More often than not this is one of the OGs (or sometimes the OC). So the Mike linebacker's job (against the run) is to crack heads with a OG, and that's why he needs to be 250lbs+. Against the pass, the Mike MLB will either blitz the QB or drop back and cover a back or TE, but the Mike is not really required to cover very much.
Dan Connor and James Anderson would work in this position, but both of them are closer to 240lbs than 250, so we might be a little small at the Mike spot. Between the two, Connor fits this position a little better.
The other MLB spot, the Jack, is a different cat. He will have assignments that require more movement and coverage skills. He still needs to have a nose for the ball-carrier in the run game, and be a decent blitzer, but he must excel in coverage.
Jon Beason comes to mind when thinking about a Jack MLB. Thomas Davis would also be more than serviceable in this position.
Again, don't expect to see a 3-4 alignment more than ten times a game. And looking at it position by position, you can see why. We just don't have the size to do it. There has been speculation that Ron Rivera would prefer to slowly transition over to a 3-4. I'm not sure this is the case, being that he hired a DC who has no experience coaching a 3-4. But if Rivera brings in a highly coveted NT or 3-4 DE in next year's draft, or in free agency over the next couple of seasons, that may be a strong inclination that he does indeed want to transition to a 3-4. But right now it is not a feasible option.
And one final note: You will see the Panthers lineup with only three men on the line more than ten times a game, but just because there are only three "down lineman" doesn't mean they are in a 3-4 set. Most teams will "rush three and drop eight" to defend the pass. This set has three lineman, two linebackers, and six defensive backs, and is not quite the same thing as a true 3-4 set.