Saints, Eagles facing personnel challenges with switch to 3-4

The New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles didn't hide their intentions to switch from 4-3 defenses to 3-4 defenses in 2013. It's not as easy as saying you want to change and hiring a defensive coordinator will get the job done. Both teams have to find the right players for the front seven (defensive line and linebackers) and have the financial resources to make the conversion.

Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells told me when he got to the Dallas Cowboys it took two years to acquire enough 3-4 talent to make the conversion. He said you just don't change because you want to. He kept Mike Zimmer as his defensive coordinator running a 4-3 defense until his ability to draft the right guys made the switch realistic.

Lining up 1-gap defensive linemen in a new scheme that will ask the front three to two-gap isn't a matter of running a few OTA practices and showing the players cut-up instructional tapes from other teams.

The Eagles hired former Cardinals defensive coordinator Billy Davis, who is a disciple of Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense. The Saints hired Rob Ryan, who coordinated his 3-4 for the Raiders, Browns and Cowboys. Both the Saints and Eagles have salary cap issues and at this point no cap space to just hit free agency with the aggressiveness required to get a head start on the personnel issue.

Last week I talked with Bill Cowher about the 3-4 defense. He ran it for most of his career and recently spent time with Chris Ault, the developer of the pistol offense. After Cowher saw how the pistol operates, he concluded teams have a much better chance defending it in the 3-4 defense than they will in the 4-3. The reason is the 3-4 has more people standing up and that gives the defense a chance to be aggressive and flexible when stressing the quarterback with his reads.

I'm sure Sean Payton figured that out while sitting home for a year watching the things emerging with the Panthers, SeahawksRedskins and 49ers.

And it starts with the nose tackle position. I talked with Charger nose tackle Antonio Garay, who has been successful in the San Diego 3-4 defense but has also worked in the Chicago 4-3 defense. He was quick to point out the 3-4 nose tackle rarely lines up on the shoulder of the center with the green light to penetrate the A-gap (the space between the
center and the guard). The 3-4 nose tackle has to be unselfish, lining up on the center's head and forcing a double team with the center and guard in order to free the linebacker.

The closer the 3-4 nose tackle is to 350 pounds, the better. A 4-3 nose tackle can be as light as 290, while relying on quickness. I would think both the Saints and Eagles will be looking at the free-agent market for a proven 3-4 nose tackle.

Here's a list of the guys scheduled to be available:

  • Isaac Sopoga (SF)
  • Shaun Cody (Hou)
  • Casey Hampton (Pit)
  • Ma'ake Kemoeatu (Balt)
  • Antonio Johnson (Ind)
  • Aubrayo Franklin (SD)

Most of these guys are old and beat up physically, which doesn't make for an exciting group to draw from. Keep an eye on Steelers restricted free agent Steve McClendon, who could be attractive if he doesn't get a high tender. 

Personally, I don't think the Eagles or Saints will solve their nose tackle issue in free agency. I would look to the draft class. The "5 technique" or defensive ends in the 3-4 need to be tall with long arms to lockout against the offensive tackles and be able to see over and around the 6’6 offensive tackles.

The 4-3 defensive tackles that are 6-1 to 6-2 who win with quickness can really struggle in a 3-4. I remember when the Oakland Raiders thought they could get a Hall of Fame defensive tackle to play the 5 technique. It almost ruined a brilliant career.

Cullen Jenkins did it successfully in Green Bay before going to Philadelphia so I don't worry about him. Only time will tell for Fletcher Cox (Philadelphia) or Cameron Jordan (New Orleans). I don't see the Saints' Will Smith as a fit in the new scheme, especially at his cap number but maybe the Saints will think he can play OLB.

At any rate, both teams need to evaluate free agents Glenn Dorsey, Mike DeVito, Richard Seymour, Randy Starks, Kedric Golston and Adam Carriker to see if they could upgrade the position. Keep an eye on Arthur Jones, a restricted free agent for the Ravens. He may be the most interesting prospect if he doesn't get a high tender.

The Saints and Eagles could find veteran help, but they don't have the cap space to compete for them.

The inside linebackers in the 3-4 can be forced to line up directly over 325-pound guards at times and they need to have more size than the average 4-3 mike and will linebackers.

Do you remember when the Ravens put Ray Lewis in that situation years ago and his sideline-to-sideline style was restricted by the likes of Chiefs guard Will Shields? Jonathan Vilma became a Saint because the Jets didn't think he could play in their 3-4, so how does he fit in the Saints 3-4?

The Eagles have a brilliant young inside linebacker in Mychal Kendricks, but he's 5-10 and really needs to be in a 4-3 package. The free-agent pool is led by Dannell Ellerbe of the Ravens and includes backups and average starters like Brandon Siler, Larry Foote, Tim Dobbins, Bart Scott and DeMorrio Williams.

I don't think New Orleans or the Eagles feel great about this list. Keep your eye on Steelers restricted free agent Sylvester Stevenson, who would be an interesting prospect if his tender isn't too high.

I saved the toughest for last. That's the outside linebacker position, where 3-4 teams need 20 sacks from the two outside 'backers if they want to play this defense well. Plus the outside linebackers have to be able to drop in coverage.

Right now the Eagles probably line up Trent Cole and Vinny Curry as the outside linebackers. They are 4-3 defensive ends who have played their careers with their hand on the ground. I have no idea what the Saints think they have at outside linebacker but the truth is neither team has what it takes to fulfill these two positions.

Free agency could be tricky in this area and I would expect teams to consider franchising players, but until then, Saints and Eagles fans cross your fingers and hope you get a shot at Connor Barwin, Paul Kruger, Shaun Phillips, or settle for Anthony Spencer. Those four players would go a long way to helping develop a 3-4 package. Otherwise, the draft may hold the answers to this challenge.

Finally, keep in mind that most colleges play a 4-3 defense and NFL clubs will have to project how they fit into a 3-4. A personnel man like Kevin Colbert in Pittsburgh has been uncovering 3-4 players for two decades. The personnel people in Philadelphia and New Orleans don't have that experience, which makes things difficult.

I bet Parcells wouldn't rush into this project overnight.

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