For the Defense, Flexibility is Key
By Bob Montgomery
The 3-4, 4-3 and the 46 defense, all different formations focused on the same goal of stopping the opposition. With the pick of Quinton Coples many have hinted that the Jets will be making a switch from their familiar 3-4 formation, to the more popular and widely used 4-3. Sporting the fifth best total defense in 2011, a switch from their current philosophy may leave some scratching their heads.
The current 3-4 defensive alignment puts a strong emphasis on confusion and flexibility. With only three down lineman the defense can send an additional rusher from any part of the field, while still maintaining seven defenders in pass coverage. This is the key to the 3-4 defense as the opposing offensive line may not know who the fourth rusher is until the ball is snapped, possibly creating confusion and indecision which can result in a more effective pass rush.
The 4-3 defensive formation utilizes a four down lineman look which better occupies offensive lineman and can allow linebackers to roam the field in open space. With standard seven defender pass coverage the offensive line knows the four designated rushers will be the down lineman, making pass protection simpler, and assignments easier to recognize. This formation relies more heavily on having elite defensive lineman on the outside that can consistently beat one on one match ups to create pressure and get to the quarterback.
So does the addition of Quinton Coples signify a changing of guard from the 3-4 to the 4-3? Well not entirely. While the addition of Coples may strengthen the defensive front, the rest of the Jet’s roster doesn’t exactly match up with the 4-3 philosophy. Pouha and Devito can definitely play the two inside tackle positions in the 4-3, but the much important over the guard 3 technique position also suits Muhammad Wilkerson very nicely, leaving Devito on the bench.
So with Wilkerson playing inside options for the opposite defensive end are 3-4 linebackers Bryan Thomas, Calvin Pace and Aaron Maybin. None of these options look particularly great with them playing as hand in the ground defensive ends that must also play the run consistently. While Thomas and Pace have the size to play this position, their inexperience playing as a down lineman rushing one on one with offensive tackles is fairly limited. Maybin has elite speed, but his size at around 240lbs could become a serious liability if he was tasked with being a three down defensive end. It would likely take a committee effort of these three players to make this defensive front work on a consistent basis.
The linebacking core is also more suited to playing the 3-4, with players accustomed to operating out of stand up rushing positions and queuing off of confusion. While the 4-3 alignment could help an aging Bart Scott operate in less traffic, and free up David Harris to make more plays, there doesn’t seem to be another linebacker on the roster very well suited to playing the 4-3. With less rushing opportunities from the second level of the defense, linebackers will be asked to play in coverage more often, possibly creating mismatches with linebackers not often asked to consistently play every down pass coverage.
So what are the Jets going to do in 2012? With the defensive genius of Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine the Jets will most likely remain one of the league’s most flexible defenses. While the addition of Wilkerson and Coples over the past two years can certainly allow Gang Green to better utilize 4-3 schemes, I cannot envision a total philosophy change away from the 3-4. I can see the Jets running more 4-3 looks on early downs, and in the red zone to reduce defensive mistakes and decrease chunk yardage plays due to being out of position. When the game is on the line, and pressure needs to be applied, I would wager the Jets will be in their 3-4 alignment with their best pass rushing linebackers on the field creating confusion, and hopefully lots of pressure.
Pros: confuses opposition, flexibility, personnel already in place, proven successful
Cons: complicated schemes to learn, can leave players out of position, requires dominant nose tackle
Pros: less complicated scheme opens space for LB’s, less chunk yardage plays
Cons: personnel not in place, less confusing to opposition, can allow LB’s to be exposed in coverage