One of the more egregious and misleading ideas in the NFL today is the notion that teams playing a 3-4 defense actually play a 3-4 defense most of the time. With passing games becoming more complex, defenses have had to adjust, and the old base 3-4 schemes you may have seen from the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Oilers in the 1970s are relative relics. Now, teams listed as employing 3-4 bases generally play plenty of nickel and dime coverage, which generally has them taking a defensive lineman off the field and replacing him with a slot cornerback (for nickel). And in the case of a dime defense, you're down to one inside linebacker, and your outside linebackers (or endbackers, as I like to call them) are rushing off the edge, but in formation.
So, when a draft prospect joins his new NFL team, and pundits insist that the player will have trouble fitting into his new 3-4 defense because his college team played a 4-3 ... well, it's generally best to disregard that. First, only a handful of NCAA teams play what you could call a base 3-4, so if that were the case, you'd have a whole lot of unhappy players and teams as rookies fell all over themselves trying to deal with these new ideas. And since nearly half the teams in the league play some sort of 3-4 variants, that would be a major issue. But it isn't, is it?
When the Houston Texans took South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, there was a great hue and cry regarding Clowney's ability to fit into the 3-4 defense installed by Romeo Crennel, the longtime defensive coordinator and head coach who would be starting his first season in Houston.
"The Texans are going to be playing a 3-4 defense, so that means he's going to be a 3-4 defensive end or an outside backer," former Cleveland Browns general manager and current Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage recently said. "I don't particularly think he forecasts well as an outside backer up on his feet rushing the edge, because I do think there is some lateral tightness in his athletic ability. Although he blew the field away in the 40 and the vertical, when he ran the 3-cone it was a 7.27 ... So there is some concern there."
If there is concern there, the Texans certainly don't share it.
“Well, we’ve got some flexibility," O'Brien said at the press conference in which the Texans announced Clowney as their new top guy. "We’ve talked often times about some of the flexibility with some of our players, and I imagine that you’re referring to maybe [linebacker] Brooks Reed and where he fits. I talked last night about one of the calling cards for Romeo Crennel and his history as a coordinator has been creativity. So we will certainly leave that up to him. He’s a lot better at that than I am, so we’ll leave that up to him.”
Crennel made his bones in the NFL with Bill Belichick in New York and New England, and he picked up on Belichick's mantra of versatility above all. Belichick was one of the first defensive coaches to blur the line between 4-3 and 3-4, and Crennel has done it adroitly enough himself. Consider the ways in which he used Justin Houston in Kansas City. Houston hit the 2011 scouting combine at 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds -- two inches shorter and four pounds heavier than Clowney -- and he had no trouble adjusting in Crennel's defense after the Chiefs took him in the third round of that draft.
Against the Saints in Week 3 of the 2012 season, Houston bagged three sacks of Drew Brees, including a safety, and the techniques he used (and still uses) could be instructive to how Clowney will be deployed. It was 2nd-and-12 from the New Orleans' 7-yard line with six minutes left in the game, and the Chiefs were down 24-19. New Orleans went with an empty backfield and five receivers with an overload trips right. The Chiefs responded with a dime defense -- Derrick Johnson was the only inside linebacker on the field -- and Houston was lined up against right tackle Zach Strief. You'll notice from the pre-snap view that Houston is lined up as if his hand might be on the ground, though it isn't -- he's not standing up, per se.
At the snap, Houston ran straight at Strief, and then beat him inside with a little foot counter. That's all it took.
The Chiefs went with a very light front on this play -- neither of their tackles (the 6-8, 290-pound Ropati Pitoitua, nor the 6-3, 278-pound Allen Bailey) has ever crossed three bills on any scale. So, this successful defensive play happened with the antithesis of traditional 3-4 methodology -- no two inside linebackers patrolling the flats, no mammoth nose tackle soaking up blocks, and the guy who got the sack was in a wide-nine angle as you'd expect from an end. Perhaps Crennel is more adaptable than some may think.
Back to Savage's concern, and the concerns of others. Perhaps there is reason to doubt Clowney's ease into that transition, and I know Savage as a guy who knows his stuff, but had Savage started his current job a bit earlier than he did (May 2012), he may have seen and remembered how Ryan Kerrigan made that transition. At Purdue, Kerrigan played end, often in a four-point stance (very much like Clowney). At the Senior Bowl, NFL scouts and coaches wanted to see Kerrigan drop into coverage -- just as the Texans asked Clowney to drop into coverage at his pro day -- and he looked good doing so. The Redskins later selected him with the 16th overall pick in the 2011 draft, and it wasn't an issue to move him to outside linebacker with second-year defensive coordinator Jim Haslett putting Kerrigan on the edge with his hands off the ground. If it worked for Kerrigan, it can work for Clowney.
During the same week that Houston blew up Brees three times, Kerrigan was facing the Bengals, and tormented Andy Dalton with one sack, two quarterback hits and two quarterback hurries. One of the hurries, which led to a Dalton interception and a Washington touchdown, was especially instructive when analyzing Kerrigan's conversion to outside linebacker in Jim Haslett's 3-4.
The Bengals had 2nd-and-9 at their own 2-yard line, and Kerrigan was lined up just outside right tackle in Washington's base 3-4 -- basically, an end-gap position. When tight end Jermaine Gresham released from the formation, and fullback Chris Pressley flared out to block blitzing safety DeJon Gomes, Kerrigan had a veritable freeway to roam and Dalton got the ball off, but he should have held it -- fellow pass rusher Rob Jackson picked off the errant pass in the end zone.
Here, we have two principles that can help Clowney -- exploiting gaps and angles with which he's familiar, and creating mismatches to give him more one-on-one matchups, if not outright free releases. J.J. Watt should be fairly helpful with that.
Does Clowney have the strength, speed and outright athleticism to excel in a hybrid defense? The Texans obviously think so, and the evidence on tape is clear. Where he'll need to improve is in his array of hand and foot moves -- too often he roars straight at the line, looking for holes and gaps almost as a running back would. But once in a while it all comes together, and you see the potential. At the 1:48 mark of the video below, Clowney cuts inside on a free release against Florida, and the back can barely get rolling before Clowney is on him, ready to negate the play. And this play, where Clowney puts a little swim move on the left tackle and outruns the back upfield.
Now, it's up to Clowney to put it all together.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a problem for me," he said of the NFL conversion. "I can play standing up and bending down. Whatever the coaches want me to do, I’m willing to do. I’m just looking forward to getting in and getting started, and you’ll see on Sundays.”