The Detroit Lions made a big defensive philosophical change this offseason, going from the 4-3 defensive alignment to the 3-4.
Well, there are four distinct advantages.
1.) Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn’s roots
Glenn was a star corner for the New York Jets when they ran a 3-4 system. So, it is the defensive system he played in and first learned.
2.) NFL offenses have changed
NFL offenses are going more and more to an outside run and screen game. There are a lot more outside pitches, run designs and screens to running backs and quick-hitting bubble routes to wide receivers on the perimeter. With that heavy emphasis by NFL offenses, playing to the outside of their tackles more, it is forcing defenses to adjust. The 3-4 is that adjustment, and it allows the team’s most athletic defenders to be able to get to the outside faster, while facing less opposition from blockers.
3.) It plays more to the strengths of key players' comfort levels and backgrounds
Philosophically speaking, the difference between the 4-3 and the 3-4 is that the 4-3 features four down defensive linemen and three linebackers, while the 3-4 features three down defensive linemen and four linebackers. The other basic primary difference is that in a 4-3, the pass-rush mainly comes from the defensive ends and in the 3-4, it primarily comes from the outside linebackers.
I grew up watching the NFC East in the 1980s, and I was a big believer of the 4-3, which most teams in the league ran back then because of the heavy emphasis on the smash-mouth run games. The game has changed now, and teams like Detroit have two choices -- to evolve or to decide not to do so. Detroit has chosen to make the change, and it makes really good sense, based on its personnel.
Detroit has several players on defense that the change can benefit, especially outside linebacker Trey Flowers, OLB Julian Okwara, defensive end Michael Brockers, nose tackle Alim McNeill, DE Levi Onwuzurike and inside linebacker Derrick Barnes. All of these players better fit a 3-4.
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4.) It should produce more sacks
Putting players like Flowers and Julian Okwara in positions to play more in space is putting them in positions where they can freelance more and not get tied up as often en route to the quarterback.
Flowers had a lot of success with the Patriots in such a position, prior to signing with Detroit. Okwara was more like that too at Notre Dame, where he produced 13 sacks his last two seasons.
This will work better, too, since guys like Brockers, Onwuzurike and McNeill are much more geared toward occupying space and holding up blockers at the initial point of attack. Consequently, it will allow the aforementioned, more athletic playmakers to do their thing.
In a 3-4, those type of defensive linemen are exactly what a team would want. Plus, all three are capable of occasionally making some noise themselves as pass-rushers, especially McNeill, who is like a human bowling ball.
Playing with four LBs additionally gives Barnes, who had 10.5 sacks in college, an opportunity to get onto the field more -- which will only help further raise the sack total, with the physical brand of football he brings.
The same holds true for the oft-injured, dynamic OLB Austin Bryant, who is another one of those classic run-and-hit, freelance backers who thrives in making plays in space when he is less challenged by big offensive linemen.
While it is a big change for the Lions to go from playing the 4-3 to the 3-4 -- the more I think about it -- it makes a whole lot of sense, given the direction offenses are trending and because it plays more to the strengths of several of Detroit’s key defenders.
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