When new Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell announced recently his team would be switching from a 4-3 defense (four defensive linemen and three linebackers) to a 3-4 base (three defensive linemen and four linebackers), it really caught me by surprise.
I can not ever recall seeing the Lions play a 3-4 defense in the past 40 years. However, that is what the team is doing, and the question now becomes can defenders such as defensive end Trey Flowers make the transition and line up at outside linebacker instead?
Since coming over from New England in 2019 via free agency, Flowers has played DE about 99.9 percent of the time. I do recall thinking he looked good dropping into coverage one time last season, when he ended up half way down the field.
Other than that, Flowers has always lined up with his hand in the dirt, as long as he has been with the team.
Flowers, in the past, has had two responsibilities -- getting to the quarterback and tackling ball carriers.
However, now his scope of responsibilities is expanding to spend yet even more time dropping into coverage as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Can he successfully make this transition?
To unpack that question, we must first understand the pure philosophical differences between playing a 4-3 vs. a 3-4. The differences are about as different as night and day. Both base defensive alignments call for different types of personnel, with different skill sets.
For example, a 4-3 DE is primarily asked to get to the quarterback,whereas a 3-4 DE is supposed to occupy space and hold up offensive linemen so that the linebackers can instead scrape in and make the plays.
So, where does this leave Flowers?
To understand what the future might hold, we must look to the past. According to 247Sports, Flowers was listed as an OLB, coming out of Columbia High School in Huntsville, Ala. From there, Flowers attended college at Arkansas.
Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden (then an ESPN analyst) had this to say about Flowers prior to the 2015 draft:
"Arkansas EDGE player Trey Flowers reminds me of LaMarr Woodley coming out of Michigan. He physically can play the run. He could be an outside linebacker and stand on his feet. He has the ability to move on a zone blitz, read the quarterback, break on the ball and intercept it. He is instinctive, he is physical and he is relentless. A lot of times, teams are forcing you to play nickel all the time, anyway, and the outside linebacker in a 3-4 plays defensive end in the nickel. I need a guy who can play both positions. Flowers can do that."
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Because Flowers, who also starred in basketball in high school, did not fit the mold of what teams wanted in a pure DE or OLB at the time, he slid to the fourth round. This is where Flowers perfectly fit into New England's defensive scheme.
The Patriots primarily played in a 3-4 base during Flowers' time there, and Flowers lined up as a "Jack," which is a position where an OLB also doubles as a DE.
In that system, Flowers blossomed into a $90 million free agent, and that is when his career path intersected with Detroit.
Based on the aforementioned logic, it is both reasonable and prudent to deduct then that Flowers can indeed make this transition. In fact, it may prove to be a more natural fit.
Not every 4-3 DE could make the adjustment Flowers is being asked to make. In fact, few probably could. However, the stars have aligned this time around, in terms of both what Campbell wants and what Flowers can do.
And, just because I do not ever recall a time in my life when I have seen Detroit line up in a 3-4, it does not mean it is not a good idea.
With an increasing number of NFL offenses throwing quick and short bubble screens to receivers and with more backs bouncing their runs to the outside, it only makes sense to adjust by placing teams' most athletic play-makers, like Flowers, in position to make plays without compromising their ability to get to the QB.
Now the Lions just need to pray he doesn't get hurt, as they continue to build for the future.
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