Switch 'n' Sack

As more teams move to the 3--4, the sack board has become dominated by ends turned outside 'backers
December 07, 2009

Elvis Dumervil had reason to be nervous last January when he learned that Mike Nolan had been hired as Denver's defensive coordinator. Nolan was rumored to be planning a switch from a 4--3 base formation—four down linemen, three linebackers—to a 3--4 front. Dumervil had come into the league in 2006 as a defensive end and had played successfully with a hand in the dirt, piling up 26 sacks in his first three seasons. So the idea of becoming a stand-up outside 'backer worried him.

Nolan quickly allayed those fears, playing Dumervil in the up position on running and short-yardage downs but putting the former Louisville star in a three-point stance in passing situations. The results have been eye-opening: Dumervil leads the NFL with 14 sacks and is on pace to become the third 3--4 outside linebacker in the last four seasons to top the league in the category, joining San Diego's Shawne Merriman (17 in '06) and Dallas's DeMarcus Ware (20 in '08). Last season three of the four sack leaders were outside linebackers: Miami's Joey Porter was second to Ware, and Pittsburgh's James Harrison was fourth. Each was a defensive end in college (although Merriman also played some linebacker).

The predominance of 3--4 outside linebackers among the top sackers makes sense given how many teams are using that base defense. This year Green Bay, Kansas City, Cleveland and Denver joined Dallas, San Diego, Pittsburgh, New England, Baltimore and the Jets in running the scheme. Arizona and San Francisco also committed to the system after mixing their fronts in recent seasons.

Consequently, teams are looking for players who fit the prototype for the role and finding them on college defensive lines. Larry English (Chargers) and Robert Ayers (Broncos) were collegiate ends drafted in the first round this year to play on the outside in a 3--4, and Aaron Maybin (Bills) was scouted heavily for the role. "There just aren't many colleges playing true 3--4 defenses, and if they are, the linebackers are usually undersized," says Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland. "Sixty percent of the defensive linemen at the scouting combine get worked out as a linebacker because we have to project them to another position."

Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert says his team looks for physical, athletic players who can rush the passer from a two- or a three-point stance in nickel and dime packages, as well as drop and play in space in passing situations. "That athlete is usually a 6'2", 250-pound guy, give or take an inch or 10 pounds either way," Colbert says.

Dumervil doesn't quite fit that mold—he's 5'11", 248—but like Harrison, who's listed at 6 feet and 242, he's deceptively strong and plays with great leverage. Both have made the change look easy, although it helps that neither made the switch immediately out of college. Most players say it takes a year or two to get comfortable with the new responsibilities. For instance, instead of keying on the five offensive linemen and maybe a tight end, a 3--4 outside 'backer must read the entire offensive formation and understand the passing routes that could come out of it. He also must know how he fits into the coverage scheme and where the defensive call could force the quarterback to throw the football.

"I'm not saying it's a harder job, but it's not the nitty-gritty world [of the down lineman]," says Vernon Gholston, the former Ohio State standout who has struggled with the switch since being drafted sixth overall by the Jets in '08. "When you're a down defensive end, you might drop into pass coverage every now and then, but not at the level that you have to play at now. You have so much to learn. Until you get to where it's second nature, it's not going to be complete."

Says Ireland, "There's a run-pass transition that has to be made by players who played defensive end in college. Depending on the scheme you were playing, you were told on passing plays to keep outside leverage [by staying on the blocker's outside shoulder to force the play inside] or go get the passer. As a linebacker you're asked to keep outside leverage, but if the back releases, you've got [him]. And if the tight end comes down, you've got to jam the tight end; and if the tight end pass-blocks, get around him. You've got three or four things you're looking for as an outside linebacker that you've got to be reading instantly. As a defensive end you're not asked to do all that much."

The bottom line, though, is that you're expected to get to the quarterback. Romeo Crennel was a defensive assistant on the Giants' staff when Lawrence Taylor broke in as a converted end. "Sometimes he'd rush when he was supposed to drop, and sometimes he didn't drop where he was supposed to drop," says Crennel. "But even when he messed up, he sacked the quarterback. You'll take that kind of screwup anytime."

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PHOTOPhotograph by GREG NELSONSTAND AND DELIVER Dallas's Ware (94), the 2008 sack leader, and Denver's Dumervil (inset), this year's top QB demon, have thrived since going from the down lineman's three-point stance to an upright attack position. PHOTOMARK LEFFINGWELL/REUTERS (DUMERVIL)[See caption above] PHOTODAVID BERGMANFLEXED STEEL Pittsburgh looks for strong, athletic players like Harrison to fill its multiple-role OLB spot.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)