In the early days of the Grandmaster's reign, there was a lot of speculation about which defensive alignment the Lions would utilize. A 4-3, which was the base alignment of the previous regime? Or, a 4-3, which is the alignment that Schwartz used during his entire time in Tennesee? Or maybe a 4-3, which is the alignment that Cunningham used in his past three years as the defensive coordinator in Kansas City?
Oddly, everyone started wondering if the Lions would use a 3-4. There's good reason for this, of course: the Steelers and Patriots both heavily utilize the 3-4, and between the two franchises they account for five of the last seven Super Bowl championships. It is, as they say, a copycat league, and now every team's fanbase loves them some 3-4. But, why? What is it about the 3-4 that makes it so successful?
The 3-4 is ultimately successful because it uses deception to keep the offense off balance. By relying on the massive down linemen up front to fill multiple gaps, and having two large interior linebackers who can take on and shed blockers, these "front five" become responsible for stopping the run. The two outside linebackers can then be used to blitz. This is where the deception comes in: either of the outside linebackers will blitz on almost every down--and the offense never knows where the blitz is coming from.
It's commonly said that offense is active, and defense is "reactive"--that is, since the very nature of defense is the attempt to thwart the offense, defense is a reaction to whatever the offense is doing. This left/right deception gives some of that edge back to the defense; it forces the offense to react to what the defense is doing. Of course, this is true of a blitz from a 4-3 alignment as well; however the offense can simply assign a TE or RB to pick up the blitz, and assuming they do their job that's that. However, with a well-executed 3-4, the blitz is coming on every down, and from every direction. That's much less easy to handle; the TE or FB might be on the wrong side, and keeping the RB in on every passing down severely limits the offense. With a 3-4, the defense forces the offense to account for its actions more than with a traditional 4-3, where every player's role is well-defined.
However, there are some major tradeoffs. First and foremost, the three down linemen are each responsible for filling two running lanes. In today's game, this means that each lineman must weigh over three hundred pounds. The nose tackle, who lines up directly over center and is double-teamed on almost every snap, must be at least 320. This combination of size, strength, and speed is vanishingly rare; only a handful of men on this Earth have the physical toolset to play the 3-4 nose tackle position and play it well. Secondly, it is a physical impossibility for three defensive linemen--no matter how large--to occupy five offensive linemen, plus a TE, FB, or both. Both interior linebackers must possess the size and strength to meet a fullback square-on, take the block, shed it, and make the tackle. Thirdly, it is commonly thought that it is an easy transition for a smaller 4-3 DE to transition to a 3-4 OLB, however this is not necessarily the case. You can't just stand up a DE and maintain the deception that makes this all work. The offense must believe that the rush might come from either side--which means that they must believe that the rush might NOT come from either side. That is to say, the ROLB must be able to come around the corner like a pure speed DE--but must also have the lateral agility and mental awareness to drop into a short zone or cover a TE man-to-man.
Right now, the Lions lack the most critical personnel to run the 3-4 as a base alignment. Sure, there is a surplus of DEs: Andre Fluellen, Chuck Darby, Ikaika Alama-Francis, Langston Moore, and Landon Cohen would all make great 3-4 DEs; Cory Redding and Shaun Cody would have, too. They also have a great ROLB in Cliff Avril. Not only is he developing into an excellent pass rusher, he actually played OLB in college, right up until his senior year. This makes him a perfect 3-4 DE. Also, they now have a player who might be able to fill the most critical role: Grady Jackson, a 350-plus pound defensive tackle. However, he is 36 years old, and in the twilight of his career. With the next best Lions DT being sub-six-foot, 295-pound Chuck Darby, the Lions would only be able to line up in their theoretical base alignment for as many snaps as Jackson can handle, which I would think would be 35-40 snaps a game at most. They have absolutely no linebackers that could play inside in a 3-4--or a 4-3 for that matter. They would need to acquire two legit starters and a backup--HIGHLY unlikely at this stage of free agency, and drafting two rookies at the same position in the first two rounds would be maniacal. Schwartz and Cunningham have each said multiple times that the 4-3 will be the base alignment.
So why did Jim Schwartz say this to local reporters last week?
"You will at times from us see 3-4 principles. You go back, last year (in Tennessee) we didn't do very much of it, but the year before we ran a lot of 3-4 alignment. Actually, we did a bunch in nickel last year. So it makes the offense prepare for a much bigger package.
"It's easy when there's only one thing they're preparing for. When you can sort of morph in and out of the 3-4 to a 4-3 with multidimensional players, it gives you a lot more pitches, plus it spreads things out. They have to prepare for a lot more. If you're an offensive coach, it's hard to prepare for that."
Well hold the phone, that sounds interesting. Using the guys that could play in either alignment, like Jackson and Avril, in both aligments, seems like a great way to maximize the what's-going-on deception factor that the 3-4 is designed to create. Schwartz also said this:
“We sort of got away (from WILL and SAM linebackers) because we saw so many shifting teams and teams get out of shifting real quick if they're moving four people and you got all these guys on defense going, are you ready yet?” Schwartz said. “But if they're moving one guy and you're flipping four, they'll just do it 60 snaps a game.
“That's why you start getting a little less compartmentalized with SAM and WILL, strong safety and free safety. If you're a strong safety and you line up to the tight-end side and that tight end motions across, you can't flip because you don't know if he's going to stop and come back and if he does you're looking bad. Guess what, if you have a 230-pound strong safety that's an in-the-box strong safety you can turn him into the free safety just motioning one guy across the formation. So it puts more (emphasis) on having multidimensional (guys).”
What's Schwartz doing here? He's eliminating the traditional strong-side/weak-side asymmetry that usually pigeonholes each of the players in a 4-3 front seven into precast roles. What does this do? He removes some of the offense's active/reactive advantage by not positioning four of eleven players wholly in reflection of whatever the offense is doing. He then tips the tables even further by hiding the side the blitz is coming from, much like the 3-4. Finally, he tips an interesting thing with that bit about running a 3-4 nickel package. In a 3-3-5 nickel--as opposed to the usual 4-2-5 nickel--you are trading the four-man front's run-stopping ability (obviously not really needed on passing downs) for the 3-4's deception. In a 4-2-5, the two linebackers almost never blitz: it would leave the middle of the field wide open. However, in a 3-3-5, one of the linebackers can peel off and blitz, theoretically without sacrificing either the ability to stop the draw or the ability to cover the short-middle part of the field. And, of course, with sufficiently versatile linebackers, the one that blitzes could be any of the three . . . yet, you don't have the drawbacks against the run or the desperate need for huge inside linebackers, because you only line up like this in passing situations.
So let's review quickly: the 2009 Lions will run a 4-3 base, emphasizing bigger linemen up front and a symmetric, offense-agnostic approach to linebackers and safeties--much like a 3-4. They will also mix in flexed and straight 3-4 alignments as changes of pace. Further, they will probably show quite a bit of 3-3-5 nickel, to maximize the pass rush when the situation exposure to the power running game is minimal. Further, the targets they need to complete their 4-3 personnel package (big-framed 300+ pound DT, 250+ pound MLB) would coincidentally be exactly the pieces they need to run the 3-4 or 3-3-5 with any regularity.
So what does this all mean? I believe the Lions' coaches are building a 3-4/4-3 hybrid defense, exactly like Cunningham ran in Kansas City. Remember, folks, he said that his philosophy is to "go after people". He utilized freak Hall of Fame DE Derrick Thomas as a monster blitzer from all over the field, and the Chiefs' defense was both incredibly effective and incredibly scary. For those who don't remember, Cunningham's Chiefs were absolutely the Ravens of their day: relentless, attacking, blitzing, fearless, gambling, playmaking defenses that no offense wanted to face. If the Lions defense could be half of what those Chiefs defenses were, the Lions really WILL have put teeth in their new logo. Let's all raise a glass in contemplation of the day when the Lions' defense is feared--and no team can bear the thought of stepping into Ford Field.