August 17, 2014

A new coaching staff could mean a change to a 3-4 defense. Are the Browns ready for that?

While Joe Banner and Jimmy Haslam conduct interviews in Arizona for a new head coach, the one person I’ve been interested to hear from or about is defensive coordinator Dick Jaruon.

On Monday, Banner and Haslam made it clear that all coaches were free to interview elsewhere if they wished and that they could be brought back if the new coach wanted them. What we really don’t know is if Jauron wants to come back to the Browns without Shurmur and Holmgren here. We reached out through the Browns, but have received no statement or answer. (Not surprisingly.)

I hope that Jauron wants to finish what he has started here in Cleveland and will be welcomed by the new head coach, whoever that happens to be. I would put the odds of that happening at fifty-fifty or less unfortunately.

If there is a change of defensive coordinators, we could be staring at another transition between the 4-3 and 3-4 defense. As Browns fans will remember, that transition is sometimes a slow painful one.

The primary difference in the two defenses are the responsibilities of the defensive line and outside linebackers. In a 4 man defensive line, the linemen are generally responsible for just one gap in run protection, and the defensive ends typically are the primary pass rushers on the team. In a three man defensive line, each lineman is responsible for 2 gaps of run protection, and the outside linebackers are usually the best pass rushers on the team, with some exceptions obviously.

Defensive ends in a 3 man front tend to be built more like defensive tackles. They need the ability to occasionally beat an offensive tackle to put pressure on a QB, but they have to have size enough not to get pushed off the ball by a double team.

My fear about switching back to a 3-4 defense is obviously that we don’t have the personnel. And it might not be as simple a fix as adding a LB or two.

So let’s take a look at what we have, and how they might fit into a 3-4 system.

Defensive Linemen under contract for next season:

Kendrick Adams (Practice squad) 6-5/250/24

Hall Davis 6-4/270/25

Auston English (IR) 6-3/250/25

John Hughes 6-2/320/24

Ishmaa’ily Kitchen 6-1/330/24

Ahtyba Rubin 6-2/330/26

Frostee Rucker 6-3/280/29

Brian Sanford (IR) 6-2/280/25

Jabaal Sheard 6-2/255/23

Emmanuel Stephens (IR) 6-3/255/25

Phil Taylor 6-3/335/24

Billy Winn 6-4/295/23

(Parker FA) 6-2/250/34

If you were to pick a strength of the Browns’ defensive, I think we would all agree it rests on the defensive line. John Hughes and Billy Winn provide depth to a strong group including Rubin, Taylor and Sheard. If you project this group into a 3-4 line, I think there are reasons for optimism. I think Hughes, Winn, Rubin and even Frostee Rucker could play the defensive end in a 3-4. The defensive tackle or nose tackle spot could be played effectively by Taylor, Rubin, Kitchen or Hughes.

Here’s where I get nervous. I don’t think Jabaal Sheard fits as an NFL DE in a 3 man line. Sheard is generally a speed rusher, and has his worst games against the bigger, stronger offensive tackles in the league. He also is neutralized by a double team block. The question in my mind would be if he could make the transition to an outside LB. It isn’t an easy transition, and I’m not sure he is athletic enough to do all that is required of an OLB.

Linebackers under contract for next season:

Emmanuel Acho (IR) 6-1/240/22

Tank Carder 6-2/235/23

L.J. Fort 6-0/230/23

Chris Gocong (IR) 6-2/263/29

D’Qwell Jackson 6-0/240/29

James-Michael Johnson (IR) 6-1/240/23

Adrian Moten 6-2/230/24

Craig Robertson 6-1/229/24

(Fujita FA) 6-5/250/33

(Maiva FA) 6-0/229/26

This is where the Browns would need an overhaul. The LB roster is full of guys that would make better inside linebackers than outside ones in a 3-4. Obviously D’Qwell Jackson would get one of those spots. The competition for the other would be pretty tight. The guy with the best build for an OLB would be Fujita technically, but even if he can come back from his injury, I wouldn’t bring him back strictly based on his age and speed. Gocong might be the best candidate for an OLB spot, but you have to be concerned about his injury history affecting his athleticism.

I took a look at three current teams with successful 3-4 defenses. Here are the measurables for their starting 3 lineman and 4 linebackers-

Average DL on Steelers- 6-3/303, on Texans 6-4/295, on 49ers 6-3 301. Average for the group 6-3/300.

Average ILB on Steelers- 6-1/236, on Texans 6-1/238, on 49ers 6-1/241. Average for the group 6-1/238.

Average OLB on Steelers- 6-1 253, on Texans 6-4/262, on 49ers 6-3/258. Average for the group 6-3/258.

I understand that every player doesn’t always fit nicely into categories. Sometimes a guy who is undersized by a position standard is just as effective and more so.

Here are my concerns about possibly making this transition again. First, the best pass rusher the Browns have is Jabaal Sheard, and I’m not certain he fits into the 3-4 at the pro level. What would you do with him? Do you play him out of position and perhaps nullify his effectiveness? Do you try and trade him? Next, the Browns would have to add at least two OLBs. Starters.

If the Browns didn’t make a change, they would have to look hard at improving the secondary this off-season. That would still be true. They would need to draft/sign a CB and a safety at least. Most see a need for another pass rusher without a switch in defensive schemes. With a switch? Try looking for 2 or 3 minimum.

That would be a lot of personnel to acquire. And that’s just on the defensive side of the ball. Never mind what a system like say Chip Kelly’s would mean to the offensive needs.

The bottom line is that the Browns need playmakers on defense no matter which system is in place. The biggest reason Pittsburgh, Texas and San Francisco have effective 3-4 defenses is because they have studs somewhere in those front sevens. The Browns’ defensive line could handle a move to the 3-4, but one of its biggest play-makers might be nullified. In all likelihood, it would take at least 2 off seasons to obtain the players they need to effectively make a transition.

  • Jaker

    It’s my understanding that Te’o can play all 3 LB spots, but is best at the MLB. Also, many scouts believe that DQ52 can play WLB as well. Either way, if we draft Te’o, we would have two LBs who can play all over, which is important with the amount of nickel packages are played in the NFL.

    Besides, MT is a difference maker. You don’t pass up on a guy like him because he will be a staple of the D for years. Play him at MLB and have Gocong and DQ on the outside. Beautiful.

  • BenRM

    Good points. Sold.

  • Jaker

    Air five! (Turns on the tackling montage and Kenny Loggins music)

  • Roosevelt

    When I heard the rumor of Haslam supposedly looking into the Browns, my immediate reaction was “we’re switching back again!” because these are the Browns. The Browns never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. If they would, they wouldn’t be the Browns.