Perhaps the biggest failure of the Mike Shanahan era (sad to say there are a number of contenders for this title), was his decision to move the Redskins from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 team. It’s not so much that the 3-4 is a bad defense as many top teams still employ a version of it, but rather it’s how Shanahan made the move.
The Redskins were a strong 4-3 defense under Gregg Williams and Greg Blatche. They maybe weren’t elite, but they were effective. In fact the year before they were 10th in yards allowed (18th in points) and had a strong pass rush. They were also built to run a 4-3 look with guys like Andre Carter, Albert Haynesworth and Rocky McIntosh all far better suited to a 4-3 look. While Brian Orakpo could make the move to a rush linebacker position, it probably would have been better to take him from the linebacker role and make him a more traditional 4-3 DE. London Fletcher you knew could make the transition, but without a true nose tackle, he could be more exposed in this defense. Not only would the defense force multiple top starters out of position, but the Redskins did nothing to add 3-4 talent to their roster in free agency or the draft. Talent (or lack there of) wasn’t the only thing making the decision to switch such a disaster, as coaching came into effect as well.
Reportedly defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was in favor of sticking with the 4-3, though he had backgrounds in both defenses. Unfortunately most of the rest of the defensive coaching staff were long time 4-3 guys, who had little to no experience coaching (much less transitioning) guys in the 3-4. Many of the coaches were former Shanahan coaches from Denver, and were from a staff that failed there defensively as well.
Given the lack of proper coaching, resources put into the defense and playing so many players out of position, it isn’t shocking that this defense failed from the start. The Redskins added a few positive additions over the next few seasons, but the defense took a major backseat to the offense in terms of resources. Now the Redskins need to make the decision as to whether or not they should make the switch back with their new regime.
In Part 1 I will look at the players who will be impacted by the switch and whether or not it will be a positive, negative or questionable move for them. This will focus on front 7 players as the secondary it’s really effected with this decision (though style of play becomes important):
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Impact of making the switch:
Brian Orakpo- Orakpo is the Redskins best pass rusher, and plays the run pretty well. He’s exactly what you are looking for in a 4-3 right end and he should make a pretty seamless transition.
Barry Cofield- Cofield had a lot of success as a defensive tackle in the Giants 4-3 system before coming to the Redskins and should have little trouble moving back to that role. In fact it could allow him to be even more disruptive in the backfield. Typically when Cofield made plays for the Redskins he was in a nickel formation (basically a 4 man line) and not in the traditional nose tackle role.
Jarvis Jenkins- Jenkins was a very good 4-3 DT in college and was great at pushing the pocket and freeing up fellow defenders to make the play. Now he hasn’t seemed as explosive in the NFL and that could be scheme or it could be the knee injury he suffered as a rookie. Still moving to a 4-3 will likely get the most out of him.
Keenan Robinson- Robinson was both an outside and inside linebacker in college, but was typically thought of as a perfect fit for a 4-3 OLB spot at the next level. The Skins wanted him inside in their defense, but he could be a guy that plays even better in a 4-3. It’s tough to get a read on him with all the missed time, but the potential is there for him to improve on the outside.
Kedric Golston- Golston was a solid back-up for the Redskins when they were a 4-3 team and in fact was one of the guys who struggled early on with the transition. He’s not going to be a starter, but he should give them quality minutes as a back-up.
Brandon Jenkins- Jenkins had quite a bit of success in college as a 4-3 DE, and he could fill the back-up role behind Brian Orakpo.
Ryan Kerrigan- Kerrigan had a very successful college career as a DE, but there are some questions if he can hold up on the left side in a traditional 4-3 system. Typically left ends are known as “base ends” and run 275-290 lbs. Kerrigan has never played at that weight and the Skins might not want him to add too much if it limits his explosiveness. Kerrigan should be able to rush the passer, but he may prove to be a liability against the run. This might make him more of a platoon player.
Perry Riley- Riley was a college outside linebacker and most believe he can be a strong side backer in a 4-3, but that is far from certain. He probably wouldn’t fair too well in coverage and may need to become a two down linebacker. Riley isn’t the safest best to invest good money in if the Skins stay in a 3-4 and that becomes even more questionable with a switch.
Nick Barnett- Barnett is a free agent, but could have had some interest in returning for a cheaper starting option. He’s played outside before and has had some mixed results.
Chris Baker- Baker really picked up his level of play this season and was pretty impressive down the stretch for the Redskins. Will he be able to make an effective switch is the question. While you need a NT type role in a 4-3, not everyone can make that transition. He probably can make the transition, but the certainty definitely isn’t there. Baker is a free agent so perhaps with a move to a different defense they let him walk (they could in general with just a new staff).
Darryl Tapp- Tapp has played in a 4-3 before, and has had some success off the bench. One concern though is that Philly used a wide-9 defense which favors smaller DE’s, and Tapp typically played more on the right side (where it’s easier to fare as a smaller DE). He’s not a great option as a back-up to Kerrigan for that reason.
Rob Jackson- Jackson’s not a good bet to transition to an OLB role in a 4-3 and he doesn’t have the size or pass rush ability to be a defensive end. He would not be a good guy to bring back if the Redskins make the move.
Adam Carriker- Carriker is likely cut regardless of the defense due to his injury and salary, but he struggled quite a bit in the 4-3 in St. Louis (not that he was that much better here). Thinking that he can go back to that defense is a big mistake, even on a cheaper back-up role.
Stephen Bowen- Bowen is another guy likely to be on his way out regardless of defense given his contract and the injury, but it’s tough to see him going to a 4-3. He’s always been in a 3-4 in the NFL and has had success in that role. He could line-up at defensive tackle, but he’d probably be a liability there.