What to expect with the move to the 3-4: Personnel and Scheme (1 Viewer)

Dan in Lafayette

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Aug 1, 1997
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Lafayette, LA

What to expect with the move to the 3-4: Personnel and Scheme

by TCUDan

I have held off on giving my assessment of our move to the 3-4 until now because there simply was not enough information out there. And there still may not be. But before now, everything was speculation--who would be playing where, who would be cut, 2 gap vs. 1 gap, etc. Now that there has been a little more information put out there, directly from the coaches, I'm going to extrapolate and break down my vision of what this means for the team.

The Base Scheme

Under Rob Ryan, the Saints are moving to a 3-4 defense, as we all know. Ryan comes from the same coaching tree as GW, so the concepts are going to be quite familiar to the players. The difference is going to start with base alignment and go from there.

There's been a lot of speculation on the forum about whether we're going to run a 2-gap or 1-gap 3-4. What's the difference? Simply put, it's what you're asking your defensive line to do. In a 2-gap scheme, you're asking your DL to ANCHOR. To hold their ground, create push, and force a double team to hold long enough for the LB’s to stay clean and move to the action. It's called "2-gap" because they are playing 2 gaps. Their POA is the chest of the OL in front of them... they read and react to the gaps on either side of them.

1-gap, you're asking your linemen to penetrate and disrupt. A lot has been made over how JJ Watt and Justin Smith before him have revolutionized the 3-4 DE position. Well, that's because they're being asked to play like 4-3 lineman. They're being asked to beat the guy in front of them, shoot gaps and make plays... not to just eat up space so everyone else can get in on the action.

We will be 1-gapping. How do I know this? Because Payton said specifically that we will be using 4-3 concepts like Over and Under fronts. This is the best course of action, as it will give our young, talented DE's... Cam Jordan, in particular... a chance to make plays like Watt and Smith.

The Sub-packages

Like GW before him, Rob Ryan makes his living off his sub-packages. Ryan, in particular, gets really creative with his alignment on passing downs and brings guys from everywhere to get the QB. Whereas the advantage of the 3-4 vs. the 4-3 is that the offense doesn't automatically know where that 4th rusher is coming from, when Ryan gets in to his sub-packages, the defense suddenly may have 7 or 8 players all in a 2 point stance. Now the offense doesn't know where that 2nd, 3rd, or 4th rusher is coming from... even that 5th 6th or 7th. GW always stayed pretty anchored with at last 3 down lineman. Rob Ryan does not do this. He is extremely unorthodox. And he will make use of the depth chart, just like GW did.

Now others have pointed out that the shift from the 4-3 to the 3-4 is almost irrelevant because we're in sub-packages 60%+. That's not true at all. Again, you're now starting with fewer linemen from the get go. Your pass rushers are actually your LB’s. Where as a nickel look in a 4-3, up front, my be moving a DE down to the 3-tech and bringing in a situational rusher at DE, you're talking now... maybe getting all your linemen off the field; bringing in 7 LB’s and letting them roam around; just having one guy with his hand on the ground or two; having 7 or 8 DB’s on the field, stemming all over the place, shooting gaps and dropping into underneath zones. Again, it comes down to flexibility.

The Personnel

We could argue all day about who we think should be cut. It will likely have no correlation to the Saints' actual plans. Cap will undoubtedly come into play, but the notion of blowing up the whole defense--all evidence points to Sean Payton not being on board with that idea at all. Why?

1) He targeted Rob Ryan, another Buddy Ryan disciple, because he knows the players will be familiar with many of his concepts and he will play certain niche players--like a Roman Harper--to their strengths and not try to pigeon hole them.

2) By cutting ties with Spagnuolo, the Saints are essentially saying they aren't looking for a long-term, gradual, sustainable approach to vamping up the defense. They accept that the offense is what will carry this team. It is championship caliber, and no one knows how long it will remain that way. We'd like to think as long as Brees is under center, but he's not exactly a young player. You commit to a 2-3 year project to create your "ideal" defense... this championship offense may not be around by the time it comes to fruition.

The Saints want to win NOW. And you don't do that by casually cutting the guys who up until last season were the top defenders on your defense.

Now here is how I see the defense shaping up:


This is the one unit where I see the starting 3 being set, with Bunkley playing the nose and Cam Jordan and Hicks at the ends.

Bunkley - Up until last season, he had been exactly what a team would look for in a 3-4 nose, especially a 1-gap team. He is a great anchor at the POA and also has the burst to disrupt in the backfield. His job will not be glamorous and we need somebody to rotate with him... but he is a solid option from the get-go.

Hicks - It is going to be very exciting to see him out there and how he adjusts. Hicks is a guy who could play down on the nose or at the end. He'll spend a lot of his snaps as a 5-tech, but the way the Saints will be playing he's going to see a lot of opposing team's OG’s as a 3-tech or 4-I. It remains to be seen whether the Saints will commit him/Jordan to strength or just play them right or left. But he is an ideal under/over DE because he will command a double team (as long as he uses consistent leverage, which he showed a lot of improvement on last season). He can also move inside to the nose or be the lone anchor in some of Ryan's more exotic sub-packages. He is not a two-gap guy, despite his size. But he should really thrive in this type of 3-4.

Jordan - THIS is the player I am most excited about!. Jordan showed what he was capable of last season. He was a much more productive pass rusher, but I would hardly classify him as an EDGE RUSHER. Much of his pressure came from inside on nickel downs. That said, he also defended the run extremely well from the edge. To me, that is a 3-4 DE through and through. I would choose my words wisely before comparing him to JJ Watt, who is far and away the most productive 3-4 DE to ever play the game. But he has that type of ability. Cam Jordan can easily be this defense's Justin Smith or JJ Watt, and I'll go out on a limb and project him making his first pro bowl next season.

Tyrunn Walker and Tom Johnson both project as DE's in this defense. Johnson, in particular, is a great rotational option at the 5-tech. Walker showed some penetrative ability last preseason, so I'd like to see what he can do there. In short, I would not spend a draft pick on anyone who projects as a DE... but we do need to find some depth at nose, either through the draft or FA.

Last but not least, Will Smith, if he stays, will factor in as a rotational DE. He can definitely play the 5-tech... what would surprise me is if Ryan asked him to actually slim up so he can play that Rush LB position. But he could even end up being a started at DE... with Hicks being the starting nose or a rotational player, depending on how consistent Hicks has become with his technique and what happens with Bunkley.


This is an area of much speculation and confusion. You say the words "3-4" and suddenly people's minds are blown. "Well don't you need bigger guys here? Faster guys here? What's this guy gonna do? He can't play in a 3-4!"

I've played and coached the LB position for a long time. The fact of the matter is that a LB is a LB is a LB. There are certain attributes that a 3-4 emphasizes more than a 4-3, but at the end of the day, your backers are backers. The biggest difference, however, is that 4th "Rush LB"... that's where you have your "tweener" players, usually playing the weak side 9-technique (again, depending on alignment). But the idea that all of your LB’s are a bunch of stand-up D-linemen... that's not true.

Right now, 3 of the 4 LB’s--in the base defense--are probably the same as we saw last season. You're talking about Vilma playing the WILB (sometimes called the WILL.. some teams call it "quick" or "buck" or have their own name for it), Lofton playing SILB (MIKE), and Hawthorne playing the SOLB (SAM). The position that is up for grabs is that Rush Backer. Some teams call that the WILL, some call it RUSH... terminology varies. But that's your 9-tech, stand up DE who also needs to be able to drop into coverage. If I had to pencil in a guy today, I would say Junior Galette.

Now regarding the Vilma issue: the minute the words "3-4" came out of Sean Payton's mouth, it started. "Vilma left the Jets because they ran a 3-4. He can't play in a 3-4". Vilma left the Jets because Eric Mangini didn't use him properly and wanted something else. But keep in mind that Greg Williams was the DC here for 3 years, and he used a 3-4 alignment just as much if not more than he used a 4-3. And Vilma had some great seasons under Greg Williams. Payton has named Vilma, specifically, as a guy who will is very much in their plans for next season. No one is ignoring the fact that he is not good at taking on blockers... in fact, Payton acknowledged it. They will keep Vilma covered... protected... by using different fronts. He is still a 3-down backer and you need that on your defense. And while we may not appreciate it as fans, he is one of the smartest players in the NFL, and when healthy, he is still a very productive player and a great tactician on the field.

Lofton will thrive in a 3-4. He will be asked to play more downhill, in the box, and won't be asked to roam sideline to sideline. Hawthorne will likely, once again, be a 2-down SAM backer. He'll be on the field on running downs and likely come off in passing situations (where we stay base... don't forget Ryan likes to get creative). I would like to see Martez Wilson come on and play SAM in those situations, a lot like Aldon Smith last year in San Fran (I'll get to that in a minute).

Now to that RUSH position. Galette is the guy I see ready to step in there right now. He is a tremendous, explosive, instinctive pass rusher. He also has the anticipation and instincts to play the run, and moving him out wide will make him an even more effective edge run defender. He is athletic enough to play short-area coverage, but the biggest thing the 3-4 will do for him is take him from being a "situational rusher" to a full-time player.

I know a lot of people want to see Martez Wilson at this position. I don't think he's enough of a tweener to play it full-time. He has tremendous speed, but you want a guy with good DE technique/experience there. Someone used to taking on offensive tackles, who understands leverage and knows how to use his hands just like a DE. To me, Wilson isn't there yet and is better suited as a situational player.

I also think that this is a position that will undoubtedly be targeted in the draft/free agency.

Depth-wise, you have Chris Chamberlain, Casillas, and a handful of other guys. These are guys who can backup those ILB positions. I think we'll see one or two minor signings in free agency for depth, with that RUSH backer position being the primary focus for an impact player... probably through the draft.


If you take last season by itself, then this is a unit completely devoid of talent where we need to find 4 new starters and beyond. But keep in mind that when your entire defense is bad... historically bad... your secondary is all going to look the worst. There is no one to cover up for their mistakes. They are on their own, and when they lose, TD’s are scored.

That said, this is the position that I think is the biggest mystery. Not necessarily regarding who is in and who is out... but, rather, who is here and who is there. Is Malcolm Jenkins going to stay at FS? I think he will, but I'd really like to see him slide over to CB because I think he could beat out Patrick Robinson, and if not, he would be a very good nickel. Corey White--I have made no secret of the fact that I thought he was horrible last season, but he was a small school guy in a complicated, horrible defense and being switched to a new position. With his skill set, I think he should be playing safety. IAQ--is he ready to be a starter? I think he is, and he can play either safety position. Likely he remains as that 3rd nickel safety.

And then there's Harper. His cap number is high, but remember, Rob Ryan is from the same coaching tree as GW. Not only will Harper be played more to his strengths, but everyone will. I would be very surprised to see the Saints release him.

But as much as Spags is to blame for the horrible defensive play last season, the poor secondary play is hardly excusable. There is definitely room to upgrade. Does that come through shuffling players, 100%? I don’t' know. But I would like to see the Saints, at the very least, draft/sign another CB to come in and compete. I love Robinson's athleticism and ball skills, but he is like an ADD kid out there. He has technical breakdowns constantly. He loses focus, gambles at the wrong times, and completely whiffs on tackles at times. His play has got to improve. If he doesn't become a more focused player, he's never going to come close to realizing his potential.

Beyond speculation, there isn't much to say about the secondary because the 3-4 itself has little effect on them. It will create a better pass rush, in theory, which will in turn improve their play more than any personnel upgrade could. Right now it's just a question of where the competition is going to be, who's in it, and ultimately, what positions our current players are going to settle into in the off-season.


USM Golden Eagles
Aug 7, 2007
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Gautier, Ms.
TCU Dan, now I know what a 3-4 Defense does. I have never seen it explained. This is by far the very best article I have seen. Thanks so much.


Dec 12, 2012
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I have watched football for years now and I have never seen an article breakdown schemes and players like this.. great article..

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