Highsmith, Branch and the 3-4: do the pieces fit for the Cardinals?

Thank you mbn for taking the time to post the following.  ~~~Hawk

Coach Davis has said he intends to implement more 3-4 principles in the defense this year.  If a more traditional 3-4 becomes the base defense, how is that likely to impact the roster and do the players we have fit a 3-4?  I thought I would take a crack at each level of defense and see how and who fits the 3-4 if the Cards went to a true 3-4 base.

Nose Tackle: The heart of any 3-4 is the Nose Tackle with this person ideally 6'2"-6'4" and 330+ pounds.  The main role is to demand a double team from the center and guard and to stuff the run.  At 6'4" 304, Bryan Robinson is not a nose tackle and would probably move to DE in a true 3-4, which is where he was intended to play when they brought him in.  Gabe Watson and Alan Branch on the other hand, fit the bill at 329 and 338 respectively.  If he will play his role, Branch may blossom as the 3-4 nose tackle.  He doesn't have to rush the basser, he just needs to keep his backside low and push some interior lineman around. In many ways his assignment is less complicated in a 3-4.   If he could do that he may find a home for himself for the future.  If they run a true 3-4 base, I see Branch improving and increasing his playing time if he will just try which has been his biggest knock the past two seasons. 

Defensive End: Calais Campbell is custom made for a 3-4 DE as he is long and strong.  Tall DEs tend to do better in a 3-4 because they can match tackles arm length and keep separation.  A DE's job is to close down run lanes, hold the edge and force the offensive tackle to pay attention to him.  Unlike a 4-3, the DE doesn't have to be the source of pressure in the pass; he has to eat blocks, break up passing lanes, and close down running lanes.  Campbell looks like the ideal 3-4 DE.  Darnell Dockett, on the other hand, is the classic DT for a 4-3.  I am not sure he is willing to play the unglamorous role that a 3-4 DE plays.  He is shorter than the ideal 3-4 DE.  It wil be interesting to see what the Cardinals do with him or if they will still run a hybrid scheme just to highlight Docket's skills.  Campbell fits better than Dockett in the 3-4.

Outside Linebacker: These are the real play makers of a 3-4 as they are the main source of pressure on a quarterback.  While the front three occupy the offensive linemen, the OLB bring the heat when the situation warrants but they also have to be able to drop into space and cover.  Much has been said about the challenge of learning to play in space and that "tweener" DE that convert to OLB cannot do it.  I think Bertrand Berry, Cody Brown, and Will Davis will not have a problem learning coverage drops.  They will not have to cover a TE downfield in man-on-man but more as a zone coverage.  I think the bigger challenge will be learning to defend the run in space.  It is key to protect your legs and fend off blockers in space.  The Cardinals are not there with thier OLB yet, but I do think they are closer with the additions of Brown and Davis and with the departure of Travis Laboy.  Clark Haggans has fit a 3-4 OLB before and is better than Chike Okeafor but both will do well enough.  Will Davis' maturation at this position will go a long way to show Rod Graves' draft insight and what the future brings at this vital position.

Inside Linebacker:  Gerald Hayes and Karlos Dansby have been great in a 3-4.  They have size and quickness to fill the lanes and to flow in coverage.  With both being around 250, they handle themselves inside effectively.  Where I have concern is the depth at ILB.  Pago Togafau might be able to play the strong side ILB but I would like to see him add another 5-10 pounds to his 242.  He probably could pull it off if needed on the strong side but right now he fits better on the weakside ILB.  The weakside ILB can be a little lighter because he can flow more easily and fill gaps from the back side or string it out on the front side.  Ali Highsmith has added 7 pounds and is now listed at 230.  He is moving in the right direction.  However, in a 3-4 ILB even on the weak side, his size will be exposed if the offense comes with a two TE set or runs heavy fullback sets.  Highsmith seems to be a better fit for that weakside OLB  in the 4-3.  Yet Davis has said he likes a hard hitting, active ILB even if they are not the ideal size and we know he is high on Highsmith.  I am just not convinced that Highsmith currently has the size to someday replace Dansby if Karlos moves onto greener pastures next year.  Lighter ILB tend to get lost inside and for this reason I think Hobson has a greater chance to make the team than you might think.  He is 6' 0" and 254 pounds.  He can play inside, as he showed last year, and he has been playing some OLB so far this year.  Although short for a OLB he has shown versatility and that kind of versatility is valuable.  Whether he can get past the lingering doubts of his time with the Jets is yet to be seen.  I just think that HIghsmith still has an uphill road to make this team, and that Hobson is making a stronger case for himself in a 3-4.

Secondary:  For once, this is pretty obvious for the Arizona Cardinals.  They play the same whether it is a 3-4 or a 4-3.  With Rashad Johnson's arrival (who is a true center field ball-hawk safety) we now have both Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson who can come up into the slot and box and enable nickle and dime packages to have a lot of fexibility (not a symptom of the shift to a 3-4 but still cool!).  The more I study Rashad Johnson the more I think this may be the last year for Rolle.  This kid is a starter and fits the Cardinals' scheme much better than Rolle. Johnson was graded in the mid 2nd round on most online boards, and the Cardinals got him at the end of the 3rd!  He is a steal!

Well that is my take on the impact of a more standard 3-4 base defense on the current Cardinals roster.  What is your take?  Who will be benefited and who doesn't fit if the Cards decide to play a more traditional 3-4 base this year?     

<em>This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Revenge of the Birds' (ROTB) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of ROTB's editors.</em>

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