A while back we took a look at what it meant to be a defensive lineman in a 3-4 defense and how the Arizona Cardinals personnel fit into that scheme. Today though we'll shift our focus to the line backing corps to not only see where how our roster fits the system, but also what should be expected from each position. For most of the comparisons and expectations we'll look at nine other teams that run the 3-4 defense (Steelers, Chargers, Dolphins, Cowboys, Browns, Jets, Patriots, Ravens and 49ers). Here's the same disclaimer that we used in our look at the defensive line:
I'll be the first to tell you I'm no football expert or former defensive coordinator at any level, but I've done some nerd-like research (after all that's what the interenet is for right?) into the 3-4 since Ken Whisenhunt brought the scheme to the desert. It's not only a completely different defensive scheme with different responsibilities but it's also takes a different mindset for players, as well as a different kind of player. For the sake of simplicity in this article, we'll assume that there won't be much of a change for the secondary. The only tangible difference I could find was that they'll probably run more man-to-man coverage, but the Cardinals were never a big 'zone coverage' team to begin with. That allows us to focus on the front seven and more specifically, what the changes will be for the defensive line and linebackers as a whole and individually.
Outside Linebackers: Of the nine teams that we're using as our 3-4 models, the average size of the OLB spot is 6'3, 261.5 pounds with the smallest being Manny Lawson (6'5, 240) and Matt Roth of the Dolphins (6'4 275) comes in as the biggest. The average production from these 18 starters in 2008 was 62.8 tackles and 8.3 sacks, although we did use Shawne Merriman's stats from 2007. Out of our nine models, six of the teams had a OLB lead their team in sacks. Of the remaining three teams (Jets, Patriots and Browns), two were led by defensive ends (Jets and Patriots with eight sacks) and the Browns were actually led by their nose tackle, Shaun Rogers, who logged 4.5 sacks.
The job of an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense is very similar to a defensive end in a 4-3, with one major exception. Although they do share the same responsibilities as a run defender and primary pass rusher, they also have the added responsibility of dropping into coverage on occasion. It's also important that the OLB is strong enough set the corner of the defense and funnel running plays back towards the middle of the field and flowing interior linebackers, but no job is more important that their ability to rush the passer. The six teams that had an OLB lead their team in sacks had an average defensive ranking of 10.6 (in terms of yards per game in 2008) while the other three teams had an average ranking of 17.3.
Cardinals current personnel: There are a handful of guys who will see time and fit the 'mold' of a 3-4 OLB. Guys like Chike Okeafor (6'5 247), Clark Haggans (6'4, 243) and Cody Brown (6'2, 244) figure to be the three guys who see the most time at OLB this season and all possess the pass rush skills to fill the position but as you can see, they're all of the small end of the OLB spectrum. Bertrand Berry (6'3, 260), Will Davis (6'2, 262) and Victor Hobson (6'0, 252) will be fighting for roster spots and playing time behind the 'big three' and could provide some bulk when they're in the game. Of this group, Okeafor and Berry are proven pass rushers from the defensive end position those skills should translate to the OLB position. Haggans has the track record of a complete OLB capable of holding his own in the running game and performing well in coverage but he's never been a major force in the pass rush department. Brown and Davis both possess the ability to rush the passer and it'll be interesting to see how quickly they are thrown into the mix. Hobson is a wild-card who has experience in the position and could be a decent fill-in starter.
Inside Linebackers: Of the nine teams that we're using as our 3-4 models, the average size of the ILB is 6'1, 244 pounds with the smallest being Stephen Cooper (6'1, 235) while Channing Crowder (6'2, 250) comes in as the biggest. The average production from these 18 starters in 2008 was 101 tackles and a sack and a half. Seven of the nine teams saw one of their inside backers lead the team in tackles and the two top tacklers in the NFL were members of 3-4 defenses (D'Qwell Jackson and Patrick Willis). Eight of the nine teams had at least one of their inside backers record at least 100 tackles and the only team that missed that mark, Chargers, saw their ILB record 98 tackles despite missing the first four games.
For inside linebackers in a 3-4 defense, they have a single responsibility above all others: tackle the guy with the ball. For the most part, the inside backers are protected by their defensive line and they're expected to make tackles from side line to side line. These backers normally aren't a big factor in the pass rush department with only one player, Bradie James, recording more than 3.5 sacks. The primary reason for their lack of sack totals is because they're a significant factor in the passing game. Considering that most OLB's are rushing the quarterback, most of the inside backers are covering backs or tight ends or dropping into short zone coverages.
Cardinals current personnel: Karlos Dansby (6'4, 250) and Gerald Hayes (6'1, 249) are the starters for the Cardinals on the inside and they're both above average in terms of size and Dansby will be the only player in our sample size who is taller than 6'2. The duo of Dansby and Hayes are a great combination and they post stats that are very much in line with the better ILB groups in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Dallas. As for the backups, Victor Hobson (6'0, 252) could see time on the inside although all eyes will likely be on Ali Highsmith. He was undrafted last year because of questions about his lack of size (6'1, 230), but it'll be interested to see how much bulk he adds by this year's training camp. The only other guy vying for a roster spot or playing time is Pago Togafau but his height, or lack thereof (5'10, 240), will always hinder his chances.
Overall there were a couple of things that jumped out to me while doing this nerdy research. First, this defense can be effective without having a truly premier pass rusher on the outside. The Patriots defense ranked tenth in yards per game and eighth in points per game yet their starting outside linebackers combined for just 10.5 sacks. Second, Karlos Dansby has the potential to be truly special as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. His ability to rush the passer just as well as he can drop into coverage set him apart from the group and if the defensive line in front of him can keep him clean, he could in store for a monster season. And finally, I'll be keeping a close eye on Victor Hobson throughout training camp and the preseason. It's highly unlikely that our starting four linebackers will play all 16 games and Hobson's experience in the 3-4 scheme could make him the next guy in line at all four spots. So did all of that make any sense? What do you think of how our line backers would look? Who is the most crititcal player in this group of guys?