The San Diego Chargers should switch defensive schemes

Stephen Dunn

Mike McCoy said the defensive scheme will accommodate Dwight Freeney if he's signed. I'll tell you why the 4-3 Under is the best fit, and break down each member on the Chargers roster and explain their role in the new look defense.

For those of you that have been living under a rock, or doing real life things (like working), and haven't had a chance to hear it yet: Melvin Ingram tore his ACL and is likely out for season. The knee-jerk reactions and panic is warranted. Many expected Ingram to make "the leap" in year 2, the same way 2011 1st round draft pick Corey Liuget did in his second season.

Will Melvin's production be missed? Sure, but moreso because of the depth issue the San Diego Chargers now have at Outside Linebacker. San Diego is left with two unlikely starters in Jarret Johnson and Larry English, along with a tweener in 6th round draft pick Tourek Williams and 2 UDFAs that went undrafted for a reason and probably aren't ready to contribute in 2013.

Signing Dwight Freeney

How do the Chargers adapt to this injury? Sign Dwight Freeney? Sure. Freeney has a history of getting after the quarterback, and is an ideal stopgap player. Freeney also struggled last year making the switch to 3-4 Outside Linebacker.

It's unfamiliar territory to go from rushing the passer every snap with your hand in the dirt to playing in a 2-point stance, something you've never done, as well as dropping into coverage. The change was even too much for an 11-year veteran. Freeney struggled last year, but would still be the best pass rusher on the Chargers if he signed with them. To get the most out of him, John Pagano would need to play to his strengths, in the right scheme.

Another important note on Freeney, last year the switch to him playing in a 2-point stance wasn't the only thing holding him back; He was injured, too. He was nursing an ankle sprain that slowed him down. Once he shook the injury, he was able to get going in the latter half of the season. There's plenty of reason to believe that he could be better in 2013 than he was in 2012.

The Chargers signed Thomas Keiser on Thursday. Who? Exactly. Contract details haven't surfaced, but it's logical to think he won't be breaking the bank. Some think this signing means Freeney is no longer a target, but Keiser is simply is a much needed depth signing that was probably in the works before Ingram's injury.

Personnel

When defensive coordinator John Pagano was hired, he said, "Whatever your personnel suits you, you're going to be in certain types of fronts and certain types of coverages whether it's 3-4 or 4-3." He also said something interesting that leads me to believe due to the Chargers personnel, or lack thereof, that we'll be seeing more 4-man fronts than before. Pagano said "the biggest difference between a 4-3 and a 3-4 is that you have a lot more linebackers in a 3-4 and you have a little bit bigger linebackers who can stand up and come off the edge."

Does the Chargers roster, with its current lack of Outside Linebackers mean we'd see more 4-down-linemen look Liuget, Kendall Reyes, and Cam Thomas each have the versatility to play all along the line, which gives Pagano more flexibility to play more fronts and align them in more gaps. With the addition of Freeney, and the 2 UDFA Nose Tackles who can command a double team, the Chargers using different 4 man fronts that allow Freeney and English to put their hand in the dirt (which is where both have excelled) makes the most sense.

Pagano has said his philosophy is "See ball, get ball" and many would like to see him be more aggressive. You play to your personnel, and with the secondary the way it was in 2012 (and the way it's looking this year) it's easy to look forward to more vanilla blitzing and safe play calling for a defense that was 29th in the league in 3rd down defense last year. What Pagano should do instead is develop a scheme tailored to the strengths of his defense by maximizing each player's strengths and limiting the weakness as a whole.

Scheme

John Pagano has coached in both a 3-4 and a 4-3, so there are no limitations to what he can run. What's more important is where each player lines up and how many get sent after the Quarterback on passing plays.

Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus was kind enough to dig through these numbers up for me. The following is a breakdown of how many players the Chargers rushed last year. These figures all include plays that were called back by penalty.

  • 1 pass rusher: 0.15% of pass plays
  • 2 pass rushers: 0.3% of pass plays
  • 3 pass rushers: 5.4% of pass plays
  • 4 pass rushers: 55.02% of pass plays
  • 5 pass rushers: 33.43% of pass plays
  • 6 pass rushers: 4.2% of pass plays
  • 7 pass rushers: 1.5% of pass plays

Last season, John Pagano switched up he defense. He sometimes ran an "Under" look, where the defense is shaded to the weak side and sometimes ran an "Over" look where the defense is shaded to the strong side, depending on the tendencies of the opposing team.

While he did blitz (effectively too, at times), I feel like the defense was all to predictable, which lead to the 3rd down defense performing as poorly as it did. Both Defensive Ends were mostly lined up on the head of the Tackles, and both Outside Linebackers came from their designated spots on the outside. The Chargers' opponents knew what was coming, and they stopped it.

The 4-3 "Under" scheme is an aggressive one gap scheme where the defense lines up in a shaded alignment, which prevents the offensive line from reaching the second level. It also allows, on any given play, one of the Chargers' young stud lineman a 1-on-1 opportunity.

Pagano-4man-front_medium

When I was thinking about which scheme would be the best after Ingram's injury, I thought a "4-3 under" would really benefit the Chargers, so let's break that down.

Making the switch to this alignment would be better suited the way the roster looks now. You can allow Freeney to get back to his comfort zone, with his hand on the ground and getting to the quarterback. Liuget and Reyes were already lining up against Guards last year the majority of the time in the base defense.

Famously ran by George Seifert when he was Defensive Coordinator for the 49ers, this defense looks like a 3-4 because the weak side end is in a 2 point stance at times. That same end would also align to the weak side every play, too. Pete Carroll runs this currently with the Seahawks, as does current 49ers Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio. They run 2 different versions, but both are incredibly effective, aggressive types of defense.

If I were John Pagano, I'd try copying a bit of what both of those teams do. I would make Jarret Johnson the predominant strong side backer, similar to what Pete Carroll does. In that position, you can pretty much ensure that Johnson will never be playing coverages on a Tight End.

For the 49ers Fangio acknowledges that both his Outside Linebackers are better at rushing the passer than dropping in coverage, so he doesn't ask them to do so. Instead, he limits them to the flat where the Running Backs come out to, keeping them within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Pagano should play to his personnel and let his Inside Linebackers cover the Tight Ends, not his pass rushers.

I really believe this is the best system to maximize each of the Chargers' front 7 strengths. Don't get caught up in the terminology of "4-3" but think of it as players controlling their gap. This adjustment would have been just as great for Ingram, but he wasn't in for many base defensive snaps in 2012. Per Pro Football Focus, Ingram was only on the field 18% of the time when there were less than 3 wide receivers on the field.

Pagano's 3-4 & 4-3 Under

Let's break down the difference in Pagano's 3-4 schemes and what a 4-3 Under scheme would look like. To the naked eye they both look like a 3-4, but the 4-3 under scheme, it's typically a one-gap scheme with the weak side linebacker always rushing. In a 3-4 the defensive ends are usually head up on the offensive tackle.

Here's a look at Pagano's base 3-4:

Pagano-base_medium

Here's a look at the base 4-3 Under:

Pagano-49ers_medium

Here's a look at the 4-3 under against a spread offense:

Pagano-49ers-under_medium

These are the main looks of each scheme. As you can see, initially there isn't much difference. Generally the Nose Tackle would be shaded more to the strong side and turned so he's at an angle towards the ball. When you face a spread offense, the weak side end simply widens out more.

I'll go position by position explaining what each player does now, what he'd do in the "Under" defense, and if he fits the new responsibility.

Jarret Johnson: Sam Linebacker

JJ predominantly lines up on the outside shoulder of the Tight End. His responsibility in the run game is to not get "reached" or not let anything outside of his shoulder to the sideline. In coverage, depending on the call, he has the Tight End in man coverage or the Running Backs out to his "flat" in zone coverage.

In the 4-3 Under, not much changes for JJ, he might be a foot wider outside of the Tight End, and still has D gap responsibilities. JJ might be used more in coverage in this scheme, specifically against the Tight End. He also mirrors the Tight End if he goes in motion; He's always to the strength of the formation. I'm not sure that was the case with Pagano's defense in 2012.

As far as a fit, JJ is the ideal Sam backer. He does a great job of containing the run and had a lot to do with the run defense being ranked 6th last year. His coverage against Tight Ends might worry some, rightfully so, but he can be subbed out for this on obvious passing downs if need be. Or, like Fangio does with the 49ers, limit him to flat coverage.

Corey Liuget: 5 Technique

In Pagano's defense Liuget is the right Defensive End for every snap of every game. He'll line up on the inside shoulder of the Left Tackle, sometimes head up on the Left Tackle, and be responsible for the B & C gaps.

Liuget's role would change in the Under scheme. He would play as a 2-gap End still, but he would be on the strong side of the formation, so that he wouldn't be limited to just one side. Ideally, in this defense, you want this position to be stout against the run and control the C gap. Being a pass rusher isn't as important here as filling and controlling your gaps.

Liuget fits the bill here. He was very good against the run last year, often disrupting the play in the backfield. He was among the league leaders in tackles for loss with 11, and does a good job of holding his ground and not letting many yards his way. Oh, and he's all right at getting after the passer too. His 7 sacks last year don't tell the whole story. Liuget would also see 1-on-1 matchups in this scheme when it comes to passing situations.

Cam Thomas: Nose Tackle

Right now Thomas' responsibilities are to line up head up on the Center (0 Technique) or on the outside shoulder of the Center (1 Technique). That varies between the call and the formation. At Nose Tackle, Thomas is required to take on double teams and still be able prevent runs up the middle. He's responsible for both A gaps. Last year, Aubrayo Franklin was a master at this.

In the 4-3 Under look, Thomas would be lined up on the outside shoulder of the Center, to the strength of the formation. The Nose Tackle's job is to hold up against double teams and control the A gap. It's also important that he occupies the Center so the 3 Technique gets his 1-on-1. It should also be noted that the Nose is at an angle facing the Center, making a double team harder for the Guard.

That's exactly the type of player that I see in Thomas. He's a guy that lines up in the gap or head up on the Center and relies on his quickness to get in the backfield and create havoc. While this works in passing situations for him, he'll have to prove he can hold his ground and be tough against double teams, allowing his Linebackers behind him to make the plays. I also think UDFA's Byron Jerideau and Kwame Geathers could play a significant role this year, as they are better suited for this position. This isn't an ideal fit for Thomas; he'll have to prove he can hold up consistently against the run.

Kendall Reyes: 3 Technique

In the current system, Reyes has the same responsibilities as Liuget as I listed above. He did move around a little more, playing 4 games on the right side, but still played about 80% of his snaps at left Defensive End.

Reyes' new role would have him lining up on the weak side of the formation, just on the outside shoulder of the Guard. He would have to control the B gap, so it's important he doesn't get "reached" or "hooked." Execution here is key so that Reyes doesn't lose control of his gap. He'd be 1-on-1 with the Guard in passing situations. The point of this defensive front is to isolate the weak side Guard giving the 3 Tech a chance to exploit him 1-on-1 by exploding through the B gap. Reyes is at an advantage here because the Guard is already set up for a counter move.

This is ideal for Reyes. He was as effective as you can ask in the pass game last year. It's extremely hard to double out of this alignment and Reyes should see his numbers improve from 2012. He'll have plenty opportunities to beat his man and, as he proved last year, that's all he needs to be successful.

Dwight Freeney: Elephant

Yes, I'm predicting that Tom Telesco signs Dwight Freeney.

Under Pagano's scheme he would be the right Outside Linebacker known as "Jack." This is your pass rush specialist. He rushes more than Sam and should be comfortable dropping into coverage. He lines up outside of the Tight End or Tackle and is responsible for not letting anything outside of him.

As far as his position in the Under defense, Freeney would play the "Elephant" position. He will be on the weakside of the formation, responsible for the C gap in run situations in case he is blocked down by the Tackle. This is also your best pass rusher. He aligns about a yard outside of the Tackle's shoulder, and is the player you want to pin his ears back and go get the Quarterback.

This is what Freeney does. He's one of the better "wide 9" type Defensive Ends in the league. He still has the speed to turn the corner; he sets up Tackles as well as anyone with his spin move by aligning so far outside. Freeney also shows great ability to dip his shoulder and use a rip move against taller lineman. Coverage is not his strength. Dwight's hand needs to be in the ground and he needs to be coming hard off the edge.

Donald Butler: Will Linebacker

Donald Butler's responsibility in Pagano's defense is to, well, be awesome. He plays the position called "Mo", which is the weak Inside Linebacker. It varies where Butler lines up, generally on the inside shoulder or head up on the Guard away from the strength of the formation. Butler is responsible for both A & B gaps. He also needs to be able to flow to the play without overrunning it. "Mo" is a very versatile, yet important, position in this defense. He needs to be able to blitz both his gaps, as well as drop into coverage over the middle in a zone and matchup with Tight Ends and Running Backs out of the flat.

In an Under scheme, Butler moves to the "Will" position, but not much changes. His responsibility is the weak side A gap. He lines up head up on the Guard generally, depending on where the 3 Tech is lined up. The "Will" is often completely protected in this defense. This is usually the leading tackler on the team because he's free to cover ground and make plays. He usually plays short zone coverage whether it's over the middle or covering the hook/curl zone on the weak side.

Donald Butler is good. Really good. He's only going to continue to learn the game and get better. He is the perfect weakside player as he has the speed and athleticism to flow to the ball (mid 4.6 at Pro Day on a bum ankle) as well as the ability to play solid coverage and rush the passer. This is a big year for Butler and the "Will" position would make him a household name in the NFL.

Manti Te'o: Mike Linebacker

Te'o will fill the role Takeo Spikes played the last the last 3 years. He's aligned about 4 yards off the ball in the A gap to the strong side. His responsibilities in Pagano's defense are to attack downhill, playing the run inside out. He's also supposed to take on blocks of oncoming lineman and Fullbacks, and must be able to shed and disengage. Coverage responsibilities are similar to "Mo."

Te'o would still have the "Mike" title in the Under scheme. He would also be lining up in the strong side A gap. He's responsible, however, for the strong side B gap. This player should be instinctive and be a "thumper", because he'll be facing the Guard more often than not. Coverage wise the "Mike" needs to be versatile, he should be able to match up with Tight Ends in man to man coverage and be able to drop to the deep middle of the field in a cover 2 look.

Te'o is a rookie that will need to prove he can get a grasp of the defense and be able to shed blocks. He's very instinctive, so playing underneath routes, blitzing, and reading plays in general shouldn't be a problem. He's also a good cover man on intermediate routes. It's the deep half coverage which might limit Te'o in this defense, as well as being able to continuously take on blocks playing on the strong side. The verdict is still out on him; he's never played a down in the NFL. Thrusting him into one of the more pivotal positions is asking a lot from a rookie, but time will tell to see if Te'o is a fit.

Why it works

This scheme is primarily designed to stop the run and pressure the Quarterback. Watching film on how effective the 49ers were with this scheme was an easy sell. I know many will say, "The Chargers don't have the personnel the 49ers do, it'll never work." As Lee Corso would say, not so fast. The scheme opens up opportunities to isolate your best players, and the amount of different Tackle-End stunts and Linebacker stunts that the 49ers did out of this and were able to get their man free was remarkable. Pagano could go from a vanilla scheme to an aggressive scheme just by changing fronts.

Others have brought up that you can just run weak side all day and that will be 4-5 yards a pop. Well, Eric Weddle is a Charger. Weddle's ability to fill the lane in the run game is unbelievable. He diagnoses plays quicker than any Safety in the league and is a sure tackler against even the league's best Running Backs. If there's a weakness in the run game, Weddle finds it.

Speaking of secondary, it helps them out too. Not just by pressuring the Quarterback, but you put your Corners in a position to succeed. In this defense your corners are usually rolled up in press coverage, with help over the top. Derek Cox is much better when he's up mirroring the Receiver and being aggressive, as opposed to playing off. So, like I've stated several times, it plays to your player's strengths. "What about Shareece Wright", you ask? Jury is still out on him. If he can stay healthy, he has the skill set to be a solid starter for the Chargers. He's good at using his hands and is aggressive when coming downhill in the run game. He'll have a lot to prove this year.

Making the Switch

That's the 4-3 Under and how each player fits into the scheme. Using it is playing to your team's personnel. John Pagano using it would mean maximizing his players' strengths and minimizing their weaknesses without coming up with an ultra creative scheme.

Making the switch as simple as moving players to different gaps, giving them one responsibility, and letting them make plays. You're not limited to running any coverage and it allows your players to play aggressive and downhill.

With the lack of depth at Outside Linebacker, this is best fit for the 2013 San Diego Chargers. With the 4 man fronts Pagano has run in the past, it's not like this would be colossal change. Play to your players, and make the switch, Mr. Pagano.

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