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Transitioning into a 3-4 Defense

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The AFC West is in chaos.  The San Diego Chargers stand alone as the only team in the league not going with a first-year head coach in 2009 (Cable coached only 12 games and never had a chance to run a camp).  Even so, it's important that we keep an eye on our opponents and see if they have a chance to make a big splash in 2009.

Our two biggest threats to winning the division are the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos.  Both have gone with young head coaches that are coming in to replace whatever system has been in place with their own.  On the defensive side of the ball, this means installing the 3-4 defense.  Since right now we're just concerning ourselves with the upcoming season, I wanted to know how teams transitioning from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense has fared.

Granted, some of these stats have been altered by free agents, rookies and coach changes, but the point that I want to prove is that in year one there is almost always a stumble backwards before you can bring the right players in.  So let's take a look at each team that is currently running the 3-4 defense (from my account, there is no definitive list) and how that transition went in year one.

Sk Int PA Record
Ravens (2006) 60 28 201 13-3
Ravens (2007) 31 17 384 5-11
Browns (2004) 32 15 390 4-12
Browns (2005) 23 15 301 6-10
49ers (2006) 34 14 412 7-9
49ers (2007) 31 12 364 5-11
Jets (2006) 35 16 295 10-6
Jets (2007) 29 15 355 4-12
Chargers (2003) 30 13 441 4-12
Chargers (2004) 29 23 313 12-4
Patriots (2003) 41 29 238 14-2
Patriots (2004) 45 20 260 14-2


After looking at these results it appears that the only team that had a drastic improvement in their defense in year one of the transition to the 3-4 were our very own San Diego Chargers.  2004 also happened to be the first year starting in San Diego for the following players:

  • Mike Scifres
  • Nate Kaeding
  • Randall Godfrey
  • Terrence Kiel
  • Steve Foley
  • Igor Olshansky
  • Mike Goff
  • Nick Hardwick
  • Eric Parker
  • Antonio Gates

So obviously we installed a great defensive system and had one of the best teachers of it (Wade Philips) running it for us, but we also improved across the board in terms of talent and improved as an entire team.  Scifres put the defense in better position and the offensive pieces (like Gates) kept the defense off the field.

Looking at the other teams, the Patriots grabbed 9 less interceptions and allowed 22 more points over the course of that first year in the 3-4.  The Jets had 6 less sacks, 1 less interception and allowed 60 more points.  The Nines managed to give up less points in the 3-4 defense, but declined in terms of sacks, interceptions and overall record.  The Browns also managed to give up less points and also improved their record incrementally, but their sack total dropped off by about 30%.  And finally, the Ravens had a disastrous first year, getting roughly half the number of sacks and interceptions as the previous year and nearly doubling the amount of points given up.  It's no wonder why they lost 8 more games in their first year playing in the 3-4 defense.

This begs the question, will the switch to the 3-4 defensive scheme do anything for the Chiefs and Broncos this year?