From the day the San Diego Chargers signed Dwight Freeney and Tom Telesco announced that the team would put the Defensive End in a position do what he does best, fans have pondered the thought of installing the 4-3 Defense.
In this two part series, I'll address some of the pros and cons of a switch to the 4-3 as they pertain to the Chargers' current roster. I'll start with some of the things that are in the Chargers favor.
If the San Diego Chargers decide to shift to a 4-3 defense in the near future, I think it's biggest benefit to the defense would be the simplicity of the scheme. Unlike the 3-4, the 4-3 does not require any of the following 'specialty players':
- Sacrificing Inside LBs
- A Nose Tackle capable of gobbling two to three offensive lineman
- A superior pass rusher
Without those pieces, a 3-4 looks like a peewee defense (see: Greg Manusky's Chargers defense).
Each player in a 4-3 has a defined role and down lineman aren't shifting focus back and forth from gap control to gap assignment on a down to down basis. The Defensive Tackles and Ends have one gap to play and are taught to pin their ears back on every down, regardless of run or pass situations. This would be a relief for young players like Kendall Reyes and Cam Thomas who have no assignment problems on passing downs but play with uncertainty on rushing downs.
Have you actually sat and watched Corey Liuget shoot a gap after the snap? He looks like a linebacker, right? If he would've been given one gap assignment in his rookie year, we wouldn't have had to wait a year to see what he is capable of.
In 4-3 schemes like the Tampa 2, the secondary works in unison. While the big plays we see from Eric Weddle may decrease in the scheme, the goal is to get everyone on the same page or least attempt to.
San Diego has two question marks at CB and one at Safety. Keeping a Safety over the top of both corners works in the Chargers' favor. Giving the SS half-field coverage is simple enough to help someone (Marcus Gilchrist?) ease into role, as opposed to the flat-hook-robber-man carousel coverage you get out of 3-4 safeties.
Simplicity allows players to play faster. For a defense filled with kids, the 4-3 would a positive move for the Chargers.
The Mike and The Will
The Mike. The Will. Two of the biggest pieces to the defense and the San Diego Chargers already have two young players to grow into each role. We'll start in the middle.
Manti Te'o, Mike Linebacker
Calm down, people, I have a better role for Donald Butler. We'll get there. In the 4-3 and sub-schemes like the Tampa 2, the Mike is not the best at any thing but plays the smartest. The Mike position takes advantage of the attributes Manti Te'o brings to the table; play recognition and anticipation.
Take the Tampa 2, for example. Te'o's role is backfield action first and then get back into deep middle to find with seam. If you watched NFL Network's Game Changers during the draft evaluation process, you saw Manti Te'o running stride for stride with Tyler Eifert on a stick and nod route, a route designed to stretch the responsibilities of the seam defender. Te'o had 7 interceptions in his final year, and was often assigned the deep 7-10 yards and his preparation, not physical ability, consistently put him in the right position.
The Mike has run responsibilities too, but the 4-3 is beautiful in the way it emphasizes gang-tackling. Te'o wouldn't be exposed sideline to sideline, he'd be pursuing backside which is another strength for him.
The casual fan looks at the 4-3 and sees one ILB (Mike) and asks why would you put a slower LB there over a quicker one. Well.....
Donald Butler, Will Linebacker
Hear me out.
This isn't and wouldn't be a demotion for Donald Butler. In my opinion, this could be the inside track for a Hall Of Fame career for Butler. The Will position in most 4-3 schemes is where the run is "filtered" to and is the position most likely to have the 'big play'.
"The Weakside Linebacker is usually the quickest, lightest and most explosive of the 4-3 linebackers.. These players need to be explosive athletes that can find their way to the football in traffic with speed and bring the play down before it can develop." - Sam Monson of PFF
Dominant versus the run and underrated in underneath pass coverage, there isn't a position on the 4-3 more fit for Donald and his skillset. This is the position that Derrick Brooks of Tampa Bay dominated in. More recent examples include players like Lance Briggs or Sean Weatherspoon. All athletic players. This is Donald's calling.
Versatile. Multi-faceted. Talented. Resourceful. Any one who knows football knows this is what Melvin was at South Carolina and can still be in San Diego. Coming almost exclusively off of the edge in a 3-4, coupled with giving Offensive Tackles the extra split second to gather steps, you have the two biggest reasons for Ingram's poor rookie campaign.
Enter the 4-3 possibility. Who remembers the Tennessee game last year? Did you happen to catch Melvin Ingram's spin move on Steve Hutchinson? Do you remember where he was deployed from? Well, if you don't recall, Ingram was the Defensive Tackle in an even front that John Pagano called. The ball was snapped and, before Hutchinson got fully out of his stance, Ingram was already 80% done with completing the spin move. Hutchinson is a longtime favorite of mine and I have never seen someone get hands on him first or win the leverage battle against him. Ingram did both, quickly. Luckily, for Hutch, Jake Locker was mobile enough to avoid Melvin.
The point I am making is this: Playing somewhere in an even front will allow Ingram to blossom into the player we all know he can become. He was all over the place at South Carolina and needs to be in a similar role to be productive. This versatility creates a headache for Offensive Coordinators, as they can't pinpoint him and any slight line adjustment to counteract him leaves Kendall Reyes or Liuget with an empty gap.
- First Down: Ingram at DE, outside of Kendall Reyes at WDT
- Second Down: Ingram shaded over Right Guard, Liuget at DE on his side
- Third Down: Kicked back to edge, with Kendall and Corey as DTs
- Fourth down: High Fives and Gatorade.
The 4-3 still keeps Melvin as the team's primary pass rusher, but it also allows his "shortcomings" to be not as exposed as they are at 3-4 OLB. He'd use his power and speed combinations to catch Guards off-guard at the point of attack and he wouldn't be asked to cover the flats or run with leaking Running Backs. A win-win for us all!
(The Cons are coming. Sit tight.)