Freeney And Mathis: Making The 3-4 Switch

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 25: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks to pass while under pressure from Dwight Freeney #93 and Robert Mathis #98 of the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Steelers won 23-20. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Small side note: Football Outsiders REALLY needs a homepage re-design. It's not that the page is bad. It's that good, featured articles aren't highlighted enough. It's very easy to miss them. It isn't 2006 anymore.

That said...

Somewhat recently, Kyle Winslow did a guest article for FO, and he decided to focus his talents on how the Colts' pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will adjust to their new defensive scheme under the direction of head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. For the better part of ten years, Mathis and Freeney have played defensive end. They've rushed the passer with their hand on the ground, pre-snap. Freeney always rushed from the right side (often matched up against the opponent's left tackle), Mathis from the left.

Always.

I literally mean that. It was, like, every down.

Both men were drafted specifically for the roles they played, rushing from a base 4-3 alignment that rarely (if ever) shifted. The base coverage the Colts ran was a Tampa-2, and over the years the defense became bland, predictable, and (let's just be honest here), bad. Without Peyton Manning in 2011 to pressure the opposing team's offense, the defense was exposed.

As a result, the coaches were fired, the Tampa-2 junked, and a new coaching staff was brought in with new ideas, new ways of attacking offenses.

One of the first changes was shifting Freeney and Mathis from defensive end to outside linebacker, shifting the Colts' overall defensive scheme to a base 3-4 alignment. Pagano, who made his reputation in Baltimore as an assistant, used Terrell Suggs as a pass rusher from the outside linebacker position in such a scheme. The questions entering the 2012 season are will Freeney and Mathis be able to make the transition and how effective will they be?

Winslow decided to do a little tape review to see what Freeney and Mathis likely have in store for them.

Since Pagano was Baltimore's defensive coordinator last season, I analyzed every clip of the Ravens defense available on NFL.com in three games: one game against a run-oriented offense, one game against a balanced offense, and one versus a pass-heavy offense. (These were the clips available free, not the entire games via Game Rewind.)

Houston ran 52 percent of the time according to Football Outsiders, the second-highest number in the league. They played the Ravens in Week 6. The Pittsburgh Steelers were fairly balanced, running 41 percent of the time, which placed them 16th in the league. The Patriots are obviously a pass-heavy offense and faced Baltimore in the AFC Championship game.

In total I looked at 22 plays, noting the alignment, personnel, and post-snap activity of the defensive line. Since Pagano has stated that Freeney will play a similar role to Terrell Suggs in the new scheme, I payed particular attention to his role in Baltimore's defense.

Winslow's observations are indeed very interesting.

I'm (obviously) going to encourage you to read the article, and not post all the highlights here. The one part I will pull out has to do with the style of defense Pagano ran in Baltimore last season [emphasis mine].

The Ravens' version in 2011 was a gambling man's defense and, at times, Pagano gambled wrong. Yet, the team finished with the best passing defense in the league by DVOA. Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky might not have the same risk-taking leeway with the Colts though, at least until the team has more experience and more talent.

If Freeney is designated as the Suggs of the Colts' defense, then his transition shouldn't be extremely difficult. Rushing the passer is Freeney's expertise. Suggs rushed the passer in 17 of the 18 plays that I reviewed, and 13 of those 18 times it was from the right defensive end position, which is Freeney's natural position.

Please take the time to read Kyle's entire article, if you haven't already.

Football Outsiders- Freeney & Mathis meet the 3-4

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