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Switching To A 3-4: Can The Colts Do It?

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All defenses are not the same. Schemes and personnel packages are put in place to (in theory) maximize the talent on the roster. A coach who incorporates a scheme regardless of talent is a bad coach. Even worse, a front office that employs a coach, but doesn't give him the talent necessary to deploy his schemes, is a poorly run front office.

At the end of last season, the Colts fired Jim Caldwell and replaced him with Chuck Pagano. However, even prior to firing Caldwell (a move the Colts weren't likely to make had Ryan Grigson been able to lure Steve Spanuolo to Indianapolis as the defensive coordinator, or so my sources have told me), the Colts were planning to ditch the base 4-3, Tampa 2 defensive scheme they'd run since Tony Dungy arrived in 2002.

The reason for the switch? Regression.

The Colts defense has been trending down, down, DOWN since Dungy left Indianapolis for the warm, inviting embrace of Rodney Harrison and the NBC Studios Sunday Night Football set. Here are the defensive rankings from 2008 (Dungy's last year as Colts head coach) to now:

11th in 2008

18th in 2009

20th in 2010

25th in 2011

The DVOA numbers also support this downward trend, and I'm pretty sure if Matt Grecco wasn't busy rubbing elbows with IndyCar drivers like Hélio Castroneves, his numbers would back it up too. Bottom line is the Tampa 2 wasn't working anymore. The new rules, preventing safeties from spearing receivers over the middle, pretty much make the Tampa 2 (as a base defense) obsolete. Corners can't play zone exclusively. Linebackers can't drop every... single... down.

Teams must now mix coverages, blitz their backers, and find new and inventive ways to confuse and pressure the opposing quarterback. If they don't, they get Drew Breesed, the way the Colts got Breesed in Super Bowl XLIV.

Thus, out goes the 4-3 Tampa 2, and in comes a new, "attack-style" 3-4 defense under Chuck Pagano. I know that some have called this a "hybrid" 3-4, but please don't take that too much to heart. The Colts have three nose tackles on the roster, have moved Dwight Freeney & Robert Mathis to linebacker (positions the two Pro Bowlers have never played in their pro careers), and are desperately looking for corners who can play man-to-man coverage.

That's not a "hybrid." That's a base 3-4. "Hybrid" is an NFL euphemism for, We don't have enough good players to run the scheme we wish. Therefore, we'll mix things up.

Switching to a 3-4 from a 4-3 Tampa 2 isn't easy, and despite having veterans like Freeney, Mathis, Antoine Bethea, and veteran free agent acquisitions like DE Cory Redding and SS Tom Zbikowski, don't expect a dominant defense to simply show up immediately in 2012.

Indianapolis native and former Patriots outside linebacker Roosevelt Colvin knows a thing or two about playing in a 3-4 defense. The 6'3, 250 Purdue standout played for New England during their Super Bowl runs in 2003 and 2004. He spoke with Indianapolis sports radio host Greg Rakestraw the other day about the Colts and how the team will transition to the new 3-4 [emphasis mine]:

If you start on the back-end, with Antoine [Bethea] and the DBs, the game is the game. It's not going to change a whole lot for them. The running game may change because of where the ball is going to pop out maybe a little bit different, but for the secondary you're still playing secondary. When you come down, when you come down in the box, it is what it is. When you're playing corner or safety, you're pretty much in your position. You go down to the second level, at the linebacker position, that's where it really changes. What people don't understand is that those linebackers in a 3-4, realistically, are defensive tackles, but off the ball. Because now they're taking the gap that would have been in a 4-3 defense. So, you gotta have a stouter guy [at linebacker]. You gotta have a guy that's able to move and, at the same time, be stout enough to take on guards, get off of those guards and make a play on the runningback that's coming through the hole.

If we take Colvin's analysis at face value, the 6'0, 235 lbs Pat Angerer and 6'0, 242 lbs Kavell Conner are the Colts new defensive tackles, but off the ball.

It's worth noting that, in many other 3-4 defenses I've seen, it's typically the job of the nose tackle to keep the guards off the middle linebackers. I recall Ray Lewis saying, back in 2008, that the Ravens grabbing NT Haloti Ngata (6'4, 330 lbs) in the first round would extend his career because Ngata would keep the guards off him.

Also, as Football Outsiders wrote about two weeks ago, Kavell Conner was one of the best linebackers in the NFL last season at "defeating" running plays.

Pro Football Focus is also doing a series, listing the best prototypes for specific schemes. For a 3-4 inside backer, the 49ers Patrick Willis (6'1, 240 lbs) is considered the ideal. Also listed were the Chiefs Derrick Johnson (6'3, 242 lbs), 49ers NaVorro Bowman (6'0, 242 lbs), and the Cowboys Sean Lee (6'2, 245 lbs). All these guys seem to fit Kavell Conner's body type. Pat Angerer, not so much. This is why obsessive types like me wonder if Angerer will hold up over sixteen games. He's just not big enough to play ILBer in a 3-4.

For 3-4 nose tackles, the Patriots Vince Wilfork (6'2, 325 lbs*) is the prototype. Also listed were the Jets Sione Pouha (6'3, 325 lbs), the Dolphins Paul Soliai (6'4, 355 lbs), and the Steelers Casey Hampton (6'1, 325 lbs). Interesting the Ngata wasn't listed. The Colts currently have Brandon McKinney (6'2, 345 lbs) and rookie Josh Chapman (6'1, 310 lbs) as their NTs. Chapman, like Angerer, appears undersized for his role when you compare him to other players at his position. We'll see if he can hold-up too.

* There is no way on God's green earth that Wilfork is only 325.

The transition from 4-3 to 3-4 will be something we plan to watch closely during training camp and preseason. Please understand that, regardless of what many have said, the Colts expect to compete in their division in 2012. Whether or not that expectation is realistic is a point of debate, but the owner, G.M., and coach seem to expect playoffs. They expect this defense to transition quickly and to place renewed emphasis on stopping the run.

My interest will be in seeing if these undersized guys like Angerer and Chapman can contribute and stay healthy. I understand that a guy like Chapman was a tough guy in the SEC last year for Alabama, and that's good for him. The SEC is a conference of little boys compared to the men who play in the NFL, and there is a near forty pound difference between Chapman and guys like Soliai and Ngata. For Angerer, he's nearly ten pounds lighter (and two or so inches shorter) than other ideal linebackers in a similar scheme.

Their transition, as well as the transition of guys like Freeney and Mathis, will be a big topic of discussion as August rolls around.