Saints need holdover 4-3 pieces to translate to 3-4
The New Orleans Saints highlighted last week one of the reasons teams often are hesitant to undertake scheme shifts on defense. Saints GM Mickey Loomis said, according to Larry Holder of NOLA.com, that Will Smith will open camp competing for an outside linebacker spot in the team’s new 3-4 defense.
That’s 6-foot-3, 280-pound Will Smith, a player who has spent his entire nine-year NFL career playing as a defensive end in New Orleans’ former 4-3 look. Despite 67.5 career sacks, Smith’s roster spot suddenly looks unsafe, despite him taking a massive pay cut this offseason (from $9 million in 2013 to $3 million) in an effort to stick around.
This is one of the challenges when a coaching staff opts for a new attack — the players on the roster don’t always fit.
And the Saints may not know exactly how successful this defensive transformation is until the regular season begins. But chances are, any chance for improvement will rely heavily on two players …
1. John Jenkins: Broderick Bunkley could enter the season as the starting nose tackle for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, and Loomis previously said that a player like the 300-pound Bunkley could handle the responsibilities of a 3-4 man in the middle.
Expect that tune to change somewhat now that Jenkins wears black and gold.
The massive 6-foot-4, 346-pound Jenkins was once thought to be a clear first-round prospect in this year’s draft, only to slip into Round 3 as endurance and fitness questions dogged him. The Saints pounced there, trading back into that round to take the Georgia product.
Why? Because 3-4 defenses usually work best with a mountain of a man at nose tackle — someone who can eat up multiple blockers along the inside and plug run lanes. Baltimore, for example, has 341-pound Terrance Cody and 340-pound Haloti Ngata; San Diego employs 335-pound Cam Thomas; Cleveland will utilize another 335-pounder, Phil Taylor, as it shifts to the 3-4. That formation can succeed with a quicker, lighter player like Bunkley (San Francisco’s projected starting NT, Ian Williams, stands 305, while Pittsburgh might start 280-pound Steve McClendon there).
Still, the ideal setup is to plop a big body like Jenkins in the “zero-technique” tackle spot (lined up directly over the center), then to work outwardly. The three defensive linemen in a 3-4 scheme generally are asked to hold their positions and occupy blockers, so a team’s linebackers and blitzers can get to the quarterback. Jenkins is beefy enough to draw plenty of attention in the middle, and New Orleans would love for him to grab the starting job.
2. Junior Galette: The Times-Picayune reported out of the Saints’ first OTA that Galette will start as the weakside linebacker (over Smith), with Martez Wilson and Victor Butler battling for the strongside.
The weakside position is the one most often asked to get to the quarterback and is held down elsewhere in the league by players like Aldon Smith, Terrell Suggs and Clay Matthews. Galette, 25, could be one of the league’s breakout defensive stars if he plays to his potential in this new scheme. He had 5.0 sacks last season and 4.5 the year before, despite starting just one game each time.
Butler and Wilson, meanwhile, each had 3.0 sacks in 2012 — should they stick on the strongside, they’ll be asked to do more in the way of covering tight ends and running backs in coverage.
The 3-4 only works if the main pass-rushing linebacker in it can generate pressure of the edge. Otherwise, a team is stuck with three defensive linemen mostly tied up in the trenches and an opposing quarterback enjoying a clean pocket or running lanes.
What the Saints do have working to their advantage is depth up front that seems pretty versatile. In addition to Jenkins and Bunkley, Akiem Hicks could be another option at nose tackle and should be able to step in at all three line spots. One of the other starting jobs should belong to promising 23-year-old Cam Jordan, who played a lot of 3-4 end in college. Kenyon Coleman, a veteran of Ryan’s defense in Dallas, was signed in the offseason to add yet another option.
The linebacking corps has a chance to be just as deep, at least on the outside. In addition to Smith, Galette, Butler and Wilson, the Saints added sixth-rounder Rufus Johnson and hard-working undrafted free agent Chase Thomas to the mix. Finding two reliable starters out of that group of six will be atop the Saints’ to-do list this offseason, but the odds are in their favor.
David Hawthorne, Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Vilma will be the frontrunners for the two inside linbacker spots — the defensive changes can be just as tough here as elsewhere in a team’s front seven; Lofton started all 16 games at MLB last season, with Vilma and Hawthorne seeing the majority of their work outside.
The Saints were overdue to try something different on defense. They finished last season 31st in points allowed and dead last in yards.
As Smith’s situation appears to indicate, though, not every player can make a seamless transition from one defensive scheme to another. The Saints have a little more than three months to decide on how everyone fits in this new 3-4 look. Unless something changes drastically in camp, they’ll be counting on Jenkins and Galette, among others, to help ease the concerns.