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Redskins Putting Their Trust In the 3-4 Defense

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Looking to deliver the 1-2 knockout combination to offenses? Trust the 3-4. The 3-4 defense.

Why the 3-4? Hey, look at the playoffs.

We already know that the AFC's Super Bowl representative will be a 3-4 team. The Baltimore Ravens meet the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday for the right to go to the AFC championship game and the New York Jets visit the New England Patriots on Sunday for the other berth. All of them are 3-4 teams.

On the NFC side, it is only the Green Bay Packers in the final four who play the 3-4. The Packers were also one of the three road teams – all of them 3-4 defenses – that won in the playoffs' opening round.

The switch to the 3-4 this past season for the Redskins yielded decidedly mixed results. The team's hope, of course, is that improving and shaping the personnel turns 2010 into a foundation and a memory.

"It's exciting to build on what you already have and try to add some pieces," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said as the Redskins closed up shop a week ago ago. "We were a 6-10 team that lost a lot of close games learning a new scheme, had some of the wrong guys playing wrong positions because we had to work with what we had. It's going to be interesting to go through a full off-season and draft and free agency and see who we can bring in."

Let's revisit the regular season for a moment to make the case for this alignment.

The San Diego Chargers led the NFL in total defense. They're a 3-4 team. The Steelers and Jets followed. The run of 3-4 teams is then briefly interrupted by the New Orleans Saints, but continues with the Packers and Miami Dolphins. Six of the top 10? Yep, 3-4, with the Ravens 10th.

Toughest to score on in the red zone during the season by percentage of touchdowns made on trips inside the 20-yard line? The Arizona Cardinals, Dolphins and Steelers. Three for three with the 3-4.

Six of the top 10 teams in turnover differential played the 3-4. Three of the top five in takeaways alone? The 3-4 clubs.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with a 4-3. It's not so horribly dated and awful that no one can win with it. Both teams in the Super Bowl last season – the Indianapolis Colts and Saints – played the 4-3. Both were first-round outs this team around. The New York Giants, a 4-3 team, topped the NFL in takeaways with 39 but didn't make the playoffs.

The 3-4 is just more flexible. Instead of a fourth defensive lineman, it puts an extra linebacker on the field. With offenses so often using extra receivers or tight ends, the defensive unit regains some of the edge by having a more athletic player available to cover more ground.

If the scheme is so good, why weren't the Redskins? Lots of factors. First and foremost, the conversion of a team historically built around the 4-3.

"Obviously, when you make the switch to the 3-4, it can take a few years," defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said of a group that ranked 31st in total defense.

In trying to plug in new pieces, the Redskins acquired nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu as a free agent and left end Adam Carriker in a trade. Neither had played in 2009 because of injuries; both worked through the rust factor, with the latter starting to emerge late in the year.

"Getting back to game speed takes a while," Carriker said.

Trying to turn Andre Carter from a defensive end into a standup outside linebacker just didn't work. That forced a switch to Lorenzo Alexander, who really wasn't on anybody's radar as a starter during training camp.

Throw in the loss of LaRon Landry, the strong safety clearly on his way to his first Pro Bowl season before his Achilles tendon frayed, and the reasons for a lack of success seem clear.

Yet there was success, especially later in the season as injuries forced younger, more active players onto the field.

The Redskins lost 17-13 to the Minnesota Vikings. Pin that one on the offense though the defense gets an assist for not getting a stop as the Vikings milked the final 6:13 off the clock with a 13-play drive. The Redskins lost 17-16 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but blame belongs famously to the special teams there. And the season-ending 17-14 defeat at the hands of the New York Giants? One major breakdown resulted in a 92-yard touchdown pass but holding an opponent to 17 ought to be enough for a win.

Don't forget the earlier triumphs, either. The Hall strip and fumble return for a touchdown in the opening-day win against the Dallas Cowboys. Landry's interception in overtime to set up the victory against the Packers. Hall's four picks and touchdown in the beating of the Chicago Bears. This was not a do-nothing defense, just one that needs to do more.

The Redskins remain committed to the 3-4, upgrading the people and improving. The transition took some time and may take more but the scheme has its believers.

"I think it can be a fit. We played well the last couple of games on defense and that was with a bunch of guys out," Carriker said. "I think just getting used to it player-wise and the coaches learning the players within the scheme is big. I think it will work out great."


Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for Redskins.com and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at Redskinsrule.com and follow him on Twitter.com/LarryWeisman.

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