Jay Gruden likes the 3-4 defense

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
7:55
AM ET
ASHBURN, Va. -- When Mike Shanahan changed the Washington Redskins to a 3-4, he talked about how that scheme would bother him as an offensive coordinator. Four years later, it’s the same reason the team likely will stay in that scheme.

New Redskins coach Jay Gruden said he’d like to stick with that alignment.

“This team is built for a 3-4,” he said. “I hate the 3-4 as an offensive coordinator.”

The thinking always has been that it provides the defense a better way to disguise who will be rushing on a particular down. If they send four pass-rushers, which outside linebacker will rush?

[+] EnlargeJim Haslett
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliWhile it's clear the Redskins will stick with the 3-4 scheme, it's unclear whether Jay Gruden will retain defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.
The Redskins have played a 3-4 for the past four seasons, never ranking above 13th in total yards or 21st in points allowed (in the previous 11 years they had eight top-10 defenses in total yards and three in scoring).

The Redskins have recorded more sacks in this scheme than it did the previous four years in a 4-3 front: 138 to 116. But in each of the past four years opposing quarterbacks posted a rating of at least 87.0. In the previous six years opposing quarterbacks posted a rating of 87.0 or higher only once. Four times they were under 77.1. (For the record, three of the top five defenses against the pass in 2013 used a base 3-4 front).

The 3-4 wasn’t used much until the 1980s thanks to Pittsburgh’s defensive success. The added linebacker provided more athleticism against increasingly speedy running backs. Plus, it was easier to find athletic linebackers than athletic big men for a 4-3.

So it should help against the run. The Redskins have allowed opposing running backs to gain at least 4.0 yards per carry in each of the past four seasons. That happened three times in the previous six years.

But, in the end, the problem never has been about a 3-4 or a 4-3. Other teams switch and improve; New Orleans went from No. 32 in 2012 to No. 2 this season after going to a 3-4. It was always about finding the right players to fit that scheme -- you need linebackers who excel in coverage; as a group the Redskins haven’t had that, for example. It was also revealing that linebacker London Fletcher tweeted Thursday that Raheem Morris should be the next defensive coordinator and not Jim Haslett, the boss of the past four years.

Over the past several years, multiple NFL people I’ve spoken with are mixed on Haslett; he’s too boom or bust for some. But while nobody would say he’s one of the best coordinators, no one would say he’s the worst either. If he became available, he’d draw interest from other teams. While this was Haslett’s group, he did not have the autonomy that previous defensive coordinators here have had, with head coach Mike Shanahan having a big say. Shanahan compiled the staff and, one former coach here said would sometimes overrule the staff’s opinion on prospective players. And the salary-cap issues the past two years prevented needed upgrades (though money doesn’t always equate to successful signings).

Still, Fletcher’s tweet was interesting. One former player said two years ago that an issue defenders had was the ever-changing rules of the defense. It sometimes led to confusion, he said.

Gruden worked for one season with Haslett in the United Football League and respects him. But he has not yet named him as his coordinator. Regardless, it appears the scheme will remain in place. At least that’s the initial goal, though Gruden said it would be evaluated.

“I know when we played against the Redskins it was very difficult to run against them,” Gruden said.

The Redskins held Cincinnati to 93 yards rushing and 3.3 yards per carry in a 2012 loss to the Bengals. Not that it helped much as Cincinnati still scored 38 points and passed for 385 yards.

“There were some issues in the back end, but there is a core foundation in place,” Gruden said. “They were well-coached on defense.”

John Keim

ESPN Washington Redskins reporter

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