Commentary

The 4-3 defense is gaining popularity

What's happening in the AFC East could become a league-wide trend

Originally Published: June 18, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The biggest news to slip under the radar over the past month is what happened to defenses in the AFC East.

A division that thrived or tried to survive with 3-4 defenses suddenly switched overnight to the 4-3. The Patriots did it last year and plan to stay in it this year.

The Bills weren't suited for the 3-4. After signing Mario Williams and Mark Anderson as defensive ends, they wisely went back to the 4-3.

The Dolphins' recent move to the 4-3 didn't draw a lot of headlines, but it made sense. The Patriots and Bills each use spread offenses that put defenses in sub packages most of the time. The Patriots spread the field with two tight ends, Wes Welker and a receiver. Chan Gailey and the Bills often use four-receiver sets.

Instead of staying in a 3-4 base defense that wouldn't be used often, the Dolphins decided to go 4-3, putting Cameron Wake at defensive end and using an extra cornerback for a linebacker. It's the smart way to go.

Bill Belichick recognized that first. Last week, he said when he plays the new Bills offense, the Pats might not be in a base 3-4 defense more than two plays a game. With so much of that happening in the league, the Pats moved to the 4-3 last year with no regrets.

Last week, the Jets started showing their answer by using more four-man lines and suggesting that might be the plan for this season. Where some might have questioned the Jets' selection of Quinton Coples as a 3-4 defensive end, he looks a lot better as an end in a 4-3. Muhammad Wilkerson would be on the other side as an end with Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito at defensive tackle.

With the Jets selecting Coples and Wilkerson in the first rounds of the past two drafts, and taking defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis in the third round last year, the Jets may now have more talent along the defensive line than they do at linebacker, making a change to the 4-3 only natural.

Don't be surprised if you see more of this league-wide. The Browns switched to a 4-3 last year. More and more 3-4 defenses are being forced into sub packages. Plus, it costs more to keep a 3-4 defense together.

I'm not predicting the end of the 3-4, because teams will switch to it to confuse offenses. But what's happening in the AFC East may be the beginning of a league-wide trend in a couple of years.

From the inbox

Q: I know that the Cowboys' DeMarco Murray had a nice run last season and Dallas' receiving corps did pretty well, but how much time do you think Tony Romo has left as their starting quarterback?

Travis in Woodstock, Va.

A: I think the Cowboys will stay with Romo for at least two years and probably longer. His contract could be voided in 2014, but if it is, the team will take an $8 million cap hit. If the cap is around $121 million, that would hurt because the team is already $20 million over the cap in 2014.

More than just the money is whether they could find a quarterback as good as him. Most analysts rank Romo among the eight best quarterbacks in football. Getting rid of Romo before he's done as a thrower could bring back those dark years after Troy Aikman when the team kept trying quarterback after quarterback without success.

Because the Cowboys have talent, they aren't going to drop into the 13- to 15-loss area to get one of the top quarterbacks in a draft.

Q: I've noticed that this year every week there's going to be a Thursday game, which up until a few years ago was a rarity save for Thanksgiving. How badly does a Thursday game mess with a team's normal rhythm, prep time, and recovery from the previous week's game? Will Thursday games see an overall drop in quality because of the shortened week?

JR in Tampa Bay

A: Players and coaches might disagree with me, but I don't think it's too bad. I do the injury report each week, and when you see a team's injury report the week after a Thursday game, the list shortens in a way similar to a bye week. Many of the "outs" and "doubtfuls" turn to "probables." Many of the questionables turn to probables.

The shortened week means light practices and that saves the body. Teams with older players might be affected more because of the lack of rest. The key is there is a mental and physical break after the Thursday game. The 10 days between games is a good refresher.

Q: Question about New England picking up tight end Jake Ballard. Do you think this was a strategic move to get plays, game plans and tight end strategies? Do teams do this? How much, and what kind of info can a team get from player from another rival or division team?

Daniel in Washington, D.C.

A: I think this was simply a move to pick up a player Belichick respects and could use a year from now. First, the Pats won't play the Giants this year unless it's in the Super Bowl. There might be a thought about an unwritten rule among teams not to claim valued players, but the Giants made the mistake of putting him on the waiver wire to open up a roster spot. They could have cut an undrafted rookie to open up that spot for Rocky Bernard.

Even though the Patriots have the best tight end duo in football, you always have concerns about injuries or other problems. What if Aaron Hernandez gets upset about making the minimum salary next year and decides to hold out? They could have a healthy Ballard on board for the 2013 training camp.

Because of Spygate, the conspiracy theory comes up when there is controversy. I'd give the Pats a pass on that. They picked up safety Josh Barrett in a similar move a couple of years ago.

Q: This might seem a bit drastic, but do you see the NFL evolving into a league without helmets in order to cut out the concussion problem? Rugby has no helmets, and they have no concussion problems.

Scott in Wales, U.K.

A: That would be quite drastic. There has been some thought to removing the face mask to discourage players from using their helmets in tackles. That, too, might be drastic. You still have big bodies going against big bodies; there are violent collisions. Better helmets would be the answer instead of no helmets at all.

Q: Seems the NFL is backing off on the 18-game season, with player injuries and concerns of players' careers being shortened. Perhaps the NFL might consider reducing to 14 games instead with three bye weeks?

Patrick in Chino Valley, Ariz.

A: Actually, the owners haven't given up on the 18-game schedule. They just know the union won't go for it now, particularly with a $120.6 million cap. Owners would never play fewer than 16 games. It would cut revenues at a time when revenues are growing.

They've already extended television contracts to a point where the rights fees will almost double. The networks won't go for fewer games. They would want more.

What I can see happening is the cap staying flat until 2014 and 2015. At that time, they could come to the players and offer to boost the cap significantly with an 18-game schedule. They would offer to increase minimum salaries and benefits significantly with the extra revenue. I don't know how the union would react to that a few years from now.

Q: Do you believe the Bengals will be future contenders within 2-3 years, barring no major injuries with Andy Dalton at helm? Is this a team to look out for?

ZC in Cincinnati

A: I can't guarantee they will make the playoffs this year because Baltimore and Pittsburgh are still better teams and the Bengals might go back a game or two, but I do think the Bengals are for real. Normally, five playoff teams change every year, and the Bengals would be top candidates for that this season. I don't buy Dalton having a sophomore slump. I think he will get better and better every year. If there is a drop, it might be for the running offense and maybe a little on defense. Still, this is a good, young team. They'll be around for a while.

Q: With the rising use and need for dominant tight ends, where does Brent Celek fit into the list? Could the Eagles use him more to find success in the passing game, especially over the middle and in the red zone? Or do they need to find someone else?

Ted in Philadelphia

A: Celek is the perfect tight end for the Eagles. He has great hands and he can get downfield. Because the three-receiver offense is so successful, Celek might not get the national attention some of the top tight ends in the league get. Like Celek, Heath Miller is an understated tight end in Pittsburgh. Celek's 13.1 yards-per-catch average last season showed he can get downfield. The team needs to do better in the red zone, and Celek might be used more there to help.

Q: Much is being said about how weak the Colts' secondary is. I understand a strong secondary is very important, but people seem to ignore how solid the rest of the team is (maybe a little weak at ILB). Is the secondary so important that despite having talent in other positions, the Colts are still doomed to another very poor year?

Peter in Indianapolis

A: Having a good secondary is vital because of all of the great quarterbacks who can carve up a defense. Of course, I say that knowing the Packers won 15 games and the Patriots went to a Super Bowl with secondaries that had major problems. They were able to make up the difference with high-scoring offenses.

The Colts could get by with their secondary deficiencies, but I don't know if Andrew Luck is going to generate enough points in his first year to make up the difference. This is a turnaround year for the Colts. If they can have a 6-10 season, it sets up the team to get better after next year's draft.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer