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Published: 4/21/2005

'Tweeners' benefit from 3-4 alignment

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Pittsburgh was the first NFL team to popularize the 3-4 defensive scheme, taking ends that were a bit undersized and linebackers who were considered a shade too slow and creating a position for them on the fringe.

The Steelers perfected it with players like Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter and Jason Gildon.

More recently, the New England Patriots have won three Super Bowls by using people like Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel as double-duty defenders - outside linebackers who can attack the running game or cover intermediate pass routes from a standing position on early downs, then come up to rush the passer out of a defensive end's stance in nickel situations.

With Romeo Crennel, the ex-defensive coordinator in New England, moving to Cleveland as head coach, the Browns will be one of the teams making the transition to the 3-4 next season. As many as 10 NFL teams will be using the scheme.

The 4-3 defense, long the standard, employs three linebackers and gambles more with the safeties coming up against the run or in blitz packages.

The 3-4 moves a defensive end off the line in what some call a hybrid linebacker slot.

Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly pointed out that 22 players, most all of them linebackers and defensive ends, worked out at more than one position during the NFL Combine at Indianapolis.

"A lot of it, of course, is the 3-4 defense," he said. "Players who used to be considered 'tweeners,' really just undersized defensive ends, can fill a need now."

For maybe the first time ever, being a tweener is a good thing in the NFL. More than a few will hear their name called during Saturday's opening three rounds of the 2005 draft.

As popular as the 3-4 has become at the pro level, few college teams run it as their base scheme. One that does is Maryland, which is why Shawne Merriman, who played the hybrid end/linebacker slot for the Terrapins at 6-4 1/2, 272 pounds, has soared to the top of the draft picture and is one of the linebackers on the Browns' short list.

Another prospect who has come out of nowhere to become a solid, first-round possibility for a 3-4 team is DeMarcus Ware of Troy State in Alabama. He's a lean 250-pounder with great speed who explodes into a pass rush. Len Pasquarelli, the lead NFL writer for ESPN.com, calls Ware "a heat-seeking missile."

Two defensive spots for the price of one player will be foremost on the minds of 3-4 teams during this weekend's draft. And those players will be coming off the board earlier than ever before as teams hope to emulate the Patriots' recent defensive success.

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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