By Bruce Hooley
Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton will hopefully cut through the fog today and clearly articulate the adjustment in store for a unit switching from a 4-3 alignment to the 3-4.
Horton, who is scheduled to meet with the Cleveland media at 10 a.m., seemed to blow up the notion floated by head coach Rob Chudzinski upon his hiring that the Browns would field a “hybrid” of the two schemes in 2013.
Chudzinski, probably tipped to a fan base weary of flipping from the 3-4 under Eric Mangini to the 4-3 under Pat Shurmur/Dick Jauron, apparently didn’t share his defensive plan with Horton when he hired him.
“It'll be a 3-4 defense, the same defense we ran (with the Cardinals),” Horton told Xtra Sports 910 in Phoenix the day of his hiring in Cleveland. “It won't be a hybrid unless you're playing golf.''
While Browns fans may moan over another switch in schemes, it’s likely they at least appreciate Horton’s honesty.
Owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner have been tough nuts for crack for details on almost any of their plans for the franchise, sometimes even after a big announcement to supposedly clear up the mystery.
Once Chudzinski was in place, you might have thought you’d get answers about the Browns’ plans for quarterback Brandon Weeden.
Once Michael Lombardi’s hiring came to fruition after being rumored for months, you may have expected more clarity on Weeden, on the Browns’ defensive scheme or on a free agency or draft plan.
Again, no details.
Hopefully, Horton will continue to speak freely now that all the pieces of the coaching staff puzzle are in place.
It certainly appears there was just as much intent by Banner, Haslam and Lombardi (oh, wait, he wasn’t part of the planning until after his debut press conference….riiiiiight) to hire a head coach committed to a 3-4 defense as much as there was to hire a head coach with a resume tilted toward offense.
Chudzinski obviously favors the 3-4 employed during his years as an assistant in San Diego, because Carolina – where he was offensive coordinator the past two years – ran the 4-3.
If Chud liked the 4-3, wouldn’t the Browns be planning to run it in 2013? Because, after all, Chud is calling all the shots, right?
Among the other coaches Cleveland interviewed before hiring Chudzinski, Doug Marrone, Bill O’Brien, Ken Whisenhunt, Horton and Marc Trestman all ran exclusively 3-4 or alignments that favored a stand-up rush defensive end last year.
Only Chip Kelly rode with a 4-3 defense, although he admittedly played zero role and exerted no influence over what Oregon employed defensively.
The Browns switching back from 4-3 to 3-4 creates some obvious questions for Horton to address, including:
Can D’Qwell Jackson perform as one of two inside linebackers in the 3-4 as well as he has in the middle linebacker spot in the 4-3?
Can Jabaal Sheard play outside linebacker and fulfill the mission of a rush end, while also covering tight ends or backs sent out as receivers?
What do the Browns do for linebacker depth if Chris Gocong doesn’t recover completely from his Achilles tendon surgery?
It’s easy for Horton to say, ‘We’ll sign a few free agents and draft what else we need,” but putting a well-functioning defense together takes time. That much is clear from how mightily Horton’s defense struggled in Arizona over the first two-thirds of the 2011 season, before improving rapidly down the stretch.
Tony Dungy, reflecting on Dallas’ planned switch from the 4-3 a 3-4 under newly-hired defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, told the Dallas Morning News, “Monte Kiffin is a great coach, but if they want to go to this system, it will take a couple of years to get the right pieces to this puzzle. To get the 4-3 front personnel and the defensive backs tailored to play this system is going to take a few drafts.”
Dungy had Kiffin as his defensive coordinator in Tampa for six years, so he speaks with some authority.
The Cowboys are going from the 4-3 to the 3-4, while the Browns are switching the other way.
Does that mean Cleveland is also destined for “a couple of years to get the right pieces to this puzzle,” as Dungy said of Dallas?
Hopefully, Horton will address that today, more thoughtfully and in more detail than Chudzinski, Lombardi and Banner have done so far.
They’ve largely dismissed the switch as no big deal, which contrasts with the view of Clark Judge, a Hall of Fame voter and Senior NFL columnist for CBS Sports.
“It is a big difference,” Judge said. “…It’s not the most difficult thing in the world, but it takes a lot of work, a lot of off-season work. Sometimes you have the wrong guys to play it. You draft guys to fit a certain system and sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
“In Indianapolis, they had Dwight Freeney as a defensive end and suddenly he’s a stand-up linebacker. I don’t know how that works. It’s supposed to happen overnight, but it didn’t. You might have a modicum of success, but not as much as you did before.
“It takes a while to get that put into place. You saw it with Mario Williams, going in and out of a 3-4 from defensive end to linebacker. Sometimes, you’re better suited for certain defenses.
“For someone to sell it as, ‘this is not that big of a deal?’ I don’t buy that. I really don’t. I think it is that big of a deal. It can be accomplished with time, but time is what it’s going to take.”
Bruce Hooley hosts The Hooligans from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on ESPN 850 WKNR. He is the author of, “That’s Why I’m Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story.”
Email Bruce firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Bruce on Twitter @bhoolz
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