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Browns' switch to 3-4 defense complicates their offseason and changes priorities

Feb 15, 2013 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi

The Morning Kickoff …

The defensive reboot: If the Browns had kept their 4-3 defensive system and coordinator intact and just added to what was built over two years, defense still would have been their offseason priority.

They would have needed to find a pass rusher on the right side to complement left end Jabaal Sheard. They would have needed a starting cornerback to replace free agent Sheldon Brown. They would have needed an upgrade at free safety to pair with strong safety T.J. Ward.

The linebackers? With Chris Gocong expected back from Achilles surgery, D’Qwell Jackson a rock in the middle and emerging young players in Craig Robertson, L.J. Fort and James-Michael Johnson, there wasn’t a whole lot of work to do, other than natural evolution. The linebackers are largely complementary players in a 4-3; the playmakers are the linemen, for the most part.

The switch to the 3-4 – be it Rob Chudzinski’s “hybrid” or Ray Horton’s “multi-front” – raises more questions and complexities and forces fundamental changes in scouting and player acquisitions.

Besides the needs of pass rusher, cornerback and safety, the Browns have to resolve more issues. Such as: What do they do with all those defensive tackles? Where do they play Sheard? Are the ends stout enough? Are the linebackers big enough? How do they protect Jackson from getting mauled by 320-pound guards? Where do they come up with two quick and multi-talented outside linebackers – the hallmark of any good 3-4 defense?

“If they had kept Jauron and they had kept the 4-3, then at least you can let it play out,” said former Browns GM Phil Savage. “When you blow up the whole thing, it just puts so much pressure on everything – the draft, free agency, the whole thing.”

Different way of looking at things: As Ozzie Newsome’s scouting director in Baltimore, Savage was in charge of finding players to fit a 3-4 defense. When Savage became Browns GM in 2005, he set forth on the challenge of switching the defense from Butch Davis’ 4-3 to Romeo Crennel’s 3-4. The Crennel 3-4 – rooted in the Bill Parcells-Bill Belichick old-style 3-4 – was bigger and more plodding than the Pittsburgh Steelers-style of more movement that Horton intends to run in Cleveland.

“When we transitioned from the Butch 4-3, it took two offseasons,” Savage said. “You can’t do it in one offseason. You can’t just discard guys that are 4-3 guys. They might be able to help you make that transition.”

In the long run, there is a distinct challenge in scouting players for a 3-4 defense, Savage said.

“Every player in the entire front seven is basically a projection. There are more college teams now playing 3-4, using the hybrid defenses. But five, six years ago, there were only two, really. So when your scouts went out and looked at the colleges, you had to decide if the tackles were an end or nose. You had to decide if the defensive ends were a pro end or an outside linebacker that’ll play on his feet. With the linebackers, you have to decide about the midde linebacker in college, is he stout and big enough to play inside the 3-4 or can he move to the outside. Or is he not a fit.

“The good news is there’s so much nickel four-man front being played after first down. So lot of these guys can keep doing what they’ve done.

“But I think it takes a lot of practice and a lot of reps and a lot of time to get your scouting staff on the same page so they really understand what it takes to play in the 3-4. You have to have a vision of how that player’s going to be utilized. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

Another factor is that the competition for 3-4-style players is greater than a few years ago. When the Steelers were among a handful of teams running a 3-4 defense, they could wait for the second and third rounds, or lower, to draft projected outside linebackers such as Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, Clark Haggans, LaMarr Woodley and others. In 2013, more than half the 32 teams will run a 3-4 defense, putting hybrid college defensive ends in high demand.

“Now those players don’t stay on that conveyor belt that long, so these projections are being pushed up these (draft) boards,” Savage said.

Everything is harder with the 3-4: Jauron’s 4-3 in 2012 was simplified ostensibly because circumstances rushed so many inexperienced players into prime playing time. Jauron’s goal was to reduce the responsibilities of the younger players to allow them to play faster.

Proponents of the 3-4 will argue that there’s more versatility in their system and that it has a greater chance of confusing and confounding quarterbacks. But that requires more versatile responsibilities within each position. It’s a more demanding defense to teach, learn and execute.

“I think it’s more difficult honestly to go from 4-3 to 3-4 because typically in a general sense, the guys have been playing 4-3 coming out of college,” Savage said. “If they were in a 4-3 in college, now you’re trying to teach them something different. Recruiting for a 4-3, you feel your pool of players is so much larger. You can find a fit fairly easily, whereas in a 3-4 you sometimes feel you’re trying to squeeze a square peg in a round hole.”

Are the challenges of transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 worth the effort? Perhaps. Both Super Bowl teams this season – Baltimore and San Francisco – ran a 3-4 defense. But it takes years to build the system on the field and off to make it a productive defense.

Baltimore’s been using a 3-4 for the better part of 17 seasons. The 49ers have run a 3-4 for the last eight years. The Browns are starting over, again.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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