When the Baltimore Ravens switched to the 3-4 defense back in 2002, it was a move that was questioned by a number of people around the NFL. The Ravens were only two years removed from winning the Super Bowl with one of the best defenses the NFL had ever seen. They had a stretch from 1999 to 2001 where they finished ranked #6, #1, and #4 in overall defense and they showed no signs of slowing down. Still, the team decided to make the move to the 3-4 and the defense initially struggled that first year after making the move. However, starting the following year (in 2003), the Ravens would go on a run where they fielded a top 10 defense eight of the next thirteen years. It’s been an impressive run for the Ravens’ defense, but it might be time for a change back to the 4-3.
In most cases, making the transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, or vise versa, is difficult. The schemes require very different personnel to make it work. While the 3-4 is a defense that features zone blitzing principles and coverage schemes that are easier to mask, the 4-3 is designed to stop the run and allow linebackers to make more plays. There have been differing opinions on which defense is more effective and while most of the elite defenses in the NFL have been 3-4 oriented over the last several years, there have also been defenses that have excelled with a 4-3 scheme. The Ravens already have some key personnel in place that would allow for a smooth transition, so let’s take a look to see how their current personnel would translate.
Players that Could Excel:
C.J. Mosley, Inside Linebacker: Mosley spent his entire college career at Alabama playing in Nick Saban’s 3-4 defense. While Mosley’s physical makeup didn’t quite fit the traditional 3-4 inside linebacker, he excelled at it and as a result, he was drafted #17 overall to the Ravens in 2014. At 6’2 235, Mosley is still considered small for an inside linebacker in a 3-4, but he has still managed to be a productive player since entering the league. Coming out of Alabama, most draft analyst felt like Mosley would be better suited playing either the Mike (middle linebacker) or Will (weakside linebacker) position in a 4-3 defense. If the Ravens decided to make the transition, Mosley would probably stand to benefit more than any other player because having the fourth defensive lineman in there to occupy blockers would allow Mosley to flow more freely to the football. Mosley has displayed more than enough speed to be able to play sideline to sideline and making the move to a 4-3 defense would utilize Mosley’s biggest asset: his instincts.
Timmy Jernigan, Defensive Tackle: A lot of people said the Ravens got a steal in the second round of the 2014 draft when they selected Timmy Jernigan out of Florida State. He was considered a first round talent that many had pegged as one of the top defensive tackles in his class. At 6’2 298, Jernigan has the necessary set of skills to be an early down three-technique (lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard) who can slide to nose tackle on passing downs. Jernigan is a guy that doesn’t come without his fair share of weaknesses, but he should be more productive in a 4-3 defense than he has been in a 3-4. Like Mosley, many draft pundits believed Jernigan was better suited for the 4-3 defense coming out of college, so the transition should be relatively smooth.
Za’Darius Smith, Edge Defender: Up until last year, Smith had always played in a 4-3. His size (6’4 275) suggests that he would fit better as a 4-3 defensive end. Despite only being a rookie, Smith evolved into Baltimore’s top edge defender while producing 5.5 sacks even though he didn’t starting a single game all season. He needs to continue to develop as a pass rusher, but the skill set is already there to be a productive edge setter for a defense that lost Courtney Upshaw to the Atlanta Falcons this offseason. I have envisioned Smith as an early down right end while he develops as a pass rusher. This will compliment aging linebacker, Elvis Dumervil, who should strictly be used as a situational pass rusher moving forward to squeeze any production he has left. Both Smith and Dumervil aren’t particularly strong in coverage, so making the transition to the 4-3 defense should also benefit them because they won’t have to drop into coverage anymore.
Carl Davis, Nose Tackle: Davis was a typical value pick for Ozzie Newsome in 2015. He was considered a borderline first round talent that fell all the way to the third round, so he was drafted to add to the rotation on the interior of Baltimore’s defensive line. While Davis struggled in his first season in Baltimore, he would welcome the move to a 4-3 defense which is where he was projected to excel coming out of Iowa. At 6’5 320, Davis has the ability to be a rotational piece at both tackle positions which is crucial in a 4-3 defense.
Players that Would Fit:
Brandon Williams, Nose Tackle: Since being draft in the third round of the 2013 draft, Brandon Williams has developed into one of the best 3-4 nose tackles in the NFL. He has the size (6’1 335) and the strength to hold up playing the zero-technique, but he also has shown the necessary athleticism to make the move to a 4-3. Williams is one of those rare nose tackles that could excel in either scheme, and I would be curious to see how he would develop making the move. Like Marcell Dareus was able to do against the run in Jim Schwartz 4-3 defense a couple years ago, I believe Williams would provide a much needed presence on early downs that would allow linebackers to stay clean and flow more freely to the football.
Terrell Suggs/Elvis Dumervil, Edge Defender: At this point in their careers, Suggs and Dumervil would benefit from moving to a 4-3 defense. You can’t count on either one of them to be an every down defender anymore. In order to get the most out of their remaining talent, it would be beneficial to use them both in a situational role. Dumervil probably has more to offer as a pass rusher at this point, but if Suggs can fully recover from the Achilles injury that ended his 2015 season, he can still offer quite a bit as a part-time player as well. In a 4-3, rotation becomes even more crucial to the success of the defense. Having Suggs, Dumervil, Smith, and Brent Urban would already be a good start.
Arthur Brown, Linebacker: When the Ravens drafted Brown in the second round of the 2012 draft, I thought they had gotten an absolute steal. Despite his smaller size (6’0 238), Brown had shown the ability to stack and shed blocks as good as any linebacker in his draft class. On top of that, he had also shown the coverage skills necessary to be a three-down defender in the NFL. So far, Brown hasn’t even begun to live up to expectations. Maybe a change of scenery would do him some good, or maybe all that is needed is just a change of defensive schemes.
It’s almost seems like the Ravens have been preparing for this move for the last several years. A lot of their current personnel seems like a better fit for the 4-3 defense, but there could be a reason for that. The Ravens have played more of a hybrid defense (both 3-4 and 4-3 looks) for awhile now and they may continue to be a base 3-4 defense that gives some 4-3 looks at times.
I personally believe that the Ravens should transition to a 4-3 as their base defense which would allow certain positions to change their technique and focus on different responsibilities. For example, the defensive ends can focus on setting the edge and rushing the passer instead of having to learn to get more comfortable dropping into coverage. Personnel for a 4-3 defense is also a lot easier to come by, so finding impact players that fit your scheme would be a lot easier moving forward.