Detroit Lions Moving to a 3-4? Not so Fast!


There are plenty of strong football minds who have suggested the possibility of the Detroit Lions and DC Teryl Austin moving to a 3-4 defense in 2015.  As far ago as last season, people were already talking about it as a possibility.  The recent trade for former Baltimore Raven Haloti Ngata only added fuel to the 3-4 fire, as well as the drafting of Kyle Van Noy in the 2nd round of 2014, among other moves.

Is it a valid line of thought?  Sure.  Does it really mean the team is moving their base defense from a 4-3 front, which they’ve ran for a very long time, to a 3-4? It does not.

Ngata Nose Tackle

When the Detroit Lions traded for Haloti Ngata as free agency began, many thought that was a clear move that the team was moving to a 3-4 front.  After all, Haloti Ngata is one of the most feared nose tackles in the league, right?  Right?

That may have been true a few years ago, but Ngata rarely lines up in the nose anymore.  In fact, his last season starting full time at nose tackle was 2012.  Brandon Williams, a 3rd round pick in 2013, took over that nose position while Ngata swung to the DE/DT position.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ngata lined up over the nose, or directly over center, only 12 times in 2014.  Indeed, he spent most of his time lining up at different spots on the line, and he had his best season by their metric while doing so.  Ngata could very well play nose tackle, but labeling him as one isn’t really accurate.

Depth at Linebacker

The funniest argument, to me, that the Lions are prepared to move to a 3-4 front permanently is that they have depth at linebacker.  While that’s true for their present scheme, it isn’t really so for a 3-4.  Sure, we have enough linebackers to consider it depth, but just like Ngata isn’t really a nose tackle, the Lions don’t really have depth at linebacker for a 3-4.

DeAndre Levy has a skillset that should cleanly transition him from a WILL LB to a ILB in a 3-4, for sure.  Stephen Tulloch?  Not so much.  Already declining in a 4-3, Tulloch has no experience as an inside linebacker in a 4LB set, and his lack of size would be even more of a hindrance if he tried to make that switch.

Moving outside for Tulloch or Levy would be a laughable affair, as neither are strong pass rushers aside from certain packages (Delayed blitzes, for instance).

But what about the others?  Kyle Van Noy and Tahir Whitehead both played OLB in a 3-4 in college, surely they could start at OLB!  That’s true.  But like C.C. Brown once started at Safety, that didn’t make him a good one.  Whitehead had 7 career sacks at Temple.  That’s not per year, mind you, that’s his whole 4 year college career.  Whitehead’s biggest issue in college?  Getting off of blocks.  Just like you can’t be doing that at defensive end, you can’t be having that issue at OLB in a 3-4 where you’ll be living on the edge.

You know who else had that knock on his college scouting?  Kyle Van Noy.  The 2nd year player out of BYU played OLB and had a career high 13 sacks in 2012.  Once Ziggy Ansah was drafted by Detroit, however, and KVN (once considered a better prospect than Ansah was) struggled both at creating pressure and finishing his rushes.

Both KVN and Whitehead were strong prospects at SAM in a 4-3 front, but weren’t really considered for OLBs in a 3-4 (KVN was listed as a ILB).  The Lions end up with depth of only 1 player, DeAndre Levy, in a 3-4.  That’s not very reassuring.

The Ravens/Teryl Austin Run a 3-4!

It’s pretty common knowledge that the Ravens ran a 3-4 for years.  Ray Lewis was an inside

More from Lions News

linebacker.  Haloti Ngata was a nose tackle.

Terrell Suggs

was an outside linebacker.  Or a defensive end.  Or, you know, both.  So addressing that last part…  Terrell Suggs, one of the biggest playmakers in the Ravens defense, is neither a linebacker nor is he a defensive end.

It’s pretty well known, now, that former Saints tight end Jimmy Graham lost his arbitration attempt with the NFL to become listed as a wide receiver.  He still received a long term deal that kept him in New Orleans for the rest of his career until they went broke and were forced to trade him.

This is normally what happens when a player attempts to go against the NFL brass.  That wasn’t the case in 2008, when Terrell Suggs presented his case.  Suggs would go on to win against the NFL, sort of, resulting in a sort of hybrid position that was neither linebacker nor DE.  Why is this relevant?

The scheme the Ravens used back then is essentially the same as what they’re running now.  It is a 3-4 front by definition only, wherein there are 3 down linemen and 4 linebackers.  One of those linebackers, however, is almost universally a pass rusher, often putting his hand in the dirt.

So while they’re a 3-4 front, they rely on pressure from the same 4 players.  This is far more similar to the 4-3 Under/Over formations that Teryl Austin made use of, and is likely to continue to.

So What Does It All Mean?

I’m going to share an excerpt from an article I wrote immediately after Teryl Austin was acquired to be the defensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions.

While it’s true that in a 3-4 defense, all of the linebackers are expected to blitz, that isn’t how Teryl Austin utilized his players.  He employed more blitzing in 2014 than we’ve seen in recent years in Detroit (Jim Schwartz blitzed less than any coach in the league), but there still weren’t many exotic packages.  Would that be likely to increase in a 3-4 defense?  No, but it would be more difficult.

When the decision was made to bring back Stephen Tulloch, I was somewhat taken back.  Why retain him when Whitehead excelled in his role?  It didn’t make sense to me.  I was looking at it all wrong.  I was fooled by Teryl Austin and Jim Caldwell.  When they were talking about finding a ‘flamethrower’ at linebacker, we all assumed that they meant one player, and that player was Kyle Van Noy.  Silly us.  More likely, Teryl Austin and company were referring to a position, rather than a specific player.  They just needed someone to fill it.

While recent picks like Van Noy would make people think change was imminent, it would mean that selections like Caraun Reid and Larry Webster were completely wasted picks.  Neither projects to be even rotational players in a 3-4, so why would the team select those two in 2014 if they planned to switch schemes in 2015?

I have no doubt that the Detroit Lions will feature more 3-4 defensive fronts in 2015 than they did in 2014, but it has very little to do with their personnel, nor does it have anything to do with losing Suh and Fairley.  They were already transitioning towards a multiple front defense in 2014, it’s only natural that they would continue to do so in 2015.

Their base defense will remain the 4-3, however.  More specifically, it will remain a 4-2-5 nickel defense.  Their ‘base’ defense will alternate between 4-3 and 3-4 depending on down and distance, with Tahir Whitehead and Kyle Van Noy filling in at all three linebacker spots. It’s likely to me that we’ll even see the two of them together on the field in some situations.  So while they’re not converting to a 3-4, they’re not remaining a 4-3 either.

Instead, I think we’re going to see something completely new from Teryl Austin and the Detroit Lions in 2015.

Next: Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew Asleep at the Wheel

More from SideLion Report