- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

As of noon yesterday, the 3-4 defense was perplexing Chris Samuels.

“It’s tough,” the Washington Redskins left tackle said with a laugh. “I’ll tell you, I was out there with my coach, and I told him that I was confused on a couple of things. He went over it with me, so I’ve got it down.”

Just five of the NFL’s 32 teams play the 3-4 (three down linemen, four linebackers) as their base set. But the Atlanta Falcons are one of them, and in anticipation of Sunday’s game at the Georgia Dome, the Redskins are studying hard to be ready for the somewhat unusual defense.

“You always have to prepare for everybody,” left guard Dave Fiore said. “But especially with the 3-4, we’re not based on a 3-4 defense, so we don’t see it a lot — other than in the games. So there is a lot of extra emphasis on learning the assignments and who’s going to be picking up what.”

For more than a decade now, the 4-3 has ruled the NFL. The 3-4 was popularized in the 1970s by New England and enjoyed a heyday in the 1980s when Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor starred for the New York Giants. But the scheme fell out of favor because personnel to execute correctly was difficult to find. For instance, there just aren’t many linebackers like Taylor, who could rush the passer, hold the point of attack and drop into coverage.

But times, to a certain extent, are changing. Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, New England and Pittsburgh all have switched to the 3-4 pretty much full time, and teams like Oakland are experimenting fairly regularly with it.

In fact, the Redskins were able to get a few dry runs against the 3-4 in the preseason, when they faced the Patriots and Ravens in consecutive weeks. But just as exhibition results are given little credence, the basic looks Washington saw then won’t represent the myriad wrinkles Atlanta will use Sunday.

“We played [the Patriots] in the preseason, but they don’t show what they’ll be doing during the regular season — as much,” tackle Jon Jansen said of New England, which Washington plays Sept.28. “You probably saw 60 percent of their package in the preseason, as opposed to 100 percent in the regular season.”

Even 4-3 teams like to mix in a bit of 3-4 if they can. Marvin Lewis, Washington’s 2002 defensive coordinator, increasingly flashed the 3-4 as last season progressed. And although current coordinator George Edwards isn’t experimenting with the 3-4 right now, he knows its value as a “mixer.”

“It just allows you to change some of the blocking rules that the offense has to use,” Edwards said. “It changes how they’re going to attack you running the ball and also in their protections.”

The Falcons’ 3-4 is successful in part because of its talented linemen. As mentioned, the 3-4 requires special personnel, and on the line that means a pair of ends who can stop the run first and still rush the passer, as well as a nose tackle who can hold the point in the middle.

Atlanta ends Brady Smith and Patrick Kerney and nose tackle Ed Jasper all fit the mold. As Redskins offensive line coach Kim Helton noted, that trio will line up flush against the Redskins’ two tackles and center, positioning themselves to stop the run yet still managing to generate pass rush.

“Not a lot of guys can play as well square on offensive linemen as the guys from Atlanta can,” Helton said. “Most defensive linemen have to get on an edge to get pass pressure. These guys can line up square on the tackles, square on the center, play on the run, and still get pass pressure. That kind of sets them apart a little bit.”

And then there are four linebackers to worry about. Virtually every down the Redskins will mark one of the outside linebackers as the fourth down lineman (or “declare as the ‘big,’” in Helton’s vernacular), and then try to figure out which of the inside guys might be blitzing. And because the inside ‘backers have access to so many rush lanes, they can come from all angles.

“You’ll see a lot more slanting and shifting of the defensive line, and you’ll see a lot more linebacker blitzes, a lot more safety blitzes — just a lot more action on the defensive side of the ball,” Jansen said. “That’s what the 3-4 allows them to do.”

Washington, however, isn’t too worried. As Redskins coaches and players noted, the defense is beatable as long as the offense prepares to attack it.

“Just like in college, there aren’t many wishbone attacks,” Edwards said. “All of a sudden you’re playing a wishbone team; you’ve got to get ready for it.”

And that’s why Samuels was so intent on figuring out the 3-4 yesterday.

“It’s confusing because you haven’t seen it that much,” Samuels said. “But we’re all professionals here. You get in the meetings and figure out what you have to do.”

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