Monday, November 10, 2008

Is the 3-4 the WSU Defense of 2009?

So the three-man line got a lot of ink from Saturday's game. Basically some injuries had cut down Andy Mattingly and Kevin Kooyman, and with the continued ineffectiveness of Matt Eichelberger, well, the lads up front were awfully thin. Factor in the loss of d-end Mike Graise for missing practices and workouts? They were basically down to FOUR healthy defensive linemen against Arizona. Not good, not good at all. As Wulff said in the Times:
"We got to a point where we're so thin where we can't even line up four players that have a legitimate amount of experience at all on the defensive line," Wulff said. "So if you go to a three-down-line look, it at least helps us there and gives us at least an extra backup that we wouldn't have in a four-down-line look."
And at least they aren't burning redshirts on the likes of Bernard Wolfgramm to shore up the weakness. This is such a lost year, that to do something like that would be foolish....almost Willingham-like in it's ineptness....

But I think it begs a bigger question. Is the three-four for WSU here to stay? Given the way college football offenses have evolved, and the overall lack of depth that this program has had for a long time now on the defensive line, wouldn't it be a good idea to just go to a 3-4, or, even, a 3-3-5!?!

For some background, yes, we have tinkered with the 3-4 from time to time. Remember down the stretch of the 2006 season? With injuries destroying that team, and even Mkristo Bruce heroically playing on one good leg, losing Ropati Pitoitua, Aaron Johnson and A'i Ahmu just crippled the depth inside. They had no choice but to scrap the 4-3, and go with the 3-4 during the year-end fade.

It didn't really work, and the reasons were many. It was a brand new scheme of course, as the defensive linemen had different gaps and responsibilities that go with a three-man front. But even the linebackers had to adjust to having an extra linebacker out there, and it was too late to plug the hole in the dam. But the other reason was, mainly, they just didn't have the proper personnel to run it effectively.

While we loved Mkristo Bruce, he was a better pure pass rusher than a run-oriented defensive end. Too many times he faced double teams, and it just didn't work out. He was at his best coming around the edge, one on one with a tackle. But the other side was much, much worse, where Lance Broadus, all 215 pounds of him, was the other end. He was basically engulfed by the opposing offensive line, so badly out of position that it was a disaster on his side of things. Not his fault, but the man simply wasn't built for the 3-4. They just didn't have the personnel to run something like that

To be successful in the 3-4, you have to have a legit nose tackle who can take up space and occupy blockers, and he has to be big. Why? Because on about 95% of all defensive plays in that 3-4 scheme, the nose tackle will be expected to take on the center AND a guard, all at the same time. But it's not just the nose tackle who needs size and strength. The defensive ends need to be a little different style as well. They have to be much larger than your Isaac Brown/DD Acholonu mold, you know, the converted 225-lb linebackers who rush wide and up the field? You need defensive ends with some girth, at least in the 255-260 range in college, to hold up and handle their gaps.

All three of the defensive linemen have what is called two-gap responsibility. They are expected to hit the offensive linemen head on, and watch the play to make sure the running back doesn't come through on either side of them. It's almost a read-n-react defense as opposed to a one-gap scheme you often see in a 4-3, where the defensive linemen simply chooses a gap and shoots it at the snap.

But a 3-4 defensive lineman is also expected to hold their block so that the offensive linemen can't get free and to seek out a linebacker. Simply put, the linemen play a more physical game as they are taking on one or two offensive linemen directly, play after play. And the glamour? Forget it. The 3-4 linemen aren't your stat hounds in any way, shape or form (how many great defensive ends in the 3-4 make headlines?).

The big plus to a 3-4 are the linebackers. Basically two inside linebackers who you want in the 240-range and also with some athleticism. But the outside linebackers can be in that Louis Bland/Myron Beck mold, at least in the NCAA, and you can get away with having 210-215 lb speedsters on the outside. They can blitz from different angles, of course, but they are also on the outside as much as possible, able to use their speed out in space. And against the spread-style offenses of today, that asset of speed on the edges is CRUCIAL if you want to survive something like Oregon throws at you. You have speed like that outside, and it makes it all the more difficult for the QB to scramble or roll out effectively.

I look at how Cal has handled Oregon in recent times, and it's really no coincidence that Bob Gregory, the Cal DC, has evolved the defense. Cal used to claim to be a 4-3 defense, but they consistently threw 3-man fronts at opposing teams. But today, they finally DO claim to be a true 3-4 team, and it has really done well against the one-back offenses you see so much of in the conference. Against the true spread, which is thriving today in the Big 12 and you now see Oregon and Arizona running versions of it every week, Cal has the scheme to deal with it.

Now, can this work for WSU next year? I think it can, and here's why.

1) Andy Mattingly is already being talked about as moving back to linebacker for next year. Paul Wulff has mentioned this at least a month ago on his radio show, and it's been highlighted in other articles over at least the last month. And Andy Mattingly, we remember, was a 90-tackle, eight-sack guy as a linebacker in 2007. With Greg Trent, Cory Evans and Ken Dunn all graduating next year, the need for a linebacker with experience will be gigantic. Mattingly could slide right into an inside linebacker spot next year, with his 251 pounds a perfect fit back there.

2) The other inside linebacker might be a bit of a reach, but Mike Ledgerwood has played well this year as a true frosh backup to Greg Trent in the middle. But weight is an issue, as he's only 215 pounds.

I would think he would need to get to AT LEAST 225 to handle it, but it's possible. Marshall Pirtz is also an option, at 6-0, 231, but Pirtz may not even be a linebacker anymore, potentially moving to running back. We'll see what happens there.

3) The outside linebackers might be the perfect fit. In reality, both Myron Beck and Louis Bland started out as safeties anyway, both in the 205-210 range in weight. Give both guys another year of putting on weight, and they could be 215-220 next season while maintaining their quickness and speed, with the ability to be stout against the run yet able to get out on the edges and make plays.

4) The defensive line might be much better suited for this defense as soon as next year. Toby Turpin is already 6-6, 280, and with another 10 pounds or so he could be just fine as a nose tackle. He started at NT vs. Arizona, so who knows what he might do. Add in Kevin Kooyman at one end, where he's already around 250 pounds, and he could be just fine. The other end is interesting in that the top recruit from 2008, Bernard Wolfgramm, will be ready to play.

He's already 6-3, 275, and has a ton of experience as a defensive end from his JC days. Also, Josh Luapo will be enrolling in January, and he'll likely be a 300-pounder by September next year. He could be a fit as a backup nose tackle.

The other angle to this is the lack of depth on the defensive line. It would be much easier to get by with 5-6 defensive linemen if you only have three on the field at once. But if you are running four of them out there every play, the depth gets that much thinner. Add in the usual injuries, etc, well, you get the picture.

Finally, the spread offense - we're only going to see more and more of it as it continues to thrive. Already Oregon and Arizona have fine-tuned their attacks, but there will be others to follow suit. It's just too successful, what's happening in the Big 12, to ignore it anymore. If Gary Pinkel or Mike Leach get the UW job, there's another team that will instantly be running the spread. And you can already see some wrinkles with it at Oregon State, where they run a ton of one-back, but love to do some read option where the WR goes in motion to take handoffs from the QB, and they do a lot of shotgun as well.

I would hope that they will seriously consider it for next year. Not only is it effective against the spread/multiple offenses, but if you have the right personnel to run it effectively, it could actually be a strength of the team. I'd love to see Andy Mattingly absolutely cut loose his senior year, blitzing from the linebacker spot next year instead of with a hand down as a defensive end. With the thin defensive line set to lose Matt Mullennix, A'i Ahmu and Matt Eichelberger next year, the lack of experienced linemen could be a big issue. Take one lineman off the field, and you can handle that lack of depth in a much more effective manner. And for once, we might actually have the correct personnel to get away with running the 3-4 at the college level, with some decent size at defensive ends and some real speed at the outside linebackers.

What do YOU think?? Should we go to a 3-4 next year? Or are we better off with the traditional 4-3?



kaddy said...

I really think we might need to bring in a JC Middle LB for next year. We've had a lot of success with that in the past, and I'd hate to throw it all on Ledgerwood's shoulders.

Anonymous said...

CPW would be smarter than his years if he sent his defensive personel over to Steeltown to have a little sit down talk with Dick Lebeau. The man is a 3-4 genius. And he does it with a lot of rotating personel. The Steelers build talent through the draft and let them go once they demand to much money, rinse and repeat. It's almost like a college team if you think about it. But either way its damn successful year in and year out.

Chris '04
Pullman, WA

Sedihawk said...

Good points. You are right Kaddy, they may need to go the JC mlb route for next year out of necessity. No redshirting there! And Chris, Lebeau is the mastermind of the 3-4. In fact I believe they say he created it specifically to deal with a lack of star defensive ends, but also to clog up the passing lanes for the west coast offenses and match up better with multiple sets. He also came up with the zone blitz, just another wrinkle to worry about on offense. HIRE LEBEAU! :)

Anonymous said...

Strong points guys. Since the rose bowl we have had nothing but trouble keeping quality tackles healthy but the 34 wasnt a good choice because of our weak ends. You can always find kids who can run and you can take a safety put weight on him and make him a linebacker but stud tackles are difficult to locate. That has now changed. I saw do it the rest of the year and see if you can get something out of it. Fans complain about our offense this year but the defense has been the most miserable thing I have seen roam the palouse. I picture Don Sasa with a tear rolling down his cheek, like the indian from the littering commercial. They should bring back the palouse posse to talk some sense into these guys. Where is Chad Eaton when you need him?

Hooty McBoob said...

Any word on Tyson Pencer of late? He was shaping up to be a beast last I heard but still had not found a position.

Now this is off the subject but it's been eating at me.

Hawk used the logic with Wolfgramm - this season is a complete loss so why bother burning his redshirt?

I know depth is a major issue at QB - but you simply can't convince me that burning Levenseller's redshirt was a good idea at this point in the year. That should have been a last resort unless you're going to hand him the reigns.

Sedihawk said...

Hoot, they aren't burning Wolfgramm's redshirt. He won't see the field until next year, and that's why he could be a good fit as a big d-end in 2009. I was happy they were going to play Levy, but only if he was going to ACTUALLY PLAY beyond complete garbage time. You have Dan Wagner for that. Put the kid in and let him take some lumps in the real world and he'll be all the more ready to compete next year. PLAY LEVY!!!

Hooty McBoob said...

I know they're not going to play Wolfgramm and I'm not lobbying for them to play him. I'm simply saying you could apply the same logic to Levy. Why burn Levy's 'shirt in a lost season? It makes no sense to me.

kaddy said...

100% agree - if Levy isn't going to see the field, we just wasted a year with him. Lopina shows good leadership, can run well, and seems to know the offense, but he is NOT a passer. I haven't seen one pass from him downfield that was anywhere close to the receiver. Good guy, horrible passer at the D-1 level.

Levy easily made the passes that Lopina didn't in his small amount of playing time against Zona.

Atlantacoug said...

I thik CPW could not count on Lopina to stay healthy. If he got hurt, you would have to have burn Levy's RS then right? and he would have even less experience. We will have 4 QB's next year and only 2 will play. (prob Lopina and Lobster) so Levy might be redshirting next year again anyway. I am not sure if you have to 'declare' redshirting of if you don't see the field in a season you can just call it your redshirt.

79coug said...

I'm against the 3-4 at WSU. It will be easier for us to recruit Smaller, quicker D-ends. A 3-4 requires you to have 3 stud tackle types on the line. While a 4-3 only requires 2 with quick d-ends we can develop by bulking up fast LB types.

BornCoug said...

Alex Hoffman-Ellis (JC) came in late and is redshirting. He is also a MLB going into next year. Raw but pretty athletic, fast, and high motor guy. Wulff mentioned him as one of the redshirts to watch next season.

I know Wulff has stated the need to redshirt all true freshmen but Darren Markle probably is about as physically ready to play as any freshmen you are going to find. He already would put most of the current roster to shame in the weightroom.