When people discuss whom they'd like to see as the Dolphins' new head coach, the topic usually begs the question of whether or not Miami should convert back to the 4-3 defensive scheme once the next regime hits town.
For any of you who aren't already aware, the Dolphins currently run a base 3-4 defense, which is a scheme that uses three down linemen (two defensive ends and a nose tackle) and four linebackers, as opposed to the 4-3, which uses four down linemen (two defensive ends, two defensive tackles) and three linebackers. I want to clarify that this post isn't about which defense is theoretically better--we could spend all year talking and debating the advantages and disadvantages of both schemes, so we'll leave that argument for another day. Rather, I'd like to point out a few issues I have (and have always had) with the process and mindset used to construct a 3-4 scheme, and also identify a few reasons why I believe Dolphins are a team that can switch back over to the 4-3 without suffering any kind of serious defensive setbacks.
The Dolphins' front office has spent a good portion of every offseason since 2008 drafting/acquiring defensive players thought to be ideal personnel in the 3-4 scheme. This means that, for the most part, when the Dolphins draft a defensive tackle, it's because the team believes he has the size and strength to play DE (or 5-technique) in the 3-4 defense. When the Dolphins went after Canadian Football League star Cameron Wake (who played defensive end at Penn State) in early 2009, it was because they saw him as a natural rush linebacker in the 3-4. When Miami drafted defensive end Koa Misi out of Utah the next year, it was because they believed he could transition to outside linebacker on the weak side, where he would be required to both set the edge and rush the passer. The same thinking applies to inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, who were both pursued by the Dolphins' because of their height (6'4" and 6'3", respectively), speed, strength and ability to either rush the passer or drop back into coverage.
So why would the Dolphins switch to the 4-3 when they've invested so much time and money into 3-4 personnel? Because many of those players have proven to be less-than-ideal fits in that defensive scheme:
-Koa Misi struggles to mount any kind of a pass rush when blitzing
-Cameron Wake just isn't good at dropping back into coverage
-Nose tackle Paul Soliai hasn't been nearly as effective this season as he was in 2010, and has even been single blocked at times this season (a huge no-no for a 0-technique player expected to consistently occupy multiple blocks).
-Defensive ends Kendall Langford and Randy Starks have played well at the 5-technique, but even those guys are struggling to get things done this year, and just haven't been able to consistently hold up the point of attack.
Everything that went right for Mike Nolan's defense last year has gone terribly wrong thus far this season. Something needs to be done with this defensive group.
Why the 4-3 scheme might be the answer
Some of the Dolphins defensive linemen (Odrick, Starks, Merling) are tailor-made for the 4-3 scheme, with Odrick at nose tackle, Starks at the 3-technique (lining up on the guard's outside shoulder) defensive tackle spot, and Merling as a pure pass-rushing defensive end. Langford and Soliai are more of the wild-card variety, and would have to be considered scheme-altering presences if they were to be used in the 4-3 at their current weights. Langford is 6'6", but currently plays at 295, which is a teetering build for a 4-3 defensive tackle. However, if he were able to bulk up to the 305-310 range, then you're talking about a player with the same build as former defensive tackle standout Marcus Stroud. In that scenario, the Dolphins would have two DTs over the height of 6'5" (a set-up reminiscent of the mid-2000s Jacksonville Jaguars). However, if Langford cannot add bulk, then he would be a valuable item on the trade market.
Soliai, on the other hand, is a tough call, as he would simply cost too much money for someone playing the 1-technique (which means he'd be lining up off the shoulder of the center).
In terms of Miami linebackers, Wake would move back to the defensive end spot; Misi would stay at weak-side linebacker; and Burnett and Dansby would switch over to middle linebacker (MLB) and strong-side linebacker (SLB), respectively. Misi would stand to gain the most from this scheme switch, as he'd see fewer man-coverage assignments in the 4-3, and would be able to focus on sniffing out screens, identifying routes on first and second down and flowing to the ball. He also has the bulk (I think he's somewhere around 250 pounds right now) to adequately seal off his assigned gap, though I'd actually prefer it if he dropped a little weight (10 pounds, preferably) before taking over the will linebacker spot.
Burnett would serve as an adequate "mike" (or middle) linebacker in the 4-3 (for now, at least), while Dansby's excellent instincts and ability in coverage make him an ideal fit at linebacker on the strong side.
My biggest issues with the 3-4 defense
For those of you who aren't well versed in the Bill Parcells 3-4 philosophy (I read up on it after he took over as VP of football operations in Miami), he favors an absolute two-gap defensive line requiring insane size, strength and agility at all three positions in the trenches. The same philosophy goes for the linebacker corps, where players need to be in the ballpark of 6'2"-6'4", 245-260 pounds. These are huge size requirements that, in my opinion, completely undermine the smaller, speedier defenders who have proven themselves to be some of the best in the game over the last quarter century. Players like Zach Thomas (5'11", 240) and Derrick Brooks (6'0", 235) wouldn't even be a consideration in this kind of defensive scheme. Von Miller, an absolute stud linebacker at Texas A&M, was second guessed because of his size (6'2", 240). Anyone who has seen Von Miller play in the NFL knows that size is not an issue for him.
Drafting 3-4-approved personnel is also a crapshoot, as you're moving college defensive tackles to 5-technique defensive end, and college defensive ends to outside linebacker (more often than not). I prefer to draft defensive tackles and defensive ends and put them where they had success in college. Pure 4-3 pass-rushing defensive ends are not easy to find, but in a league where the 3-4 defense very popular right now, it's becoming more and more common to see 4-3-oriented players sliding on draft day. I'd like to take advantage of this trend.
If the Dolphins do choose to flip back to the 4-3 defense once this current regime gets the boot, they'll still have to commit a few draft picks to certain positions essential to the scheme. I am not comfortable rolling Burnett out as our long-term middle linebacker (my all-time favorite position), and we'll need to upgrade the defensive end spot opposite Wake. We might even think about using a future high pick on a stud 3-technique defensive tackle, as well.
Let me know what you guys think. Should the Dolphins move back to the 4-3, or are they fine with the scheme they have?