What was once the wacky upstart of defenses in the NFL has now become the norm. With it, all sorts of variations have sprung up, including Wade Phillips’ own variety.
The Rams have traditionally run a 4-3 base defense, which complicates the transition to the new coaching staff and Phillips’ defensive scheme. It’s one of the main reasons why Rob Ryan wasn’t hired in 2013. Transitioning base defenses can be tough and expensive.
But the Rams might just have the personnel to make it happen.
Before we get deep into it, let’s start with the basics.
The Base 4-3
In the past, the Rams have run the traditional 4-3 defense and at it’s most simplest terms, it meant they had four defensive lineman line up with three linebackers behind them. Most defensive lineman in this scheme have one gap as a responsibility, but one defensive tackle can have a two-gap responsibility, that is to try and close a hole on either side of an offensive lineman (Michael Brockers, in the Rams case).
In the 4-3, you have two defensive lineman (typically a 3-technique and 1-technique, meaning just outside the guard on one side and just outside the center on the other). The defensive ends float a bit (you may have heard the term ‘wide 9’ - where the end lines up outside of the TE) but are typically on or outside of the offensive tackles (a 4, 5 or 6 technique). In short - the farther out you are from the center, the ‘higher’ the technique is:
Bear Bryant came up with that system and everyone was scared shitless of him...It was never changed.
As for the linebackers, you end up with a ‘Mike’ (Middle), ‘Will’ (Weak side, i.e. the side without a tight end) and the ‘Sam’ (Strong side, typically lining up on the TE).
On the outside - in simplest terms - the Sam and Will both are responsible for one gap (the space between two offensive linemen) and the Will is typically the faster linebacker whereas the Sam is bigger and can cover the tight end.
The Mike is the most important piece of the front seven, as not only do they have their own gap responsibility, they also typically call plays and get the defense in alignment. Depending on the flow of the play, they may cover a different gap (or go into coverage), so it’s not as simple as the other linebacker positions.
This is why James Laurinaitis succeeded and Alec Ogletree struggled - in a game of instincts, a decade of experience will help a hell of a lot. Ogletree is a vastly better athlete, but in a new position with much more responsibility, he wasn’t nearly as good.
But that’s all in the past. The Rams, under Phillips, will run a 3-4. Sort of.
The Base 3-4
The 3-4 swaps a defensive lineman for another linebacker (typically called the Jack - whose primary responsibility is rushing the QB). In a 3-4, the single defensive tackle lines up directly over the center (0 technique, otherwise referred to as a nose tackle) and the ends are a 5 technique (give or take). All three lineman are responsible for two gaps (as opposed to one in a 4-3) so it is, as a base, a much more demanding defense on the line.
It’s why players like J.J. Watt are so special, and at the same, so unstoppable. It allows defenses incredible freedom that they just can’t get otherwise.
The linebackers are similar to the 4-3, but both inside linebackers typically have a two-gap responsibility (they defend the bubbles in between the defensive end and nose tackle). The outside linebackers only have one gap - the C-gap - on the outside of the offensive tackle.
The idea is that for any gap, there are two players that share responsibility. In theory, it sounds great. But in practice, it requires a lot of talent spread across the board. It’s expensive (quick - what’s J.J. Watt’s salary), but it can dominate if applied correctly.
That also allows an outside linebacker to roam around in the backfield and rack up sacks. For that example, I’ll throw out another name you might have heard of - Von Miller.
Stay with me - I know we’re getting in the weeds. We’ve come full circle back to Wade Phillips with that reference, so let’s get into how it fits the Rams personnel.
The Wade Phillips 3-4 1 Gap
What? I thought you said everyone (except the OLBs) have a two-gap responsibility in a 3-4? Not so fast. Phillips isn’t so cut and dry, because not all players can handle that level of responsibility. He said this in an NFL.com interview:
"When I started out it was a two-gap defense, the defensive ends had to play two-gap and be able to rush the passer. Well that's a hard thing to do."
That quote is the foundation of Wade Phillips 3-4. If a player can’t handle a typical two-gap responsibility...then he doesn’t have to. Think of him as the anti-Fisher.
This allows Phillips to drastically change how the defense plays in a fluid manner. Offenses cannot game-plan against the defense easily because Phillips moves players around as long as they have the skill to be in a certain position. The whole idea is that players shouldn’t be forced force to contain two-gaps but instead should attack the offense.
It would allow someone like Aaron Donald to line-up...well, anywhere on the defensive line. Michael Brockers? Ditto.
It opens up interesting possibilities, like moving Alec Ogletree to the strong-side (where he has more space) and moving Robert Quinn to Ogletree’s position, where he’s free to blitz between Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers instead of lining up wide as the Jack. The defense would be able to utilize both players strengths, rushing Quinn and letting Ogletree use his athleticism to make plays on the weak side, where he was successful before his transition to the middle.
Given Mark Barron and Alec Ogeltree’s safety experience (and TJ McDonald being used primarily as a hybrid strong safety-linebacker last year) it gives the Rams a lot of freedom to disguise blitz packages with their versatile personnel.
It’s a system that allows Phillips to overload an offense without requiring strict gap-discipline, where an offense knows that one player is going to be responsible for one area for the entirety of the game. The defensive line has the freedom to attack, rather than react, to an offensive play.
The Rams in the Phillips 3-4
With their current personnel, the Rams have some advantages. I spoke about the ability to move players around, but in their base position, I would expect the Rams to utilize:
RDE - Aaron Donald .. NT - Michael Brockers .. LDE - William Hayes
All three have shown the versatility to shift positions in years past, and all three are talented (or experienced) enough players to hold a two-gap responsibility if needed.
That leaves Robert Quinn the odd man out. I suspect the Phillips would stand-up Quinn, similar to what Von Miller does - except instead of having a two-gap responsibility, or coverage responsibility, Quinn only has to contain the edge and rush the passer. This would allow Quinn to line-up outside of, say, Aaron Donald.
Imagine being the RB tasked with picking up the blitz on that side of the line.
Now, it’s not the base package, but this just speaks to the freedom of Phillips’ scheme. Circled is Von Miller. In the Rams scenario, Quinn would have a 1:1 with a tight end and no RB help due to Aaron Donald being on the other side. That’s about as good of a match-up as you can get.
In addition to Quinn, the Rams would also be able utilize Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron in a way that plays to their strengths. They could utilize them in space, in coverage, and in blitzes, not constrained to systematic gap-responsibility that they were forced to have in 2016.
The onus would still be on Ogletree, as one of the base ILBs, but with Quinn handling the outside gap and Donald the end to Ogletree’s outside, he would be more free to attack inside, rather than simply having a standard two-gap responsibility you typically think of from his position.
With all that said, there are still plenty of question marks. Moving to a 3-4 isn’t a cure-all, but it allows the Rams to easily mask and overload defenses given their talent at the point of attack.
As for questions, it’s unknown who might play the 4th linebacker spot from a roster standpoint. Josh Forrest? The Rams are also undersized at the position, something that plagued them last year. Somebody is going to have to clog the holes, after all.
From a personnel standpoint, would the Rams be able to keep TJ McDonald? Considering he at times played the role of linebacker, that gives you a lot of interchangeability on the outside, but that could push a safety-sized player (or two) to the inside.
It’s not the end of the world and it leaves plenty of questions. Most importantly though, it leaves plenty of opportunities.