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As Roster Takes Shape, Possibilities For 3-4 Defense Emerge


You will not find any declarations from the Redskins that they're going to play a 3-4 defense this season. Neither coach Mike Shanahan nor general manager Bruce Allen believes in helping out opponents by making announcements of their strategic intent.

Yet the Redskins made it clear in their description of free-agent signee Maake Kemoeatu where they expect to play the 345-pounder – nose tackle.

Can a 4-3 defense have a nose tackle? Certainly. A team can call a position anything it likes. You've got your eagle tackle, your under tackle, your nose tackle. Me? I always liked the description of a nose tackle who lines up at an angle to the center. Who cannot be enamored of a cocked nose?

While the Redskins' honchos know what their preliminary depth chart looks like, they're not sharing it now. Who plays where and how will be determined as players sign and the coaches see how the fit is.

Bear in mind there is no such thing as a single variety of the 3-4. Every team in the NFL that plays the 3-4 – and it is almost half of them now – employs different strategies and names for the positions.

In theory, the front is three linemen and four linebackers. The Redskins traditionally have set up in a 4-3 – four linemen and three linebackers. And the general assumption is that the 3-4 front features the nose tackle and two ends.

Once again we prove the danger of assuming.

The San Francisco 49ers have matured in their 3-4 over the past five years. They do not call anyone a defensive end.

The 49ers use Aubrayo Franklin at the nose and valued him enough to name his as their franchise player. He is flanked by two defensive tackles – Isaac Sopoaga and Justin Smith. Smith came into the league as a pass-rushing end. He's the only true pass-rusher in that front.

The 49ers posted a respectable 44 sacks, six from Smith. Franklin had two, Sopoaga one. So the pressure comes from elsewhere, and that would be rush linebackers. Manny Lawson notched 6.5 sacks, Parys Haralson added five, Pro Bowler Patrick Willis four. Ahmad Brooks comes in for pass-rush situations and also had six.

How might this apply to the Redskins?

Kemoeatu, who has four career sacks, is not suddenly going to become a crusher of the pocket. But his presence inside tying up blockers will certainly free up Albert Haynesworth. If both draw double-teams, other players run free. All good.

Will the Redskins call Haynesworth an end or a defensive tackle? That's less important than what his functions are.

The ability of other players to show the flexibility of playing on the line with their hand down or to rush from a stand-up position will also create pressure. Certainly Brian Orakpo and Andre Carter have experience doing both, Carter previously having been a linebacker in the 49ers' system.

Both were ends in college. Both adapted to changing responsibilities. Not everyone can do it but the players who can allow the defense multiple looks.

"Natural pass rush. Natural instincts and being able to go forward," says 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan in how he assesses defensive ends who double up or move to linebacker in the 3-4. "I think the first and foremost thing is, 'Can he get to the quarterback?'"

Orakpo, in a dual role last year, led all rookies with 11 sacks. Carter, playing both right and left end, also had 11. As an outside linebacker for the 49ers in his final season with them (2005), Carter had 4.5 sacks. As an end in 2004, he hit his career high with 12.5.

The New York Jets, adapting their 3-4 to coach Rex Ryan's wild strategic gambits, had to overcome the loss to injury of their bulky nose tackle, Kris Jenkins. Even so, they play a nose (Sione Pouha), an end (Shaun Ellis) and a tackle (Marques Douglas). Rush linebacker Calvin Pace began his career as (what else) a defensive end and led the team in sacks with eight.

For Ryan, defense begins from the ball out. That's why he prefers the massive nose tackles to penetrators. He doesn't need a playmaker, just a space-eater who can tie up blockers and let linebackers flow to the play.

"You generally need a dominant individual there," he says. "A guy has to be active, got to be able to stay on his feet, his technique in releasing off of blocks has to be outstanding. If not, you are really going to struggle at that spot."

Ryan's former club, the Baltimore Ravens, breaks a bit with that theory. The Ravens do not put their space-eater on the nose. The 6-4, 340-pound Haloti Ngata lines up at defensive tackle. Dwan Edwards, listed in the NFL's Record and Fact book as a defensive tackle, mans the right end. He's 6-3, 315. Between Ngata and Edwards – a stumpy nose tackle named Kelly Gregg. He's the little morsel squeezed between two main servings of beef. He's generously listed at 6 feet and 310 pounds. Kind of like a fire hydrant with feet.

Ngata made the Pro Bowl ... with 1.5 sacks. Gregg posted three, Edwards one. Trevor Pryce, the 13-year veteran, and Terrell Suggs generate most of the pressure. Pryce was a defensive end when he played for the Denver Broncos, a D-tackle for the Ravens.

Suggs engaged in a spirited debate with the Ravens a year ago during the off-season when they made him their franchise player. They tagged him as a linebacker but he claimed he was a defensive end. He ultimately signed a long-term contract, mooting that point.

The 3-4. The 4-3. The Redskins will surely show both fronts and more. The key, however, comes from one of football's oldest maxims: It ain't how you line up, it's who you line up.

Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at and follow him on

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