You saw it occasionally throughout the 2016 season: the Saints lined up in a base 3-4. With the way the roster is breaking down, that could, MAYBE, become the norm for this New Orleans Saints defense.
There are more than a few holes in this theory. For one, the Saints lack the prototypical NT for this defensive scheme.A 3-4 NT is tasked with stopping the run through both A gaps, the gaps to either side of the center. Tyeler Davison is more of a gap-shooting NT than he is a two-gap run stopper, and the Saints have no NT behind him. And in that vein, Dennis Allen expressed a desire to move towards more single-gap systems. So approach this article with more than a fair amount of skepticism. I’m just spit-balling here.
Still, there are things to like about this possible scheme change.
For one, it mitigates the lack of DE talent on the roster.
After watching the DE free agent pool quickly run dry without bringing in a single candidate to compete for the position, the Saints are looking toward the draft to provide pass rush. Meanwhile, they’ve resigned breakout DT Nick Fairley to a long-term contract. They now have too many options at DT, and not enough at DE.
But between Fairley, Cam Jordan, Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata, the Saints have a number of DTs who can get after the QB. All of those guys would fit the mold of a 3-4 DE. Every one.
The role of a 3-4 DE is to play two-way football. They need to be able to stop the run, and still get after the QB on passing downs. Every aforementioned player fits that bill. Fairley and Rankins are more prototypical 4-3 DTs, but are more than capable of getting after the QB from 3- or 4-techniques. They both did it at multiple times throughout the season. Rankins even had a sack as a 3-4 DE against the Lions.
The move would also pay dividends at linebacker, assuming the Saints can bring in some more bodies.
A 3-4 defense naturally includes more linebackers in the base scheme. As of now, the Saints have Dannell Ellerbe, Craig Robertson, A.J. Klein, Nate Stupar, and Stephone Anthony. Kenny Vaccaro and Hau’oli Kikaha can also play a sort of LB role in this scheme.
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Ideally, the Saints could bring in some more OLB talent to this group, if they do make the switch. But even without more bodies, they have some solid fits for a 3-4. Dannell Ellerbe showed great bend and explosion upfield as a pass-rusher in 2016. He could have a big season for New Orleans as a 3-4 OLB. Kenny Vaccaro also showed a great ability to get after the quarterback as a rusher. His role would obviously be more versatile, but he could fill in as an OLB easily.
The move might suit Hau’oli Kikaha very well, depending on how he recovers from his injury. Kikaha played a sort of LB/DE role in his rookie year under Rob Ryan, and before he hurt his ankle looked very capable as a pass-rusher.
Robertson and Stupar would both be more suited to a ILB role, and I imagine the Saints would ideally like to keep them fresh for Special Teams. Stupar especially.
Perhaps most intriguingly, the move could be HUGE for Stephone Anthony. Entering into his third year, Anthony is right at the cusp of a bust label. His struggles in coverage and in football IQ have really limited the impact of his athleticism. But don’t get it twisted: Anthony is an elite athlete. He can run and hit as well as anyone in the league, if he’s given a straight-forward assignment. As a 3-4 OLB, he would need to improve in diagnosing play-action. But he would be sheltered in coverage, and would be able to use his athleticism to make plays. That could save his career.
I’m not saying it’s gonna happen.
The Saints would still need to add more bodies at NT and at OLB. And when you look at it that way, they could just as easily find some DE talent in the draft. Either way, they’re going to have to rely on an incoming vet or a rookie to solidify the line.
And to further bash my theory, there aren’t many two-gap NTs available in either the draft or in free agency. Plenty of one gap NTs. But the Saints need some big bodies.
So don’t hold your breath for a 3-4 base scheme switch.
But as I mentioned earlier, the Saints showed flashes of 3-4 throughout 2016. Dennis Allen likes to be multiple, and if the gameplan calls for 3-4, then the Saints will play 3-4. They have something like the right personnel if the need arises.
And a D-Line of Cam Jordan — Nick Fairley — Sheldon Rankins sounds sort of fun, doesn’t it?