Are the Saints better suited to run the 3-4 defense from the glory days of the Dome Patrol?
OK, forgive the dream, and I’ll begin with the caveat that it’s completely unlikely to even be a thought, but play along if you will… What if the New Orleans Saints went to a 3-4 defense?
First off you know that teams draft and pick up free agents depending on their design and what their strengths are already. The Saints defensive front before the injury to Nick Fairley looked like a solid 4-3 front. You had possibly the most underrated edge defender in the league on one end in Cam Jordan. Beside him you were slotting second year player Sheldon Rankins, who looks to have the makings of a solid defensive tackle. Fairley would line up next to him and the other end would be a revolving door of Alex Okafor, Darryl Tapp, and Obum Gwachum as well as the rookie Trey Hendrickson.
This is a 4-3 lineup. Neither Fairley nor Rankins is truly made up to play nose tackle and sliding Jordan in to play a DT position wouldn’t accentuate his game. So the front doesn’t work. I’ll say it again – the front doesn’t work. The Saints don’t have the properly sized players to play a traditional 3-4. So everything following is something of a fantasy.
Behind that front, things got more interesting. I’m not going to go as far as to say the Saints have a great linebacking corps, but they got more interesting at linebacker in the offseason. The addition of A.J. Klein in the middle has brought a new type of leader there, hopefully one who can lead in the way Jonathan Vilma did. And Manti Te’o is intriguing also. They came up playing the same position and have some of the same attributes. While Te’o’s health is of concern, we can still look at him and Klein playing inside spots.
You’d also have use for Nate Stupar who contributed a good bit last season. And they recently added John Walton; as yet he’s a mystery, but the more depth the better. Individually, none of these guys strikes you as a major stopper, but together they could be interesting.
Before injuries decimated the Saints’ linebacking corps last year (as well as the failed experiment with James Laurinaitis), Craig Robertson started the season on the outside and was playing very well. Could he be that cover guy you need from one of your OLB’s in a 3-4? Or would he rush the QB from the edge?
The Saints drafted Alex Anzalone, who currently looks to be an absolute steal as our 5th draft pick. He is expected to contribute this year in a big way. Maybe he’s another outside guy?
Would there be spots for Michael Mauti and maybe even the oft-maligned Stephone Anthony in this scheme? Hau’oli Kikaha played OLB in college in the 3-4. He plays a hybrid DE/OLB/edge rusher in our current defense. Okafor could also fill that same type role.
On the back end, we now have a plethora of defensive backs. Beyond expected starters Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams, Kenny Vaccaro, and Vonn Bell, we brought back Rafael Bush (who has been having a good camp) and drafted Marcus Williams at the safety spot. They also have Erik Harris who looked decent before the injury bug hit him and Chris Banjo who we picked up last year from Denver when our DB issues surfaced.
On the corners, besides the starters there are several guys who have performed will so far. Ken Crawley has been interesting in camp and he looked to maybe be on the outside looking in with Marshon Lattimore as our first draft pick and Sterling Moore returning. While Damian Swann is probably an afterthought, the coaching staff seems high on rookie Arthur Maulet from New Orleans’ Bonnabel High. De’Vante Harris is still around as well as some other young talent.
All this is mentioned because our strength has shifted from the front to the back. We have more depth and maybe more ability off the line of scrimmage. While it’s understood that personnel dictate the defense, it’s hard to see letting all the acquired talent sit untapped. If the strength is behind the line, then we should look creatively to feature that talent. In fact, it could create a new style of 3-4, where speed in the front 7 as opposed to power becomes desirable.
The move to a 3-4 may be a pie in the sky concept, but the addition of back end talent makes it at least a though provoking prospect. It will be interesting to see, in the regular season, if the Saints try at least on a few occasions to confuse defenses by going with this defense on a few plays.