As some of you know, I've been a bit slow to warm to Jim Haslett's new 3-4 scheme. I realize that Redskins fans have somehow convinced themselves that this transition will be relatively painless, but I'm not so sure.
There's this one little issue of the highest-paid defensive tackle in the league biding his time in Nashville while Haslett installs the defense that Redskins coach Mike Shanahan fell in love with during his football sabbatical. Albert Haynesworth signed up for a 4-3 scheme when he left the Titans for the riches of free agency and he's not convinced the nose tackle role will play to his strengths. For his part, Shanahan doesn't seem to particularly care what Haynesworth thinks and he has attempted to trade him.
But even if Haynesworth eventually finds his way back to Ashburn, Va., it's not as if the Redskins have the perfect personnel for the 3-4. As many as 15 teams are expected to feature a 3-4 base defense -- three down linemen and four linebackers -- in 2010, so it's not like the Skins have arrived early to the party. If they need a point of reference, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers might be a good resource.
He helped the Packers transition to a 3-4 scheme in '09. As my NFC North colleague Kevin Seifert noted, the Packers had the No. 1 defense in the league in early December. But the Packers allowed the Steelers and the Cardinals to combine for 1,000 yards of total offense in two subsequent games, one of which ended their season.
I guess what I'm saying is that the proliferation of 3-4 schemes doesn't necessarily mean it's the only way to go. I seem to recall a couple of 4-3 schemes in the Super Bowl. And we watched the Vikings' 4-3 scheme dismantle Tony Romo and the Cowboys last January.
In trying to prepare Skins fans for the transition, I've reminded them of what their rival Cowboys went through in 2005. In the 4-3, smallish linebackers such as Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen had been highly productive players. Because of his lack of size, Coakley wasn't even around for the transition in '05. Nguyen suffered a neck injury in '05 that ended his career, but I don't think Bill Parcells would've retained him in '06 if he'd been healthy. With that said, maybe you can understand why I have my doubts about Pro Bowl linebacker London Fletcher (listed at 5-foot-10) thriving in Haslett's defense.
If you can think of some 5-10 linebackers who've succeeded in 3-4 schemes in recent years, let me hear from you. Zach Thomas was somewhere in that range, but he actually struggled in Dallas after being a Pro Bowl player for the Dolphins in mostly a 4-3. But knowing that you guys were tired of me constantly doubting Fletcher, I decided to call him to see what he thought of the transition. As you might guess, he's a little tired of hearing the "small" word tossed around.
"I'm not tall, but I'm also not small," Fletcher told me via phone Thursday. "It's not like I'm 220 pounds or something [he's listed at 245]. I've always said that my height works to my advantage. Football's a game of leverage. If you have great technique, it doesn't matter. I constantly work on the fundamentals and that's why I think I can make plays in any scheme."
Shanahan didn't have enough draft picks to select the type of (big) linebackers that most coaches prefer in the 3-4. In that scheme, linebackers often have to take on guards and tackles that outweigh them by nearly 100 pounds. With fewer defensive linemen to protect them, linebackers have to be even more physical in shedding blocks. Pound for pound, Fletcher might be one of the strongest players in the league. But I'm not sure he has enough pounds when Leonard Davis or Chris Snee bears down on him in space.
He'll need some space-eating defensive tackles in front of him, so it would be nice if Haynesworth stopped by Redskins Park at some point.
"If a guard wants to attack me at the second level, that will just open things up for a defensive end or tackle to make a play," Fletcher said. "Someone else will make the play if I do my job."
Fletcher, who's never played in a 3-4 base defense, said he's been "envious" of other players who've excelled in the scheme. He cited Sam Mills and Thomas as vertically challenged players who've succeeded in similar roles to what he'll play.
"I've seen teams have so much success with it, so it's exciting to give it a try," Fletcher said. "Whether you're run blitzing or using zone dogs, it seems like you can cause more adversity for the offense. I've got no problem with that."
The Redskins have put up respectable numbers on defense, but they haven't caused enough turnovers. Haslett believes that a more aggressive approach will lead to those takeaways. In fact, he's asking his players to try to score touchdowns, something Fletcher knows how to do.
"You'll see us out there stripping the ball in every competitive situation in practice," Fletcher said. "And if there's a loose ball, we're scooping it up and taking off in the other direction. We've tried it the other way. I feel like this is the way to go."