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Updated: November 18th, 2011 1:26am
Pelissero: Switching to 3-4 defense not as crazy as Vikings may think

Pelissero: Switching to 3-4 defense not as crazy as Vikings may think

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- If there were ever a time for the Minnesota Vikings to scrap their derivation of the Tampa-2 defensive scheme, this is it.

Not this week. Not this season. That'd be next to impossible for a variety of reasons.

But there's little question the Vikings will have to make significant changes to their defensive personnel this offseason. So, why not at least consider a major schematic change as well -- a conversation that inevitably would turn to the NFL-wide trend towards 3-4 base fronts?

"We're a 4-3 team, and we've got to do the things that are necessary to help us be successful in the 4-3," coach Leslie Frazier said on Thursday. "I believe in it. We've had success with it. There are other teams that are 4-3 teams that are having success.

"Being 4-3 versus 3-4 is not our problem, I don't think."

Frazier is right there. The Vikings' problems go far beyond the conceptual. And it's hard to imagine their head coach abandoning a scheme he has espoused for so long.

The idea isn't as crazy as it might sound on the surface, though, even for a franchise that has spent decades acquiring players with the skill sets and body types for the 4-3.

"They wouldn't be too far away," said a personnel director for an NFL team that runs a 3-4 defense. "You'd be talking (finding) a traditional nose tackle, and you'd be talking about, what kind of scheme are you going to run?"

Building a heavy-handed, downhill, two-gap front would take time. A penetrating, one-gap scheme could allow the Vikings to get away with smaller players in the short term, and they have some decent fits on the roster.

Kevin Williams is made for the five-technique defensive end spot. Erin Henderson or E.J. Henderson could thump and play downhill at the Mike linebacker. Chad Greenway would be protected enough at the Will to chase down plays.

Jared Allen and Brian Robison don't have ideal coverage ability for 3-4 outside linebackers, but that's less important than getting a pass rush and setting the edge in run defense.

"The concern is always do you have the people, the bodies, to fit the scheme," an executive for another 3-4 team said. "It also depends who your coordinator is."

Dom Capers replaced first-time NFL coordinator Bob Sanders after Green Bay finished 20th in total defense in 2008 and installed his fire-zone scheme, a descendent of the NFL's longest-running 3-4 in Pittsburgh. The Packers finished No. 2 each of the past two seasons, winning the Super Bowl in the latter.

Wade Phillips replaced first-time NFL coordinator Frank Bush and installed his one-gap version of the 3-4 with Houston this offseason. Through 10 games, the Texans have gone from No. 30 in total defense in 2010 to No. 1.

The evolution of spread offenses forces every team to play loads of subpackages, regardless of how they structure their base fronts. But the ability to mix blitzes and coverages from a variety of looks has more teams shifting towards 3-4 personnel than at any time since the scheme's first heyday in the 1980s.

"I think there's 14 teams right now that are running a version of the 3-4," the personnel director said. "It allows you flexibility in the front. It gets one more athlete on the field. You can disguise your pressure a little bit more, and it just gives you some flexibility in terms of how you want to do things with your front seven."

It's not a bulletproof plan by any stretch. San Francisco's flop in 2005 and '06 under Mike Nolan is perhaps the most glaring example of what can go wrong. Even Green Bay has struggled this season, notwithstanding a dominant, remarkably blitz-heavy performance in Monday's blowout of the Vikings at Lambeau Field.

Selling the scheme can be a tough task, too, particularly to those players who have achieved significant success in the 4-3. Aaron Kampman pushed back when Capers took over in Green Bay and left after the season. Houston's Mario Williams was a fish out of water at times on first and second downs before his season-ending injury.

It's a safe bet Allen -- who has played his whole career in the 4-3, leads the NFL with 13½ sacks and is due $11,619,850 next season -- would have major preoccupations about the shift, and the personnel department would scuffle with standing him up, too. Finding the right coordinator to not only implement the scheme, but gain the trust of everyone involved is paramount.

"You can't just get up on that horse and ride it," the personnel director said. "You've got to know how it works and know all the fits and the combination of coverages that go with it."

The biggest issue may be whether the Vikings have anything salvageable in a depleted secondary that has been protected for years by the zone concepts of the Tampa-2. Antoine Winfield still can play some man-to-man, but Cedric Griffin's knees are shot, Chris Cook always has been better suited to zone and there's nothing special at safety.

The Vikings also would need a nose tackle, but they need one of those anyway. They'd need a second end if Christian Ballard isn't ready to hold down the strong side, but those aren't players you pay much to play the 3-4.

The core positions in any 3-4 scheme are nose tackle and outside linebacker -- spots the Packers wasted no time filling by drafting B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews with their top two picks in the 2009 NFL Draft.

"It takes you almost two full years to feel comfortable with the personnel that you have on that side of the ball, to really feel comfortable that you've got it locked and loaded," the personnel director said. "And I'm talking a full three-year draft cycle, two full classes of free agency, where you have the ability to get those players in place, because to run that defense, there's some prototypical standards that you have to have."

The Henderson brothers can become free agents in March. So can safeties Husain Abdullah and Tyrell Johnson, defensive tackle Letroy Guion and nose tackle Fred Evans.

The likes of Williams and Winfield may be candidates for restructured contracts. Nose tackle Remi Ayodele has been a bust. Griffin might simply be finished and Cook continues to await trial on a felony domestic assault charge.

In other words, the Vikings are in for turnover on defense regardless of whether they dump the Tampa-2 or not.

"It's a solid defense. It's a good defense," said Fred Pagac, the Vikings' first-time NFL coordinator. "... You've got to be able to play the coverage and count on the people up front to get going. If you go to a 3-4 scheme, you have to change your personnel."

That doesn't make this the right time to do it. But it's the right time to have the conversation.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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