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Updated: January 8th, 2014 6:02pm
Zulgad: Vikings currently have carte blanche to switch to 3-4 defense

Zulgad: Vikings currently have carte blanche to switch to 3-4 defense

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Minnesota Vikings were nearing the end of a 3-13 season in 2011 when rumors began to circulate that coach Leslie Frazier might be asked to give up on his signature defense, the Tampa-2, and transition to a 3-4 look.

This sent media members scurrying to Jared Allen's locker at Winter Park to find out how the Pro Bowl defensive end felt about making the move to an outside linebacker spot.

The look on Allen's face was somewhere between, "you are kidding me, right?" and "they wouldn't dare."

Allen made it clear he had no interest in rushing quarterbacks from a stand-up position and that if such a change did occur the odds were great that he would be a former Viking by 2012.

Fast forward two years and the subject of the Vikings going to a 3-4 look has resurfaced. Only this time it makes perfect sense and there is nothing standing in the Vikings' way.

Frazier was fired last month after a 5-10-1 finish and Allen is expected to depart in free agency. Longtime defensive tackle Kevin Williams likely will do the same.

This means that general manager Rick Spielman, the team's new coaching hire and new defensive coordinator are going to be presented with a blank canvas when it comes to what type of defensive scheme is employed.

The only thing we can say for certain is that the Vikings are no longer going to run the Tampa-2, which utilizes the 4-3 look, as its base defense.

Nonetheless, any suggestion that the Vikings might go to a 3-4 has been met with concern from some because of the current personnel.

That is not an issue.

The Vikings, who are ranked 31st in the NFL this season in total defense and dead last in points allowed per game, are in need of help at nose tackle, right end, middle and weak-side linebacker, right cornerback, nickel corner and one safety position.

This list is constructed with the team playing the 4-3, meaning the defense has four down linemen and three linebackers.

If the Vikings make the move to a 3-4, they actually might be able to eliminate one need.

That's because Everson Griffen, a fourth-round pick in 2010 who is due to hit the free-agent market this offseason, would probably be more likely to return to the Vikings if they go to a 3-4. He'd also become a better player.

Griffen's eyes lit up last summer when he was asked about getting the opportunity to rush the passer from outside linebacker. Griffen was asked to play some linebacker in 2012 for the Vikings but he clearly wasn't comfortable doing it in a 4-3. It would be a different story if he was standing up and rushing the passer.

The Vikings also could attempt to use Brian Robison as an outside linebacker and employ Chad Greenway inside, meaning that one linebacker spot would have to be filled. Robison signed a four-year contract extension this season, but he has said he wouldn't balk at the scheme switch. Current rostered players such as Audie Cole, Michael Mauti or Gerald Hodges could compete for the other linebacker spot, or it could be filled externally or via the NFL Draft.

The line would need some shuffling in a 3-4, but there's going to be change up front regardless of what happens. What the Vikings really would need is a big presence at nose tackle who could clog the middle.

This is more important in a 3-4 than a 4-3, but, keep in mind, the Vikings defense was at its best when big, run-stuffing Pat Williams was playing the nose. Things haven't been the same since Williams departed and a replacement needs to be found.

One of the end positions would be expected to go to Sharrif Floyd, the first of the Vikings' three opening-round picks in 2013. Floyd should be a starter in 2014 regardless of scheme, but would play inside at the 3-technique in the 4-3, replacing Kevin Williams.

The defensive backfield has two sure things in cornerback Xavier Rhodes, also a first-round pick in 2013, and safety Harrison Smith. But any way you look at it, this team needs to find a replacement for Chris Cook at right corner and another safety. That could be Andrew Sendejo but the job is likely to be wide open come training camp.

As far as using extra defensive backs in passing situations, it doesn't matter what system the Vikings' run, they need to get better on the back end.

This isn't to say the move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 would cure what ails this defense. The only way to do that is by upgrading the personnel.

But if Spielman and his hires believe the 3-4 presents an opportunity for a quicker turnaround there is nothing stopping them from making that change as soon as possible.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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