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It might be time for the Baltimore Ravens to walk away from a 3-4 defense

In this article, I'm going to center a lot around the value of a 3-4 outside linebacker and how hard they are to replace in that scheme mainly due to their pass rushing abilities. 3-4 defensive ends who can also rush the passer are hard to find in the NFL. Combine those two things and that is why I think that the Ravens should make a full switch to a 4-3 defense.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Between the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, they both provide value to certain teams. Among the top 10 defenses in the NFL in terms of points allowed, five teams run a 4-3 defense and five teams run a 3-4 defense. Both defensive formations have their benefits but in the Baltimore Ravens case, they would be better suited to switch to a 4-3 defense.

Earlier this season, I wrote an article saying that the Ravens should go to a 4-3 defense which also discusses how the Ravens already have key players in place to play a 4-3 defense and as the season goes on, it becomes more convincing in my opinion.

Yes, in order for the Ravens to adapt to a 4-3 defense, coaching changes especially at defensive coordinator, will have to happen most likely. But so be it. The reason why I'm pushing for a switch to a 4-3 defense not only has to do with the financial circumstances with the Ravens salary cap wise, but also in terms of where the NFL is heading with the way officials continue to call games tight against players in the secondary across the league.

Things to consider:

1.) Elite 3-4 outside linebackers are expensive

We all know the Ravens have a lot of decisions to make in terms of their salary cap space at the moment as Brian McFarland of noted in many of his articles and quite frankly, the components needed to have the best defense you can have in a 3-4 scheme is expensive which is why people should appreciate even more of what Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is able to do when he is healthy.

Suggs is one of the few outside linebackers in the NFL who can rush the passer, stop the run and play in coverage. The majority of NFL teams don't even have one guy like that let alone two. And obviously, teams are not stacked with four outside linebackers on their roster who can play all three phases of the game the way Suggs can.

Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil is an elite pass rusher, but he can't stop the run or play in coverage the way Suggs can. It's hard for any outside linebacker to do that and they are expensive to keep if they can play all three phases.

Suggs signed a contract with the Ravens in 2009 that was worth over 60 million dollars when he was in his 20's. Fast forward to six years later and the demand for a player like Suggs wouldn't come cheap in any way shape or form.

Over the past several years, the Ravens have drafted projects like Paul Kruger, Sergio Kindle, Pernell McPhee, Za'Darius Smith all guys who coming out of the draft were used to putting their hands in the dirt but the Ravens tried to mold them into making them stand up and play in a 3-4 outside linebacker scheme and I think the idea of the Ravens running projects at outside linebacker that way has run it's course.

The rules in the NFL these days the way it is so slanted in the favor of offenses has created a situation where teams have to find "Specialists" on defense. NFL teams have to find situational pass rushers, situational run stopping linebackers, bringing in coverage linebackers in obvious passing down situations and even bringing in safeties their front seven to play inside linebacker on some occasions and many more.

The days of finding three down linebackers who can play the game well in all three phases are becoming harder to find because offenses are taking advantage of the rules. Offenses are opening things up more in the passing game which is why the involvement of tight ends in the passing game has been a problem for defenses around the league.

It's hard to keep two elite outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense while you have money committed at the quarterback position the way a lot of NFL teams do and it's even harder to find them. The Ravens found out in 2007 how hard it is to keep two elite outside linebackers when they let Adalius Thomas go in free agency when knowing that they had to retain a younger Suggs at the time.

When you have a defense with two outstanding outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense, you center your defense a lot on what they can do in every down situations. And if either of them go down with an injury, your defense takes a hit because you don't have the depth to replace your starting outside linebacker who can do things that only a few can accomplish which is what the Ravens found out when Suggs tore his Achilles in week 1 of this season.

3-4 outside linebackers also run the risk of getting tired over the course of the game because they are not easily replaceable. Their production creates good opportunities for everyone else on defense.

When you run a 4-3 defense, finding pass rushing defensive linemen who can stop the run as well is EASIER. not a lot easier, but easier nonetheless. They are also cheaper.

4-3 defensive ends are the type of players you can find in the late rounds of every NFL draft because they already know how to go forward in the direction of a quarterback and a running back. They don't know how to go backwards and drop into coverage generally speaking unless you teach them and that is a hard learning curve in itself.

But with 4-3 defensive ends, if you structure your roster accordingly to a 4-3 defense, they don't get tired because there is an 8-9 man rotation of defensive linemen who feel a bit fresh toward the end of games. The Cincinnati Bengals defense runs a 4-3 and if you watch the Ravens play the Bengals a lot, you notice that their defensive linemen don't get tired near the end of games while they still have the ability to put pressure on Flacco because they always rotate bodies.

You can also look at an extreme example of the 2000 Ravens defense. The Ravens went five straight games without scoring a touchdown that year and still won the Super Bowl because of that legendary defense. When you get on the field as many times as that 2000 Ravens defense did, naturally you would have to think that they were tired right? No.

One of the main reasons why the 2000 Ravens defense wasn't tired because they ran a 4-3 defense that just rotated bodies along their front four time and time again.

In a league where officials don't have a clue as to what holding, illegal contact and pass interference is in the secondary, a defense that can put pressure on their front four without worrying about the amount of depth they have at linebacker or in the secondary due to an injury  or talent is beneficial and it's cheap because once again, 4-3 defensive ends are easier to find than quality 3-4 outside linebackers.

When you have a 4-3 defense that has pass rushing depth that can send pressure with their front four, you put less responsibility on your secondary which can also lead to not allowing the game to put in the referees hands which we have all seen the Ravens have a problem with this year.


In the Ravens case, they don't have the financial ability at the moment to spread the wealth around especially not if the league salary cap doesn't increase by a good margin next season and beyond.

Top of the line bookend pass rushers in a 3-4 defense who are young are expensive. In a scenario, how does a good NFL team with a stable quarterback situation pay two of their elite outside linebackers that way knowing that they have a quarterback to pay and other areas on the team to pay as well? And if one of the outside linebackers goes in free agency, the team has to find another young outside linebacker to replace them. It's not easy to replace them.

A 3-4 defense requires talent and it is a great defense to have when you have a lot of talent on defense. The Ravens saw that when they had the following:

  • A young Ray Lewis
  • A young Ed Reed
  • A young Terrell Suggs
  • A young Kelly Gregg
  • A young Chris McAlister
  • A young Bart Scott
  • A young Peter Boulware
  • A young Haloti Ngata
  • A young Adalius Thomas
  • A young Dawan Landry
  • A young Jarrett Johnson
  • Veteran experience with Samari Rolle

A 3-4 defense works well when you have that kind of talent the way the Ravens did in the early to late 2000's. The Ravens don't have that anymore and I think it is time that they go in a new direction considering the financial situation of the team and the 4-3 pass rushing gems they can find in the late rounds of the NFL draft every year.

Suggs and Dumervil are not getting younger. They are both in their 30's with retirement in the near future and they still have a place on this team in my opinion.This isn't about what Suggs and Dumervil are doing at the moment but  about how the Ravens need brace themselves for the future because of the way the league is trending.