Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.


Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.


As 3-4 fever spreads across NFL, why Vikings may resist changes to defensive system

Posted by: under Quarterbacks, Vikings, NFC, Packers, Super Bowl, Leslie Frazier, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Leslie Frazier Updated: January 17, 2012 - 3:30 PM

Still no word on who the next Vikings defensive coordinator will be. But as Leslie Frazier’s search continues, those holding their breath with hopes the team will abandon its Cover-2 defense to switch to a 3-4 scheme should be advised: such a change is certainly not imminent.

Yes, for the past two months there has been outside chatter wondering whether the Vikings would soon join the 3-4 revolution that’s spreading across the increasingly pass-happy NFL. And yes, when pressed on the potential of such a change, Frazier even said at his Jan. 2 news conference that he’d give it consideration.
 
But to be clear, there doesn’t seem to be a heavy push to abandon the traditional 4-3 system Frazier feels most comfortable with.
 
Not surprisingly, many players have expressed skepticism on whether the implementation of a 3-4 defense would truly be the right prescription to cure last season’s ills.
 
Said one player: “When you build an organization for six years around one defense and you draft that way and structure your team that way personnel-wise, it’s a major change to disrupt that.”
 
Added another: “To me, it really comes down to the fact that we were 3-13 and people are looking for answers. … Really and truly, I think this talk of a scheme change has gotten blown out of proportion a little bit. Truthfully, I don’t think there were flaws in the system we were running. It just comes down to guys doing their jobs.”
 
Ultimately, Frazier will have the final say on what happens with the defense. But certainly he is soliciting input from around the building. So in addition to the thoughts from players, it’s also worth considering the following viewpoint of recently appointed general manager Rick Spielman.
 
“Again, I think all kinds of schemes win,” Spielman said. “It’s not just the 3-4. It’s not that if you run a 4-3, you can’t win a championship. That’s not true. So it’s that guy in the head coaching seat’s responsibility to look at it and determine ‘Can I win a championship with this scheme?’ And then from there, it’s my responsibility to really understand what that scheme is and understand that if we’re going to run that scheme, I need to know exactly what kind of personnel we’re going to have to get. And we’re going to do our part and get the personnel for that scheme. But you can’t stop and simplify it to say that there’s only one scheme that works.”
 
Spielman points out that as the general manager in Miami in 2004 and the first part of ‘05, he was in the middle of a system overhaul when the head coaching transition from Dave Wannstedt to Nick Saban also came with a 4-3 to 3-4 conversion.
 
“I know the transition it takes to convert a 3-4 defense from a personnel standpoint,” Spielman said. “That’s not an easy task. It’s a pretty dramatic change.”
 
Who knows? Maybe Spielman is a good poker player and truly open to a defensive overhaul. But the Vikings also have to consider their defensive core, too. Jared Allen, the defense’s biggest star, has been outspoken about his resistance to a scheme change.
 
“Everybody knows where I stand as far as 3-4 vs. 4-3,” Allen said again Monday. “I don’t anticipate it going that way. By any means. So I haven’t given that any focus. We all hear the rumors, too. But I have to have faith and put my trust in the organization. They brought me here for a reason. And I think they’re going to do what’s best for this organization as a whole. For me, my position is with my hand down, coming off the edge. I have to hope they keep me there. … My biggest thing is I started my career as a defensive end, I’m going to end my career as a defensive end. I don’t need to start playing linebacker and learning new positions and covering people.”
 
Allen’s feelings have to be taken into account. And it’s safe to say Kevin Williams wouldn’t be thrilled with the switch either, so much more of a playmaker at the defensive tackle position than a guy resigned to filling space, occupying blockers and letting the linebackers behind him roam free to make plays.
 
So in some ways, any advantages the Vikings might gain by switching to a 3-4 could be quickly offset by the new demands it would put on their established standouts.
 
Yes, as the Vikings go forward, Spielman will make an obvious push to make the roster younger. He has repeatedly said that, in his new role, he needs to assure that the team is planning not just for 2012 but for 2013 and 2014 and even beyond as the roster gets shaken up like a Boggle tray.So in that regard, Spielman’s long-term vision will require him to not be easily swayed by the demands of aging players. Allen turns 30 in April and Williams will be 32 by the start of next season. But those are also two of the best players the Vikings have, two well-liked and respected veterans who hold a strong presence in the locker room. So making changes that would potentially alienate and upset them would not be wise.
 
In house, there have been acknowledgments of how a switch could prove advantageous. Implementing the 3-4 could equip the Vikings to be more creative and versatile. The 3-4, after all, offers greater opportunity to move personnel around and more chances to disguise blitzes and coverages. Ideally, it would allow the Vikings to become faster and more agile. Safeties would have opportunities to blitz more. Linebackers and linemen would be asked to drop into coverage more often.
 
At its best, the 3-4 creates confusion for opposing linemen and quarterbacks, a must in an era where life has become increasingly easy for passing attacks to flourish. And it is worth noting that with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler thriving in the NFC North, the Vikings need to be honest about where they need to head to close the gap.
 
It’s also worth noting that three of the teams still alive to win this year’s Super Bowl (Baltimore, San Francisco and New England) employ some variations of the 3-4. The Packers and Texans did too.
 
All that said, there is also some belief that one terrible 3-13 year shouldn’t cause widespread panic for a defense that has had notable success in the recent past.
 
“I think it’s so many people on the outside searching for answers,” one player said. “And you see a lot of successful teams running the 3-4. But go back and look at it. Before this season, I think four of the past five years we were a top five defense against the run. And heck, I’d bet we were a top 10 defense overall four of the [previous] five years as well. I think we can still be successful with what we’re in. We just have to get some players in here that can help us and plug the holes where we need help.”
 
Indeed, those stats check out.
 
And even Frazier has expressed his belief in not rushing to make drastic changes simply based on outside perceptions and pressures. In the final week of the regular season, the Vikings coach stressed the importance of staying true to his beliefs.
 
“What I’ve tried to do with our players is remain committed to what I think is right,” Frazier said. “There is great value in having a clear vision and stating what the plan is. And you can’t deviate from your plans and vision just because of outside circumstances.”
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