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Signs point to Raiders switching to 3-4 defense

For the past few years now the question has been asked: will the Raiders switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme? Well, it appears there is some evidence that time may have finally come.

The most recent clue came from new General Manager Reggie McKenzie. I asked him during the Raiders’ press conference whether his experience in the 3-4 and the West Coast offense would play any part in who he selected in a head coach. This was his response:

“Ultimately, no. But once we get down to specifics and the presentation and I look into that, yes. That’s what I’m familiar with. But I’m OK with anything that works and helps you win. But that is what I’m accustomed to.”

McKenzie is indeed very familiar with the 3-4 defense — the defense the Packers have deployed during his time as an executive there. It is also the scheme in which he played during his days as a Raider.

The Raiders were a long time 3-4 defense. In fact they won all three of their Super Bowls in the scheme. While Al Davis was a hard-nosed believer in the man defense, he once was a firm believer in the 3-4 defense as well.

The reason the rumor of a 3-4 switch has been swirling in recent years is the player acquisitions the Raiders have been making. First they traded for 3-4 defensive end Richard Seymour from the Patriots. Since then they have traded for 3-4 outside linebackers Kamerion Wimbley, Quentin Groves, and Aaron Curry. In the draft, they have chosen players like Lamarr Houston who was a defensive tackle in college and then switched him to defensive end. They also chose Travis Goethel who is an ideal inside linebacker.

The most recent signing that holds some hint of a scheme switch went under the radar: the signing of nose tackle Travis Ivey to a Reserve/Futures contract. Yes, I said nose tackle. Signing a player who is a nose tackle by trade is one bit of evidence. But if you go to the Raiders’ roster page, they even have him listed as a nose tackle. A 4-3 defense doesn’t have nose tackles.

Getting back to what McKenzie said, his primary reason for firing Hue Jackson was that he wanted his guy in there. Well, being with the Packers for 18 years would suggest that one of his guys would have coached for the Packers. This would make his top head coaching candidates 3-4 guys as well.

The top candidate right now appears to be Packers linebackers coach and assistant head coach, Winston Moss. Moss is another player who once suited up in the Silver & Black during his playing days. And, like McKenzie, Moss played linebacker in the Raiders’ 3-4 defense. He has now coached the linebackers for the past six seasons in Green Bay and has served as the assistant head coach for the past five seasons.

So, what would the Raiders’ current roster look like in a 3-4 defense? The only issues I see are not having a legit nose tackle and having an over-abundance of starter quality talent on the defensive line. There is, of course, the issue of not having enough linebackers, but that will always be an issue when a team makes the switch from 4-3 to 3-4.

Trevor Scott has played both defensive end and linebacker for the Raiders. He could be switched to 3-4 OLB as a backup to Wimbley. Rolando McClain would be far more suited for inside linebacker than middle linebacker because he would no longer be in charge of lining up the entire defense. He also wouldn’t have to cover three inside gaps along the line by himself — a duty at which he has failed thus far.

The other outside linebacker spot would be a bit of a question mark. The Raiders have two outside linebackers on the team currently that could fill the spot in Aaron Curry and Quentin Groves. Groves is likely moving on and Curry will either benefit from the switch or get benched in favor of a free agent acquisition.  It is also possible Scott could move to that side and start as well.

The Raiders have an abundance of players who could line up at 3-4 defensive end. The question then becomes who starts where and who gets benched.

Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly are the main issues on the defensive line. Both are best suited for 4-3 defensive tackle. Kelly is more suited for 3-4 defensive end than nose tackle. Seymour is a former 3-4 DE, however the switch to 3 technique defensive tackle resurrected his career. As a 3-4 DE in New England, he hadn’t made the Pro Bowl in his final two seasons there as well as his first season playing DE in Oakland. He has now made two straight Pro Bowls since being switched to defensive tackle. A switch back to defensive end might not be the best idea for him and his talents would be wasted at nose tackle. At 335 lbs, John Henderson has the body to play nose tackle but there is no telling if he would accept that role and he isn’t an every down player at this stage of his career anyway.

The other starters are Matt Shaughnessy and Lamarr Houston. Shaughnessy is the clearcut starter if the Raiders were forced to choose between them. If both were to start outside, it would mean that one of either Seymour or Kelly would be benched and I don’t see that happening. So Houston would likely take a backseat in the deal. Desmond Bryant would make for an ideal 3-4 defensive end and would provide very solid depth behind whomever starts.

The switch presents some issues at first and it won’t be ideal. But rarely are fresh starts easy. And with McKenzie’s eye for talent, especially for 3-4 linebackers, there could be some new pieces brought into the mix that would contribute immediately and make the switch far more seamless than it would be otherwise.

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