Having laid these assumptions out, let’s now do some arithmetic. Let’s look at what happens if a team spreads four wide on offense, how a defense can deal with that and what that means for an offense. In this situation, unless they are going to give the offense a distinct and obvious advantage, a defense will look to use four defenders to cover these receivers with at least one safety over the top – this would leave six defenders in the box. So what does that mean?
Well, if a team plays with four down linemen and we move on with our earlier assumptions, that gives the defense three options: rush four defenders and drop two into coverage, rush five and drop one into coverage or rush six and don’t drop any box defenders into coverage. Given the two ways they can rush five, that means that the offense has to account for four outcomes. How does that change if they use a three-man front?
Here, there are four possibilities: rushing three and dropping three, rushing four and dropping two, rushing five and dropping one and rushing six and not dropping anybody. There are also three different ways they can rush four as well as three different ways they can rush five. This means there are a total of eight different ways they can look to attack the quarterback.
“Overall, being multiple certainly helps,” said former Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. “It adds a layer or two of unpredictability, if you will. I know Ron has some experience with that. That was part of the reason why, honestly, I chose to go to Carolina. And Ron’s background in the 3-4.”
“I think the ability to be multiple and versatile offers a lot of flexibility and offers, at times, some unknowns to an opponent.”
The important point here is that as the offense needs to prepare for a given range of outcomes – these decisions mostly have to be made pre-snap. If the defense chooses to keep the running back in to protect and the defense drops eight, the offense is at a distinct disadvantage; if they don’t get their protection right, they run the risk of allowing a free runner to the quarterback. The more potential rush combinations a defense can bring from a given formation, the higher the chance that the offense makes a mistake.
The following is a play that the Patriots ran against the Jets in the final week of the season:
Here, the Patriots only have one down lineman with five stand-up defenders in the box. This gives them a ridiculous 32 potential rush combinations – the eventual effect is that the guard looks to pass the linebacker off to the running back while the running back looks to pick up another linebacker, leading to a clear run to the quarterback and an errant throw to bring up a long fourth down. This isn’t something that is going to happen on every defensive snap, but by increasing the odds of this happening, the defense generates an advantage in the aggregate. They also get an advantage from the quarterback having more box defenders to read post-snap in order to limit the risk of an interception.
Now, having said all that, it’s probably time to re-examine that first assumption once again. While it is not unreasonable to assume that there would be no change in pass rushing ability based on formation, this isn’t something that can be taken for granted. In a 4-3 defense, a team tends to look to have one tackle between the guard and center, one either over or outside the guard and then two defensive ends outside the tackles. In a 3-4 defense, there is typically a nose tackle over the center, a defensive end over or outside each guard and then an outside linebacker outside each tackle.
While some players fit into both schemes, some players are built to excel in one or the other.
“Because of the style of player that’s coming out of college football today, you have to have guys that attack and those guys aren’t the 6-4, 6-5, 275-285 pound guys, they’re 6-3, 6-4, 250 and you’ve got to be multiple,” Ron Rivera commented about the change of pass rushers body types. “You can’t just line them up at one spot and say ‘OK, here I am,’ you’ve got to be able to move them around and by moving them around, the offense has to locate them.”
The Panthers currently have a couple of players who can play over the center in Dontari Poe and Vernon Butler and have a handful of players who can rush off the edge from a two-point stance, but where they aren’t necessarily in position to run a three-man front is in terms of players who can play outside the guard. Kawann Short is a relatively natural fit in this role, though he is probably better playing in a 4-3, but other than Short, they don’t have any other natural 3-techs. If they resign Wes Horton, he would give them another option in this regard, but another sign that this is something they are really serious about will be if they look to move on from Kyle Love in favor of a more natural 3-tech.
This is a strategy that makes sense for the Panthers if they can use it appropriately – it’s something the Panthers ran at times last season. This might just be something the Panthers plan on doing a bit more in 2019, something they did without a plethora of natural interior pass rushers, but if this is more than that and the Panthers do plan on genuinely running more of a hybrid defense in 2019, that is something that will necessitate them adding more players capable of rushing the quarterback from over the guard.
With free agency and the draft still ahead of them, the degree to which the Panthers are committed to the 3-4 defense remains to be seen, but there will be clues – if the Panthers are going to move from 4-3 to 3-4, they’ll be looking at drafting guys like Brian Burns, Rennell Wren or Dre’Mont Jones – but if the Panthers are investing high draft capital into Montez Sweat or Clelin Ferrell, those are players more suited for the 4-3.