New Orleans – When it comes to the pair of dominant defensive linemen in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday evening, Haloti Ngata of the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers’ Justin Smith, forget the old, semi-rhetorical Superman question: “Is it a bird, is it a plane?”
Better to ask about each of the Pro Bowl linemen: “Is he an end or a tackle?”
In the case of Ngata and Smith, each of whom have earned four Pro Bowl berths, the answer is that they are a little of each. Not all that long ago, referring to a “hybrid” defender in the classic 3-4 defensive front meant talking about a linebacker who could move up and play “rush end” in passing situations. Think, say, James Harrison or LaMarr Woodley of Pittsburgh, or any of the others in the long line of star outside ‘backers the Steelers’ style of 3-4 has produced over the past 20 years.
But given the manner in which the two Super Bowl XLVII defensive fronts align, the “hybrid” terminology has taken on new meaning.
“I’m both, really,” Ngata told 92.9 The Game on Wednesday morning. “There are times when I’m in the ‘3’ (technique) and other times when I’m in the ‘5’ technique. It really suits my strengths. It’s fun and it (affords) me the best matchups.”
For the uninformed, and simplifying things a bit, the two techniques are pretty much “scout-ese” for where the defender aligns. A “three technique” lineman is usually over the outside shoulder of the guard. The “five technique” lineman typically is positioned over the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. In the classic 3-4 defenses of not all that long ago, like in Pittsburgh, ends generally played the “5” technique, and were asked to be 300-pound, sacrificial-lamb run-stuffers who rarely rushed the quarterback and actually posted few tackles. The linebackers, by design, were the primary playmakers.
In most drafts, “5” technique ends, at least the way they used to play, were difficult to unearth. But the rise of Ngata and Smith, and guys like J.J. Watt of Houston, who often sinks down inside over slower guards on obvious passing downs, has helped fill the void. Ironically, both Ngata and Smith are listed in some NFL-operated sites as ends. But each considers himself a tackle, they emphasized here this week. Smith isn’t quite as big as the 340-pound Ngata, whose movement skills are amazing for a man his size, but is every bit as nasty.
Clearly, the 3-4 defense, as with everything in football, has evolved the past few years. And the fronts utilized by the Ravens and the 49ers are reflective of how much the defense has recently shifted. And how much the 3-4 fronts figure to change over the next few seasons, too, with the emergence of “spread” offenses and the popularity of the zone-option read quarterbacks in the league.
“I think it’s a reflection of that and also how ridiculously talented and athletic some of the linemen are who are coming into the league now,” acknowledged Baltimore linebacker Paul Kruger, the Ravens’ sack leader (nine) this season. “People always say, ‘Well, it’s a big man’s game, right?’ Well, it’s become about big men who can move, and (Ngata) and Smith are two great examples of that.”
The discussion of 3-4 fronts is relevant in Atlanta because there has been considerable speculation that the Falcons will transition to the defense in 2013. Coach Mike Smith is a longtime 4-3 proponent. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, while regarded as late as more of a 3-4 guy, actually coached the 4-3 much earlier in his career. But changing to a 3-4 look will mean much more than simply flipping the switch and changing schemes and philosophies for the Falcons. From a purely personnel standpoint, it’s difficult to fathom how Atlanta can quickly convert to the 3-4 defense, but talk persists that the Falcons will switch.
Notably, this is the second time in three seasons, and the third time in five years, that both Super Bowl entries feature 3-4 defenses. The pendulum seems to swing back and forth, and there clearly are cycles, but the 3-4 may be back on the rise. There were 13 teams that primarily used the 3-4 as their “base” defense in 2012, probably the lowest number in the past 7-8 years. The number will fluctuate again in 2013, and some of the transitions will bear watching, mostly because, like the Falcons, of perceived personnel fits.
Long a 4-3 team, New Orleans will, coach Sean Payton announced last week, move to a 3-4. Dallas, which has been a 3-4 defense for about six years now, will change over to a 4-3 front, perhaps forcing pass-rush terror DeMarcus Ware to play end. But the play of Smith and Ngata, and the profile each will receive by having performed in the Super Bowl, could add to the popularity of the 3-4 defense.
On a pertinent note, Ngata credits 92.9 The Game personality of Pro Football Today colleague Chuck Smith, who was on the Ravens’ staff early in the defensive lineman’s career, for having emphasized hand movement and placement, and the kind of explosiveness that has made him a Pro Bowl regular.
Said the Niners’ Justin Smith, who, like Ngata, is a former first-round draft pick: “Because of the way (offenses) are changing, teams have to change defenses, too, and the 3-4, with the different looks that it affords you, is flexible enough to change. Time was, when a 3-4 end would have maybe two sacks a year, if he was lucky. But now, you’re seeing the (3-4) ends asked to do a lot more, including rush the quarterback at times.”
To that end, and reflective of the manner in which some priorities have shifted, Ngata has registered 15 ½ sacks the past three seasons, after collecting only 6 ½ sacks his first four campaigns. Smith has 75 ½ sacks in 12 NFL seasons. While many came when he was a 4-3 end during his first seven seasons in Cincinnati, he maintains, even in the 3-4, the ability to collapse the pocket at times.
“I don’t know if this game will change people’s minds (about the 3-4),” Ngata said here on Wednesday. “But I know it’s a copycat league, and when somebody sees a team being successful playing a certain way, they want to do it, too. Right now, it’s kind of the hot thing to do.”