It is certainly a “new day” in Oakland, as head coach Dennis Allen pointed out in his press conference. The latest development comes in the form of new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. And with his arrival, the Raiders look to be in for a new defensive scheme.
To say Tarver is well-versed in the 3-4 would be an understatement of sorts. He coached at Stanford last season and prior to that he had been on the 49ers coaching staff for ten seasons. In every one of those seasons, the team for which he coached ran the 3-4 defense.
He started out in the NFL with the 49ers as Defensive Quality Control in 2001. He was promoted to outside linebackers coach in 2005 and held that position for the 49ers for six seasons — and four different head coaches. During his time there, the linebackers enjoyed considerable success under his tutelage. He got the best seasons out of Manny Lawson and Ahmad Brooks in 2009. Both had career highs in sacks and forced fumbles that season while the 49ers had the fourth ranked defense in the NFL.
Last season, when David Shaw replaced Jim Harbaugh as head coach at Stanford, Shaw offered Tarver the job of co-defensive coordinator with the Cardinal. Tarver accepted and he instituted the same 3-4 defense with the Cardinal as he had coached with the 49ers over six seasons. The results spoke for themselves.
Last season Stanford had one of the best defenses in the nation. The Cardinal ranked either first or second in the conference in six defensive categories, including rushing defense (1st; 84.4), third-down conversion defense (1st; 31.1), scoring defense (2nd; 21.9), total defense (2nd; 337.6), sacks per-game (2nd; 3.0), and opponent first downs (2nd; 17.5). Stanford finished third nationally in rushing defense, sixth in third down conversion defense (31.0; 51-164), and 11th in sacks per game (3.0).
If we were talking about an SEC school like LSU or Alabama, being one of the best defenses in all of college football wouldn’t mean a whole lot. Those schools routinely get the best defenders in the nation to play for them and therefore they dominate the competition. But, while Stanford is no San Jose State, they aren’t at the top of many recruiting lists either. And they also suffer somewhat for having higher GPA entry standards. The difference is coaching.
The Raiders recognized Tarver’s coaching prowess and hired him as the defensive coordinator. Tarver was not their first choice but only because he was a college coach and the team exhausted their NFL coaching search before looking at the college ranks.
Other coaches in whom the Raiders showed interest were Chiefs secondary coach Emmitt Thomas, Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson, Broncos linebacker coach Richard Smith, former Chargers and 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, and Packers secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr.
Of these candidates, Manusky, Whitt Jr, and Thomas all are from 3-4 defensive backgrounds. Manusky was the only candidate of the bunch who actually interviewed, as the others’ teams denied the Raiders permission. Manusky has also worked in the 3-4 as a defensive coordinator for the past five years and going back to 2004 when he was the linebackers coach with the Chargers.
Manusky was the defensive coordinator for the 49ers during the years in which Tarver was the outside linebackers coach. But while the Raiders passed on hiring Manusky, they found their guy in Tarver.
General Manager Reggie McKenzie spent 18 seasons in the Packers’ front office while the Packers ran the 3-4 scheme. He also played as a 3-4 with the Raiders in the early 90’s. He said in his press conference announcing him as the new GM that his choice of a head coach was not dependent upon whether they came from a 3-4 defensive scheme or a West Coast offensive scheme. He also said that Dennis Allen would be picking his own staff but emphasized that this was a “team effort” between him and Allen.
Allen himself in his press conference said he is not a believer in labeling a defensive scheme.
“I think a lot of times way too much is made out of whether you’re a 4-3 or a 3-4,” said Allen. “That’s just amount of defensive linemen or linebackers that you put out on the field. We’re gonna be multiple in the way that we line up. We’re gonna do a lot of different things on defense. Again, we going to be attacking and aggressive in a bunch of different areas. I don’t really get hung up on the 4-3, 3-4 personnel. We’re going to find out what our players can do best. We’re going to put them in the best situation that we can so that we can play the game at the highest level.”
Going by this explanation of what Allen would like to see in the Raiders’ defense, we can expect a hybrid style defense much like we saw when John Marshall was coaching in Oakland in 2010. The Raiders gave a lot of different looks to the offense and the result was more blitzes than we had seen in Oakland in a long time. It also resulted in some of the best sack numbers in the NFL. The same defenders last season under Bresnahan saw a drastic drop in productivity. Again, the difference is coaching.
And if Allen and Tarver believe this team is ready for the 3-4 defense this season, they will make the switch. If not, it will begin as a 4-3 base with 3-4 plays mixed in until the team has the personnel to do it.