When watching a Wade Phillips coached 34 defense, the viewer will notice certain principles that are consistent at all times. Firstly, the strong side linebacker will play either run or pass and can do so standing or in a three-point stance.
This is Khalil Mack’s role in the defense. If his assignment or his read is to play run he can do it multiple ways. If he is hyper athletic like Mack, then he will attack the tight end in a pass rush technique, and use his abilities to recover inside. Less athletic players when playing run will take on the tight end head up, control him, then work inside. In Phillips’ defense, both techniques are acceptable as long as the player is able to get inside the tight end to control that cap. What differentiates Phillips’ 34 from traditional 34 defenses, is he has allowed it to evolve into a primarily one gap system as opposed to a two gap system, which fits much of what the Raiders do.
The defensive ends in this defense are given significant freedom. When Phillips was coaching the Texans he had JJ Watt playing the strong side defensive end and when he was in Buffalo he had Bruce Smith as the weak side defensive end. They functionally did the same things, they shot gaps because they were hyper athletic. Larger strongside defensive ends play head up over the tackle.
In Dallas, Phillips had Marcus Spears who was 6’4, 298 pounds with long arms. The Raiders have Denico Autry to play this role, and his combination of speed with long arms allows him to hold his man up or penetrate. They can choose to use a combination of Leon Orr, Stacy McGee, or Shelby Harris to play this role in different ways. The key is, they all fit the basic dimensions of the position and can accomplish the gap control principle through a technique that fits them best.
The weakside defensive end is Mario Edwards, and he has proven to be an elite athletic talent that can recover from misreads or technique failures in ways many players cannot. These players unlike the strongside players, tend to be more pass rush oriented and will stunt frequently. Shelby Harris and Denico Autry can both play this position.
The nose tackle is a key distinction between what Phillips did in Dallas compared to what the Raiders do currently. In Dallas, Phillips had Jay Ratliff who was 6’1 and 290 pounds playing nose tackle. In this case, Phillips let the nose tackle be a one gap penetrator more resembling the typical 43 three technique made famous by Warren Sapp.
The Raiders do not have this player on roster, nor have they pursued a player in build or skill set. What they have chosen instead is to have two pure nose tackles in Dan Williams and Justin Ellis. Both fit the traditional mold for a nose tackle being 6’2 or shorter and 315 pounds and up. More importantly, both do the same job.
Both Williams and Ellis fill space inside and play a more read and react style that is essentially two gapping. When they are asked to take more that one blocker, they are moved into a shade position lining up over the strong side shoulder of the center and they force the offensive line to use two blockers to control them. Leon Orr will play this position as well and will play it more similarly to Williams.
Dallas had a player named Demarcus Ware playing the weakside linebacker position, you may have heard of him. He acted as the fourth pass rusher in the scheme and was rusher on over 90% of downs. His main responsibilities were to chase down players from the backside and produce sacks. The defensive lineman on his side is uncovered by an offensive lineman.
It is important to recognize that the designations for the outside linebackers are strong side and weakside, not left and right. They move according to which side of the formation the tight end lines up on. This player tends to be very agile and move well in space. Right now for the Raiders the player that fits this bill is Bruce Irvin. The question then becomes, what happens when Aldon Smith returns in the middle of the season?
Smith effectively played this position for the Raiders when he was available last year and it essentially gave the Raiders the look of a 52 defense. I fully expect it to play out the same this season. Bruce Irvin is hyper athletic and talented, but he is not a pass rusher per se. He is a better blitzer. He lacks the refined rush moves that a player like Aldon has, while having considerably more ability to cover tight ends, sit in zones, and fly all over the field crushing ball carriers.
Irvin will absolutely see his sack production go up in this scheme because he will be a joker style player and be allowed to show off his athleticism constantly. The pass rushing package of Mack, Edwards, Aldon, and Irvin would be truly chaotic to watch. The four would fan out in a wide nine style and isolate their blockers in space which would give even a comparatively undersized Aldon Smith an advantage against a guard.
The final positions in the front seven are the inside linebackers. In the case of the Raiders, the primary trio is Malcolm Smith, Neiron Ball, and Ben Heeney. Both Ball and Heeney are undersized, but they will add weight as they go. Smith has grown into a nice size for an off the ball inside linebacker in a 34.
What Phillips has learned over the years, is to use his front five to control the offensive line in order to put faster linebackers in a position to make plays. In Dallas, Phillips still had at least one inside hammer type that could take on a guard at times, but even he has noted that the size difference has gone completely out of whack. So how do now always undersized inside linebackers win? Phillips focuses on vision.
At its core, this is why Phillips prefers the 34 to the 43 because it gives you four athletic players with larger ranges of vision, and if you can devise a system in which you can use the five other players in the front seven to keep blockers off of those linebackers, then they can be undersized and reckless. That basically defines Malcolm Smith, Ben Heeney, Neiron Ball, and Bruce Irvin. Run and hit linebacking missiles with speed to cover and a great nose for the ball behind the line of scrimmage and on rush blitzes.