Billy Davis was asked on Tuesday if his personnel is better suited for a 3-4 or a 4-3 scheme.
“I believe we’re a 3-4,” he replied. “We’re moving in a direction. Right now, I stand in front of you and I’ve got the 3-4 that we’ve installed, we’re taking some punches on it right now as we push through to the other side. We just have to get through the transition part and the hard part that we’re living right now. The 3-4 is definitely who we have decided to be.”
Chip Kelly and Davis have both spoken of tailoring their schemes to fit the strengths of the players. The goal was to transition from a Wide-9 4-3 to a two-gap 3-4, with the idea that they would stop at the appropriate in-between point in Year One. Go as far as the personnel allowed them, in other words.
There are elements of the 4-3 still present, as Davis pointed out. But to say the scheme is catering to the players' strengths would be a big leap from reality.
Take Trent Cole, as an example. Much of the talk heading into the season was about his move from 4-3 end to outside linebacker. And it's true that he is deployed in that role. But he also takes on the role of a 3-4 end at times.
Big differences between a 3-4 end and a 4-3 end, right?
"Oh yeah. Oh yeah," said Cole. "You get double-teamed every time...And you're two-gapping at the same time. It's a beast.
"The guys that are here, Brandon [Graham], we're learning two new positions," added Cole, before putting his editor hat on. "You've got something to write. Now you've got your story. I'll even tell you how to type it up: 'If you look at it, they really have two new positions that they are playing in, and they're doing well at it.'"
Maybe, but could they be doing better in a different role?
The same question applies to Fletcher Cox, who looked like an emerging star by season's end last year. Maybe the defense's best player, even. The second-year leap has not occurred yet, mostly because he is learning a new position. Vinny Curry, a quick-shooting pass rusher, is essentially without a home in this new design, which requires more gap responsibility from its linemen.
Davis said they used even more of the two-gap alignment on Sunday against Denver to help disguise what they were trying to do against Peyton Manning. Obviously, it wasn't effective.
There are drastic changes underway on the defensive side of the ball. Growing pains were anticipated, and they have hit this unit hard. By the sounds of it, the plan is to push right through the pain, rather than easing back in the name of a more comfortable fit.
"Right now we're at a stage of four weeks of live football that we've tested the defense in, and we're not where we want to be," said Davis. "But believe it or not, I know the results are not there, but behind the scenes -- and I've watched that [Denver] game probably 10 times on tape as well as every other game we've played -- the fundamentals, the techniques, the understanding, the players playing with each other, it is moving forward. The results did not show, obviously, so I'm asking you to trust me even though there is not the results.
"It will turn. It will turn. It hasn't turned yet, it's not where we wanted to be, but we'll continue to put our heads down and work, and I really believe it will turn."