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You can stop asking the ‘3-4 or 4-3?’ question now

You’re not getting an answer now, or ever.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

“Are the Detroit Lions going to be a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense this year?”

It’s the question that nearly ever Lions fan has asked ever since new head coach Matt Patricia walked into the building. On Wednesday, Patricia finally put an end to the speculation during his NFL Combine session with the media. So what’s it going to be, Matt? 3-4 or 4-3?

Yes. Both. Neither. Who cares? Stop asking.

Okay, that’s not verbatim what Patricia said, but it was essentially his answer. Here’s the full quote:

I heard the question earlier, so I’m already just going to address it, whoever asked the 3-4, 4-3 question. I always laugh at that every single time because it’s all relative, right? It’s all the same. I think if you were to say, ‘Hey, we’re 3-4, we’re 4-3,’ trying to take a look at it and figure out what it is, the interesting part about all that is if you guys study film and watch the trends of football, 90 percent of it isn’t even regular defense anymore. It’s all sub, so trying to figure out what it is from there.

In other words, there are so many subpackage intricacies created to counter certain offenses, that the 4-3/3-4 designations are really irrelevant at this point. Sometimes the Lions will show 4-3 looks, sometimes the Lions will show 3-4 looks. Often times, they’ll show neither.

That can be frustrating for a fan to hear, especially on the verge of free agency. We tend to categorize defensive players into binary: either a 4-3 fit or a 3-4 fit. But, in reality, coaches aren’t defining players like that, they’re defining them by what they can and cannot do. From there, good coaches take those talents and piece them together into a package. Essentially, every player is a situational player because every play is a situational play.

That’s why Patricia emphasizes just how often teams are in subpackages. Every down and distance, every opposing offense, every score permutation calls for a different defensive strategy. To define yourself in one specific way just isn’t accurate in today’s NFL.

And this isn’t something new in Detroit. Teryl Austin’s defense was widely referred to as a 4-3 base, but that doesn’t accurately describe the Lions’ defense in the past four years. More often than not, the Lions would employ five defensive backs. Here’s Lions general manager Bob Quinn talking about the defense two years ago.

“We’re going to be in sub- or nickel defense 70 to 75 percent of the time.”

So there really is no answer to the 4-3/3-4 question, and there never really will be. The Lions won’t have a “base” defense in 2018. It’s going to change down-to-down, week-to-week, year-to-year. That makes the Lions’ personnel decisions tough to project, but it’s also a bit exciting, because the possible combinations are endless.

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