If you follow the Washington Redskins, you're most likely aware that Andre Carter got 11.0 sacks last year. Carter was the sack leader for a Redskins team that ranked 5th overall in Adjusted Sack Rate, it's highest ranking in such a metric ever, and it's best rating since the highly paid, highly touted defense of 2000. Brian Orakpo, maybe a more prolific sack artist on a per-rush basis, chipped in with 11 more sacks. Carter, however, was the team's most dependable defensive player for most of last year, and the argument could be entertained that 2009 was the best year ever for Andre Carter.
You may also realize that the team is playing a version of the 3-4 defense this year, and while Carter has experience in such a defense (under Mike Nolan in 2005), that unit was awful, Carter's production was down in the prime of his career, and he was a healthy non-starter in 2 of his 16 games that year. Certainly, 2005 was Carter's most disappointing season because he scored only 4.5 sacks, and 35 tackles, and couldn't get in the flow of the game as the off-rusher to Julian Peterson on that 2005 team.
It's not surprising that Carter has expressed disappointment with the switch to the 3-4 in Washington, but I'm writing today to dispel the myth that Carter simply cannot play linebacker in the 3-4. Sure, his team's defense was dreadful that season, and Carter wasn't much of a factor against the pass that season, but it would be fallacy to say that Carter played poorly that year. He was doing something different from the successful parts of his career true, but Carter didn't actually lose his starting job over the course of the year. Carter, coming off injury in 2004, actually started the season coming off the bench, but played well enough to force himself onto the field by Week 3, and then San Francisco dealt LB Jamie Winborn to Jacksonville the week after that.
Since coming to Washington, Carter has led the Redskins in QB hits every single season. His sack totals have tanked in the years that the team has had no other pass rushing threats outside of him, namely, 2006 and 2008, but in 2007 when Corneilius Griffin and Demetric Evans were in the primes of their pass rushing careers (and not hurt!), Carter led the Redskins with 10 sacks in a playoff year. This year, of course, Carter had all sorts of help, from Albert Haynesworth, to Orakpo, Jeremy Jarmon, Lorenzo Alexander, and Chris Wilson.
A lot of people have assumed that 2009 was the last quality year in Carter's Washington career, the scheme change doing him in, perhaps concurrently with age regression. Such an assumption might be a bit premature. Carter turned 31 on Wednesday, but his QB hits figure has not declined in the slightest since joining the Redskins, and supports the strong possibility that Carter's 2010 season might be, if anything, an improvement on the past. More importantly, Carter's sustained production is an absolute necessity if Brian Orakpo needs to improve on his sack production in 2010. Furthermore, if Jim Haslett is looking to build off of what players had done in the past, Carter and Orakpo are perfect complements in 2010.
When Andre Carter played LB for the 49ers, he played on the weakside as the primary rush end for the Niners. That's not really a big position change for him from the right end position. In fact, Carter would be playing the exact same gap as he was in the 4-3, lining up in almost the same place, with the main difference being that he's in a two point stance instead of having his hand on the ground. Brian Orakpo was the Redskins strong-side linebacker last year on rushing downs, lining up primarily on the left side when the offense dictated that to be the defensive strength. If the Redskins play their first and second down defense out of the 3-4 this year, they are essentially playing an identical defense to last season, with the one personnel exception being Adam Carriker in for Corneilus Griffin.
That is to say: if the Redskins choose to, there will be no sigificant schematic changes between Blache's 2009 defense and Haslett's 2010 defense, despite the difference in the number of hands on the ground. The X's and O's will be practically identical.
What will be different is the increased level of flexibility that the 3-4 offers the coordinator, a blessing if the coordinator really knows how to attack a defense, and a curse if he's unclear on the strength and weaknesses of his opponent. Seeing a 3-4 front never surprises an offense anymore, rather, the surprise must come from a great understanding of a gameplan, and how an offense can be exploited via one on one matchups. Having the Redskins defense is a coordinator's dream. You have a nose tackle in Albert Haynesworth who can, in theory, line up at nose on first down and engulf blockers, then like up at linebacker on second down and rush the passer, then get into a three technique position in the nickle package and blow up a screen attempt, then go right into the middle of the defense on fourth and short and Superman the running back to create a turnover. Then you have not one, but two excellent pass rushers in Carter and Orakpo. And if that's not enough, the whole operation is led by one of the most cerebral players in football, London Fletcher.
Still, without Carter providing consistent weak-side pass rush and making plays against the run, there's a hole at linebacker on this team. Such a move might have a negative effect on Orakpo, who will line up further from the ball than he did last year, and have to beat blockers even quicker. And if he can't do that, then Haynesworth might have to slide outside to complement his rush, which frees up interior blockers to get a body on Mister America Fletcher. So without that second quality LB, the Redskins defense isn't nearly as strong.
The Redskins need another strong year out of Andre Carter, and he's ready to produce as a linebacker this year. He just needs a chance to, once again, lead the Redskins in QB hits.