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Ask a former NFL player: How important is Melvin Gordon to the Chargers’ Super Bowl chances?

Geoff Schwartz’s mailbag is back to answer your burning questions about Gordon’s value and the Panthers’ switch to a 3-4 defense.

All right, folks. The mailbag is here for a special Monday edition. There are only two questions this time, but they both have LONG answers.

If you have questions you want answered next time, my Twitter and Instagram DMs are open. Hope you enjoy!

With the news regarding Melvin Gordon, if he doesn’t play this season with the Chargers, how much easier does the Chiefs’ path to Super Bowl become?@mattylo85

Chargers running back Melvin Gordon announced he’s going to sit out until he receives a new contract or he’s traded from the Chargers. This is a bold move and while it’s worked for Antonio Brown and to an extent Le’Veon Bell, Gordon isn’t those players. With the declining value in the running back position, this isn’t a wise move by Gordon.

I’ve been very vocal about the shifting value of a running back. As advanced stats continue to show the passing game is much more valuable to winning than the rushing attack, many teams have rightfully decided they aren’t paying running backs top dollar. This is tough to attempt because I LOVE a great running back. They make our job (offensive linemen) much easier. Just as we can make a running back look good, they can sometimes make us look even better. The best running backs only need a small window and bye bye.

But, you can’t deny the stats and the production of running backs who aren’t drafted high or paid a boat load of money. That being said, I think having an above-average or better running back on your offense is valuable if your franchise cornerstone pieces are already set.

Take the Cowboys or Rams for example. Both have their quarterbacks (still on rookie deals btw), left tackles, franchise pass rushers, and secondary help. Adding an elite running back to the mix is prudent at that point, because you can never have enough weapons for your quarterback.

In my mind, there’s only one running back in the NFL who matters for a team’s chances to win a Super Bowl. That is Ezekiel Elliott. Zeke is special and he’s a HUGE part of that offense. Besides his ability to move the chains behind that great offensive line, he’s explosive in the pass game. His ability to take short pass, including screens, to the house is vital to the success of the Cowboys.

So, the answer to the question above is that I’m not sure it matters at all. Gordon might have been able to hide deficiencies on the Chargers’ offensive line — in fact, I’m sure he did — so that’s a big loss for the Chargers. But, they still have Austin Ekeler, plus Philip Rivers, Hunter Henry, and their impressive wide receiver group. They have an outstanding pass rush and secondary. The loss of a running back shouldn’t derail their season.

I received many questions about the Panthers switching from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 base defense since it was announced, so I’ll answer it here. Thank you @biakabutuka21 for the question this week.

I love this switch for the Panthers because it’s allowing Ron Rivera to run the defense, which is ideal for where the Panthers are right now.

The Panthers had a brain dump on the defensive side of the ball after the losses of two defensive coordinators — Sean McDermott and Steve Wilks — in consecutive seasons to head coaching gigs. The Panthers took a step back last season on defense, and I love that Rivera took control of this unit. He’s an underrated head coach and a phenomenal defensive mind. So, just from that standpoint, I love it.

From a schematic standpoint, I’ve always thought a base 3-4 was tougher to block than a 4-3, as the 3-4 has more moving parts. A 4-3 defense is basic and they play much “faster” at times, but we know what is coming. In a 3-4 defense, there are more single blocks for linemen in pass pro, and it’s tougher to fit up on double-teams in the run game.

Linebackers, like Luke Kuechly, get to run free. Plus, it allows the Panthers to play Kawann Short, Dontari Poe/Vernon Butler, and newly acquired Gerald McCoy all at the same time. In a base 4-3, one of those would have to sit.

Now, with nickel personnel being used at such a high rate by the offense, defenses aren’t in base personnel as often. So when the Panthers are in nickel, they’d pull off Poe and still have Short and McCoy, with Mario Addison and rookie Brian Burns (being optimistic) rushing the edges.

Lastly, from a nerdy Xs and Os angle, I’m pumped to see how their base personnel unfolds. In a 3-4, you typically have five players on the line of scrimmage:

  • One is the nose tackle, playing in a shade as most teams run a 3-4 under. That’s where Poe or Butler will play.
  • The other two defensive linemen spots are a backside 3-technique, a player on the outside shoulder of the backside guard.
  • Outside of the 3-technique is a standup passer, often classified as a defensive end (listed as a linebacker though).
  • On the frontside, you have that shade mentioned above, and the third defensive tackle playing a 4- or 4i-technique, on the frontside tackle.
  • Then there’s a standup defensive pass rusher, often classified as the Sam linebacker.

So, there are the five players. Base 3-4 teams play those players either left and right, or strongside and weakside.

For example, if you’re playing left and right, the defensive tackles stay on their side no matter the strength of the formation, and they’d play that 4i or 3-technique, depending on strength. The outside linebackers do the same. One is the defensive end player, on the backside, or the Sam linebacker frontside. That means both players would need the ability to drop into coverage.

The other way to play these players is strong and weak. One outside linebacker and one defensive tackle are the rush defensive end and 3-technique. They always align weak. Then you’d have one defensive tackle who’s always the 4-technique who travels with the Sam linebacker. Those two play strong.

Hopefully you’re still with me. So how do the Panthers do this? I think they do strong and weak. McCoy and Addison are the weakside players. They are the 3-technique and DE. Short becomes the 4i, with Burns playing the Sam.