In American football, the 3-4 defense is a defensive alignment consisting of three down linemen and four linebackers.
“ In general, ideal front-seven players in the 3-4 are bigger and need to take on and defeat blocks more often in the running game. ”
—Albert Breer, The Sporting News.
3-4 base defenseThe 3-4 defense declined in popularity over the years, but has found renewed use by modern professional and college football teams. The 3-4 defense is so named because it involves 3 down linemen and 4 linebackers. There are usually 4 defensive backs. However, most teams since the 1990s have been using the 4-3 defense, primarily because football is fundamentally a “rush first” game, and the 4-3 defense’s 4 down linemen make rushing more difficult by adding one more down lineman to fill gaps. By the same token, fast linebackers, sitting back to survey the offensive set, can key in on an inside ball carrier and “hit the gaps” quickly to offer help to the 3 down linemen when defending the rush. In pass coverage, the 4 linebackers are already in a “sitting back” position, able to see the patterns develop and cover the short/intermediate pass.
Notable teams that use the 3-4 defense are the New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets, Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, and Pittsburgh Steelers. The San Francisco 49ers use a combination of 3-4 and 4-3 defense. The Arizona Cardinals are also considering a change to the 3-4 defense in the future because their head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, was a coaching assistant for the Steelers. The Cardinals already incorporate the 5-2 defense, an older variation of the 3-4, in some of their defensive schemes. The Miami Dolphins have also incorporated elements of the 3-4 defense into their scheme, under defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni, the Dolphins are said to run what is called a ‘Hybrid 3-4′ which incorporates elements of both the 3-4 and the 4-3 defense depending on the situation and personnel on the field. With the hiring of defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the Green Bay Packers have switched to a hybrid 3-4 defense (2009). This switch will result in the Packers moving Aaron Kampman to outside linebacker. With the acquisition of Mike Nolan by the Denver Broncos as defensive coordinator, the Broncos have also made a switch to the 3-4 defense (2009).
The Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins are the only NFL teams which have never used the 3-4 as their base defense. Conversely, the Steelers have used the 3-4 as their base since 1982, the season after Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene and end L.C. Greenwood retired.
The 3-4 defense was originally devised by Bud Wilkinson at the University of Oklahoma in the 1940s. Chuck Fairbanks learned the defense from Wilkinson and is credited with importing it to the NFL. The 1972 Miami Dolphins were the first team to win a Super Bowl with the 3-4 defense, going undefeated and using number 53, Bob Mathison as a down lineman or rushing linebacker. When the Oakland Raiders defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV, it marked the first Super Bowl in which both teams used the 3-4 as their base defense. Also notable, the 1986 New York Giants won Super Bowl XXI with a 3-4 defense and all-time great Lawrence Taylor as outside linebacker. By the mid-1990s, only a few teams used a 3-4 defense, most notably the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers.
1 Defensive line
A lone nose tackle in the 3-4 base defense, flanked by two defensive ends“ The nose tackle and the inside linebackers, those are three guys that are very important. But when you go through it, the nose tackle is probably the single-most important guy. ”
—Joe Collier, Denver Broncos assistant (1969-1988), architect of the “Orange Crush Defense”.
The defensive line is made up of a nose tackle (NT) and two defensive ends (DEs). Linemen in 3-4 schemes tend to be larger than their 4-3 counterparts to take up more space and guard more territory along the defensive front. 3-4 defensive ends were usually defensive tackles when entering at first. They must be strong at the point of attack and are aligned in most cases head-up on an offensive tackle. First and foremost, they must control run gaps. Size and strength become more of a factor for linemen in 3-4 defenses than in 4-3 defenses because they move primarily within the confines of line play and seldom are in space using athletic ability. Ideally 3-4 DEs should weigh 285–300 pounds (129–136 kg) and be able to beat double teams by getting a push. The 3-4 nose tackle is considered the most physically demanding position in football. His primary responsibility is to control the “A” gaps, the two openings between the center and guards, and not get pushed back into his linebackers. If a running play comes through one of those gaps, he must make the tackle or control what is called the “jump-through”—the guard or center who is trying to get out to the linebackers. The ideal nose tackle has to be much bigger than 4-3 DTs, weighing around 330 pounds or more. Ted Washington is considered the prototypical nose tackle of this era. “In his prime, Ted Washington was the ideal guy,” says an AFC pro personnel director. “He was huge, had long arms, and you couldn’t budge him. He could hold off a 320-pound lineman with one hand and make the tackle with the other.” Since most college teams run a 4-3 defense, most college DTs are more of a 4-3 tackle than a true nose tackle, which makes good 3-4 NTs hard to find.
The base position of NT is across from the opposing team’s center. This location is usually referred to as zero technique. The two DEs flank the NT and line up off the offensive guards. The location off the offensive guard is usually referred to as three technique.
Some 3-4 teams (such as the New England Patriots) use the three down linemen primarily to occupy the offensive linemen. In such systems the defensive linemen are assigned two gaps to defend. The NT is responsible for defending plays which occur in the spaces, or gaps, between the center and guards. Each of those spaces is called an A gap. Flanking the NT, DEs defend the gaps on either side of the tackle he lines up across from. Each guard-tackle gap is a B gap and the space outside each tackle is called a C gap. Other 3-4 teams (such as the San Diego Chargers and the Dallas Cowboys) primarily make each lineman responsible for only one gap.
According to former general manager Randy Mueller, “the 3-4 defensive end is easier to identify and find when it comes to scouting and acquiring personnel,” while 4-3 DEs “are rare and hard to find and therefore very expensive to keep. There is no question that speed pass rushers are very much an impact position on the football field and their cap numbers reflect that. On the other hand, 3-4 defensive ends can be found easier and are much less expensive when it comes to ‘cap dollars’.”
Linebackers in the 3-4 base defense“ I think good coaches will coach with the personnel they have, and if you only have one (good) linebacker, you’re not going to play a 3-4. ”
—Hank Bullough, who installed one of the first 3-4 defenses with the New England Patriots.
In a 3-4 defense, four linebackers (LBs) are positioned behind the defensive line. The linebacker unit is made up of two inside linebackers (ILBs) flanked by two outside linebackers (OLBs). The OLBs often line up closer to the line of scrimmage than the ILBs, but may also be positioned at the same depth or deeper in coverage than the ILBs (though this is somewhat rare).
Strengths of the 3-4 include speedy ILBs and OLBs in pursuit of backs in run defense and flexibility to use multiple rushers to confuse the quarterback during passing plays without being forced into man-to-man defense on receivers. Most teams try to disrupt the offense’s passing attack by rushing four defenders. In a standard 4-3 alignment, these four rushers are usually the four down linemen. But in a 3-4, the fourth rusher is usually a linebacker, though many teams, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, use a talented safety to blitz and confuse the coverage, giving them more defensive options in the same 3-4 look. However, since there are four linebackers and four defensive backs, the fourth potential rusher can come from any of eight defensive positions. This is designed to confuse the quarterback’s pre-snap defensive read.
A drawback of the 3-4 is that without a fourth lineman to take on the offensive blockers and close the running lanes, both the defensive linemen and the linebackers can be overwhelmed by blocking schemes in the running game. To be effective, 3-4 linebackers need their defensive line to routinely tie up a minimum of four (preferably all five) offensive linemen, freeing them to make tackles. The 3-4 linebackers must be very athletic and strong enough to shed blocks by fullbacks, tight ends, and offensive linemen to get to the running back. In most cases, 3-4 OLBs lead their teams in quarterback sacks.
Usually, teams that run a 3-4 defense look for college “tweeners”—defensive ends that are too small to play the position in the pros and not quite fluid enough to play outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense—as their 3-4 outside linebacker. According to NFL coach Wade Phillips, 3-4 linebackers “are a little bit cheaper, and you can find more of them,” while “it’s harder to find defensive linemen to play a 4-3 and pay for all of them.”
Cornerbacks play similar roles in the 3-4 and 4-3 base defensive schemes.
Depending on the scheme, safeties may play mainly pass coverage or support the run heavily.The 3-4 defense generally uses four defensive backs. Two of these are safeties, and two of them are cornerbacks. A cornerback’s responsibilities vary depending on the type of coverage called. Coverage is simply how the defense will be protecting against the pass. The corners will generally line up 3 to 5 yards off the line of scrimmage, generally trying to “Jam” or interrupt the receivers route within the first 5 yards. A corner will be given one of two ways to defend the pass (with variations that result in more or less the same responsibilities): zone and man-to-man. In zone coverage, the cornerback is responsible for an area on the field. In this case, the corner must always stay downfield of whomever it is covering while still remaining in its zone. Zone is a more relaxed defensive scheme meant to provide more awareness across the defensive secondary while sacrificing tight coverage. As such, the corner in this case would be responsible for making sure nobody gets outside of him, always, or downfield of him, in cases where there is no deep safety help. In man coverage, however, the cornerback is solely responsible for the man across from him, usually the offensive player split farthest out.
The free safety is responsible for reading the offensive plays and covering deep passes. Depending on the defensive call, he may also provide run support. He is positioned 10 to 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, toward the center of the field. He provides the last line of defense against running backs and receivers who get past the linebackers and cornerbacks. He must be a quick and smart player, capable of making tackles efficiently as well as reading the play and alerting his team of game situations.
The strong safety is usually larger than the free safety and is positioned relatively close to the line of scrimmage. He is often an integral part of the run defense, but is also responsible for defending against a pass; especially against passes to the tight-ends.