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Chalk Talk Part Two: The History and Application of the 3-4 Defense

This week, we explore the most common defensive scheme in the NFL today.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we learned about Tom Landry’s historic 4-3 defensive scheme. This week, we tackle another scheme, the 3-4, which has taken the NFL by storm over the past decade and a half.

Originally the brain child of 1940’s Oklahoma Sooners coach Bud Wilkinson, the 3-4 scheme trickled down to some of his contemporaries, most notably 1970’s New England Patriots head coach Chuck Fairbanks. Bill Belichik admitted in a 2007 interview that a majority of the nomenclature and terminology Fairbanks installed in the 70’s remained in use by Patriot players and coaches while they employed the 3-4 prior to switching back to the 4-3 in 2011.

The 1972 undefeated Super Bowl Champion Miami Dolphins also ran a 3-4 defense. After it’s early success, the alignment increased in popularity through the 1970’s and 80’s. Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor excelled as a 3-4 outside linebacker on the 1986 Super Bowl winning New York Giants.

By the mid 1990’s, however, only a few NFL teams were using the defensive scheme. The Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the few, remaining faithful to the scheme dating back to 1981; and after posting the league’s best defensive rating in 2001, the Steelers helped put the 3-4 back onto NFL teams’ radars.

Today, more NFL teams employ the 3-4 than the 4-3, though i’s by a very close margin. Most teams, in fact, utilize a hybrid system of both schemes where it can be difficult to tell the difference between a 4-3 defensive end and a 3-4 OLB.

The numbers 3-4 refer to the number of defensive linemen and linebackers respectively. The defensive line consists of two ends on the outside and a nose-tackle on the inside. All three linemen in the 3-4 tend to be larger and stronger than those in a 4-3 because they have to take up more space and blockers, but move along the line less. Their first and most important responsibility is to control the run gaps.

The most important position in order to run a successful 3-4 is the nose tackle. This is thought to be the most physically demanding position in all of football. Typically much larger than 4-3 defensive tackles, 3-4 nose tackles can’t allow themselves to get pushed back into their linebackers. They must take on a double team EVERY play by engaging the gaps between the guards and center. Remember, in the 3-4, three defensive linemen need to consistently block four offensive linemen as blitz pressure will be created from the outside linebacker positions.

Behind the 3 defensive linemen are four linebackers; two outside linebackers or OLB’s and two inside linebackers or ILB’s. The OLB’s sometimes lineup next to the ILB’s, but more commonly, they line up closer to the line of scrimmage as their primary purpose is to rush the passer. One OLB, called the "Jack", "Joker", "Buck", or "Elephant", is the primary pass rusher and can line up on either side of the formation. The "Jack" must be able to routinely beat right and left tackles on their way to the quarterback. The other OLB, called the "Sam", must be able to cover, blitz, and attack the run.

The strong side ILB is called the "Mike", while the weak side ILB is called the "Will." The "Mike" is a large and strong bruiser who takes on blocks at the second level so the more athletic "Will" can blitz, attack the run, drop into coverage, and keep his eyes on the quarterback.

Strengths of the 3-4 Defense

1) Versatility and complexity of alignments are confusing for offenses leading to blown assignments and more sacks.

2) With four linebackers and four defensive backs, the fourth pass rusher can come from any eight of those positions, which confuses quarterbacks.

3) The blitz forces the opposing offense to choose whether or not to keep a tight end or running back for blocking rather than running a passing route.

4) Can mask a weak secondary without shutdown corners.

5) OLB’s are often too fast and agile for slower less athletic tackles to contain.

6) Speedy linebackers can help pursue running backs.

7) The extra linebacker allows the defense to "zone blitz" without leaving a zone uncovered like the 4-3 when a safety or linebacker has to abandon their zone to blitz.

8) Many college defensive ends are great athletes that weigh around 260 lbs and would be too small as ends in the NFL, but become quality "tweeners" at OLB in a 3-4.

9) According to Wade Phillips, it is easier to amass and pay 3-4 OLB’s than it for 4-3 defensive ends.

Weaknesses of the 3-4 Defense

1) To employ the 3-4, a team must have the right personnel at EVERY position on the front seven.

2) College players used to playing defensive end with their hand in the dirt typically have a harder time transitioning to a stand up linebacking roll.

3) Relying on linebackers to provide the pass rush can be dangerous as they must also share coverage responsibilities.

4) More difficult to stop the run as there are only three defensive linemen and four smaller and quicker linebackers who don’t take up as much space and can be overwhelmed by run blocking schemes.

5) Fails without a space-eating, every down, two gap blocking nose tackle.

Next week, after studying the current Saints roster, I will attempt to prescribe the strongest scheme for our personnel.