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3-4 defenses continue to spread

As we pointed out on Friday night, the latest issue of Sporting News contains an apology from former Dolphins coach Nick Saban regarding the “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach” fiasco.

The latest Sporting News also takes an equally interesting look at the ongoing proliferation of the 3-4 defense. 

As Dennis Dillon points out, the numbers of teams using the 3-4 has quintupled in a decade, expanding from three to 15.  In 2000, no NFC teams used the 3-4 as their base defense.  Now, five do.

The full-page multi-faceted analysis includes a one-paragraph debate between Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.  Frazier prefers the 4-3 because he thinks it’s easier to find the interior defensive linemen who power a four-man line than All-Pro-type linebackers that the 3-4 needs.  LeBeau thinks it’s easier to find a “gifted” 245- to 265-pounder who can line up in a two-point stance on passing downs and confuse the offense as to whether he’ll be rushing or dropping into coverage.

In our view, the prior success of the 3-4 came in part from the fact that only a handful of teams used it.  Quarterbacks simply didn’t have the familiarity with the alternative to the 4-3, making it harder for them to deal with it when they faced it.  Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, for example, struggled for years with the Patriots, and many believe that he simply didn’t have enough exposure to the 3-4.  In 2010, Manning will see the 3-4 six times during the regular season.

For that reasons, coaches committed to the 4-3 likely hope that the 3-4 will continue to spread.  As offenses see the 3-4 more and more, eventually the 4-3 will become more effective because quarterbacks will become less familiar with the more traditional attack.  

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28 Responses to “3-4 defenses continue to spread”
  1. GBfanForever says: Jun 21, 2010 7:15 AM

    everyone was a 3-4 in the 80′s and then in the 90s it became all 4-3 and now its shifting back a little. It’s easier to find 4-3 guys but there is just so much more you can do in a 3-4.

  2. footballisfun says: Jun 21, 2010 7:31 AM

    “For that reasons, coaches committed to the 4-3 likely hope that the 3-4 will continue to spread. As offenses see the 3-4 more and more, eventually the 4-3 will become more effective because quarterbacks will become less familiar with the more traditional attack. ”
    Its still more predictable. Four down lineman with the only three backers is so much more straight up than a 3-4. By that logic if a team all of the sudden comes out in high school styled 4-4 or 5-3 it would be more effective since the QB hasn’t prepared for it. Granted you can still zone blitz and have some fun stunts with the four front, but overall the 3-4 system is also built on pieces moving around. So it was kind of a double whammy. It wasn’t common in the NFL and it was something you really needed to spend a lot of prep time looking at all of the different ways a 3-4 can be used

  3. Ralph says: Jun 21, 2010 7:48 AM

    3-4 is more effective against passing offenses. Teams are becoming pass happy. It’s a passing league, only makes sense that defenses go with the trend.
    If OCs recognize the susceptibility to the rushing attack, they’ll find their success running the ball.

  4. ErikInHell says: Jun 21, 2010 7:52 AM

    I think you’re going to start seeing more hybrid defenses, that can either fit a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. It’s been years since there’s been a real defensive innovation, the last of which was LeBeau’s zone blitz.
    Cleveland ran a 1-6 (1NG-6LBs) in the last 4 games of 2009, and it was mostly successful. Crennel has been trying to find the right personnel for his “UFO” defense that lines players up in different spots or has them wandering around. There have been too many rules to give the offense the advantage again, and it’s time to see DCs take advantage of them again.

  5. HandsofSweed says: Jun 21, 2010 8:00 AM

    A 4-4 or a 5-3 in the NFL! I actually laughed when I read that. Can you imagine how incredibly athletic the outside backers would have to be in a 4-4 to handle pass drop/coverage responsibilities at the NFL level?

  6. blazklobucar says: Jun 21, 2010 8:08 AM

    I disagree with the last paragraph, because 3-4 defences are way more unpredictable (for the opposing side) than 4-3, and no amount of familiarity can change that.

  7. Bill In DC says: Jun 21, 2010 8:09 AM

    Something to that. I think teams having problems dealing with the 3-4 (include my Cowboys on that list) also has something to do with the makeup of offensive linemen. An O line made up to block a 4-3 tends to have very large tackles (typically 6’5″, 340+) so they can handle the larger defensive ends (as in larger than the OLB in a 3-4) typical of a 4-3. They have problems blocking the smaller OLB in a 3-4 because of the speed. I’ve noted that Dallas (the team I’m most familiar with) appears to be shifting its tackles to a smaller (if you can call a 6’4″, 315lb man ‘small’), more athletic, faster profile. Flozell Adams (6’5″, 340+ ) has been replaced by Doug Free (6’5″, 310) because Adams had real issues handling ‘speed’ rushers. Marc Colombo, Alex Barron, Sam Young, and Robert Brewster (and all the other Dallas tackles) are all under 320 and are quicker than Adams or previous Dallas tackles. I think this is in response to the number of 3-4 defenses Dallas is facing.

  8. Captain Hairdo says: Jun 21, 2010 8:11 AM

    One of the overlooked benefits in my opinion is the salaries of the players on the defensive front were not as high. Most of the players in the system would have trouble moving to a 4-3 system, so their price was not as high. No pass rushing DE to gobble up cap space.

  9. jackers252 says: Jun 21, 2010 8:45 AM

    Yet 3 out of 4 teams playing in the championship round, and both teams in the Superbowl were 4-3.

  10. Levito says: Jun 21, 2010 8:45 AM

    It’s also a personnel thing. If everybody is running a 4-3, they’re focusing on the interior line and MLB to make up the defensive front. That makes it easier for the 3-4 defenses who need to stockpile up on LBs and a giant NT, who may not fit well into a 4-3 line.

  11. Black QB White RB says: Jun 21, 2010 8:53 AM

    as long as we got haynesworth, it don’t matter what we run.

  12. blazklobucar says: Jun 21, 2010 8:54 AM

    @Bill In DC That is an interesting point. Sometimes you can still find a gem in these mostly unsavoury comments on this site

  13. EdBurns666 says: Jun 21, 2010 9:12 AM

    I definitely like the unpredictability of the 3-4 Defense. If the CBs can cover properly, and the OLBs get to the QB, it’s the most effective Defense. If any facet of the Defense fails, CBs can’t cover, OLBs can’t get to the QB, ILBs overpursue, then the 3-4 gets carved, and sliced up quickly… See the Steelers in the 4th QTR. almost all last Season…

  14. brasho says: Jun 21, 2010 9:29 AM

    Most of these players are interchangeable.
    In a traditional 4-3:
    The RDE would be the main pass rushing LB in a 3-4
    The NT or largest of the 2-gap DTs would play the NT in the 3-4, this is not always as easily interchangeable as the NT in a 3-4 is fairly unique.
    The UT or quicker of the 2-gap DTs would play DE in the 3-4.
    The LDE or base DE can easily play DE in the 3-4 as well,
    Tha Sam LB will either play the Sam in the 3-4 or become one of the ILBs, most likely the Jack which takes on the FB in the hole and isn’t required to go sideline to sideline. He’ll probably need to put on weight.
    The MLB in the 4-3 likley becomes the run and chase Pat Willis-type ILB in the 3-4 or if he is more of a two-down run stuffer he will move next to the chase ILB and become the Jack.
    The Will in the 4-3 either becomes the coverage OLB in the 3-4 or he moves to inside and becomes the Pat Willis run and chase ILB.
    Anyway, the personnel differences aren’t that great… obviously certain teams have their preferences but the positions are interchangeable… as seen how guys coming ot of college are looked at as DEs in the 4-3 and OLBs in the 3-4 or guys are looked at as UTs in the 4-3 or DEs in the 3-4. I see the biggest difference in the 3-4 NT which is a unique and rate athlete that is instrumental in successfully running the 3-4.

  15. sand0 says: Jun 21, 2010 9:37 AM

    I read a big article on this last year and wish I remember how to find it. Basically this guy broke down the statistics of 3-4 vs 4-3 defenses.
    What he found was that overall the two defenses gave up about the same number of points per game. He also found that the 3-4 gave up less big running plays but also had less stuffs on running plays. Overall the yards per carry were similar. Also the 3-4 was less likely to be a top 5 or bottom 5 defense, so the formation kind of has a neutralizing effect both good and bad.
    My take on it is that the 3-4 is a scheme based attack. If you have weak or moderate players this is definately the defense for you to mask some of that with different looks. But if you have great defensive players you might be better off with a 4-3 since you are just trying to leverage 1 on 1 matchups.
    But these differences are minor. There is no reason that a 3-4 couldn’t lead the league in everything and there is no reason that a 4-3 can’t force the most bad decisions by an opponent QB. You just get there different ways.
    The biggest difference in the two really is that they require different types of lineman and linebackers. You’ll start to hear announcers refer to free agent linebackers as 4-3 or 3-4 linebackers.
    I think there was a time where the 3-4 was a big advantage because there was less demand for your type of players and less teams knew how to play you. But now it is like 50/50.

  16. nagurski_T_form says: Jun 21, 2010 9:39 AM

    Sure 4-3 DTs are “easy” to find, but how about a good 4-3 end?
    The 4-3 end one of the hardest positions to draft and develop. Many of them end up sucking. It requires a rare body type (6’4+, 260 lb.+), with an instantaneous first step, and extreme upper body strength to beat OTs and shed blocks. Good luck finding someone who fits all these characteristics. For example, this past draft had ONE, Derrick Morgan, and he may end up turd.
    For all the Freeneys, Allens, and even Schobels of this world, there are many more Patrick Kerneys, Chris Kelsays, Paul Spicers, and so forth…good enough to be in the NFL, but not good enough to do anything on game day.

  17. Asswipe Johnson (Pronounced Az-Wee-Pay) says: Jun 21, 2010 9:43 AM

    The 34 defense was created to stop the run…in it’s base form, the interior lineman are required to tie up more than one offensive lineman, allowing the linebackers the freedom to make tackles.
    Check out your top defenses vs the run and you will find that the majority of them run the 34 defense.
    Florio if you really wanna sound like you know what you are talking about – You should differentiate the two different styles of the 34 defense – Then you might actually understand why Belichick’s version was successful vs Peyton…as opposed to making uneducated assumptions. The other reason it was successful vs Manning was the talent level across the board for the Pats 34 in the first half of the 2000′s decade.

  18. stampats says: Jun 21, 2010 9:45 AM

    Sounds like an article written by someone who really doesn’t get it – Par for the course around here…
    As Others have stated – the 3-4 is successful because you can disguise fronts – you can still play a 4-3 as much as you want and just mix where the rush is coming from…
    Really what people like Rex Ryan are running is “No-Name” defense but, yeah, the Giant Nose Tackle in the middle allows you to do just about anything else around him.

  19. ErikInHell says: Jun 21, 2010 10:07 AM

    Like I said, I think we’re going to see more hybrid defenses. A lot of OLBs are converted DEs. ILBs tend to be converted WILs. The 3-4 has become more about scheming than the players. If you have some moderately talented, smart, flexable LBs, they will look like defensive gods in a well run 3-4. We’ve all seen LBs dumped from a 3-4 defense that can’t produce the same numbers in a 4-3 or other defense because they were properly schemed for their talents.

  20. floriosucksit says: Jun 21, 2010 10:37 AM

    One big problem for the 3-4 is if the NT gets injured. It’s hard enough to find one good NT to play on your team let alone two.
    With the 4-3 you can find better backups
    with less loss of talent.
    If the NFL goes to 18 games i suspect the trend
    will be back to the 4-3.

  21. Provance1 says: Jun 21, 2010 10:40 AM

    Brasho…are you serious?…the players in a 4-3/3-4 are interchangeable?
    There are perhaps a few players who MIGHT be able to make the transition and labeled “interchangeable”. If you first look at the Dline, the 4-3 does not require a run stuffing NT to take on 2-3 OL’s routinely. I agree that a 3-4 NT could make the switch to a 4-3 DT, but not necessarily the other way around. 3-4 NT’s are hard to come by, and there are only a a handful of great ones in the league
    The OLB’s in a 4-3 may not necessarily be able to play OLB in a 3-4. 3-4 OLB’s are typically larger, edge holders, able to shed blockers and turn plays inside. Not the same respnosibility nor the same physical makeup of 4-3 OLB’s.
    I think overall the front 7 is vastly different in terms of 3-4/4-3, physical make-up, responsibilities, etc. Perhaps the only parallel that could be drawn , or where players could be interchangeable is in the back 4.

  22. TheRedBengal says: Jun 21, 2010 10:50 AM

    I agree with the principle idea of more familiarity with the 3-4 D will make it not as effective. For example, the Bengals division foes (Ravens, Steelers, Browns) all play 3-4s, with the Ravens playing both 3-4, 4-3.
    In 17 games, they were 9-4 against 3-4 teams, and 1-4 against 4-3 teams.
    They’re used scheming against 3-4′s more than 4-3′s.

  23. bloodystupidjohnson says: Jun 21, 2010 11:30 AM

    More teams are going to the 3-4 is that a 3-4 is more cap friendly than a 4-3. Defensive line are more expensive than a linebacker. A good pass rushing defensive end is usually the second or third (after a left tackle though this varies by team) paid player on the team.

  24. Sarge says: Jun 21, 2010 11:43 AM

    4-3 man here. A 3-4 misses out on some great football history cliche’s. For example, how many 3-4 defenses have a nickname for their defensive line? “The Three Amigos”? A 3-4 also doesn’t have that single iconic middle linebacker enforcing the midsection like Clint Eastwood walking into a dusty saloon with his hat brim low.
    The only reason the Packers switched to the 3-4 is to hide AJ Hawk to lessen the bust factor when they picked him too high. The switch also spawned the loss of one of their best defensive players in Kampman.

  25. zilla1126 says: Jun 21, 2010 11:57 AM

    Peyton Manning did not have “problems” with the 3-4. It was the inflexibility of the Colts offensive line blocking schemes that could not dynamically account for complex pressure packages.
    The only thing that has changed is that Manning is directly making all of the line calls for the last two years.
    If you think back to all of Manning’s “failures” against the Patriots, Steelers, and Chargers you will remember that he was getting chased by unblocked rushers all game.

  26. BBrophy1 says: Jun 21, 2010 12:03 PM

    Florio’s view of the success of the 3-4 will be validated by Belichick using the 4-3 more in the next couple of years. He’ll always stay ahead of the curve

  27. GBfanForever says: Jun 21, 2010 12:24 PM

    # Sarge says: June 21, 2010 11:43 AM
    4-3 man here. A 3-4 misses out on some great football history cliche’s. For example, how many 3-4 defenses have a nickname for their defensive line? “The Three Amigos”? A 3-4 also doesn’t have that single iconic middle linebacker enforcing the midsection like Clint Eastwood walking into a dusty saloon with his hat brim low.
    The only reason the Packers switched to the 3-4 is to hide AJ Hawk to lessen the bust factor when they picked him too high. The switch also spawned the loss of one of their best defensive players in Kampman.
    —————————————————
    Hawk is pretty solid player but isn’t having the huge impact he should at #5 overall. And btw, you don’t go to the 3-4 to “hide” linebackers, you can only pull it off if you’re stocked with good ones.

  28. PossibleCabbage says: Jun 21, 2010 3:07 PM

    I think availability of personnel is a large part of the appeal of the 3-4 defense to NFL teams. The ultimate problem for the 4-3 in the NFL is that the defensive ends it requires are as rare as hen’s teeth. You need a man who is stout enough to hold the point of attack, fast enough to beat LTs to the corner, and strong enough to bull rush. There just aren’t many of these guys and teams tend to swing high and miss on these guys (Derrick Harvey, Gaines Adams, etc.) The 3-4 defense though can make effective use of a lot more college DEs, since guys who are stout and strong get slid into the 5-technique slot while guys who are fast and strong can be OLBs. It’s not some magic potion for getting your draft picks to work out, but you are choosing from a larger pool of guys.
    Likewise, the 4-3 requires three LBs who can run sideline to sideline in coverage, and stand up to FBs in run fills. There aren’t a lot of people for whom this is true. The 3-4 defense really only requires 2 of these guys.
    The personnel weakness for the 3-4 is unquestionably the nose tackle. You need one of those to make the defense work, and it’s a long and difficult process to get a good one.
    The way I’ve always thought about it is that the 4-3 is a better defense for getting the most out of your superstars, and the 3-4 is a better defense for getting use out of defensive specialists. It’s probably better to have superstars than specialists, but specialists are easier and cheaper to get.

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