For years, the standard defense at all levels of football has been the 4-3. This consists of four defensive linemen and three linebackers as the front seven. While there have been countless defensive ends who have wrecked havoc on quarterbacks from the traditional end position (Reggie White, Dwight Freeney, Deacon Jones), in today’s game, many NFL teams are implementing a 3-4 defense. While a few teams, notably the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots have used this base defense throughout the past decade, as we head into the 2011 season, half the teams in the NFL have some form of a 3-4 defense. We’ll examine the basic concepts of each defense and highlight some necessities to playing each position in both defenses.
What is the 4-3 defense?
In the 4-3, the defense’s success is very much tied to the middle linebacker and defense end. In the 4-3, the middle linebacker is responsible for calling out plays, making adjustments, and making tackles while also having to drop back into coverage. Some notable middle linebackers who have had tremendous success over the past decade include former Miami Dolphin Zack Thomas, Chicago Bear Brian Urlacher, and Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis. All three of these players share a few characteristics – tremendous vocal leadership, intensity, and intelligence. Urlacher and Thomas are former NFL Defensive Players of the Year and Thomas was a perennial Pro Bowler during the 2000s.
Getting after the QB: Defensive End
In addition to the middle linebacker, the 4-3 defense is predicated on having a great pass rushing defensive end. Since the linebackers are often asked to play in pass coverage, the defensive line is responsible for creating most of the pass rush. Typically the right defensive end is the team’s best lineman whose job is to attack the quarterback’s blind side. Some of the best pass rushers in the NFL over the past decade are right defensive ends including the Indianapolis Colts’ Dwight Freeney, former Carolina Panther Julius Peppers, and Minnesota Viking Jared Allen. Because today’s left tackles are athletic and have long arms, it is equally important for the right defensive end to have the right blend of size, power, and speed. Mario Williams, the first overall pick in 2006 fits the mold of the ideal defensive end at 6’6, 280 lbs. with 4.7 speed and great strength. Even though former USC running back Reggie Bush was thought to be the best talent in the draft, the Texans proved everyone wrong by selecting Williams with the first pick to create havoc against Peyton Manning and the Colts. With the Texans’ move to a 3-4, it will be interesting to see if Wade Phillips can harness Williams’ athleticism as an outside linebacker.
Men in the Middle: Defensive Tackle
In terms of run defense, the middle linebacker’s ability to make tackles relies much on the two men in the middle – the defensive tackles. One has to look no further than Lewis to see how important this concept is. Early on in his career when the Ravens played a base 4-3 defense, Lewis benefitted from having two huge defensive tackles – Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa tying up the guards and center on the opposing team’s offensive line. In doing so, Lewis was allowed to flow freely to the ball carrier or quarterback with little interference from blockers. The two defensive tackles are typically lined up with one at the “one-technique” which is between the guard and center and the other at the “three technique” which is over the outside shoulder of the other guard. Warren Sapp is considered the quintessential three technique defensive tackle because of his tremendous interior quickness which he used to explode up field into the opponent’s backfield.
On the edges: Outside linebackers
The other linebackers in a 4-3 defense are known as the “Will” and “Sam”. The will, or weak-side linebacker is usually the fastest of the three linebackers and uses his sideline-to-sideline speed to prevent running backs from breaking the ball to the outside. They are typically a bit undersized, around 230-250 lbs. but usually with 4.5-4.6 speed. Examples of weak-side linebackers in the NFL today are Thomas Davis of the Panthers, Quincy Black of the Buccaneers, and Chad Greenway of the Minnesota Vikings.
The sam, or strong-side linebacker is lined up on the tight end’s side and are typically stronger at the point of attack and play closer to the line of scrimmage. They may be asked to man up with the tight end and are typically above 250 lbs. with 4.6-4.7 speed. They are also called on to blitz so they must have above average pass rush skills. Some notable strong-side linebackers in the NFL today are Brian Cushing of the Houston Texans, James Anderson of the Panthers and Rey Maualuga of the Cincinnati Bengals.
What is the 3-4 defense?
In contrast to the 4-3 defense, the 3-4 defense relies on bigger, more physical players at every position. The 3-4 defense makes use of its ability to disguise blitzes and relies on versatility from the linebackers. In this alignment, there are three linemen and four linebackers, one of whom is essentially a stand-up defensive end. The two positions that are critical to a 3-4 are the nose tackle and pass-rushing outside linebacker.
The essential: Nose Tackle
First, the nose tackle is the anchor of the defense who lines up directly over the center. The nose tackle has to have excellent strength and size to handle constant double teams from the center and a guard. A typical nose tackle stands at least 6’2 and weighs at least 320 lbs. although many weigh over 350. Nose tackles have to be adept at using their hands to shed blocks and must have good enough feet to maintain balance. Some of the best nose tackles in the NFL today are New England Patriot Vince Wilfork, B.J. Raji of the Packers and Pittsburgh Steeler Casey Hampton.
Wreaking Havoc: Outside linebacker
Next in importance is the pass-rushing outside linebacker. Essentially these players are smaller college defensive ends who possess enough speed and agility to both rush the passer, play the run, and drop into coverage in the NFL. The prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker stands 6’4-6’5 and weighs at least 250 lbs. with at least 4.6 speed. It is important for the pass rushing outside linebacker to have long arms in order to separate from the left tackle. Also, in order to be successful the player must have or be able to develop a series of pass rush moves besides the typical speed and bull rushes. Demarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys is the best 3-4 outside linebacker today while James Harrison of the Steelers and Tamba Hali of the Chiefs are also highly successful pass rushers.
Two-gapping: Defensive ends
The other defensive linemen are lined up as “five techniques” meaning they are directly over the offensive tackles. They are most often coverted college defensive tackles who possess more speed than the average defensive tackle. These players are often around 6’5 or taller and weigh at least 300 lbs. Finding 3-4 defensive ends along with a competent nose tackle is very difficult considering most college defensive linemen are too small. The 3-4 defensive end’s main job is to occupy blockers although the right defensive end is typically an above average pass rusher. It is important that the defensive ends have great strength at the point of attack and are also agile enough to rush the quarterback and defend the perimeter when asked. Some examples of ideal 3-4 defensive ends are Oakland Raider Richard Seymour, Pittsburgh Steeler Aaron Smith, and the 49ers’ Justin Smith.
Stopping the run: Inside linebacker
Another key position in the linebacking core is the middle linebacker. There are two linebackers, most often known as the “ted” and the “mike”. The ted’s job is usually to take on blockers, most often a guard, while also being able to shed the block and make tackles on inside runs. The ted is typically around 250 lbs. or bigger and does not need great speed, however, he does need good strength. The mike is often the leader of the defense and is usually the lead tackler of the defense. He also must have good strength and usually has at least 4.7 speed. Examples of 3-4 inside linebackers are Jerod Mayo of the Patriots, Patrick Willis of the 49ers and David Harris of the Jets.