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.