Understanding Urban: The 3-4 Defense

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Last updated: 09/06/2012 2:25 AM
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Understanding Urban: 3-4 Front Defense
By Ken Pryor

(Editor’s Note: Ken Pryor is an offensive coordinator who works with the wide receivers at North Point High School in Waldorf, Md. He has been a long-time contributor to The-Ozone, and has been asked to help us better understand Ohio State’s new offense since Urban Meyer was hired back in November.)

In keeping with the theme regarding the various defensive fronts which Braxton Miller may see during his time as Ohio State’s quarterback, today we take a closer look at the 3-4 defense.  

The history of the 3-4 has always been in question. While it is generally accepted that it was developed at Oklahoma by Chuck Fairbanks, who brought it to the NFL in 1973, Bill Arnsparger used it with the Miami Dolphins in 1971 and ‘72. Prior to that, Hank Stram briefly flirted with the 3-4 as the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Nevertheless, arguably the most influential man in bringing the 3-4 to the pros may be Joe Collier, who spent 20 seasons with the Denver Broncos from 1969-88. Over the years the popularity of the 3-4 has ebbed and flowed. It is the girl you knew in high school who all the fellas liked, but none would openly admit it because she wasn’t a dime in relation to all the girls on the cheerleading squad.

But she was pretty, in her own right, and she might have even been marriage material. Such is the case with the 3-4 defensive scheme. Four of the top five overall defenses in the NFL in 2009 were 3-4 defenses. Three of the top five sack leaders were 3-4 teams. More importantly, seven of the twelve play-off teams ran a 3-4 system on defense. Since 2000, the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have won five Super Bowls between them, both running a 3-4.

That, my friends, is marriage material indeed.

There are a couple reasons why the 3-4 is currently gaining in popularity. The first being it's really hard to find and recruit quality defensive ends who can consistently get pressure on an opposing QB.

Ohio State has a couple of them in Nathan Williams and Noah Spence, but their kind certainly doesn’t grow on trees. The second is that the 3-4 allows defensive coordinators to be much more creative in their schemes and make it that much harder for opposing offenses to counteract.

The number of Division I college teams that use the 3-4 may very well increase dramatically over the next several years since college football tends to follow the same trends as the pros.
What is the 3-4?
The 3-4 defense is pretty simple at its core. You have three defensive linemen, four linebackers, two cornerbacks, and two safeties.

The requirements for players in a 3-4 are different than for players in a 4-3, and it all starts with the nose tackle. Joe Collier had the following to say about it:

“You build it from the inside out. 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.”

The Basic 3-4 Defensive Alignment

What is the significance of the nose tackle?
In a 3-4 defense, the nose tackle needs to be an extraordinary human being in size and strength, tipping the scales at 300+ pounds. He has to be a two-gap guy who can occupy both the center and guard on either side so they can’t get to the inside linebackers. The nose tackle can make the inside linebackers look stellar. If the inside linebackers look stellar, then the entire defense is going to look very solid.

The defensive ends in a 3-4 have similar jobs as the nose tackle. While they may provide some pass rush, they are mainly required to tie up offensive linemen stringing out runs to the outside where the linebackers can clean up and pad their stats. In a 3-4 scheme, the defensive linemen won't generate great numbers in stats, but their job is crucial in the grand scheme of how the defensive operation.

What about the linebackers?
Outside linebackers in a 3-4 were generally college defensive ends who are too small to play that position in the pros – a la Ohio State’s own Mike Vrabel – but their responsibilities are specific in nature. The weak side LB is the speed rusher that we often hear about who comes off the edge.

Braxton Miller may sometimes see the outside linebacker switching spots on the field based on the offensive alignment so he needs to identify this man. It’s good to know Tom Herman is providing another set of eyes from up in the booth where he can help Miller with this portion of the job. They can talk about it on the phone when Braxton comes to the sidelines now that he’s wearing a headset.

The weakside linebacker needs to be good enough in the rush to beat tackles one-on-one, and he needs to be fierce enough to make plays and always beat any backs who try to block him.

The strong side linebacker like most other linebackers needs to be able to take on a blocker but also quick enough to drop back into coverage.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the inside linebackers need to be quick enough to get side to side in a hurry. They need to be on the hunt, traveling to and fro to see who they can devour.

Few teams can run a 3-4 all the time because it's difficult to get pressure on the QB in a passing situation. This was a major weaknesses of the 3-4…that is until Ohio State alum Dick LeBeau rectified the problem when he designed the zone blitz. The zone blitz calls for three down linemen to rush the passer while one of the outside linebackers also rushes the QB. The rest of the linebackers fill the gaps in the secondary with help from the safeties providing zone coverage. On almost every play, at least one of the linebackers is rushing the quarterback;  sometimes two or three.

A big disadvantage of this scheme is that it leaves the defense vulnerable across the middle to seam routes from tight ends, as well a vulnerable to the screen since one of the outside linebackers will be caught up in rushing the passer.

Advantages of the 3-4
The benefits to the 3-4 are immense as the variations are endless.

Miller may see an opponent blitz both outside linebackers or they may only blitz one outside linebacker, though both may have crowded the line. He might see a defensive lineman drop into coverage or stunting linebackers. A variation of this may stunt one linebacker to the opposite side of the field from where he started, or Miller could see a defense stunt the linemen.

In linebacker stunts, the defensive linemen act very similarly to offensive linemen – their goal is to push all the offensive linemen one way, allowing the blitzing LB unimpeded access to the QB.

Coordinators can pull out the NT in a passing situation and rush 3 LBs, allowing the defense to overbalance the offensive line, leaving 3 linemen for 4 defenders.

Some defensive coordinators choose to have everyone standing. This confuses the offensive line and opposing QBs because they have no idea who is coming or where they're coming from.

The 3-4 defense allows for more creativity than the traditional 4-3, and the variations can really demoralize an offense.

As Braxton Miller matures and perfects his craft, he will become very adept at detecting what the defense is attempting to do. As he does this, he will be inflicting his own brand of demoralization.

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