3-4 Defense

Position Roles and Weaknesses

3-4 Defense

Position Roles and Weaknesses

Written by: Connor Morris | 05/01/2019 - Co-Founder, CMO, Apex Sports

Written by: Connor Morris | 05/01/2019 - Co-Founder, CMO, Apex Sports

3-4 Defense: Position Roles and Weaknesses


The 3-4 defense had become the go-to base defense utilized by NFL teams since the dawn of the 1980’s. After seeing a decline for the next 2 decades, the 3-4 defense made a resurgence in the 2000’s and is now implemented by NFL, collegiate, and even high school football teams. The 3-4 defense is run using 3 defensive linemen, one nose tackle on the inside flanked by two defensive ends. There are 4 linebackers playing behind them. Rolling out a defense with 4 linebackers allow for flexibility and versatility from these positions. In a 3-4 defense, the linebackers may be asked to rush the quarterback, function as a spy on the quarterback or running back, or even drop back into pass coverage.


Defensive Linemen Roles


In a 4-3 defense, the defense is centered on having playmakers on the defensive line. With 4 linemen upfront, a defensive line is tasked with getting to the quarterback. This can be seen with 3-technique defensive tackles as well as rush ends on the outside. Contrary to the 4-3 defense, the 3-4 defense relies on the playmaking ability of the linebackers. This means that the defensive lineman should be bigger and longer and serve to take up blockers in order to free up space for these linebackers. Think of NFL defensive ends like Akiem Hicks, Mike Daniels, and JJ Watt.

Perhaps the most important part of the 3-4 defense is the nose tackle. The nose tackle in a 3-4 defense is tasked with drawing double and triple teams on the inside of the field which allows inside linebackers to make plays in the middle of the field. The nose tackle’s primary responsibility is to clog the A gaps and is often reserved for the biggest players on the defensive line. On runs through the A gap, the nose tackle should be expected to blow up the play or prevent one of the offensive guards from moving up the field and executing a block. The Nose Tackle usually lines up in 0-technique, directly opposite the center. The most prototypical nose tackle would be Vince Wilfork, who was used in the Patriots’ 3-4 Defense to clog the A gaps.


Inside Linebacker Roles


There are two types of inside linebackers in a 3-4 defense and each of them play different roles. The Will linebacker is typically a speedier inside linebacker that lines up on the weak side of the field. Often times the Will linebacker is better in pass coverage and could be asked to cover a slot receiver or tight end. The Mike linebacker lines up on the strong side of the field and is typically a stronger, more traditional linebacker that will need to be able to run to the line and clog up the A or B gaps, allowing for more space for the Will linebacker to roam freely to the ball and make a play or rush the quarterback. It is important for both inside linebackers to be able to perform all of these things, as the point of a 3-4 defense is to hide who the 4th rusher will be on the defense. This allows for creativity from the defense since the Mike can take up blockers allowing for the Will to blitz or the Will can take up blockers to allow for the Mike to make plays in the middle of the field. The last type of inside linebacker is a Ted linebacker. The Ted linebacker functions as more of a fullback on the defensive side of the ball and often does the dirty work of running up the middle and taking on blocks to clear up space for the Mike linebacker to make more plays. Contrary to the Will linebacker, the Ted is not as fast but tougher and bigger than a Will. 3-4 inside linebackers include players like Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis, and Sean Lee.


Outside Linebacker Roles


Much like the inside linebackers, there are two outside linebackers with different roles in the defense. The Jack linebacker, also called a rush linebacker, is typically used as a primary pass rusher. The Jack linebacker is almost always lined up on the weak side and is expected to beat a tackle to get to the Quarterback or blow up a run play. On the other side, the Sam linebacker is almost always lined up on the strong side of the play and will typically be expected to make plays on runs and drop back into coverage. The Sam will usually be up against a tight end and could also be used to cover the tight end on pass plays. While it is less common for the Sam linebacker to rush the passer on a blitz, the Sam should be able to blitz if the play calls for it. This can often be used in the 3-4 defense to deceive the offense. These outside linebackers are typically the players getting the most sacks for their team as the defensive linemen and inside linebackers should be able to take up all of the blockers, allowing for a clear lane for the outside linebackers to get to the quarterback. Examples of players that act as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense include big name pass rushers such as Von Miller, Justin Houston, and Chandler Jones.


One Gap vs. Two Gap

There are two variations of the 3-4 defense, the one-gap technique, and the two-gap technique. In a two gap 3-4 defense, linemen are tasked with taking up two gaps each. The Nose tackle will be responsible for the A gaps while each end if responsible for a B and C gap each. In this two-gap technique, the defensive linemen do most of the dirty work, clogging up the middle. This allows for the linebackers to roam free and flow towards the ball easier. This allows for a lot of flexibility and trickery for the defensive coordinator who has the freedom to call for things like zone-blitzes from the linebackers. In order to effectively play the two-gap 3-4 defense, you need a lot of size on the line. This means that you may see players that are typically thought to be defensive tackles in a 4-3 scheme playing defensive end. At the NFL level, that means these ends are probably over 320 lbs.

Most high school teams do not have the size or strength on their defensive line to be able to consistently take on the two-gap 3-4 defense. It is more common to see a one-gap 3-4 defense at the high school and even collegiate level. With the one-gap, defensive ends are going to be lines up in a 4-technique as opposed to the standard 5-technique from a two-gap. The 4-technique will discourage double teams. In the one-gap, linebackers share the gap-coverage responsibilities with the linemen. This means that the inside linebackers may be responsible for one of the A gaps, or B gaps while the outside linebackers could be responsible for handling the C gaps. There are several reads that need to be made by the linebackers becuase they must read the movements of the offensive linemen to determine whether to move parallel to the line of scrimmage, or shoot the gap that they are assigned.

There are several key things that must be read by the interior linebackers to help them decide where they should be on the play. If the linebackers see the interior lineman executing a drive block, they should shock and lock the interior lineman before using a rip move to disengage the lineman and move towards the football. On a down block, the inside linebackers should move to the next available gap, based on where the football is located, and fill that gap. This is also the case for a reach block. In the case of a pulling offensive lineman, the inside linebacker should move in the direction of the pulling lineman and fill the gaps, starting with the interior.


Secondary Coverage

While in a 3-4 defense, there are several coverage schemes that the secondary could be lined up in. The first coverage scheme is the Cover 3. The cover 3 is best utilized against run-oriented offenses as it forces the football to move towards the strong safety, who has the ability to roam free, track the football, and make the tackle. The Cover 6 is used often with the 3-4 defense as well. In the cover 6, the movement of the safeties relies heavily on the number 2 receiver. If the number 2 receiver goes vertical at the time of the snap, the safety and cornerback will sink and go on to match the route of the man in their particular area of the field. If the number 2 receiver goes inside or outside at the time of the snap, the safety will move towards the number 1 receiver while the cornerback will match the route run by the receiver. There are other coverage schemes utilized such as the cover 2 or cover 4, which are both run similarly to the cover 6.


Teams That Run a 3-4 Defense

Plenty of teams employ a 3-4 defense. Teams include the Chicago Bears, the Green Bay Packers, the New Orleans Saints, the Washington Redskins, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and a number of others that employ the 3-4 defense as their base defense.

How to Beat the 3-4 Defense

The primary weaknesses of the 3-4 defense stem from the lack of defensive players playing on the line. With only 3 defensive linemen, offenses are capable of overwhelming defensive linemen with complex blocking schemes. In order for the 3-4 defense to be effective, the defensive linemen must be able to consistently take on multiple blockers. If there is a weakness on the line, an offense can run right at that weakness. The linebackers can also be exploited if they aren’t strong enough to shed blocks from fullbacks, tight ends, or offensive linemen trying to move into the second level of the defense. Size on the defensive line and strength and agility from linebackers is essential if you want to successfully execute the 3-4 defense.

This should give you more insight on the basics of a 3-4 defense and how to properly execute it in a one-gap and two-gap scheme. This should also give you more insight into the roles of the defensive linemen and linebackers. The play of the line and linebackers is the bread and butter of a 3-4 defense. Also, by better understanding this defense you may be able to recognize that certain players may fit better at different positions in different schemes. For instance, a 4-3 interior defensive lineman may be better suited to play as a 3-4 defensive end while a smaller 4-3 defensive end may be better suited to play the outside linebacker role in a 3-4 defense. In today’s game of football, it is becoming more and more common to see these hybrid defensive players whether it is as an Outside Linebacker/ Defensive End or as an Defensive Tackle/ Defensive End. When run properly, the 3-4 defense can give lots of trouble to an offense that is relying on interior runs, or can take up blockers on the offensive line, allowing for the outside linebackers to get free runs at the Quarterback.

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