Thursday, July 23, 2009

4-3 and 3-4 Defenses, Part Four

by: Matthew Heuett

Linebackers in the 3-4

Just as the 4-3’s keys to success were the savvy of its middle linebacker and the production of its defensive ends, the 3-4 relies heavily on the endurance and immovability of its nose tackle and even more on the play of its linebackers. After all, if you’re going to yank out a D-lineman to bulk up your linebacking corps, then those linebackers had better be doing some pretty special things for you.

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The 3-4 uses two types of linebackers: inside linebackers and outside linebackers. The outside linebackers carry the same names as the two outside linebackers in the 4-3, Sam (for the LB on the strong side) and Will (for the one on the weak side), but that’s about the only thing they have in common. While 4-3 OLBs blitz only occasionally, 3-4 OLBs are the defense’s main pass rushers. One or both OLBs will rush on every down from the 5-tech (the Sam will blitz occasionally from the 7-tech as well), although sometimes they will disguise their intentions by lining up a few yards off the line of scrimmage and blitzing from there or by lining up in the 5-tech and dropping into coverage instead of blitzing.

Players who excel as 3-4 linebackers are typically what pro scouts would call “tweeners”-- a bit too small to be a 4-3 defensive end, but a bit too big to be a 4-3 outside linebacker, either. This gives them enough size to shed blockers en route to the quarterback (the Sam tends to be slightly bigger than the Will, since he has to deal with the tight end more often), but not so much that they aren’t maneuverable enough to be effective in coverage. Before the 3-4 became popular, most tweeners had a better chance of being struck by lightning than being drafted by an NFL team, which brings us to one of the hidden benefits of running a 3-4: with fewer teams competing for the players you need, it’s easier and cheaper to fill your roster with highly talented players than it is for 4-3 teams. This benefit been mitigated somewhat in recent years, now that roughly a third of the NFL runs a 3-4 base defense (and several more teams running a hybrid 3-4/4-3), but the difference is still great enough to matter come free agency and draft day.

As you might expect, Seattle doesn’t have many tweeners on its roster. Curry, whose pass-rushing skills prompted this article in the first place, is on the light end of the scale at 255 lbs (the sweet spot for tweeners is roughly 255-265 lbs), but he could still conceivably do the job. However, who would work as Seattle’s second 3-4 outside linebacker? The next heaviest linebacker is Tatupu at 242 lbs, and the best proven pass-rushing LB on the team, Hill, is even lighter at 238 lbs. When players are asked to blitz a handful of times a game, being a bit light isn’t much of an issue, but the more times they’re asked to rush the passer, the bigger a problem it becomes. The team would likely have better luck using one of its defensive ends for the position. Atkins (268 lbs), Tapp (270 lbs), Jackson (271 lbs), and Kerney (272 lbs) are heavier than ideal, but one of them could do the job if his pass coverage skills were adequate for the task, and if the team would only be using a 3-4 front a few times a game, they might not have to play in coverage at all. One of the other DEs, Brandon Miller, is exactly the right size at 259 lbs, but since he’s a long shot to make the team he isn’t a likely candidate for the job.

The inside linebackers come in two flavors: the Mike, who lines up closer to the weak side, and the Ted, who lines up closer to the strong side. These names are a bit less definite than other position designations (some 3-4 teams reverse the names, some leave the names alone but reverse the job responsibilities, some call them something else entirely like Jack or Buck or late to dinner) but in general the Ted linebacker is the one that’s most like the Mike in the 4-3. The Ted tends to be the least athletic of the four, so he isn’t a game-breaker, but he is a sure tackler, a big hitter, and a smart leader. It’s the Ted who handles the defensive audibles. By contrast, the Mike is one of the best athletes on the team -- he can stop running backs cold, he gets to the passer when he blitzes, and he’s effective in coverage. Together, the two of them make the middle of the field a scary, painful place to be for the offense.

Tatupu’s intelligence and instincts would serve him just as well at the Ted position as they do at the 4-3 Mike, but the 3-4 Mike is a harder fit. Hill is arguably the best pure athlete of all the linebackers on the team (although he might now have to hand that crown over to Curry), but while he’s great at stopping the run and rushing the passer, his coverage skills have always been a liability. The other linebackers aren’t much better choices; D.D. Lewis is good in coverage and run support, but he isn’t much of a pass-rusher, and most of the others are either one-dimensional or simply haven’t played enough for us to know how well-rounded they are. Tatupu and Curry are likely the two best fits for the Mike position, but they can’t play two positions at once -- if one of them steps in as the Mike, then who would take over for them at the Ted or Will positions?

And that right there highlights the main reason I don’t think we’ll be seeing the Seahawks utilizing a 3-4 package. If one position were only a partial fit at best I could see it being viable, but when you have question marks at not just the Mike position but also in the two most important positions in the 3-4, outside linebacker and nose tackle, then you have to seriously question the usefulness of spending precious time in training camp working on a defensive package you know will be hamstrung at best and completely broken at worst.

3-4 Strengths and Weaknesses

The lifeblood of the 3-4 is its unpredictability. On passing downs, the pass rush could be coming from the Sam, Will, and/or Mike position, and the offensive line should be so busy dealing with the those three big D-linemen that the offense will have to hold back a tight end and/or a running back to use as blockers, which means the remaining three or four eligible receivers have to contend with anywhere between five and seven defenders. On running downs, the D-linemen and their two-gap assignments make running between the tackles dicey, and the four linebackers are ready and waiting to flow in whatever direction the run is designed to go in order to take the running back down for zero or negative yards.

In practice, however, the 3-4 didn’t work quite that perfectly. While its highly mobile four linebacker scheme was effective against the run, especially against faster, more athletic backs that 4-3 defenses and its four slow defensive linemen typically struggled to contain, over time offenses began to counter with more creative blocking schemes designed to free up offensive linemen to use on the linebackers at the second level.

3-4 defenses also began to struggle against another new offensive trend. Through the late ’80s and early ’90s, teams began to shed the slower play-action oriented passing game for much speedier variants of the West Coast Offense. Against the WCO’s short drops and quick passes, 3-4 teams found that three defensive linemen simply weren’t enough to reliably collapse the pocket. This allowed the quarterback to avoid the pass rush from the outside linebackers for a few extra seconds by stepping up into the pocket, and that was all the time the QB needed to get the pass off. Unpredictable blitzes don’t matter much when none of them can get to the passer in time.

And that’s why, despite the success of the 3-4 in the ’70s and ’80s, only a handful of teams were still running it by the mid-’90s. It may be more difficult to find and keep top-level talent to run the 4-3 front, but even with average linemen it still proved better at collapsing the pocket than the 3-4.

NFL Defenses Today
How the 3-4 Got Its Groove Back

So then, if the 3-4 was game-planned into obsolescence, why are so many current teams using it as their base defense today? Well, there are two answers to that question, and the first one is named Dick LeBeau. Most of you know and revile LeBeau as the current defensive coordinator of the Steelers, but back in the late ’80s he was the defensive coordinator for the Bengals, where he was dealing with the same mounting problems as every other 3-4 DC in the league. But rather than transition over to a 4-3 front, his solution was to make the 3-4 even more unpredictable--why let the linebackers have all the fun? Why not let the safeties and cornerbacks blitz? And while we’re at it, why not really screw with the o-linemen by taking that defensive end they were getting ready to block and drop him back into coverage? And just like that, the zone blitz was born. Lebeau’s imaginative defensive schemes helped the Bengals get to the Super Bowl in ’88, but many people ignored his innovations when Cincinnati failed to stop San Francisco’s last minute drive for the win.

One of the guys who did pay attention is the second reason why the 3-4 has made a comeback in recent years, and his name is Bill Belicheck. As defensive coordinator for the Giants from ’85 to ’90, his 3-4 schemes helped New York win two Super Bowls and earned him a head coaching position in Cleveland where, for personnel reasons, he chose to run a 4-3 defense instead. However, when he took charge of the Patriots in ’00, he wasted no time in installing a 3-4 defense filled to the brim with zone blitzes.

Five Super Bowl rings later -- three for Belicheck and two for LeBeau (yes, I remember ’05, and no, I don’t want to rehash that here) -- it’s hard to argue that the addition of zone blitzes has failed to make the 3-4 relevant and competitive again. And for 4-3 teams like the Seahawks that’s a good thing, because the more teams switch over to 3-4, the easier it will be for Seattle to land the next Patrick Kerney.