The 3-4 Defense, A Change for the Better

A long-time advocate of the 3-4 defense, contributing columnist Michael S. Smith shares his thoughts on Bronco Mendenhall's recent announcement that BYU would scrap the 3-3-5 defense in favor of the 3-4.

When BYU Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator Bronco Mendenhall recently announced that he would be changing his defensive alignment from a 3-3-5 to a 3-4-4 defense, knowledgeable fans shouted for joy. Since its implementation in 2003, the BYU version of the 3-3-5 defense has experienced uneven success. While it's true that the defense achieved a top 14 finish in 2003, the 3-3-5 defense has largely been ineffective since then, dropping to a horrific ranking of 91 out of 117 teams in 2005.

To be fair to Coach Mendenhall, recruiting losses and injuries eviscerated his 2005 defense. He had neither the depth nor talent to consistently hold opposing offenses. This became painfully apparent in the OT losses to TCU and Utah. BYU's defense was as effective in stopping the Hornfrogs and Utes as the Maginot Line was in stopping the Germans in 1940.

But what the 3-3-5 ignored was simple history. The alignment requires two-deep quality at each position, at a minimum. Consistently recruiting quality defensive backs—especially cornerbacks—has always been a problem at BYU (though there are signs that a change is afoot). For every Tim McTyer there has been six or seven guys who are too small and too slow. The problem has been so acute that the team has been forced to convert safeties to cornerbacks, usually a bad idea. Most teams do it the other way around.

On the other hand, the 3-4-4 aligns with BYU's recruiting history. The team consistently recruits quality linebackers and defensive linemen. A cursory glance at NFL rosters will reveal the names of several BYU standouts—Brett Keisel, Ryan Denney, Chris Hoke, Colby Bockwoldt, Rob Morris, and Brady Poppinga—to name a few.

As for those who are currently on the BYU roster, the 3-4 makes even more sense. This year's linebacker corps is absolutely loaded. Linebacker quality goes three-deep. Beneath probable starters Cameren Jensen, Aaron Wagner, Bryan Kehl, and Markell Staffieri, are Chris Bolden, Kelly Poppinga, Terrance Hooks, and Gary Lovely. And the names go on and on.

The talent pool at linebacker must have Coach Mendenhall licking his chops. He has always been a big advocate for putting the best 11 players on the field, but the 3-3-5 constrained him from doing this much last season. He, apparently, isn't making the same mistake again.

"After reviewing our defensive personnel, there are players on our team who we can design scheme elements around to make sure we get our best 11 football players on the field," Mendenhall said. "We believe the coaching assignment changes are in direct alignment with the strengths of our returning defensive personnel."

Translation: we're loaded at linebacker and we're going to use them.

While Mendenhall is experiencing an embarrassment of riches at linebacker, his secondary is another story. BYU lacks the experience and the numbers to fill out a two-deep secondary in a 3-3-5. Going to a 3-4 is the right thing to do. Fortunately, BYU has several talented recruits, redshirts, and returnees who will vie for a starting position. How these positions shake out should be one of the more interesting aspects of the off-season.

The 3-4 Defense

Do not expect to see too much of a change in how Bronco's defense plays. He clued us in when he recently said, "The principles [of the 3-4] are very similar to what we have already done."

We should see the same level of blitzing, pursuit and gang tackling to which we have become accustomed. Like the 3-3-5, fanatical effort will remain a staple in Bronco Mendenhall's 3-4. However, the 3-3-5 will not be entirely gone. Expect to see it used in passing situations, with a nickel back replacing one of the inside linebackers.

Beside the extra linebacker, what does the 3-4 do for you? First and foremost, the 3-4 puts more pressure on the linebackers to make the plays, particularly sacks. Proponents of this scheme also believe that it is more effective in combating today's sophisticated passing attacks, because a fourth linebacker allows a defense the luxury of better disguising its blitzes and coverages.

The challenges opposing offenses face when playing the 3-4 can be looked at this way. If the center blocks the nose tackle and the tackles take on the defensive ends, the guards presumably, must handle the inside linebackers. Who's got the two outside linebackers? And where are they? Ideally, they are in the opponent's backfield, wreaking havoc.

The 3-4 will give Bronco maximum flexibility. One of the outside linebackers can quickly come up to the line of scrimmage, drop down into a 3-point stance, and voila, an instant 4-3. But that's not all. He can stay on the edge as a decoy, blitz from a 2-point stance, cover the tight end, or pick up a running back in the flat. The options are numerous. You know Mendenhall will have fun with that.

As for coverages, the 3-4 has its benefits, too, but less so than the 3-3-5. In the 3-4, linebackers can jam receivers and the tight end, thus taking away the rhythm of the passing game. Timing is everything. The 3-4 allows a defense to drop all four linebackers in coverage as well, creating difficulties for QBs that lead to interceptions or sacks.

The 3-4 does give Bronco a big advantage over the 3-3-5. Most fans are aware that Bronco blitzed a safety on almost every down in the 3-3-5. The problem is that a 180-pound safety does not fair too well when going against a 290lb tackle. On the other hand, a speedy linebacker has a better chance of inflicting harm on the opposing QB rather than a scrawny safety. The reduced differential in weight means that a linebacker is more likely to avoid injury in such a situation as well.

One last point. Any proponent of the 3-4 will tell you that you need a playmaker at nose tackle. He must be large enough (at least 300lbs) and strong enough to take up space and occupy the center and, hopefully, a guard. He must also be able to hold his ground and stay on his feet. BYU has little experience at this crucial position, but newcomers, Romney Fuga and Russell Tialavia, have both the size and potential to do well here. Their development will be important in the unit's success.

The 2006 version of the BYU Cougars will feature a high-scoring offense, perhaps one of the best and most balanced in the nation. In order to achieve a winning record, the defense will need to step up and improve over last year's 91st ranking. With the adoption of the 3-4 defense, I think Bronco Mendenhall has taken the first step in achieving that goal.

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