Will Vols Resurrect the 3-4 this Fall?

Last season there was a preponderance of preseason speculation regarding Tennessee's potential use of the 3-4 defensive scheme to supplement its base 4-3 alignment.

Tennessee coaches acknowledged the Vols had worked on the 3-4 in practice, but denied such a package was prominent in their plans for the season. They maintained that variations in the 4-3 were always utilized and the 3-4 was simply one of those looks. Whether they were attempting to mislead the opposition by misinforming the public is not clear, but the entire issue became moot when outside linebacker Kevin Burnett went down with a season ending knee injury in the opening series of the 2002 campaign. Three weeks later his replacement, Kevin Simon, suffered a broken ankle and 3-4 talk became mute.

Later, UT defensive coordinator Johnny Chavis admitted the Vols had invested a lot of time in developing a 3-4 package that featured Burnett in a starring role. Plans to retool the 3-4 attack with Simon were never enacted after the freshman was sidelined, and no one remained among UT's depleted linebacker corps with the talent to handle the job.

With both Simon and Burnett missing from spring practice the 3-4 was shelved, but with both expected back in top form this fall, the 3-4 might be resurrected. And the reasons for its return are the same as last year — maybe even better. The Vols are once again replacing their entire starting defensive front, including three NFL Draft picks at tackle. However last year Tennessee had tackles with game experience whereas this year they don't have battle-tested players in the trenches. Two of their first four tackles (Zarnell Fitch and Justin Harrell) have never played Division I football while the other two (Greg Jones and Mondre Dickerson) logged little PT there in their first year at UT. In fact, it was the first time either player lined up inside during his football career.

Last season Tennessee wanted to accentuate the positive by providing more playing time for its deep stable of linebackers, while taking advantage of Burnett's special talents. This year the Vols have an even stronger group of linebackers along with a healthy Burnett, Simon and an outstanding incoming talent in Daniel Brooks.

It's been 14 years since Tennessee changed it base defense from a 50 front to a 4-3 alignment, and it's hard to argue with the Vols defensive success during that period, particularly over the last decade. The 4-3 will remain UT's defense of choice this season, but given the Vols personnel the 3-4 makes perfect sense.

Originated by Bud Wilkerson at Oklahoma over 50 years ago, a version of the defense first hit the NFL in 1972 with Miami's fame 53 defense which was named for pass-rushing linebacker Bob Matheson who moved freely along the defensive front. The Dolphins used the defense to post the NFL's only perfect season (17-0) in 1972, but they actually made the switch because of injuries at defensive tackle.

Other teams would soon adopt the Dolphins defense and the shortage of quality tackles was the driving force behind its rise in popularity. It eventually fell out of favor because most team's lacked the big 6-3, 250, linebacker who could cover the tight end and play opposite a pass-rushing specialist. Carl Banks filled that role with the New York Giants opposite Lawrence Taylor when the Giants won the Super Bowl in 1990. Ten years later the Baltimore Ravens rode the 3-4, featuring linebacker Ray Lewis, all the way to an NFL Championship. This was achieved despite an offense that had neither a high-profile quarterback or big-play capability.

The 3-4 works well for a Tennessee team that lost Dementrin Veal, Rashad Moore and Aubrayo Franklin at defensive tackle. In addition to an abundance of quality LBs, the Vols have four attack style defensive ends — Constantin Ritzmann, Karlton Neal, Parys Harralson and incoming freshman Turk McBride — that are capable of pressuring the quarterback from the edge. They also have a couple of hybrid linemen in J.T. Mapu and Dickerson that would be good in run support at end in the 3-4, or as quick tackles to get push inside out of the 4-3.

Mapu might also be able to provide more quickness at nose tackle in the 3-4 with less bulk, much the way 260-pound Curly Culp did for the Houston Oilers under Bum Phillips in mid 70's. Harrell (6-4, 300) and Fitch (6-3, 290) have more of the size and strength needed for a traditional nose tackle i.e. Baltimore's Tony Siragusa. Furthermore Brooks and Jason Mitchell look like naturals for the Sam outside linebacker role perfected by Banks.

In addition to fitting UT's existing personnel better, the 3-4 is also an excellent multiple defensive front in which blitzes can be more effectively disguised than in the 4-3. A bigger front with Fitch or Harrell at nose tackle flanked by Dickerson and Ritzmann could deploy in a two-gap scheme along the defensive front, essentially forcing five offensive linemen to block three defenders. This would help free up the linebackers to clean up on the run, blitz the passer or overload one side of the line to create numerical mismatches.

Tennessee could also use the Eagle 34 front that would place one of the Vols rugged inside linebackers — Robert Peace or Jon Poe — on the center to blow a gap with his quickness or drop into zone blitz coverage. It's a difficult front for quarterbacks to read and evolves from Buddy Ryan's legendary 46 defense that the Chicago Bears deployed while going 15-1 in 1985 and winning the Super Bowl. The outside linebackers in this alignment will generally line up outside the man responsible for blocking them which allows them to better utilize their quickness to get to the passer. It's a scheme that is all about bringing heat from the edge. You might recall that the Rams' Kevin Greene led the NFL twice in sacks (1994 and 1996) and recorded a career best 133 sacks for a linebacker playing that role.

Just like the attacking 4-3 the Vols currently use, the key to making the 3-4 Eagle defense effective is excellent cover corners. However, since it utilizes five linebackers, there is less run support required from the strong safety which would allow the Vols to get another cover man in that role against three wide receiver sets. That would work ideally for a team that emphasizes man coverage.

Even with the lack of a Tony Siragusa type nose tackle, the 3-4 Eagle is a strong run defense because it employs a pair of run stuffing inside linebackers. Add a physical strong safety — like Gibril Wilson — that can play linebacker and the 3-4 Eagle can easily morph into an eight-man front packed with stunts. Such a look forces offensive linemen to rely on quickness to reach their defenders which often results in assignment breakdowns and disrupts the timing of the run. Zone blocking isn't a ready counter remedy because it leads to indecision and blunts the aggression needed to make the run work consistently. The bottom line: Tennessee's personnel makes the 3-4 an intriguing alignment and it best allows the Vols to pressure the quarterback while utilizing their considerable depth at linebacker.

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