Making a Case for the 3-4 Defense at UT

When Florida quarterback Rex Grossman stepped to the line of scrimmage on third and long against Tennessee in last season's showdown at the Swamp, he must have been tempted to rub his eyes in an attempt to clear his vision, like a man who's watched too much game film on too little sleep.

Otherwise it was impossible to explain what was appearing before his eyes. Was it a hallucination or was Tennessee's defense actually morphing from its 3-5 alignment into a 2-6 in the instant it took 6-7, 290-pound tackle John Henderson to abandon his down position and transform into a stand-up inside linebacker, poised to pressure the passer or absorb the short middle zone where his height, width and wing span posed an uncommon obstacle.

Suddenly instead of playing football, Grossman was engaged in a high stakes shell game as Tennessee's D ingeniously took on different looks, going from a base four-man front into a 3-4 and into an eagle look. The much reviled 3-5-3 mustang package suddenly had only two defensive ends in the down position, then at the snap of the ball the Vols sent six men after Grossman with an overload on the right side featuring a corner blitz by Jabari Greer. Florida's timing was disrupted, the ball deflected and intercepted with 3:03 remaining in the first quarter. Tennessee quickly converted the turnover into a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

The bold move caught the Gators by surprise and their high-powered offense sputtered when Steve Spurrier stepped on the gas. The Vols had seized the initiative and wrestled away early momentum. They would capitalize and ultimately beat the Gators at their own game, by building an early lead and forcing Florida into a catch-up mode. Once the Gators dumped their ground game, Tennessee's D turned up the heat and Grossman never found that fun-and-gun tempo to which Florida's offense likes to march.

Instead the Gators vaunted offense became a one-dimensional attack that was rocked back on its heels. Tennessee's 34-32 victory ended Florida's home win streak in the series that stretched back to 1971. It also demonstrated UT defensive coordinator John Chavis' ability as an innovator while demonstrating the importance of deception for defenses in an era of offensive dominance.

Those latter revelations might reveal a lot about Tennessee's defensive approach this season, specifically regarding the Vols use of the 3-4 scheme. That alignment made more than a fleeting appearance this spring while Coach Phillip Fulmer and Chavis openly referenced the 34 as a viable option in light of UT's restructured defensive front and outstanding linebacker depth.

The 3-4 would also afford Chavis an opportunity to stretch his imagination and disguise his strategic intent. The aim is to prevent opposing quarterbacks from getting a pre-snap read and changing to a well-conceived option. Now instead of simply checking the safety and reading the coverage on the corners, the quarterback has to decide who's the drop linebacker and who's the rush linebacker. Or will both outside linebackers drop in coverage while an inside backer blitzes up the middle? Or will both LBs storm the pocket from the edge collapsing the QB's arc of protection and invading his comfort zone?

Without a reliable pre-snap read an offense is deprived of a substantial portion of its game plan and forced into an alignment disadvantage.The more speed a defensive coordinator has at his disposal, the better the deception works and the more likely the offense will be stuck with a play that is defeated by alignment alone.

Suffice it to say: it's next to impossible for an offense to find a rhythm and sustain long drives under such unfavorable conditions. The key to making such a defensive scheme work is designing the proper run fits for the front seven which normally entails single-line movements with one of the tackles slanting or shading the strong side. Sometimes the entire front line might slant at the snap, but this stunt makes it more difficult for the linebackers to maintain their run fits. In either case, the purpose is to take the gaps taken away and force the runner to go east and west. That allows the defense to use its speed in pursuit.

Perhaps the best thing about the 3-4 vs. 4-3 is that the principles remain the same — only the personnel changes. That means defenders are familiar with their responsibilities and instinctive in their movements. In either scheme, the onus is on the corners to stay locked in man coverage allowing an extra defender to come up in run support or to rush the quarterback.

Playing press coverage on the corners means applying pressure up front. The two processes are indivisible; the success of one is dependent on the success of the other. Basically you're charging your corners to maintain effective coverage for four seconds and you're requiring your pass rush to reach it's destination in 3.5 seconds.

During Chavis' tenure as defensive coordinator, UT has always been among the SEC leaders in run defense and quarterback sacks. The Vols have also been susceptible to big plays which is the risk you run with press coverage and deploying a safety in run support.

This season Tennessee doesn't have the proven pass rushers it has enjoyed in the past so the key to making the pressure defense work might be in Chavis disguising his schemes. That makes the 3-4 an intriguing alternative and practical solution.

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