Why 3-4 Adds Up

John Chavis' announcement that Tennessee was going to work on the 3-4 defense for the remainder of spring comes as no surprise given the Vols' current configuration of personnel and the perpetual predicament they find themselves in the trenches.

For the fifth time in the last six seasons Tennessee will have to replace both starters at defensive tackle. It's no coincidence that the Vols defense against the run has plummeted during this span.

However the supply and demand issue at that critical position isn't unique to Tennessee. The Vols were most fortunate in Phillip Fulmer's early years as head coach to have a depth of awesome talent inside. Predictably they led the SEC in run defense during those years. Among the standouts to play for the Vols between 1999 and 2001 were Billy Ratliff, Darwin Walker, John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth and Rashad Moore.

That was a real golden age for Big Orange DTs but it has been difficult to maintain the level of talent. In truth defensive tackles are in short supply compared to defensive ends and linebackers. Every school is looking for them and it's probably the toughest position to fill on defense. When you need a rotation of five tackles it becomes much more difficult to maintain a supply of game ready players. Even if you have the numbers there's bound to be major drop-off. That's why the 3-4 makes a lot of sense for teams looking to get their best players on the field.

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 had nothing to do with the number of down linemen but instead 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 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 Patriots won three world titles with the 3-4 and Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl in 2006 behind the 3-4.

Incidentally, Bill Cowher was a guest speaker at UT's spring coaches clinic this week. Odds are the Vols coaching staff spent time picking the former Steeler head coach's brain for insight into the 3-4.

With a 3-4 defense, Tennessee could better utilize its depth at linebacker and defensive end while offsetting its limitations at defensive tackle. The question is does UT presently have the personnel to play the three key roles of nose tackle, strong-side linebacker and rush linebacker?

Without personnel to play those roles it would be difficult to change their base defense before next fall. Nonetheless the Vols could still employ the 3-4 on a limited basis because it's easier to disguise blitzes and coverages. And there is indications, as was pointed out on these pages during the recruiting campaign, that the Vols are acquiring prospects that could flourish in the defense. Examples from the Class of 2007 include Rolando Melancon (nose tackle), Donald Langley (nose tackle) and Ben Martin (strong side LB). We recently posted a story on South Carolina DE prospect Robert Quinn who is perfect for the 3-4 and reportedly prefers that defense.

At Tennessee the times appear to be changing.

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