Football 101: The 3-4 Defense

So when do you know Washington's defense is in a 3-4 alignment? How about a 4-3 alignment? At times it can be tough to tell because of the number of defensive linemen on the field at any one time, and also because of the way linebackers move up, back, around, and change their positions prior to the snap of the football.

THE "3-4" DEFENSE: use it when you have size at the linebacker position

In the 3-4 Defense there are three defensive linemen playing the line of scrimmage – two defensive ends and a nose tackle. Behind them you have four linebackers backing them up, typically two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers.

The linebackers that line up on the opposite side of the tight end in the formation are designated the "weak side" linebackers. The linebackers that line up on the same side of the formation as the tight end are known as the "strong side" linebackers. The tight end always designates which side will be the "strong side" because in theory, he is creating a situation where there are three players on the line of scrimmage on his side of the center, whereas the opposite side of the football will have just two.

Usually defenses will line up their best pass rushers on that weak side since there are just an offensive guard and tackle on that side of the line of scrimmage to block them.

The Inside linebacker on the weak side is typically called the "Will", while the strong side middle linebacker is called the "Mike".

"Sam" is a common designation for strong outside linebacker, while the other weak side outside linebacker position can take on various names, often times given a name that is unique to the school. Generically it is usually referred to as the "Jack", and is often a hybrid defensive end/linebacker.

A very typical application of this in college is where teams that run a 3-4 defense will utilize a player that may be too small to play defensive end in a 4-3 and isn't quite good enough in space to be an outside linebacker. Thus, he is moved into the "Jack" role in a 4-3 alignment and will line up on the weak side as either a pass rusher or run stuffer, but hardly ever dropping into coverage.

So why do teams run a 3-4 defense? The main advantage to this alignment is that it is the easiest one in which to disguise where the fourth rusher might attack from. Young quarterbacks have a much tougher time reading a 3-4. Instead of the standard four down-linemen in the 4-3, only the Defensive Ends and the Nose Tackles are clearly attacking on nearly every play. That fourth pass rusher could come from anywhere, as the "Jack" or the "Sam" could come as well from behind those three.

A major component for success to running a three-man front with four linebackers behind them is to have three good sized defensive linemen who can take up more than one player on each down. The keystone player in the entire scheme is the Nose Tackle, who plays over the offensive center. That player must be able to not be pushed off the line of scrimmage, and also must be able to occupy at least two offensive linemen. If that occurs, the linebackers are freed up to make plays unencumbered. If the linebackers don't have to worry about linemen coming out and chipping them, they can rush the passer or drop in and out of pass coverage at will.

When you are playing a 3-4 alignment, both of your outside linebackers should be able to both rush the passer and play the run. This is a key difference between the 3-4 and the 4-3 alignment. Outside linebackers in the 3-4 need to be larger in comparison to linebackers in a base 4-3 defense. The reason is that on some sets they will line up as smallish defensive ends on the line of scrimmage and will be facing linemen.

Typically, outside linebackers in a 3-4 will be situational type of pass rushing specialists in a 4-3 alignment. They aren't quite big enough to play defensive end on every down but are big enough to add good speed on the outside on passing downs. Good outside linebackers need to be able to drop into pass coverage as well as rush the passer.

The inside linebackers have an entirely different role. They work in tandem but you usually try to use one generally as a run stuffing player who is better able to handle offensive linemen and stop running backs when the offense features a running play, while the other is a faster player who is more solid in pass coverage, but can also take good angles to provide run support.

Another huge key to being able to play a 3-4 alignment successfully is that you have to have top notch defensive backs. Because your front seven players are usually bigger than those in a 4-3, they tend to be a little slower of foot speed. Their strength is in their physical nature, but what that means is that the four players behind them – the corners and safeties – are often left in man-on-man coverage. It definitely puts more pressure on your defensive backfield.

After talking with my coaching friends, two of whom coached the linebacking position, it became apparent to me that each linebacking position requires different types of players, in order to run the schemes to their highest effectiveness. On paper, most middle, strong and weak linebackers are all built the same physically. However their attributes and skills can vary to a wide degree.

The "Mike" (Strong side inside) linebacker is normally one of your most physical players that excels on stopping interior running plays and making tackles on plays that are coming right up the middle. To stop teams from "smash-mouthing" you, it requires a good solid "Mike", as he is most likely going to be responsible for coverage of the inside gaps of the rushing attack (the holes on either side of the center).

The "Sam" (Strong side outside) linebacker should also be a very physical player, but has better foot speed and maybe more athleticism than the "Mike". They are lined up over the tight end, so they are often depended on to provide solid man-to-man pass coverage.

The "Will" (Weak side inside) linebacker should be your most athletic and quickest linebacker because he is going to have the freedom to run around and wreck havoc. They should be good pass rushers and good at playing in space and taking correct angles on running plays. The "Will" drops back in pass coverage much more often than the "Mike" and often times the "Will" position will be filled by a defensive back on certain sets (Nickel).

Obviously the best defensive teams are able to transform from 3-4 into 4-3 between downs quickly, and each alignment has distinct strengths that can be utilized based on down and distance. But if your base set is the 3-4 defense, you need the following to be successful:

1) Three big defensive linemen that all demand double teams
2) Two bigger linebackers that can play either the pass or run well
3) Four defensive backs that excel in man-to-man coverage situations


If any of these three are missing, your defense is apt to get shredded.


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