X's & O's: Setting the Strength in Ray Horton's Base Defense

Newly-hired defensive coordinator Ray Horton returns to Cleveland with big plans to upgrade a woeful defense using his hybrid 3-4 scheme. In our first primer on Horton’s front seven, the OBR breaks down what the 2016 base defense will look like on the field and how it bunches and aligns personnel groups via the strength of the offense’s formation.

Before moving on to the film let’s nail down an understanding of the major differences between the traditional 3-4, 2-gap defensive front and the modern hybrid 3-4 front.

In a vacuum the 3-4 is simply a label that can be used to describe a variety of defensive schemes and alignments that use threee down linemen and four linebackers. Misconceptions about the 3-4 persist as media members, bloggers, and commentators visualize old-school alignments like the Bud Wilkinson ‘Okie’, in which three down linemen with hands in the dirt 2-gap across the defensive line, freeing up four linebackers to scrape to the ball.

While a small number of NFL teams (most notably the Pittsburgh Steelers) still utilize the three down linemen, 2-gap front, many teams (Denver, San Diego, Houston, Washington, and others) have adopted a ‘hybrid’ 3-4 that mixes gap principles and places five defenders along the line of scrimmage.

Under the guidance of progressive coaches like current Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, many odd fronts no longer require three ‘space eaters’ to hold double teams in order for the linebackers to make tackles. A majority of today’s 3-4 schemes (like Phillips’ Super Bowl champion defense) place a premium on defensive lineman and linebackers who can anchor a double team, penetrate a gap, and/or flow to the ball. Based on film from the 2014 and 2015 season, Horton’s is no different.

The term “hybrid” or “multiple” is attached to today’s flexible version of the 3-4 because creative defensive coordinators will utilize a variety of alignments and personnel groups over the course of even a single series of downs to confuse and create matchups.

When describing his defense Horton often uses the term “multi-front”, as he did during his introductory press conference before the 2013 season, saying “I don't really care what we are on defense. I want to know what are we going to look like. We're going to look like an aggressive, forward-attacking defense.”

He went on to add, "That's the most important thing to me – what do we look like, not what we line up in. We may be a 3-4 on one snap. We may be a 4-3 on another snap. I guarantee you we'll be a 5-2 sometimes, and we'll be a 4-4 sometimes. We are a multi-front, attacking defense, and that's the most important thing.”

Because modern-day coaches utilize a wide variety of alignments within the hybrid 3-4 umbrella, defenses place extra value on players that can move around like chess pieces, playing the run game on early downs before sliding inside or outside to rush the passer on third. In addition today's pass-happy NFL demands a defense spend a majority of snaps in a nickel package, further minimizing the value and use of traditional 3-4 defensive lineman and alignments.


Horton is a Dick LeBeau disciple, learning his scheme under the legendary player and coach. To simplify our discussion we will use nomenclature from an old LeBeau playbook. Keep in mind that although changes may have been made to the position names, Horton still utilizes a majority of the alignments and techniques found here.

The base front seven 'Wide' front utilizes the following positions:

Defensive end (Often referred to as a 5-technique).

Must be a stout run-stopper on early downs and will often face double teams due to alignment over the tackle and tight end. Will often slide inside on passing downs to rush the quarterback.

Nose tackle

Another run-first player who must engage and anchor double teams in order to keep the linebackers clean, allowing them to flow to the ball and make tackles.

Under tackle

Generally the unit’s premier interior pass-rusher. Due to alignment will generally be single-teamed by a guard on run plays.


Should be the team’s premier outside pass rusher, as he will be aligned to the open side of the field.


Must be a tough, versatile player as he will be asked to play the run and cover due to his alignment outside the tight end. Will also be heavily-involved in the blitz package.


A speedier linebacker who must be able to flow to the ball in the run game and cover on passing downs.


Should be a run-first defender as he will often have A-gap responsibility opposite the nose tackle.

While Ray Horton’s base defense may be a 3-4 in philosophy, it aligns like a 4-3 under on the field. Each position’s alignment is determined by the strength of the offensive formation (whichever side has more skill players):

  • The nose tackle, defensive end (often referred to as a 5-technique by football media), SAM, and Buck will align to the strength of the formation
  • The under tackle, Mac, and Elephant will align to the weak side of the formation

We’ll start our look at Horton’s scheme by analyzing how his base defense aligns against a variety of common personnel groupings.

Our first example comes from first-and-ten on the left hash against 21 (two running backs, one tight end) personnel.

Because the strength of the formation is to the tight end’s side, the nose, end, Buck, and SAM align to the right-side of formation. The nose tackle will align in a 1-technique (shaded over the center’s outside shoulder), the end will align in a 4-technique (heads up over the tackle), the SAM will align in a wide-technique outside the tight end, and the Buck will align in a 30-technique (4-6 yards deep over the guard’s outside shoulder). In additin to the base front seven an in-the-box safety has crept up to account for the extra gap created by the fullback.

Moving to the weak side of the formation, the under tackle aligns in a 3-technique (over the guard’s outside shoulder), the elephant aligns in a 7-technique, and the Mac splits the center and guard.

The offense is running a basic zone stretch, looking to reach the SAM and take the ball around the corner unless a cutback lane appears.

Two points of emphasis before we move on the play. First, notice the nose tackle’s tilt towards the center. The tilt give the nose a better angle to attack the center while also allowing him to two-gap from a shaded position, as he should be able to compress the opposite A-gap when he makes contact. Next, move to the end. A defensive lineman’s heads-up alignment over a blocker is often a tip-off to a 2-gap technique, although as we will see with Horton’s defense this is not always the case.

Against a ‘balanced’ front (equal numbers of skill players on each side of the formation) utilizing two tight ends, the defense will generally set the strength of the formation towards the better blocker or the ‘field’ (wide-side of the field) as teams are more likely to run in these directions. Facing 12 personnel from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, notice the strength of the formation set towards both the field and starting tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Again, we see a titled 1-technique and the defensive end in a 4-technique (in the base five-man front the defensive end rarely lined up in a true 5-technique during the 2014 and 2016 seasons).

Although not referred to as a ‘base’ (back to the labels), most NFL defenses spend a majority of their snaps in some type of nickel front, subbing in an extra defensive back for a defensive lineman or linebacker. Although Horton runs a large variety of sub-packages and personnel groupings, Horton often kept his SAM and elephant in the game when going nickel. His under tackle generally stayed in a 3-technique and his defensive end slid inside over the guard or center.

Using our three examples we can generalize a few basic rules to determine which side the defense will align its' strength towards:

  1. Against 'base' personnel (21) the strength of the defense will align towards the tight end
  2. The strength of the defense will align to the side with more skill players
  3. Against a balanced front the defense will align to the field or to the best-blocking tight end in 12 or 22 personnel.

While it is impossible to narrow down a hybrid 3-4 defense to a few base fronts as the number of alignments and personnel groupings is simply too large to categorize, we will see certain formations more than others (like the base Wide and Nickel packages). Stay tuned as we take our basic understanding of Horton’s most-used alignments to breakdown common techniques and begin to project where current players fit within the system.

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