Feeding LeBeau's Defense

With more and more NFL teams moving to the 3-4 defense, Frank Tursic explains why not all 3-4 schemes are created equally, the personnel requirements for each system, and much more.

Recently, Kansas City announced it will be switching to a 34 defense, making it three teams, by my count, looking to transition in 2009. Add Arizona, which played a hybrid scheme this year, and now you have four.

With eleven 34 teams, representing a third of the league, Pittsburgh isn't going to have the luxury, as in the past, to wait on drafting d-side players.

Or will it?


First, not all 34 defenses are created equal. The 34 is not a new creation, having been adopted at the NFL level in the early 70's. Over that time, three distinct systems have come to exist requiring different personnel skill-sets to fill them.

The Fairbanks-Bullough system is what most people think of as your standard 34 defense. It was adopted by Chuck Fairbanks of the Patriots after using it at Oklahoma in college. Hank Bullough improved on the system in the 70's, and the system now requires the defensive line to encompass 2-gap responsibilities.

In this system, the D-line is responsible for plugging up the line of scrimmage, thus allowing the linebackers to usually make the tackles. Size and brute strength are the prerequisites; so the linemen and linebackers are typically bigger than in your other two systems.

Teams currently using this system are New England and its coaching tree offshoots, such as the Jets, Dolphins and Cleveland.

Next, there is the Phillips system, named after Bum Phillips who plied his trade first with the Broncos, then as defensive coordinator and later head coach for the Oilers. Phillips was an innovator and made major changes to the 34. Primarily, the Phillips 34 is a 1-gap system requiring penetrating players who can harass the QB. It's an attacking style requiring smaller, faster linemen and linebackers who can incorporate blitzes on almost any play. However, its front 7 defenders will rarely have pass coverage responsibilities.

This system is used by teams such as Dallas and San Diego.

Finally, you have the LeBeau Zone Blitz system. Zone blitz techniques have been around for a while but LeBeau took the concept and developed an entirely different 34 system in the 90's. LeBeau's system looks to use deception, mismatches and overloads along the line to generate QB pressure. Blitzes come frequently, but at the same time pass coverage is maintained by requiring the D-lineman and linebackers to drop back in coverage.

This system requires D-linemen to play predominantly 1-gap as well as possess the athletic ability to drop back in coverage. Also, both inside and outside linebackers must be able to drop in coverage as well as rush the passer. It makes for a unique player skill-set which other 34 teams don't follow.

You'll find this system currently used by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In order to highlight the differences I provide the following:


Height Weight Height Weight Height Weight Height Weight
Fairbanks 6-3 338 6-5 310 6-3 260 6-1 247
Phillips 6-4 325 6-5 305 6-4 266 6-1 243
LeBeau 6-1 325 6-5 292 6-1 254 6-1 237
34 Hybrid 6-4 345 6-3 303 6-3 263 6-1 245

Note: Fairbanks-avg. of NE + CLE, Phillips-avg. of DAL + SD, LeBeau-PIT, Hybrid-BAL for comparison

Fairbanks – In this system the defensive line is the centerpiece, averaging 338 lbs at nose tackle and 310 lbs at defensive end. In New England the lineman are all former 1st round draft picks with the linebackers normally being a collection of mid-round selections and veteran free agent acquisitions. Cleveland has taken the opposite approach, primarily drafting its linebackers, and finding defensive lineman through free agency. Both teams feature a former 1st round pick at linebacker.

Phillips – The outside linebackers are featured in this system, and are the players who generate pressure and sack the quarterback. They are really converted defensive ends, and not linebackers, so they tend to be larger than you'll find in the other systems. They rarely are asked to drop back in coverage and are best moving towards the line of scrimmage. Dallas features two former 1st round players and San Diego one 1st round player at OLB. The defensive linemen are ostensibly smaller than in the Fairbanks system, but are better suited to playing 1-gap. You'll find a collection of early to mid-round talent here, and it's entirely of the homegrown variety for both teams.

LeBeau – Because of LeBeau's complex zone blitz system, his front 7 players are asked to do many things. The system requires players with enough ability to move in both directions, and comes at the expense of sheer bulk. Except for nose tackle, which is a 2-down player only, all the remaining players are noticeably smaller across the board. This is an attacking defense, with lineman playing 1-gap normally, and pressure coming from anywhere including the inside linebackers. As a benefit, Pittsburgh has normally been able to draft these players later on because they fit between what teams look for in the prototypical 43 and 34 type players.

Now going into more detail ...


Examining selective teams for comparison:

Cowboys 72% 52% 66% 75% 99% 63% 63%
Patriots 70% 60% 81% 85% 98% 93% 59%
Steelers 50% 85% 91% 98% 97% 97% 53%

Note: Percentage of total defensive snaps taken by the starters. Data compiled from ProFootballFocus.com over a 3 game sampling period.

The above table shows the percentage of total snaps played by the starting defenses. For example, Jay Ratliff (NT), of Dallas was on the field for 72% of their defensive snaps.

Dallas relies on rotating its defensive linemen more than other 34 teams. In its base defense, starters are rotated every 2nd or 3rd series with their two primary backups, Tank Johnson (35%) and Jason Hatcher (26%). In short-yardage situations, Johnson normally moves back into the lineup replacing Jay Ratliff at nose tackle. At linebacker, Demarcus Ware is an every-down player, with the remaining players platooned to one degree or another.

New England also relies on a d-line rotation, but not quite to the same degree as Dallas. Jarvis Green and Mike Wright are the key reserves, with Wright added as a fourth-down lineman in short-yardage situations. New England's linebackers all see significant playing time, except for Teddy Bruschi, who is strictly a two-down player at this stage in his career.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, expects its starters to see more playing time than other 34 teams. Except for Larry Foote and Casey Hampton, who are on the field approximately 50% of the time, all remaining starters see at least 85% of the total snaps in a game. D-linemen are usually replaced only due to injury, or to provide a quick "blow", and linebackers must be ironmen, routinely playing the entire game without being given a break. Pittsburgh also normally remains in its base 34 in short-yardage situations allowing Casey to clog the middle of the field.


Dallas normally goes to a nickel package using a 4-man front in passing situations by asking Ware and Ellis to put their hands in the dirt. Just remember, they are defensive linemen at heart. Ratliff and Hatcher are the other down linemen, giving Dallas a potent 4-man pass rush. In this package, the ILBs come off the field, replaced by a single Mike linebacker (Burnett).

New England tends to stay with 3-down linemen in passing situations, but inserts Jarvis Green as one of the defenders. The Patriots tend to stay in their base formation even on passing downs, but do run nickel on 3rd and long by replacing Bruschi with a corner. New England rarely utilizes dime coverage packages.

Pittsburgh almost always goes to a 2-4-5 package in passing situations. Keisel and Smith will move inside to DT, with Timmons replacing Foote at ILB. Pittsburgh uses this package on average 35% of the time with a high of 75% during the Super Bowl. It's not hard to see, with some snaps for Chris Hoke, that Casey Hampton barely sees the field half the time. Switching to the dime, Tyrone Carter comes in as the sixth DB normally replacing Timmons at linebacker.

Defensive Stats:

Taking a look at each d-front 7 by examining tackles and sacks for the past season:

Tackles Sacks Tackles Sacks Tackles Sacks Tackles Sacks
RDE 58 2.5 54 3 81 10 60 3.5
NT 38 1.5 73 8.5 80 2 67 1.5
LDE 106 7.5 52 2 69 4.5 54 3.5
DL TOTAL 202 11.5 179 13.5 230 16.5 181 8.5
ROLB 111 17 122 22 69 6 55 8
LOLB 60 11.5 70 9.5 62 4 74 7.5
OLB TOTAL 171 28.5 192 31.5 131 10 129 15.5
RILB 128 6.5 94 1 109 0 108 0
LILB 150 3.5 145 8 128 0 123 1.5
ILB TOTAL 278 10 239 9 237 0 231 1.5

Note: Stats compiled from NFL.com. Includes totals for starters + reserves

New England relies on its defensive linemen to make tackles as well as sacks. This is contrary to the norm for 34 teams, but considering the talent along the line, it makes sense.

As mentioned, teams playing the Phillips system rely on its OLBs to be the playmakers on defense. Both Dallas' and San Diego's OLBs led their respective teams in quarterback sacks. However, notice that Jay Ratliff, for the Cowboys, is a very disruptive 1-gap nose tackle who brings heavy pressure up the middle.

Pittsburgh's defense is a mixture of the two. Its defensive linemen must be strong against the run as well as generating a credible pass rush. The OLBs get the majority of the sacks, but note the ILBs also pressure the quarterback. Other 34 teams are not nearly as effective when blitzing ILBs; however, note that Dallas got all of its sacks from primarily one player (James).

Breaking this down further:

PLAYER Foote Farrior Harrison Woodley Timmons
BLITZ % 16% 23% 66% 62% 28%

The above table breaks down the individual linebackers on pass plays, and the percentage of time they blitz the quarterback. Note that even though Harrison and Woodley blitz frequently they still drop back in coverage approximately 35% of the time. The inside linebackers also blitz approximately 25% of the time with Timmons taking over for Foote as the season progressed.

As a comparison, Demarcus Ware blitzes on 79% of pass plays and Greg Ellis 73%.


As my analysis shows, LeBeau's system is unique enough from other 34 teams, thus requiring different types of players both in physical stature and abilities.

Defensive ends are smaller and more agile in order to play in LeBeau's demanding zone-blitz system. While someone such as Tyson Jackson fits all 34 systems, players that are slightly undersized, like a Zach Potter (277lbs) or a Kyle Moore (272lbs), fit that niche area where they are not quick enough for most 43 teams, nor large enough to play in a conventional 34. Players such as these fit line coach John Mitchell's unselfish philosophy well, and can still be found as Day 2 draft selections. And since Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith see so much playing time, it would be beneficial to draft a player with the talent to fit into a rotation or be used in the Steelers' nickel package. Either way, that should add up to significant playing time and a nice rest for both players.

Nose tackle is also a concern, but with Hampton only seeing half the snaps, and Hoke a capable backup, it's not as important as finding another defensive end -- for this year at least.

Every team is looking for a pass-rushing 34 OLB, and with more teams now playing this defense, drafting a good one will now require using a premium selection. Long gone are the days of drafting Joey Porter and Jason Gildon in the 3rd round. Pittsburgh will also need to look for players with the athletic ability to drop in zone coverage since this is a requirement in its system. Look for prospects that performed well at the NFL combine who demonstrated the necessary agility in the drills to make the transition. As an example, Clay Matthews would be a perfect schematic fit for the Steelers.

Steelers inside linebackers must also be able to rush the quarterback. This is what sets LeBeau's scheme apart, and because of this Pittsburgh uses converted OLBs who have demonstrated the ability to act as the 4th or 5th pass rusher. Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote and James Farrior are all converted college OLBs. Some Day 2 prospects to target would be Jason Williams, Lee Robinson, Zack Follett, Moise Fokou, and Kaluka Maiava.

Throw in some aggressive zone cover corners that can tackle like Darius Butler, and there you have it.

Look for more detailed positional breakdowns coming up.

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