There was a time when facing a 3-4 defense was a source of dread for NFL coaching staffs. In the days where only three or four teams ran the 3-4 defense, teams had to do considerable alteration of their blocking schemes, the depth of pass routes and choosing running to lanes to attack. Those days are quickly fading away.
As few as four years ago, only a handful of teams used the 3-4 defense as their base defense. Entering 2010, 15 of the 32 NFL teams had the 3-4 as their base defense – Dallas, Washington, Green Bay, Arizona and San Francisco in the NFC and New England, New York, Miami, Buffalo, Baltimore Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Kansas City, San Diego and Denver in the AFC.
It has spread like a virus throughout the league, but as Vikings guards Anthony Herrera and Steve Hutchinson can attest, the 3-4 defense the Vikings will be facing in New England will be a far cry from what they've faced this season.
"There aren't too many teams that run a true 3-4," Hutchinson said. "New England is one of them – with a zero nose (a lone nose tackle over the center), two ends over the tackles and the guards are uncovered and the outside linebackers are over them."
That will be the biggest change Sunday for Hutchinson and Herrera. The Vikings have a record number of 3-4 defenses on the schedule this year, having already played two in the preseason and four of their first six regular-season games. They are in midst of an unprecedented streak – since the bye week, their next five games have been and will be against 3-4 defenses and eight of nine games in that span. In the end, the Vikings will play 20 games in the preseason and regular season. Eleven of those teams play the 3-4 (San Francisco, Denver, Miami, the Jets, Dallas, New England, Arizona, Washington, Buffalo and Green Bay twice.
Still, the version the 3-4 the Patriots run is old-school. There are no DE/OLB ‘tweeners playing defensive end or rush linebacker. Everybody has the type of role they had when Bill Belichick installed it when he was first hired by the Pats. Given the level of success the Patriots have had with it over the years, it's little wonder that it hasn't changed. If it ain't broke, don't fix it and the 3-4 has served them well.
So well that it has been copied throughout the league. Much like the West Coast offense has spread like wildfire across the NFL landscape, so has the 3-4 defense. However, the numerous 3-4s that the Vikings have already faced and will continue to face throughout the season aren't all that different from the established 4-3 front. Hutchinson lines up over a defender and Bryant McKinnie gets a standing linebacker to take on. The Patriots leave both of them untouched coming off the line.
"There are a lot of teams that say they run a 3-4 with three down linemen and four linebacker personnel, but the majority of them use under-and-over front, which we are used to seeing from a four-down (lineman) team," Hutchinson said. "You have three guys with their hands down and they'll bring in a standup Buck linebacker or Sam linebacker who would be like a defensive end who is standing up. The spacing on a lot of the 3-4 teams is the same as a 4-3, but New England is one of the true 3-4 teams that runs it the way it was initially designed."
The key to neutralizing a 3-4 defense is to neutralize the nose tackle in the middle. His job is to eliminate the rushing lanes between the guards and is the focal point of the defense. He is the equivalent to the small end of a funnel. The defense is devised to force runs in between the tackles and let the nose tackle serve as a seawall that allows nothing through.
"If you can control the nose, you can run the ball," Herrera said. "In the straight 3-4 defense, the outside linebackers, their whole purpose is to squeeze everything back into the nose tackle and the (inside linebackers). In the end, it's like any other defense. If we can control the middle, we'll win the game."
The Patriots have always had solid production at the nose tackle position, but once Vince Wilfork showed up, it became stifling. He has dominated the position for seven years and has built the kind of reputation that gets a player called to Canton when his career is over. There is no player more critical to the Patriots defense and he has the respect of his counterparts.
"He's on his way to being an all-time great," Herrera said. "He's like Pat (Williams), Ted Washington or any other great nose guard you can name. You can put him in there. The biggest thing about him is that he's quick. He makes it tough for you to get to him right off the snap."
The experience the Vikings have earned by playing teams like the 49ers, Broncos, Dolphins, Cowboys and Packers have set the stage for Sunday's game with New England. Although they will be different, the Vikings won't be coming at them blind as they did in previous years when teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore would show up on the schedule. The Pats are going to be a different animal – a genesis 3-4 team – but Hutchinson said it will be helpful having operated against variations of what they're going to see all day Sunday.
"There are minor tweaks to all the plays," Hutchinson said. "But we've seen a lot of the 3-4 fronts from the preseason and with San Francisco and that. They're very good at it and we're going to have to be ready. We're playing a lot of 3-4 teams, but the Patriots are the only one we see as a true 3-4 team and that's what we're getting ready to go up against."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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