Paul Bryant

Football 101: The 3-4 vs the 4-3

3-4? 4-3? Thirty-four? Forty-three? Why are there numbers in football? And why are they making change? What in the world is a nickel and a dime? You just now figured out the difference between the cornerback and the quarterback. Now, they are throwing numbers at you? What does it all mean?

Never fear. I'm here to explain it in the simplest of terms. Trust me after spending a few minutes reading this, you will sound like a genius next Sunday, and all of your friends will be impressed with your new found familiarity with the gridiron.

It's all in a name. Let's face it. Football players are not known for their brilliance and vast vocabularies. Honestly, most conversations that occur on a football consist of grunts, curse words, and barely coherent threats of bodily harm. Because of this, the terms used to describe the various offensive and defensive formations are meant to be simple. It's just that laypeople sometimes don't understand the internal logic of the gridiron. So what does this have to do with the 3-4 and the 4-3 defense? Well in a 3-4, there are three down linemen (a nose tackle and two defensive ends) and four linebackers (two inside linebackers and two outside linebackers). See how that works? 3 (linemen) 4(linebackers). Easy.

Now what do you think a 4-3 means? That's right. Four down linemen(two defensive tackles and two defensive ends) and three linebackers(a middle linebacker and two outside linebackers). Can you guess what a 5-2 might be? I bet you can.

Now, I won't confuse you with nickel and dime packages. They are named based on the number of secondary (corners and safeties) players on the field. Five secondary players on the field is called a nickel (5 equals a nickel. Get it?). A dime has 6 players in the secondary (you have two nickelbacks which makes a dime!). That's for later. Right now, we are talking about the 3-4 and the 4-3.

So now, you know why the two defenses are called what they are, but how are they different? The difference really comes in how you defend the run and where the pressure originates from.

The 3-4

In a 3-4, the three down linemen primary job is to occupy space and take up blocks, freeing the linebackers to make the big play. It's a thankless job. In the 3-4, the most important player on the field is the Nose Tackle. Without a big, mean, strong, nasty buffet buster of a Nose Tackle, the 3-4 WILL NOT work. It's his job to take on two and sometimes three blockers at once, try to disrupt the Center Quarterback exchange (the snap), get a hand up to block the Quarterback's field of view, oh and don't forget to watch out for that pesky running back. So what's a lineman's job in a 3-4? To take up blockers and keep the Linebackers clean.

By clean I mean, let them come free and kill the Quarterback and the Running Back. Because in football, it's all about laying the wood as they say. Your inside linebackers are primarily concerned with taking care of the run, and your outside linebackers are concerned with rushing the passer, taking on the run and coverage. Most plays at least one outside linebacker will be blitzing.

The Outside Linebackers must be phenomenal athletes in the 3-4 in order to cover all their responsibilties. They have too many responsibilities to be anything less than exceptional. Big, strong, and fast. Big and strong enough to take on an Offensive Tackle or pick up a running back on a sweep and fast enough to drop into coverage. Sometimes the Outside Linebackers will even put their hand down and become a down lineman.

The 3-4 is a very strong very versatile defense. Its strengths are its unpredictability. Because of the extra Linebacker, a blitz can literally come from anywhere on the field. A Quarterback rarely knows what is going to happen before the ball is snapped, and that can make all the difference.

So what are the weaknesses of the 3-4? Simple. You have three linemen vs five linemen. It's very difficult to generate any pressure on the Quarterback strictly using the your down linemen. One of the linebackers must blitz. This leaves this defense open to quick, fast passing attacks. Especially across the middle. It is crucial for the linebackers and cornerbacks to "jam" the wide receivers and slow down the play as often as possible.

There is one more thing. Notice I often said "exceptional" and "phenomenal" when describing the athletes you need in a 3-4 defense. This is another "hidden" weakness of a 3-4 defense. It's hard to get the right players to fill the right positions. In college, it's hard to recruit them. In the pros, it's hard to pay them.

The 4-3

Okay, on to the 4-3. This is what most would call the "traditional" defensive formation in football. It's man on man. It's strong on strong. It's smashmouth football. It's great against the pass, and not so great against the run.

In the 4-3, the pressure comes from the defensive line. Rather than line up directly over the offensive linemen, your down linemen take gaps and try their best to get into the back field. A gap is the space between two offensive linemen.

In a passing situation, the two interior linemen (the tackles) will try to push their way (as well as the center and guards back) into the middle of the field, and the DEs will do their best to come around unimpeded to attack the Quarterback. This way if the Quarterback "steps up in the pocket", there isn't a pocket to step up into, and they go down in the clutches of a very angry 330 lb man.

In a running situation, the interior linemen are still trying to get a push in the middle, and the DEs are still trying to get to the Quarterback. This time, however, the DEs are making sure the Running Back does not get outside of them. They want to funnel the runner back into the middle where the hungry DTs await him. If the mean nasty linemen don't get a hold of him, the middle linebacker surely will.

The linebackers are not quite as important in the 4-3 as the 3-4. They are primarily concerned with taking care of the Tightend and the first back out of the backfield on pass plays and cleaning up on run plays, but you cannot overstate the importance of a middle linebacker in the 4-3. He's the brains and the garbage man. He makes life miserable for any receiver silly enough to run a crossing route into his area and he destroys running backs who tiptoe their way through the mass of bodies that should be clogging the line of scrimmage. In a 4-3, the middle linebacker will lead the team in tackles. You won't see many blitzes coming from a 4-3. If you have to blitz a linebacker out of a 4-3 you're in trouble.

The strengths of a 4-3 defense are its ability to cover the pass and disrupt the backfield with just the front four. A Quarterback's life is a nightmare against a good 4-3 line. He is always under pressure and always having to worry about getting rid of the ball quickly. If the linebackers and secondary do their job in coverage he's in for a long night. He will get touched and he will get planted into the turf time and time again. A running back is often stopped before he can get started, either by the interior linemen or being forced back into the middle by skilled Defensive Ends.

The weaknesses of a 4-3 become apparent when the defensive linemen cannot get a strong push and bring pressure on their own. Unlike a 3-4 there is no "extra" linebacker to bring on a blitz every play. If a 4-3 defense is blitzing because they cannot get into the backfield with just their four down linemen, they are in for a long night. A good Quarterback will eat them alive with short dumps and crossing routes to the area just vacated by a blitzing linebacker.

It's also not terribly strong against the run. If a running back can get through the line or outside the Defensive Ends expect him to quickly reel off a 5-8 yard gain before he's picked up by a safety. The Defensive Tackles are just not fast enough in pursuit, and if he manages to get one on one with a corner and find the sideline he could be looking at a HUGE gain.

Well, I hope I have managed to de-mystify the 3-4 and the 4-3 defense. Neither of these defenses are as simple as I make them out to be, but I hope I've helped you become a little more savvy and maybe understand the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Now when someone says," Why don't they just shift into a 3-4 and bring a run blitz from the weakside linebacker? That would stop that sweep every time."

You can reply, "Yeah, it would, but it would leave them wide open for that short crossing route across the middle."