Your Best 11 Mailbag: One Question About the 3-4 to Rule Them All

Michael FelderNational CFB Lead WriterFebruary 8, 2013

FORT WORTH, TX - DECEMBER 1: Bob Stoops head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners speaks to the Oklahoma defense during the game against the TCU Horned Frogs at Amon G. Carter Stadium on December 1, 2012 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images)
R. Yeatts/Getty Images

Thanks to a little travel home from the Big Apple, I was unable to knock out a mailbag for you people. However, never fear, the mailbag is here. It's Friday, it's Friday, got a mailbag on Friday. And, because I got a really good question, as the first question submitted, I'm basically going to just answer this one question and really get deep into it. Oh, and why was I in NYC, you say? Because, we were busy filming a pretty dope signing day show, that ran live, and you should totally click here to go watch how awesome it was.


@inthebleachers you tweeted a while back that a 3-4 was tougher personnel-wise than the 4-3.Can you expand on that?

— Jason Smith (@FrostTyrant) February 8, 2013


What he's referring to is a mini-rant that I went on about Oklahoma and a possible switch to the 3-4, reported by Barry Tramel over at In the post, Tramel mentions OU looking to switch in an effort to play less defensive tackles. Except in a 3-4 you need three traditional 4-3 defensive tackles, every play, not just two, as you have in a 4-3.

So let me start up front and go from there.

There are a lot of different 3-4 variations. There is the true 3-4 that Nick Saban and Will Muschamp play. That's the same type that we see with the Baltimore Ravens. That's a two-gap look. There is also a one-gap look that, most notably, the Cowboys and now Texans have found success with.

Without getting too technical the biggest difference is responsibilities and lineman penetration. Notre Dame, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, has found success using a hybrid look where defensive linemen and linebackers both are free to make plays in a given situation.

Now, regarding personnel, the reason a 3-4 is more difficult, not easier, is because of what is asked out of the players in both a one- and two-gap look. In a two-gap 3-4, you need three defensive tackles that are capable of commanding and beating a double-team. Sure, they are called defensive ends, but those guys have to run 270 pounds and more, because they have to be able to control a tackle and a guard at the point of attack.

In the middle, you're going to need a plug. A big joker. A guy that can be 320 pounds-plus and control A-gaps. A guy that teams cannot move side to side, and who, at times, requires three linemen's attention just to hopefully grab some offensive real estate.

For the one-gap 3-4, you get a little wiggle room, but you still need three big bodies up front. Right now, the most popular 3-4 end is JJ Watt, but he's not exactly most teams prototype-sized defensive end; the guy is 295 pounds. That's a defensive tackle for most schools. Stephon Tuitt, who plays the same spot for the Fighting Irish? He's 300 pounds. That's clearly defensive tackle size in a 4-3.

You'll also still need a big boy in the middle. He doesn't have to be "as big" as the point man in a two-gap scheme, but he can't be small either. You still need a guy that goes 300 pounds-plus.

So, basically, in either scheme you're looking for three defensive tackles to play every down, and you better have some depth at that spot because they'll need breathers, and you'll have to deal with injuries. Fighting through double-teams, holding the point against a pushing 320-pound offensive linemen and such is hard work.

Now, if you don't have a 330-pound joker up front, then you can't play a two-gap 3-4 because all you'll end up with is guards in your linebackers' chest and a bunch of running backs dancing all over your defense.

Which brings us to the linebackers. I don't particularly care what you call the outside hybrid guy; Jack, Buck, Bandit, Cat, Dog, Pig, Muscle...whatever. The point is that guy has to be of a different breed, and that different breed is entirely dependent upon what you want him to do.

Do you want him to be a halftime player that can just get after the quarterback? Do you want him to be able to put his hand on the ground and be able to be a bookend when you go 4-3? How important is it to you that he be able to stop the run? 

Every coach, every school, every 3-4 is different in this regard. Jarvis Jones? Great for Georgia. The Bulldogs wanted him to get after the quarterback; that was his job and his only real job. He did it well. Jarvis Jones doesn't fit at Notre Dame or Alabama, where they ask more of their hybrid linebacker. Prince Shembo and Xzavier Dickson get into coverage, they put their hand down and hold the edge in addition to getting edge pressure.

Here's where we get into the personnel. We've talked about four positions, and if you've got a current roster, you have to figure out how to slot those spots. All of your defensive tackles have to be looked at and then you decide who works at the nose versus the end. You divvy up those guys.

Then you take the defensive ends and you have to decide what to do with them. Some will be asked to put on some weight and slide to the 3-4 defensive end. Others will be your pass rush specialist, package players. A few will have the athleticism to play in space and those guys go work out at the hybrid OLB spot.

That hybrid OLB spot will also be populated with your current linebackers. Which guys do you have that fit the "durable enough to play on the line, good getting after quarterback" mold? You move them to the hybrid, fancy-name guy, and they all work in together. 

Which brings us to the underrated hard part of the 4-3 to 3-4 switch: the other linebackers. Teams have to take their 4-3 linebackers and find a way to fit them into a 3-4. Mikes have to fit into the interior linebacker spots. Sams and Wills have to find success either as an interior backer, as the off backer or as the hybrid OLB. It is a lot from a mental and physical standpoint. Some players make the transition easily; others never really fit into the mix.

"Fit into the mix" is a common theme here, though. There will be defensive tackles that end up in no man's land as they are too small to be nose tackles, but never grasp the five-tech or six-tech responsibilities. Defensive ends that are fine in a 4-3 will be SOL as they are too small to play the 3-4 end, and not athletic enough to be a hybrid player. Outside linebackers that aren't big enough to be hybrids and can't fit at the off backer spot end up as useless pieces.

It is not an easy transition. It's not the miracle that fans are buying. The 3-4 is a hard defense that really should only be played if you have, and can continuously get, the personnel. Most colleges can't. If you're complaining about not having a lot of depth at the defensive tackle spot, switching to a 3-4 doesn't help that, which Terry Johnson over at College Football News points out, as well.

For once, defensive backs sort of have it easy. Their responsibilities, in terms of both alley fills and coverage areas, stay relatively static when compared to the transition coming for their teammates in the front seven.

In summation, the 3-4 won't "hide" your lack of experience or depth. If anything, it will make it worse. A crappy 3-4 only results in a team having its pants pulled down, getting exposed and giving up points.