On Monday I talked about the three core offensive systems that have turned the NFL into a pass happy, high scoring league. Today as promised, I am going to talk about the defensive side of the ball. I won’t be talking about the 4-3 defense today, just the 3-4 defense which has become very hip these days. Many people think there is only one version of this defense. When people think of the 3-4, they associate it with Pittsburgh’s Zone Blitzing scheme. Pittsburgh’s Zone Blitz 3-4 is just one of three versions of this defense. The other two versions of this defense that are used much more than the Zone Blitz are the Phillips 3-4 and the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4. Not all 3-4 defenses are created equal, nor are the players that play in these systems.
Bud Wilkinson created the 3-4 defense while he was the head coach at the University of Oklahoma, but Chuck Fairbanks is credited with bringing it to the NFL. Actually, there is a little bit of controversy on who brought it to the NFL. Some say Chuck Fairbanks when he became an assistant at New England in 1974. Then some say Bum Phillips when he became head coach of the Oilers in the 70′s. Being that the east coast loves to take credit for stuff when they shouldnt, Chuck gets credited for it. In the 3-4 you have three defensive linemen with four linebackers which all have names. The weak outside linebacker is “Will”, middle weak side is “Jack”, middle strong side is “Mike”, and the strong outside is “Sam”.
Chuck’s version of the 3-4 is the Fairbanks-Bullough, which is commonly referred to as a 2-gap 3-4 system. Most coaches who are from the Parcells/Belichick coaching tree run this system. The Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 gives teams the greatest amount of flexibility compared to other 3-4s. The linebackers in this system are extremely versatile and are capable of doing any and everything on the field. (I.e.; Mike Vrabel) When you mix the roles of the four linebackers from play to play, you can cause mass confusion for an offense. The reason this system is a 2-gap system, is because the defensive lineman are required to cover the gaps on both sides of an offensive lineman. The defensive linemen in this 3-4 are very stout so that they can occupy the offensive lineman, and allow the linebackers can make plays. It’s a more conservative version of the 3-4 compared to the other two versions. It’s typically known as a “bend but don’t break” kind of defense.
The Phillips 3-4 is a more aggressive version of the Fairbanks-Bullough system. One major difference about this version is, unlike Chuck’s; it’s a one gap system. A one gap system is one in which the defensive lineman are responsible for just one gap in the offensive line. The lineman can be more aggressive, and take more risks shooting the gaps since the linebackers are asked to give them support also. The defensive linemen are more agile and slimmer than other 3-4 defensive linemen because in this scheme, there are lots of slants, and gap and loop changes. (I.e.; Jay Ratliff) The linebackers are not as versatile nor do they need to be as smart as the backers in the Fairbanks-Bullough system. They are all blitzing, gap filling linebackers who have sacrificed size for speed, and have the ability to cover but are typically not good in space. Zone coverage isn’t something that is commonly done with linebackers in this scheme, except for the “Jack” and “Mike” linebackers who tend to do well playing in short to medium zone coverage.
A great example of how subtle but different the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 and Phillips 3-4 philosophies are, is in Dallas. When Parcells was the head coach in Dallas he ran Fairbanks system. Once Wade Phillips took over, the personnel changed and things got more aggressive in North Texas. Parcells wanted his players to read and react, not only during the play, but before the ball was snapped. Parcells rarely blitzed if at all during games because he didn’t want to give up the big play. If a blitz was called, but a receiver lined up in the slot, the blitz was called off most of the time. Demarcus Ware only blitzed when Bill told him to. Other than that, Ware’s job was to cover tight ends or a receiver in pass coverage. Once Wade took over, he wanted the offense to adjust to the defense. His idea is that by making Ware and the other linebackers blitz on almost every play, and have his lineman shoot the gaps and casue havoc in the backfield. Dallas would be able to dictate to an offense what it could and couldnt do. If a blitz is called, it’s hardly ever called off. In Wade’s 3-4, Demarcus Ware is basically an extra defensive lineman because he is blitzing on 90% of the time. I am sure we all remember the playoff game last year against the Eagles when Dallas had McNabb running for his life, and embarrassed the Eagles. That was the Phillips 3-4 at its best.
The last 3-4 defensive scheme, and the sexiest to most fans, is the 3-4 Zone Blitz. Violent, aggressive, confusing and relentless are all adjectives that can be used to describe this 3-4 scheme. This version of the 3-4 was created by Dick LaBeau while he was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati. For some odd reason, this version of the 3-4 has become the most famous and publicly approved standard for 3-4 defenses. LaBeau’s scheme is based on confusing the offensive line by blitzing players that typically wouldn’t, and dropping players into coverage that don’t normally play coverage. Its not knowm as an one or two gap system, its known for being both. Teams who run this version of the 3-4 love to use various principles from a one and two gap system. The defensive linemen in this defense are very similar to the lineman in the Phillips 3-4, but can vary. One spot on the defensive line that is a must, is a DT/NT who is big, thick, and heavy and can play a one or two gap. Will, Jack, Mike and Sam are all big, fast and violent linebackers who were once defensive ends in college, but are undersized to play defensive end by NFL standards. Linebackers in this scheme are asked to give run support, blitz, and zone up and man up when needed, and have to be able to disguise what the coverage is and what their true intentions are on every play.
The Zone Blitz normally is run out of two basic zone coverages with one man coverage. The two zone coverages are the “Cover Two” and “Cover Three”. These two zone coverages are pretty standard throughout the NFL, minus the blitzing. Now most people don’t know this, but the “Cover Two” defense that Pittsburgh uses has been a staple of theirs since the 70′s. Tony Dungy, the inventor of the “Tampa Two” defense was a defensive back for the Steelers in the 70′s. He created the “Tampa Two” from the same “Cover Two” defense that the Steelers have ran since the 70′s, which they ran it out of a 4-3 just like Tampa. The only man coverage that this defense runs is a “Cover One”. In this formation, which is also known as “Cover Zero”, there is no man covering deep at all leaving a team vunerable for the big play. The free safety has no man to man responsibilities, and can either play an underneath to middle zone, or roam the field and cause havoc. The first player that comes to mind that has perfected this role in the Zone Blitz system is Troy Palamalu.
LaBeau’s Zone Blitz scheme is by far the most aggressive of the 3-4 defenses. They can attack you in any formation with either a zone, man or fire zone blitz while making you guess on every snap where the blitz is coming from. In a good Zone Blitz scheme, you will never see the same blitz twice. Is it the best of the 3-4 schemes? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One major issue with this version of the 3-4 is, if you don’t have the right personnel and you can’t get to the quarterback, this defense isn’t very effective. For proof of that, look no further than the 2002-2006 Houston Texans when Dom Capers was the head coach. He learned the system in Pittsburgh and had been successful with it there and in Carolina, but not in Houston.
Many fans and media in Denver and across the country, didn’t understand why Josh McDaniels fired Mike Nolan after one year. Two weeks later, Josh hired Don Martindale as the defensive coordinator, who is a Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 defensive minded coach. We all know that Nolan had made Denver a good defensive team while running a 3-4 defense with 4-3 players, but he didn’t use a 3-4 scheme that Josh was comfortable with. Josh is a Fairbanks-Bullough coach, not a Phillips 3-4/Hybrid 3-4 guy which Nolan is. There was a logical reasoning to Josh’s firing and hiring of coaches who were both 3-4 defense coaches. As mentioned earlier, not all 3-4 defenses are created equal, nor are the players that play in these systems. You also say that the coaches arent either