The 3-4 Personnel: Defining the Defense

Otto Greule Jr

Some say the difference between a 3-4 defense and a 4-3 defense is whether the D-linemen two-gap (have to control two gaps on the offensive line) or whether they one-gap (look to penetrate one gap and disrupt it). That used to be the case. The personnel did not matter as much in determining the defense as much as how it was played.

In this era of hybrid football players and schemes it is untrue, only by being outdated.

The difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 defense is the personnel being used. Where the defenders line up is subject to scheme differences, as is their responsibility in any given play. How do we define Josh Shirley’s role? What is Cory Littleton? Is Danny Shelton a true Nose Tackle or is he a 1-tech DT? These are all questions that would have to be answered before we determine whether Washingtonruns a 4-3 or if they run a 3-4. Then again, the bigger question is what is Shaq Thompson? The answer to that question is the "the definition of the Washington Huskies defense." That is a paradox in itself however.

There cannot be one definition to a multiple defense. So, I am going through a series titled "Defining the Defense" and yet I am telling you that I cannot define what the Washington defense is. Basically, I am lying to your computer screen and then in turn your computer screen is lying to you. What I am really doing is going through and breaking down the intricacies of several different defensive fronts that the Huskies use. We haven’t even gotten to my favorite defense yet. Today’s article doesn’t even cover what my favorite defense is. Today’s article covers the 3-4 defense.

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To be fair, the differences between the 3-4 and my favorite defense are very subtle, with mostly just alignment differences and some slight personnel tweaks.

(I briefly went over the 3-4 in an earlier series here, but this will be a bit more Washington-focused)

Nose

So, when using a 3-4 alignment, the big guy in the middle is called either the nose tackle or nose guard. He is the lone defensive tackle. The nose is big, very big. He regularly pushes over three bills. Especially for a college kid, that is some serious girth.

There are three guys who would really fit the bill for a nose when it comes to the UW roster: Danny Shelton, Lawrence Lagafuaina, and freshman Elijah Qualls. Having three different potential nose guards is a definite help for the UW defense. For most 3-4 defenses, this is what the entire defense is schemed around.

Can the big guy in the middle clog up the middle and push the pocket for the other players to disrupt the play? Danny Shelton does not have a career sack to his name (he got half of a sack against WashingtonState last season). The duty of the nose is not to penetrate. His job is to control and occupy so that others can make the play.

Nose tackles line up in one of two spots, with one much more frequent than the other: 0-tech and 1-tech. The 0-tech lines up across the football from the center. 1-technique DT’s line up between the center and guard.

Almost always, the NT will be lined up over the center, when he is not, he will be lined up at a 1-tech. When he is there at the 1-tech, his job will be to draw a double team from the center and guard and open up the lanes for the linebackers. When he is lined up at 1-tech, he does not ever allow a run through his A-gap between the center and guard.

When it comes to the pass, his duty is essentially the same regardless of where he lines up: push the pocket into the face of the quarterback. Make him afraid of smashing his thumb on the helmet of his offensive linemen. If the quarterback is afraid of smashing his thumb, he is more apt to hold on to the ball. Also more importantly, pushing the pocket blocks the QB’s ability to step up into the pocket, making him more susceptible to edge rushers.

No matter the offensive play, the nose is tasked with making the job easier for others. Is there a nose tackle in either the Pro Football Hall of Fame? The answer is no, because he doesn’t get noticed or put up numbers.

Defensive Ends

The duty for defensive ends is similar to the nose tackle. Instead however, they are tasked with doing it to tackles instead of centers.

The most common position in a "true" 3-4 defense for a defensive end is the 4-technique. That is directly over the offensive tackle. The DE still lines up in several different spots, however. Some of the more common alternate spots are the 4i spot (shaded ever so slightly inside of the tackle) and the 5-tech. The 5-tech is also a very, very common spot.

But in the picture I am going to show you UW has their DE’s in 3-techniques. It goes to show how arbitrary the position designations are, and also how different the responsibilities are in different schemes. A 4-3 DE would struggle as a DE in a 3-4, and vice versa. The DEs playing here would have difficulty using a wide nine technique tasked with pinning their ears back and attacking Joe Southwick.

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His job is to control the offensive tackle and draw double teams from the other blockers; it does not matter if the other blocker is a guard, tight end or running back, the DE wants to get their attention.

Think about this: if the nose occupies the center and the guard on one side, and the OT has his hands full with the defensive end, who is going to stop an OLB coming in? Who is going to stop an ILB shooting through one of the remaining gaps? When the 3-4 is executed perfectly, the linebackers are free and unblocked able to make plays.

The job is slightly different than the nose, however, and needs a different player. When dealing with offensive tackles, oftentimes the defender is dealing with the longest player on the football field. This means that if a stubby guy is trying to push him around, he will have trouble getting around and throughthe long arms of the tackle. One of the best ways to counteract this is with a long defender who still has strength and power. The best 4-technique on the Huskies is the 6’5" 280 lbs converted TE Evan Hudson. Hudson’s length helps him to better fight off the long arms of offensive linemen. His power still allows him to push around the tackle when he can get under the pads.

SAM Linebacker

SAM linebackers line up on the strong side of the formation. One of the reasons the 3-4 is compared to the 5-2 is that the SAM and Jack (or rush, or death, or whatever distinction you want to give him, more on him to come) both line up on the line of scrimmage, giving the seven man front five on the LOS, two men off, creating a 5-2 appearance.

On the strong side of the formation, the SAM will line up in a 9-tech usually. Sometimes he can be in an 8- or a 7-tech, but 9 is the usual. Remember: in the very odd technique numbering system, the 8-tech is outside of the 9-tech because, whatever. The 7-tech is also inside of the 6-tech in some numbering systems. Yeah, some coaches use different numbering systems. This makes sense, I guess.

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Physically, the SAM requires a mix of quickness, strength and flexibility. He needs the strength to fight off blockers to get to the ball carrier. The quickness is required to get to the hole and seal off running lanes, in addition to the obvious of getting to the ball carrier, and the quarterback when assigned. Flexibility is an underappreciated part of defense, especially in the hips. A SAM needs to be able to turn the corner around a blocker; he needs to be able to get low while maintaining his strength. (Josh Shirley mentioned that hips were a big focus in the offseason for the strength and conditioning staff.) Oh no. I just got Get Low by Lil’ John and the Ying-Yang Twins stuck in my head. Back to middle school dance songs I go.

The SAM’s assignment in the run game is to set the edge and control the outside run. He usually has to defend the alley and D-gap. If he is playing a 6-technique role then he also will have responsibility for the C-gap. SAMs are often the most important player in run defense, specifically on pitches and sweeps. Something Shaq is very adept at is stringing a running towards the sideline while still engaging a blocker. This gives other defenders a chance to make a play. Offenses run to the strong side more often because they line up more blockers to that side. That extra blocker is usually matched up with the SAM.

In pass defense, the Sam’s responsibility is different depending on the scheme and play call. He has to cover backs, tight ends and short underneath or flat zones.

Jack/Rush Linebacker

More commonly known as the Jack linebacker, this guy has the primary responsibility of rushing the quarterback. Now, the Jack doesn’t just rush the QB. He drops back into coverage and has to defend the run as well.

UW has a position that they call literally their "RUSH." This guy is a hybrid between a 4-3 weak DE and a 3-4 Jack, but I would lean more towards the WDE personally because he doesn’t drop into coverage much hence the term RUSH.

The Jack’s namesake is the adage "jack-of-all-trades" given the fact that he is supposed to be able to do everything: play the run, drop into coverage, and rush the passer. This day and age his role has adapted to more and more of a pass rusher. Think Chase Thomas. Before, the SAM and Jack were somewhat interchangeable, with the SAM being better in run support and coverage. Now, they are very separate positions with different responsibilities in this era of hybrid yet specialized football.

If the Dawgs had a player that was the Jack, it would be Cory Littleton. He is a pass rusher with some ability to drop back into coverage – but his job is mostly to get after the QB. This was his position in college. Shirley is almost primarily a pass rusher with no ability against the run and who struggles mightily in coverage. Heck, he struggles getting after the passer if he cannot beat the tackle off the edge with his speed – I am not very high on Shirley personally. I believed that Kikaha and Littleton would overtake his starting spot rather quickly.

In the formation, Jack LBs line up on the weak side in a nine technique. Again, things can change, but generally speaking a nine is where you can look to have the Jack lined up.

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Mike

Note: when it comes to the Mike and Will, there are different terminology used. Some term what I call the Will the Mike, and what I term the Mike the Ted LB. There are other names but for now I am focusing and the terms that I am most familiar with.

Sometimes called the ‘Mack,’ the Mike linebacker has very similar responsibilities as in the 4-3 defense. He is oftentimes still the "quarterback of the defense" which burdens him with the responsibility to make defensive audibles and oftentimes line calls as well.

Mikes in 3-4 schemes tend to be smaller and faster than their 4-3 counterparts, as they fight off less blocks and rely on their mammoth defensive linemen to control their offensive counterparts. The Mike is almost always a two-gap player even if he doesn’t line up specifically in an even numbered technique, although he usually does. His job is to flow to the football in run plays. On plays to the weak-side, he has backside contain most of the time, maintaining his gap integrity.

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In pass plays, he has several possible duties that you can probably guess at this point. Depending on alignment and play call: cover the tight end, cover the running back, and drop into a short zone.

The responsibilities of the Mike are fairly simple and straightforward. John Timu is UW’s Mike.

When NFL teams look for Mike LBs in 3-4 schemes, they will oftentimes look at OLBs from 4-3 college teams. The OLBs are smaller than ILBs, and faster. Thanks to this they will fit on the inside of the 3-4. Mike and Will LB’s are still bigger than their OLB counterparts, in either the 3-4 or the 4-3.

Will

In an attempt to be lazy and simple, but mostly lazy, I will say that the Will is basically a Mike that is a bit smaller, faster and better in pass coverage. That is really about it. They both play ILB positions, their responsibilities are slightly different to fit their different skillsets, but that is about it. The Mike and Will would be interchangeable if not for the Mike’s requirement to "quarterback" the defense.

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UW isn’t afraid to line any linebacker up at any spot. Travis Feeney and Princeton Fuimaono have both lined up at SAM and Will in 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, and Feeney, as you can see in the picture above, even does a little bit of Jack. Versatility is a great thing. Just ask Shaq Thompson.

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