3-4 Defense Man Coverage Principles


The off-season is a time where I love to get together with local coaches and talk about defense. I am blessed to live in the Atlanta area, so there are a lot of great coaches that are willing to share their knowledge with a young defensive coordinator.

3-4 defense man coverage was a scheme that really interested me as I met with several defensive coordinators in the McDonough / Atlanta area. I grew up playing against the 50 defense as an offensive lineman and my eyes like having a balanced, five man rush with man coverage behind it. We call this man coverage but in all reality it is cover 1, but instead of a post safety, we have a low – hole inside linebacker.

Using 3-4 defense with man coverage is VERY simple, but it has been proven effective over the years.

The defensive line and outside linebackers should win their one on one battle because they are more athletic than the offensive linemen, so the ball should come out of the quarterback’s hand in two seconds or less, and they should create havoc in the run game. The outside linebackers are the force players, the defensive line and inside linebackers are spill players and the secondary (corners and safeties) are secondary contain players. This is illustrated below:

3-4 defense man coverage principles vs 21 personnel 3-4 Defense Man Coverage Principles Versus the Spread Offense

Using 3-4 defense man coverage principles is also very good against the spread (10 personnel) because it allows you to have a 7 man box against the run and man coverage on the receivers.

I prefer playing off – man with a “banjo” concept against tight splits (5 yards or less). We can also use a “banjo” call versus trips with the corner playing man on #1 and the two safeties playing “banjo” on #2 and #3.

When we “banjo” two receivers in Trips we read the initial release (first two steps) of the #2 or #3 receiver versus trips. If the receiver we are reading (#2 or #3) bubbles or works to the flat within the first two steps the outside defender jumps his route and the inside defender works over the top for #1 / #2 (trips). If the receiver we are reading (#2 or #3) releases inside or vertical we lock onto our receiver.

We can make a “press” call to press the receivers, and we would handle tight splits by using a “levels” call where the defender aligned on the receiver who is off of the LOS backs up to 5-7 yards and the defender aligned on the receiver on the LOS stays in press. This is illustrated below:

3-4 man defense vs spread


3-4 man coverage vs trips

3-4 Defense Man Coverage: Handling Bunch Formations

We will have a couple ways of handling bunch sets using the 3-4 defense but the easiest way is to play press man on the #2 receiver and read the #3 receiver (combo call). If #3 works to the flat, the corner jumps it and the Free Safety works over the top of #1. If #3 works vertical or inside the corner locks on #1 and the Free Safety locks on #3.

Teams who run a bunch formation use it to pick the defenders in man coverage and the combo call allows us to avoid being picked.

If a team motions into a bunch formation we can make this check on the fly, so we can handle the route distribution. This concept is illustrated below:

3-4 defense man coverage vs bunch formations

There is not a “perfect” defense and if there was, I would run it every snap! However, the ability to play man coverage with the 3-4 defense and bring 5 rushers is a great base defense or a change-up depending on your defensive philosophy.

Every defense needs to be multiple enough to keep an offense guessing, but simple enough to allow your players to play FAST on every snap. If you have specific questions about individual positions’ responsibilities please do not hesitate to email me at zach.davis24@gmail.com or send a tweet to @zachdavis24.