The Popularity of the 3-4 Defense: What’s Old is New


Guest Blog Post

This is a guest blog post by Cameron Soran, a lawyer. While not a coach, I think you’ll find he has a strong football mind and understands a lot about the game.

“There’s a lot of ways to play football,” Chip Kelly told  room full of reporters. “Trends go one way and the other. … if you weren’t in the room with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne when they invented this game, you stole it from somebody else.” While ostensibly Kelly was discussing offenses, his insight equally applies to the opposite side of the ball. More and more it seems, NFL and college teams are moving to 3-4 defense (or 3-3-5) defenses over the 4-3 counterparts. To some, this might signal that the 3-man front is somehow a superior defensive system. But recent trends in football are just that: trends. While the 3-4 defense offers certain advantages, it is by no means superior. To explain some of the reasons for the recent change, and to understand the numerous different flavors of 3-4, I think, to quote Oliver Wendell Holmes, that “a page of history is worth a pound of logic.” 

Popularity of the 3-4 Defense:The 5-2 Okie

In the golden age of power running – that is to say the 30’s and 40’s – defensive lines were indistinguishable from their offensive counterparts. For every center, guard, and tackle that came to the line of scrimmage, there was a defensive lineman staring right back across from him. But as offenses began to evolve, often committing heretical acts like lining guys out wide and throwing the ball more than five times a game, defenses began to adapt.

5-2 okie football defenseDefensive “centers” began dropping back a few yards before the snap to cover short routes over the middle. After the course of many years, these “centers” no longer dropped back at all: they just lined up a few yards back on every play. Thus, the middle linebacker was born. In the 1950s, this early form of 4-3 became one of the most common defenses at the professional and collegiate levels.

During this same time period, the head coach at Oklahoma, Bud Wilkinson, was adopting a different approach to the same problem. Rather than dropping back the “center,” Wilkinson instead dropped back both of his “guards.” In comparison to the 4-3, the “5-2 Okie” allowed the defense to defend more effectively against the off-tackle runs and option attacks that were widespread during this period. Wilkinson’s innovation proved to be quite durable, and became a permanent fixture in collegiate ball for the next three decades.

One of the cornerstones of this defense was the “heads up” technique (now more commonly described as 2-gap technique) – a sort of a holdover from the earlier era. At the snap, the defensive linemen would attack the offensive lineman with a “punch” – a technique where you hit your opponent in the chest with both hands.[1]

In addition, the defensive lineman’s first step would be a “mirror” of his offensive counterpart, i.e., if he’s moving to your left, step to the left, and if he’s moving to your right, step to the right. From there, the defender would read the play “through the man,” identifying where the ball was going based on what the offensive lineman was trying to do to him, and continue to engage his man (and a second in the event of a double team) while working his way towards the play.

The goal of this system was to free up the linebackers from any potential blockers and allow them to make plays. As its widespread adoption showed, the “heads up” technique proved to be an effective method of stopping the run.

The Fairbanks 3-4 Defense

fairbanks 3-4 defense footballWhen Chuck Fairbanks came to the Patriots in 1973, he brought the 5-2 Okie with him from Oklahoma. Working with his defensive coordinator, Hank Bullough (a man who would later tutor Dick LeBeau a decade later), the two worked to turn the 5-2 Okie into what is now known as the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 defense (sometimes called the “two-gap 3-4 defense”). And so, in 1974, the NFL was first introduced to the 3-4.

By contrast to the 5-2 Okie, the outside defenders were true outside linebackers, versatile players that were called on to stifle running backs, rush the passer, and drop into coverage. And during the particularly ground oriented offenses of the 1970s, the Fairbanks 3-4 met with a great deal of success. But as offenses became increasingly reliant on the forward pass, the Fairbanks 3-4 defense steadily fell out of favor (in 1980, 3-4 defense comprised three quarters of NFL defenses; by 1995, it was the reverse). The reason? 2-gap technique wasn’t a good method for getting to the quarterback.

Very few defensive linemen in this world are big and strong enough to attack the man across from him, control both gaps, and then quickly shed one or two guys to get to the quarterback. To fit that role, you have to start a Vince Wilfork, Geno Atkins, or J.J. Watt – if you’re lucky enough to have one. And even if you do, most of these “war daddies” rely primarily on a good bull rush to get to the quarterback.

In order to compete against the pass, 3-4 teams increasingly switched to a defense that has its origins in another Oklahoma (State) defensive mind: Bum Phillips.

The Phillips 3-4 Defense and the Orange Crush

When Oail Andrew “Bum” Phillips was named head coach and general manager of the Oilers (and effectively demoting his old boss Gillman), he went to work installing his own brand of 3-4 defense. Rather than following Fairbanks’ model, he slid at least two of the defensive linemen into the gaps. This allowed the lineman to play more aggressively and work towards penetrating the backfield, an idea more in line with 4-3 systems of the day. Phillips idea proved to be more lasting than the Fairbanks, primarily because of the increased use of the pass in the coming decades.

bum phillips 3-4 defenseAnd as is often the case in football, many coaches ‘stole’ Phillips idea and adapted it to suit their own purposes. When Red Miller, former offensive coordinator under Chuck Fairbanks, became head coach of the Denver Broncos, he brought the idea of running a 3-4 with him. Fairbanks 3-4 philosophy, however, remained firmly back in Foxborough. Miller’s defensive coordinator, Joe Collier, combined elements of both the Fairbanks and Phillips’ 3-4 defense, and created the first multiple front defense in the NFL.

phillips 3-4 over front defense phillips 3-4 under front defense

The “Orange Crush” defense, as it became known, was ahead of its time. Collier moved the defensive linemen and linebackers around to create a variety of different fronts, and many of them were 4-3 fronts with 3-4 personnel (e.g., the 3-4 Under and Over). Even when the defense did line up in a Fairbanks 3-4, the defensive linemen would often slant to create 1-gap assignments. Most of the hybrid 3-4/4-3 schemes in the NFL today such as the Jets under Rex Ryan and Patriots under Bill Belichick can trace their origins back to Collier’s inventive system.[2] The Orange Crush defense wasn’t perfect (it was remarkably porous against the pass), but it represented a new way of approaching defensive fronts with 3-4 defense personnel.

The Modern 3-4 Defense: New Problems, Old Ideas

As more and more offenses have begun to incorporate 3, 4, and 5 wide receiver sets, 4-3 teams have found themselves with increasingly limited options. The defense must slide out the linebackers to cover the slot receivers, or drop a safety down and play Cover 3. In effect, committing 4 men to the line against the spread left many defenses increasingly predictable – exactly what spread offenses were aiming for when they lined up with multiple receivers before handing the ball off to the running back.

In response, several teams like Alabama, Notre Dame, Oregon, and Stanford, have switched to the 3-4 defense, resurrecting the ideas pioneered a half century earlier.

football 3-4 defense vs the spread offense

Using Collier’s system for multiple fronts, 3-4 teams are now able to be incredibly flexible in their response in how they line up against the spread. They can spread both OLBs out wide over the slot receivers, switch to a four-man front, and many things in between – without changing their personnel. As the offense is constantly left guessing who the fourth (or fifth) rusher is, these multiple 3-4 defense teams can gain the initiative by constantly confusing blocking assignments.

In addition, they are also increasingly using two-gap assignments to slow down the spread’s rushing attack. (Oregon and Stanford two-gap about 25% of the time; for Notre Dame and Alabama, it seems like they always have at least one guy two-gapping.) While 2-gapping still has its same pass rush limitations, today’s defensive coordinators use it frequently against run-heavy offenses, whether they be spread-to-run teams that predominate the Big-12, or even a stack-the-line-with-mass-and-muscle offenses like Stanford.[3]

The final reason teams have switched to the 3-4 defense is personnel driven. You can take guys who may be too small to be a prototypical DE, but may be perfectly sized to rush the passer as 3-4 OLB. And you can grab large guys without the speed to play DE in a 4-3 and have them play 4- and 3-tech.[4] This by and large is the driving force for why many NFL teams are moving to multiple front 3-4 schemes. It is a lot easier (and cheaper) to find guys who are too big or too slow to play DE at the professional level and move them around to fit their talents.

Moving Forward: The 3-4’s Future

I think by understanding the 3-4 defense’s influences and developments over time, you can get a better grasp that the drive towards the 3-4 today is more of one based on personnel and flexibility than actual formations. Most of the time when Alabama lines up, for example, the only way you can tell that the Tide is a 3-4 team is by looking at the program. As teams continue to focus on increasing the flexibility of their defenses and defenders, the 3-4 defense will continue to rise in popularity. But as the foregoing history shows, it won’t be long before the pendulum swings back the other way.



[1] 2-gap lineman are frequently taught to punch with their elbows in (“thumbs up” is the frequent mnemonic) when the other guy is high, and punch with their elbows out (“thumbs down”) when the other guy is low.

[2] For example, Bill Belichick was an assistant coach for the Denver Broncos during Collier’s tenure. Many of the ideas he brought with him as the New York Giants defensive coordinator came from Collier, though most of those never made the transition from the playbook to the field under Parcells.

[3] In the 2009 National Championship Game,  two-gap assignments played a large role in Saban’s game plan to slow down the Texas rushing attack. And in the 2012 Notre Dame – Stanford game, the Irish showed how two-gap techniques can stymie an otherwise dominate Stanford run game.

[4] This personnel limitation was the driving force for my high school team, along with several others nearby, to use a 3-4 defensive scheme.


2 thoughts on “The Popularity of the 3-4 Defense: What’s Old is New

  1. Bill Owens

    Absolutley great article, coach.
    The article answered questions I had as to which scheme was more favorable to getting pressure on the QB, and if either “favored” particular pass coverages. As you made clear, it’s all about personnel and flexibility.

    You hear during every broadcast the 4-3 defensive end “setting the edge.” What are his actual duties and is this different from the role of “force player” (most 4-3 NFL teams supposedly utilize spilling defensive schemes)?

  2. Cameron Soran Post author

    If I’m understanding your question correctly, the answer depends on whether the 4-3 DE is on the Closed (Tight End) or Open (no Tight End) side of the line. For an Open 4-3 DE, there really is no difference in assignment than any other “force” player, though there is a difference in technique (as the DE begins from the outside shoulder of the tackle, as opposed to another force player who may start any where from two to five yards outside). On the Closed side, what commentators mean by a 4-3 DE “setting the edge” is a little more vague, and is sometimes associated with a DE fighting a TE-OT double team laterally towards the sideline to stretch the play and bounce the ball inside; in other instances, the commentator actually means “gap exchange” as Coach CP explains here: I hope that answers your question. If it doesn’t, then let me know and I’ll try to write an article on it explaining the concept further.

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