Cosell’s Take: 3-4 and 4-3 concepts more about personnel than defensive fronts

Greg Cosell

The NFL draft is only six weeks away. It’s the time of year when we all discuss the top prospects, and how they best transition and project to the NFL. It’s particularly fascinating on the defensive side of the ball, where two seemingly competing philosophies, the 4-3 and the 3-4, often determine the value and utility of specific players.

There are many misconceptions about defensive fronts in the NFL, and those false impressions frequently arise from a very simple component. When most see 3 players with one hand on the ground, in three-point stances, and four players standing up, in two-point stances, they automatically assume it’s a 3-4 defense. It’s a logical conclusion, yet it’s not always the right one. In fact, more often than not in today’s NFL, it’s the wrong assumption. The number of players in two- and three-point stances is not the defining feature of defensive fronts.

What is the foundation of defensive fronts, you ask? Gap concepts. That’s the basis of all fronts. You often hear the terms “1-gap” and “2-gap”. The supposition with 3-4 fronts has always been it’s a “2-gap” scheme, with the two defensive ends aligned directly over the offensive tackles, and the nose tackle head up on the center. The term “2-gap” derives from their responsibilities as run defenders. All three of those defensive linemen are responsible for two gaps along the line of scrimmage. They do not penetrate through a single gap at the snap of the ball; rather, they stalemate the blocker in front of them, at the same time reading where the back is going. They are accountable for the gap to each side of their respective offensive lineman. Once the back declares, the defensive linemen ideally shed their blockers and get to the ball.

That’s the overriding principle of the “2-gap” 3-4. The 3-4 goes all the way back to the 1960s. Does the name Joe Collier stir any memories? Most remember Collier as the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos from 1972-88. His “Orange Crush” defense helped the Broncos reach three Super Bowls. But before Denver, Collier was an assistant coach, and then head coach of the Buffalo Bills in the old AFL. He initially used the 3-4 in 1964, and then quite a bit against San Diego in the AFL Championship in 1965. Its genesis: 33 man rosters. With only four linebackers on the roster, injuries forced Collier to deploy defensive ends Ron McDole and Tom Day at outside linebacker. He was fortunate they were versatile enough to do that.

Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram of the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, one of the game’s great innovators, also utilized the 3-4 defense. He had one of the most athletic outside linebackers of any era in Bobby Bell. Bell was 6-foot-4 and 228 pounds, yet he played at a time when linebackers were rarely asked to blitz. The 3-4 trend continued in the 1970s, with Chuck Fairbanks in New England, Bill Arnsparger in Miami and Bum Phillips in Houston among its devotees.

It was in Houston that the 3-4 began its evolution, incorporating more of the “1-gap” concepts that expanded the thought process of defense and are now prevalent today. The Oilers’ defensive line coach was Wade Phillips; it was his first NFL job. (I guess he knew someone). Remember, linebackers were not seen at the time as blitzers, so it was incumbent upon the defensive ends to “2-gap” versus the run, then transition to pass rushers when the quarterback dropped back. That was hard to accomplish, no matter how good the ends were.

The Oilers had a very good one in Elvin Bethea. They realized Bethea’s abilities were not being maximized in the traditional 3-4. So instead of remaining tethered to the standard and accepted approach of the era, they were creative and imaginative. They shifted the alignments of the 3 down linemen, moving them into gaps; they even stunted their defensive linemen, another tactic to capitalize on the skills of Bethea and his line mates. In terms of personnel, it was still a 3-4, but it was a new kind of 3-4, with “1-gap” principles more widely employed.

When Phillips later became the defensive coordinator and head coach of the Bills, he did the same thing with DE Bruce Smith, like Bethea a future Hall of Famer. The superseding principle seemed simple – take full advantage of your best players - but Phillips aggressively stepped outside of convention.

Another coach who was not beholden to custom was Bill Parcells. He was the Giants' linebackers coach in 1981 when they drafted Lawrence Taylor with the second overall pick in the draft. Up to that point, no one had utilized 3-4 outside linebackers predominantly as pass rushers. It was Parcells who recognized the special qualities of Taylor and featured him primarily as a rusher. Taylor, of course, changed the role of outside linebackers in the 3-4 defense. Before him, outside linebacker was not seen as a premium pass rush position. Taylor, with his remarkable skill set and the way in which he was deployed by Parcells, forever altered the thinking of coaches who believed in the 3-4. From that point forward, the number one attribute for outside linebackers in a 3-4 front was the ability to rush the quarterback.

Yet there was another element of the Giants “3-4” that was universally overlooked. It was not a 3-4 in the strict “2-gap” sense. This returns us to the opening thesis about gap concepts. The Giants aligned in what was essentially a 4-3 “under” front with Taylor almost always positioned on the open side of the offensive formation, away from the tight end. A 4-3 “under” features a “three-technique” defensive tackle, a “one-technique” tackle and a strong-side defensive end. Taylor was simply the weak side defensive end; all he did was stand up in a two-point stance rather than put his hand on the ground. But that change in alignment demanded a different kind of athlete, and that marked a demarcation point in the defensive evolution of the NFL.

Essentially, a new position was created: the pass rush outside linebacker who was both quick and agile to beat offensive tackles of the edge, and strong and powerful to bull rush with power and leverage. It required a multi-dimensional skill set that was not easy to find in many players.

This brings us back to Phillips. He applied the same front principles when he was the defensive coordinator in San Diego in 2005 and 2006. He utilized Shawne Merriman (a player who exhibited those multifaceted traits early in his career)) as the stand up weak side defensive end in what was truly a 4-3 front. In 2006, Merriman led the NFL in quarterback sacks with 17. Then in Dallas from 2007-10, he again employed the 4-3 gap rules with a 3-4 look. DeMarcus Ware filled the Lawrence Taylor role. I would argue strongly that no one since Taylor has filled the role as well as Ware. Under Phillips' guidance, Ware twice led the league in sacks, including 20 in 2008, only the seventh time in NFL history that number had been reached.

Phillips is now doing it again in Houston. There, he’s able to go back to the future with JJ Watt. Like Bethea and Smith, Watt is an end in the base defense. He aligns on the strong side, the same side as the tight end. The difference from the days of Bethea and Smith is a function of the evolution of defense, and the proliferation of nickel and dime personnel. Watt moves inside to tackle in the Texans dime sub-package, and he predominantly aligns in a “three-technique” position, which puts him in a gap and maximizes his pass rush ability. In fact, in 2012, the majority of Watt’s sack came out of the dime, with Watt positioned inside at defensive tackle.

Are there still 3-4 fronts that utilize “2-gap” concepts? The Patriots at times, and the Steelers in their base front, are 2 teams that come to mind. But in a passing league that places a defensive premium on pressuring the quarterback, the reality is, you have far greater pass rush flexibility and versatility out of 4-3 principles, but with 3-4 personnel. You want more athletic defenders, and you want them aligned in gaps so that they can penetrate more effectively. That’s the key. It’s a tactical combination of personnel and concept.

The weakside defensive end/linebacker is the most critical player in the scheme. He’s the one that’s most difficult to find because of the multiple skill set demanded to play the position well. As already acknowledged, it starts with pass rush. There were seasons under Phillips in which Ware rushed more than 90% of all quarterback drops. But it also necessitates the ability to play the run, and the overall athleticism to play in space as a coverage defender.

Who in the 2013 draft fits that profile? Georgia’s Jarvis Jones has the attributes to play that position, as does LSU’s Barkevious Mingo. Jones is the better prospect at this point. Others who may transition effectively into that role are Oregon’s Dion Jordan, Florida State’s Tank Carradine, Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore, Texas’ Alex Okafor, Illinois’ Michael Buchanan, and Auburn’s Corey Lemonier. It’s a process that takes time. Keep in mind that Ware only had 8 sacks as a rookie in 2005, and he started all 16 games.

Certainly in this era of multiple defensive fronts and coverages, there are many ways to align with different personnel groupings. This was by no means a complete and thorough breakdown of front alignments. Rather, it was an historical snapshot of the evolution of the “1-gap” 3-4, or more correctly, 4-3 with a more athletic linebacker in the role of defensive end. It’s a more adaptable and resourceful defense, and it puts a premium on one of the most difficult positions to find in the NFL draft: the edge pass rusher who can win one-on-one versus offensive tackles.