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Defensively Speaking: X’s and O’s

by Kevin Bruce

I thought it might be useful to dive into the distinctions between the 3-4 and 4-3 since these two basic schemes will be played one way or the other in every one of our games. In my mind I differentiate the 3-4 as a multiple front defense which largely depends on how you play the DT or NT. Said slightly differently, if you cover the center with a DT that is now a nose tackle (NT). This is called an “odd” alignment whereas the 4-3 does not cover the center, there is no NT and is an “even” alignment.

In the 3-4 the NT absolutely must defend both “A” gaps against the run and drive the offensive center upfield so that he disrupts the run play or pass protection pocket. At the very least the NT must routinely demand a double team which takes a blocker away from the POA or more likely reducing one blocker from getting into the second level. Good defenses like Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Stanford play or have played a 3-4 at times but also utilize a 4-3 depending upon situations. We have used an even alignment occasionally but when we do it is almost always a Cover 7 or goal line defense. Some coaching clinics teach that the 3-4 depends upon your three down linemen controlling two gaps instead of one. In reality this isn’t accurate but what is accurate is, as I stated earlier, the NT over the offensive center has the toughest job and he must control the two “A” gaps with maybe some help by the MLB. More on that later. This alignment puts much more pressure on the D-line with the upside being that four LB’s can create more havoc with greater speed and pass/run flexibility while having to pressure the QB with a LB and three DLs. That’s all ok as far as it goes. Offensive coordinators will tell you that prefer to see a true 4-3 even alignment as the blocking assignments are more straightforward than a 3-4 and easier for the offensive center to see the field and make line calls.

In the 3-4 scheme the defensive linemen are supposed to control the line of scrimmage with penetration and taking up blocks to let the LB’s roam free. One big advantage of the 3-4 as compared to the 4-3 is you have an extra play maker/better athlete on the field versus a big body. It’s LB vs. DL however it takes the right DL and LB personnel to make this scheme successful. Su’a Cravens, Cam Smith, Porter Gustin, Osa Masina are ideal for the 3-4 defense at the LB positions (I would also say these players are ideal for any defense frankly). What is true about the 3-4 is that it’s a defense where you can really design some exotic pressures. However some coaches don’t like it because they believe it’s easier to run against. This group feel that the O-line have an easier time working into the second level which gives the RB more running lanes and positive yards even before hand-off. Most college 3-4 defenses play the 3-4 with 3 down D-lineman and one or both OLB’s on the LOS. It all just depends on how the offense lines up and the formation they use. Some will line up with the 3 down DL and have an OLB with his hand in the grass which give the appearance of four DL and on snap the OLB will either rush, contain or drop into a zone coverage. This multiple use of a “toggled” OLB is also known as the rush end and is one reason I call it a Hybrid. The 3-4 alignment is much easier to zone blitz out of also and do so from multiple angles.

Coach Wilcox runs a hybrid regardless of personnel as his base scheme. So I determine if we are in a 3-4 or 4-3 by the way we use the DT/NT. You cover the center it’s an odd alignment so boom it is 3-4 and add in the rush end/OLB then it’s a hybrid. Conversely if he doesn’t cover the center then it’s a 4-3 Hybrid. He rarely moves away from the rush end who uses a two point stance and looks more like a linebacker but plays like a DE. I have several issues with the way Wilcox uses his 3-4 Hybrid. By my thinking he doesn’t mix it up enough especially early in the each season. You either have to give different looks out of the base scheme, or if you are going to give the same look the majority of the time, design different pressure schemes with different personnel.

It doesn’t seem to me that he can or is willing to vary much. As an example last year several times in the ND game he had Su’a as the OLB and he lines up (flexes) over the slot, without an adjustment by the DL, ILB and safety. The Notre Dame OT and TE were free to seal the end, eliminate containment of the LOS and then work upfield into the second and third levels. ND ran right to that area for big gains. Wilcox never adjusted during that game. Because we scored quickly off turnovers this tendency was masked. Fast forward to this year and presto Wilcox and the D never adjusted again to the same set up but the outcome was very different because we didn’t neutralize ND with quick scores off their turnovers. No real adjustment made, ND knew where we would line up, no Big Cat to worry about this season and in the fourth quarter ND smash mouthed us for 90 and 91 yard drives to break our backs. An adjustment to physically over-matched defense is to move to four DLs as if in a goal line and force a pass audible on the QB is an example.

It is worth noting that Coach Pendergast used a 5-2 scheme as most called it. I described it as a 2-5-4. This takes the theory of better athletes and play makers to next level. In this scheme we would have two DLs only and five LBs for a total of seven in the box. The advantage is more speed and quickness to neutralize read options, additional pass coverage options (nickel package) and very unusual pressure angles. Down side is that it is clearly not a physical defense. Like most DCs Pendergast would bring in more big bodies in short yardage and goal line. Also he did try to utilize his personnel to align to the scheme by recruiting more quick but physical secondary players. It certainly helped having Big Cat on the field too.

Ultimately any DC brings a scheme and wraps the players around it to fit. I guess that’s fine as long as the results are where you want them. To my way of thinking any defensive scheme needs a commitment to a stout physical foundation first and foremost. We must routinely win the LOS battle. I don’t see us trying to finesse the OL so why finesse the DL? I’m so encouraged that Coach Helton has changed the practice methods and tone for the defense to uptick the physicality of defense. He’s right and I’m glad. Odd that a former OC made this change not the DC. We also need to measure our effectiveness and adjust. Example I like a NT and odd alignment but we need to get personnel in there that can take advantage of the offensive center’s vulnerabilities (e.g. he’s got a football in one hand, a ball between his legs (please no jokes!), his vision is blocked by a NT to make the line calls etc.). Additionally we need a disruptive force at rush end. If our personnel don’t fit the scheme modify it and leverage the skills we have. My guess is that’s Helton’s next move but not this season. Right now I look to see some changes to player personnel starting assignments.

Kevin Bruce played linebacker at USC from 1972-75 and was a member of two national title teams. He is now a member of the FWAA.

Garry Paskwietz
Garry Paskwietz

A 1988 graduate of USC with a degree in Sports Information. Worked in sports marketing for LA Lakers and Miller Brewing Company. Began covering the Trojans in 1996 with the Trojan Football Fax. Founded WeAreSC in November 1998 with stints at Scout and ESPN. Emmy-winner while covering high school football at Fox Sports West.

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