The Defense: An Exercise in Multiplicity
Hello again. Here is where we kick off the 2012 season, one of the most anticipated in recent memory (I would also include 2009 in that bucket).
I want to start by focusing on the defense because I believe this is the side of the ball that will determine whether this season is a success or a complete bust. Another reason is that most people, casual fans mostly, relate to the offense. And in Knoxville, with some of the riches that the Vols possess on offense, it is only natural that this is where the bulk of the focus is aimed.
So, being a contrarian to a fault, let’s look at the Tennessee 2012 defense. This post will address the defense as a whole – the new scheme being implemented by a new defensive coordinator and a host of new position coaches. Then, the next three days will look at the individual compartments: the defensive line, the linebackers, and the secondary.
It is no secret, because it has been discussed ad nauseum in print and on the airways, that the Vols will move from the 4-3 defensive scheme of the past few years to the 3-4.
So it raises a couple of obvious questions: What is a 3-4 defense? And, why would it be desirable? If you are a football strategy geek, you may wish to turn away because this, although long, is really pretty simple (simplistic). But if you only have a quasi-knowledge base, hang with me. I think it is worth delving in to because (1) it is the strategy topic du jour, and (2) it just might make watching the games a bit more enjoyable.
Most people relate to a defensive unit that has four linemen and three linebackers comprising what is known as the ‘front seven’. That is the basis for the often-employed 4-3 defense. It has been a standard in both college and the pros (except for the last couple of years in the NFL) for a very long time.
The 3-4, being employed by new Vols defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri (formerly Alabama’s linebackers coach), also has a ‘front seven’, but instead of four linemen, there are three, and instead of three linebackers, there are four.
In both the 4-3 and the 3-4, the remaining four players are (usually) a couple of cornerbacks and a couple of safeties.
The three linemen in the 3-4 are usually referred to as ‘down linemen’ because one of their hands (or both) touch the ground in their ready stance. Two of them are defensive tackles (or ends, depending on who’s doing the explaining), one on either side of the guy in the middle – opposite of the center – who is termed the ‘nose tackle’.
Bud Wilkenson is generally credited with making the 3-4 defensive scheme a credible strategy and formation. That was in the 1940s, so don’t let anybody kid you that this is some new-fangled thing. It certainly is more complex today with a lot more wrinkles and disguises than what was used by ol’ Bud’s “Okie” defenses before most of us were born, but at it’s core, it was used for some of the same general reasons as it is today.
Chuck Fairbanks, also once a head coach at Oklahoma, is generally credited for bringing the 3-4 to the pro game, but apparently Bill Arnsparger used it with the Dolphins in 1971 and 1972 before Fairbanks came to the New England Patriots. The 1972 “No-Name Defense” of the Miami Dolphins are believed to be the first NFL team to win a Super Bowl with a 3-4 defensive base scheme, and the Raiders defeat of the Eagles in Super Bowl XV is recognized as the first Super Bowl where both teams employed the 3-4 as their base defense. Joe Collier, Denver’s defensive genius from 1969-1988, used the 3-4 with what became “The Orange Crush” defense, and Hank Stram reportedly used it a bit over 40 years ago in Kansas City but never really fully adopted it.
More recently, it has gained nearly complete favor over the 4-3 in the NFL. This was the defensive alignment that Bill Parcels used when his NY Giants won two Super Bowls, and then Bill Belichick carried on that tradition with his New England Patriots. Now, most NFL teams use a 3-4 philosophy, as opposed to when the 4-3 was generally favored by most teams only a few seasons ago. In college, the 3-4 is now making more than just a cameo appearance at the big-time programs, and this trend is gaining steam. It was only a few years ago that the 3-4 could only be found at smaller programs (such as the service academies) for reasons we’ll point to a bit later.
Why the 3-4 Instead of the 4-3?
To (over)simplify the answer, the 4-3 is generally aimed to stop the pro-style passing offense – thus, it’s growing popularity in the NFL. The 3-4 is generally aimed to stop the run (that is, if it is executed properly). And what is making the 3-4 a growing trend in college is two-fold: (1) it is difficult to find the physical qualities required for the 4-3 (i.e., two large and quick defensive ends), and (2) it is considered more effective at countering today’s faster running backs as well as the spread offenses which have grown in popularity in the college game.
The quicker and faster running backs (there are many more of these than in yesteryears) are hard to contain and chase down by defensive linemen that generally aren’t equipped to do that on a continual basis. So the solution can be to remove the need for one of the four large defensive linemen of the 4-3 and replace that need with a quicker, more agile linebacker of the 3-4.
In short, two large DEs are hard to find – smaller, quicker LBs are more abundant. So, go to the 3-4. And, offenses in college football have gotten faster and more spread out. So, go to four LBs of the 3-4 instead of the four linemen of the 4-3.
In the 4-3 defensive scheme, two defensive tackles who are BOTH jumbo-sized AND athletic, along with two defensive ends who are fairly-good-sized AND very quick/agile are required for success. If these requirements are found to be deficient, hopes of sacking the QB will rely on blitzing LBs and CBs/safeties, and that is a gambling strategy over the long haul.
In the 3-4, the requirement for the super-sized player falls to only a single position: the man across center, known as the ‘nose guard’. He’s got to be huge-big (usually in the 350 pound range) because not only does he have to take on the center, but also at least one of the two offensive guards simultaneously, pretty much every single play. Joe Collier once said this about the 3-4:
“You build it from the inside out. The nose tackle and the inside linebackers, those are the three guys that are very important. But when you go through it, the nose tackle is probably the single-most important guy… He has to hold it all together and make it so the guards can’t get out on the inside linebackers. Let me put it this way – the nose tackle can make the inside linebackers look pretty good, and if your inside linebackers look pretty good, you’re going to play pretty good defense.”
Then there are the two other defensive linemen – the defensive tackles (or ends) – who generally line up across the offensive tackles. These guys are generally expected to be in the 300-pound range, similar to defensive ends in the 4-3.
So, generally speaking, linemen in 3-4 schemes tend to be bigger than linemen in the 4-3 because they have to take up more space and guard more territory then linemen in the 4-3. They don’t have to be bigger AND as quick/fast as their 4-3 counterparts, because there are four linebackers as opposed to three to make up for the loss of speed and quickness.
But because you have only three down linemen in the 3-4, each of these three are expected to hit their opponent, watch to make sure a running back doesn’t get by on either side (this is the often-heard ‘two-gap responsibility’), and keep the offensive lineman from getting by and engaging with the linebackers. That allows the linebackers to be unencumbered in order to make the majority of the tackles.
In the 3-4, the four linebackers are generally divided into two inside linebackers (ILBs) and two outside linebackers (OLBs). The boys on the inside are generally smaller and perhaps quicker/faster/more athletic than their outside comrades. The fellas on the outside are kind of ‘tweeners’, meaning they are sort of sized in between that of defensive ends and linebackers of the 4-3. The OLBs are somewhat of the real ‘secret weapon’ (along with the NT) of the 3-4 as they, because of the speed and quickness, are equipped to contain the QB from rolling out and effectively counter the perimeter of spread offenses.
It is probably safe to say, with apologies to the linemen, that the LBs are expected to make most of the plays in the 3-4, and the DTs get less chances to make tackles or sack the QB.
Three defensive linemen are generally no match for five offensive linemen when it comes to a pass rush. That held true back in the old days of the 3-4 when the run (especially in college) was even more prevalent than it is today. More modern versions of the 3-4 developed wrinkles to account for the inadequacies of the 3-4 against the pass. One was the ‘zone blitz’. This is where one of the four LBs would blitz (the QB usually has no idea which one it will be) and the other three LBs work into a zone coverage to account for the loss of a LB (traditional blitzes, especially in the 4-3, leave the LBs in man-to-man coverage). And if TWO LBs blitz – perhaps both from the same side or from opposite sides - the remaining two LBs can also find the appropriate zones.
So that is how the 3-4 has matured to accommodate it’s fundamental weakness against the passing game. The problem though is that finding and protecting those zones takes a certain acumen that comes with extensive drills and experience along with a certain knack for being able to read the game.
The 3-4 also needs to have a very aggressive, physical mindset and execution to counter very fast offenses. For example, the cornerbacks usually find their way up to the line of scrimmage to jam receivers in a very physical way. The linebackers are generally far more active and have more spatial responsibilities in the 3-4 than in the 4-3. And the defensive linemen, because there are only three of them, have to be flat nasty and extremely physical to take on multiple offensive linemen simultaneously.
So because of these attributes, the 3-4 tends to ‘take chances’ in order to achieve big plays. Thus, you’ll see more big plays by a 3-4 defense, but may also see such a defense give up more big plays as a result of the uber-physical aggressiveness. And, because of this attribute, a 3-4 defense may be more prone to wearing out earlier in a game.
To make this relevant specifically to Tennessee in 2012, another significant disadvantage of the 3-4 is if it is being installed as a new scheme. Any implemented philosophy that involves more variability and more individualistic decision making is going to take some time. And if that transition is at the college ranks, it becomes doubly difficult because the players in college are far less experienced than pro players and also are given far less practice time.
This will be a significant impact on the Vols’ attempt to change to a completely new system under a new defensive coordinator and new position coaches.
The advantages can be worth it. There will perhaps be a greater chance of gaining the advantage in the turnover tally because of the physically aggressive emphasis. Also, wide receivers generally don’t like their hair mussed up – getting jammed at the line of scrimmage, especially in a very physical way. And, it also affords itself to more false looks to the offense by mixing up rushers with zone defenders, confusing the QB to the point of making bad judgments and mistakes.
Additionally, because LBs in a 3-4 are generally more skilled in zone defending than LBs used to a more traditional 4-3, there may not be a pressing need to revert to a ‘prevent defense’ late in a game to protect that hair-thin lead. Just having all four LBs play zone, along with the secondary, provides a ready-made, eight-player zone coverage that is better suited to cover more ground, thus protecting against the long pass as well as the softer underbelly stuff.
But perhaps the biggest advantage of the 3-4 are the possibilities. The 4-3 defensive packages are pretty routine, pretty static. But with the 3-4, variations are the rule. Hence, the 3-4 is more confusing to the QB and also likely more entertaining to watch for most fans (but also more confusing). And that brings us to our last point…
But if this is a 3-4, why do I see four, or five, or six, or seven defensive linemen?
Ah, the beauty of the 3-4.
Yes, you will see a basic 3-4 alignment during a game: the three down linemen, backed up by the four linebackers not on the line of scrimmage (although it is common for the OLBs to be a bit closer to the line than the ILBs in order to protect the flanks).
But those two OLBs might also line up as if they were DEs. And if the corner backs are in a hyperactive jamming mood, one or both may also line up on the line.
So, you may see three, or four, or five, or six, or seven defensive players line up directly on the line of scrimmage at the snap.
Todd Grantham, the defensive coordinator of the Georgia Bulldogs, and among other things the former defensive line coach of the Dallas Cowboys, had this to say about the advantage of the 3-4 defense via its variability:
“The 3-4 gives you the ability to adjust, to stay balanced, and to adapt. If I’m playing a 4-3 defense, those four guys with their hands in the dirt (the 4-3′s four down linemen) are going to rush the quarterback 90 percent of the time. I think the 3-4 gives you versatility, and it’s a little tougher for the offenses to predict where the pressure is coming from. It’s harder for the offense to prepare.”
Any of the four linebackers may line up on various positions on the field, and any one of them (or two) can blitz on any given play. Or, one of the OLB’s might position himself as if he is a classic defensive end of a 4-3.
So, don’t think of the 3-4 as some static set. You will instead see a multiplicity of defensive sets throughout a game, and any one of those variable sets may result in players acting differently. You will see much more activity when the orange shirts are on defense compared with recent seasons. And you will see much more physical play with more chances being taken. Ultimately, that has the biggest advantage of the 3-4 for the fan: it will be more exciting to watch.
The Final Word: Tennessee and the 3-4 in 2012
Derek Dooley’s adoption of the 3-4 is a risk. A big risk. But it is a risk that I feel has to be taken. The more traditional defenses of former coordinator Justin Wilcox played a somewhat ‘soft’ and ‘protective’ defense to the point that teams with really good running games – the staple offense of the SEC – just simply ran over Tennessee when it counted. It wasn’t that Wilcox wasn’t a good defensive coordinator. It is more the circumstances of having had to work with very young players of moderate size with virtually no depth. But Wilcox wasn’t a 3-4 devotee. The 4-3, being more of a static system compared with the 3-4, is easier to teach and quicker to install than the 4-3. But the 4-3 presents formidable challenges in terms of physical strength, which Tennessee found itself (and still does, but less so) lacking over the first two seasons of Derek Dooley.
Finding the right players for the 3-4 is generally thought to be easier than finding multiple 330 pound defensive tackles that are also quick. Out of high school, there are a lot more players suited to playing linebacker in college than defensive ends or tackles in a 4-3 defense. Given Tennessee’s recruiting challenges compared with schools in states with a never-ending bounty of supreme high school talent, it really is a matter of necessity for the Vols to use a 3-4, or at least that is a plausible argument. It is simply easier to adopt.
As somewhat of a parallel, the service academies were among the first teams to return to the 3-4 defense in the college ranks. Those schools usually find themselves at a huge recruiting disadvantage – they often have to settle for undersized defensive linemen, which leaves them at a disadvantage, unless they adopt a 3-4, which gives them a better chance to be competitive given their circumstances.
As Todd Grantham said on this subject:
“I think you can find the body types to play the outside linebacker position and they can play earlier in their careers. If he has to be a defensive end from day one in the 4-3, you have to develop the guy strength-wise before he can contribute to your team. If a guy is playing outside linebacker, he plays in space, so he can rely on his athleticism and speed more.”
But the scary part of all this is time. The 3-4 may be easier to adopt based on recruiting challenges, but it can be doubly more difficult to implement.
Derek Dooley indicated that his first season was “Year Zero” and his second season was really “Year One.” But the embarrassing loss to Kentucky last season immediately turned “Year One” into “Year Three”, arguably giving Dooley less time to right the Good Ship Volunteer. And as previously stated, a 3-4 takes time to get to an optimal performance level.
And with a little bit of luck, there will be just enough time.
Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?
And I didn’t even once used some of the common jargon like ‘Jack LB’, or ‘Sam’, or “Will’.
Instead, just sit back and enjoy the multiplicity of form that is the 3-4 defense.
If nothing else, it’s a better reflection of our lives than the 4-3.
Next up, we’ll be looking at the names that will fit the slots within the new defensive scheme…