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From the Coach’s Office: Why the Change? Comparing the 4-3 to the 3-4

Sean Payton created quite a stir upon returning to the New Orleans Saints when he immediately dismissed Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. At that time he also announced that he was going to change the New Orleans defense from the 4-3 to the 3-4.

Why the change in both coordinator and scheme? With so much of the personnel adjustments being pure projection, it is difficult to believe it is defensive personnel driven. You cannot say that the Saints personnel is better suited to the 3-4, since outside linebacker is one of, if not the worst, position on the team.

Payton has shown in a dramatic manner that he is back and in charge. The defense having a historically poor season makes it easy to invoke a change. He is definitely demonstrating that changes are going to happen quickly, even if it means jettisoning someone you hired only a year earlier.

Everyone in the organization is now on notice.

It also makes a lot of sense for an offensive oriented Head Coach to want to employ the defense that gives him the most trouble. With more linebackers available to rush, drop or cover, the 3-4 does take more planning. This is especially true when scheming pass protections, one of Payton's strengths.

The terms 3-4 and 4-3 refer to the front seven of a defensive alignment. The first digit is the number of linemen, and the second digit is the number of linebackers. Both defenses have four players in the secondary, two corner backs and two safeties.

Defenses that put a lineman over the center are referred to as "odd" fronts and defenses that leave the center uncovered by a lineman are referred to as "even" fronts. A true 3-4 alignment is an odd front, while an authentic 4-3 look is an even front.

There is some crossover between the fronts. A 3-4 can be played as an even front when you move a defender off the center. A 4-3 can be played as an odd front when you shift a lineman on the center.

The modern 3-4 defense began on the fields of Norman, Oklahoma in 1947 when legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson devised his innovative 5-4 alignment to combat the offensive rage of the era, the Split-T. The Sooners needed a defense that could align with a balanced offense while being able to rotate quickly with the offense after the snap to get enough defenders to the ball. Wilkinson's defense helped the Sooners win 14 league and three national championships, as well as an NCAA-record 47 consecutive games from 1953 to '57.

The 3-4 is often referred to as the "Okie" defense or front due to its development under Bud Wilkinson.

Another Oklahoma coach, former New England Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks, is credited with introducing the 3-4 alignment as a base defense to the NFL in 1974. The Fairbanks led Patriots, along with his defensive coordinator Hank Bullough, was the first team to use it as their base front.

While the 1972 Miami Dolphins with Bill Arnsparger as the defensive coordinator was the first team to utilize a 3-4 defense to win a Super Bowl, the "No Name Defense" of the Dolphins only used the 3-4 as a change-up. Arnsparger introduced the 3-4 to utilize the special talents of linebacker Bob Matheson. In fact, the Dolphin defense was named the "53 Defense" because of Matheson's jersey number.

The original Okie defense in the NFL utilized what is known as a "2-gap" technique. The three defensive linemen were to neutralize their blockers to the point that they could tackle a ball carrier on either side of them. Though the defense needed fewer linemen, they needed to be larger and more physical than their 4-3 counterparts to be able to accomplish their task.

This 2-gap concept changed with Bum Phillips, first as the defensive coordinator and Head Coach of the Houston Oilers, then with the New Orleans Saints. Bum, who was quite an innovator during his career, changed the 3-4 to an attacking, 1-gap front.

This change in concept brought the Okie and 4-3 closer together in concept. In fact, in this era of multiple fronts to combat multiple offenses, it is sometimes difficult to tell a 3-4 look from a 4-3 design.

Simply put, with more linebackers, the 3-4 allows for more flexibility than the 4-3 especially when it comes to pass rush. It can be a chore for the offense to determine which of the four linebackers will be involved in the quarterback pressure.

There is a downside to the defense. It is more difficult for the defense to coordinate the secondary coverage with the front in an Okie. To be certain everything is covered, the four defensive backs must synchronize their coverage responsibility with the linebackers that are dropping into pass coverage. A failure in this coordination allows the offense to have uncovered receivers and potential big plays.

A 4-3 is easier to coordinate the front with the coverage since your primary pass rushers are well established. Multiple linebackers who may rush or drop increases the complexity of the coverage and increases the chance of defensive error. This is not a simple issue, especially when you include defensive adjustments involved when the offense employs shifts and motions.


More analysis ahead From the Coach's Office:

  • A Comparison of Super Bowl 3-4s
  • 3-4's around the league
  • Rob Ryan's 3-4

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