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From the Coach’s Office: Analyzing Super Bowl's 3-4 Defenses

The Ravens defense may have the same base front as the 49ers but is different in several ways (Photo: Parker Waters).The Ravens defense may have the same base front as the 49ers but is different in several ways (Photo: Parker Waters).

New Orleans Saints fans were given a superb look at the modern 3-4 defense in Super Bowl XLVII since that is the base defense for both the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens.  While both teams utilized 3-4 personnel, they were used in contrasting styles.

Flexibility and versatility were two themes that both teams’ defensive coordinators talked about before the game and exhibited during the Super Bowl.  The combatants used their systems to accomplish different objectives.

This game illustrates that you should not think of the 3-4 as an alignment, but as a system of defense that is multiple in nature.   Teams that are 3-4 based still play a lot of 4 man front look, and 4-3 teams play some 3-man front.

In the Super Bowl, both defenses were on the field for a total of 129 snaps; the Baltimore Ravens for 61 plays and the San Francisco 49ers for 68 plays.  Out of those snaps, the two teams were only in an odd look where the center was covered by a nose tackle for 56 plays or only 43% of the time.  In those 56 odd front snaps the two teams were only in a base 3-4, or Okie, look 28 times.  The two teams were in a true Okie front only 21% of the time.

As a contrast, the two teams combined for 73 plays of even defense which included five defensive back, or Nickel, defenses.  In the biggest game of the year, the two leading 3-4 teams in the league played a majority of the time (57%) without a lineman over the center.

This indicates that you can say goodbye to your Daddy’s 3-4 defense of the past.  In those days you took three defensive linemen, played them head up on the center and two tackles.  The idea was to push them into the backfield and control the area on either side of the blocker.

In today’s football with so much emphasis on the pass on every down, a defense cannot afford to put three defensive linemen head up on their offensive counterparts and expect them to get to the quarterback.  It is too easy for an offense to scheme such an alignment and puts the D-linemen at a pass rush disadvantage.

The conflict of a classic “2-gap” defensive lineman is that such an alignment may be good to stop the run, but it is much more difficult to get to the quarterback.

Pass rush is about creating an edge on an offensive blocker and attacking only one-half of the blocker.  The easiest way for a pass blocker to stymie a rusher is to take him down the middle of his body.

The Baltimore Ravens used their 3-4 personnel to play 4-3 defensive schemes.  Ravens Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees told me, “We use 3-4 personnel but rarely line up in a base 3-4.  We employ a lot of 4-3 looks but do it with our base personnel.  It gives us a lot of flexibility to be able to line up in a 3-4 or 4-3 with the same personnel.”

During media day, San Francisco Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio mentioned, “The 3-4 does allow you some versatility.  You do have another guy on the field who has pass responsibility as his job description, so you can mix and match a little bit better that way.  The angles are a little different in the running game as for the offense to block it, but really it comes down to the players.  You have a front-seven, and whether it’s 3-4 or 4-3, the good teams will make it work. In my opinion, there are some advantages to the 3-4.”

Baltimore designated their three linemen as a Nose Tackle (NT), a Defensive Tackle (DT) and a Defensive End (DE).  The Ravens linebackers were Sam (S), Mike (M), Will (W) and Rush (R).  Ray Lewis was the Mike while Terrell Suggs was the Rush.  Haloti Ngata was the DT.

The Ravens flip-flop their front according to the strength of the offensive formation.  Ngata (DT) and Suggs (R) usually went together to one side and Lewis, the DE and Sam on the other. Sam usually goes to the strong side of the formation and drops, while the Rush linebacker aligns to the weak side on the line of scrimmage and rushes.  Knowing where the Rush is makes it easy for the secondary to coordinate their coverage with the front.

San Francisco simply calls their linebackers Outside (OLB) and Inside (ILB).  They were usually right side and left side defenders that did not change sides to match the opponent formation.  Their front was manned by a Nose Tackle and two Defensive Tackles.

Something unique about the Niners was that their four LBs did not come off the field even in Nickel Defense.  San Francisco also proved that you do not need three “Sumo Wrestler” defensive linemen to play a 3-4.  While NT Isaac Sopoaga at 6’2, 330 pounds qualifies, their other linemen, Justin Smith at 6’4 285 and Ray McDonald at 6’3 290, do not.  The Ravens with their even front defensive philosophy were larger internally at 6’5 364, 6’4 330 and 6’3 313 across the front.

While size is a requisite, athleticism is more important in today’s football.

Pees had to both take advantage of what his personnel could do while limiting their shortcomings.  This particularly involved two of his linebackers:  Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis.  Suggs needed to be kept on the line of scrimmage, more like a 4-3 defensive end than an outside linebacker.  Lewis needed to stay inside the tackles and not get caught in space.

Their 4-3 scheme allowed the Ravens to accomplish both objectives.  I was surprised that Pees did not sub for Lewis in long yardage situations.  He must have believed that Lewis was too important to the attitude, alignment and adjustments of the defense to take off the field.  Also, his constant assignment of tackling the tailback on read action had to be maintained even in long yardage.

While Lewis did not have an outstanding Super Bowl with only seven tackles, he did set a playoff record with 51 total tackles.

By keeping a consistent personnel deployment, it was easier for the Ravens to coordinate their coverage to the front.  That synchronization is easier when there is a defined pass rush.  While it is easier to coordinate, it does become more predictable for the offense to deploy their pass protectors.

It should be noted, however, that the Niners had a significant breakdown in coverage in each of their final two games.  In both cases the breakdown was mental and not physical.  Multiple and flexible systems are great, but it does put a mental stress on the players.


Next From the Coach’s Office: A look at 3-4's from around the league.


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