NFL 3 4 Defense

The 3 4 defense is the second most popular defensive formation used in the NFL. This defensive alignment consist of 3 down lineman, 4 linebackers, two corner-backs and two safeties.

The 3 4 defense was originally devised by Bud Wilkinson at the University of Oklahoma in the 1940's. Chuck Fairbanks learned the defense from Bud Wilkinson and is credited with bringing the NFL 3 4 to the NFL.

Coach Dick LeBeau, is attributed with creating the defense, however some say Joe Collier of the Denver "Orange Crush"was the originator of the NFL 3 4 defense.

The 1972 undefeated Super Bowl Champions Miami Dolphins were the first team to win with the 3 4 defense.

The Oakland Raiders who defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV, marked the first Super Bowl in which both team feature the 3-4 defense as their base defense.

Also the 1986 Super Bowl champions New York "Gmen" Giants used the 3-4 defense that featured all time Great outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor as the rushing linebacker on passing plays.

There's typically two versions of the 3 4 defense. Both versions are related to coverage schemes on passing downs. The number one version is the outside linebacker is rushing the quarterback most of the time.

The second version is the zone blitz where by the rushing linebacker will drop back in coverage to the flat on the opposite side from the blitzing defensive back.

Defensive Line

The defensive line consist of a nose tackle and two defensive ends. The nose tackle is the most important player in a 34 defense and the defensive line.

The lineman in the 34 scheme are larger than a 4 3 defensive front to take up space (space eaters) and guard more territory along the defensive line.

The defensive ends in a 34 defense are much larger than their 4 3 counterparts.

They are expected to take on the offensive tackles head on, to make sure the running back don't come through on either side.

Also, they are expected to hold their blocks and make sure the offensive linemen can't block the linebackers.

Defensive Nose Tackle

I will say this again, the nose tackle is the most important position in the 3 4 defense.

He is the largest and most physical demanding player in the NFL. His primary job is to stop the run and take on double teams, (which means getting block by the center and guard) thus freeing up the linebackers to make tackles.

He lines up in the A gap between the center and guards on running plays, without getting push back into the middle linebackers.

On running plays, he must make the tackle or control the line of scrimmage by keeping the offensive linemen away from the linebackers. The nose tackle usually come out of the game on passing downs.

The ideal nose tackle weighs around 330 lbs to 350 lbs with long arms, someone you can't move. He can hold off a 300 pound offensive lineman while tackling the running back.

Nose tackles like these are hard to find. Ted Washington come to mind when I think of a ideal nose tackle during his era.

The top defensive nose tackle in a 3 4 defense as of 2011 are:

  • B.J. Raji, Packers
  • Casey Hampton, Steelers
  • Sione Pouha New York Jets
  • Jay Ratliff Dallas Cowboys
  • Vince Wilfork New England Patriots

Defensive Ends

The primary responsibility is to stop the run and play the one or two hole depending on the defensive scheme in the 3 4.

The defensive ends are lined up opposite of the offensive tackle and weigh between 285 to 300 lbs (129-140 kg). They must be strong at the point of attack and able to take on double teams.

Their job is to stop the offensive linemen from getting to the linebackers and rush the quarterback on passing plays.

Occasionally they are used in passing plays to drop back in coverage to coverage a certain area or receiver. This usuallyhappens when the defense coordinator calls a stunt or zone blitz.

Defensive Line Backers

There are four linebackers in a 3 4 defense, two inside linebackers and two outside linebackers. They are typicallylarger than 4 3 defensive linebackers.

Inside Linebackers aka Middle Linebackers

The inside linebacker are called the Mike and Ted linebacker. They weigh between 240 to 250 lbs. Theirs jobs varies from team to team, but their responsibilities are the same.

The Mike linebacker is the tackler. He is smart, strong, athletic and is the quarterback and the leader of the defense.

The Ted linebacker, takes on blocks and frees up the Mike linebacker to make tackles. A Ted linebacker is usually largerand not as fast. The Ted linebacker covers the tight end on passing plays.

Outside Linebackers

The outside linebackers are called the strong side aka Sam linebacker and the weak side linebacker aka Will linebacker.

The outside linebackers are strong and athletic and weighs between 255 to 265 lbs. because of the size they tend to be faster than a defensive ends, which makes it harder for quarterbacks or running backs to get to the outside to the side lines of the football field.

The Sam linebacker will get his chances to blitz, but he has to cover the TE or running back out of the backfield and has to stop the run on running plays.

The Will linebacker will play the weak side of the defense and has more freedom than any of the linebackers. He will often blitz the QB and guard against screens out of the backfield.

Their primary job is to make tackles, keep the runner from getting to the outside, cover man to man, in zone coverage and rush the quarterback.

The inside linebackers are sometimes called "tweener", which means they are between the normal size of a defensive end and linebacker.

The 34 defense makes it tougher on the quarterbacks to determine which linebacker will rush on any given play. The 3 4 defense keeps the quarterback guessing who going to rush him.

This defense is a scheme to fool the offense and keep them guessing on all plays. Any linebacker can rush while the other three can shift to fill holes in a zone.

Sometimes the defense will rush one or two linebackers from the same side, so that two linebackers and two defensive ends attacking 3 or 2 offensive linemen.

The two linebackers left can fill the gaps or zone left by the two blitzing linebackers.


Corner backs

The 3 4 defense uses four defensive backs, two safeties and two corner backs. Corner backs will line up 3 to 5 yards off the line of scrimmage unless they trying to jam the receivers route with in the first 5 yards.

Corner backs duties vary depending on the type of coverage the defense call. Coverage is how the defense will be protecting against the pass.

Corner backs will be given two ways to defend against the pass, man to man and zone defense. Man to man coverage consist of the corner back responsibility to cover the receiver across from him.

In zone coverage the corner back responsibility is to cover a certain area of the football field. The corner back must stay down field and keep his opponent in front of him while covering his zone.

A zone defense is a bind but don't break or read and react defensive scheme meant to see whats in front of you and sacrificing tight one on one coverage.

Corner backs are responsible for not letting any receivers get behind him or outside of him where there is no deep safety help. Corner backs also have a big responsibility to defend the run and not let runners get outside to the side lines.


There are two safeties in the 3 4 defense, the free safety and the strong safety.

The free safety is smart player, capable of making tackles against the run, covering deep passes while reading offenses and changing the pass coverages if need be.

He will line up 10 to 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage and is position in the center of the football field.

The strong safety is larger than the free safety and is positioned to close to the line of scrimmage.

He is very important part of the run defense and is responsible for defending against the pass and especially against the pass to the tight end.

The best 3 4 defense in the NFL today are Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. I love watching this match up two times a year.

To me this is the best rivalry in the NFL. I watch this game for the defense first and the running of the ball game second.

What a hard hitting game. I love watching these two teams play against each other.