3-4 Defense Supersaturation! Talking it with Michael Felder of InTheBleachers

Over the past two weeks we have been overloading your knowledge with the 3-4 defense and Al Groh. We've given you the linebacker terminology, the 3-4 basics, the defensive line scheme, and talked to Brendan, the UVA Blogger. Today we continue to overwhelm you with information as we talk to Michael Felder, writer/ podcast host of InTheBleachers, a college football podcasting site/ UNC blog.

Who is Michael Felder you ask? Michael is the leader of InTheBleachers.net, a college football podcasting host/ North Carolina Tarheels football blog. But what does this guy know about the 3-4 defense? That's a great question reader! So of course, we asked him:

I went to UNC and played from 03-06 as a safety. I went to school as a preferred walk-on expected to earn a scholly and compete for playing time as a sophomore. That plan got axed when Jim Fleming my position coach was fired at the end of my freshman year. New coach, new philosophy and I was one of the odd men out and instead of being allowed to compete for a spot I was relegated to full time scout team.

No hard feelings. I'm nobody's specimen or NFL caliber athlete and in the grand scheme of things 3 years on the scout team set me up with a wealth of knowledge that I wouldn't have acquired if I only played our defense. If it was in the ACC or on our schedule as a defensive scheme from 03-06 I studied, learned it and played it. I was the captain of the scout team my last few seasons and after some humbling I grew into the role.

Not to toot my own horn but I know football. I've lived inside the game for a decade and I've spent more time than a man should pouring over film and sitting in meetings. I could coach and most people who aren't me would, but I hate kids.

So that's sort of my story. Regarding Groh's 3-4, I've seen it a lot and it's one of my favorite defenses. The beauty is in the subtleties and the tiny wrinkles that make big waves. Groh's able to use his personnel in a myriad of ways and if your ILB, SS or DE is the best player, he'll get that guy in position to make plays.

We asked him some more questions about the 3-4 Defense:

FTRS: Winfield was not a fan of the 3-4 simply because he couldn't control his linebackers or play it very well in NCAA football on the XBox. That's a dumb reason to not like a defense. While Winfield is slowly warming up to the 3-4 as he understands it more, would you say the 3-4 is more effective than a 4-3 defense? Or does it really just come down to how good your DC is?

 

Michael: The 3-4 isn’t more effective as a defense but teams are a lot less adept at blocking the front, identifying pressures and exploiting the mismatches. Just like Paul Johnson’s flexbone is near impossible for teams to replicate in a week, the 3-4 is tough to get a good look in practice unless your team plays the defense.

 

However, the defense is, both in practice and design, more aggressive than the standard 4-3 scheme. Both fronts rush four defenders and can use five or six rushers when a blitz is dialed up. With the 4-3 those four rushers are the down linemen, every play besides the zone blitz. In the 3-4 that fourth rusher is typically the Jack linebacker BUT any of the eight "non-DL" defenders can be used as the fourth rusher without sacrificing a seven man coverage scheme.

 

Essentially what you’re getting is a relatively safe, seven-man coverage scheme each play with the panic inducing confusion that comes with bringing pressure from all over the field. Offenses have five to block four, just like in a 4-3, but they don’t know who the fourth rusher is going to be on a given play.

 

FTRS: From what we've read, the 3-4 doesn't really ever leave the 3-4-4 alignment even against 3 or more wide receivers.  Is this true?  How do 3-4 teams counter multiple wide receiver passing teams if the 3-4 is designed to stop running teams?

 

Michael: After a quick googling of "3-4 nickel defense" I can see why you’d ask that. It is not true by any means. The 3-4 goes nickel in the same fashion as the 4-3, they remove a backer and put in an extra defensive back. Depending upon the comprehension and talent level of the linebackers you’ll likely see the Sam, Mike or Will removed. Obviously with 3+ WRs in the game teams are more likely to pass and the Jack is the most dangerous pass rusher so he will always be on the field.

 

The 3-4 is designed to stop the run first and, when played correctly, it does a fantastic job of clogging up running lanes. When teams can’t run the ball they are forced to pass and this plays into the second strength of the 3-4, rushing the passer. As teams come out in 5-wide, 10 or 11 personnel the 3-4 goes on the aggressive by dialing up the pressure. Here’s where the Jack will be the most effective and you’ll see the DB’s do some aggressive pattern jumping.

 

Groh’s defenses have always been solid at this facet of the game because, like every other successful 3-4, they believe in dictating when and where the ball is thrown. This means we’ll see blitzers coming from depth, the Jack linebacker looping to the inside, stunts between the down linemen, LBs bailing after showing blitz and any other chaos Groh can get the boys to play.

 

All of these factors work in concert to shorten the time a quarterback has to go through his progressions and force him to get the ball to his hot reads. By shortening the amount of time the qb has in the pocket the scheme can effectively neutralize half the field. It takes players with understanding and a coach willing to be vulnerable to the big play but in the end pressing the pocket, making the quarterback uncomfortable and limiting a passers visibility and time is a recipe for turnovers, incompletions and sacks.

 

FTRS: We know about the obvious changes in the front alignment.  How big of an adjustment do players in the secondary need to make when switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4?

 

Michael: Schematically they won’t make very many changes. Other than being added to the blitzing packages, playing Groh’s robber and slice-styled coverage and some pattern-reading work there aren’t a lot of schematic differences on the backend. The biggest difference for this secondary will be their move from playing a "picket fence" or "bend but don’t break" style of coverage to an aggressive style. This is more mentality than actual scheme.

 

As we’ve discussed the 3-4 is designed to make the quarterback throw the football as quickly after the snap as possible. In the backend that means the ball will come out quick, short and, often times, not dead on target. For corners that means slants, speed outs, hitches and takeoffs will be the routes of choice and can be jumped (depending on down and distance). For the safeties that means reading the quarterback’s shoulders* and jumping his early reads.

 

Become a more aggressive unit and take advantage of quarterback mistakes and the secondary will be ready to play ball.

 

FTRS: What other information about inherent weaknesses or strengths can you tell us about the 3-4?

 

Michael: As with the 4-3 the defense itself isn’t necessarily weak rather the team beating it is exploiting either a coach’s weakness or a player’s inability to do their job. If the Jackets can’t find a nose tackle that commands a double team on every play they’re in trouble. If a center can block the nose that means the guards can get to the linebackers and each play starts off as a five yard gain and a safety making a tackle. So job one for Groh is to find a plug who doesn’t mind living in the trenches and getting leaned on by two-three 300+ lbs linemen every snap.

 

Other weaknesses are similar to the 4-3, if your team can’t get pressure on the quarterback the secondary will get picked apart no matter how good they are.

 

Regarding strengths I think we’ve touched on the biggest strength gained through running a 3-4; the confusion created around the fourth rusher. Disguising coverages, blitzes and zone-dogs will add to the chaos that quarterbacks see before the snap in addition to the already inherent uncertainty caused by the Jack’s mobility.

 

*I said "quarterback’s shoulders" because the eyes of a good quarterback will always lie to you but he can’t throw the football anywhere without pointing his shoulders in that direction.

 

A huge thanks to Michael for working with us on this informational packet. Over the past 2 weeks we have saturated FTRS with 3-4 content. Continue to look for more over the offseason, there will be a test before the first game. I suggest you study.

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