How to be the best Dominant 3-4 Defense

Over the years, many defensive formations have been implemented by football coaches. The 3-4 defense has been around since the 1940s when Bud Wilkinson utilized it with the University of Oklahoma. The Pittsburgh Steelers brought it to fame at the professional level in the 1980s. While teams may have hybrid versions of the 3-4, coaches are recognizing how it can be used quite effectively as a base defense. It’s also a great basis for defending the Double Wing Offense.

Defensive Line

In a 3-4 set-up, the defensive line consists of a nose tackle and two defensive ends. Due to the fact that you only have three defensive lineman, the coach needs to make sure he has some big guys that are able to beat double teams.

These guys need the ability to control a lot more ground. The nose tackle has a particularly tough task, as he must be able to take control of either of the two “A” gaps. These gaps are referred to as the openings between the center and either guard. The defensive ends will have to take control of the tackles. Although these three players’ primary role is to control the run gaps, they can on occasion rack up some sacks – especially the ends.

As a coach, you need to develop a dominant group of defensive lineman. This will allow them to stay fresh as you rotate them in and out.


Football experts often say that you won’t be successful unless you have a solid core at the linebacker position. These players have numerous responsibilities and the middle linebacker usually serves as the face of the defense.

With a 3-4 defense, there are two inside and two outside linebackers. The two outside backers usually get closer to the line on the outside of the ends. If the defensive line is able to occupy the offensive line, the outside backers are able to get to the quarterback quicker and make a play. The outside linebackers are typically too small to play end, but possess the speed and strength to be a dominant outside linebacker.

For inside linebackers, you have a strong side player, also referred to as the “Mike”, and a weak side backer, or the “Will”. The Mike controls blockers to open up space for the Will to finish tackles. With the Will, the coach is looking for an athletic player capable of covering ground fast and making open-field tackles, while the Mike should be a stronger, more powerful player.

Here Coach Shawn Mcgrath talks about the Linebacker play in the Tite.

Source: 3-4 defense at small schools


The base secondary in a 3-4 consists of two safeties and two cornerbacks. The first of the two safeties, the free safety, is responsible for serving as a last line of defense. While he may be asked to provide run help, he primarily is a cover player and needs to be an intelligent athlete to avoid getting beat over the top.

The strong safety often picks up the tight end in pass coverage and can sometimes serve as an extra linebacker in run stoppage. The two cornerbacks take care of the wide receivers and must be able to play zone or man. If the team is facing a spread offense, cornerbacks may not always have safety help. In this case, the coach needs to have faith in the players he is putting out there since they may have to be put on an island at times.

Two-Gap 3-4

The two-gap system has become far more common when people discuss a 3-4 defense. Unless you have elite defensive lineman, the two-gap technique can make it difficult to put pressure on the opposing quarterback. At the same time, in run defense, the defensive lineman and outside linebackers need to control all the blockers to allow inside linebackers to flow right into the holes and make tackles.

Defensive guru Wade Phillips said, “When I started out it was a two-gap defense, the defensive ends had to play two-gap and be able to rush the passer. Well that’s a hard thing to do.” This prompted Phillips to create a bit of a hybrid that utilized different forms of a 3-4. The primary weakness is that it requires defenders to take a second to read whether the play is going to be a pass or rush.

Coaches need to understand the offenses they’re going up against before deciding if a two-gap works best.

One-Gap 3-4

The alternative option to a two-gap is a one-gap. The main advantage associated with this scheme is the ability to let defensive players be more aggressive immediately. An article from the Washington Post broke down how the Washington Redskins experimented with each of the variations.

With a one-gap, “each defender is assigned one gap and can attack that gap straight from the snap without as much reading and reacting.” If you’re going up against a passing-dominant team, this may make more sense. It allows for quicker pressure on pass plays because the offensive line doesn’t have that extra second to set up pass protection. Additionally, the weak-side of the play on running scenarios often features one-on-one matchups that most outside linebackers can capitalize on.

Disguising and Blitzing

In a 3-4, coaches typically keep the role of the defensive line constant, but experiment in different ways with the linebackers. This is very important to take advantage of, because you don’t want the opposing coaches to gain that feeling like they know what is coming. Accordingly, you should utilize blitzing from different linebackers, disguised safety blitzes, or dropping backers in coverage.

Football is a game of frequent adjustments. You must read how the game is going and continue to implement twists into your offense to keep the defense on their toes. Meanwhile, coaches must understand the importance of playing to their strengths.

Here Coach Branden Jakubcin talks about disguising as their base defense.

Source: Attacking the offense with stunts & blitzes out of the 3-4 Tite Front

Personnel Decisions

As with any sport, coaches must understand the talent level of their players and understand where their quality guys are at. Sometimes, you’ll be lucky enough to have a big dominant nose tackle like Vince Wilfork or Dontari Poe. These players are more than capable of tying up multiple offensive lineman and creating holes for interior linebackers.

But some coaches are fortunate enough to have a jack-of-all-trades at defensive end, such as J.J. Watt. Here, you got a player that can play within the defense, but also has the potential to rush the passer at what is traditionally not a sack-heavy position. In the end, it all comes down to knowing what you got and which players might need more help in either run defense or pass coverage.

Is 3-4 Right for You?

While I do believe a 3-4 defense can work for a lot of teams, it is not always the perfect defense. There are many other different options that may fit your personnel more effectively. On top of this, one recommendation I do have when coaching a defense is that you must have some big guys to put up front. In a 3-4, defensive lineman have to cover large gaps and it is vital that they occupy this space to open up room for pass rushers and inside linebackers to make stops.

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