Explaining the 4-3 Defense and the 3-4 Defense


There are hundreds of different defensive formations and plays. But the two main defensive alignments used throughout all levels of football, including the NFL, are the 4-3 defense, and the 3-4 defense. These are the two base defenses that every team works out of and applies into their schemes and strategies. The numbers just stand for the amount of defensive linemen and the amount of linebackers in the formation. So the 4-3 defense has four linemen and three linebackers, and the 3-4 defense has the opposite with three linemen and four linebackers. Learning these two base defenses provides great insight into the strategy behind NFL football.


Basics of the 4-3 Defense


The 4-3 defense is the single most common defensive alignment used in football today. As mentioned, the formation includes four defensive linemen (two defensive ends and two interior defensive tackles) and three linebackers (two outside linebackers and one middle linebacker), which leaves four defensive backs to fill out the 11 man defensive unit. The four defensive linemen are charged with rushing the quarterback and stopping the run.The 4-3 Defense


In a 4-3 defense, the best pass rushers on the team are the defensive ends. These are quick and explosive players, compared to the usually slower of foot and larger in size defensive tackles. While duties are shared amongst all members of a defensive line, here the defensive ends are primarily assigned the duty of pass rushing, while the tackles in the middle primarily disrupt the running game.


Devoting four players to the defensive line should allow the team to not have to blitz any extra player on most downs. That leaves the three linebackers and four defensive backs to cover the field, defend the pass and prevent large running gains.


Basics of the 3-4 Defense


The 3-4 defense is less common than the 4-3 defense in today’s NFL. However that is not due to a lack of success with this defensive alignment, but rather a lack of personnel. A perfect 3-4 defense requires a more specific set of players than the basic 4-3 defense requires.The 3-4 Defense


The 3-4 defensive formation of course has three down linemen and four linebackers. Instead of two defensive ends and two defensive tackles, there are two defensive tackles and one nose tackle. The linebackers consist of two outside linebackers, and two interior linebackers


A superior nose tackle is probably the hardest position to fill across all positions in the NFL, which is why the 3-4 is used by less teams. A nose tackle will face two offensive linemen on every single play, and sometimes will be asked to occupy or slow down three offensive linemen. Nose tackles, simply put, are massive men by trade. The nose tackle and his two line mates are less geared towards pass rushing and more focused on stopping the run and occupying offensive blockers.


This leaves the four linebackers with more room and freedom to make plays and roam the field. The two outside linebackers will often be involved with rushing the quarterback and if the defensive line has done their job, will have an open or easier route to get to their man. Having an extra linebacker provides a team with far more flexibility, as he can be used to blitz the quarterback, cover a tight end or drop into a zone, or help stop the run, from anywhere on the field.


So which is better, the 4-3 defense or the 3-4 defense?


There is no clear or single answer to that question. Different teams in the NFL and different NFL coaches prefer one over the other. Both alignments can be extremely effect and both are used to various degrees of success by a wide range of teams. There are two things to consider when debating between the 4-3 defense and the 3-4 defense. The first is the style of the coach and the second is the available personnel on your roster. As we discussed, the different alignments require different sorts of players and abilities.


If your team has lots of explosive midsized players, who could be small defensive ends or large linebackers, then they can easily fill in the roles of the aggressive 3-4 defense. That is of course, if you have that stalwart nose tackle in the middle to plug up those running lanes. If your roster has less speed and more pure size, it may be better to line up your big boys four across the line in a classic 4-3 defense.


While some coaches will mold their style and strategy based around the defensive players they have, others will overhaul their entire roster to find the right kind of guys to fit into their scheme. Bill Parcells, as an example, is known to be a 3-4 defensive master, and so he looks for explosive outside linebackers to go get the quarterback (Lawrence Taylor, anybody?) and big sturdy guys to take up space on the line.


Long story short, there is no true answer to which is better between the two. The 2008 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants thrived with one of the fiercest pass rushes of all time, based out of a 4-3 defense. Defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora caused all sorts of havoc. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens have had one of the stingiest defenses, year in and year out, for over a decade, and they operate from a 3-4. The 3-4 defense can cause more confusion to a quarterback and an offensive team, and is also generally regarded as a more aggressive defensive scheme, but is harder to operate effectively.