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Breaking Down The 3-4 Defense and Why It Makes Sense


Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith now play on Sundays. Their exit along with recruiting undercurrents abetted in Mark Stoops’ commitment to the 3-4 defense. Football philosophy or scheme can be difficult to understand. In my attempt at writing, one of my primary goals is to translate coach-speak to layman’s terms.

Before discussing the driving forces or “why” the 3-4 move, let’s begin with basic terminology. In defensive scheme identification (examples: 3-4, 5-2, 4-3), the first digit designates the number of defensive linemen. The second figure specifies the number of linebackers. So, the 3-4 features three defensive linemen and four linebackers. Due to brevity, this posts focuses on the defensive line. Linebackers will be covered in a later post.


The Big Fellas

DT/NG (Defensive Tackle/Nose Guard) lines up in the proximity of the offensive center; main responsibilities include occupying the center to prevent double teams, creating chaos with quarterback-center exchange, gap responsibility, and applying middle pressure versus the pass. By occupying the middle of the field, the NG influences running backs angle to line of scrimmage. Tackles and sacks are a bonus. Statistical excellence is rare. Prototypical size is 6’0 or taller and minimum 300 pounds. Strength; girth, and burst off line of scrimmage necessary. Nasty streak mandatory.

Projected starter: Melvin Lewis, 6’4 330 Sr

DT alignment varies, normally covering an offensive guard/tackle. This defender is more apt at rushing the passer, but also eats up blockers and maintains gap responsibility while making line of scrimmage tackles. Mainly he occupies leverage to force ball carriers toward linebackers. Terms like eating up blockers aren’t literal. Cannibalism isn’t a required trait. By maintaining contact with OL, blockers can’t release to second level linebackers who are then freed to make tackles. By occupational description, defensive linemen are selfless by nature. Optimal size is 6’2, 280-plus. Required traits are quickness, disruptiveness, and discipline. Based on down-distance, this position can also be played by a WDE (Weak-side Defensive End).

Projected starter: CJ Johnson, 6’3 300 Sr

SDE (Strong-side defensive end) is the pass rush specialist but also called upon to maintain edge containment with run-stop responsibilities. This is the glory position of the group. With headlines comes requirements. Winning one-on-one battles against offensive tackles is a skill set similar to a power forward on the hardwood. Both require individual moves, confidence, and fortitude. Sacking the quarterback is as much about attitude as technique and ability. SEC height-weight standard varies, but 6’4, 260-plus is standard.

Projected starter: Farrington Huguenin, 6’4 272 Sr

5 Reasons Why the 3-4 Makes Sense

1. Recruiting. Recruiting defensive ends is a difficult proposition. 4-3 scheme requires two DE’s compared to one designated pass rusher in the 3-4. Simple mathematics apply. DE’s also take time to develop. Example, 2015 class included one DE, Kengera Daniel who will be special in time. Defensive Line Coach Jimmy Brumbaugh’s late signing of junior college defensive linemen Courtney Miggins and Alvonte Bell will provide an immediate impact. DE’s are valued commodities. With recruiting battles over these prized possessions imminent, UK’s best course of action is sign one-two HS DE’s and one JUCO player per year.

2. Abundance of Tweeners. Kentucky’s roster is littered with defenders formally designated as defensive ends that are now listed as outside linebackers. Jason Hatcher, Denzil Ware, and true freshman Josh Allen come to mind. An additional, common tweener move is transitioning larger safeties to LB. Through the recruiting process, linebackers are often identified as Athletes first then moved to OLB out of necessity. Kentucky has a successful track record in this process.

3. In the Middle, Bigger is Better. Enormous, space eating nose tackles are required. UK has two. Potential All SEC DL Melvin Lewis is one of the most improved players in the Southeastern Conference. Listed at 6’4, 342 (cough) Lewis is disruptive and a timely pass rusher. Melvin’s 2015’s effectiveness lies in Matt Elam’s progress. The celebrated recruit experienced several “welcome to the SEC” moments. If Elam can provide consistent depth and quality minutes, expect a much improved run defense.

4. Immediate Support. Four linebackers takes immediate pressure off the strong safety (SS) and cornerback (CB) positions. Both 2015 concerns. One of the SS’s primary goals is close to the line of scrimmage run support. Through simple LB alignment, stress is relieved for immediate action freeing up whomever wins the SS race to pass coverage especially in play action scenarios. As for cornerbacks, same can be applied. 3-4 specializes in stretching offensive plays horizontally relying upon LB’s to make the majority of tackles. Again, having an additional LB in flat coverage and run support will free up cornerbacks to primarily focus on pass coverage. I can’t help to think this wasn’t a significant part of the scheme change.

5. Identity. Defensively, Kentucky is at an identity juncture. Historically, the Cats have tried, and failed to over-power conference opponents. Being a fast and aggressive unit better fits current culture. Building a roster with organic flexibility for inter-changeable parts is simpler in the 3-4. Most importantly, this team needs to take on the personality and identity of its Head Coach. Tackling and physicality are non-negotiable and required upgrades. Commitment to the 3-4 does not guarantee either. Personnel upgrade does. Schematic consistency builds confidence and familiarity. At the University of Kentucky, an attacking defense is more likely to succeed than the 4-3 that leans upon reading and reacting. In a league of Alpha predators, UK has to be the aggressor. In 2015 and going forward, the 3-4 is the best fit for Kentucky and I feel is more suited for its current roster.

I’m not a coach, nor am I a writer. I provide opinion. Hope it doesn’t stink.

Article written by Freddie Maggard

Former University of Kentucky Quarterback and Andy Griffith Fan Club President

21 Comments for Breaking Down The 3-4 Defense and Why It Makes Sense

  1. Gowcats
    8:58 pm May 13, 2015 Permalink

    Good post Freddie. I am 50+ and still learning, and everything you say in this makes sense to me as a football non-expert, but big fan. I’ll bet there are a few more out there like me who like solid analisys.

  2. Old Henry Man
    9:40 pm May 13, 2015 Permalink

    With more teams running the spread or zone read, the 3-4 or in some cases 3-3is more effective

  3. RandyB
    10:00 pm May 13, 2015 Permalink

    Good job, Freddie. As usual, when you speak. or now write, I learn something.
    I have often thought it would be educational if LayMEN could attend the Women’s Clinic.
    Often, I think we don’t know as much as we think we do. This was a good tutorial.
    Awaiting the post on Linebackers.

    • satcheluk
      9:07 am May 14, 2015 Permalink

      I’m sure the women would love that!

  4. originalCatFanForLife
    10:33 pm May 13, 2015 Permalink

    Thanks Freddie. As others have mentioned, this was a great explanation, even for those of us who are loyal supporters of UK Football, yet don’t have the knowledge or understanding of the differences and nuances of the 3-4 vs. 4-3. This is exactly what KSR needed and thanks for writing such a great article for us UK Football novices. I consider myself a fan with a moderate amount of football knowledge but out of my league if my wife asked me to explain the 3-4 to 4-3 differences.:)

  5. DelrayCat
    10:40 pm May 13, 2015 Permalink

    Melvin Lewis is terrible. If he is the starter (and still better than the BIG BOY) then we are in deep trouble up front on D. He got KILLED constantly last year and was by FAR the weakest link on defense.

    • Leuther
      1:35 am May 14, 2015 Permalink

      Lewis is NOT terrible…

    • heblu235
      8:02 am May 14, 2015 Permalink

      Lewis is an SEC caliber defensive lineman. He has great size and very good strength and good lateral movement. He was credited with 37 stops last season with 9 against LSU and 8 in the game with MSU. Melvin Lewis is not terrible.

    • CatsfaninFL
      8:05 am May 14, 2015 Permalink

      Ah, “last year”. There in lies the problem with your assumption. To assume someone remains static and doesn’t grow each year is poor at best. While this does happen, it’s not common.

      Secondly, if he starts over “BIG BOY”… it’s because “BIG BOY” still hasn’t eclipsed Lewis. Don’t let the stars in their recruiting rankings dictate where they are now and how they perform in practice. The coaches see these guys every day and are, quite frankly, infinitely wiser than you to make these decisions.

  6. LeitchfieldAlex
    12:08 am May 14, 2015 Permalink

    Great post Freddie. I have learned a lot about football and what it takes to play this sport through your comments on radio and now writing here. KSR was really smart getting you involved. There is so much we laymen don’t know and understand about this game. But with your insight we are all learning a little bit by bit how the game is played. Thanks for all your knowledge we will all learn something. Keep up the great work Sir. Go Blue!!

  7. Hermes
    3:37 am May 14, 2015 Permalink

    I think the most salient point in the post is that we are far more likely to get hybrid athletes who can play the linebacker positions in the 3-4 than we are to get many 4-star defensive end types. It’s just a matter of recruiting economics–there are fewer of the monster DEs available and they are likely to go to the monster programs ahead of UK, at least for now. We have had great luck converting tight ends, running backs, and even receivers to play linebacker. I agree with the post in that UK is going to be better off getting more speed on the field than it will be trying to obtain the personnel to play a more power-based defense. Great Post. Looking forward to more. Thanks.

  8. rockatao
    4:43 am May 14, 2015 Permalink

    Enjoy your articles, Freddie. But about that coach-speak, what does “recruiting undercurrents” mean?

  9. heblu235
    7:43 am May 14, 2015 Permalink

    I think our “O Line” is outsized by our “D Line” Lol.

  10. CatsfaninFL
    8:09 am May 14, 2015 Permalink

    Opinion does not stink, Freddie…nice work. It’s nice to have an increased focus/understanding on football!

  11. shelby
    8:15 am May 14, 2015 Permalink

    Awesome read freddie; you are tyler ullis–we “look”, you “see”. Much appreciated.

  12. fairplay
    8:54 am May 14, 2015 Permalink

    Well done Freddie. Keep the football articles coming.

  13. satcheluk
    9:10 am May 14, 2015 Permalink

    Anything written about football is good in my book. I rather read an explination about something I know than another article about Booker’s feet or WCS’s fashion. Keep ’em coming!

  14. Cats or Die
    10:33 am May 14, 2015 Permalink

    So happy to have you writing article for KSR, Freddie! Not be a dick, but the guys who covered football previously would have post that were completely off-base and would leave me as a KSR reader and football fan thinking, “WTF, Uncle Matt? These kids are the best you can find to cover the biggest sport in the country?” Look forward to your future posts.

    • itsUKnotUofK
      2:41 pm May 14, 2015 Permalink

      yes sir!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. DavidfromTheHomers
    1:57 pm May 14, 2015 Permalink

    Thanks so much for joining the KSR team. I love what KSR is and the entertainment they bring to UK athletics. However, I’m tired of all the silly meaningless basketball posts that derive from Twitter. Most UK fans enjoy that and it’s perfectly fine. I’m a football junkie and I think there’s a few of us out there, and having Freddie on board is a whiff of fresh air. I think Matt did a great job of recognizing the need for more football news and views and made a great call by adding Freddie. Go Cats!

  16. UKani
    5:15 pm May 14, 2015 Permalink

    Freddie Maggard,

    At the Spring Practice I saw a 3-4 stack look. However your description of the 3-4 fits a 3-4 over or under look. Reason why I say that is because the positions are NG, DT, and SDE. You said that the DT spills the run to the LBs, but the SDE plays contain in the run. Which would be true if its a 3-4 over or under look. Which is really 3-4 personnel but in a 4-3 look.

    Question, is UK really going to play a 3-4 stack with a SDE at the LOS? Doing this would mean that your SDE has to play like a DT, if not then the OLB on his side has to play more of a traditional LB role. I thought with Hatcher and Ware in at OLB that neither would play like a traditional LB. If they do play this like a 3-4 stack then that means the SDE is really an undersized DT. correct?