3-4 defense

The Ultimate Guide: 3-4 Defense in Football

American football is played in different defensive and offensive formations. A common defensive formation you’ll likely see in football is the 3-4 defense.

It’s by far the most popular defense on set in football. The defense formation is used all the way from high school to NFL games. It helps stop high-powered spread offense formations.

So, what exactly is a 3-4 defense? How does it work?

The 3-4 defense features three linemen on the defense and four linebackers, hence the name 3-4. The four defensive backers help protect deep passes. It’sIt’s a versatile formation that works against all offenses.

Join me below as I discuss more of the 3-4 defense in football.

What is 3-4 Defense in Football

A 3-4 defense in American football is a base defense. It’sIt’s a defense formation featuring three linemen and four linebackers. The three linemen consist of one nose tackle and two defensive ends.

The four linebackers consist of two inside linebackers and two outside linebackers. It’sIt’s a defensive formation built on speediness to penetrate edges and gaps on the line.

In coverage, the player formation makes the 3-4 defense easy to hide in case of a drop or a blitz. The three linemen take the role of engaging the offensive line of the other team.

This leaves the four linebackers covering or rushing to the quarterback. Linebackers are quite flexible on what they can do depending on the game. Defensive linemen, on the other hand, are quite consistent on what they need to do.

This gives the 3-4 defense in football a lot of versatility. Coaches have limitless options on how they can align and confuse the opposing team.

Let’sLet’s dig a little deeper into its invention, naming, and why it is used.

Who Invented 3-4 Defense?

The 3-4 defense invention is credited to Bud Wilkinson in the 1940s at the University of Oklahoma. However, by then, the defense was being played as a 5-2.

defense and offense in a football game

It would go on to become the predominant defense in football in the 1970s and 19780s. The Miami Dolphins were the first team to win a SuperBowl while playing the 3-4 defense. They went an entire season undefeated playing Bob Matheson as a rushing linebacker or down lineman.

The defense formation ten declined in popularity for the next few years before resurging in 2000 among college teams and professionals. It is now widely used, with various teams in the NFL integrating it into their playbook.

Why Is It Called 3-4 Defense?

It’sIt’s called a 3-4 defense since there are 3 defenders as linemen on the line of scrimmage and four linebackers in the backfield. Along the defensive line, you’ll find two defensive ends and a nose tackle.

Why Use the 3-4 Defense 

Teams use this defense to help stop high-powered passing attacks from the offense. It’sIt’s also pretty effective against a few power-running teams.

Unlike the 4-3 defense, a 3-4 defense is more athletic. It also looks pretty the same on every front, making it quite easy to disguise. Teams can play coverages and blitzes without the opponents easily realizing under this formation.

Teams that want to play blitz but fall back into coverage can effectively use this formation. It’sIt’s a very flexible formation, something that does work for most teams.

You can also use the 3-4 defense when playing against power running teams. These are teams that look for gaps to exploit. The 3-4 defense works perfectly against power running teams. It disguises the defense, and such teams will not see where the gaps will come from.

Positions Needed In 3-4 Defense

So, what are the positions needed for the 3-4 defense to work? As indicated earlier, the 3-4 defense features 3 defenders as linemen and four linebackers.

Let’sLet’s break the two positions down and discuss them in detail.

The Defensive Linemen’ Position

First, we have the defensive lineman positions of three defenders. The nose tackle or guard is the inside defensive lineman. He is usually the biggest and most powerful of the two.

The nose guard occupies the center. He plays an important role in punching the center in a 2-gapping skill. With the ball, the nose guard can pass it through the gap.

men playing in a football match

On the outside, we will have two positions for the remaining defensive linemen. The outside defensive linemen can have smaller bodies. Their main role is to slant the proper gap and get their hands on their opponents. 

The two make the defensive ends and remain in a 3-point stance. They are fast and small enough to beat the guard’s nose in a rush situation. Additionally, they must know how to use their hands and block the opponent, reducing the gap.

Good examples of defensive ends in the NFL are Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith.

Linebackers Position

The other position is the linebacker, where we have five linebackers in the backfield. Here, the four linebackers are divided into two positions; the outside and inside linebackers.

Inside linebackers help to fill the gaps between the center, tackle, and guard. They are usually faster, bigger, and with more strength than outside linebackers.

Outside linebackers are usually located on the edge of every defensive formation. While they might lack power, they are faster than inside linebackers. High speed is necessary as they compete with fast wide receivers and tight ends.

The linebackers are very flexible in their roles and can quickly change positions. In most games, you’ll see coaches bring them to the line scrimmage when necessary and back to their positions. They can easily interchange and play as a 4-3 defense.

Defensive Backs

Lastly, we have the defensive backs. In this defensive formation, we call them safeties and cornerbacks. The free and strong safeties cover the deep halves of the field.

Cornerbacks in a 3-4 defense line the same way in a 4-3 defense. They will usually line up anywhere from 1-5 yards from the line of scrimmage. Taylor and William Gay is a good example of a cornerback in a 3-4 defense playing for the Steelers.

Free safeties can become athletic and cover defenders coming into their end zone. In a 3-4 defense, a free safety will line up 10-15 yards from the line of scrimmage. This is on either side of the pitch. They create turnovers by using their knowledge of the game and experience over the years.

A good example of a free safety in the 3-4 defense is Ryan Clark, who plays for the Steelers.

A stronger safety, on the other hand, will support run-in plays. The cornerbacks (outside linebackers) take the responsibility of covering receivers in the wide area of the field.

A stronger safety provides bigger hits on receivers that try to cross the middle. They are stronger and play on the running downs and play in the box. A typical stronger safety is a hard hitter and one that is pretty fast. Stronger safeties line up 10 yards away from the line of scrimmage.

How To Play 3 4 Defense

The 3-4 defense can be played by lining three defensive players on the line of scrimmage and four linebackers in the backfield. It’s a great formation when teams are using zone coverages.

The four linebackers are versatile and can help in running plays and passes. This formation leaves an extra linebacker in the backfield as opposed to the 4-3. You can have your team create ingenious blitzes.

football teams in blue and red jerseys

Overall, you can run a 3-4 defense from a zone or match perspective. Running a proper 3-4 defense starts by having proper personnel. This means having a good nose tackle, great outside linebackers, inside linebackers, and defensive ends.

Outside linebackers are the main players when running these defense formations. Depending on the game, they can pass a rush, occasionally drop into pass coverage or hold against the run of play.

You’llYou’ll also need the three interior linemen moving more towards eating space on the offensive linemen. This prevents the offensive linemen from dropping to the middle linebacker position.

Strengths of the 3-4 Defense

This defense is quite popular and does have some advantages. In this section, I’ll look at some of the strengths of the 3-4 defense in football.

The first and outstanding strength of this formation is its versatility. There are just so many plays with the formation that makes it difficult for the offense to deal with.

Teams can easily alter how the formation appears on paper and easily deceive teams. Having multiple alignments can help teams block better and cover more areas. It can have the three outside linebackers dropping and providing more coverage.

It can also change and have a 5-man pressure rushing on both sides of the outside linebackers. The versatile flexibility of the defense makes it quite hard for the offenses to predict.

In addition, a 3-4 defense can prevent big plays from the opposing team. It’s quite effective at preventing the offense from beating you with a single big play.

You also get to do this with minimal tackles coming your way. Overall, the 3-4 offense is quite strong in various ways. Teams can easily fake a blitz by increasing speed and get to confuse the offense.

Weakness of the 3-4 Defense

While the 3-4 defense is pretty strong in most areas, there are a few weaknesses. First, the formation does require very strong linemen. The three offensive linemen must be strong and block the offense from advancing.

You need strong linemen that can demand blocks. The linebackers must also be excellent for the formation to work. You need the nose guard demanding two blockers and preventing the linebackers from sifting through traffic to shed the bigger offensive lineman.

This formation can also allow the offense to be effective when making runs from the inside. It can open gaps that running backs can exploit. With only three offensive linemen, the running backs can get openings and advance to score a touchdown.

How To Beat 3-4 Defense

As you’ve seen, the 3-4 defense is susceptible and can be beaten by the offense. One of the best ways to beat the 3-4 defense is to have players run the ball down the throat of the defense in the middle.

touchdown by a football player

There is no guarantee of the run leading to a touchdown. However, it can take advantage of any gap opening and help make some gains.

In most cases, the defense will realize you’re making a straight line. They will counter by disguising their blitz. This is easily countered by the team running a fake. They will then pass the ball to the empty space that linebackers take.

A middle run can help beat the 3-4 defense. But, teams must practice on it as it’s not as simple as it appears.

Who Plays 3-4 Defense in NFL

The 3-4 defense is widely used in the NFL. As of the year 2019, over 14 teams regularly used the 3-4 defense.

One of such teams using the 3-4 defense is the Baltimore Ravens. It had one of the defenses in the NFL in 2019, giving up the fewest plays that year.

Other teams in the NFL that have successfully used the 3-4 defense include the Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears, and the Houston Texans.

This is a predominant defense in the NFL, with the Philadelphia Eagles running it from 2013 to 2015. The New England Patriots also used it in 2011. The Cleveland Browns used it in 2013 then started using the 4-3 in 2017.

Examples of 3-4 Defense in NFL

So, what are some examples of the 3-4 defense in the NFL? A good example of the 3-4 defense in the NFL is the Pittsburgh Steelers. They have successfully used the 3-4 defense since 1982. What’s more, the Steelers have boasted one of the best defenses in the NFL, ranking top five 12 times.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are known for their blitzing defense using the 3-4 defense formation. Their success on the 3-4 defense is attributed to Dick LeBeau and the various 3-4 variation schemes they have developed.

In addition, the Steelers have deployed the right personnel for the different positions in the 3-4 defense. They feature two excellent running ends and a nose tackle. Their four linebackers also consist of two larger outsiders and two smaller inside linebackers.

Lastly, they have featured four defensive backs. The four backs comprise two safeties and two corners. While the 4-3 is the most common defense in the NFL, the 3-4 is superior when you have the right personnel.

The 3-4 Defense in Football FAQs

football player wearing white jersey in position

What’s the Difference’ the 3–4 Defense and the 4–3 Defense

The 3-4 defense is the opposite of the 4-3 defense. In the 4-3 defense, there are four linemen and three linebackers, while the 3-4 defense has three linemen and four linebackers.

This is why you’ll find these defenses being used interchangeably. The 4-3 defense is the most popular in football. But in recent years, the 3-4 defense has gained some popularity with different teams using it in the NFL.

One thing that completely sets the 3-4 defense apart from the 4-3 defense is the amount of versatility it offers teams. For example, the 3-4 defense can come out of its base in the 3rd and long and mid-way through the snap.

What Is a Gap Defense

A gap in defense is the space between the offensive lineman. We can have different gaps between the offensive linemen. We can have the first gap between the center and the guard and call it gap A. The next gap can be between the tackle and the guard, and we call it gap B. 

The third space can be between the tight end and tackle, and we call it gap C. Lastly, we can have space on the outside of the tight end and call it gap D.

Gaps create holes that running backs can use to pass through and make runs. The defense needs to control the line of scrimmage and prevent opening gaps for the opposition. 

What Are the Linebackers Called In a 3–4?

Linebackers in a 3-4 formation are called inside linebackers. The players secure gaps in the center, tackle, and guard.

Linebackers at the end of the defensive formation are called outside linebackers or OLBs. They are usually faster than the inside linebackers as they run with wide receivers and tight ends.


There you go! That wraps everything you need to know about the 3-4 defense in football. The 3-4 defense in football is quite flexible and widely used in the NFL, college, and high school games.

It’s a defensive alignment that features three linemen and four linebackers. However, the formation offers a lot of adjustability, allowing coaches to change the line back to suit the opposition.

Overall, the 3-4 defense in football is an excellent choice for defending when teams need flexibility. However, it does require athletic players at the outside linebacker position. On the inside, it needs guys that can eat blocks.

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