4-3 defense

The Ultimate Guide: 4-3 Defense in Football

The 4-3 defense is by far the most popular defense in professional and youth leagues. Defensive units are the heartbeats of football. Even with the best offenses, a team needs a good defense to win a football game. A good defense must stop the offense from scoring. 

So, what is a 4-3 defense, and why is it popular? The 4-3 defense formation features four defensive linemen and three linebackers. It is a very stable defense formation with few adjustments and wrinkles from the formation of the base.

The 4-3 defense is something every team should have in their playbook. It’s a defense that covers all the defense philosophies and responsibilities of defensive players.

Join me as I discuss the 4-3 defense in detail, from positions to how it’s run.

What is 4-3 Defense in Football

The 4-3 defense in football is a defensive formation with an alignment that comprises four defensive linemen and three linebackers. This is a base defense and one that is used in base downs.

This is by far the most basic defense in football and one any coach can run. It is the most popular defense, with teams from high school to the NFL using it.

The nature of the 4-3 defense comprises four defensive linemen at the back and three linebackers. Teams can use different looks with the 4-3 defense to stop and offense.

It’s a unique scheme all aimed at stopping a gap. Each player in the defense alignment has a responsibility to stop a specific gap. There are different alignments of the 4-3 defense.

But first, let’s look at its history and who uses it.

Who Invented 4-3 Defense?

Steve Owen’s 6-1-4 defense was the precursor of the 4-3 defense. Steve was the head coach of the New York Giants and used the 6-1-4 defense before the snap. But the defense would drop into two defensive ends for protection.

It was a successful defense in the 1950s. Later on, defensive right back Tom Landry would explain the defense leading to the traditional 4-3 or 3-4 defense. This defense would go on and evolve into what we have today.

The original version of the 4-3 defense saw the tackles lining over the offensive guards. The ends would then line up on the shoulders of the offensive tackles. This would change in the 1960s when Hank Stram developed a popular variation shifting three strong side defensive ends to the tight end. The linebacker would then play over the tackle.

Who Uses The 4-3 Defense 

Any football team at any level, from the youth leagues to the NFL, can use the 4-3 defense. It is a versatile defense formation that works on all skills. It also works for players of all physical sizes.

american football high school teams getting ready

In different defense formations, coaches have to change alignments to suit the physicality and skills of players. However, for a 4-3 defense formation, a coach just needs to tweak the players in those positions.

This is a one-gap defense formation. It works well for teams playing against a running game. It leaves all seven players having the responsibility of stopping a single gap.

With a 4-3 defense, ball carriers will find it difficult to find holes and spaces to run. Overall, a 4-3 defense is a great defense that also provides coverage for the safeties.

Positions Needed In 4-3 Defense

In the 4-3 defense, there is the defensive line with four defensive linemen called Sam, Mike, and Will. The 4-3 base is very stable. There is no shifting of players to one side of the field.

Let’s look at the 4-3 defense positions.

Defensive Line

In the defensive line, there are two defensive tackles. Teams with an under or over front will also feature a nose tackle. In even 4-3 bases, there is no nose tackle. Here, the nose tackle is replaced by a right or left defensive tackle.

Nose tackles are generally stronger and bigger players playing to the outside but on the shoulder of the center. They help stop runs and free up the linebackers by taking the double team.

We also have a second defensive tackle who is faster than the nose tackle. He has a quick left foot and weighs around 300 pounds. He helps shoot through the gap at the snap.

Defensive Ends

The next position is the defensive end. Defensive ends in a 4-3 need to be small and quite fast. They get to the quarterback and help create pressure. They also need strength to fight through the offensive tackles. Speed for defensive ends is important to help pursue running backs on the outside.

In general defensive ends are athletic and agile players with an average weight of 265 to 295 pounds. They also play a crucial role in ensuring the quarterback doesn’t roll out of the pocket.

However, teams will always use different variants of the 4-3 defense and employ strong, and big defensive ends to stop runs from the base.


When it comes to linebackers, the 4-3 defense consists of two outside linebackers and one inside linebacker. There is one middle linebacker known as MLB or Mike.

A middle linebacker needs to be athletic and smart. The main responsibility is to stop runs. However, he can always fall back and provide coverage.

We also have outsider backers on the strong and weak sides of the field. The stronger side linebacker is Sam, and he sticks to the strong side of the defense. The main role of Sam is to blitz and take on blockers. On the weaker side of the defense is Will, with more freedom than linebackers.


There are two defensive backs in the 4-3 defense. Two are cornerbacks, and the other two are safeties. The cornerbacks are tasked with coverage, but tasks vary depending on zone or man coverage.

teams of a football game match

The cornerbacks line 3-5 yards from the line of scrimmage. You can see them trying to interrupt or jam receivers. In zone coverage, then man a specific area on the field. They usually remain in the backfield and within their zone.

The zone coverage is relaxed in the 4-3 defense and helps provide awareness across the field.

We also have safeties that help cover deep passes and read the offensive plays. A free safety will be positioned 10 to 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage. They are usually quick and smart and can read games very fast.

The stronger safety positions are close to the scrimmage line and are bigger and stronger. Stronger safeties make part of the defense and play a crucial role in defending against passes. They help prevent passes to the tight ends.

How To Run 4-3 Defense

The 4-3 defense is quite easy to run and a great one that works for all teams. Below are the stages through which teams and coaches can run a 4-3 defense.

Stage 1: Defensive Line

A team needs a defensive line of four defensive linemen. These include:

  • Two defensive ends
  •  A defensive tackle and a
  • Nose tackle

Align the defensive tackle over the guard and nose tackle over the center. The two defensive ends will then line up over the tight ends or offensive tackle, depending on who is on the field.

You can have the defense shading away from the tight end or towards it if you’re playing against an offense with one tight end. Nose tackles will remain to the right of the center of the defense shades to the right and vice versa.

Have the noise tackle take his role of clogging the gap. You’ll also have the two defensive ends take different responsibilities on either side of the field.

Stage 2: Linebackers

With the defensive line aligned, you need to have the linebackers in place. The three linebackers have a single gap and must block any running plays.

The middle linebacker, Mike, will line directly behind the nose tackle and guard gap A at the center.

 The weaker side linebacker Will will line on the same side and guard the gap B while the strong side linebacker Sam will take gap C.

Linebackers at snap will rush towards the line of scrimmage and try stopping the ball carrier.

When it comes to passing plays, the coach will decide on either zone marking or man-to-man marking.

Stage three: The Secondary

The last stage after having the defensive linemen and linebackers aligned is the secondary. In the secondary, you’ll need two cornerbacks and two safeties.

The two cornerbacks line up on the outside against the wide receivers. On the safeties, you’ll have the free safety line deep over Will while the strong safety will line deep over Sam.

The different players have different responsibilities to ensure a successful play of the 4-3 defense. The safeties will come to the line of scrimmage to fight blockers coming there. Cornerbacks, on the other hand, will help fight wide receivers.

Teams can set up differently depending on whether they’ll have zone or man marking.

Strengths of the 4-3 Defense

The 4-3 defense is popular for various reasons. What are some of its strengths?

Versatile and deploys or man-to-man coverage

First, the defense is quite strong when it comes to versatility. It can effectively play a man-to-man or zone marking without any issues. The four defensive backs and three linebackers can provide any type of coverage with ease.

football players at the start of a match

Additionally, the defense can also allow for wrinkles to be added. Coaches can easily add different looks, pressure coverages, and multiple coverages. This is a great feature that keeps the offense guessing on the defense’s next move.

It’s also one of the easiest defenses to teach. It provides players with all the basics of defending in football. Assignments in the 4-3 are pretty easy, and players can follow them without any problems. This allows players to learn and understand the game faster.

Lastly, the defense works perfectly against the run and pass plays in football. The base foundation allows the defense to work great against running and passing plays with zone and man marking. It features a single gap that makes it quite hard for offenses to pass through.

Weakness of the 4-3 Defense

However, this does not mean the defense is perfect. There are weaknesses of the defensive coaches that need to be aware of.

The very first weakness is that the defense is quite common, and every team knows it. It’s not like you’re going to surprise the offense with something new.

Offenses can easily recognize the coverage and make decisive moves to counter it. Additionally, the defense can allow for some play-action passes. While one-gap roles for linebackers are great, taking the first step towards the line of scrimmage can allow for play-action passes.

It is also susceptible to misdirection runs from the offense. When linebackers cover a single gap, it can be likely that they can lose track and have runs get past them.

How To Beat 4-3 Defense

Teams can beat the 4-3 defense by running play-action passes. When teams make play-action passes, they force defenders to run to the line of scrimmage. This can provide gaps that can help beat the 4-3 defense. Teams can also beat the defense by recognizing the different roles of the linebackers and defensive linemen.

They can then devise ways to draw them from their positions and responsibilities. After all, the 4-3 defense is familiar to most teams, and the offense can easily recognize when they have the defense.

Who Is the Best 4-3 Defense

The best 4-3 defense is the Madden 21 in the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s a top option for helping players cover the bases on rushing and passing plays. The top play from the Chiefs features a cover one with a spy, a cover 2 with a robber press, and a Tampa 2.

It’s a top defensive playbook that covers all the bases and the defensive side of things.

Other excellent 4-3 defense plays include the Detroit Lions playbook with multiple formations. The Bengals also have an excellent playbook with 3-4 and 4-3 defense providing them with over 46 formations.

Who Has the Best 4-3 Defense in the NFL

We’ve already seen the 4-3 defense is popular and widely used in the NFL. Almost every team in the NFL has run a 4-3 defense and has it in their playbook. But the biggest question is who has the best 4-3 defense in the NFL?

The New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs, and San Francisco 49ers are among the teams in the NFL with the best 4-3 defense. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are also an excellent team with a 4-3 defense.

The Chicago Cowboys are also highly rated and feature among the teams in the NFL with the best 4-3 defense.

4-3 Football Defense Formation FAQs

hand drawing american football game strategy

What is the Difference Between the 4-3 Defense and 3-4 Defense

The 4-3 defense is the opposite of the 3-4 defense. These two are very similar yet very unique defensive formations that can easily interchange. 

The main difference between these two is that the 4-3 defense features four defensive linemen and three linebackers, while the 4-3 defense features three defensive linemen and four linebackers.

Apart from the defense alignment, the two defenses also vary in versatility. The 3-4 defense is quite versatile and can change alignments as opposed to the 4-3 defense. The 3-4 defense offers linemen an opportunity to stream from the back to the line of scrimmage.

Overall, the 3-4 defense works best for rushing passes with nose tackles covering both gaps. However, both defenses are similar. They work by concentrating pressure from the outside and inside of the field to the middle.

How Do You Defend the Spread Offense with 4-3 Defense?

To defend the spread offense with the 4-3 defense requires linebackers to align accordingly. Teams need to ensure they start the run defense without mistakes.

Alignment in the defensive end needs to limit the runs of the game. You need to have crotch alignments at the base. This alignment is crucial in preventing the jump from the offensive linemen.

Overall, offensive linebackers need to stay clean and block any pulling guards.

What Defense Is Best To Stop the Run?

The best defense to stop a run can be the 4-3 or 3-4 defense formation, with the best choice depending on the players of each team. Both defenses have pros and cons.

However, the 4-3 defense is the best when stopping running plays.


Well, that wraps everything from me! The 4-3 defense is the most popular defense in the NFL, college, and high school. It is a base foundation defense with four defensive linemen and three linebackers. 

The 4-3 defense is quite versatile and a must-have in every team’s playbook. It’s a defense that works well for both passing and running plays. The defense is also each to teach and provides players with all the basics of football.

While there are a few weaknesses, the 4-3 defense does work well for most teams. It can easily be used for inexperienced leagues and the NFL. Overall, with the right personnel, the 4-3 defense can help stop running and passing plays keeping the offense from scoring.

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