NFL Defensive Schemes: The Basics of the 4-3, 3-4 and Ryan Defenses

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NFL Defensive Schemes: The Basics of the 4-3, 3-4 and Ryan Defenses
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

NFL defenses have gone through many variations throughout the years. This series focuses on the responsibilities for each of the following defenses: The one-gap Phillips style 3-4, the two-gap Parcells style 3-4, the LeBeau "Blitzburgh" 3-4, the one-gap 4-3 defense like what Mike Zimmer uses, the two gap 4-3 defense like what Jack Del Rio uses, the Jim Johnson style 4-3 defense, the Rex Ryan 34/43 hybrid, and the nickel-and-dime defensive packages.

The basics behind the defensive packages have gone through many variations, and I am just going over what every NFL team uses. And every team uses some variation on what I have listed.

Here's a glossary of terms that will be used in the series

"A" gap: the gap in between the C and OG on either side

"B" gap: the gap in between the OG and OT on either side

"C" gap: the gap in between the OT and TE on either side

Strong side: the side with the TE on the outside of the OT

Weak side: the side without the TE on the outside of the OT

 

The Bum Phillips 3-4 Defense

Overview

The 3-4 defense is one of the most complex defenses in the NFL. There are multiple teams that use the Phillips 3-4 in the NFL, but we'll just go over the basic scheme that the Dallas defense uses.

The Bum Phillips 3-4 is a one-gap 3-4 defense and relies on quickness more than other 3-4 defenses. We'll start off with the basic alignment:

 

The defensive line lines up in a natural one-gap alignment. The nose tackle is in the strong-side "A" gap. The strong-side DE is in a 6-tech on the strong-side "C" gap. The weak-side DE is in a 5-tech role lined up across from the tackle. The middle linebackers are shaded to the strong side a bit with the WILB or "Mike" lined up in the weak-side "A"-gap and the SILB or "Ted" lined up in the strong-side "B" gap.

The secondary is in a traditional alignment with the corners lined up across from the WR's, and the FS in a traditional spot at around 10 yards back from the line of scrimmage (LOS) across from the weak-side tackle.

The SS is at a traditional spot as well around eight yards back from the strong-side tackle.

 

Defensive Line Responsibilities

 

In a close-up, you can see how the lineman are aligned better. The nose tackle's job is a 1-tech role. The 1-tech role is one of the most misunderstood roles in the draftnik community. Many believe that because Wade Phillips used Jamal Williams as a traditional 0-tech (lined up over the center) NT in San Diego, it's his preferred style.

But even with Jason Ferguson in Dallas, he was using the 1-tech NT. The 1-tech role is designed to be a penetrator as well as a clogger. His job is to tie up the center and the strong-side OG so that the linebackers can have more time to roam free and make the plays.

The basic idea behind the 1-gap defensive line is to control the entire offensive line. The DE's roles are to control the OT on their side of the ball. The weak-side DE is supposed to be so disruptive that the weak-side OG has to help the LT out in both the run and pass game. This would cause the WOLB the ability to roam free.

The weak-side DE is also responsible for the "B"gap on his side in the run game. The strong-side DE's job, while a more traditional 6-tech stance you would find in the 4-3, is to be a penetrator on the end. He should be able to tie up the OT and TE in the run game if blocked and provide enough push to help the blitzing OLB in the pass game come in clean. 

 

Linebacker Responsibilities

 

The responsibilities of the linebackers in this scheme is the most complicated part of the scheme. Not only will they stunt and blitz in the pass game, but they will also be asked to cover in zone as well as man. The SOLB will be in charge of the outside of the TE on running plays and will normally either blitz or be manned up on the TE in pass plays.

The SILB will blitz around 20-25 percent of the time on pass plays but normally cover an underneath zone, while in the run game is only responsible for the strong-side "B"-gap. The WILB is covering the middle of the field in a zone on pass plays usually and will be blitzing only about five to 10 percent of the time.

His job in the run game is to be the only guy covering two gaps. He's responsible for both the "A" gap in the run game, as well as cleaning up the "B" gap if the DE decides to go to the outside shoulder of the OT in the run game. The WOLB's job is to take care of the weak-outside and is normally the best pass-rusher on the team. He will normally be the guy who will be making the most sacks and blitzes over 50 percent of the time in the passing game.

 

Secondary Responsibilities

 

The secondary is lined up in a very traditional role. The scheme calls for man cover corners, whose role is to not press and bump, but rather just stick with their man. They are also expected to be ready for underneath routes and make plays on the ball. The safeties also run in a traditional role.

The free safety covers the deep third, while the strong safety will normally cover the underneath routes in either man or zone and come up to the box quite a bit if they are expecting a run. There's not too much blitzing out of the secondary in this scheme either.

 

The Bill Parcells 3-4 Defense 

Overview

Part III of this series goes over the most popular of the 3-4 variations in the NFL as used by New England, Kansas City, Miami and Cleveland. The variation I will be showing is what Parcells used in Dallas when he first got there. The Parcells 3-4 defense is the basic two-gap 3-4 defense. We will be starting with the basic alignment here:

Marc Serota/Getty Images

 

The defensive line will line up in a pure two-gap alignment here. The nose tackle will line up in a 0-technique directly over the center, and the defensive ends will line up directly over the offensive tackles in identical 5-techniques. The Middle Linebackers will be lining up directly across from the offensive guards, and the OLB's will line up across from the TE and where the TE would be in a balanced two TE set.

The CB's line up in the traditional spot across from the WR's and the FS is in the traditional spot 10 yards back from the line of scrimmage across from the weak-side OT. The SS is lined up eight yards back from the strong-side OT.

 

Defensive Line Responsibilities

 

The alignment can show a lot for a defense. The strong-side DE is responsible for the "B" and "C" gaps on the strong side in the run game and controlling the OT in the passing game. The weak-side DE is responsible for the "B" and "C" gaps on the weak side and controlling the OT on his side in the passing game. The nose tackle is responsible for controlling the center of the formation and both "A" gaps, while trying to draw double teams in both the run and the pass game.

 

Linebacker Responsibilities

The linebackers in the Parcells 3-4 have very similar responsibilities to those in a Phillips 3-4. The weak-side OLB is there to generate the most pass rush. Very similar to guys like DeMarcus Ware or Elvis Dumervil, the WOLB should be excellent at attacking from a two-point stance and getting around the edge so quick that they have a free shot at the quarterback on most passing plays.

In the run, they're only responsible for outside the OT on their side, making their job simpler than the rest of the linebackers. The inside linebackers play almost identical roles in the run game both covering the "A" and "B" gaps on their sides. The SILB in the pass game, however, will be blitzing more than the WILB.

The WILB is more of a traditional coverage MLB and will drop and cover the middle of the field. The SOLB is similar to the role of a two-gap SOLB in the 4-3. They will be in charge of the TE most times in the passing game and in the running game having to cover the "C" gap and outside of the TE on their side.

 

Secondary Responsibilities

The secondary is lined up in a very traditional role. The scheme calls for man cover corners, whose role is to not press and bump, but rather just stick with their man. They are also expected to be ready for underneath routes and make plays on the ball. The free safety is also run in a traditional role.

The free safety covers the deep third, but the strong safety will likely also cover a deep third or roam around the field in a role similar to what Sean Taylor ran in Washington. The SS will be in the box a lot, as well as go and cover the deep third as well.

 

The Dick LeBeau 3-4 Defense

Overview

Part IV of this series goes over the Dick LeBeau "Blitzburgh" 3-4 defense. He runs one of the highest blitz percentage defenses in the NFL. LeBeau is dubbed as the father of the zone blitz. The basis of this scheme is to put more pressure on the offense than they can handle in both the pass and the run game.

 

LeBeau uses an interesting alignment based on a variety of schemes. His base alignment is closest to the original 46 defense used by the 85 Bears. His scheme, however, is completely different in terms of how it is executed.

The defensive line is in a traditional two-gap alignment with the nose tackle in a 0-tech over the center, and the DE's in 5-techs over the OT's. The OLB's are on the line of scrimmage (LOS) just outside of the OT's on each side. The WILB is shaded over the weak-side OG. The SILB is shaded over the strong-side "A" gap.

The SS is about five yards off the LOS shaded over the OT behind the DE. The FS is in a 10-yard deep spot shaded across from the "A" gap on the weak side. The corners are lined up traditionally in their spots across from the CB's.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Defensive Line Responsibilities

 

The alignment of the defensive line is the same as the two-gap defense as is the responsibilities in the run game. The weak-side DE is suppose to control the "B" and "C" gaps on the weak side.

The strong-side DE is suppose to control the "B" and "C" gaps on the strong side, and the nose tackle is suppose to control the "A" gaps. In the passing game, their responsibilities are a bit different from the two-gap. Since it's a zone blitz scheme, any of the players will be called on to drop back into a short zone or stunt to help with the blitz.

Linebacker Responsibilities

This is by far one of the most unique alignments in the NFL for a defense. They drop their strong safety into the box more than 75 percent of the time. They also use him more like a fifth LB than an actual S. So I am including him in this group.

The WOLB and SOLB are on the LOS in their alignment as opposed to the traditional four to five yards back. The WILB is over the OG in a two-gap alignment. The SILB is over the "A" gap as if in a one-gap alignment, and the SS is behind the strong-side DE at about five to six yards back. The WOLB's responsibilities are to blitz over 60 percent of the time while also being able to play short zones and man up on a RB; they also are supposed to control the outside in the run game.

The WILB's responsibilities are to blitz around 30 percent of the time, cover more intermediate zones and be in charge of the "A" and "B" gap on the weak side. The SILB is in charge of the "A" gap on his side and will blitz over 50 percent of the time as well. He is the one who will make the calls and wear the green dot. The MLB's do an interesting blitz most of the time called a Fire-X "A" gap blitz.

It's where both MLB's will attempt to shoot through the "A" gaps causing havoc in the middle of the OL. The SOLB is in charge of the C-gap and outside of the TE in the run game and will be called on to cover the TE in man and blitz quite a bit as well. The SS is the most interesting spot out there. He is used as another LB essentially and will be in intermediate zones, blitzing over 35 percent of the time, and in the run game, is a guy who is more in charge of cleaning up the mess than anything else.

 

Secondary Responsibilities

The SS was covered in the linebackers section. The FS is aligned across from the "A" gap and about 10 yards deep. Their main role is to cover the deep half of the field and basically act like an eraser to all the mistakes that happen.

The CB's are pure man coverage CB's. They are supposed to lock down their man in every possible way and will be in charge of the WR's one-on-one for over 90 percent of the plays. They will send the CB and S on blitzes a lot too though and are known to run a lot of cover 0 sets as well.

 

The One-Gap 4-3 Defense

Overview

The one-gap 4-3 is one of the most common defenses in the NFL. The variation described will be the base defense as used by teams like Cincinnati and Atlanta. These 4-3 defenses are known for their two main alignments—the "over" and the "under" alignments, based around how the defensive line is aligned.

 

The "Under" alignment is based around the defensive line shading towards the weak side. The nose tackle is in the 1-technique on the strong-side "A" gap. The DE's are both aligned on the outside shoulders of the OT's, and the under tackle is aligned in the "B" gap on the weak side and playing a 3-tech.

The strong-side OLB is shaded over the TE while the weak-side OLB is spread out wider than the strong-side backer. The middle linebacker is lined up over the center and about five yards back. The secondary is in a traditional alignment with the FS-SS in their normal spots and the CB's lined up over the WR's.

 

The "Over" alignment is based around the defensive line shading towards the strong side. The nose tackle is playing the 1-tech in the weak-side "A" gap. The under tackle is lined up in the strong-side "B" gap and playing a 3-tech.

Both DE's are lined up on the outside shoulders of the OT's like in the "Under" alignment. The strong-side OLB is shaded over the TE while the weak-side OLB is spread out wider than the strong-side backer.

The middle linebacker is lined up over the center and about five yards back. The secondary is in a traditional alignment with the FS-SS in their normal spots, and the CB's are lined up over the WR's.

 

Defensive Line Responsibilities

<- Under

 

 

 

 

Over ->

 

 

 

The DE's are both aligned on the outside shoulders of the OT's. The strong-side DE is responsible for the "C" gap in the run game and creating pressure by getting through the gap in the passing game. The weak-side DE is responsible for the outside runs and has to get around the OT in the passing game using a high variety of pass-rushing moves.

The under tackle is playing a 3-technique and has to control the "B" gap while also putting a lot of pressure on the QB by shooting through that same "B" gap. The nose tackle is lined up in a 1-tech. His job is to shoot through the "A" gap on every running play. He's also supposed to collapse the pocket from the inside on every passing play. The over-under alignment switch-up is only to help confuse the offensive lineman in their protection schemes.

 

Linebacker Responsibilities

^^^^Under..................Over VVVV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The strong-side linebacker is responsible for the TE in coverage and will be the guy who controls the outside on strong-side runs. In the running game, the middle linebacker will cover the "A" gap not covered by the nose tackle.

He will also be calling all the plays and adjustments and likely covering the short middle in the passing game. The weak-side linebacker is more of a roaming player. They control the outside in the run game on the weak side and also play a lot of zone in the passing game.

 

Secondary Responsibilities

The secondary is lined up in a very traditional role. The scheme calls for man and zone cover corners, whose role is to not press and bump, but rather just stick with their man or play their intermediate zones. They are also expected to be ready for underneath routes and make plays on the ball.

The safeties also run in a traditional role. The free safety covers the deep third, while the strong safety will normally cover the underneath routes in either man or zone and come up to the box quite a bit if they are expecting a run. There's not too much blitzing out of the secondary in this scheme either.

 

The Two-Gap 4-3 Defense

Overview

The two-gap 4-3 defense is what most people think of when there's the mention of the 4-3. It is one of the least popular defenses in the NFL only used by Jacksonville. No other team uses this variation, opting more for the one-gap alignments, Cover/Tampa 2's and the Jim Johnson style, blitz-heavy defenses.

In this alignment, the defensive tackles are lined up head up with the offensive guards. The defensive ends are lined up in identical spots on the outside shoulders of the OT's. The outside linebackers are lined up shaded off of the DE's and about four yards back from the LOS.

The middle linebacker is lined up directly in the middle of the formation and about five yards back. The SS is lined up about eight to 10 yards back across from the strong-side OT, and the FS is lined up about 10-12 yards back and across from the weak-side OT. The CB's are lined up directly across from the WR's.

 

Defensive Line Responsibilities

The weak-side defensive end is responsible for the "B" gap and outside of the OT in the running game. In the passing game, he's supposed to be as fast as he can around the end or try and make a move inside.

The strong-side DE is responsible for the "B" gap and "C" gap on his side of the line in the run game. He's also supposed to try and get by the OT in the passing game as well. The DT's are responsible for the "A" gap and "B" gap on their respective sides and in the passing game have to get through the OG and create enough disruption that they can draw double teams.

 

Linebacker Responsibilities

The outside linebackers are responsible for the outside of the play in the running game. In the passing game, the strong-side OLB will be in charge of the TE or an intermediate zone normally.

The weak-side OLB will be in an intermediate zone or in charge of whoever comes out of the backfield. The middle linebacker is in charge of the "A" gaps and will also be in short-to-intermediate zones.

 

Secondary Responsibilities

The corners are varied in coverage from scheme to scheme. They will switch between the zone and man schemes a lot, and well-rounded corners are the best fit for the scheme.

The safeties play a very traditional set of roles in that the FS plays the deep third most plays, and the SS plays an intermediate middle zone.

 

The Jim Johnson 4-3 Defense

Overview

The Jim Johnson 4-3 is the last of the base 4-3 defenses I will cover in this series.

His defense is used by multiple teams including San Francisco and Philadelphia. His defense is a zone-blitz style scheme that attempts to create the same kinds of mismatches that the LeBeau 3-4 tries to create.

 

The defensive line will be in your traditional one-gap 4-3 under alignment. The DE's will be lined up in identical spots on the outside shoulders of the OT's. The nose tackle is in the 1-tech lined up in the strong-side "A" gap. The under tackle is in the 3-tech in the weak-side "B" gap.

The linebackers are off center and unbalanced. The WOLB is lined over the "B" gap on the weak side. The middle linebacker is lined up over the "B" gap on the strong side. The SOLB is at the LOS lined up on the outside shoulder of the TE.

The secondary is lined up in the traditional alignment with the FS 10-12 yards back and across from the weak-side OT, the SS eight to 10 yards back and across from the strong-side OT, and the corners are lined up over the wide receivers.

 

Defensive Line Responsibilities

 

The NT is in charge of the strong-side "A" gap and plays the 1-technique. They are supposed to be able to get through the gap as quickly as they can and need to be a true penetrator. The UT is in the 3-technique and plays the same exact role as the NT but is in weak-side "B" gap.

The weak-side DE is supposed to contain the outside run on his side while also creating a lot of outside pressure in the passing game. The strong-side DE is supposed to control the "C" gap on his side and create a lot of outside pressure in the passing game or draw the TE in on a double team.

Any of the four defensive linemen will be called to drop back into a short zone from time to time and should be quick enough to cover some ground.

 

Linebacker Responsibilities

The weak-side LB is in charge of cleaning up the run game to the weak side. If someone messes up their gap, he's responsible for fixing it. In the passing game, he will normally drop back into an intermediate or short zone and will be expected to blitz around 15 percent of the time.

The strong-side OLB is in charge of the outside in the running game and in the passing game will drop into an intermediate zone and will be expected to blitz around 50 percent of the time.

The middle linebacker will be dropping into a zone and will be expected to blitz around 65 percent of the time. He's also in charge of covering any and all runs in the box as the thumper in the middle.

 

Secondary Responsibilities

There is a lot of blitzing from the safeties, and they will be in robber zones, Cover 2 and Cover 4 sets as well as multiple other looks. The CB's however are primarily zone cover CB's with a knack for making plays on the ball. The CB's will normally play an intermediate to deep zone.

 

The Cover 2 and Tampa 2 4-3 defenses

Overview

The Cover 2 and Tampa 2 defenses are based around the one-gap 4-3 as explained here. The defense is used by many teams around the league including Chicago, Tampa and Indianapolis. The alignment is the same in the one-gap 4-3 and will be explained here:

 

The "Under" alignment is based around the defensive line shading towards the weak side. The nose tackle is in the 1-technique on the strong-side "A" gap, The DE's are both aligned on the outside shoulders of the OT's, and the under tackle is aligned in the "B" gap on the weak side and playing a 3-tech.

The strong-side OLB is shaded over the TE while the weak-side OLB is spread out wider than the strong-side backer. The middle linebacker is lined up over the center and about five yards back.

The secondary is in a traditional alignment with the FS-SS in their normal spots, and the CB's are lined up over the WR's.

 

The "Over" alignment is based around the defensive line shading towards the strong side. The nose tackle is playing the 1-tech in the weak-side "A" gap. The under tackle is lined up in the strong-side "B" gap and playing a 3-tech.

Both DE's are lined up on the outside shoulders of the OT's like in the "Under" alignment. The strong-side OLB is shaded over the TE while the weak-side OLB is spread out wider than the strong-side backer.

The middle linebacker is lined up over the center and about five yards back. The secondary is in a traditional alignment with the FS-SS in their normal spots, and the CB's are lined up over the WR's.

 

Defensive Line Responsibilities

<- Under

 

Over VVV

 

 

The DE's are both aligned on the outside shoulders of the OT's. The strong-side DE is responsible for the "C" gap in the run game and creating pressure by getting through the gap in the passing game. The weak-side DE is responsible for the outside runs and has to get around the OT in the passing game using a high variety of pass-rushing moves. The Under Tackle is playing a 3-technique and has to control the B-gap while also putting a lot of pressure on the QB by shooting through that same "B" gap.

The nose tackle is lined up in a 1-tech. His job is to shoot through the "A" gap on every running play. He is also supposed to collapse the pocket from the inside on every passing play.

The over-under alignment switch-up is only to help confuse the offensive lineman in their protection schemes.

 

Linebacker Responsibilities

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

^^^ Under..................Over VVV

 

 

 

 

 

 

The linebackers in the Cover 2 and Tampa 2 have very similar responsibilities. In the Cover 2 and Tampa 2, the strong-side OLB is in charge of the intermediate zone on the strong side in the passing game and the outside running game on the strong side.

In the Cover 2 and Tampa 2, the weak-side OLB is in charge of the intermediate zone on the weak side in the passing game and the outside running game on the weak side. In the Cover 2, the MLB in in charge of the intermediate zone in the middle in the passing game, but in the Tampa 2, the MLB is in charge of the deep third of the field in the passing game.

In both schemes, the MLB is in charge of the "A" gap not covered by the NT in the running game.

 

Secondary Responsibilities

In the Cover and Tampa 2, they use a traditional alignment. There's very little, if any, blitzing from the secondary.

The corners in the Cover 2 are primarily man cover corners with a knack for making plays and the ability to jump routes.

The corners in a Tampa 2, however, are primarily zone corners and will cover short to intermediate zones and are also playmakers. The corners are normally bigger and more physical because they are asked to do a lot more in run support.

The safeties in both the Cover and Tampa 2 are in charge of the deep half on each one of their sides. They are supposed to be some of the top all-around safeties because both are called upon to be able to play the run as well as cover their half of the field at the drop of a hat.

 

The Rex Ryan 3-4/4-3/46 Hybrid

 

Overview

Rex Ryan's defense isn't really a 4-3, nor is it really a 3-4. He runs a 46 hybrid like his father. The main difference in his 46 hybrid and his father's is the coverage responsibilities and the amount of blitzing.

Ryan's 46 package is one of the most complex schemes in the NFL. So this is a very simplified version of it.

The alignment is basically the same as the LeBeau 3-4 the entire way. The defensive line is in a traditional two-gap alignment with the nose tackle in a 0-tech over the center, and the DE's in 5-techs over the OT's.

The OLB's are on the LOS just outside of the OT's on each side. The WILB is shaded over the weak-side OG. The SILB is shaded over the strong-side "A" gap. The SS is about five yards off the LOS shaded over the OT behind the DE. The FS is in a 10-yard deep spot shaded across from the "A" gap on the weak side.

The corners are lined up traditionally in their spots across from the CB's. This is the same alignment as the 46 used by the '85 Bears, only LeBeau and Ryan execute it completely differently.

 

Defensive Line Responsibilities

The nose tackle is playing your pure 0-technique and is in charge of the "A" gaps, the DE's are in charge of the "B" and "C" gaps on the outside. In the passing game, their jobs are to control the line and draw double teams.

 

Linebacker Responsibilities

Much like the LeBeau scheme, the SS is in the box. Unlike the LeBeau scheme, however, the SS will drop back into deep coverage sometimes and will tend to blitz quite a bit as well. He will be in charge of cleaning up the strong side in the run game.

The strong-side OLB is in charge of the "C" gap and the outside in the run game and is used in man coverage over 80 percent of the time on the TE. The other 20 percent, he will be either blitzing or playing a mid zone.

The strong-side ILB is in charge of the "A" and "B" gaps on the right side in the run game. In the passing game, he will be covering a mid zone and rarely blitzing. The WILB is in charge of the "A" and "B" gaps on his side and will be blitzing over 50 percent in the passing game.

The other responsibility he will have is to play short to intermediate zones. The weak-side OLB will be blitzing over 75 percent regardless of the passing or running situation. When he isn't blitzing, he will be playing a contain on the outside for the run game or will be playing a flat zone on the weak side.

The scheme calls for a lot of overload blitzes to either side as opposed to the LeBeau scheme, which calls for balanced blitzes normally up the middle.

 

Secondary Responsibilities

Where in the LeBeau scheme, the corners play man with some zone, in the Ryan scheme, they will be in man coverage exclusively. And they will also be in a press-man. The FS will be patrolling the middle of the field in a deep zone exclusively.

 

The defensive schemes are all completely different in their execution, but as you could see, some of the alignments were the same from scheme to scheme. There are even some responsibilities that are the same from scheme to scheme. Also of note is how the defensive schemes are primarily Parcells 3-4 teams, Tampa/Cover 2 4-3 defenses and one-gap 4-3 defenses.

Also, you have to take into account that most schemes are a blend of the multiple looks and bases, and all I went over was the base defense of every scheme.

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