The 3-4 defense was largely dead by the 1990s in the NFL, pushed aside in favor of the 4-3 defense since it was thought to be stouter against the run. At one point in the 90s, only one team was foolish enough to still be employing the 3-4 and it was the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The team first installed the scheme in 1983 after most of the defensive stars from the 70s had retired and has been using it ever since. Instead of looking at all the other teams in the 90s and changing to conform to the league norm, the Steelers’ coaches looked around and wondered why the rest of the league wasn’t copying them.
The 3-4 defense has a long and storied history. It was first used by the University of Oklahoma under Bud Wilkenson in the 1940s. While the 1972 Miami Dolphins are primarily known for becoming the first and only team to finish a season undefeated, they were also the first team to win a Super Bowl with a 3-4 defense.
Also notable is that arguably the greatest defensive player in the history of the league, Lawrence Taylor, terrorized NFL quarterbacks while playing in a 3-4 defense.
Despite this history, by the mid-90s, it was gone…a relic of the past…dead. Only the Steelers stubbornly held on, refusing to change over to the 4-3. That would eventually change in a league that very much holds to the maxim that imitation is the ultimate form of flattery.
The Patriots adopted the system and rode it to three Super Bowl victories while the Ravens, after adopting it, became a perennial defensive powerhouse. It was an ideal situation for the Steelers and the other teams that switched over to the 3-4.
Since 3-4 and 4-3 defenses rely on different types of players, it meant there were plenty of outstanding 3-4 linemen and linebackers available in the draft, even late into the first round and long afterwards.
While not all 3-4 defenses look alike, teams employing it need a few key elements to be successful. They need a monster of a man to play nose tackle in the middle of the three-man defensive line to eat up blockers. This keeps those blockers off the playmakers of the system, the linebackers.
They also need athletic, but big, outside linebackers who can rush the passer, cover running backs and tight ends, and run side to side in pursuit of ball carriers. Typically, 3-4 teams have gone after undersized but athletic college defensive ends to fill this role such as Lamarr Woodley, Joey Porter, Terrell Suggs, Willie McGinest, and Mike Vrabel.
Another important, but less visible, position is the 3-4 defensive end. A 3-4 defensive end has almost nothing in common with a 4-3 end. A 3-4 end needs to be big and strong enough to hold the edge, but just quick enough to provide a minimal pass rush.
They are much more like 4-3 defensive tackles in appearance, with a slightly different skill set.
The Steelers, Patriots and the Ravens were able to build their defenses without having to rely on early picks to do it. This also meant that these teams could build their defenses without breaking the bank, since they could find good players that fit the system later in the draft.
In looking at the Steelers’ defensive front seven from last year, the two starting defensive ends were drafted in the 4th and 7th rounds (Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel). The nose tackle, Casey Hampton, was drafted late in the first round. Their outside linebackers were an undrafted free agent and a second round pick (James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley). The only high pick was James Farrior, a superb 3-4 inside linebacker who the Steelers were able to sign in free agency since he didn’t suit the Jets’ 4-3 system as well.
There are now, on the eve of the 2009 season, at least thirteen teams primarily using the 3-4 defensive scheme with a couple others eyeing a possible switch. The 2009 draft showed, as Bob Dillon might say, that the times they are a changing.
Players that would have slid to at least late in the first round were being snatched up almost immediately at the top of this year’s draft. The Kansas City Chiefs grabbed LSU's Tyson Jackson with the third pick, far earlier than he would have gone in previous years, because he was one of the few prospects in the draft who appeared to be an ideal 3-4 end.
The Green Bay Packers grabbed B.J. Raji at #9 because he was the only really good 3-4 nose tackle prospect in the entire draft. He shouldn't have lasted that long. That was a little earlier than where the Steelers (#19), Patriots (#21), and Ravens (#12) got their nose tackles in drafts past.
At the time the Steelers drafted Hampton, they were criticized for reaching on the pick. If Hampton were to enter the draft now, he would go in the first ten picks.
There was also a noticeable impact on hybrid outside linebackers with a host of potential 3-4 outside linebackers coming off the board earlier than they would have in years past.
Even the Steelers acknowledged the change by drafting for depth at the defensive end position in the first round, grabbing Missouri defensive tackle Evander “Ziggy” Hood, something they likely would not have done in the past.
Back in 1998, then Steelers’ director of football operations, Tom Donahoe, was asked why more teams didn’t switch to the scheme.
He answered, “We hope they don't. It helps us because there's a lot of undersized defensive ends in college that we feel we can project to 3-4 outside backers."
Now that so many teams are switching over, Donahoe’s concerns have been realized. Are there enough players to stock all of these teams’ defenses adequately? Probably not. Some of the teams that switched recently have struggled to make the transition.
The position that may be the hardest to find may be the nose tackle, because there are only so many athletic mammoths out there who can singlehandedly hold the middle of the line. Green Bay was smart to grab Raji. That will make the transition far easier for them.
And while it used to be relatively easy to find those athletic “tweeners” to man the outside linebacker post, don’t count on that trend continuing. The outside linebacker position used to be a plug and play position for the Steelers. No matter who they plugged in at outside linebacker, that player became an immediate star.
And when that player left for a big paycheck somewhere else in free agency, a new guy would step into the position with next to no dropoff. Those days may be over. The Greg Lloyds of the future will not be slipping into the draft’s sixth round.
Is the 3-4 defense really a better scheme than the 4-3 in today’s NFL? Some of the defense’s biggest proponents, such as Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers, would argue that it is because it offers more ways to attack the offense, especially in this pass happy era. Even great quarterbacks, like Peyton Manning, have at times looked average when facing good 3-4 defenses.
During the 2007 season, four out of the eight division winners employed a 3-4 defense.
It remained the defense of choice among many of the playoff teams again this year, although some of the league’s top defenses continued to use the 4-3 scheme while a couple of its worst were employing the 3-4.
Another possible explanation for the seeming superiority of the 3-4 system is that the teams employing the scheme had a huge advantage in the draft, enabling them to build their defenses.
If that is the case, those days may be a thing of the past, trumped by the law of supply and demand. If the current trend continues, the 3-4 defense will soon become the most popular base defense in the NFL.
But, as the balance of power shifts to the 3-4 defense, the draft advantage may well shift to teams employing the 4-3 scheme. It is conceivable that at some point in the not so distant future, after the talent has been diluted and spread across so many more teams, the conventional wisdom may again demand change, ushering the return to prominence of the 4-3 base defense.
But, until that time, the "new" age of the 3-4 defense has arrived.