NFL: Is the 3-4 Defense On Its Way Out?

Matt Wells@@matt_wells16Correspondent IJanuary 18, 2010

TORONTO - DECEMBER 3: Darrelle Revis #24, Shaun Ellis #92 and Calvin Pace #97 of the New York Jets gets set on defense against the Buffalo Bills at Rogers Centre on December 3, 2009 in Toronto, Canada. The Jets won 19-16.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

I read a comment today where someone said that the 3-4 defense is on its way out. They said that when an offense goes three or four wide, a team running a 3-4 is forced to show their hand too much, citing the Green Bay Packers' losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, where both Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner completed passes at will.

As I started to write a reply, more and more thoughts just kept coming into my head, and eventually it got to the point where I just thought "Heck, I'll just do some research and write an article."

More and more teams in the league have been switching to the 3-4, and this year was no different. The Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, and Denver Broncos all made the switch to primarily a 3-4 scheme with the hiring of Dom Capers, Clancy Pendergast, and Mike Nolan, respectively.

The move worked out extremely well for at least two of the three, with the Packers finishing with the top run defense (which was also a franchise best) and No. 2 overall defense. Rookie OLB Clay Matthews was invited to the Pro Bowl after posting double-digit sacks.

In Denver, the Broncos started 6-0 and Elvis Dumervil led the league by 2.5 sacks with 17 after making the switch from 4-3 DE to 3-4 OLB.

Most of the best defenses in the league run a base 3-4 defense. Here are the top defenses in major categories (The teams that currently run the 3-4 are the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, and San Francisco 49ers):

Overall Defense

  1. NYJ (252.2 ypg)
  2. GB (284.4)
  3. BAL (300.5)
  4. CIN (301.4)
  5. PIT (305.3)

Third Down Defense

  1. NYJ (31.5 percent)
  2. PHI (33.0 percent)
  3. MIN (34.5 percent)
  4. MIA (34.8 percent)
  5. DAL (35.0 percent)
  6. ARI (35.3 percent)

Scoring Defense

  1. NYJ (14.8 ppg)
  2. DAL (15.6)
  3. BAL (16.3)
  4. SF (17.6)
  5. NE (17.8)
  6. CIN (18.2)
  7. GB (18.6)

Yards per Play

  1. NYJ (4.2 ypp)
  2. GB (4.8)
  3. BAL (4.9)
  4. CIN (4.9)
  5. PHI (5.0)
  6. SF (5.0)
  7. DEN (5.0)


  1. MIN (48)
  2. PIT (47)
  3. MIA (44)
  4. SF (44)
  5. PHI (44)
  6. ARI (43)
  7. DAL (42)
  8. CLE (40)
  9. WAS (40)
  10. DEN (39)
  11. GB (38)

The stats don't lie.

Overall Defense: Four of five (including top three).
Third Down Defense: Four of six.
Scoring Defense: Six of seven (including top five).
Yards per Play: Five of Seven (including top three).
Sacks: Nine of 11.

Seven of the 12 teams to make the playoffs this year, including five of the eight teams playing in the divisional round, run this system. The point is, the system works. The top defenses in the league all run the 3-4 because of the flexibility and unpredictability it allows.

Conclusion: The 3-4 defense is not on its way out. The majority of the dominant defenses in the league run it, and we should expect more teams to make the switch, hoping to find that same success.


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