The NFL’s All-Time 3-4 Defense (With Video)
The 3-4 defense was originally developed by Bud Wilkinson at the University of Oklahoma in the 1940s. Chuck Fairbanks learned the defense from Wilkinson and is credited with importing it to the NFL.
Fairbanks' schemes have influenced many important winning coaches in the years following his retirement, among them Bill Parcells, Bill Cowher, and Bill Belichick.
The 3-4 defense is a defensive alignment that consists of three down linemen, four linebackers, and four defensive backs.
The defensive line is made up of a nose tackle and two defensive ends. Linemen in 3-4 schemes tend to be larger than their 4-3 counterparts to take up more space and guard more territory along the defensive front.
The nose tackle and the inside linebackers - those are three guys that are very important. But when you go through it, the nose tackle is probably the single-most important guy.
Ideally, 3-4 DEs should weigh 285–300 pounds and be able to beat double teams by getting a push. The ideal nose tackle has to be much bigger than 4-3 DTs, weighing around 330 pounds or more.
The 3-4 nose tackle is considered the most physically demanding position in football. The 3-4 almost always rushes the offense with four guys. Usually the fourth will be a linebacker.
The 3-4 linebackers must be very athletic and strong. In most cases, 3-4 OLBs lead their teams in quarterback sacks.
The corners will generally line up three to five yards off the line of scrimmage, generally trying to jam the receivers.
The free safety is responsible for reading the offensive plays and covering deep passes. He must be a quick and smart player, capable of making tackles efficiently, as well as reading the play and alerting his team of game situations.
The strong safety is usually close to the line of scrimmage. He is often a crucial part of the run defense, but is also especially responsible against passes to the tight-ends.
That is the basics of the 3-4 defense. I went through and picked out the best players who I thought would be a perfect fit for the all-time 3-4 defensive team.
Please note, these picks have been decided on players who have played at least three or more years in the 3-4 defensive scheme.
Left Defensive End – Howie Long (1981-1993)
Howie Long was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 1981. He would play all 13 season with the Raiders.
At 6’5” 265 lbs, Long possessed a very rare combination of size, strength, and quickness, which made him a fierce force on the Raiders defensive line.
Long had a signature defensive move called the "rip," which employed a quick, uppercut-like motion designed to break an opposing blocker's grip.
He played in the 3-4 defensive scheme from 1981-1989, being the face of the relentless defense of the Raiders.
During his time with the Raiders he was selected to eight Pro Bowl (1983-1987, 1989, 1992, and 1993) games, a three-time First-Team All-Pro (1983-1985), and a two-time Second-Team All-Pro (1986 and 1989).
Long was also honored being selected to the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team, recording 60 sacks out of 84 total, unofficially 91.5 (7.5 are not official, as sacks were not an official statistic during his rookie year). He was often, if not usually, double-teamed by opponents, making these honors that much more remarkable. He is second all time in franchise history in sacks.
Long anchored the black and silver defense to Super Bowl XVIII against the Washington Redskins where the defense tallied six sacks and two interceptions, bringing one back for a touchdown in a 38-9 victory.
He was a two-time NFL Alumni Defensive Lineman of the Year, recording 12 sacks in 1984 and 10 sacks in 1985.
Long is not only one of the best defensive ends of all time, he was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
Honorable Mention: Neil Smith (1988-2000)
Nose Tackle – Ted Washington (1991-2007)
Ted Washington was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers with the 25th pick of the first round. He played his best years with the Buffalo Bills as dominant nose tackle.
Washington was three-time Pro Bowler (1997, 1998, and 2000) with the Bills and made his fourth Pro Bowl with the Chicago Bears in 2001.
His size is remarkable, 6’5” and weighing in at 365 lbs. His enormous frame earned him nicknames like "Mt. Washington" or "Washington Monument."
Jim McNally once said, “Nobody is as big and as strong. He grabs the center and looks around, and if the back cuts back he just tosses the center and makes the tackle.”
Ted is considered the prototypical nose tackle of this era. In his prime, Washington was the ideal guy. He was huge, had long arms, and you couldn't budge him. He could hold off a 320-pound lineman with one hand and make the tackle with the other.
Washington helped the New England Patriots win their second Super Bowl in franchise history.
Washington was as durable as they come. He started at nose tackle, one of the most physical positions the league can offer until the age of 39. He played in 119 consecutive games at nose tackle.
Washington ended his career with 34.5 sacks, one safety, and two interceptions. He will always be known for his size and strength. I will always recognize him as the most dominant nose tackle to play the game.
Honorable Mention: Jerry Ball (1987-1999)
Right Defensive End – Bruce Smith (1985-2003)
Bruce Smith was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1985 with the first pick of the NFL Draft. He played with the Bills and was one of the main pieces to their success as a 3-4 defense from 1985-1999.
Despite having a breakout year in 1986, tied for second in the AFC with 15 sacks, Bruce would miss the Pro Bowl. He would get revenge and make 11 Pro Bowls (1987-1990, 1992-1998) throughout his career.
In 1990, Smith would have his best year of his lengthily 19-year career. He racked up 19 sacks (two short of the then record), four forced fumbles, and 101 tackles.
Bruce is the franchise record holder for the Buffalo Bills with 171 career sacks, a feat that may be unreachable for future Bills players.
As Smith spent most of his career in a 3-4 defensive scheme, I think of him as the best 3-4 defensive end to put pads on. He wasn’t just great at running through and around opposing lineman to find the quarterback, but he was one of the best run stoppers, as well recording 1,225 tackles.
Smith was twice named the AP's NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1990, 1996), twice named the NEA Defensive Player of the Year (1990, 1993), and four times named UPI's AFC Defensive Player of the Year (1987, 1988, 1990, and 1996).
A testament to his longevity and his consistency, Smith was honored to be selected to the NFL’s 1980s and 1990s All-Decade Teams.
Smith currently holds the record for most career sacks with 200 after surpassing Reggie White's record during the 2003 season, which is even more impressive when considered he spent most of his career in a 3-4 defensive scheme, which isn't conducive to sacks for defensive ends.
Bruce Smith was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
Honorable Mention: Leonard Marshall (1983-1994)
Left Outside Linebacker – Kevin Greene (1985-1999)
Kevin Greene was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1985 in the fifth round, pick 113. What a steal!
Greene was a five-time Pro Bowler (1989, 1994-1996, and 1998), three-time First-Team All-Pro in 1989, 1994, and 1998. Greene was also selected to the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team.
In 1996, Greene was named to the NEA NFL Defensive Player of the Year, UPI NFC Defensive Player of the Year, and 1996 NFL Alumni NFL Linebacker of the Year.
Greene is the NFL's third all-time sack leader with 160, behind only Bruce Smith and Reggie White. He also leads all NFL linebackers in career sacks ahead of players like Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas, and Rickey Jackson.
Greene is one of only four players to lead the NFL in sacks in multiple seasons ('94 with the Steelers and '96 with the Panthers). Greene is also tied for second in career safeties with three. He also ranked third all-time in fumble recoveries with 26, which he returned for 136 yards and two touchdowns.
He also recorded five interceptions, returning them for 53 yards and a touchdown. He is one of three players to record 10 sacks a year for 10+ years. He averaged over 10 sacks a year for 15 seasons.
In his 15-year career, Greene played in 228 games. Ten times he was among the NFL's Top 10 sackers, leading the NFL twice. Eleven times in his 15 years he led his club in sacks.
Greene was a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, 2009, and 2010
Kevin Greene may have been forgotten by some, but will always be remembered by quarterbacks.
Honorable Mention: Rickey Jackson (1981-1995)
Left Inside Linebacker – Ray Lewis (1996-present)
Ray Lewis was drafted by the expansion team the Baltimore Ravens in 1996 with the 26th pick of the first round. Lewis immediately exploded for the Ravens winning a spot on the All-Rookie Team and leading the team with 110 tackles.
Lewis has been selected to the 11 times (1997-2001, 2003, 2004, and 2006-2009) in his career. Lewis shares record of nine All-Pro selections for inside/middle linebacker with Joe Schmidt, and holds the record with 11 Pro Bowls for an inside/middle linebacker.
He was also the second linebacker to win the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player Award and the first linebacker to win the award on the winning Super Bowl team.
He won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2000 and 2003; he was the sixth player to win the award multiple times.
From 1998-2001, the Ray and the Ravens did not allow a 100-yard rusher (51) games. In 2000, Lewis led a defense which set a 16-game single season record for fewest points allowed (165) and fewest rushing yards allowed (970). The team recorded four shutouts, one shy of the single season record.
That year, Lewis led his team to Super Bowl XXXV against the New York Giants. Lewis won Super Bowl XXXV MVP honors and Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Ray Lewis was also selected to the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team.
At the end of the 2009 season, Lewis has career totals of 1,770 total tackles (1,349 solo), 14 forced fumbles, 105 passes defended, 94.5 tackles for loss, 36.5 sacks, 16 fumble recoveries, 28 interceptions, one safety, and two touchdowns in 194 games.
Honorable Mention: Randy Gradishar (1974-1983)
Right Inside Linebacker – Jessie Tuggle (1987-2000)
Jessie Tuggle came to the Atlanta Falcons in 1987 as an undrafted rookie free agent. He spent 14 seasons with the Falcons.
He is the record holder for the most tackle throughout the decade of the 1990s. He recorded 1,293 tackles.
Tuggle’s first nickname was “Rag Doll." When he first came in the league he was knocking the crap out of people, and they said he throws everyone like a rag doll. It didn’t stick with him, but after a couple of years they started calling him “The Hammer” for the vicious way in which he pounded ball carriers.
Tuggle played in the 3-4 system from 1987-1992. He had the most success in the NFL under the 3-4 defensive scheme.
He made the Pro Bowl five times (1992, 1994, 1995, 1997, and 1998) during his 14-year career.
Tuggle led the Falcons in tackles for nine straight seasons from 1988–97 and recorded more than 100 tackles for a team record 12 consecutive seasons.
Tuggle finished his career third on the team’s all-time lists in most seasons played (14), most games played (209) and started (189), fourth in most consecutive games played (110), and seventh in most consecutive games started (89).
In his 14 seasons, he recorded 2,065 tackles, 21 sacks, six interceptions, which he returned for 106 yards and a touchdown, 10 forced fumbles, and 37 pass deflections. He also recovered 10 fumbles, returning them for 155 yards and an NFL record five touchdowns.
Honorable Mention: Harry Carson (1976-1988)
Right Outside Linebacker – Lawrence Taylor (1981-1993)
Taylor was a disruptive force at outside linebacker, and is widely considered to have changed the pass rushing schemes, offensive line play, and offensive formations used in the NFL.
Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs developed the two tight end offense and the position of h-back to prevent Taylor from blitzing into the backfield unhindered.
Lawrence Taylor was drafted by the New York Giants with the second pick overall in the 1981 NFL Draft. Taylor went on to finish his rookie season with 9.5 sacks, and is often considered to have had one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history.
The Associated Press named Taylor 1981's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and NFL Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the only rookie to date to ever win the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Taylor produced double-digit sacks each season from 1984 through 1990, including a career high of 20.5 in 1986, and was named the league's Most Valuable Player for his performance during the 1986 season. Taylor also won a record three Defensive Player of the Year awards to go along with his phenomenal career.
Taylor's impact contributed to the Giants defense going from allowing 425 points in 1980 to 257 in 1981. Taylor also made first team All-Pro and his first Pro Bowl appearance in 1981. He went on to make 10 (1981-1990) in his career.
“L.T” is a two-time Super Bowl champ with the New York Giants in Super Bowls XXI and XXV.
He has also been named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and to the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team for his stellar career.
Taylor ended his career in 1993; the NFL unofficially recognizes 142 sacks for Taylor.
John Madden once said, “Lawrence Taylor, defensively, has had as big an impact as any player I've ever seen. He changed the way defense is played, the way pass-rushing is played, the way linebackers play and the way offenses block linebackers."
In 1999, Lawrence Taylor was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention: Derrick Thomas (1989-1999)
Left Cornerback – Ronnie Lott (1981-1994)
Lott was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the first round, eighth overall pick of the 1981 NFL Draft.
In his rookie season, he recorded seven interceptions and helped the 49ers to win Super Bowl XVI.
Lott was selected first team All-Pro and named to his first Pro Bowl of 10 total (1981-1984, and 1986-1991).
He also became only the second rookie in NFL history to return three interceptions for touchdowns.
He led the 49ers defense in 1981, helping it turn around from one of the league's worst (26th) to one of the league's best (second), a difference of 165 points.
He is most well known for his hard hits on opposing players. Noted for his toughness, he once cut off a portion of his pinkie in order to return to a game.
Lott may be remembered by his hard hits, but he also had a knack for finding the ball in his hands. He finished his career with 63 interceptions and five touchdowns making 10 Pro Bowls (1981-1984, and 1986-1991) at cornerback (4) and safety (6). Lott is widely considered one of the best defensive backs in NFL history.
Throughout his tenure in San Francisco, Lott played in the 3-4 defense which was in the top 10 every year (1981-1990).
Lott was a key successor to the 49ers four Super Bowls throughout the 1980s. In my opinion, the best franchise to play in one decade.
Lott is a member of the NFL’s 1980s and 1990s All-Decade Teams and voted to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000, his first year of eligibility.
Honorable Mention: Lester Hayes (1977-1986)
Strong Safety – Troy Polamalu (2003-present)
Troy Polamalu was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2003 with the 16th pick of the first round.
Polamalu had quickly become the face of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. The Steelers 3-4 defense has been the perfect fit for Troy. He has become the best safety in the game. His viscous tackling ability has been widely matched with his coverage skills.
Polamalu covers a ton of ground and looks to be playing the game at a speed faster than just about everyone else on the field. Few players defend the run, play the pass, or change a game like Polamalu.
Polamalu proves time and time again he is someone that every offensive coordinator must game plan around.
"Forty-three is a terrific player," Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg raved in a 2008 interview, "and that (defense) is built around a lot of guys, because they've got a lot of really good players. But 43 is all over the field and he's a big cog in that defense. You never know where he will end up when the ball is finally snapped."
Polamalu really expresses the term "ball-hawking" in the NFL. He is a five-time Pro Bowler (2004-2008), recording 20 interceptions and seven sacks. In 2005, he tied the NFL record for most sacks, (three), in a single game by a safety.
In 2009, the Pittsburgh defense really found out how much they missed Troy due to injury. The 2008 Super Bowl season was led by the defense only letting up 223 points. In 2009, Troy went down with an injury (missed 11 games) and the defense ended the year allowing 324 points, becoming the 12th best in the league. Twelfth never sounds bad, but when you’re talking about the Steelers it is.
The Steelers defense has been one of the finest and most feared during Troy’s career. He really helped them resurrect the nickname “Steel Curtain.”
Honorable Mention: Ed Reed (2002-present)
Free Safety – Steve Atwater (1989-1999)
Steve Atwater was drafted by the Denver Broncos with the 20th pick overall in the 1989 NFL Draft.
Steve is known as one of the most feared tacklers to ever play the game. Former Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier said, “Just one of the hardest-hitting safeties I ever saw, and one of the brightest guys I ever saw. It was a slam dunk to put his name up there.”
Wade Phillips employed Atwater close to the line of scrimmage in order to fortify Denver's 3-4 run defense, and he led the team in tackles, finishing with 129 tackles his rookie season. Denver's defense jumped a 20 spots to finish seventh against the run and tied for third best in yards per carry with a 3.7 yard average.
Atwater's second season marked the first of seven consecutive Pro Bowl selections (1990–1996) and eight total (1990-1996 and 1998), tied for most in franchise history.
In Super Bowl XXXII, many have argued Atwater should have been the MVP of the Super Bowl. His overall impact on the game was there from start to finish. Atwater played one of the best games of his career that day and said:
"That's the highlight of my NFL career, bar none. People ask me, 'What's your greatest moment - your greatest memory?' Aside from my family, that is it. I can't even explain. I still get chills when I think about it.”
For the majority of his career, Atwater was used by Denver much like a linebacker as an eighth defender to stop the run. The way he played makes me feel like he should get the strong safety position in the 3-4 defense.
Because of his unusual role as an eighth defender against the run, Atwater achieved extraordinary numbers in terms of tackles by a free safety, averaging 149 tackles from 1989–1993, successive seasons from before shifting to a more traditional safety role in 1994 under head coach Mike Shanahan. Over a 10-year Broncos career, Atwater totaled an astounding 1,038 tackles, averaging 107 tackles a year.
He was named to the NFL's All Decade Team for the 1990s.
He signed a one-day ceremonial contract with the Broncos before announcing his retirement from football. "This is the way I wanted to go out," Atwater said. "I bleed orange and will always bleed orange and blue."
Atwater is a hopeful as a Hall of Famer, but safeties are not a top priority to get enshrined into the Hall.
Honorable Mention: Rod Woodson (1987-2003)
Right Cornerback – Rod Woodson (1987-2003)
Rod Woodson was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers as the 10th overall draft pick in the 1987 NFL Draft.
He was a fan favorite and a banner that hung for years in Three Rivers Stadium stated: "Rod Is God".
Woodson became the first person to come back from reconstructive knee surgery and play in the same season. Get this, he did it trying to tackle Barry Sanders. We all know it’s not an easy task to play Marco Polo with Sanders. He was lucky enough to make a remarkable recovery and play in the Super Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys.
It took me just over nine months to feel like I had finally had a full recovery.
Woodson played on one of the best 3-4 defensive teams to ever step foot on the field. During the time Woodson played for the Steelers they were the face of all defenses. His 3-4 stint with the Steelers lasted throughout the 1996 season.
In 1993, Woodson was named to the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. He recorded eight interceptions, two sacks, one touchdown, and 95 tackles.
He played one season with the 49ers in 1997, but they played the basic 4-3 defense. After 1997 he left to sign with the Baltimore Ravens and made it to his second Super Bowl where they beat the New York Giants 34-7. Woodson would help the Ravens to a record setting year on defense with the least amount of points allowed (165).
Throughout Woodson’s career he was one of the most decorated defensive backs in the NFL. Woodson was an 11 time Pro Bowler (1989-1994, 1996, and 1999-2002), named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, and to the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team.
He ended his career with 71 interceptions (3rd all-time), 12 interceptions returned for touchdowns (1st all-time), and 1,483 interception return yards (1st all-time). He also had 1,050 tackles in his 17 year career.
Rod Woodson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
Honorable Mention: Deion Sanders (1989-2005)