For the diehard college fan, the 3-4 defense is still something of a novelty. A few teams run it, but it's much more of a NFL defense than it is a NCAA defense. Here I will talk about some of the basics of what the 3-4 is, how it's supposed to work, what is required for it to work well and why it, quite simply, hasn't worked at UGA thus far.
Finally I'll mention how UGA might try to fix it this year. This is written at a basic level so even a casual fan can understand it, but such that more experienced fans will also pick up on some of the points.
What the 3-4 defense is
3-4 stands for three down linemen and four linebackers. The three down linemen are called the nose tackle, who lines up over the middle, and the defensive ends, who line up on either side of the offensive line.
The four linebackers are the right inside linebacker, left inside linebacker, right outside linebacker and left outside linebacker.
Their names relatively accurately indicate their placement, though a hallmark of a 3-4 defense is the linebackers move around a lot. There are typically two safeties (the free safety and the strong safety) and two cornerbacks in the 3-4, just like the 4-3 defense which is more common in college.
How the 3-4 defense is supposed to work
The 3-4 defense is designed to create confusion and attack the offense. Because the down linemen in any scheme are mostly only doing one thing, going towards the ball, the 3-4 creates the most moving parts by minimizing the parts that have to stay put in favor of linebackers that can move around the field and play a variety of roles.
The linemen in a 3-4 defense are mostly supposed to take up space and cause the offensive linemen to have to double team them as much as possible, so that the linebackers can attack the ball without fear that a lineman will block them. A quality 3-4 lineman's value is measured mostly not in tackles and sacks, but in how often they allow the linebackers to make tackles and sacks.
This all starts with the nose tackle. The nose tackle is by far the most important position in a 3-4 defense, although they make virtually no plays.
This is because the nose tackle, must force the offensive linemen to double team him. A 3-4 nose tackle must be so strong that if left one on one versus even a great center, he would be able to cause the pocket to collapse by pushing the center backwards and force the QB on the outside, where a 3-4 defense has an advantage.
A truly great 3-4 nose tackle may actually require a partial triple team meaning that the center and both guards must pay attention to him to avoid the pocket collapsing. If the 3-4 nose tackle does not do this, it allows the guards to shoot to the linebacker level and act as lead blockers for a RB, which generally leads to doom for the 3-4 defense as the opposition will just run the ball down their throats.
The defensive ends mostly serve a similar, though not as important, role as the nose tackle. Whereas in a 4-3 defense, the defensive ends' primary role is to rush the QB, that is a secondary or even a tertiary goal for a 3-4 defensive end.
The ends in a 3-4 are supposed to at least "occupy" the offensive tackles and, if possible, take up a guard as well. Typically offensive tackles are strong enough to take a 3-4 end mostly one on one, but the more often a 3-4 end can cause a guard to need to help, the better.
Again, the ends in a 3-4 won't actually make many plays themselves, but they clear the way for the four linebackers.
The linebackers in a 3-4 see all the action. However, the outside and inside linebackers serve very different purposes, as opposed to a 4-3 defense where the three linebackers, more or less, do the same thing.
The inside linebackers are the run stoppers and occasional blitzers. If the defensive linemen did their job, the inside linebackers should be able to read the holes that the offensive line creates, crash in them and take the running back down for a minimal gain, if not a loss.
Mostly the two inside linebackers in a 3-4 defense are in "full read" mode, where their job is to read run or pass. If it's a run, they must crash in to fill the holes, if it's a pass, they drop back into zone coverage typically and attempt to clog up the short middle passing routes. The only time an inside linebacker really attacks the QB in a 3-4 defense is either if they read run, but ended up being play action and they get lucky or a called inside blitz.
Inside blitzes aren't frequently called in a 3-4 defense, because they leave the defense open to both an inside run or a short pass over the middle. The inside linebackers in a 3-4 defense must be extraordinarily sound tacklers, because stopping the running game is almost entirely up to them.
Typically an ideal 3-4 inside linebacker is a more experienced older linebacker who is a fundamentally sound tackler, because the position requires a lot of reading plays and great tackling. If the inside linebackers cannot stop the run, a 3-4 defense is often doomed, as the opposition will typically just run the ball down their throat.
The outside linebackers are the glory positions of a 3-4 defense (Lawrence Taylor was a 3-4 linebacker), though they may actually be the easiest to replace. Their primary job is to create havoc by pressuring the QB or confusing him by dropping into coverage.
They will occasionally need to stop outside runs or cut back and counter runs. Often times a 3-4 linebacker will in fact lineup with a "hand down", giving the defense the look of a 4-3 defense. In fact, at least one of the outside linebackers "blitzes" the QB on almost every play.
Thus, when just one outside linebacker blitzes, it's typically not referred to as a blitz at all. A rookie QB can have great difficulty with a 3-4 defense because he can never be quite certain where the pressure will come from, since on any given play both outside linebackers can blitz, just one might blitz or both might drop into zone coverage. A 3-4 defense is at its best when on one play they pressure the QB to get rid of the ball quickly and on the next the QB anticipates pressure that isn't there and throws the ball to a defender dropped into coverage.
The strong safety in a 3-4 defense is often times like a fifth linebacker, who may blitz or may drop into shallow coverage, or may even help in run protection. The SS in a 3-4 is probably the fourth most important position after the nose tackle and inside linebackers.
With a great safety, who can equally well cover, shed blocks, pursue and tackle, a 3-4 defense can absolutely wreak havoc.
Think Troy Polamalu.
The free safety's job is almost always to protect the deep middle, sometimes called center field, of the field in a 3-4 defense. They typically see little action, though if the defense gets heavy pressure, they may get some cheap int's, as the QB just tries to force the ball down the field.
The cornerbacks are almost always playing zone in a 3-4 defense, though occasionally man defense will be called.
Why the 3-4 defense isn't working for UGA right now
Currently the starter, DeAngelo Tyson, is a defensive end trying to play nose tackle.
This cannot work.
Against South Carolina, not only did he not occupy two blockers, he was often pushed by the center. That can't happen in a 3-4. This is the equivalent of trying to have your grandmother pitch to the middle of the 1927 Yankees lineup.
Disaster waiting to happen.
What happens as a result is that the offense essentially gains both guards to shoot to the LB level and become lead blockers. Or they can just crash the DE and make the hole so wide that the RB can get going at full speed relatively quickly.
This is why Marcus Lattimore typically broke his first tackle after already making a 3-yard gain, which leads to a 6-yard gain.
The linebackers aren't especially sound tacklers. Again, this is the second most important thing to a 3-4 defense. Your inside linebackers must stop the RB when they hit him.
Because holes tend to be larger in a 3-4, you can't get away with sloppy tackling, because you're typically already making initial contact with the RB further forward.
Bacarri Rambo isn't especially good at reading plays. He's a very talented player, but he just doesn't have the experience in a 3-4 defense to always know where he's supposed to be.
The strong safety is the QB of a 3-4 defense, and Baccari was, more often than not, making the wrong read so far this year.
The ends are often blocked by guards. In the Arkansas game, a trend was that since their center could block the nose tackle by himself, the guards could essentially take the end, which left a tackle to pick up the outside linebackers' blitzes.
Leading to just one sack of a guy who threw the ball a whole lot.
The cornerbacks and free safety are used to man coverage. Can you count the number of blown coverages in the Arkansas game?
It was quite clear that the corners and free safety had no idea half the time where they were supposed to be in coverage late in the game.
The scariest part for UGA
They've been beaten soundly through both the air and on the ground. Both times by very good teams, but beaten soundly both ways. I don't think they can really fix the NT issue.
Even their bigger, younger players on the inside are really more 4-3 guys. I don't think the inside linebackers really have the beef or the intelligence to play ILB in a 3-4, and I think Bacarri Rambo makes too many mental mistakes as well.
How does UGA attempt to fix it?
First, they need to get one of the younger interior players up to speed and starting at NT. None of their options are ideal, but physically, DeAngelo Tyson is actually the least physically made to play 3-4 nose tackle.
This would allow DeAngelo Tyson to move to DE, where he's more comfortable, and might allow the OLB's to get more pressure.
Second, improve tackling.
Fans think this is as simple as flipping a switch, but it's actually quite hard to do and coach. Many times an inability to tackle isn't a lack of effort, like most casual fans think, it's an inability to get your center accurately matched to the runner's center.
That is, hit the ball carrier's center of gravity with your center of gravity. This inability can be from slower reaction time or a lack of agility. Also, you have to have the "beef" to counter the runner's force. It's simple physics in many ways.
Third, get Bacarri Rambo to play more with his head and stop dreaming of big hits and big plays. If a 3-4 SS plays smart, big plays happen. That's the way the defense is designed.
But too often he plays out of position.
That should about fix it.
Agree? Disagree? Learn something? Think I'm full of hot air? Let 'er rip in the comments.