With the Buffalo Bills’ recent hiring of Mike Pettine as the new defensive coordinator, much has been made regarding the style of defense that the team will play in 2013. The Bills failed in their attempt to operate out of the 3-4 defensive front in 2011, only to revert back to the four man front in 2012.
Mike Pettine’s defenses with the New York Jets have been operating out of a 3-4 base, however they aren’t strictly a 3-4 team. Similar to his defenses with the Baltimore Ravens, Pettine’s defenses have really operated out of a variation of the 4-3 over defense, which shifts the defensive line to the strong side (the side with more players) of the offense, utilizing a standing right defensive end almost as a pass rushing linebacker.
These “hybrid” defenses have been very effective, as the Jets have finished no lower than eighth in total defense since Pettine arrived in New York prior to the 2009 season. The base 3-4 defense needs big, strong defensive linemen that can occupy blockers. This is why most teams that use the three man front often convert defensive tackles to the defensive end position. All three lineman are responsible for stopping the run on every down.
Players like Haloti Ngata and Muhammed Wilkerson were essential to his defenses, because they had the ability to play the outside three technique, which is playing on the inside shoulder of a guard, or the five technique, which is over the outside shoulder of a guard, while also being able to shift inside and play defensive tackle in the four man front.
This versatility allowed them to stay on the field, and Marcell Dareus is perfect for this position. The Bills drafted Dareus with the intentions of using him as a 3-4 defensive end out of Alabama, where he played the position for three seasons.
Dareus also has the size, at 330 pounds, to play nose tackle in the three man front. The nose tackle needs to be a lot bigger and stronger than the traditional defensive tackles, because he is often battling with two men rather than one. The nose tackle is the anchor of the defensive line.
Kyle Williams played effectively as an undersized nose tackle for a bit in 2010 and 2011, but would probably be best suited at defensive end.
Players that are normally defensive ends in the four-man front, often transition to outside linebacker in the 3-4, where they are responsible for rushing the passer as well as dropping into coverage. If the Bills operate out of a three man front, Mario Williams will still be rushing the passer; just from a different spot on the field. This is very similar to how Pettine used Terrell Suggs with the Ravens, or Calvin Pace with the Jets.
When used correctly, the 3-4 is designed to occupy all five offensive lineman with just three defensive lineman. This creates a mismatch in the defense’s favor, which allows linebackers or defensive backs to blitz, while essentially unblocked.
As for the linebackers, they also need to be bigger and stronger than those in the three man front. The 3-4 also uses two inside linebackers instead of one middle linebacker. These inside linebackers are usually outside linebackers in the 4-3. Nick Barnett was a very effective inside linebacker for the Green Bay Packers’ 3-4 defense before making the switch to weakside linebacker in the Buffalo Bills’ 4-3. Nigel Bradham, the team’s strong side linebacker, would most likely become the strong side inside linebacker in a 3-4. The inside linebackers are primarily responsible for stuffing the “A” gaps. The “A” gaps are the gaps on each side of the center. There are two A gaps, one for each inside linebacker. Having two inside linebackers creates more flexibility with the middle of the defense also.
The main weakness of the 3-4 as you would imagine, is being attacked in the middle. If a nose tackle cannot consistently occupy two or three blockers, there will be holes on either of his sides.
Pettine’s defenses combat this utilizing the over/under looks, by shifting the defensive line one way, and the linebackers in another direction. This essentially fills the voids in the defense, by creating a “Hybrid” defensive end/ outside linebacker.
Here, we see the base 3-4 front. There are three down lineman, and four stand-up linebackers.
Here, we see that the right outside linebacker has shifted towards the line of scrimmage, while the defensive lineman have shifted to the “over” position, the side with the tight end. This outside linebacker is generally the pass rusher.
There are pros and cons to every defensive scheme, but Mike Pettine has learned and adapted to some intelligent concepts in order to be effective. He isn’t strictly a 3-4 or a 4-3 coach, and with the evolution of the hybrid players, the National Football League is going more and more towards using the more athletic linebackers/ safeties.