Since the dust has settled on the Ravens' title-game triumph. Three teams have joined the growing number of franchises prepared to trust the 3-4 as their defensive scheme.
Both the Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints are making the switch. Other reports indicate the Philadelphia Eagles will opt for a hybrid scheme with 3-4 principles, under new head coach Chip Kelly.
So why are so many inclined to trust the 3-4? The scheme is nothing new, but has often been overshadowed by the four-man fronts that have long been the staple of pro defense.
What the 3-4 offers is a greater level of deception. It is misdirection borne out of increased mobility. Having four linebackers, gives the defensive front more athleticism and versatility.
It challenges a quarterback to decipher which linebackers will blitz. It may be one, it may be all four. Or perhaps the defense will use its linebacking quartet to help create an eight-man coverage shell.
Those are just some of the questions a 3-4 poses to a quarterback before the ball is even snapped. The scheme can also be manipulated to better support multiple blitz and coverage combinations.
By shifting linebackers around, the 3-4 can create overload pressures to attack every angle of an offense. Those same linebackers can also be used to disguise coverage intentions.
A linebacker aligned in press, man coverage on a tight end or slot receiver, can drop out into zone at the snap. Similarly, a linebacker showing a blitz look, can peel off into underneath coverage once the ball is snapped.
In this sense, the 3-4 is the ultimate chameleon of NFL defensive schemes. Align a linebacker on the line of scrimmage and the defense adopts the guise of a 4-3.
Rush both outside linebackers and the scheme becomes a five-man front, almost impossible to run against. Tweak the alignments of the three defensive linemen to cover both guards and the center and the defense shows a 46 'Bear' front.
In the age of the multiple, pass-first offense, the quarterback is king. Quarterbacks have more freedom to confuse defenses with multiple formations and pre-snap adjustments.
The 3-4 gives a defense the chance to throw some of that confusion back at an offense and its signal caller. Offenses also boast an increasing number of versatile athletes at the skill positions.
Tight ends are faster, wide receivers are bigger and running backs are smarter pass-catchers. Defenses need more players with the hybrid skills linebackers naturally possess.
However, the rising number of 3-4 teams shouldn't be seen as a wake for the 4-3. The defense Tom Landry first unleashed in the 1950's, as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, is alive and well.
For all the 3-4's scheming, there is still little an offense can do to counter a consistent and powerful four-man rush. More teams switching to the 3-4 has created a falsehood that the scheme is easier to build. On the surface, there is some truth to this.
A dominant 4-3 needs a big-bodied run-stuffer and a quick, gap penetrator along the interior. Theses tackles must complement a pair of big, fast and powerful ends on the edges. Not one of those things is easy to find.
However, slotting any four linebackers into a scheme, won't make a good 3-4 defense. As devilish and varied as the system is, no 3-4 stands a chance with average linebackers. Consider the riches both the 49ers and Ravens boast at the position.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman offer San Francisco the best pair of inside linebackers in the game. While the Ravens have thrived for years thanks to the dominance of Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis.
There also the matter of finding defensive linemen who can occupy double teams. In particular, every 3-4 needs a powerful and active nose tackle to control the middle. Finding this player should be the first priority for both the Eagles and Saints.
However, those who do find the right pieces, may trust the flexible 3-4 to better counter modern pass-first offenses, loaded with dynamic and versatile skill players.
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