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Film review: 3-4 defense

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You guys know me, I feel lost without a good film review. But what purpose would a film review serve since the Cowboys are out of the playoffs? Well, I decided to take a look at the 3-4 defenses run by New England and San Diego. We often complain about the ineffectiveness of our version of the 3-4 compared to some of the other teams that run it. In that spirit, I went back and reviewed the NE/SD game to see what they were doing, and how it might differ from us. I didn't go into detail and grade out individual players; instead I wanted to get an overview of their philosophy and what they do in certain situations.

Not surprisingly, the New England 3-4 resembles ours in many ways. That's to be expected considering the Belichick/Parcells connection. Of course, this was just one game and the defenses were geared for specific things. For instance, the Patriots were very concerned with stopping LT in the run game, so they sometimes loaded up for that, especially on first downs. San Diego, on the other hand has a different idea of running the 3-4, particularly pre-snap.

New England

Prior to the snap of the ball, the Patriots are very similar to Dallas. They don't move around a lot except for flipping the ILB's to the strong and weak side of the formation. Dallas does the same thing with James and Ayodele. They tend to line up in position and are not interested in trying to disguise much. What they do that works better than Dallas is time their blitzes. They run a lot of the same ILB blitzes that the Cowboys do, but they are better at not giving them away to early. Against the Cowboys, teams line up, take a pre-snap read, and then do a hard count. Inevitably, the Dallas defense bites on the hard count and reveals where the blitz is coming from. The Patriots do a better job of holding back and timing the blitzes. In truth though, they weren't all that effective blitzing up the middle, only on a few occasions did they generate pressure that way.

The Patriots were better at getting some outside pressure, and they used their defensive backs to do this. They got a sack from one of their corners on a blitz and they involved their strong safety more in the box. New England isn't an all-out blitz team; they spend a lot of time rushing only four guys.

When they do get aggressive is when the other team is faced with a passing 3rd down. Then New England tends to stuff the box/line of scrimmage with 8-9 men and they bring pressure. Several times they brought the house and relied on their secondary to cover. Usually when they did this, if they were rushing seven or more guys, they ran a tight man-to-man coverage. Even on a third and 17, the Patriots brought eight guys and managed to get a sack. I don't know for sure if they did this over the entire season, but for this one game they decided that on 3rd down instead of sitting back in zone coverage, they would force the QB to make a quick decision. Of course, getting pressure on the QB is a requirement, something Dallas didn't do well even when they blitzed.

The Patiots LB's were very good about covering the backs in the passing game. Sometimes they used the ILB's to cover the backs, other times the OLB would read the pattern and peel off into coverage. When the OLB had read/react coverage on a back, they tended to modify their rush so that they weren't going full-speed at the QB from the start. Instead, they moved upfield under control and were in position to get into coverage when the backs flared out.

They also believe strongly in their 3-4 defense, they rarely got out of it even on short yardage or down around the goal line.

I came away with the impression that this is how Dallas wants to run their 3-4, but the personnel we have isn't experienced enough to get it done. They also have two defensive ends that are very effective in getting penetration, forcing the offense to account for them in the passing game. But here's one huge difference that I complained about over the latter part of the season, the ILB's don't drop so deep in coverage that underneath routes become a pitch-and-catch situation for the offense. They have enough confidence in their secondary to allow the LB's to play closer to the line and stop the passes over the middle that killed Dallas.

San Diego

San Diego is a much different 3-4 team. They believe in a lot of movement and fakes to confuse the offense. Before the snap of the ball, they have linebackers and defensive backs moving all over the place. They move up to the line of scrimmage to fake a blitz, they move the OLB's from one side to the other, and they generally look like they are confused - but they are carefully crafting their fakes. They do blitz more than the average defense, but they also spend a lot of time faking the blitz from one area and bringing it from another. All this movement did hurt them occasionally when they weren't lined up properly at the snap of the ball, but that's the price they're willing to pay for trying to disguise their actual play-call. The Patriots looked like a better team when they went to the hurry-up offense because the Chargers were unable to do all their movement.

Like the Patriots, the Chargers believe in being very aggressive on 3rd downs. They sometimes move their secondary up for press coverage and send the blitz, while playing man-to-man in coverage. The corners also tried to be physical with the Patriots receivers by knocking them off their routes at the snap of the ball. Overall, it looked like the Chargers do play a lot of zone in coverage, but they aren't afraid to expose their secondary in man-to-man situations while trying to bring pressure in the pass rush.

San Diego was not shy about moving their defensive line, too. Instead of always lining up on top of the center and on top of the tackles, they would move into the gaps. Occasionally they did this to one side while bringing the blitz from the other side, trying to make the offensive line choose who and where they would slide the protection. They also did a lot of slanting with their defensive ends, something a Parcells 3-4 never does.

The Chargers try to overload a side of the line with their blitzes. They send their safety into the pass rush on occasion, and like to bring a linebacker with him into the same area on the offensive line. They are also extremely quick around the edges with their OLB's. They do ask the OLB's to get into coverage on occasion, and from what I saw they were not very good at it. But the ILB's were very good about covering underneath, once again closer to the line of scrimmage than the Dallas ILB's, and they also ran with the TE pretty well, something Bradie James can't do. Now, the Patriots TE's are very good and they were able to exploit the coverage by the LB's on occasion, but seemed to find a lot of that success on the outside.

Summary

Watching the New England defense was a lot like watching the Dallas defense. They play straight-up pre-snap and generally have a lot of the same defensive calls. The difference was their willingness to get aggressive in situations where Dallas usually chooses to sit back, like 3rd and long. They also have more experience with their defensive players and they react better and quicker than Dallas does. They also trust their secondary more by keeping the front seven closer to the line on pass plays.

San Diego is a very different beast. They believe in confusion and overloading blitzes to cause havoc with the opposing QB. They are a much more aggressive scheme and are very physical with the offense, including the wide receivers. They depend on their front seven to be playmakers because they risk a lot with their blitzes. When they don't get pressure on a play though, they can be in trouble with a suspect secondary.

Under Bill Parcells, it's doubtful you'll ever see a 3-4 scheme that resembles the Chargers. But if you want a blueprint for how Parcells wants the 3-4 defense to work, watch the New England Patriots.

Again, this was just one game, so the teams may run different strategies over the course of a season. But I think I got a feel for their philosophy on defense.