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The Cowboys and the 3-4 Defense: A Winning Proposition


Raf's story on Wade Phillips' 3-4 prompted me to hunt down some numbers on the 3-4 defenses.

By my count there are currently 13 teams running the 3-4: Broncos, Browns, Cardinals, Chargers, Chiefs, Cowboys, Dolphins, 49ers, Jets, Packers, Patriots, Ravens and Steelers.

In 2004 five teams were running a 3-4 defense (NE, PIT, BAL, SD, HOU). By 2008 that number had grown to 10 (NE, PIT, BAL, SD, CLE, ARI, DAL, MIA, SF, NYJ). The Broncos, Chiefs and Packers joined the growing crowd of 3-4 defenses in 2009, and the Redskins and the Bills are reported to be moving to a 3-4 next season.

You’ll recognize some of the better defenses in the league in the line-up above. After the jump we break down how the 3-4 defenses ranked in the 2009 season.

Last year, the 3-4 teams dominated the NFL top seven lists in most defensive categories. The top five scoring defenses in the league were 3-4 teams, as were the top three in yards allowed. 3-4 teams highlighted in bold.

Scoring Defense Total Defense
Rank Team
Points Allowed/Game
Rank Team Yards Allowed/Game
1 Jets 14.8 1 Jets 252
2 Cowboys 15.6 2 Packers 284
3 Ravens 16.3 3 Ravens 301
4 49ers 17.6 4 Bengals 301
5 Patriots 17.8 5 Steelers 305
6 Bengals 18.2 6 Vikings 306
7 Packers
18.6 7 Broncos 315

A similar picture emerges when looking at some of the defensive efficiency metrics, in this case yards allowed per play and yards allowed per point allowed (a 'bend but don't break' metric). In both cases, 3-4 defenses took five of the seven top spots last season.

Yards Allowed Per Play Yards Per Point Allowed
Rank Team
Rank Team YPPA
1 Jets 4.2 1 Cowboys 20.3
2 Packers 4.8 2 49ers 18.6
3 Ravens 4.9 3 Ravens 18.4
4 Bengals 4.9 4 Patriots 18.0
5 Broncos 5.0 5 Colts 17.7
6 Eagles 5.0 6 Falcons 17.2
7 49ers
5.0 7 Jets 17.1

And finally, in terms of sacks and 3rd down conversions allowed, the usual 3-4 suspects again dominate the top seven teams in the league.

Sacks % 3rd down conversions allowed
Rank Team
Rank Team 3rd dwn conv. %
1 Vikings 48 1 Jets 31.5
2 Steelers 47 2 Eagles 33.0
3 Dolphins 44 3 Vikings 34.5
4 49ers 44 4 Dolphins 34.8
5 Eagles 44 5 Cowboys 35.0
6 Cardinals 43 6 Cardinals 35.3
7 Cowboys
42 7 Panthers 35.5

The stats speak a clear language: The majority of top defenses in the NFL run a 3-4 defense. Perhaps that's because of the flexibility and unpredictability that arguably comes with the scheme. Perhaps the 3-4 is the better option against today's passing offenses. Perhaps it's because the scheme allows you to get better athletes onto the field. Perhaps it's as simple as the more successful defenses among the NFL teams jumping onto the bandwagon first.

As more and more defenses adopt the 3-4, offenses will develop new schemes and strategies (2 TE set, anyone?) to counter them and so continues the constant evolution of the game. As long as the Cowboys continue to stay ahead of the curve on these developments, I look forward optimistically.

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