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Cowboys Defense: How Does The 3-4 Work? Part 1: The "Real" 3-4

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Forget the (alleged) fines, (alleged) violations, and (alleged) collusion for a moment. This is BTB, and we're here to talk football. Free Agency began at 4PM Tuesday, and we've once again dusted off our Economics degrees. For now, it's X's and O's for me, and any of you that choose to come along.

Most of us know that our Dallas Cowboys currently employ a 3-4 base defense. But how many of us actually know what it's supposed to do? Fear not. It's very common to be unfamiliar with the 3-4 as a whole. Whether you've just recently gained interest in the inner-workings of football, or poured hours into understanding the schemes of the early-90's dynasties, the 3-4 is unfamiliar territory. What doesn't help is that our coaches make little effort to divulge their strategies to the public (and for good reason), and our owner freely divulges information, albeit through an uncrackable cypher.

We'll begin by looking at the original 3-4 defense, which Bill Parcells brought to Dallas, and from which many of the misconceptions about modern 3-4 systems arise. Afterwards, we'll look at how the 3-4 has evolved in Dallas with Wade Phillips, and, even further, with Rob Ryan.

A quick note about names:
Defensive schemes are typically identified by the number of personnel they employ of each: linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs. These numbers, listed in sequence, represent the name of the defense.
For typical base sets (3-4, 4-3), the number of defensive backs is often omitted, as it can be inferred by the simple formula: 11 = (number of linemen) + (number of linebackers) + (number of defensive backs)
A notable exception, the "46" (note the lack of a separating mark) defense was named after a player's Jersey Number; it would more aptly be named a 4-4-3 (the SS comes down, into the box).

The Standard 3-4

As designed, Bill Parcells' defense was a conservative yet incredibly powerful scheme. It's key tenets were gap integrity from the defensive line and flexibility from the linebackers. It did not, believe it or not, revolve around the weak-side outside linebacker, standing up in the 9-technique, rushing the quarterback on every snap. Instead, it employed very basic blitzes and coverages, and relied on the defensive personnel to execute their assignments in a read-and-react fashion.

The Personnel:

Parcells' defense required a very specific set of players. Although he was not against utilizing superior, if not prototypical, players, his drafting history showed a tendency to go after specific body types.

Nose Tackle:
Everything starts up front. With a 3-4 defense, this is especially true. Think about football in general; there are 11 men on the field. Players typically come in sets of 2, on defense, but the player that you only have one of is the most important, as only he can execute his responsibilities. The nose tackle is meant to be a short, thick, beastly force of nature. Look for 6' to 6'4, and 320+ pounds. Emphasis on the plus.

Defensive End:
Nearly as important to Bill (who wanted to draft Marcus Spears instead of DeMarcus Ware, rather than after), the Defensive Ends are vital components to a successful 3-4. They are intended to be so dominant that a Tackle can not consistently block them 1-on-1. 6'4 - 6'7, 280-330(!) pounds.

Inside Linebacker:
Parcells made Carpenter a first-round draft choice. He also selected Bradie James (a fixture until last year) and acquired Akin Ayodele to play in this position. The inside 'backer should be able to drop into coverage with the safeties, but also beat a Guard's block in the run game. 6'1 - 6'4, 240-265 pounds.

Outside Linebacker:
The position played by arguably the best player on our roster, outside linebacker demands incredible versatility. Not only are the 3-4 OLBs intended to replace the 4-3 DEs in the pass-rushing department, but they are also supposed to supplant the 4-3 OLBs capabilities as rangy coverage and pursuit guys. You're demanding the size of a lineman with the athleticism of a linebacker. 6'4 - 6'7, 250-280 pounds.

If you asked Roy Williams (the relevant one) what he thought of the 3-4 system Parcells implemented, the result might not be safe for work. Originally drafted as an attacking, in-the-box safety, Williams was forced, in the new scheme, to play coverage nearly as often, and nearly as effectively as his partner at free safety. For both, versatility (coverage, blitzing) is critical.

Aside from Terence Newman (I promise he was good back then), Parcells didn't have much to work with in the secondary. As shown in the diagram (the headline image), Newman's style of giving receivers a big cushion is standard in the "real" 3-4. The idea is to sit back in coverage and jump the routes that come your way, while forcing receivers to the safeties and linebackers. Speed is key here, as well as ball skills and route recognition.

The Assignments:

Nose Tackle:
As the man in the middle, the Nose Tackle lines up in the 0-technique (over the Center). His jobs are to push the Center back into the quarterback/developing play, force assistance from a Guard in completing the block against him, and disengage the Center in order to tackle any runners in either A Gap.

Defensive End:
Similar in concept to the nose tackle, DEs share many of the same responsibilities. They are still asked to create opportunities for their men by drawing double teams. Also, they are expected to maintain two gaps each--their respective B and C gaps--in run defense.

Inside Linebacker:
The ILB begins in a rather precarious position, which Parcells called the "Bubble." The Bubble is the position in front of an uncovered Guard, and it's precarious because Guard's are big, mean, and nasty. If, for some reason, a Guard is able to break off of a double team, the ILB has to fight off that block and stop the run. If not, the ILB makes a run/pass read and either drops into coverage or waits near the line of scrimmage.

Outside Linebacker:
In the "real" 3-4, OLBs play off the line of scrimmage. While they are still primary blitz options, they are also intended to be sufficiently competent in coverage as to force the quarterback to account for them possibly playing zones. This is where the original element of mystery comes from with the 3-4. Which OLB is blitzing? It doesn't get much more suspenseful than that. Or, at least, not until we get to Rob's scheme.

The safeties are occasional blitzers in the 3-4. The primary difference from the 4-3 or 46 is that, in the 3-4, either safety is equally likely to blitz, as they are utilized interchangeably. Conversely, one or the other is equally likely to be covering, and, at times, both or neither will be playing the deep zones.3-4 safeties provide little run support, as they are frequently asked to drop deep. The wealth of linebackers is expected to mitigate this facet of the game.

Corners, as we see all year, are primarily tasked with covering an opposing receiver one-on-one. The "real" 3-4 employs little press coverage, as they prefer to keep their assignments in given alignments ambiguous. The depth of the corners is such that, if need be, a quarters zone can easily be called from the base defense, accounting for an unexpectedly high number of receivers spread out wide, and linebackers spreading out underneath or blitzing.

The Implementation:

The NT attacks the Center, drawing a double team from the strong-side Guard. The DEs attack their respective Tackles. The weak-side DE is doubled by the Tackle and Guard, while the strong-side DE is doubled by the Tackle and Tight End/Fullback. The ILBs read the play without fear of being blocked and drop into coverage. The corners force their receivers' routes inside as much as possible. The safeties, seeing the ILBs in coverage, work to prevent the deep ball. The strong-side OLB rushes the edge, and covers the back if he should get the ball or release on a route. The weak-side OLB rushes the QB, unblocked (as the weak-side Tackle is blocking the DE), and completes the sack (or forces the throw into solid zone coverage, a likely interception).

There are also several contingencies. If a DE or DT loses an O-Lineman, the ILB must get position to make the stop regardless of the lineman's location. In that case, there will be one less ILB in coverage, and the safeties will adjust appropriately. Additionally, if a CB gets beaten deep, the same-side safety must assume responsibility for that receiver.

The "real" 3-4 defense is substantially different from what we run today. If you notice, however, that a certain player seems unproductive recently, look to see who drafted them. It's likely that many of Parcells' defensive selections would be out of place in the Cowboys' current scheme. The shift to Phillips was not merely a subtle shift in alignment, but a fundamental change from reactionary to aggressive defense. A number of players were forcibly displaced from their roles. From Phillips to Ryan was far less substantial, as the aggression was still there. The number of concepts, however, is substantially larger, as is the number of potential assignments, but those topics are for another day. (Next: Phillips' 1-Gap 3-4)