Systemic Problems- Part III: The 3-4 Defense

Systemic Problems- Part III:

The 3-4 Defense   •   by Ransom Hawthorne

Read “Systemic Problems- Part I: West Coast Offense” –> here.

Read “Systemic Problems- Part II: Zone Blocking” –> here.

I’m a big fan of the 3-4 defense. Its one of the most diverse defensive systems there is. There are many offshoots in the execution and strategy as coaches have branched out from the original strategies governing the system. The trouble with the 3-4 defense is, that it is growing harder and harder to run effectively in today’s NFL. While the Kansas City Chiefs seem to have righted the ship somewhat on defense — for now — their early season struggles reveal some of the key challenges that the 3-4 faces.

Key Personnel- DL: The DL required for a 3-4 can vary based on who’s running it. For example, when Romeo Crennel was the DC, the Chiefs went for very tall DEs because they were using traditional two-gap techniques (where a DL is responsible for his man and the two gaps on either side of him). Current DC, Bob Sutton, originally came to K.C. with an attacking 3-4 defense, where each defender was only responsible for a single gap. In this system, strength, get-off, and speed, are much more important than raw size and length. Players like Rakeem Nunez Roches and Allen Bailey exemplify this prototype. More recently though, Sutton has switched back to big men in the middle, due to the amount of nickel and Dime-Defense the Chiefs have been running. The variety of looks the Chiefs employ makes it relatively easy to find DL who can play in their scheme, but it also means that they don’t have a clear identity along the defensive line. Sometimes depth players are stuck taking snaps in a defensive alignment that’s not suited to their strengths.

Key Personnel- CBs: A 3-4 can play a variety of coverage schemes, but K.C. employs almost exclusively, man coverage. Man coverage requires DBs who are very technically sound, with decent size and speed. That stands in contrast to zone CBs, who need to exhibit awareness and burst, but need not have great long speed or exceptional agility. Quality man coverage CBs are hard to come by. With NFL officiating slanting more and more towards the offense, it has become much harder to employ the type of physical coverage necessary to win man to man. Back in 2013, Terrence Mitchell would’ve been a shut down CB. Today, he’s a decent CB, but can draw a lot of penalties. Quality man coverage CBs are mostly found in the upper two rounds now. This is a challenge when it comes to building depth, because you need at least three good starting CBs and a pretty solid depth guy. Due to the differences in man and zone coverage, it’s also much harder to find quality nickel backs for man coverage.

Key Personnel- ILBs: Finding quality ILBs in a 3-4 can be tricky. The 3-4 employs two different linebackers on the inside. The weak-side linebacker, or Will, is Derrick Johnson’s spot. It requires a very diverse skill set. The Will must be able to cover TEs and RBs, fill gaps in the run game, play zone coverage behind the line, and, occasionally, rush the QB. The Will is also traditionally the guy who makes defensive calls and adjustments at the line, so he’s essentially the coach-on-the-field for the defense. This requires a special player. He has to be fast, agile, big, strong and have a very high football IQ. Starting Will LBs are very difficult to find, and generally go in the top two rounds, but teams have found success drafting guys with the necessary physical skills, and coaching them up (Kevin Pierre Louis could be one of those guys). The strong side ILB, or Mike linebacker, is a much easier position to fill. He simply has to read the offense well, and aggressively fill gaps. In the scheme originally employed by Sutton, the Mike didn’t even have to read, he had a predetermined gap to fill.

Key Personnel- OLB: This is the position that every 3-4 defense hinges on and the job requirements are daunting. A good OLB has to rush the passer against guys who are much bigger than they are, cover TEs, shed blocks from OTs to set the edge and drop into zone coverage. By definition, these guys are freaks. Back when the 3-4 was originally invented, covering TEs and RBs was a lot easier. With today’s athletes at RB and TE, the OLBs job has become nearly impossible. Players who can actually do all the things an OLB is supposed to do, coming out of college, are drafted in the top 5 picks. Good teams generally compensate for this by drafting players lower in the first — like Dee Ford — and relying on strong play from their secondary.

3-4 Scheme Issues: Bob Sutton’s 3-4 requires: great CBs, OLBs, and an elite WILB. All of those positions need to be drafted high in the draft. WILBs are not cost prohibitive in free agency, but CBs and OLBs generally are. While the 3-4 can be incredible when you have all these pieces, as the Chiefs did in 2015, it’s very difficult to maintain such high quality personnel. Sutton has been able to scheme around the weaknesses, but without the right personnel, it always opens up something else.

Early this year, Sutton played a ton of nickel and dime D. This helped cover up weak play at CB, but left the Chiefs constantly weak in the run D. Early in his time with the Chiefs, Sutton played a ton of press coverage and exotic blitzes. This was to cover up weak play at S. Chiefs came up with a lot of turnovers and stops, but also gave up a lot of big plays. When K.C. doesn’t have to cover up any weaknesses, they have one of the best defenses in the NFL, but since 2013, there’s only been one year where that was true. Sutton is a good coach, in that he does a good job of scheming around his weaknesses, but his inability to consistently field a quality D… personnel wise… despite a greater investment in the defense than the offense in most drafts, reveals systemic problems with the 3-4 defense in the modern NFL.

What Does This Mean For The Chiefs?

All the success the Chiefs have had is making it difficult to maintain the defensive personnel they need to make the system succeed. Bob Sutton wants to run press coverage, man defense, with a single high safety. The fact that he doesn’t often do that anymore, reveals the depth of Chiefs roster issues. While a few whiffs on CB and OLB, in the draft, have certainly hurt, fans can’t expect the team to consistently hit on those positions outside the first couple rounds, or in the case of OLB, outside the first ten picks. Simply put, it’s really tough to be a team with a winning record every year and a quality 3-4 defense. The fact that the WCO and ZBS require Chiefs to retain a lot of players on the offense, only compounds this issue.

Solution: Switch To a Hybrid Defense

Bob Sutton is never going to abandon the 3-4 entirely, but he can take care of some of the personnel issues by running some 4-3 looks. The beauty of the 4-3 is it’s simplicity. Players are responsible for individual gaps and they don’t do a bunch of reading and reacting, they just go. While 4-3 DEs and 3-4 OLBs share similar physical characteristics, 4-3 DEs almost never have to drop in coverage. This means that the Chiefs can take a raw prospect, like Kpassagnon, and play him as a pass rusher, without having to worry about dropping him in coverage.

If the Chiefs fired Bob Sutton, a possible move to a 4-3 defense with zone coverage could happen, but it would mean a major rebuild. Chiefs best ILB looks to be Reggie Ragland right now (Chiefs got him because Buffalo switched to a 4-3 and he wasn’t a fit for their scheme). Rather than completely abandoning the 3-4, I would like to see Chiefs gradually transition to more 4-3 looks with zone coverage behind them (maybe 15-25% of their snaps). I think Marcus Peters, in particular, could actually be more useful in zone, he‘d definitely have more chances to get his hands on the ball.

Systemic Problems- Conclusion

Most of the Chiefs issues, on offense and defense, stem from the inability to maintain a consistently talented roster. When John Dorsey was GM, they were more focused on the fact that he was finding replacements, than they were on the fact that he was losing players. Sure, Chiefs replaced Rodney Hudson with Mitch Morse, and it worked great, but it’d be even better to have both. The bottom line is, Chiefs run three very demanding schemes. If you try to be perfect in every area, you tend to wind up not good at much. Kansas City needs to settle on at least one of their schemes to simplify. Change from the complex WCO… shift to a power blocking run scheme… or modify their defense to require less talented role players. If the Chiefs maintain all three schemes, I think they’ll continue to have issues with roster depth.

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Ransom Hawthorne

Ransom Hawthorne

Ransom Hawthorne is an electrician living in central KS. He's married and has two young boys. Born in KS, and raised in Tucson, Ransom spent his middle school years in southern Mexico.
Ransom Hawthorne

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  • berttheclock

    The 3-4 defense has been around since the days of Bud Wilkinson at the University of Oklahoma. One reason years later several AFC teams switched to the 3-4 was to try to confuse opposing QBs on presnap reads. The 3-4 is set up to rush four players. One of the rushers will come from either a safety up near the LOS or a LB. The confusion is created pre-snap by not letting the QB figure out who will be the 4th rusher.

    But, in order for a 3-4 to succeed, you must have a very strong NT. One reason the Chiefs beat the Vikings in Super Bowl IV was due to Curly Culp moving up to be a 3-4 NT, which allowed the DE, Aaron Brown, to wreak havoc on Joe Kapp.

    However, while the major problem with trying to run an effective 4-3 is you need bigger defensive linemen, the major problems with a 3-4 can come when you do not have the personnel to be able to create double team problems. When, the 3-4 worked the best under Sutton, he had a healthy Donatari Poe to tie up at least 2 blockers. This year, he does not have the personnel to be able to do such. The front of the Chiefs keeps getting pushed backwards. Plus, you need more than one great LB and at present, the Chiefs have a rising star in Ragland, but, he is only in on perceived running plays. That leaves only Houston and that is not enough.

    No matter which system will be used next year, the first order of business will be to find proper personnel to run which ever system is ordered. At present, the Chiefs are deficient in trying to run either system due to lack of needed personnel.

    • Chiefly Bacon

      A great NT certainly helps, but this year and last, Sutton has run a lot more looks with two DTs. This is party due to playing a lot of multiple WR sets, but also, because Chiefs haven’t had quality OLBs on both sides. As you note, you’re supposed to confused the offense about who is rushing, but with Zombo opposite Houston, the offense is either pleasantly surprised (when Houston doesn’t rush), or not surprised at all. By putting only four players on the line, Sutton can rush all them every snap. It’s not surprising, but it makes more sense than dropping either Zombo (cause he’s slow) or Houston (cause’ he’s our best pass rusher) in coverage.

      • berttheclock

        He may well rush them every snap, but, I have seen very little push by any of them. This remains a major problem for both the offensive and defensive lines. No push back. Look back at several games, when, you see the opposing offensive line simply stand up all of the KC rushers, while, their QB reads the Yellow Pages at ease.

        • Chiefly Bacon

          I’d say Houston is still doing pretty well, but when you only have one good pass rusher, teams can do a lot things to slow him up. Remember how Chiefs would always shut down JJ Watt when they played the Texans? Chris Jones looked terrific his rookie year, but Chiefs kept him on a snap count. With the loss of Jaye Howard, Chiefs have had to put Jones out there for more snaps, and many of his bad habits from college are showing up.

          • berttheclock

            Wasn’t one of the biggest knocks against him in college about his supposed taking off of plays? I thought Poe was the one who really kept him in line with the Chiefs.

          • Chiefly Bacon

            That was one of the knocks on him. Never heard of Poe being the guy who kept people in line. Everyone said he was really funny. I think Jones was able to maintain his focus and energy because he was taking limited snaps. Needs to bring that intensity with a higher snap load.

      • which significantly affects the 2018 draft and signings of F/As before and after. One point though: Houston is getting pressures despite his sack total is down. The problem is opposite him. I trusted Ford had developed the spin move he has shown. He doesn’t fight with his hands and doesn’t vary his rush approach. Besides that,his back injury is hurting the Chiefs. Hali being unable to perform either, really hurts.

        Right now, he is LP on the injury report and so is Logan and Wilson. Smith, Eligwe and Bailey are all FP. I hope the all three provide defense support–glad to see Terrance Smith back. West and Ford DNP. I am pissed about Ford btw.

        Forgot Murray — DNP(ankle, high sprain reported) (edited in)

    • PaulFromNorthMo

      The biggest problem I have seen is not so much the front 3, assuming Sutton isn’t in a sub set, but the lack of any kind of pass rush opposite Houston. When a TE can handle Ford or Zombo one on one, the O-line can double up against our DL.

    • jimfromkcj

      bert I think it Is much easier to change from a 34 to a 43 than the other way. The thing I have never liked about the 34 is that every position has to be sort of a specialist to make it work. A 43 is much more just being a football player. All the linebackers can play any of the three positions and the same for linemen. The ends have two options, Rush the passer on passing downs and seal the corner on running plays. I prefer that the Corners be aggressive and maul the receivers at the line of scrimmage throwing the QB’s timing off.

  • berttheclock

    If you want to see a very effective 3-4, look no further than the major nemesis of the Chiefs. The Pittsburgh Steelers. They have an outstanding NT, Javon Hargrave, who has a very low center of gravity and can make a powerful leveraged bull rush. He has adequate help to his left in Hayward, but, to his right, he has a DE, Stephon Truitt, who uses both power and speed and is a rare breed in that he could play either in a 4-3 or a 3-4 with ease. Add the fact, they have a thumper at ILB in Vinnie Williams, but, they have 3 other LBs, Watt, Shazier and Dupree who can all fly sideline to sideline.

    • Chiefly Bacon

      True, interesting point about the Steelers, their last 5 first round picks have been on defense. By contrast, The Seattle Seahawks have only had two of their last 5 first round picks on defense. I love the 3-4 defense, but it’s not something you can do half-way. Need to be able to devote a ton of resources to it. Something Steelers have been able to do, as their offense has been good for a long time. If Chiefs are able to either run a simpler offense, or start a QB who can be as good as, or better than Smith, with less support, I have no problem with sticking with a traditional 3-4.

      • berttheclock

        One change with the Steelers being run by Tomlin instead of Bill Cowher is Tomlin plays his rookie LBs a lot sooner in the 3-4. Cowher said it should take at least 3 years of learning before allowing one to start at LB for him.

        • Chiefly Bacon

          The way the salary cap and free agency works these days, it’d be pretty tough to follow the Cower method, but he made an excellent point. 3-4 OLBs are rarely great overnight.

      • PaulFromNorthMo

        Wow, even more interesting is that 4 of those 5 were linebackers. Does that put into perspective the importance of that position in the 3-4?

        • Chiefly Bacon


  • berttheclock

    Off topic, but, early weather reports for MetLife Stadium on this coming Sunday suggest it will be 51 degrees, sunny and only a 5 MPH wind. So, no excuses for any wind gusting as was the case in the Giants game.

    • Chiefs-Kings-A’s

      Maybe Our brilliant coach will try the Kelce pass again then

      • tm1946

        Betting that play was removed from Reid’s massive play book… one useless play and about 200. move to dump.

  • berttheclock

    When, Wade Phillips showed up with the LA Rams this spring, he did not have the best NT in the world, but, he had two powerful DEs. He installed the 3-4 and it has been very effective.

  • tm1946

    So…. basically Dorsey shafted the Chiefs in this current version?

    • PaulFromNorthMo

      It kinda seems that way, doesn’t it.

    • berttheclock

      The one player I wanted to see Dorsey take at 91 (the one he gave to the Bills, then, the Bills traded it to the Rams) was Montravious Adams from Auburn. Could be inconsistent in college, but, he was a force who could be moved from DE to NT. Now, the jury is really going to be out on this because, he broke his foot in preseason with the Packers and has only played as a backup in the past 4 games. So, that is very much a stay tuned.

      • berttheclock

        I believe that 91 the Bills traded on ended up being a safety taken by the Rams.

        • the what if’s. My next piece I guess. What if the Chiefs traded back out of the first round, got a second 2nd round pick and go from there. 🙂

  • PaulFromNorthMo

    Great series Ransom, very informative reads. Thanks for your hard work.

    • Chiefly Bacon


  • Tony Parker

    I don’t come to this site often but this series you are writing is top notch. Thank you for that Ransom! Really impressive articles. Have you applied for Reid’s job yet??

  • berttheclock

    Chiefs’ players not heading to New Jersey this Sunday include Dee Ford, Eric Murray and Charcandrick West. The Chiefs will only have 2 RBs available (The Hunt “Brothers”), unless Spiller is brought back.

    • tm1946

      I am sure Sorenson can triple as RB. Or, heck, when you has an offensive mind running things… who needs RBs?

  • berttheclock

    I don’t believe, either, the front office or the top coaching staff realized how much losing Poe to another team would end up hurting them. Last year, he was in the process of recovering from a back injury. Now, in Atlanta, his back is healed and he has become a force for them. He eats up double teams. In fact, I believe Benny Logan would play better if he had Poe next to him. Even Chris Jones would be playing better if he were still with the Chiefs.

  • tm1946

    Bert good news – your Porsche stolen 27 years ago in Medford Ore was found… insurance company wants their settlement back. Must be true on internet.

    • berttheclock

      Ouch! In October 1962, I came very close to buying a brand new 1963 Porsche in West Germany. At the time, it was $3700 US and I had the money, but, it would have strapped me. For once in my life, I turned conservative and bought a new ’63 Beetle. That car turned out to be the only bad year for VWs in a long long run of Beetles. They had increased the size of a valve and it had not been properly tested. Blew the valve twice. So, that was a close as I ever became to owning a Porsche.

  • iowaskcchiefsfan

    Great series. Very informative. Thank-you.

    I think that changing the Defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 is easier than a 4-3 to a 3-4.. The Chiefs don’t spend all that much time in their base defense. I don’t think it is necessary to have both 3-4 OLB/Pass-Rushers drop into coverage. If one can great. In most cases the Defense is rushing at least 4. If both OLB can bring the heat and only one is good in dropping in coverage, you send the one that can’t cover all the time. You can have them switch sides, use twists and stunts. You don’t put the one that has difficulty in coverage in coverage especially man-coverage, think of him as a 4-3 DE, his main job is to get after the QB.

    With Dee Ford sidelined, I would slide Justin Houston to ROLB, the QB’s blind-side. Depending on whether I wanted to drop into coverage I would play K-Pass or Zombo as the LOLB. K-Pass is a big run-defending pass-rusher. He would vs the run be facing TE or WR trying to block him as a LB. He should be able to hold the corner and turn the run inside. His weakness would be dropping into coverage, so you don’t drop him into coverage, you have him penetrate and disrupt and pressure. Get him one on one vs the ORT who is usually the Offense’s less athletic OT. Frank Zombo is a good solid OLB vs the run or dropping into coverage. He isn’t a big pass-rush threat. Maybe as a change line-up K-Pass at OLB to play similar to a 4-3 DE, slide Zombo to LILB to slide out into coverage. Houston can neutralize the OLT by pass-rushing when he wants. Call it a modified 3-4 or 4-3.

    The Chiefs need to play man coverage. If they generate a pass-rush the CB’s should be able to cover. They need that pass-rush. Don’t let the QB just sit back there. Pressure the QB.

    The conversion to the modified PBS-run and ZBS-pass shouldn’t be that difficult. The Chiefs have big athletic OL. With the exception of Mitch Morse, who is 6’6″, 305 lbs., the OL is +6’5″, and +315 lbs. They are fairly quick and mobile. Letting them fire out and drive might work to their advantage.

    The Chiefs need to run the ball and not give up on it so quickly. Bring those Safeties up. Make those defenders respect the run. That will slow-down the pass-rush. IMO, Kareem Hunt gets better with more carries. 10 or 11 carries are not enough. 15 to 20 would be more like it.

    The Chiefs need to eliminate the mental errors and start playing with some discipline. Was it 9 or 10 plays inside the 10 on the finale TD? That should have been a stop for a FG giving the Jets a 2 point lead with around 3 minutes. Remember the Chiefs moved well within FG range at the end.