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What Is The 3-4 Defense In Football?

The 3-4 defense is one of the most popular defensive sets in football. High school teams and NFL teams will use the 3-4 defense to stop high-powered spread offenses. But what exactly are the 3-4 defense, and how do coaches use it?

The 3-4 defense in football has 3 defensive linemen and 4 linebackers. In the defensive backfield, there are 4 defensive backs that help protect from deep passes. Teams will use this front against every style of offense.

In this article, we’re going to show you exactly what the 3-4 defense is in football and why it’s so popular.

3-4 Defense In Football

3-4 defense

Football coaches use the 3-4 defense because it emphasizes speed and running to the football, as opposed to using bigger players to clog gaps.

The 3-4 defense is one of the more dynamic schemes in football because defensive coordinators can choose to have their 3 defensive linemen play certain gaps, or they can slant.

Slanting and misdirection cause offensive lineman to become confused and often leads to linebackers making tackles in the backfield.

Fast, skilled defensive lineman often are the anchor for 3-4 schemes to be successful.

Defensive Lineman In The 3-4 Scheme

The inside defensive lineman in a 3-4 scheme is usually called the ‘nose tackle’ or ‘nose guard’. The nose tackle is supposed to be bigger and more powerful than the other lineman.

The Nose will try to occupy the center and do a technique called 2-gapping. 2-gapping is when the nose punches the center, and he is responsible for 2 gaps, often both A gaps.

This means that the center must be able to discard and throw around the opponents center in able to control both gaps. A dominant nose takes the stress off of the interior linebackers.

The outside 2 defensive linemen are called “defensive ends”. They don’t always have to be big and athletic, but they need to make sure that they can get their hands on their opponent or slant to the proper gap as quick as possible.

These defensive ends are often in a 3 point stance and will play with their hand on the ground in a 3 point stance. The defensive end is often smaller than the nose, and must be able to beat both the guard as well as the tackle in a pass rush situation.

Linebackers In The 3-4 Scheme

The inside linebackers in the 3-4 scheme are called the “inside linebackers”. The inside linebackers are usually a bigger player with more strength than speed. These players are often tasked with filling the gaps between the center, guard and tackle (A & B gaps).

The linebackers on the edge of the defensive formation are called ” outside linebackers” or OLB’s.

These players are often faster than the inside linebackers because they need to be able to run with tight ends and slot receivers.

These players are often interchangeable to play defensive end. Coaches who want to quickly get to a 4-man line, can bring one of their outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage and be in a 4-3 defense.

This is why personnel is so important in the 3-4 defense, as it allows flexibility within the scheme.

Defensive Backs In The 3-4 Scheme

The defensive backs in a 3-4 scheme are called the “Free Safety” and the “Strong Safety”. Free safeties are responsible for covering deep halves of the field.  This player is often free to be an athlete and cover any defender who comes into their zone.

The other safety is known as the strong safety. Teams will use the strong safety as another player to support on run plays. This player must also be athletic enough to cover receivers in passing concepts.

The other defensive backs are called “Cornerbacks” or “CB’s”. They are given the task of guarding the wide receivers.

What Coverages Are Run In The 3-4 Defense?

The 3-4 defense is a great defensive scheme to run zone coverages. Any type of zone coverage can be run, but some are more applicable than others.

The reason why zone coverages are used is because there are 4 linebackers who can help on run plays and pass plays. This means that the coaches can get away with more pass pressure and blitzing safeties, as well as dropping linebackers into holes to guard from the pass.

Due to the fact there is 1 extra linebacker on the field (in comparison to the 4-3), 3-4 teams are able to be more creative in how they stunt and run blitzes.

Cover 2 in football
In a traditional cover 2, the coach can choose to rush an extra player or drop him in coverage (shown by the DT)

Cover 2 and cover 4 are common passing concepts in the 3-4 defense. For a complete breakdown of Cover 2, check out this article here.

Cover 4 can be run from a match or zone perspective, which is better explained in this video below.

Why Do Teams Run The 3-4 Defense?

Coaches who use the 3-4 defense are often looking to stop a high powered passing offense or a few power running teams in their area. The 3-4 allows for teams to be more athletic than they would be in a 4-3 defense.

The 3-4 defense is also very good at disguising coverages and blitzes, as the defensive front can look different on every play.

Coaches who want to show blitz but fall back into zone coverage want this scheme because it’s very flexible and allows for them to mix coverages. Power running teams look for gaps and running lanes, the 3-4 disguises where the gaps will come from by using slants and cross blitzes with their linemen.


A 3-4 defensive scheme is not for every defense out there, but they do have their purposes. The 3-4 is a base defense that many coaches use to stop both the run and pass.

The 3-4 defense uses 3 defensive lineman, 4 linebackers and 4 defensive backs. This scheme is extremely flexible and allows for coaches to slant and use stunts to confuse the defense.

Each scheme is run based on the personnel and players that can run the scheme. If a coach doesn’t have the players to run a 3-4 scheme, they will often elect to play a 4-3 or 4-4 scheme.

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