3-4 Defense In Football – Complete Guide

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

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

The 3-4 defense in football includes three defensive linemen, four linebackers, and four defensive backs. This scheme is used by most high school, college, and professional teams.

In this article, we will 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 to emphasize speed and running instead of using bigger players to clog gaps. Similar to the 4-3 defense, the 3-4 structure uses a different philosophy and players.

The 3-4 defense is one of the more dynamic schemes in football because defensive coordinators can have their three defensive linemen play specific gaps or slants.

Slanting and misdirection cause offensive linemen to become confused, leading to linebackers making tackles in the backfield.

Fast, skilled defensive linemen often anchor 3-4 schemes. This helps them penetrate the line of scrimmage and be efficient in their run fits.


We’re going to show you the different defensive fronts that coaches will play, to stop both the run and pass in the 3-4.

Stack Front

stack front in the 3-4 defense

The stack front is when the two defensive ends will play in 4 techniques and the nose guard will play in a 0 technique. This is also known as a 4-0-4 defense.

Coaches will play the 4-0-4 defense because it allows defensive fronts to thin out and beat double teams. Most defensive coordinators, who face zone run teams, will need to fight off the double teams. By positioning players in a 4 technique, it’s tough for the guard to get to the 4 technique on inside zone.

To slow down the offense’s passing attack, the 4-0-4 can be used for a balance pass rush. Depending on the athletic ability of the defensive ends and the defensive play call, the defensive end will have a two way rush on the tackle. This means they can go to the inside or outside, depending on how the tackle sets.

Tite/Mint Front

The Tite front is a popular front with both college football teams and NFL teams because it allows coaches to dedicate fewer resources to the inside and more toward the perimeter and C gaps. The alignments for the Tite front are 4i-0-4i. The small shift from the stack front means the defensive ends are now on the inside shoulder of the tackle, not head up.

tite front in 3-4 defense

The Tite front is a great run defense for teams who are zone oriented. All of the down linemen play “lag” techniques, meaning they are going to play whatever gap they fall back into. Offensive blockers will have a tough time getting inside of the 4i techniques, simply based on their leverage.

Where the Tite front lacks is the ability to rush the passer. Because of the inside leverage of the 4i, they have a tough time containing the quarterback. This is why defensive coaches will often stunt a linebacker or the front to contain the quarterback.

Okie Front

okie front in 3-4 defense

The Okie front is popular among teams who play a running quarterback. This front is popular because, on zone read, you can crash the end into the B gap, influencing the quarterback to pull the football and have the Jack or Will waiting for them on the edge.

Teams will use the Okie front to contain the quarterback or send a fourth rusher and stunt the front.

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Defensive Linemen In The 3-4 Defense

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

The Nose tackle will try to occupy the center and do a technique called 2-gapping. 2-gapping is when the Nose tackle plays through the center, responsible for two gaps, often both A gaps.

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

The outside two defensive linemen are called defensive ends. They don’t always have to be big and strong, but rather quick and athletic. They need to ensure they can get their hands on their opponent or slant to the proper gap as quickly 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 beat both the guard and the tackle in a pass rush situation.

The defensive lineman position is a physically demanding position as they will be playing through the offensive guard and offensive tackle every play.

Linebackers In The 3-4 Defense

The inside linebackers in the 3-4 scheme are called the “inside linebackers.” The inside linebackers are usually bigger players 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 OLBs.

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

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

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

Defensive Backs In The 3-4 Defense

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 a strong safety. Teams will use 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 “CBs.” They are given the task of guarding the wide receivers.

Coverages In The 3-4 Defense

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

Cover 2 in the 3-4 defense
In a traditional cover 2, the coach can choose to rush an extra player or drop him in coverage (shown by the DT)

Zone coverages are used because four linebackers can help with run plays and pass plays. The coaches can get away with more pass pressure and blitzing safeties and drop linebackers into holes to guard against the pass.

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

Cover 2 and cover 4 are common passing concepts in the 3-4 defense. The cornerback’s responsibilities vary depending on the scheme called.

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 Scheme?

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 teams to be more athletic than 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 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.

Keep Learning

The 3-4 defense is popular because of its versatility. It’s a great defensive alignment for stopping the run and covering deep passes.

If your team has a true nose tackle who can dominate both A gaps, then this defense is perfect (if you’re a head coach). This scheme also gives the opposing offensive coordinator a headache because of how much movement and blitzes come from it.

If you liked learning about the 3-4 defense, check out our assessment below. This guide will help to increase your football IQ!

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

The 3-4 defense uses 3 defensive linemen, 4 linebackers, and 4 defensive backs. This scheme is extremely flexible and allows 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.

Let’s keep learning! Our learning center is packed with information regarding techniques, schemes, and more!

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About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.