By Curtis 'Concudan' Egan
Lets face it, the Chargers have been running the 3-4 defense for some time now and at times it has been very successful and exciting to watch, at other times… not so much. Wade Philips brought the scheme to San Diego with him back in 2004, and it was an instant hit with the fans and success in the stats.
In 2004 the Chargers enjoyed a 12-4 record, and their defense was greatly improved over 2003, most notably in the categories of interceptions (ranked 3rd in 2004, 28th in 2003), and rushing yards allowed (ranked 3rd in 2004, 26th in 2003). That instant success made the 3-4 the favorite of many fans including myself.
So what is the 3-4 Defensive scheme?
The 3-4 defensive scheme is comprised by 3 down linemen, supported by 4 linebackers. This can be modified at times for nickel, dime or 4 down linemen packages but the typical scheme calls for just the 3 linemen.
This has been popular off and on in the NFL since the 70’s when it was used by the Miami Dolphins when they won their Super Bowl Championships (1972 and 1973 seasons). Many teams employ this because it has definite strengths at the edge of the field especially against teams that send their running back sweeping out towards the edges.
Advantages of the 3-4:
Speed kills in the NFL, and this one statement sums up the strength of the 3-4 scheme. A team that has the players with the physical assets to run the 3-4 can be a fearsome opponent. Linebackers are the key to the 3-4, strong, fast linebacker who can attack the line of scrimmage or drop into coverage, and play sideline to sideline are a must for this scheme.
The linebackers are supposed to provide midlevel defensive support and attack the edges of the field to limit running plays such as sweeps and reverses. This calls for athletic, fast players, especially from the two outside linebacker positions. It is easier to disguise a blitz in the 3-4 package, and it puts the offense in position to guess at what the defense will do more often than the traditional 4-3 scheme.
One fallacy of the 3-4 defense is that the linemen are supposed to stuff the line of scrimmage and fill holes first rather than rushing the passer. This is actually incorrect. The 3-4 defense with the additional line backer support is supposed to allow the linemen to be even more aggressive in getting into the backfield and disrupting the plays, be they runs or passes.
The Wade Philips brand of 3-4 defense allows the 3 down linemen to attack the gaps between the offensive linemen. This is often referred to as a one-gap 3-4 scheme. The additional support from the linebackers allows more aggression at the line of scrimmage as stated before, but typically employs smaller, more agile linemen who can perform slant attacks, and quick gap charges in order to disrupt the back field and passer’s pocket.
In short the 3-4 allows the players more freedom to make plays, but relies on the physical speed of the players and their ability to react to the play. It is a much more aggressive scheme than the traditional 4-3.
Disadvantages of the 3-4:
The weakness of the 3-4 defense is something we have all seen demonstrated by the Chargers for years. Cross patters, slants and Tight End pass plays attack the weakness of this defense which is the coverage of the center of the field. Inside runs also often find success against the 3-4 scheme as it is easier for the offensive line to double 3 linemen.
Another reason for the success of inside plays comes from the fact that many linebackers are taught to avoid blockers to get around them, or to disengage from them rapidly, so often a linebacker will get tangled at the line of scrimmage and removed from the play. They can also over pursue and remove themselves from play. Further when a spread offense is employed the linebackers are often called on to drop into coverage, again leaving spots in the center of the field that can be exploited by a good offense.
3-4 Implementation in San Diego:
Since 2004 the Chargers D has been an up and down roller coaster ride for the fans. However it seems gone are the days of being able to make Qualcomm stadium shake with reverberating chants of “YOU CANT RUN! YOU CANT RUN!” as opponents has been able to run on the Chargers more often than not. In the 8 years the Chargers have been running the 3-4 Defensive scheme, they have ranked in the top 10 rush defenses only 4 times (2004, 2005, 2006, 2010), and have ranked in the top 10 pass defenses only twice (2010, 2011, through game 10).
Chargers defensive rankings while running the 3-4 defensive scheme:
Year........... Rushing ......Passing
2011 ........... 25th .......... 9th
2010 ........... 4th ........... 1st
2009 ........... 20th .......... 11th
2008 ........... 11th .......... 31st
2007 ........... 16th .......... 14th
2006 ........... 7th ........... 13th
2005 ........... 1st ........... 28th
2004 ........... 3rd ........... 31st
To me this record, while having some very bright moments is marred with inconsistency. I look at the teams that have been perennial contenders for the playoffs and Super Bowl, and you see consistency. You can not enter the realm of perennial contender and remain inconsistent in any of the facets of the game.
Of course the 4-3 has its advantages as well. The 4-3 defense controls the center of the field and limits the inside running game better than the typical 3-4 defensive scheme. The 4 down linemen actually allow the 3 linebackers to flow behind the line of scrimmage and choose the gap they wish to attack.
The 4-3 scheme also ensures at least 4 rushers on any typical play and better attacks the offensive linemen. This scheme relies on bigger tackles who can bully the center of the offensive line, and aggressive, fast defensive ends who can attack the edge of the offensive line quickly with power.
The 4-3 has problems disguising a blitz, though often a defensive coordinator will show a blitz to make the opponents audible into another play. The 4-3 is much more predictable as it tends to telegraph where the players are going and who is attacking from where.
The 4-3 is vulnerable to the option play because of the predictability. Spread offenses often find a level of success against the 4-3 because the linemen must read and react to the play and avoide being caught in a trap or misdirection, this will often call for the linemen to fall back off the line of scrimmage to be able to react, giving the Quarterback an opportunity to get the ball to his receivers.
To have a good 4-3 defense you have to have a defensive end who can impact the game with their ability to rush the passer. If your ends cannot pressure the passer, the passer will have a nice pocket to attack the rest of the defense from.
Case for the switch:
As I see it the Chargers defensive line has been getting bigger. Young players like Vaughn Martin, Cam Thomas, and Corey Luiget are big bodied players with the physical strength to push the offensive line. The lightest player among those three weighs in at 300 pounds. Of all the defensive linemen on the Chargers roster, Everett Brown is the lightest at 256 pounds, the rest are all over 290 pounds. A switch to the 4-3 defense could put these big, young men on the line at the same time, allowing players like Luis Castillo, and Jacques Cesaire to attack from the edges.
The 4-3 defensive scheme would also lessen the focus on the linebackers corps. The Chargers line backers have gotten older and slower in recent years, and have not had the same impact it had when the unit featured Shawne Merriman and Shaun Philips in their prime. The switch would allow the Chargers to draft a young, athletic linebacker and rely on veterans such Philips, Donald Butler, and Antwan Barns to provide the second level support.
I believe such a move would allow the Chargers to focus less on drafting defensive help at linebacker and defensive line and allow them to instead look at the corner position and offensive line. Those two areas have a deeper need in my estimation, and the switch to 4-3 will support the ability to address needs across the board.
That is my take, what is yours?