SAY HELLO TO THE FEARSOME THREESOME

Oakland won the Super Bowl with it, and two of the NFL's four undefeated teams use it. It's the 3-4 defense, and the only people who don't like it are the linemen
October 16, 1977

For the last 20 years the NFL defense of four linemen and three linebackers—"They're using the standard 4-3, Curt"—has been even more of a Sunday afternoon staple than beer and cheese doodles. The Fearsome Foursome. The Purple People Eaters. The Sack Pack. The Steel Curtain. Big Daddy Lipscomb. Kill, Bubba, Kill! But now the front four as we have known and loved it is going the way of moleskins and the flying wedge. More and more NFL teams are switching to a defense variously called Orange, 53, 30, 3-2, Stack, or—most descriptively—3-4. By whatever name, this defense deploys three linemen and four linebackers, and it features a new position with a fascinating name—nose tackle.

Seven NFL teams now use the 3-4 as their primary defense, and a dozen others go into it in specific situations. Oakland won the Super Bowl with the 3-4 last season. Of the seven 3-4 teams, Oakland, Denver, Houston and Miami all shut out their opponents in their opening games, and Philadelphia allowed only a field goal. The Broncos' 3-4 did not yield a touchdown in its second game, either. Exclude winless Tampa Bay, and the other six 3-4 advocates—including New England—have a combined record of 18-6. And of the four NFL teams with undefeated records after the first four weeks, two—Oakland and Denver—play the 3-4 most of the time. (Dallas and Baltimore are the undefeated clubs using the 4-3.)

In the 3-4 the three linemen are well spaced—the two ends line up opposite the offensive tackles, and the nose tackle squares off practically nose-to-nose with the center. Two of the four linebackers set up on opposite flanks and the other two fill the gaps between the ends and the nose tackle. The 3-4 is designed for speed and deception, not brute strength like the 4-3. "The 3-4 is a pursuing defense, not really an aggressive beat-'em-up defense," says New England Nose Tackle Ray Hamilton, who rates with Denver's Rubin Carter (see cover) as the best of this new breed.

Unfortunately for the Carters and the Hamiltons, the linebackers in the 3-4—not the linemen—seem to grab the headlines. Denver had the AFC's third best defense last year, but can anyone east of Colorado Springs or west of Boulder name the Broncos' front three? Would you believe Carter, Lyle Alzado and Barney Chavous? Care to take a stab at Miami's front three—or even Oakland's?

"In the 3-4, what the linemen basically do is make things happen for the linebackers," grumbles Oakland's 6'7", 270-pound John Matuszak, who began to live up to the potential that made him the NFL's first draft choice in 1973 only when the Raiders, his fifth pro team, installed him at left end in their 3-4 last season. Houston Nose Tackle Curley Culp echoes Matuszak in stronger language. "I don't like the word 'sacrificial,' " Culp says, "but that's exactly what you'd call the 3-4, a sacrificial defense. We sacrifice our bodies so the linebackers can make tackles. I guess we're the garbage collectors. Personally, I don't particularly care for the three-man front. If you took a consensus of the defensive linemen throughout the league, I think you'd find that nobody likes the 3-4."

Culp's attitude hardly surprises coaches. Denver Defensive Coordinator Joe Collier admits, "The 3-4 is a very difficult defense for linemen. They can't be freewheeling or creative because there aren't enough other linemen to cover up for them. Defensive linemen don't like the 3-4 because they don't get the sacks. The linebackers get them."

Of course, it is results, not players' feelings, that matter to coaches. "It's important to understand that this is not a cure-all defense," cautions New England's Chuck Fairbanks, who in 1974 became the first pro coach to make the 3-4 his team's primary defense against both the pass and run. "You still need good players. The theory of the defense is sound but really no more sound than the 4-3." Oakland. Coach John Madden agrees. "Ultimately, it comes down to who your people are," he says. "If your fourth linebacker is better than your fourth lineman, then the 3-4 is better for you."

If Madden is correct, then the 3-4 soon will become the universal defense in the NFL. Indeed, compared to Brobdingnagian linemen, linebackers are a dime a dozen. Even Washington Coach George Allen, who lives or dies with the 4-3, admits, "It's easier to find a 220-pound linebacker who can run 40 yards in 4.6 or 4.7 seconds than it is to find a 6'5", 260-pound lineman who can move." Oakland's Madden, for instance, had no recourse but to switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 early last season after injuries wiped out three of his five defensive linemen.

If finding defensive linemen who can move is so difficult, why then don't the Carters and the Hamiltons get publicity? Philadelphia Coach Dick Vermeil, a convert to the 3-4 this season, says, "If the nose tackle is doing his job, you won't notice him because he'll be neutralizing the center of the line and allowing the linebackers to flow to the ball."

The double team—by the center and a guard—is the nose tackle's daily diet. "A nose tackle has to be able to endure the pounding," says Carter. "On most plays, a 250-pound center and a 260-pound guard hit me. That's 510 pounds each play." That's what Culp means by 'sacrificial.' Nevertheless, Carter led the Bronco linemen in tackles last season.

The 6-foot, 252-pound Carter, an All-America defensive tackle at the University of Miami and Denver's fifth-round draft choice in 1975, is thickly muscled, can bench-press 525 pounds and moves with exceptional quickness. His relative shortness enables him to get underneath the center at the snap and gain leverage against blocks. "If just a center can handle our nose tackle, we have no advantage with the 3-4," says Denver's Collier. "But if the nose man can force a double team, then we have a free linebacker to track down the ball. Rubin's strength is his ability to get away from blocks, meaning the opposition has to double-team at least."

Miami was the first NFL team to use the 3-4, employing what was called the "53" during its 17-0 Super Bowl season in 1973. This formation was the stepchild of something called the "over stack," a variation of the 4-3 in which three of the four defensive linemen were placed opposite the offense's strong side—the side with the tight end. The 53's genesis was a result of Defensive End Jim Riley's getting hurt. Rather than fill his spot, opposite the tight end, with an inexperienced down lineman, Defensive Coordinator Bill Arnsparger experimented with a standing linebacker instead. The Dolphins had borrowed the over stack from Hank Stram, then coaching at Kansas City. Stram had used this defense successfully while leading the Chiefs past Minnesota in Super Bowl IV. Poor Stram. He didn't know it at the time, but it wasn't the offense of the '70s he was on to, it was the defense of the '70s.

To fill the new linebacker position the Dolphins chose Bob Matheson, who had played some defensive end at Cleveland. The 53 was called the 53 because Matheson wore No. 53. In that first year the Dolphins thought of the 53 strictly as a pass defense. Matheson was inserted only in obvious passing situations and did most of the Dolphins' blitzing.

New England's Fairbanks has always believed in deploying the 3-4 against the run. At Oklahoma, Fairbanks had played a defense almost identical to the 3-4, but in 1973, his first year in the NFL, he switched to the pros' traditional 4-3. In two games Buffalo's O. J. Simpson gained 469 yards against the Patriots' 4-3, and Miami's Mercury Morris had 297 in his two outings against it. In all, the Patriots surrendered more than 200 yards rushing per game that season, finishing last in the league in that department.

Fairbanks spent the off-season studying game films and discovered that one of his 4-3 defenses, a version of Stram's over stack, had held up from tackle to tackle but had broken down badly on the outside. The problem: a lack of mobility on the flanks. The solution: substitute a speedy linebacker for a slow defensive end. Fairbanks promptly switched to the 3-4 as the Patriots' full-time defense. Around the league there were whispers that while Fairbanks had done all right with the 3-4 in college, this was the NFL and...well, you know.

In their first year with the 3-4 the Patriots jumped from last against the run to first. Rival coaches stopped whispering about Fairbanks and started to study his defense. One advantage of the 3-4 was obvious. Because it closely resembles the standard college defense, inexperienced rookies could move quickly and effectively into pro starting lineups.

But more important to NFL coaches are the flexibility and unpredictability of the 3-4—it is really several defenses rolled into one. Blitz a linebacker and—presto!—the 3-4 becomes the 4-3. What a team might lose by having one less lineman is compensated for by the fact that the offense doesn't know which linebacker will serve as the fourth rusher on a particular play. Blitz two linebackers and it is like playing the 4-3 and blitzing just one—though not for the offense trying to block it. "The 3-4 creates a great deal of offensive confusion," says Cincinnati Assistant Coach Chuck Studley. "Pro teams have had to devise whole new patterns of pass blocking."

Teams can use the 3-4 without making any adjustments in the standard zone pass coverage they employed in the days of the 4-3. That coverage calls for four short zones and three deep ones. In fact, if none of the 3-4 linebackers blitzes, then the defense has the flexibility of an extra man—a linebacker—in the pass coverage. That man can either create a fifth short zone—forcing longer, riskier passes—or he can be assigned to one particular player. In one game this season, the Broncos occasionally had a linebacker stick with St. Louis Halfback Terry Metcalf. As a result, Metcalf was never able to break free for the sort of long gainer that the Cardinals depend on, and St. Louis was shut out 7-0.

Miami has taken the 3-4's flexibility and unpredictability a step further by fielding a player who is both linebacker and lineman. He is Kim Bokamper, a 6'6", 245-pound former defensive end at San Jose State whom the Dolphins drafted in the first round in 1976. Bokamper never played linebacker in college, so he was understandably confused when a Miami assistant coach arrived on the West Coast to run him through linebacker drills several weeks before the draft. It wasn't until the Dolphins actually selected Bokamper that Shula revealed what he had in mind. Now when the Dolphins want to shift from the 3-4 to the 4-3, they don't have to tip their hand by sending an extra defensive lineman into the game. Just before the snap Bokamper, who usually plays left linebacker, simply moves up onto the line and gets down in a three-point stance.

What makes the 3-4 particularly successful against the run is the extra pursuit provided by the fourth linebacker. "Against the 3-4," says O. J. Simpson, "you have to settle for a three-or four-yard gain every time. It's much tougher to break a big one because the linebackers are in better pursuit position."

O.J. should know. In his first two games this year, running—or trying to—on a bad ankle against the 3-4 defenses of Miami and Denver, Simpson was held to a total of 114 yards, his output on an off day. His longest gain was just 10 yards.

And, as O.J. knows, the really bad news is that this season Buffalo plays six of its games against teams that play the 3-4 at all times. On the other hand, Walter Payton, one of Simpson's chief threats for the NFL rushing title, runs against only two teams that employ the 3-4. Sorry about that, O.J.

ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLERIn the 3-4 the nose tackle squares off against the center (61), the ends go against the offensive tackles and the linebackers plug the gaps and cover the flanks. ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLERThe three down linemen grumble that they do all the fierce head knocking and then it's the four linebackers who make all the sacks. ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLER"Against the 3-4 you have to settle for short gains because the linebackers are in better pursuit position," says O. J. Simpson. Here he settles for a big loss.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)