December 11, 2009

The 4-3 Defense

Many college football fans are used to seeing the 4-3 defense. In fact, other than places in which they run "gimmicky" 4-4, 4-2-5, or 3-3-5 defenses, I'd say most college football fans are used to the 4-3. Why, then, is Mike London's announced switch from Al Groh's 3-4 back to the traditional 4-3 an exciting thing for UVA fans? Well, there are a few reasons.

1) At any level, a 3-4 base defense requires a huge, strong, behemoth nose tackle to anchor the scheme. These players must be short (generally less than 6-2) and squat, and must weigh 320+ in order to win the leverage battle at the point of attack. These types of players are extremely difficult to find coming out of high school, and since the nose tackle position is usually responsible for handling two blockers at the point of attack, the 3-4 nose isn't a stat-heavy position on the field. There isn't a lot of glory for the nose tackle. Therefore, it was nearly impossible for Virginia to recruit and develop ideal nose tackles... so in many ways, Groh's 3-4 defense was flawed from the drop. The 4-3 defense requires two defensive tackles instead of just one, but the 4-3 DTs can be a bit taller, and will often only be responsible for one gap, meaning they'll be more free to attack the quarterback in the pass rush, meaning there will be more stats and glory to go around. It's just a fact of football -- it's easier to find a 4-3 tackle than a 3-4 nose.

2) Defensive ends in the 3-4 function in many of the same ways tackles function in the 4-3. Here at Virginia, we were recruiting "big" ends (think Chris Long) or "small" tackles (think Nate Collins) in order to find our 3-4 DEs. Even though the two examples I just provided were star players at UVA, the 3-4 end is not usually a difference-making type of position. They are on the field to occupy blockers and free up the linebackers to make plays. Think about the Pittsburgh Steelers -- the NFL team largely credited with the current rise of the 3-4 defense. Are the Steelers' ends considered stars? Meanwhile, 4-3 defense ends are one of the true glamour positions on the football field. These guys are responsible for generating the pass rush out of the base defense, and typically end up with the sacks. The 4-3 can work with smaller defensive ends, as long as they have an explosive first step and the speed and quickness to attack the backfield. In other words, it's much easier to recruit 4-3 defensive ends than 3-4 defensive ends. Also, defensive ends in the 4-3 have the potential to be able to play much earlier in their college career, as they require much less physical development.

3) Outside linebackers in the 3-4 are generally the same as the defensive ends in the 4-3, in that they are responsible for generating the pass rush in the base defense. That being said, the 3-4 OLB is asked to drop back into coverage much more often than their 4-3 DE counterparts, so here is yet another situation where more development time must be invested before the players can see the field. Al Groh typically recruited high school defensive ends (like Clint Sintim and Darryl Blackstock) and shaped them into outside linebackers for his 3-4. Often, those former DEs turned OLBs would have [understandable] lapses in coverage, leading us to sacrifice big plays in the intermediate passing game. The 4-3 generally calls for less size and pass-rushing ability from its OLBs, providing another opportunity to put increased levels of speed on the field. In fact, big safeties can often be easily converted into weakside OLBs for the 4-3.

4) 3-4 inside linebackers are fairly equivalent to the 4-3 middle linebacker. The one exception is that [once again] the 3-4 calls for bigger/stronger players whereas the 4-3 can function with a smaller, faster MLB.

So across the board in the front seven, Al Groh's 3-4 defense usually meant sacrificing speed in favor of size, strength, and power, and was a more difficult system to sell to recruits. ("We're recruiting you, stud defensive end, to come to Virginia and learn how to play outside linebacker. Why would you want to go to Virginia Tech and play the same position you've been playing the last four years?")

I would argue that despite Groh's relative success on the defensive side of the football, Virginia was usually lacking one or two "playmakers" who could change games around by making explosive plays on that side of the ball. Yes, we usually kept scores low, but how often did the defense force turnovers and score touchdowns? Yes, Virginia's defenses were solid, but how often were they spectacular?

I'm not trying to bash the 3-4 defense. It's a great defense, where the opposing team has to constantly guess where the blitz is coming from. But without the right types of players and athletes in the front seven, the explosive blitzing Steelers-esque version of the 3-4 faded into a milquetoast version of a glorified 5-2 defense. Good enough... but never truly great. As Virginia struggled to recruit huge nose tackles and dynamic defensive ends willing to learn a new position, Groh had no choice but to go with nose tackles that were too small, and OLBs that weren't really elite-type talents. Therefore, the OLBs had to creep closer and closer to the line of scrimmage, and voila! We were running a 5-2 and calling it a 3-4. Too much size, too much thinking, too much reacting, and not enough attacking the offenses' weaknesses.

So Mike London is committing to the 4-3 base defense, and I think it will quickly prove to a boon to the Virginia defense. We'll be able to field faster players at DE and OLB, and we'll have a defense that can pin its ears back and attack... and hopefully generate a bunch of game-changing plays. As for recruiting, there will no longer be an absolute need to land the elite size/speed/strength pass rush specimens, as we can take smaller guys who can speed rush and also bigger guys who can push the pocket, and then play them at the positions which they are already comfortable. Instead of forcing the square pegs into round holes, we can just take the players and let them be who they are. Instead of watching our players being bogged down by indecision and overthinking

I love this move back to the 4-3. It worked for George Welsh, and it will work for Mike London. Hell, it works for most effective college defenses. Gone is Al Groh's paralysis by analysis, and while he'll be lauded for his effective defenses here at UVA, I'll slightly mourn the what-could-have-beens of players like Blackstock, Sintim, Aaron Clark, and pretty much any other players this decade that were forced to learn a new position in order to play in Groh's front seven.

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