June 2, 2010

3-4 defense spreading in college game

Georgia's Mark Richt, Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson and Notre Dame's Brian Kelly aren't exactly kindred spirits when it comes to coaching styles. But they all agreed on one thing this offseason.

That trio of schools is part of a growing trend toward the use of 3-4 defenses, which are becoming more in vogue as coaches look for ways to stop -- or at least slow down -- the spread offenses that have come to dominate the sport.

"The trend in college and pro football now is what we were doing, spreading people out and forcing people to play in space," says former Purdue coach Joe Tiller, a spread-offense pioneer whose success with the attack in the late 1990s helped popularize the scheme. "If you are playing in space, you need more athletes who are better-equipped to defend today's style of offense.

"To me, it's a very logical transition [from a 4-3 to a 3-4] and was going to be made sooner or later -- and I think it is upon us."

This season, 14 schools will run a 3-4 defense; another five will use the 3-3-5, another variation of the three-man front.

"It's easier to find those kind of guys at outside linebacker in a 3-4 than [to find] a 4-3 end," new Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham says. "Getting big guys who can move well can be difficult. But finding linebackers who can run isn't as tough."

Grantham should know. He has been an assistant in the NFL since 1999, working for many of the best 3-4 gurus in the game.

"I worked for Wade [Phillips with the Cowboys] and Dom [Capers with the Texans]," Grantham says. "I also worked [as defensive coordinator of the Browns] for Romeo Crennel, who was a [Bill] Belichick disciple. But it all started with Nick [Saban] for me. I worked for Nick [at Michigan State and learned a lot from him."

Numbers game
There will be 14 schools using the 3-4 as their base defensive set this fall:
Air Force
New coordinator Matt Wallerstedt takes over a unit that was No. 11 in the nation in total defense last season. Former coordinator Tim DeRuyter left for Texas A&M.

Coordinator Kirby Smart oversees coach Nick Saban's defense. The Tide have used the 3-4 well: They are 26-2 the past two seasons.

As with the other service academies, Army uses a 3-4 set. The Black Knights did a superb job out of that scheme last season, ranking 16th in the nation in total defense. Coach Rich Ellerson helped develop some solid defenses at Arizona in the 1990s.

The Cougars were a bit inconsistent on defense last season. They shut down Oklahoma, among others, but were blown out by Florida State and TCU. BYU ranked 101st nationally in tackles for loss, and they will have a rebuilt front seven this season. But coach Bronco Mendenhall made his bones as a defensive coordinator and should find a way to compensate.

Clancy Pendergast, who spent the past 15 seasons in the NFL, is the Golden Bears' new coordinator. He will keep the 3-4 set that has been in use in Berkeley.

Todd Grantham was hired away from the Dallas Cowboys, where he had been linebacker coach, to install the 3-4 this season.

Georgia Tech
Former Virginia coach Al Groh is the new coordinator, and he installed the 3-4 this spring.

New coordinator Brian Stewart, a former Dallas Cowboys coordinator, was brought in to give the Cougars a defense the offense can be proud of. Well, that's what coaches are hoping, anyway. As such, Stewart -- who spent last season as a defensive assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles -- is overseeing a switch to the 3-4.

The Midshipmen have used the 3-4 for a while, but a rebuilt linebacker corps bears watching this fall.

Notre Dame
New coach Brian Kelly oversaw a switch to the 3-4 at Cincinnati last season, and he brought the scheme -- as well as coordinator Bob Diaco -- with him to South Bend.

The Mustangs have made vast defensive improvement in the past two seasons. Coordinator Tom Mason expects continued success with the 3-4, which he installed in 2008.

Longtime NFL assistant Vic Fangio was brought in to oversee the defense, and he installed a 3-4 set during the spring. The Cardinal ranked 110th in the country in pass defense last season.

Texas A&M
New coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who had been at Air Force, has installed a 3-4. A&M is familiar with the scheme; the Aggies had some salty units with the set in the 1990s.

Texas Tech
New coach Tommy Tuberville hired James Willis off the Alabama staff, and the Red Raiders are switching to a 3-4. Willis has been linebacker coach with the Tide and will work for Tuberville, who had been a 4-3 proponent at Auburn.

NOTE: (The following schools will use a base 3-3-5 defense this season: Louisiana-Monroe, Michigan, San Diego State, Tulsa and West Virginia.)

Grantham was hired by Richt to fix an ailing defense. Georgia was seventh in the SEC in total defense (339.4 ypg) and 10th in scoring defense (25.9 ppg) last season.

The preeminent 3-4 defense in college football is at Alabama, which is coming off a dominating 14-0 run to the national championship last season. While Kirby Smart presses the buttons as coordinator, Saban is the architect of the unit, which was No. 2 in the nation in total defense (244.1 ypg) in 2009.

This trend toward 3-4 defenses has trickled down from the NFL, where Grantham says 17 of the 32 teams use the scheme as their base set.

Bud Wilkinson is credited by many with devising the 3-4 while coaching Oklahoma in the 1940s. But the defense first gained notice in the 1970s, when the Miami Dolphins' "No-Name Defense" frequently shifted into a 3-4 set under coordinator Bill Arnsparger. The Dolphins called it the "53 defense" because Bob Matheson, who wore No. 53, was the extra linebacker inserted into the lineup. Later in the decade, the Denver Broncos' "Orange Crush" used a 3-4 base en route to a Super Bowl appearance in 1978 under coach Red Miller. In the 1990s, the Pittsburgh Steelers (under coordinator Dick LeBeau) and Buffalo Bills (Walt Corey) were the standard-bearers for the 3-4.

Today, no NFL team personifies the 3-4 more than the New England Patriots under Belichick, who as coordinator for the New York Giants used the defense to backstop Super Bowl champs in 1986 and '90.

Al Groh was a defensive assistant on that 1990 Giants team and took over as coordinator in 1991 after Belichick left to coach the Browns. Groh's nine-year run (2001-09) as Virginia's coach often was highlighted by standout defenses that used a 3-4 base. Groh was hired as coordinator at Georgia Tech this offseason, and he has installed the 3-4.

"I like the flexibility of the defense," he says. "It provides different options to play against all of the spread formations that we are dealing with. When you have four players [linebackers] standing up and able to make adjustments, it gives you more options than if you only had three linebackers standing up."

Spread offenses try to create mismatches, and 3-4 defenses try to create confusion for those offenses.

"In a lot of these offenses, the coach is making the [offensive] calls from the sideline," Grantham says. "If you are in a 4-3, they know your front and the coverage you probably are in and they know where you are coming from.

"When you play a 3-4, I think it's easier to disguise because the offense isn't sure which of those four linebackers is coming. And it's harder on the play-caller and on the quarterback to process the coverage with the rush."

Kelly dumped the 4-3 for a 3-4 last season at Cincinnati, and he brought the scheme with him to South Bend. He appreciates all of the problems the 3-4 presents for offenses. But Kelly also had other motives for making the switch.

"The thing for me that forced the move was because we were changing personnel so much on second and third downs," he says. "I wanted to be able to get into a defensive structure where we wouldn't be changing personnel as much. And the 3-4, with the four linebackers on the field, gives you a lot more flexibility to match up and also allows you to keep that personnel on the field."

Continually switching personnel meant more practice time for more players, and that wasn't ideal. To Kelly, the more practice time a player gets in first-, second- and third-down scenarios, the better chance a team has at executing at a high level.

But the 3-4 can have its drawbacks.

"To be a good 3-4 team, your nose guard has to be a stud and so do your two inside 'backers," says Washington coordinator Nick Holt, whose base defense is a 4-3 but who occasionally uses a 3-4. "You want those inside 'backers to be big enough to stuff guards who are coming at them because they aren't covered up by the three down linemen.

"But even with those potential issues, I don't think you'll see the 3-4 defense lose popularity. It's only going to continue to be a scheme more schools will use."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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