BYU’s 3-4 Defense a Model for Success
by Louis E. Deaux
Why are programs at Alabama, BYU, Wisconsin, Stanford, Notre Dame and other 3-4 style defenses so successful these days?
The short answer is their extreme flexibility to respond to whatever they face for a given team’s style, and down and distance tendencies.
Recently, after suffering through one of its worst defensive years in history, USC replaced Monte Kiffin with Clancy Pendergast, who promptly installed the Oklahoma 5-2 set.
In reality, it’s just a slightly different version of the same 3-4 variant that BYU runs.
Many programs in the so-called “Big Five” conferences are still running variants of the older, 4-3 defenses designed to defend the I-formation offense. In fact, it surprised me to see how much this has remained the case in today’s age of spread offenses.
Almost every SEC team runs a 4-3 defense and most Big Ten teams do as well. Much of the PAC-12 (including Utah, Washington, UCLA and Oregon) run 4-3 sets, all showing balanced four-man defensive fronts.
Some programs run unbalanced defensive lines, but the fact remains that these four-man fronts continue even though few are highly effective against the current trend in offenses. In order to make these defenses work, you must sacrifice size for speed at the edge and that is how some defensive coordinators have changed the way they play their 4-3 sets.
Others have outright altered their 4-3 schemes to either a 3-3-5, or gone to a 4-2-5 stack in order to compensate for the more wide open passing and spread option attacks that are seen quite commonly in today’s game.
Bronco Mendenhall brought Rocky Long’s creative 3-3-5 set to Provo. But once he got to BYU and began seeing the size, quality and depth BYU was typically getting at linebacker, it became apparent that he could install a very flexible style of 3-4 defense and be effective against a wide variety of offensives schemes.
The 3-4 and 52 Okie sets require essentially the same thing: three big, strong D-linemen who are capable of doing battle with five big, strong offensive linemen, while putting two medium-sized rush ends on the line–either paw down (hand on the ground) or standing in a charge stance.
The main difference is that in the 5-2 set, the ends tend to go paw down on most downs, while in the 4-3, the outside linebackers tend to remain in a stand-up, charge and defend stance, often a yard or so off the line of scrimmage.
BYU gets really funky with this flexibility which we’ll get into a little later. The main thing to take note of is the fact that most of the best defenses last year were running some variation of the 3-4 style set. The 3-4 allows a defense to quickly shift a personnel package into a 4-3 look, a 5-2 look, a straight-up 3-4 and even a 4-2-5 or 3-3-5 look without necessarily changing any specific player on the field.
Thus, a 3-4 played the way BYU plays it becomes enormously flexible in the vertical zones–the manner in which the defense responds on the left, center and right side zones of the field. The 52 Okie defense is similarly flexible; however, teams running it often utilize two fairly big defensive ends who are physically quick, strong and can play in both rushing and passing situations.
Alabama was the No. 1 defense in the country last year. The Tide was one of only a couple of teams in the SEC that did not run a 4-3 defense. It ran a 3-4, but really set up often in a double paw-down 52 Oklahoma look.
Nick Saban will field the same style defense this year, one that includes three internal tackles that are all about 6-foot-4 and 290-to-310 pounds. The ends/outside line backers will each be tweener-type players who are in the 250-265 lb. range, around 6-4 and able to run a 4.8 or better in the forty-yard dash. They will all likely have opportunities to play in the NFL before their playing days are done as well.
The main difference between BYU and Alabama is the overall quality of the players for the Crimson Tide, but their style of play is extremely similar to the Cougars. Alabama calls itself a 3-4 team, however the way they stack their sets, I view them as a 52 Okie defense that will go 3-4 at times on passing downs.
Wisconsin’s defense is designed a lot like Alabama’s. Notre Dame, Utah State and USC’s (this year) defenses are also built, at least in theory, a lot like the Tide’s. The defenses at Stanford, Boise State, Michigan State, and Bowling Green (which finished No. 6 in the nation in total defense in 2012) are all built a lot more like BYU’s. However, all of the above-mentioned defenses have a general style and response capability that is extremely flexible and difficult to read at the line of scrimmage.
It’s true that not every great defense was running a 3-4 or 52 style defense last year. Florida State (No. 2 in total defense) was extremely effective running a balanced 4-3. But it’s important to note that what makes FSU good is the way it approaches the pro-set and flex offenses it faces in the ACC.
The Seminoles come with a lot of speed, and so can afford to put four big down lineman up front–or they can flex in two, swift defensive ends into the mix when it wants to emphasize speed on the outside. Personally, I believe 4-3 teams can make that work, but it is much harder for them to disguise a defensive set.
When FSU makes player changes, you pretty much know what they intend to do in a down and distance read, and a sharp quarterback/offensive coordinator combo can counter it at the line of scrimmage with an audible.
Film room homework pays off against solid 4-3 teams, whereas the 3-4 and 52 sets make the OC’s job much more difficult because a given look might not reflect a given reaction that follows. For example, at BYU last year, you sometimes saw Ziggy Ansah line up at the nose tackle position and Kyle Van Noy line up in a middle linebacker spot, shifting Kavienga to the rotation to the outside.
When offenses saw that shift, they had no idea what was going on and it often resulted in a tackle for loss for Ansah, KVN or Fuga. BYU uses its personnel in a variety of ways that really confuses the QB attempting to read the defense.
The defensive backfield in active 3-4 sets is also critical to success against both the pass and the run. If you have speedy linebackers that can shift back, a big safety can essentially fill their spots and charge the first open gap they see. Most of those 3-4 and 52-type sets include a big safety package.
BYU is no different. Daniel Sorensen and Craig Bills are each listed at over 200 pounds and are big-time hitters. Look at the safety combinations for all the programs running 3-4 sets. Most of them have big 200-to-225-pound players at the safety spots.
Some will sacrifice weight and size at free safety in exchange for extra speed and/or height, but the packages all have a similar approach to the game–hit hard, from anywhere on the field, and don’t let the offense know where you will be in any given down and distance situation.
I am surprised that so many defenses still stick to the 4-3 defensive sets these days.
The Big 12 was heavily-laden with 4-3 teams; however, the best defense in that league was TCU’s 3-3-5 set. The best SEC defense in 2012 was obviously at Alabama. LSU, a 4-3 team that finished No. 8 in total defense, was the only such program in the conference within shouting distance of the dominating Tide D. South Carolina checked in at No. 12, but runs a hybrid-style defense that is much closer to a 3-3-5 at times.
Over in the Big Ten, Ohio State went 12-0 last year and would have been a contender for the BCS national title if the Buckeyes hadn’t of been on probation. But even its big, strong 4-3 defense only ranked 34th-best in the country.
I believe Bronco would like to see his defense move closer to the Alabama model as he seeks to improve the talent at BYU.
Let’s assume one of the young Cougars at nose tackle steps up this season, allowing Mendenhall to put Eathyn Manamaleuna at strong side defensive end and Bronson Kaufusi on the weak side. He would then have a very Alabama-like defensive front line. Now that Van Noy is reportedly up to 245 and Hadley will probably enter camp in the 230-235 range this year, BYU could look a lot more like the ‘Bama defense in 2013.
The Cougars will also be able to go stiffer or taller on the flanks with their backups. In the end, BYU has all the tools to play big and stop big in the coming season.
The defense in Provo should also be able to improve its play over the course of years, as the Cougars continue to get more exposure and the defense continues to develops its reputation on a national level. After all, what defensive player wouldn’t just love to play in Bronco’s system?