Modern Defenses Are Changing the Landscape of the NFL

The ways NFL defenses are evolving, are also changing the way the modern NFL defender looks.

Anthony Barr (55) and Erick Kendricks (54) are the prototype of the modern NFL linebacker.

Long gone are the days that an NFL defense is labeled as a 3-4 or 4-3. No more of the big, hulking linebacker or gigantic, plodding defensive tackle strictly dominating the game.

Well, at least it should be. Today’s NFL defenses are increasingly less about POSITIONS and more about ROLES.

So many football fans hear 3-4 or 4-3 defense that it fails to point out that those have become antiquated terms in regards to modern football. It also leaves fans with the outdated notions of what NFL defender should look like. More than the fact that no two defenses are created equally, modern defenses have been in evolution for quite some time now.

With offenses employing spread passing attacks, NFL defenses are rarely aligned in a base 3-4 or 4-3 package.

The actual, current truth is that there were 33,989 defensive snaps in the 2015 NFL season. Of those, 27,191 were deployed with the defense in a sub-package (nickel,dime, quarter, dollar) alignment. That’s 80% of of all defensive snaps played outside of the traditional base (3-4 or 4-3) alignment.

The proliferation of spread offenses, college-oriented concepts, rules geared toward scoring and more innovation from defensive coaches have all led to major (if not always accurately communicated) changes on the defensive side of the ball.


3-3-5 FRONT


2-4-5 FRONT


Each of these fronts tends to borrow more from one of the two dominant fronts of the 4-3 defensive era, the Over and Under shifted fronts. In college there are still teams that play their nickel packages with four down linemen, particularly quarters teams like Ohio State, Michigan State, or Kansas State that will ask their DEs to two-gap at times.

However, across the game these two fronts and personnel groupings are starting to define the main counters to modern offenses.

The 2-4 or 3-3 labels serve primarily to describe the types of players on the field. The 2-4 is going to feature only two true defensive linemen that are always going to be lined up with their hands in the dirt with an opposing blocker on either shoulder.

Then in place of defensive ends there will be two DE/OLB hybrid players on the edges in stand-up positions who specialize in attacking the edge and providing a pass-rush. The two inside linebackers behind these players are normal inside linebackers.

The 3-3 front features three true defensive lineman as the “defensive end” though they may line up on the edge, are big and sturdy enough to play interior gaps or face a double team. The nose tackle will generally be a standard big guy, with some exceptions.

The three linebackers behind the DL all need to be fairly versatile as well and although one of them might be the designated primary edge-rusher, each of them need to be competent performing as inside linebackers or blitzers.

Each style has certain requirements on the types of players that are required and which style a team chooses largely depends on if the defense has easier access or an easier time developing a couple of really athletic edge rushers and tackles as the 2-4 calls for or can find and develop the kinds of versatile, tweener players that make the 3-3 work.

The 2-4-5 is ultimately a defense of specialization as the main pass-rushers are going to be the two stand-up edge rushers. The defense deploys them on the edge because that’s the easiest way to utilize a pure pass-rusher and they aren’t asked to do a great deal other than control the edge and provide pressure. The defensive tackles will tend to specialize in clogging up the interior and helping collapse the pocket while the linebackers are running free as support players.

Without access to the kind of elite pass-rushers that can attack the edge and overcome an offense’s best efforts at pass protection, the 2-4-5 is not a superior nickel package. It can also struggle against the run if defensive tackles aren’t sturdy or the linebackers are deficient. However, it is the simplest and best way to allow big, fast, and powerful athletes to impact the game and attack the quarterback.

The 3-3-5, or 8-3, is more a defense of versatility and disguise that will require the DL to all be strong at filling interior gaps and ideally decent or good at collapsing the pocket. The linebackers are not specialists but “jacks of all trades” that can be transformed into superior pass-rushers by virtue of the system disguising where they are blitzing from.

Without versatile and intelligent players, the 3-3 is dead in the water, but when those pieces are in place it can pick on offense’s weaknesses with greater precision and bring pressure from all angles.

2-4 vs 3-3 philosophy

At their hearts, the 2-4 and 3-3 are basically extensions of 4-3 Over and 4-3 Under philosophies. The Over front is generally the defense people are thinking of when discussing teams that “spin down” safeties into linebackers and linebackers into defensive ends.

The aim is to get speed on the field and allow it to run to the football with as little complication as possible. In the 4-3 Over that involves four down lineman but in nickel sub-packages where the pass-rush takes an even greater priority than it makes sense to allow the defensive ends to become more like permanently blitzing linebackers.

The 4-3 Under defense is one that’s about filling interior gaps with big strong defenders, controlling the line of scrimmage, and dictating where the offense can go with the football. The 3-3 continues in that vein while acknowledging that it now requires fewer big bodies to control the line of scrimmage in a nickel package against spread out offensive sets with three or more receivers.

Either defense might employ or not employ two-gapping techniques by some or all of the DL but the only players that would do so would be the two interior DTs in the 2-4 and the three DL in the 3-3.

When it comes to converting to these packages from base 4-3 or 3-4 groupings, that can very much depend on the team’s best personnel over any other factor.

Just this year in the NFL draft the Chicago Bears chose Leonard Floyd from Georgia, a 6’4″ 235 pound edge athlete that has had obvious utility as an edge rusher in their nominally 3-4 defense.

This led to questions regarding Floyd’s lack of size / strength from multiple outlets. In fact, the modern NFL game is trending toward smaller, leaner athletes like Floyd. This allows defenses to cover more ground and apply pressure to the quarterback as well. Same applies to the Jets’ drafting of Darron Lee of Ohio State. Lee’s speed and coverage ability allows the Jets to execute in a much more diverse way than they could with Demario Davis.

This is precisely why linebackers like Floyd, Ryan Shazier, Lavonte David and Deonne Buchanan, once thought too small and out of place in the NFL, are now driving the trend.

Also, defensive linemen like Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald are so valuable. These type of athletes have become chess pieces that allow defenses to be flexible on all three downs.

To take another example, the 3-4 oriented Alabama Crimson Tide will generally remove their 2nd outside LB/pass-rusher from the field in their “4-2-5” nickel package and instead play fronts that utilize 3-3 personnel.

This style of defense can often be as effective at rushing the passer as the 2-4-5 but unless the single edge rusher is a dominant player, the team essentially needs someone to pull double duty as both a good DE/NT/ILB and a dangerous pass-rusher.

Updating the language

Football punditry is desperately behind the ball in terms of using accurate and descriptive terminology to explain what’s happening today on the football field. You’ll often hear talking points about a team in the draft or in recruiting that revolves around finding ideal fits for a 4-3 or 3-4 base defense.

More often than not, talking points based on those terms will have very little value in describing what those teams are looking for and how they’ll deploy players. In an age where the nickel package is really the base defense, teams will be defined more by whether they prefer to play three true defensive linemen or only two.

While someone can refer to the NFL as “THE National Football League” and it somehow catch on within a month as a way to make professional football sound like an important and serious business enterprise, updating schematic language is less likely to catch on as easily.

However, try thinking of defenses as either 2-4 or 3-3 when evaluating this current draft or your team’s recruiting season and see if that helps your understanding of why your team makes their personnel choices.

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