A Breakdown of the History of the 3-4 Defense

Browns Mangini Football
Eric Mangini remembers the 1994 Browns season. Just 23 at the time, Mangini was in his first year in the NFL, serving as a public relations intern and a ball boy with the club. In the following season — the last for the original Browns in Cleveland — he served the team as a coaching assistant.

Now at 38, he’s returned to the Browns as their head coach. He’s exploring every aspect of the team in an attempt to get the Browns back on track after last year’s 4-12 finish.

But unlike then-Browns head coach Bill Belichick did in 1994, Mangini is sticking with his defense. And his defense is the the 3-4, the same alignment that Romeo Crennel used for his four seasons as Browns coach and the same alignment that helped Belichick, Crennel and Mangini win three Super Bowls together earlier this decade with the Patriots.

It’s understandable that Mangini would retain the 3-4.

“I’ve been a part of it for a significant amount of time,” Mangini said during his introductory press conference in Cleveland when asked to explain what he likes about the 3-4 and why it will use it, just as he did during his three years as head coach of the New York Jets.

“You can argue the merits of a 4-3 and a 3-4, but the one thing I like about the 3-4 is that you can reduce defensive ends and form 4-3 concepts out of that base part. It’s a balance, and you have the ability to rush any of the four linebackers to create whatever front you want. You can move the defensive ends towards the nose and run whatever fronts you want.

“You aren’t necessarily married to the concept of always adjusting the defensive line or always adjusting the secondary. There’s a ton of flexibility, and it’s been very effective over time.

“Everybody has a different way to run it.”

Yes, everybody does have a different way to run the 3-4, and it’s not clear yet exactly what way the Browns will choose for 2009. But no matter what type of 3-4 they run, if it’s hard for foes to decipher, then the defense will have a great chance to be successful.

Just as it was when it was used by the 3-4’s pioneers, and there are many.

Much history

The success of the 3-4 defense, especially the more sophisticated schemes, is built on the fact it’s usually hard to decipher for opposing offenses.

Pass rushers come from all different directions in a myriad situations. On one play, they come from the left, then the next play from the right, or the middle. Sometimes, a lot of them will come, and on other occasions, few, or maybe even no one.

There are so many things going on all at the same time — so many stunts, so many linebackers and safeties moving in and out of spots as the quarterback barks out the signals — that it can become a blur in trying to figure out who’s going to do what, and when.

So with all that in mind, then, it seems only fitting that it’s just as muddled and confusing in attempting to determine the one true unquestioned pioneer of the 3-4 alignment such as the one the Browns plan to use. Just like quarterbacks and offensive coordinators scratch their heads as they search for the real answer on the 3-4, so, too, do football historians and researchers.

There are as many opinions — and answers — as types of 3-4 schemes.

“Bill Arnsparger is the guy,” former Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano said. “He’s the guy who invented it. He’s the architect of the 3-4.”

Well, maybe yes, and maybe no. In one sense, Rutigliano is correct since the success Arnsparger had with it helped put the 3-4 on the pro football map, but in another sense, he’s incorrect. After all, since Ansparger’s Miami Dolphins teams of the early 1970s didn’t use the 3-4 all that much, does that qualify him as a pioneer?

It might be like saying that Christopher Columbus did not, in fact, discover the new world, that it was, instead, some long-forgotten man who piloted his ship past the new world years before but didn’t bother to stay because he didn’t realize what he was seeing, or didn’t think it was worth docking there.

Could it be that the Christopher Columbus of the 3-4 is Chuck Fairbanks? Maybe. In 1974, in his second season as head coach of the New England Patriots, he used the 3-4 on nearly every down.

But then again, how much thinking out of the box do you have to do when you simply build upon someone else’s innovation? Is the Bell Telephone Co., not Alexander Graham Bell, the pioneer of the telephone simply the company mass produced the technology?

Also using the 3-4 a lot at that time was Bum Phillips, when he was still defensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers, before he got the head coaching job of the team.

Phillips’ famous saying, when talking about the excellence of Arnsparger’s boss with the Dolphins, Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach Don Shula, went like this in his Texas drawl: “Now, his’n can be better than your’n, but he can take your’n and you can his’n, and his’n will still beat your’n.”

Hard to crown someone the king of something when he abdicates his throne to another even before the battle begins.

Like Shula, the late Hank Stram is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for what he did as a head coach. A tremendous innovator, Stram used the 3-4 to win a championship nearly 40 years ago. But like so many others then, he didn’t stick with the scheme. It would be like Ben Franklin’s next-door neighbor reeling in his kite just as lightning was starting to nibble at the tail, but still claiming to have discovered electricity.
Let’s throw out the name Joe Collier.

In a lot of ways, he’s the true pioneer — or, to steal a Rutigliano term, the architect — of the 3-4, for while he was the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills 45 years ago, he was the first one to use the 3-4 in the pros. However, like Arnsparger’s Dolphins, Collier’s Bills ran a 3-4 only sparingly.

All of these men can lay claim to the 3-4, but none can do it exclusively. Thus, like so many other things in history — including football history — the 3-4’s trek through time from then to now is meandering and often hard to follow and define.

But it’s fun anyway to take that trip. So let’s get going.

The other part of his resume

Mention the name Joe Collier to any longtime Browns fan, andtwoimages immediately comes to mind. And neither of them are good.

Collier was the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos when they edged the Browns in the AFC Championship Game two years in a row, following the 1986 and ’87 seasons, to go to the Super Bowl. Yes, we’re talking about “The Drive” and “The Fumble.”

But before Collier went to Denver, he coached the Bills for seven seasons, 1962 through ’68. It was there, at least as far as pro football is concerned, that the 3-4 was born, with Collier using it as first defensive coordinator and then head coach.

“We initially used it in 1964, but we used it quite a bit against San Diego in 1965 in the AFL Championship Game,” Collier said of a 23-0 Bills victory that gave them their second title contest victory in as many seasons over the Chargers, the top-scoring team in the league that year. “But for the most part, we didn’t use it. It was not a big part of our defense, maybe for just five or six plays.

“You have to remember that you had only 33 players on your roster at that time. As a result, you kept just four linebackers. So if one got hurt, it really put you in a bind. We used one of our defensive ends to drop back into that fourth linebacker role. We were fortunate in that we had two ends in Ron McDole and Tom Day who were versatile enough to do that.”

When the Broncos were playing in three Super Bowls (also following the 1977 season) during Collier’s 20-year tenure with them, they were using the 3-4 almost exclusively. That was because of something that occurred in anoffseason early in his time in Buffalo.

“Back then in the pros, the assistants went out to scout the college teams when they were in spring ball,” said the now-retired Collier after returning to his Denver area home following an extended trip to spend some time with his grandchildren back East. “Some of the schools were using the 3-4 and it kind of intrigued me, so I decided to use it.”

Sooner rather than later

The first man to bring the 3-4 to the pros and use it as his team’s base defense was Chuck Fairbanks, who first used itin 1974, during his second season as head coach of the Patriots. He brought the scheme with him from college, as he had used it as head coach of Oklahoma. That began the trend of pro teams gradually moving to the 3-4 and ultimately using it almost exclusively.

Most of those clubs were in the AFC at first. The NFC teams were reluctant to use it. Actually, it was probably more because of stubborn pride.

In the mid-1970s, there were still a lot of hard feelings left over from the completion of the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 with the move of the Browns, Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers from the NFC to the AFC to balance out the two new conferences at 13 teams each. The old-line AFL coaches continued to have fierce pride in their old league. Ditto for the old-line NFL coaches with that league. Keep in mind that in the press box during the first Super Bowl, or the NFL-AFL World Championship Game, as it was called then, even the reporters from the rival leagues nearly got into a fight.

Thus, if the Pats were using the 3-4, then the rest of their AFC brothers were more apt to try it. And for that reason, the NFC teams were bound and determined not to do it. Their thinking was that they had used the 4-3 for a long time and it had worked well, so why change?

That stodgy thinking may have been why the NFC lost in the Super Bowl for five straight years, and for seven out of eight seasons, in the 1970s.

Eventually, though, by the 1980s, the NFC teams had to suck up their pride and begin using the 3-4. They had to. It was either do that or keep getting embarrassed.

Points to consider

All 3-4 defenses are not created equal. They are as different as the personalities of the coaches making the decisions on them.

For example, the Steelers, under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, run a 3-4 scheme that attacks all the time, from all angles. LeBeau, a native of London, Ohio, a star defensive back at Ohio State and a 1959 draft choice of the Browns (though he never played for the Browns), always wants to force the action. He did that in his first stint with the Steelers and also tried to do it when he was with the Cincinnati Bengals. That kind of philosophy leaves LeBeau’s units greatly susceptible to big plays if all the rushers are picked up since it forces single coverage all over the field, but he doesn’t seem to care. He’s betting that won’t happen the vast majority of the time, and when it does, he’ll take his chances.

But the 3-4 that Rutigliano used from 1980 through the midway point of ’84, when he got fired, was totally different — on purpose.

“I knew that that 1980 team was going to score a lot of points because of the great offense we had, and it did (357 overall, or 22.3 per game),” he said. “So with that knowledge, I talked to Marty and told him I wanted a defense that would bend but not break. I wanted a defense that, with four minutes to go, would allow us to be in position to win the game.

“I didn’t care about statistics, about how many yards we gave up, how many first downs we gave up, and so on and so forth. Statistics are for losers. The only statistic that counts is how many points you give up.
“And that’s exactly the way it worked out, because 13 of the 16 games were decided in the final two minutes.”

By winning most of those close games, the Browns fashioned an 11-5 record, a first-place finish in the AFC Central for their first division championship in nine seasons and their first playoff berth in eight years, since the 1972 team that lost to Miami. They had two one-point triumphs, two by three points, one by five points, one by six points and two by seven.

When Marty Schottenheimer took over as head coach for Rutigliano, staying 4½ seasons, through 1988, he kept the same basic style of defense that would yield yards but not points. It worked for him, too, as the Browns qualified for the playoffs four straight times, won three Central crowns in a row and got to two AFC Championship Games.

Groh-ing into the job

In the late 1980’s, the New York Giants became one of the top teams in the NFL, winning two Super Bowls within a five-year span. The reason? Mostly because they had a smothering defense — a smothering, brutalizing 3-4 defense — that featured two HOF linebackers in Harry Carson (for the first Super Bowl) and Lawrence Taylor, and two other stars at that position in ex-Ohio Stater Pepper Johnson and Carl Banks.

The defensive coordinator on those teams was Bill Belichick, who used the success of his group and the Giants overall to catapult himself into the Browns head coaching job in 1991, after Carson had been fired in the midst of a then franchise-worst 3-13 finish the previous year.

When Belichick arrived, he began dismantling not just the team but, in many respects, also the entire Browns organization so as to be able to rebuild it. From changing the way the Browns practiced, traveled and even ate, there was nothing he didn’t put his hands on.

Well, almost nothing, anyway.

Oddly enough, the aspect of the team he didn’t touch — that he pretty much left alone — was the defense.

This was a defense that, in 1990, gave up a Browns-record 462 points, including 58 in one game alone, which also set a mark that has since been tied.

And this was a defense that had used a 4-3 scheme.

At first glance, Belichick keeping his hands off the defense, and letting it remain in a 4-3 alignment, is baffling. After all, if it hadn’t been for the 3-4, Belichick probably wouldn’t have gotten the Cleveland job. Even in 1993, when Pepper Johnson came to the Browns, or ’94, when Carl Banks joined him, the club still didn’t use the 3-4.

That’s even more puzzling.

But Belichick hadn’t lost his mind, or his ability to make sound decisions. Hardly. The coach was crazy like a fox, according to Al Groh.

Groh had coached the linebackers with Belichick on the Giants in 1989 and ’90 and had remained with them in 1991, taking over as defensive coordinator, before coming to the Browns the following year — and only that year — as linebackers coach.

“Good question,” Groh, now the head coach at the University of Virginia, replied when asked why the Browns didn’t use the 3-4 under Belichick. “Bill had such great success with the 3-4 with the Giants that you would wonder why he didn’t bring it to Cleveland with him.

“But Bill had never been a head coach before, so he knew he had to concentrate on learning the job. As a coordinator or as a position coach, you simply meet with your players and go to practice. There’s not much else.

“Then when you become the head coach, you’ve got all these other added responsibilities and you have to worry about much more than just a little group of players. You’re the head coach of the entire team, and that takes up all your time. I know that from having gone through it myself.

“Bill found a defensive coordinator he really liked in Nick Saban. Even though the defense was the part of the team that Bill felt the most passionate about, he felt comfortable in putting Nick in charge of it. And Nick’s expertise was in the 4-3 — that was consistent with his background, that’s what he was familiar with — so that’s the defense he put in.”

It worked. The Browns offense never was very productive under Belichick, but the defense did a great job in the four seasons it operated under Saban’s guidance. In 1994, his last year in Cleveland before leaving to become head coach at Michigan State, the Browns gave up just 204 points, a team record for a 16-game season.

Now, the Browns are preparing for their fifth straight season running the 3-4. Saban is using a version of it at the University of Alabama. Both participants in last year’s AFC Championship game run it, and at least 11 NFL teams will use some version of it this fall. Considering the Patriots and Steelers have combined to win five Super Bowls this decade, it’s working.

The 3-4 has staying power. And the Browns hope it can help them to the top, too.

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2 Responses to “A Breakdown of the History of the 3-4 Defense”

  1. Mark Maxon says:

    You should get your facts straight. The record for defensive points allowed in a 16-game season belongs to the Baltimore Ravens at 165 (2000). In fact, Cleveland’s 1994 defense isn’t even in the top five (it’s 7th!). I wonder if the rest of your article is accurate?

    • Jason says:

      I’m sorry, but you misread him. He didn’t say NFL record, he said “team record.” Meaning that the Cleveland Browns’ record for points allowed in a 16-game season is 204.