Alabama's 3-4 Defense: D-Line Basics

Over the course of the summer, I will be examining the matchups and schemes of the Hokies' opponents, and no scheme presents more conundrums and challenges than Nick Saban's NFL-style 3-4 defense. Saban comes from the Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick coaching tree, and brings an NFL-esque attention to detail that is unparalleled in college football. Yes, Alabama has talent, but the true genius of Nick Saban (besides his ability to represent strong the Lollipop Guild) is to ensure that his talent executes the scheme.

Several years ago, Smart Football posted an excerpt from Saban's LSU playbook. While the post has been lost in a sea of bytes, Saban's own words on his defensive philosophy live on (via Pats Propaganda).

[Our] philosophy on first and second down is to stop the run and play good zone pass defense. We will occasionally play man-to-man and blitz in this situation. On third down, we will primarily play man-to-man and mix-in some zone and blitzes. We will rush four or more players versus the pass about ninety-percent of the time.

"In all situations, we will defend the inside or middle of the field first – defend inside to outside. Against the run, we will not allow the ball to be run inside. We want to force the ball outside. Against the pass, we will not allow the ball to be thrown deep down the middle or inside. We want to force the ball to be thrown short and/or outside.

"... Finally, our job is to take the ball away from the opponents' offense and score or set up good field position for our offense. We must knock the ball loose, force mistakes, and cause turnovers.Turnovers and making big plays win games. We will be alert and aggressive and take advantage of every opportunity to come up with the ball ... . The trademark of our defense will be effort, toughness, and no mental mistakes regarding score or situation in any game."

The 3-4 defense describes the alignment of the front seven defenders. Alabama's alignment features a nose tackle lined up heads up or over the strong side eye of the center, and two "defensive ends" lined up over the offensive tackles. On occasion Alabama overloads the strong side by aligning the defensive end to the strong (tight end) side lines up on the inside eye of the tackle, while on the weak side, the end lines up on the outside eye of the guard. Two inside linebackers line up over each guard.

The 3-4 defense is more similar to the Bud Foster 4-2-5 and 4-4 than most recognize. In both defenses, the inside linebackers have straight ahead gap responsibility, and the defensive line forces running backs to go where the defensive coordinator wants them to go. The defensive linemen have similar roles, but execute very differently. Foster uses his four-man front to slant and occupy defenders, while Kirby Smart recruits large defensive linemen that work to tie up blockers, freeing up their linebackers to make plays.

Despite the prevalence of the 3-4 in the NFL, it is a restrictive, assignment based defense for defensive linemen. Their job is to tie up blockers so linebackers can make plays. It is no accident that there has only been one Hall of Fame 3-4 true defensive end (Bruce Smith), several 4-3 ends moved out to weak-side outside linebacker at some point in their careers like Ricky Jackson. Furthermore, no true 3-4 nose tackles have been elected, despite man-mountain's like Ted Washington excelling at the position.

The Nose Tackle

While outside linebackers are the star playmakers in a 3-4 defense, the nose tackle is the most critical in executing the defensive concept. The nose tackle lines up over the center and has gap responsibility for the entire space from the inside shoulder of the left guard to the inside shoulder of the right guard. In most cases, the nose tackle is massive, but more importantly, he must be strong enough and quick enough to neutralize the center and move laterally to tie up the guard that delivers the double team. By completing his assignment he takes away the middle of the box, which should be the most vulnerable part of the defense to the running game. By occupying interior blockers, the nose ensures that the inside linebacker to the play side will be un-blocked, as the defensive end will tie up the offensive tackle.

Saban will also throw a curveball at the offense and shift to a four-man front.

Here Auburn (and Scot Loeffler) try to run the insize zone against Alabama last season.


Watch the nose tackle, #54 Jesse Williams. At the snap, Williams takes on the center and gets double teamed by the backside guard. Williams occupies the center initially and then stands his ground taking on the guard. He resists getting too far up the field, where the guard can get on his hip and create a cutback lane. The center can't get to the second level in time to create a bubble for the back, and he has nowhere to go.

Auburn took an interesting tactic against the 3-4 early in the game. During the first series of the game, Auburn's offensive line made every effort to completely bypass the nose tackle with the center and block him with the back side guard.


If Loeffler intends to use the same strategy on August 31st, it presents a huge challenge for the footwork and strength of Mark Shuman, Brent Benedict, and David Wang. It requires the guard to not only be physically strong enough to handle 6-4, 310-pound sophomore nose tackle Brandon Ivory, but the guard must also take a lateral step and cover nearly 5 feet of space, then move Ivory horizontally. With the 3-4 outside linebacker playing outside the tight end, the interior is much more susceptible to interior running plays IF the Hokies can handle the nose. This will be the most important matchup on the field, and Virginia Tech's track record against quality defensive tackles is abysmal since dominating Dan Williams in the 2009 Peach Bowl.

Saban will also use a four man front on passing downs, or against spread formations. On early downs, the nose tackle stays on the field. The fundamentals of the defense remain the same, but sometimes one linebacker will move into a 4-3 end position and put his hand down. When the Tide goes to a 4-man front, the nose slides over to play a 1 or 3 technique (lined up on the inside or outside eye of the guard). In that role he will still most likely be playing a 2-gap technique, occupying the guard along with the double team blocker assigned to combination block.

Defensive Ends

In the base 3-4, the defensive end does not play in the Deacon Jones style classic edge rusher mold. 3-4 ends are more like defensive tackles. Similar to the nose tackle, the defensive ends have two-gap responsibility. The ends line up over the offensive tackles. The defensive end must occupy the gaps to the inside and outside shoulder of the tackle. On occasion, the end will line up on the outside eye of the tackle. This is more common on the strong side of the line where the tight end is lined up. Regardless of the alignment, the defensive end must occupy the offensive tackle and if the tight end is on his side he may also neutralize a double team. Just like the nose, the defensive end's primary assignment is not to make tackles, rather occupy blockers. The end only gets up field if he reads pass. As a result these guys won't put up big numbers.

When Kirby Smart shifts to the four man front, one of the defensive ends must slide down to play a 1 or a 3 technique just like the nose tackle. This flexibility requires most 3-4 ends to have a very similar body type to a 4-3 defensive tackle. Alabama recruits tall, strong side defensive ends and tackles who come out of high school around 6-4, 250-260 pounds, but with frames to carry much more weight. The typical Alabama end grows to the 280-300 pound range. Jeoffrey Pagan (6-4, 290, JR) and Ed Stinson (6-4, 292, SR) will start at defensive end for the Tide. Both were four-star recruits.

Not only do the ends tie up blockers straight up, but they work to create blitzing lanes as well. Here, we see a designed 3-4 run blitz designed to stop the zone stretch play.


The design is pretty simple. Auburn runs a fake quick pass right, then opens up and pitches the ball back to the left. Auburn must have had a strong tendency to run back to the trips side, because Alabama looks like they audibled to a mike blitz. On the play, the defensive end stunts hard to the inside, crossing the left tackles face and sealing the guard inside, almost like a trap block by an offensive guard. The linebacker then shoots through the gap, and with the tackle fixated on the stunt, the linebacker blows through the hole and crushes the tailback. (We will discuss how the outside linebacker keeps contain in our next segment.)

As you can see, the ends are doing the thankless work that allows the inside linebacker to make the play. At the same time, they have the talent to beat blocks individually, and Smart will shift to a four man front and allow them to get upfield, especially on long yardage downs. These ends will be the largest defenders that Jonathan McLaughlin, Laurence Gibson, and Ryan Malleck will see all season, and Alabama will do whatever they can to not only physically dominate the young tackles, but confuse them as well.

In the past, I have commented that the Hokies offensive line is sometimes at a disadvantage in early season blocking matchups because of the amount of time they must devote in preseason blocking Bud Foster's slanting gap scheme. Foster's defense presents many of the challenges that a defense faces when playing the Georgia Tech offense, in that in order to succeed against it you must change your fundamentals, and often it messes up your scheme later in your schedule. The Hokie blockers will face defenders slanting and stunting during the first couple of weeks. Then, as they shift to gameplan preparations against Alabama, they must adjust to physical defensive linemen who stand their ground and challenge double teams. Also, the Hokies do not have the depth at defensive line to simulate the size and strength of Alabama to accurately give the offensive line a good look. Tech has a decent track record of success attacking a 3-4 against Georgia Tech, UVA under Al Groh, and more recently Boston College, but those teams do not present the size, strength, athleticism, or attention to detail that Alabama will bring to the table. The Hokies must follow their blocking rules, and unlike last season, compete on every block to win this football game. If Tech can run inside the tackles, they have a good chance. If they have to resort to throwing the ball 40 times, it allows Kirby Smart to use those pass rushing linebackers and disguised coverage to force turnovers. We will discuss some of those schemes in my next article.


Another great article, French, but the videos you have embedded are Auburn vs Clemson, not Alabama.

That was my mistake, I embedded the clips. If you reload they should be fine.


Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

"(besides his ability to represent strong the Lollipop Guild)" Got me rolling...HAHAHA

Pic didnt load for me, but I chuckled at the title "sabanandbear.jpg"

What's Important Now
The Lunchpail.
The Hammer.

I had a problem with an image and Hokie_x3_Hi suggested uploading an image to, then getting the link and using the image embedder. You could have also right clicked the saban and bear image, copied image url, and used the image builder (I think this will work, I don't normally use bing, and by that i mean i don't use bing by choice)

test image

Thanks for posting the image, +1. Bing isn't my favorite search engine either, but it was the one that placed this pic right at the front, and had the least hits.

The big issue with Bama is personnel. The size of their linebackers is astonishing. You'll remember McClane playing ILB at 260. Courtney Upshaw played OLB at 270. And they can move. Their size and athleticism creates physical mismatches up front.

Reality has a mighty pimp hand.

yeah, i remember mcclain using that considerable size and power to shove a ref. . .and not get kicked out of the game for it.

gotta love the sec

"That kid you're talking to right there, I think he played his nuts off! And you can quote me on that shit!" -Bud Foster

I think that if we can mount even a moderately effective running game against Bama, we have a decent chance. In my mind, this is the key to the game. Bama will be breaking in a green secondary, and we might be able to exploit them for some yardage. It's an uphill climb, but it's do-able.

Take the shortest route to the ball and arrive in bad humor.

I like the positive thought process, but I'm not nearly as hopeful.

anyone have clips showing some teams being effective (TAM or UGA?) against the bama front and how they did it?

I am trying to use Georgia clips for the linebacker overview, however most of their success came from whipping up on the backup nose tackle, as Jesse Williams was not 100%. The projected nose this year is a big kid, but was only a 3 star and wasn't as strong as Williams. If I felt better about the interior of our offensive line, I would like that matchup a little more.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

This is definitly going to be a game won in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Last year our line seemed as strong as a wet paper bag across the middle. That was mostly due to the injury bug that swept through, heres hoping Grimes can get our line in better shape early.

Have forwarded this to some BAMA boys here at work, told them that if they learned more than they knew before to maybe consider buying the #BEATBAMA shirt that swept through the Tide message boards a couple weeks ago. They will be able to find it on this site.

lol at the idea of a Bama boy buying a #BEATBAMA shirt :)

Question - how did Ryan Williams had some success against Alabama back then?

I support Logan Thomas and make no apologies for it.

ryan williams

I guess this doesn't really answer your question, though.

I remember reading Kyle Tucker noting that our center Beau Warren was holding up his own against Bama's NT Mt. Cody. If that is correct, then by French's observation, running game becomes easier.

Andrew Miller is going to have to play the game of his life for VT to have a chance.

If his move to guard sticks through fall camp, you can bet we'll see what French described about the center bypassing the NT and leaving him to the guard.


Bama wasn't quite Bama back then... And Ryan Williams had the best vision of any RB I've watched at Tech.

Uhhhhhhhhhhhh... 2009, right? As in, the same 2009 when they went 14-0 and won the MNC?

Well yeah. They had a great defense that year, but not anything like the historic numbers they put up two years later in 2011. Or even the numbers they were putting up early in 2012.

Bama has definitely improved overall as a program since 2009, IMO.

AAAAND, they were not averaging 40 pts a game on offense like they were last season. I'm looking forward to this game just as a measuring stick for us, this year. If we go out there and Notre Dame this thing up then we're probably looking at another 7-8 win season. If we don't embarass ourselves then we'll probably make a run to the ACCCG and face Clem/FSU.

"Sure, I've been called a xenophobe, but the truth is, I'm not. I honestly just feel that America is the best country and the other countries aren't as good. That used to be called patriotism." Kenny Powers

"Notre Dame this thing" was classic. Lol

"NDing it up" would end up with a 12-1 record, lone loss to Bama. I would take that. Losing to 'Bama big isn't necessarily a sign of mediocrity. Losing to Pitt, UNC, and Miami, while barely beating GT, BC, UVA and Rutgers is a sign of mediocrity.

🦃 🦃 🦃

I'm personally ok with taking a little shot at ND every now and then. It's nice to see someone else fall flat on their faces on national TV.

I wasn't talking about their season as a whole...just the last 60 mins of it.

"Sure, I've been called a xenophobe, but the truth is, I'm not. I honestly just feel that America is the best country and the other countries aren't as good. That used to be called patriotism." Kenny Powers

there were cutbacks in a couple of those clips above that the Auburn RB missed.

That is the key to beating them. Follow blocks and use a team running concept. Be patient but quick. Bust out when there is a seam. Don't try to be the hero. Win the small battles.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time

#Let's Go - Hokies

Very appropriate cliched rhetoric.. +1

What's Important Now
The Lunchpail.
The Hammer.

It is worth noting that against Georgia (who spent a significant amount of time in the shotgun), Alabama ran a ton of four man fronts, either with four down linemen, or three down with the jack linebacker playing as a stand up defensive end. It seemed that Georgia had some success coming to the line, motioning the running back to the side of the QB that shadows the DE moved inside to tackle, and then ran power plays at the nose. The backs would often have a nice cutback lane because Georgia's guards would whip the defensive end who moved down to tackle. Just a thought as we move forward in this review...
Example: The Nose (#54) is lined up as a three technique over the outside eye of the left guard. Georgia runs a power delay from the shotgun at the nose, and cuts back over the block of the right guard, who has driven the defensive end (I think #92) back about four yards. The end was lined up as a one technique, but the guard scooped him with relative ease and drove him back.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

Hi French, have you checked out some of grimes' new targets (as listed by 247Sports) - Billy Ray Mitchell, Tyrell Smith? Would love to hear what your thoughts are on these kids.

Well Alabama might be Alabama, but it doesn't sound like Hand's strengths can be fully utilized as a DE in this defense. Hate bringing up what is now a sour subject, but with his abilty to get off blocks, he would be better in Bud foster's 4-3 than taking up space in a 3-4. Am I thinking this through right?

French can go on for hours at length agreeing with you. My guess is Alabama wants to morph him into OLB, not sure that's a great fit for him either.

That is what I was explaining to a Bama boy down here. It could work, Bama does tend to have OLB weighing in at 240-260lbs. But if he wants to get his hand on the ground on the line of scrimmage. He should be thinking about going somewhere else besides Bama.

Joe nailed it. I think it is a lock that Hand goes to a school that plays a 4-3 defense (I would guess Michigan.) We saw him in person last year where he was utilized as a nose tackle, and on film, his strength is shedding the defender at contact. He has zero experience playing in space, and while he is a supremely gifted pass rusher and athlete, having the instinct to keep contain responsibility and know when to drop back into coverage and be effective is a nuance that is very unnatural to most great defensive ends. Jonathan Allen, the top defensive player in Virginia in the 2012 class, was an even more perfect fit for the Bud Foster defense than Hand (although not as elite an NFL prospect), yet went to Alabama and by most accounts has languished. He isn't in the prospective two deep for next year.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

So with the obvious misfit, why do they keep getting interest from Bama?

To pull them away from VT and screw us up.

#Let's Go - Hokies

My guess is that Hand ends up at Michigan.

Me thinks he ends up at michigan, personally

We have to hold our own or beat them in the trenches on both sides of the ball. They'll give us everything they got, and we must return fire with a withering barrage. We do that, run the ball and not turn it over and we stand a damned good chance of winning.

It's all about The VPISU
VT '10, Born & Raised in the 804.
Rockin in The Bakken.
GO: Freeman Rebels, Keydets, Black Knights (the VMI of the North), NY Rangers & Giants, and ATL Braves.

i'd feel a lot better about the whole running the ball thing if we had an established back, and if we werent breaking in new tackles on either end of the line. they're gonna make logan beat them through the air.

"That kid you're talking to right there, I think he played his nuts off! And you can quote me on that shit!" -Bud Foster

Fortunately LT3 has an extremely strong arm; the trick will be if he can iron out the issues he had last year. Bama will have a relatively inexperienced (but talented) secondary, so that might help us too.

It's all about The VPISU
VT '10, Born & Raised in the 804.
Rockin in The Bakken.
GO: Freeman Rebels, Keydets, Black Knights (the VMI of the North), NY Rangers & Giants, and ATL Braves.

For what it's worth, Auburn definitely had a couple of chances down the field vs Alabama last year. If Loeffler's WR's can beat their man one-on-one and Loeffler's QB has the time and the arm to make the throw, he'll give Alabama some problems.

There is no defense against a Zombie Turkey offense!

wouldn't the run in that first clip have worked out if #11 had made his block on the outside?

For the 3-4 defense, worry much more about how your guards and center can double the nose and get to the inside linebackers than your tackles. Now, versus the zone blitz package, the tackles must be sharp

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN