Install a 3-4 Defense

About the Author: Ryan McCartney has been the defensive coordinator at Seymour High (Ind.) for the past two seasons. Originally from Riverview, Mich., McCartney graduated from Eastern Michigan University in 1997. He started coaching football in 1995 and has been either a head coach or defensive coordinator for 16 of those years. In 2014, he was the defensive line coach at Arizona Christian University (Phoenix, Ariz.) and was responsible for recruiting the West Coast and Southwest region.


The 3-4 defense can be used against any offensive scheme because of the versatility and multiple looks it offers. Here are the five keys to running a successful 3-4 defense.

Assessing players’ skill sets. Coaches wanting to run the Swarm 3-4 Defense should look at what type of skill sets their players possess. In our system, the catalyst is our zero-technique nose guard. We prefer to utilize a wrestler-type nose guard with great balance and quick feet. If your nose guard can slant hard into A-gaps while also being able to get into the hip pocket of a pulling guard, that’s the dude!

Next we utilize double four-techniques at our defensive tackle positions. We like a bit more length over mass. Since we are a slant/angle scheme, we’d like our tackles to have good feet and the ability to stay low from the snap as to get into the pads of the offensive linemen. We predetermine our direction, which allows us to play more aggressive as opposed to reading the blocks first with our feet still.

Our outside linebackers are probably our best overall athletes. They are big enough to take on a right end, tough enough to spill against a lead blocker or pulling lineman, and quick enough to blitz the quarterback or spy a running back out of the backfield.

Our inside linebackers are actually smaller than the average linebacker. We can get away with a running back-type player in this spot because they are protected (for the most part) by our slanting defensive linemen. Our inside linebackers read guards – so the ability to read/react is key. We utilize quickness and football IQ over physical dominance.

Our secondary is comprised of kids that can ball – guys who love to play Cover Zero and get into the bodies of wide receivers. We don’t worry about size here – technique ultimately will win out. However, your secondary better be able to tackle.

Getting on the same page. Not surprisingly, but often overlooked is the next step in installing the 3-4 Swarm defense. We’ve got to get all of our kids on the same page. What I mean is: our players need to know the responsibilities of each position to understand the entire concept of the 3-4 Swarm.

It’s a bit easier playing man coverage, but could you imagine how poorly Cover 2 or Cover 3 would look if the linebackers and defensive backs had no idea who was responsible for which zones?  It’s the same in the box. The front seven needs to know who has what gap – who is the spill player, the leverage player, the cut-back player, etc. This also helps with our TEAM concept in which we all are responsible to each other.

Creating the Mindset. To be an aggressive run-stopping defense, you have to work on the overall attitude and mindset of the unit. The challenge comes when you are limited in numbers, and kids are playing offense, defense and special teams.

How do you get defensive-minded attitudes on one side of the ball when your kids aren’t necessarily required to have that same attitude on the opposite side? That’s when practice planning comes into effect.

The staff really needs to all be on the same page as it relates to creating an aggressive defensive mentality. From the minute you start your defensive sessions through your skelly and team periods, the coaches are setting the tone and speaking the same language.

Practicing what you preach. In conjunction with controlling the environment that creates an aggressive mindset, you also have to practice what you preach. You can’t just tell your defense that “we want to create turnovers” without actually practicing creating them.

You can’t talk about “getting as many hats to the ball” without setting up drills and sessions that work on that aspect of your philosophy. This is done through specific practice planning – having turnover circuits that are specific to the position, not blowing the whistle on the first hint of contact, allowing an interception to be returned for a score with a convoy of players. The more you put your kids in game-type situations, the more desired results you will see.

Putting your kids in position to WIN. Lastly, it’s the coach’s job to put players in position to be successful. Obviously, we talked about skill sets and putting the right “body type” at the desired position. We also need to look at how we align ourselves to the various sets we see – making sure we are gap sound and that we match numbers and not allowing our players to be outnumbered or out-flanked.

We’ve got to give our kids the tools to be successful when put into negative situations when things aren’t going their way. We’ve also got to coach up our kids so that they will recognize those situations during the game without needing to take a timeout or receive extra coaching during the contest.

Do you want to contribute a X’s and O’s feature to FNF Coaches? If you do, email managing editor Dan Guttenplan at Tweet us @fnfcoaches.