For the last 20 years the NFL defense of four linemen and three linebackers—"They're using the standard 4-3, Curt"—has been even more of a Sunday afternoon staple than beer and cheese doodles. The Fearsome Foursome. The Purple People Eaters. The Sack Pack. The Steel Curtain. Big Daddy Lipscomb. Kill, Bubba, Kill! But now the front four as we have known and loved it is going the way of moleskins and the flying wedge. More and more NFL teams are switching to a defense variously called Orange, 53, 30, 3-2, Stack, or—most descriptively—3-4. By whatever name, this defense deploys three linemen and four linebackers, and it features a new position with a fascinating name—nose tackle.
Seven NFL teams now use the 3-4 as their primary defense, and a dozen others go into it in specific situations. Oakland won the Super Bowl with the 3-4 last season. Of the seven 3-4 teams, Oakland, Denver, Houston and Miami all shut out their opponents in their opening games, and Philadelphia allowed only a field goal. The Broncos' 3-4 did not yield a touchdown in its second game, either. Exclude winless Tampa Bay, and the other six 3-4 advocates—including New England—have a combined record of 18-6. And of the four NFL teams with undefeated records after the first four weeks, two—Oakland and Denver—play the 3-4 most of the time. (Dallas and Baltimore are the undefeated clubs using the 4-3.)
In the 3-4 the three linemen are well spaced—the two ends line up opposite the offensive tackles, and the nose tackle squares off practically nose-to-nose with the center. Two of the four linebackers set up on opposite flanks and the other two fill the gaps between the ends and the nose tackle. The 3-4 is designed for speed and deception, not brute strength like the 4-3. "The 3-4 is a pursuing defense, not really an aggressive beat-'em-up defense," says New England Nose Tackle Ray Hamilton, who rates with Denver's Rubin Carter (see cover) as the best of this new breed.
Unfortunately for the Carters and the Hamiltons, the linebackers in the 3-4—not the linemen—seem to grab the headlines. Denver had the AFC's third best defense last year, but can anyone east of Colorado Springs or west of Boulder name the Broncos' front three? Would you believe Carter, Lyle Alzado and Barney Chavous? Care to take a stab at Miami's front three—or even Oakland's?
"In the 3-4, what the linemen basically do is make things happen for the linebackers," grumbles Oakland's 6'7", 270-pound John Matuszak, who began to live up to the potential that made him the NFL's first draft choice in 1973 only when the Raiders, his fifth pro team, installed him at left end in their 3-4 last season. Houston Nose Tackle Curley Culp echoes Matuszak in stronger language. "I don't like the word 'sacrificial,' " Culp says, "but that's exactly what you'd call the 3-4, a sacrificial defense. We sacrifice our bodies so the linebackers can make tackles. I guess we're the garbage collectors. Personally, I don't particularly care for the three-man front. If you took a consensus of the defensive linemen throughout the league, I think you'd find that nobody likes the 3-4."
Culp's attitude hardly surprises coaches. Denver Defensive Coordinator Joe Collier admits, "The 3-4 is a very difficult defense for linemen. They can't be freewheeling or creative because there aren't enough other linemen to cover up for them. Defensive linemen don't like the 3-4 because they don't get the sacks. The linebackers get them."
Of course, it is results, not players' feelings, that matter to coaches. "It's important to understand that this is not a cure-all defense," cautions New England's Chuck Fairbanks, who in 1974 became the first pro coach to make the 3-4 his team's primary defense against both the pass and run. "You still need good players. The theory of the defense is sound but really no more sound than the 4-3." Oakland. Coach John Madden agrees. "Ultimately, it comes down to who your people are," he says. "If your fourth linebacker is better than your fourth lineman, then the 3-4 is better for you."
If Madden is correct, then the 3-4 soon will become the universal defense in the NFL. Indeed, compared to Brobdingnagian linemen, linebackers are a dime a dozen. Even Washington Coach George Allen, who lives or dies with the 4-3, admits, "It's easier to find a 220-pound linebacker who can run 40 yards in 4.6 or 4.7 seconds than it is to find a 6'5", 260-pound lineman who can move." Oakland's Madden, for instance, had no recourse but to switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 early last season after injuries wiped out three of his five defensive linemen.
If finding defensive linemen who can move is so difficult, why then don't the Carters and the Hamiltons get publicity? Philadelphia Coach Dick Vermeil, a convert to the 3-4 this season, says, "If the nose tackle is doing his job, you won't notice him because he'll be neutralizing the center of the line and allowing the linebackers to flow to the ball."
The double team—by the center and a guard—is the nose tackle's daily diet. "A nose tackle has to be able to endure the pounding," says Carter. "On most plays, a 250-pound center and a 260-pound guard hit me. That's 510 pounds each play." That's what Culp means by 'sacrificial.' Nevertheless, Carter led the Bronco linemen in tackles last season.