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PFW looks at the best ever to play each spot in the 3-4 defense

By Ron Borges

March 27, 2008


Like many innovations, the advent of the 3-4 defense in the NFL came more out of necessity than inspiration.

“I think one reason teams went from the ‘40’ (defense) to the ‘30’ was it became harder to find effective defensive linemen,” Hall of Fame DT Merlin Olsen said recently. “That became especially true with the liberalization of the holding rules in 1978. I came into the league in 1962, when the 4-3 was the only defense being played. In 1974, we (the Los Angeles Rams) faced the New England Patriots, who were the first team to move to the Oklahoma (3-4) defense, but as I began covering the NFL for NBC in 1977, I saw more and more teams switching to the ‘30.’ When I ended my TV announcing career in the early 1990s, I saw the trend reversing back.

“I think the 3-4 was successful early because it was simply different than what offensive coordinators had seen. It forced new blocking schemes, and anytime you do something different, you can take an offense out of its comfort zone.”

Although Joe Collier had used a 3-4 package in Buffalo in the 1960s and was one of its first advocates in pro football, it was not the base defense there. That did not happen until former Oklahoma head coach Chuck Fairbanks arrived in New England in 1973. A year later he switched the Patriots to the aptly named “Oklahoma” defense, and the Houston Oilers quickly followed suit at the urging of then-Oilers defensive coordinator Bum Phillips. Thus began a trend that would take over defensive football for nearly 20 years.

Phillips had to first convince Oilers head coach Sid Gillman to abandon the 4-3 tradition, but that task was made easier for him after Houston traded with the Chiefs to obtain the prototypical nose tackle of that era, Curley Culp. Culp arrived with nine games to play and was immediately dominant. Soon, so was the Oilers’ defense, and before long the 3-4 was sweeping through pro football. But as with any scheme, it also had its weaknesses, and in the opinion of Hall of Fame DT Dan Hampton, the biggest was the toll it took on the three down linemen.

“In my view, teams go with the 3-4 because they cannot find enough good big guys,” Hampton said, echoing Olsen. “If all you have is players who are 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, you’re going with the 3-4, but they cannot seem to stay with it because you cannot underestimate the beating your three linemen take in the 3-4. They are at such a disadvantage that they don’t last long.

“The 3-4 is a simple premise. You have your front seven, and you’re going to get a helmet on a helmet, but that is not what the reality is. Offenses are going to double the nose tackle play-side every time and try to double the defensive end play-side if they can. They cannot allow that defensive end to get inside leverage. If that happens, then the tackle has to just seal him and the inside linebacker comes in and makes a form tackle.

“So it’s an interesting scheme, but it’s like nitrous oxide. You get the benefits of messing up an offense, but it does not last and sometimes ends up breaking, usually body parts of your nose tackle and your ends.”

In other words, it’s a defensive front that is physically and mentally demanding because the linemen must be both stout and unselfish, taking on blocks to free up the linebackers behind them. And those linebackers, especially on the inside, have to control their gap and make the bulk of the tackles against the run. That is why, over time, even the 3-4 defenses began to seek ever bigger men, both on the nose and at inside linebacker.

“In the early days of the 3-4, the nose man was a smaller, quick guy who could use leverage,” Olsen recalled. “They were short and broad physically. They were often a bit off the ball, not right on the line of scrimmage. It was a read position. It was more a challenge of leverage than strength.

“That changed a little, and I think Fred Smerlas was one of the first nose tackles to get in the center’s face. Fred was bigger, maybe 300 pounds, and would force the center into errors by making him react so quickly, whereas earlier in the 1970s the nose man would react to what the center would do and try and defeat him with leverage.

“The best nose tackles can react to the run and tie up blockers but also pass-rush enough to keep the quarterback deep in the pocket. Sacks usually came from the outside, and in the ‘30’ that meant the outside linebackers. Look at all the great pass-rushing linebackers and they’ll tell you that without help from the inside they would have a tough time getting to the quarterback. All the great pass-rushing linebackers like (Lawrence) Taylor, (Andre) Tippett or (Rickey) Jackson had excellent nose tackles.

“The defensive ends in the ‘30’ are more run-oriented. They’re nose up on the tackle, which is a horrible position from which to rush the passer. Even the great ‘30’ defensive ends had to have subtle moves to go along with the power they needed to play the run. Howie Long was incredible. He was quick enough and had good hands and great change of direction.

“I never knew why, but most defensive coordinators love linebackers. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 3-4 or a 4-3. They put big guys in a place so the linebackers could make plays. With the 3-4, that is even more pronounced because the defensive line is a sacrificial lamb for the linebackers to get the plays and the glory.”

Within six years after Fairbanks introduced the 3-4 in New England, it had been adopted by more than half the NFL teams (16 of 28 teams in 1980). That grew until by 1985, 23 of the league’s 28 teams ran the 3-4 as their primary defensive front. That was the high point for the 3-4, which went into a slow decline. In 1992, 15 teams ran the 4-3 as its base defense and only 13 used the 3-4, the first time in 12 years that there were more 4-3 defenses in the NFL than 3-4s.

The number continued to dwindle until by 1996, even the Patriots had abandoned it, despite the fact it remained the defense favored by their head coach, Bill Parcells. The falloff continued until by 2001, only the Steelers were still using the 3-4 as a base front, as they had since 1982. That was the nadir for the 3-4, which is now undergoing a bit of a renaissance. Four teams (Houston, Atlanta, Baltimore and New England) employed the 3-4 in 2002, and it has continued to regain popularity, with 11 teams using it primarily this year while 21 remain in the 4-3 mostly.

Despite this resurgence, it is clear that the 3-4 era began in 1974 and reached its peak from 1980-1992. Who were the best of the practitioners of the 3-4? That is open to debate. So John Turney, the well-respected researcher and historian who is a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association, polled a panel of 45 former NFL players and coaches with intimate knowledge of the 3-4 era and asked them to name an all-time 3-4 front seven.

Here are the selections:

DRE Lee Roy Selmon

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(21 votes)

Notes: Nine seasons, seven Pro Bowls, four-time NFLPA NFC Defensive Lineman of the Year.

Sacks: 78

Forced fumbles: 28

Fumbles recovered: 10

Selmon was the first player ever drafted by the Buccaneers. If every choice had worked out as well, the franchise’s history would be quite different. Selmon was the 1979 Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year after recording 11 sacks and 117 tackles. He led that team to the NFC title game, in which the Buccaneers’ defense did not allow a point in a 9-0 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Selmon remains the team’s all-time sack leader and its single-season leader with 13, as well as holding the club record for forced fumbles. Personnel guru Mike Giddings says of Selmon, “No one had better lateral movement. He could speed- or power-rush the passer.” On July 29, 1995, Selmon became the only Buc ever selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Others receiving votes: Elvin Bethea, Houston Oilers (16 votes); Richard Seymour, Patriots (three votes); Leonard Marshall, Giants (two votes); others (three votes).

NT Curley Culp

Kansas City Chiefs / Houston Oilers / Detroit Lions

(18 votes)

Notes: Fourteen seasons, six Pro Bowls, 1975 Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) Defensive Player of the Year.

Sacks: 93

Forced fumbles: 14

Recovered fumbles: 10

Culp combined unusual strength with tremendous leverage, which he developed as a collegiate wrestler. Culp won the 1967 NCAA heavyweight title and two years later became instrumental in the Chiefs’ dominance of the Vikings in Super Bowl IV when Hank Stram put him head-up on C Mick Tingelhoff in a four-man front known as a “stack over.” Tingelhoff wasn’t strong enough to handle Culp, and the resultant problems not only helped destroy Minnesota’s offense but also have been credited for the advent of the 3-4 in the NFL. Culp’s greatest years at nose tackle came in Houston, where he made the Pro Bowl four times (1975-78). Then-Oilers defensive coordinator Bum Phillips had convinced head coach Sid Gillman to switch to the 3-4, but it was not until Culp arrived with nine games to play in 1974 that the defense became dominant. “Curley made it work,” Phillips has said. “He made me look smart.” A year later, Culp had a remarkable 11½ sacks, an unheard-of total from that position, and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. “Curley Culp was perhaps the strongest man I ever lined up against,” Hall of Fame C Jim Otto has said. Hall of Fame OG John Hannah claims, “Curley Culp was the best. They ran that ‘stack over’ when he was with Kansas City, and then in Houston the 3-4, and he was the best.”

Others receiving votes: Fred Smerlas, Bills/Patriots (12 votes); Ruben Carter, Broncos (five votes); Joe Klecko, Jets/Colts (three votes); Tim Krumrie, Bengals (two votes); others (five votes).

DLE Howie Long

Oakland Raiders

(19 votes)

Notes: Thirteen seasons, eight Pro Bowls, 1989 NEA co-Defensive Player of the Year, 1985 NFL Alumni Defensive Lineman of the Year, NFLPA AFC Defensive Lineman of the Year (1984, 1985).

Sacks: 91½

Forced fumbles: 14

Recovered fumbles: 10

According to arguably one of the most intense offensive linemen ever to play the game, “Howie Long’s intensity set him apart. That and the physical nature of his game. He was awesome.” So said Hall of Fame OG John Hannah of Long, the second-highest vote getter from the panel among defensive linemen. “When the Raiders went to the nickel (defense), he’d be over me, so I know about his game. He had a strong rip (move), and when he plowed it, he could push you to the quarterback. He was so strong. And to be great at both end and tackle is really something else.” Long was inducted into the Hall of Fame seven years ago after a 13-year career in which he went to the Pro Bowl eight times. Long finished his career with 91½ career sacks, including the 7½ he had in 1981, before sacks became an official NFL statistic. Long was an unusual blend of power and quickness, a combination that allowed him to play end in the 3-4 and slide inside in a four-man front to play defensive tackle, the forerunner to what has been asked in New England of five-time Pro Bowler Richard Seymour today.

Others receiving votes: Bruce Smith, Bills/Redskins (13 votes; he was a right end but received votes at both DE spots); Art Still, Chiefs/Bills (three votes); Jacob Green, Seahawks/49ers (two votes); others (six votes).

ROLB Lawrence Taylor

New York Giants

(41 votes)

Notes: Thirteen seasons, 10 Pro Bowls, AP Defensive Player of the Year (1981, 1982, 1986), five-time NFLPA NFC Linebacker of the Year.

Sacks: 142

Forced fumbles: 40

Recovered fumbles: 11

Interceptions: 9

Taylor is regarded as a seminal performer in the history of the game at outside linebacker. Former Oakland Raiders head coach John Madden has said of Taylor, “He changed the way defense is played; the way pass rushing is played; the way linebackers play; and the way offenses block linebackers.” After that, what more is there to say? Taylor played 13 years in the NFL and started every game he ever played (184), finishing as the second all-time leader in sacks at 132½ when he retired. That total does not include another 9½ sacks he had as a rookie in 1981, before that statistic was officially kept. In 1986, Taylor was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player after piling up 20½ sacks, 105 tackles, five passes defended and two forced fumbles. He was Rookie of the Year in 1981 and made the Pro Bowl a record 10 straight times between 1981-90. Taylor’s combination of quickness, speed, power and aggressiveness made him, in the opinion of Pro Bowl pass rusher Kevin Greene, “the prototype for an outside linebacker in a 3-4. We were all chasing L.T.” Adds Randy Gradishar, who is also a member of the all-time 3-4 front, “Lawrence Taylor was quite, quite special. He had speed and size that was unique. He was my ideal guy that was used in an ideal way by Bill Parcells.”

Others receiving votes: Pat Swilling, Saints/Lions/Raiders (two votes); Robert Brazile, Oilers (one vote); DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys (one vote).

RILB Harry Carson

New York Giants

(33 votes)

Notes: Thirteen seasons, nine Pro Bowls, NFLPA NFC Linebacker of the Year (1978, 1979).

Sacks: 19

Forced fumbles: 9

Recovered fumbles: 14

Interceptions: 11

Carson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, capping a 13-year career in which he reached the Pro Bowl seven straight times between 1982 and 1988. Carson was a punishing tackler and physical run defender who aggressively took on blockers but was also quick enough to get into coverage, where he intercepted 11 passes during his career. “I saw Harry as the prototype of the player who played the run and was effective against the pass,” Gradishar said. “Harry was very aggressive against the run.” Carson was also considered the heart of the Giants’ defenses that led the team to two Super Bowl victories. Although Lawrence Taylor was the dominant figure in that New York defense, Kevin Greene said, “I believe everyone in the league knew that Harry kept that defense together and going strong. He was the leader. L.T. was doing stuff on the side, which was OK, but Harry was the run stuffer, the pounder. I can’t believe he was passed up all those years for Canton.”

LILB Randy Gradishar

Denver Broncos

(31 votes)

Notes: Ten seasons, seven Pro Bowls, 1978 AP Defensive Player of the Year.

Sacks: 19½

Forced fumbles: 10

Fumble recoveries: 13

Interceptions: 20

Gradishar averaged 204.9 tackles per season in his 10-year career in Denver and forced 33 turnovers (20 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries). Despite being undersized at only 233 pounds, Gradishar made plays with quickness, intelligence and aggressiveness. He was nimble both mentally and physically, and the combination led him to the ball more often than nearly any of his peers. “I knew that he and I were always mentioned as the best inside guys from that time,” Harry Carson recalled. “I think we had to play a more disciplined game than the ‘Mikes’ (4-3 middle linebackers) to ensure our responsibilities.” Olsen added that Carson and Gradishar “were the ones who stood out. Both had anticipatory skills. Carson would take on a block, shed the guard and make a tackle. Randy wouldn’t be there when the guard tried to block him. Two separate styles but the same result, which was a highly effective defense. Randy would also excel in coverage. I cannot remember how many passes he deflected, but when I’d do a game (for NBC), it seemed like he’d get at least one or two a game. That was instinct. It’s something that cannot be taught.”

Others receiving votes (votes for the two ILB spots were counted together): Steve Nelson, Patriots (nine votes); Sam Mills, Saints/Panthers (seven votes); Matt Millen, Raiders/Redskins/49ers (two votes); Vaughan Johnson, Saints/Eagles (two votes); others (six votes).

LOLB Andre Tippett

New England Patriots

(22 votes)

Notes: Eleven seasons, five Pro Bowls, 1985 NEA co-Defensive Player of the Year, NFLPA AFC Linebacker of the Year (1984, 1985, 1987), NFL Alumni Linebacker of the Year (1987).

Sacks: 100

Forced fumbles: 17

Recovered fumbles: 14

Interceptions: 1

Tippett finished with more than twice as many votes as any other outside linebacker other than Taylor and is considered, along with Hall of Famer Dave Wilcox, as the game’s best pure strong-side linebacker. Unlike most pass rushers, Tippett always rushed from the strong side, where he was covered by both a tackle and tight end. He produced 100 sacks (seventh all-time when he retired and third among linebackers), despite being used sparingly as a rookie and missing a full season in his prime to a pectoral injury. His 0.66 sacks per game is fourth all-time among linebackers. In 1984 and ’85, Tippett had 35 sacks (18½ in ’84 and 16½ in 1985), the highest two-year sack total by a linebacker in history. “Andre Tippett was the best 3-4 outside linebacker,” said Hall of Fame OG Joe DeLamielleure, who played against him in Buffalo and Cleveland. “If he played defensive end only, I think he’d have been an All-Pro. As it was, he was All-Pro at strong-side linebacker. He was phenomenal.” Tippett averaged less than half a tackle per game fewer than Taylor for his career. “Tippett was terrific,” said Bears Hall of Fame DT Dan Hampton. “Even though we beat those guys pretty bad (in Super Bowl XX), you could see that Tippett was a superior athlete. Had the game been closer, and it wasn’t for a lot of reasons, Tippett might have had a chance to shine on national television. I don’t think New England was on TV a lot back then, were they?”

Others receiving votes: Kevin Greene, Rams/Steelers/Panthers/49ers (10 votes); Rickey Jackson, Saints/49ers (five votes); Carl Banks, Giants/Browns (five votes); others (three votes).


Note on methodology: During November 2007, John Turney, co-chair of the Pro Football Researchers Association awards committee, polled a panel of 45 former players and coaches, including talent evaluator Mike Giddings, and asked them to name their all-time 3-4 team. Only players and coaches who were involved in the NFL during the 3-4 era — 1974 through the mid-1990s — were polled. Most were contacted by e-mail, although some were also contacted by phone during the last week of November and early December. Of the 45 voters, 11 are Hall of Famers and many more were All-Pros during that era.

Partial list of voters: John Ralston, Joe Collier, Paul Wiggin, Monte Clark, Mike Giddings, Merlin Olsen, John Hannah, Harry Carson, Joe DeLamielleure, Dave Pear, Jerry Sisemore, Ron Yary, Jack Youngblood, Dan Dierdorf, Fred Smerlas, Dan Hampton, Tony Siragusa, Kevin Greene, Randy Gradishar, Elvin Bethea, Phil Olsen, Stan Jones, Manny Fernandez, Andre Tippett, L.C. Greenwood, Don Macek, Ed White, Dave Wilson, Sam Huff, Joe Klecko. (Some voters, not listed above, participated on the condition of anonymity.)

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