Back in 2015, facing a make or break season as the head coach of the Iowa State Cyclones, Paul Rhoads decided to drastically evolve his defense. He’d long relied on a 4-3 Over defense that had been converted almost by default into a 4-2-5 by the demands of defending Big 12 spread offenses and it just wasn’t working.
The standard issue faced in using the four-down defense against modern spread teams is the need for those DL to effectively set the edges and inflict negative plays to justify their place over getting more speed and athleticism on the field. The Cyclones were not bringing in the kinds of DL, particularly at defensive end, who justified the limitations that the scheme put on their anti-spread game plans.
So Rhoads turned to a 3-4 base defense that used 5-11, 218-pound walk-on Levi Peters and 6-3, 209-pound Jarnor Jones as his outside linebackers in lieu of playing his standard 4-3. The results of that switch weren’t enough to save the season or his job, but the improvements they made clearly stuck with Rhoads. This offseason Arkansas head coach Brett Bielema promoted him to defensive coordinator and charged him with bringing the 3-4 to Fayetteville to save the Razorbacks’ floundering defense.
The 3-4 quarters defense
Rhoads’ journey to the 3-4 is pretty similar to that of many other defensive coaches in today’s game. Many coaches started out of the 4-3 Over defense backed by quarters coverage that Dave Wannstedt helped make famous on the legendary Miami Hurricanes defenses of the 1980s and Pat Narduzzi used an updated version to dominate the Big Ten in the early 2010s.
The 4-3 Over defensive front was exemplary for handling offenses of that era but began to meet its match when facing modern spread systems that could draw linebackers out of the box with detached slot receivers and muddy up the run fits for the aggressive defense.
The quarters coverages attached to that defense have stood the test of time and proven useful in handling modern offenses, but nowadays coaches are turning to the 3-4 tite front as a better front to pair with those two-deep coverages.
You can see the challenge for a 4-3 defense compared to a 3-4 in facing standard, four-receiver formations:
Every team in the nation now uses a nickel DB or a hybrid DB/LB in lieu of a “Sam linebacker,” but now spread formations can require that the “Will” and/or “Mike” linebacker also have the range of safeties in order to balance their duties of matching slot receivers underneath in coverage and filling gaps inside against the run. The alternative is to abandon the versatile, two-deep safety coverages and drop one of them down to play man or Cover 3.
A team like Arkansas typically doesn’t want to be forced into playing man coverage or with a single-deep safety, particularly against the caliber of athletes they regularly face in the SEC West division.
The “3-4 tite front” negates this problem by handling three out of the four interior gaps with DL and allowing the linebackers to widen out without fear of getting caught in no-man’s land defending the run and the pass.
With the “Razor” and “Hog” outside linebackers stationed out over the slot receivers, the defense can account for every gap without putting their inside linebackers in conflict. They can also mix and match different brands of quarters coverage much more easily because they have an extra linebacker on the field who can either drop or blitz.
One of the favorite strategies of 3-4 quarters teams is to stunt into something like the 4-3 Over front after the snap when the offense isn’t ready.
It’s more difficult for the offense to punish this sort of quick-hitting, inside blitz because the outside linebackers are stationed on top of the slot receivers, thus taking away the easy hot routes. If the blitz is well disguised and the DL occupy OL effectively, it can be downright deadly.
The 3-4 can be many different things after the snap, making it a modern favorite for non-blueblood programs that struggle to find elite defensive ends who are worth the loss in flexibility that a three-down structure provides.
The 2017 Arkansas 3-4 defense
Those are more or less the tactics that Rhoads employed at Iowa State in 2015, and he found the ability of that 3-4 front to spill the ball to his small, but well positioned linebackers to be useful against the run …
While the versatility he could get from his coverage made for good options against the pass as well …
But while they were able to get by without premier talents using this defense, Iowa State was still not particularly good on defense that year and Rhoads was still fired, which is why he’s at Arkansas today.
The challenges of the 3-4 quarters defense include the need for sturdy DL who can move laterally and cause problems up front and then playmaking linebackers who can make the most of it.
The 2017 Hogs defense is turning to a trio of young, fresh starters along the defensive line while playing a pair of outside linebackers in Dwayne Eugene (6-1, 240 pound senior) and Randy Ramsey (6-4, 230 pound junior) who are still a bit big to make this work.
Even in the “3-4 tite” defense with quarters, those outside linebackers need to be able to run laterally and match up to slot receivers underneath; the front just helps them to do so without having to worry about also fitting a B-gap.
Whether those two outside linebackers can handle that spacing will be a major factor in determining if this change in philosophy actually helps Arkansas against spread teams.
The Razorbacks also need someone in the front seven to emerge as a dangerous pass-rusher who can be set up with matchup advantages and disguised blitzes. None of these guys have demonstrated much in the way of pass-rushing and the secondary hasn’t shown much in recent years to suggest they can carry the water if the front doesn’t disrupt the quarterback.
Overall this is a viable strategic path for Arkansas to use in building defenses that can consistently hang with SEC offenses, but it’s a big transition for the DL, and if they don’t have the Jimmies and Joes to maximize the opportunities it creates, it won’t matter.