On a whim today, I decided to take a look at the twelve playoff teams to see who we would be possibly facing in the playoffs, and ultimately the Super Bowl, and I noticed something interesting. Five out of the six NFC playoff teams all run some form of the 4-3 defense, while the exact opposite is true in regards to the AFC with five of the six running some variation of the 3-4 defense. This isn't exactly a smoking gun showing without a doubt the relevance of the 4-3 to today's game, but it does point in the direction that those saying the 4-3 defense was a relic soon to be forgotten may have grossly exaggerated the state of the game.
Follow me below the fold where we will take a bit of a closer look at the specifics between the teams running the defense, the numbers from this year about making the playoffs, and exactly what each defense is designed to do.
As of right now in the NFL there are 15 teams that use some form of the 3-4 defense. Of those 15 teams, only five are part of the NFC, the Arizona Cardinals, the San Francisco 49ers, the Green Bay Packers, the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys. Of those five teams, two are in the NFC East, two are in the NFC West and one of them is in the NFC North. That means the other ten teams running a 3-4 are all in the AFC. Let's take a quick look at how those five teams fared in the NFC.
Other than the Packers, there wasn't a single other 3-4 defense in the NFC with a winning record. The 49ers, Redskins, and Cowboys were all 6-10 while the Cardinals were even worse at 5-11. The Packers with their 10 and 6 record might have been good enough for a wild card berth, but it definitely isn't enough to bring up the average for the 3-4 users which sits at a below average 33 - 47 record or .413 win percentage. I'm not going to damn the entire scheme of course, as the Cardinals do play a hybrid, and it's the Redskins first year in the 3-4, and all the teams mentioned have other issues than just the defense, but it does say something when the only team to make the playoffs with the defensive scheme in the NFC was one that also had a top 10 offense. The 49ers were 24th in offense, while being a respectable 13th in defense, and it still wasn't worth more than 6 wins.
This examination becomes extremely interesting when you start looking at the AFC side of things. Immediately, the first thing that jumps out at you is the exact opposite nature of the types of defenses that made the playoffs. While the NFC had five 4-3's and a single 3-4, the AFC has five 3-4's and a single 4-3, but it's important to look deeper at the teams further down the list as well as the one who made it as that's where the differences may be found. The 4-3 defenses in the AFC may not have made the playoffs, but they did slightly better statistically than their 3-4 counterparts in the NFC. The total win-loss record isn't going to translate over well, due to the greater number of teams, but the percentage should illustrate the point just fine. The 4-3 teams as a whole in the AFC racked up a 42 - 54 record, or .438 record. What's that actually break down to? About a half game difference, statistically significant perhaps, but much more likely to just be noise based on the 3-4 fielded by the Redskins.
So at best, the difference between the 4-3 in the predominately 3-4 division, and the 3-4 in the predominately 4-3 division is a measly half a game under the most favorable view. The two defenses also field the exact same number of playoff teams. I don't know about you, but that doesn't spell the end of the 4-3 defense, just the beginning of the 3-4 no longer being seen as new, exotic, and different, but a normal part of the NFL defensive landscape.
There are counterpoints to this, many of which can be found in an old article from NFL.com that speaks specifically to the numbers of the defense, and even more specifically to the number of sacks by the best in the game. Pat Kirwan is correct in stating that it's easier for 3-4 rush/outside linebackers to get to the QB than 4-3 defensive ends, so they get better numbers in regards to sack totals. However, it's an overly simplistic analysis that completely disregards what most current 4-3 defenses are trying to do.
The phrase "bend but don't break" is often used in relation to the Cover 2 or Tampa 2 defense, and lately 4-3 defenses in general as most function off of this scheme currently in the NFL. That phrase, while somewhat accurate, isn't exactly descriptive of the situation. It'd be like describing a sports car as a car that runs, and doesn't break down. Sure, it may be an accurate assessment of the car, but it doesn't describe what actually makes the car what it is.
When you're bending and not breaking, and forcing the opposing team to take shorter gains and more time consuming drives, that's more and more opportunities for the defense to get a turnover either by gang tackling on the ball carrier and going for the strip, or by jumping the route on one of the many cover 2 beater plays employed by other teams. Is it better for a defense to get a sack or a turnover? The sack is undoubtedly more reliable as we have more than often seen a Bears defender miss the easy pick, but it's hard to argue that the turnover isn't much more game changing in most scenarios. The Cover 2 defense excels at creating these turnovers as the overall speed and the ability to make a sure tackle are both emphasized aspects of the defenders, giving them the raw talents needed to go for the strip while still bringing the ball carrier down. The 4-3 alignment also assists in this regard as there are fewer running lanes immediately available to the back meaning quicker first contact, and more opportunity for help to arrive and relieve the runner of the ball on running plays as well.
The scheme doesn't make a good defense, a good defense makes the scheme. While four out of the top five teams in force fumbles this year were 4-3 defenses, it didn't stop the Pittsburgh Steelers from making an appearance in that top five. However, because these bend, but don't break attitudes are going to allow more yardage to be earned even if more points aren't the final outcome, you'll often see the overall ranking of these 4-3 defenses suffer for that reason. You'll also see gaudy sack totals be valued more in casual discussion and analysis, because it's much simpler to diagram how the outside LB ran unabated and demolished the QB, than it is to talk about how the players swarmed to the ball and held the player in place to attempt the strip. Sacks are seen as skill, while forced fumbles are sadly seen as lucky plays, and bad ball security by the victim.
Just remember the next time your blood pressure starts climbing, and things start being thrown at the television set when you're watching our beloved Bears that unless points are scored, it's still all going according to the plan.