MUCH TALK THIS football preseason has centered around South Carolina’s implementation of the 3-4 defense. To the average fan, the use of a different defensive set is about as important as what time the sun sets this evening.
Yet USC’s use of a defense – that is widely employed throughout the NFL – could be an important ingredient to the Gamecocks cooking up an SEC championship.
A few things you should know from the outset about the 3-4 defense:
It uses three down linemen and four linebackers, compared to the traditional four down linemen and three linebackers.
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USC will use it as a way to best utilize its personnel.
It will not be the Gamecocks’ base defense, as it has been for SEC opponents Alabama and Georgia.
USC will employ the defense based on the opponent it faces.
To gain further insight into what all this means, let’s go to the source – USC defense coordinator Lorenzo Ward, who learned the 3-4 defense as a player and graduate assistant at Alabama. Ward further indoctrinated himself to the 3-4 in 2006 as an assistant coach with the Oakland Raiders.
“When you’re put in a position that I’m in,” Ward says, “you have to be able to do what your players can do.”
USC has more quality linebackers returning this season than defensive linemen. A year ago, the Gamecocks’ defense was built around linemen Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton. They could defend against the run as well as apply pressure on the quarterback in passing situations.
“Anytime you had a great end like Clowney, you didn’t have to worry about creating pressure on the quarterback because you had one guy who could do it himself,” Ward says. “We’ve been blessed with that scenario since I’ve been here. ... But until we get a guy who can rush the passer, we’ll be more creative with the 3-4.”
This season, J.T. Surratt is the lone returning starter along the defensive front, while USC counts an abundance of capable linebackers in newcomer Bryson Allen-Williams, as well as veterans Larenz Bryant, Jordan Diggs, Sharrod Golightly, T.J. Holloman, Kaiwan Lewis, Skai Moore and Marcquis Roberts.
“When you don’t have a big-name pass rusher that’s proven himself, and your most experience coming back is at the linebacker spot,” Ward says, “you’ve got to make sure you’ve got your players on the field in the right position.”
Legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson is credited with originating the 3-4 defense in the 1940s. The undefeated Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins of 1972 made it famous by calling it the “53” defense. Bob Mathison, No. 53, was used as a down lineman in the 4-3, then became a fourth linebacker in the 3-4.
Now, virtually every NFL team employs the 3-4 in some way. For some, such as the New England Patriots, it long has been a staple. For others, it is used primarily in passing situations.
When the opposition faces a passing situation, the 3-4 provides additional pass defenders and allows outside linebackers to blitz and apply pressure on the quarterback. The downside to the 3-4 is that it can be vulnerable to an opponents’ running game.
“You can do a lot more defensively with the 3-4,” Ward says. “There is a threat of pressure (on the quarterback) every snap ... four guys are going to rush eventually, and you don’t know which four are coming.”
Passing situations and the opponents’ offenses will dictate when and how often USC employs the 3-4 defense.
Texas A&M and East Carolina, USC’s opening two opponents, both spread their offenses and pass. So USC is more likely to play the 3-4 defense against those teams. Georgia, USC’s third opponent, is primarily a running team, which means USC will play more from its traditional 4-2-5 alignment.
If nothing else, the 3-4 gives opponents different looks and makes Ward’s defense that much more versatile. That can only help a defense that has been the cornerstone to USC’s success the past three seasons.