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MHR University - The 3-4; Red-Zone Adjustments

If you ever get out to Indiana and decide you want to try your hand at coaching 7th-grade football, be careful. Just north of Indianapolis lies Westfield Middle School (home of the Shamrocks). I've seen the facilities on the east side of 31 driving to Indy, and they are very, very impressive. There, Coach Todd Hagemeier runs a 3-4 defense. Not a lot of middle schools can go that route, and he even tells me they also use a scheme that transposes from a 3-4 into a 46. Wow!

Todd writes this e-mail to MHR University:

...I started doing some digging on the 3-4 and your site came up. You do a great job and I plan on using your info for my 7th grade team this fall. I am also living in Indiana AND a Purdue fan. So getting to my questions. Have you considered writing about the aspects of the 3-4 in the red zone, how a coach should call the defense, and maybe even more importantly what NOT to do in the red zone?...

This is a wonderful question, and well worth the time for all of us to look at in some depth. Let's take a look at implications...

3-4 and 4-3 Distinctions

First, let's look at a few generalizations about the 3-4 (compared to the 4-3) to get some context.

The 4-3 has one more D-Lineman at the line of scrimmage (LOS), making interior runs by the offense more difficult. Because of the extra D-Lineman, the LBs get better protection from the DL so that they can do their job. In fact, LB great Ray Lewis once famously said he was thrilled one year when the Ravens went to a 4-3 because he wanted more protection from run blocking O-Linemen.

The 3-4 is spread out more horizontally (East - West), so it can be more effective at stopping runs to the edges (such as "sweeps").

In football, most plays are runs, and most of those are interior runs. For this reason, the 4-3 has been dominant for some time. But the 3-4 is gaining adherents because it brings a lot of advantages.

For one, a lot of folks believe it is easier to find quality LBs than quality defensive linemen. Because of the extra LB, another school of thought says that the LBs can be a little less skilled than their 4-3 counterparts. Because of the athleticism of LBs (supposedly over D-Linemen), there are more playmakers on the field in a 3-4 to make tackles, zone, man, get to a fumble, and intercept. And while a 3-4 may give up short yardage up the gut, it also plays into a "clock control" scheme where the opposing offense has to use a lot of time to drive down the field, and thus has more chances to make mistakes (such as turnovers). With the pro's having gone from a running game in the early years to a more balanced approach, the 3-4 provides more playmakers in passing lanes, and more complexity in blitz schemes.

Why am I impressed by a middle school that can run a 3-4? A lot of 7th grade programs (small programs in particular) are run-oriented on both sides of the ball. A lot of programs use 1-WR sets, and a lot of defenses run with 1 CB and 1 SAF (often a 4-4). A 3-4 formation has more complexity that the 4-3. This tells me that Todd's program likely falls into a few categories...

  1. A large school with a lot of players to recruit from (in the case of Westfield, I believe this is certainly the case)
  2. Intelligent players that can handle more responsibilities than the 4-3 (again, a large recruitment pool is part of it. Quality coaching is another).
  3. With two CBs on the field, the school is probably playing against opponents who are willing to throw the ball. These opponents may come from programs as large and effective as Westfield (perhaps they play some of the large Indy schools?)

I got my start in 7th-grade coaching. We ran 4-4 at the middle-school level, and only bumped up to 4-3 at the HS level (some of our HS opponents were smaller programs using a 4-4 as a base formation).

3-4 Red Zone Adjustments

What makes the red zone an issue in play-calling? Well, the ratio of defensive players to available field of play (AFP) is greater, so the job of the offense is made more difficult.

AFP? That's a fancy acronym I picked up from notes at a football seminar. The concept is that the offense is only working with the field to their sides and front. As they move down the field, less plays and passing routes are available (such as long passes). Add into the mix that the defense becomes denser (because they are playing on a smaller field), and the AFP doctrine dictates that the defense is at an advantage. But there's more.

The offense has some advantages too. For one, the field-goal potential is there. The defense has to balance the potential of a TD with the potential to get in range for a sure 3 points. This is easier for defenses at the 7th-grade level, where FGs may be less common than the pros.

Another offensive advantage is that a shot at the end zone for a TD is easier in the red zone, because it doesn't require a long and precise pass as it would if LOS was on the other end of the field.

So how does the 3-4 fit in?

The shortest path to the end zone is a straight line. This is a good thing, because most of us coaches don't want to mess with difficult, non-Euclidean concepts. The 4-3 stops the straight line (interior running) more effectively than the 3-4 (on balance), so perhaps the 3-4 might be considered a lesser alternative.

Not so fast.

Consider the concept of AFP again. The field shortens vertically, not horizontally. The 4-3 has the advantage of stopping dives and gut runs, but in a shortened field the player positions are like putting all of your eggs in one basket. Picture a 4-3 on a field, and the field being shortened (and the players in the 4-3 being bunched together towards the LOS). There are a lot of holes outside the DEs for the offense to exploit. In 7th-grade football (where QBs are not pros), the passes are easier to make, and it only takes a pass or two in short yardage to score. (Note that a 7th-grade red-zone is shorter than a pro red-zone. The actual defining yard line for a red zone depends on what each coach thinks his red zone is).

Now picture a 3-4 in the same shrinking field.


There is now a wall of players covering a wider area of the field, making passes more difficult (as well as runs to the edges). There is also space for defensive players to work in, allowing more freedom of movement as well as more visibility of the ball carrier (which is made more difficult with a wall of defensive linemen).

Thus, the 4-3 takes away the most potent weapon in the red zone (interior running), but the 3-4 takes away more weapons overall (everything else). So what adjustments does the 3-4 defensive coordinator make?

On one level, it depends on his players and the tendencies of the other team. But we can still name some adjustments that are important overall. A coach should adjust the thinking on the following, based upon their knowledge of their own team and the opponent.

First, Shore Up the Interior

Player placement and play calling on defense should adjust for the weakness of the 3-4 interior when the red zone is reached. Giving up short yards is no longer an option when short yards are near the end zone. Consider an ILB manned on the RB, or at the very least to be zoned near the DL. Plugging up the gaps with both ILBs (with a SAF in the box) is another route.

Next, Contain the Edges

3-4 OLBs in the red zone often play containment. This means that they zone over the LOS on the offensive side of the ball. If a run comes to them, they DO NOT make the tackle until the RB turns upfield (this requires a smart kid at OLB who is also patient).

There are 10 defensive players behind a RB nearing the edge of the field, and when he turns back, any of a number of players can take him. But if he reaches the sideline and then turns upfield, there are few (if any) players to make the tackle. A missed tackle in this postion is unthinkable. So the OLB stays in front of the RB (and slightly upfield), running with him and pressuring him to make the cut upfield with every step to a useless sideline. When the RB turns upfield the OLB can make the tackle, and the delay in time allows other defensive players to close the distance.

In this instance, the job of the OLB is to "vector" the opposing player back to the interior, where more defensive support exists. It also has the major advantage of placing an OLB in a passing lane used for screens, a common offensive passing-technique in the redzone.

Player Adjustments

The size of the field has shrunk. Speed is less of a factor. Power is more important on offense, and tackling is more important on defense. Pull any fast guys who aren't the best tacklers. The small size of the field (and the higher ratio of defensive players to AFP) should balance for any disadvantages in speed.

Ironically, the 4-3 is different. Because the players are bunched more to the center of the field (and because you lose a faster linebacker to a an extra D-Lineman), you need a little more speed to cover the open areas in the seams.

Tone Down the Blitzes / Take Away the Run

Blitzes are great, but they often put players out of position if the offense is running the ball. In the red zone, take away the run. The reasons are many:

  1. On a short field, chances are good that the defense is wearing down. If the defense is 3-4, the chances are good that the offense got into this position after a long drive (and some bend-don't-break play).
  2. Turnovers are more likely on a pass play, as are plays with no gain in yardage.
  3. The shortened field makes passes more difficult against a 3-4, while the run can still be more effective.
  4. Less blitzing invites more passing (playing into the 3-4s shortened field advantage).


Tired players, and/or players who have to think are going to be at a disadvantage in the red zone on defense. One reason is that trick plays or even very choreographed / massively practiced plays by the offense are unleashed more often in red zones. Mistakes that can be recovered on any other part of the field are deadly in the red zone. Now is the time for players to be able to play on instinct and rehearsed reaction instead of trying to remember a tricky play where a player may have multiple responsibilities.

This goes for offenses too. If the team was good enough to get to the end zone, they should be good enough to just keep punching it in. But a lot of coaches (I'm sure you know a few) like to drop what worked for them and get "creative" in the red zone. Something about the red zone makes some offensive coordinators too "chancy", while others become too cautious. Caution is less of an issue at the 7th-grade level, because the sure thing of a FG is less likely for most 7th-grade teams.

Either way, now is the time for the players on the defense to take advantage of the short field, play their own portion of the field, and use the good athletic skills of an early teenager (but not the excitable and mistake prone minds of same).


There are times to fire up 7th graders, and there are times when firing up a kid is a mistake. For instance, firing up a kid to make a goal-line dive is excellent. His mind is focused, the task is simple and physical. But firing up a kid before he is called on to execute a complex scheme is a bad call. I've seen plenty of times when a coach has fired up the team at the wrong moment, and the players skills disintegrated.

As a coach, one can talk to, shout at, or whisper to a kid during a football game and see the same thing. Kids often have a faraway look, thinking about what they just did or what they are going to do. Coaches often shout at players not because the coach is a drill sergeant, but because the testosterone and andreniline in a young athlete is blocking out the words of the coach.

The opposing offense is on your side of the field, and you've correctly simplified the plays for your defense. Go ahead and fire up the team. Each player should have a simple responsibility at this point, to wit; tackle the ball carrier, plug a gap, play man or zone, or contain the edge (the most difficult). Note the "or" in the last sentence; no "and". Keep the guys simple, angry, and focused.


I'm sure Coach Todd knows his team and his competitors well, and knows which things I've written will help in his situation and which won't. But the overall concepts are useful for watching a 3-4 in use during an NFL game.

Much of the issues are different. The pro players are less excitable (for the most part), and focus much better. They've been doing this for years, and at a level that a 7th grader can only dream about in terms of practice and complexity. Pro-level teams have a further range for FGs, and much more complex pass schemes (and much more accurate and stronger QBs). This makes the red zone trickier for defenses at the NFL level. Then again, the defensive players and minds are a lot sharper too.

But the inherent advantages and disadvantages of the 4-3 and 3-4 remain pretty close. One isn't "better" than the other. They are just meant to do different things. Each is played differently, depending on what part of the field the team is on (as well as consideration for down and distance).

I'm hopeful that a look at the 3-4 (in the red zone and at a 7th-grade level) helps to bring out some knowledge of these differences to make everyone's football watching a little more fun.

All the best to everyone, and a bit of extra good luck to the Westfield Shamrocks and Coach / faculty member Todd Hagemeier on their campaign this year.

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