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Kevin Steele, the 3-4 Defense and LSU Personnel Part 1: The Scheme

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Will Kevin Steele implement a 3-4 at LSU? If so, what would that look like? Does LSU have the personnel to run the scheme? Let's answer those questions.

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Last week, veteran LB Lamar Louis announced his intentions to return to LSU, and perhaps, more notably, tossed out an interesting bit about Kevin Steele's scheme:

"We’ll have a 3-4 package. We’ll have a 4-3 package. I think we’re going to be multiple," linebacker Lamar Louis said. "Coach (Les) Miles wants to move more to a multiple defense, and that’s something I’m all for."

He then added, on his prospective role in the scheme:

"Get back in the middle. Get my hands dirty, you know," Louis said. "(I’ll) put on about 10 more pounds in that 3-4. I love it, running that scheme."

It's an interesting idea, and one you may not believe LSU is quite ready for. Let's unpack this a bit.

What is the 3-4 Defense?

Put simply, it's three down defensive linemen and four linebackers. Unfortunately, most folks' understanding starts and ends there. The 3-4 is really just a base set, no different than the I-Formation, Empty Set, One-Back, whatever. How the weapons are aligned and how the weapons are deployed are two entirely different discussions. Saban's version of the 3-4 vastly differs from Wade Phillips' 3-4 whose is vastly different from Dom Capers 3-4, and you get the idea.

The primary difference will be the technique played by the three down linemen up front. Saban's scheme more classically relies on "two-gap" technique up front, with big-bodied defenders responsible for engaging the OL, or, "eating up blockers." The NT and both DEs line up directly over the OC and both OTs, respectively.

base34

It's called a "two gap" because the defenders are, quite literally, responsible for two gaps. Ends are responsible for both the "B" (inside the tackle) and "C" (outside the tackle) gaps. The nose tackle is responsible for both "A" gaps (between center and guard). Their responsibilities are less to penetrate and more to clog. Even behind them LB responsibilities can vary. Some inside linebackers will fill gaps, while the outside 'backers play contain. Other times, the insiders flow to the action of the play and accrue tackles. This is most commonly what you see with Alabama, where ILBs Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest were the teams second and third leading tacklers last season. Think back, also to Rolando McClain and Donta Hightower. Common thread here: all guys coached by Kevin Steele.

The other primary variation is a "one-gap" system, which Wade Phillips commonly utilized. Here, a single player is responsible for only one gap, thus relying much more on penetration and disruption, rather than swallowing an offense whole.

34onegap

This system doesn't quite require the mammoths that Saban utilizes in his front. Phillips utilized a 305-pound nose, successfully, in Dallas, in Jay Ratliff. He oft-utilized DeMarcus Ware as a fourth d-lineman, despite his designation as a LB, frequently asked to pin back his ears and rush. The end effect of said attack is essentially no different than an aggressive 4-3 attack. In fact, Phillips pretty regularly ventures into standard 4-3 looks on passing downs.

To throw an additional wrinkle on top of all this, how about a look at a standard 4-3 Under front? The 4-3 under is the alignment most commonly associated with the likes of Monte Kiffin and Pete Carroll. It's also what Kevin Steele defaulted to at Clemson. Here's the basic 4-3 Under look:

43under

Look familiar? Remember all the hype surrounding Clancy Pendergast and his "genius" scheme for stopping the spread? USC coaches and media took to calling it a 5-2. Here's a good breakdown of the system. That look he implemented was essentially a 3-4 under defense, looking something like this:

34under

Yep, sure does look pretty similar. If you are curious about the differences in "over" and "under" alignments, Dr. B has a nice breakdown here. The basic difference is that the interior defensive line shift the the weak side in the Under, and the strong side in the Over. The strong side, of course, is the side to which the tight end lines up. The other end and the strongside ("Sam") LB will also adjust how they line up. In the Over the end will wind up in a 9-technique, on the outside shoulder of the tight end. In the Under, he remains in a 5-tech, outside shoulder of the tackle, while the Sam steps into the 9-tech.

The point here is that alignment and deployment are very different things. Think of a one gap system as trying to get a peanut stuck in a person's throat, while a two-gap is more hoping a person with a mouth full of food eventually chokes. The end result is both the same, the methodology is different. Or, as Chris Brown says, "In short, while a 1-gap player attacks gaps, a 2-gap player attacks people."

Coverages and Blitzes In the 3-4

Really, this will depend on the playcaller. Saban's Bama scheme doesn't rely on blitzes much. Saban runs plenty of Cover 3, and often turns to man-to-man coverage on 3rd downs. Steele is a bit more aggressive in terms of blitzing, so we can count on seeing a good bit of Cover 1/Robber stuff. To do so, you need a rangy, heady safety with good instincts that can anticipate where the ball will go. Steele will likely incorporate some Cover-3 zone blitzes, a la Saban, as well.

Again, similar to the technique played by the front, how the back seven blitz/cover isn't really confined to the alignment. You can be a 3-4 man-to-man team. You can be a 3-4 zone team.

Conclusion

It's important to lay out the scheme before addressing the question of whether or not LSU can fit these looks. People commonly assume the 3-4 is only what Saban runs, in style and personnel, when that's far from the truth. There are many variations and possibilities. When Steele tells Lamar Louis they may incorporate 3-4 looks, that may be an easier way of him talking about the 4-3 under, in terms of roles/responsibilities. Louis has played both Sam and Will (weakside) during his time at LSU. Perhaps Steele thinks he may be best deployed as a will in the 4-3 Under, to take advantage of his athleticism. In that sense, he would function much more like a 3-4 inside 'backer than a true 4-3 Will.

We can't know any of this for sure, at this point. We can draw some basic conclusions based on Steele's history, but the best we should hope for is that Steele will build his scheme around the personnel on hand, not demand his personnel to fit his scheme. That is one major reason Pete Carroll has experienced such success. He preaches one of the primary tenets I most believe in (paraphrased): "If we are asking the player to do something he can't do, that's on us, not him." In the next installment, I'll take a look at some of "roles" in 4-3 under/3-4 schemes and seek to identify if LSU truly does have the personnel to maximize.