Do the Cardinals run a 3-4 or 4-3 defense? The answer is, well, yes.
By Eric Edholm
Jan. 30, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. - Cardinals LB coach Bill Davis leaned back in his seat, exhaled and tried to remember a conversation he had five years and two jobs ago.
"I have been so many places, you tend to forget what you did when and when things happened," Davis said "It all blends together."
Indeed. In 17 NFL seasons, Davis has worked for eight clubs and has run or been a part of just about every kind of defensive scheme there is. He has been around long enough to have seen the 3-4 defense go out of style and subsequently come back as, what Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians calls it, "the vogue defense right now," including his own team's superior unit.
But do the Cardinals run a 3-4 also? The answer might surprise you.
"Everybody puts us in that 3-4 category, but what we are is an 'under front, a 4-3 'under' defense, "Davis explains. "The 'under' is almost a 3-4. As 3-4 [defenses] go, it's not really what we do here."
An 'under' defense slants towards the tight end. Likewise, an 'over' front shifts away from the tight end. As he explains the workings of the Cardinal's defense, Davis starts talking, then does as any good coach or teacher would: He grabs a pen and paper. "Well,here, let me show you want i mean ..."
Pretty soon, he's scratching out the defensive scheme on a paper, the same one the Cardinals will use to try to stop the Steelers on Sunday. He also, for comparison, sketches out the traditional 3-4 defense and the 4-3 'even' front, both of what he has taught and coached in the NFL.
"When you're talking about the 3-4 team, you have the three D-lineman," Davis said. "Then you have [two] outside 'backers; then [the inside linebackers] bubble on the guards."
Bubbling, in the defensive terms, is to line up across from an uncovered offensive lineman. In the 3-4, it's the two offensive guards that most often don't have a defensive lineman in front of them. The defensive ends are lined up in a five-techniques, or on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackles. The nose tackle is head up across from the center.
Said Davis: "These guys [defensive linemen] are supposed to two-gap, and these outside [linebackers] are interchangeable rush-or-pass guys. And that's the dynamic of the 3-4."
But in the 4-3 'under' front, like the Cardinals use as their base defense which looks similar to the 3-4 to the naked eye, the biggest difference is in the outside linebackers. The strong-side linebacker is still outside the tightend. But the other outside guy - the Cardinals call this player their "Predator" - is almost always rushing the passer, although the Cards will occasionally drop him into covers to mix things up. Other differences: The nose tackle shades to the A-gap (in between the center and the guard) on the tightend side, and the end on that side moves between the tackle and tightend.
Davis explained that the 3-4 defense creates the most confusion for the offense in terms of which outside linebacker is doing what, and the standard 4-3 offers the least unpredictability. The Cardinals 4-3 'under' scheme is somewhere between the two in terms of causing the offense to guess who is rushing and who is dropping.
The only player in the 4-3 'under' who is left uncovered is the "Mike," or the middle linebacker. In the Cardinals' scheme, that's usually Gerald Hayes. "That's my thumper, more of a thick guy," Davis said, circling the capital M on his piece of paper. "In the 'over' front, when i was in Atlanta [2001 to 2003], we put Keith Brooking - we were actually playing an even scheme, too - but we stacked Keith right behind the three [technique] and he got to run and make players and use his athleticism, and he made his first Pro Bowl playing behind the three."
But in this scheme Hayes, listed at 249 pounds ("or a little less than that," he admits with a wink and smile), is the only uncovered linebacker. That means he often will be taking on 300-pound guards head on. On Sunday, it could be Steeler ORG Darnell Stapleton and his 305 pounds that will meet Hayes more than once. "You don't think about," Hayes says, "you just do it. You can't worry about taking those guys on. It comes with the territory."
Antonio Smith and Darnell Dockett are the ends in this system, backed up by rookies Kenny Iwabema and Calais Campbell. Bryan Robinson and Gabe Watson are the nose tackles. Chike Okeafor is the primary strong-side linebacker, now that Clark Haggans is out with and injury.
Karlos Dansby is the weak-side linebacker. The way the defense is set up, he has a nice protective shield to keep potential blockers at bay. "what we've done with Karlos is put him behind a three-technique, so basically - we call these anchor points - he's got a wall in front of him," Davis said. "So he can run and use his athleticism. The center can't get him because the nose is on him. The guard can't get him because the end is on him. And the tackle can't get him because the predator is on him. So this is your athlete that can run, go cover ground and make plays.
Th "Predator" position is manned by Bertrand Berry and Travis LaBoy, assuming LaBoy is healthy enough to play Sunder. Both guys really are defensive ends by trade, but Davis considers them his guys.
"At the end of the day, I have these guys [the "Predators"] in my meeting room, so that puts us closer to this scheme [4-3 under]," he said. "And i put them in a two-point stance. This is the key right there: This guy right here [the three-technique weak side end] almost makes us have to rush the passer. As soon as you move him inside [from a five-technique], his responsibility in this is to play this very same gap."
Davis has coached this scheme with the Giants and 49ers, but this is the first time in a while one of his defenses has used it as the base grouping. He has picked up pieces of different schemes from a bunch of different schools around the league and likes the flexibility of what he and the other defenses have discover in the 4-3 'under' formation.
"The [Bill] Belichicks, [Dom] Capers, the [Bill] Parcells, that whole group ... they play the 'under' front most of the time, but they move to it," Davis said. "So are we a 3-4? Almost."
It just depends on how you look at it. Or under it.