Chalk Talk: the Birth of the 4-3
Landry was revolutionary pioneering NFL defenses
Landry was revolutionary pioneering NFL defenses
BearReport.com Correspondent
Posted Aug 2, 2007


Although there are several teams around the NFL that run the 3-4 as their base defensive philosophy, the 4-3 is considered the standard in today's game. In Part II of his two-part series "The History of Defense," BearReport.com Correspondent Jeremy Stoltz discovers that the idea for the modern-day 4-3 came about when looking for a way to defend George Halas' high-powered T-formation.

Around the same time that Giants head coach Steve Owen created his famed 6-2-2-1 “Umbrella” defense as a way to stifle the explosive Cleveland Browns offense of 1950, another coach was crafting his own groundbreaking defense. Earle “Greasy” Neale, head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles from 1941-50, constructed his 5-2-4 package, also known as the “Eagle” defense – the last defensive advancement to precede today’s 4-3-4.

The Eagle defense expanded on the philosophy of the Umbrella, where linebackers, ends, and secondary defenders were asked to fan in and out in an attempt to cover nearly every area of the field on passing plays. Basically, the 5-2-4 took one of the linemen from the 6-2-2-1 and made him a linebacker. In this way, flat patterns and swing passes could be covered with the same success as deeper routes.

There was just one problem with Neale’s defense that the T-formation exposed mightily. As a result of the linebackers, ends, and safeties spreading toward the sidelines, the middle of the field was left un-patrolled. Eventually, opposing offenses sent their backs and ends through the soft middle of the defense on nearly every play, racking up easy yardage.

It was then that Chicago Bears head coach George Halas called upon an old friend, Clark Shaughnessy, to help solve the dilemma of stopping the T – an offense the two of them had perfected just ten years before. Taking pieces from both the Umbrella and Eagle defenses, Shaughnessy created the 5-3-3. By moving one of the safeties into the middle linebacker spot, the 5-3-3 effectively resolved the “soft middle” issues of the defenses that came immediately before.

For ten years, Shaughnessy’s 5-3-3 was the most prominent defense in the NFL. Designed to stop the T-formation, the 5-3-3 effectively countered the power running of the T and its accompanying passing attack. But with only three defenders in the secondary, offenses soon found success passing the ball deep down the field.

By 1960, first-year Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry saw fit to tinker with the 5-3-3 in an attempt to make up for its downfield deficiencies. His solution was the 4-3-4 defense. By designing creative ways for his front seven to operate, Landry was able to replace a down lineman with a much-needed safety. As a result, at least one secondary player was always available to help defend the deep pass.

Up until that point, nearly every NFL defense used eight players in the box. The 4-3 eliminated one of those players yet still had similar success stopping the run. Landry was able to do this by having his defenders “read keys.” Up until then, the modern T-formation was defended by linebackers and defensive backs that eyed the quarterback during the initial stages of each play. If the QB was good at play fakes, then the defenders could easily be misled.

The basic 4-3 alignment is now the standard for most every defense in the NFL

For this reason, Landry had his linebackers key on the offensive guards, whose actions typically dictated the direction of the running play. If the guard pulled, the linebacker across from him would follow; if the guard blocked down on the nose tackle, the linebacker would move forward and fill the open gap; if the guard blocked out on the tackle, the linebacker would “scrape” to the outside of the line; if the guard stepped back to pass block, the linebacker would drop into coverage. Each action of the linebacker was dictated by the movements of the guard, thus eliminating a linebacker’s tendency to be faked by the false motions of the QB.

The secondary was also asked to help in run support. The strong safety was particularly important in this respect. He would normally read the tight end. If the tight end blocked, the safety would move in the box to play the run. If the tight end released from the line, the strong safety would pick him up in coverage.

Additionally, Landry had his cornerbacks help on outside runs. By reading the tackle and end on his side, the cornerback could tell if the play was headed in his direction, at which time he would break hard toward the ball-carrier and force him back inside to the linebackers and ends. This took even more pressure off the box players, whose numbers had been cut from eight to seven.

This read-and-react philosophy led Landry to create the 4-3 “Flex” defense. The Flex called for the weakside defensive tackle and strongside defensive end to play slightly back from the line of scrimmage. This gave them an extra second to read the play and move toward the point of attack. The Flex defense became a staple of Landry’s championship teams of the 1970s.

Another pioneering effort by both Landry and Shaughnessy was the use of zone coverages by the secondary. Landry ran a much softer zone, used mainly to combat the deep pass. Shaughnessy chose to rotate his defenders into a multitude of areas where the quarterback would not expect them to be, often resulting in sacks and turnovers.

The rest of the league, after watching Landry’s Cowboys win two Super Bowls and rack up five NFC Championships in the 1970s, began expanding upon the winning formula created in Dallas. Creative blitz packages were developed along with more detailed zone and combination coverages. This eventually led to the construction of the 3-4.

Since its inception in the early 1960s, the 4-3 has stuck as the NFL’s base defense. Every team, including those that use the 3-4 the majority of the time, employs the 4-3 defense in some form. No matter how creative defensive coordinators choose to be, they always fall back on the steady, trusted 4-3-4.

Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and BearReport.com.

Jeremy Stoltz's Chalk Talk Archive
07/26/2007 - Umbrella Defense
07/19/2007 - Pro Set
07/12/2007 - T-Formation
07/05/2007 - A-Formation
06/28/2007 - Notre Dame Box
06/21/2007 - Single-Wing
06/14/2007 - Defensive Tackle
06/07/2007 - Shotgun
05/31/2007 - Run-and-Shoot
05/24/2007 - 46 Defense
05/17/2007 - Screen Pass
05/10/2007 - Draw Play
05/03/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part II)
04/26/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part I)
04/19/2007 - Zone Blitz
04/12/2007 - I-Formation
04/05/2007 - Zone Blocking
03/29/2007 - Cover 2
03/22/2007 - Counter Trey


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