Football 101: 3-4 scheme, Cover 2 and other Defensive terms

Below is a basic description of the defense the Denver Broncos play, the roles and terms used.

Denver uses what is called a ‘3-4’ Defense. It employs three guys on the line called, Defensive Linemen, and four Linebackers. More teams use a 4-3 which uses four DL and 3 LineBackers. What scheme a team uses, is determined by the personnel. In order for the tougher 3-4 to work, it needs a really good Nose Tackle and superb linebackers. Most teams don’t have both.

For a short FYI, we had a 4-3 under previous Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator, John Fox/Jack Del Rio, but when Wade Phillips came to town, he saw that DeMarcus Ware could convert from a Defensive End to an outside LB. Another FYI, When we won the SB back in ’99 we  had a 3-4.

Below is a base 3-4 Defense. This is a standard formation, for a standard play, usually on downs one and two against an average team. The defensive backs are in a ‘Cover 2’: 2 cornerbacks and 2 safeties. We will discuss different formations, like nickle and dime packages, at a later date.

To avoid saying generally and usually fifty times throughout the piece, please assume almost everything is a ‘usually’. Don’t comment below and say, well, on this coverage, so and so played in this spot/role. This is about covering the Basics. This is the NFL, it’s run by really smart coaches who will try anything within the rules (sometimes not), that gives them an advantage. This often means trying new things, going against the norms and doing whatever it takes to outsmart their opponents. But to learn football, you have to start somewhere. So, moving on…




No, I didn’t get my hands messed up. It takes getting used to, but their ‘L’ is our ‘R’ when facing them. I was going to insert a graphic from the defense side, but since every diagram you ever see will have it set like above, I’m not doing that. It will confuse you more, later.

In football, the defensive players who cover the back field are called; defensive backs. They are the secondary line of defense, hence they’re also referred to as the secondary. DB’s are broken down into two types: corners and safeties. Cornerbacks tend to cover the corners of the field, the edges. Safeties cover the middle back and linebackers, the middle section.

Right Cornerback. We are truly blessed to have a CB as gifted as Chris. Shutdown corners rarely get the accolades they deserve. Players who make interceptions get the splashy news, but what’s overlooked is that in order for an interception to happen, the ball has to be thrown to the player the corner is covering. The unsung hero is the guy who’s sticky glue taking away an option for the QB.

Since CHJ is tasked with the WR2, this means the QB throws to Aqib who’s sneaky at playing off his guy letting the QB think WR1 is open and in swoops Lib for the INT. Now a QB is often forced to throw to his slot and/or TE.

Left Cornerback. On our team that’s Aqib Talib (my favorite player on defense). I’m using specific names because it’s where they generally play. The left CB lines up across from the X WR. Read the Offense piece on terms, here. If an opponent moves its WR1 to the other side, Talib will move with them. With that said, a CB can line up wherever he wants. A CB’s job is to not let the WR he is ‘covering’, to catch the ball.

These guys are fast, agile and must be scholars of the game. They’re not just in a battle of wits against the WR, but against the QB. He needs to anticipate what the play is, where the QB is going to throw the ball, stick with the WR who’s facing forward while he’s facing backward and within very tight rules of ‘no’s’, stop the WR from catching and running away with the ball. They’re also responsible to herd the WR towards the middle of the field towards more defenders. This is really crucial when a WR wants to get out of bounds to stop the clock.

The Right Defensive End is currently Jared Crick. However, Adam Gotsis was drafted to take this role. Due to Wolfe’s continuing neck issues and our questionable run stopping skills, look for us to draft another end. As an aside, since DE’s in a 3-4 are BIG guys, players in college who are listed as a Defensive Tackle are who are drafted and converted, not DE’s since many lack the size.

Left Defensive End. That’s Derek Wolfe. In a 3-4 since it only has three guys facing five, they need to be BIGger than DE’s in a 4-3. They need to take on two guys. Their primary goal is to stop the run. A great DE like Wolfe, can read the offense and know it’s a pass play and bull doze his way through the line to sack or break up the pass. This requires trust from his Defensive Coordinator that he has the skills to leave his position as a run stopper and go after the QB. If he gets it wrong, you’ve got a RB making a big play. When Derek is healthy, he’s one of the best at doing it.

Nose Tackle. In a 3-4, he could be the most important guy on the field. Like a DE, he’s taking on two guys. As I wrote in the Basics of Offense piece, most runs go through the front three. As we saw, last year we struggled to stop the run. That player is no longer on our team. NT’s are usually the biggest mamajamma of the starters. Often bigger than the OL, especially on a team with smaller OL like us. They need long arms and superhuman strength. They set the tone. In an ideal world, the front three keep teams from running up the middle and force them to the edge. For us, we want them to abandon the run and pass the ball because we have the best secondary on the planet.

Forcing the run to the edge gives more time for the defenders on that side to get there to make a tackle. They’re also easier to see. When you have eight HUGE bodies on the LOS, a small RB can be tough to spot. How many times have you watched a game and wondered where did he go in a wall of flesh? The same occurs for the guys on the field. So, for us, the NT is crucial to making our entire defense hum. If a team is getting yardage every time, they won’t have to pass as often.


In a 4-3 defense, you have 3 LB’s, a Weak (Will), Middle (Mike) and Strong (Sam). Since we have four in our 3-4, we have a dedicated pass/edge rusher. Various teams call them different terms.

Right Outside Linebacker is Von Miller. He’s our edge rusher. What he does is so unique that I call him the ‘Von’, some may use ‘Joker’, but not sure that totally applies, either. If I ever talk to Joe Woods, I’ll ask what they call his role. As an edge rusher, he has one dominate goal: get to the QB. That’s the luxury of a 3-4. If you have the talent to play it, you’ve got a free roaming beastie beast like the Vonster. He has the speed and skill to come around the front five. These elite edge rushers must have the strength and balance to defy gravity. They’re Superbike racers on a road course leaning through hair pin turns dragging their knee.  His deep cut ability makes him tough for lumbering OL to catch or reach down to stop.

While I have him at right, he’ll line up where ever he wants depending on the play and who he decides is the weakest link. If you read the Offense piece, then you’ll know that more teams are having their edge rushers attack the RT, rather than LT. But for ease of learning, I’m having him on the weak side.

Besides getting to the QB to sack or hit, Von’s the player that can disrupt every play because whichever side he’s on, that defender(s) has to act as if he’s coming like a speeding bullet of doom. It can disrupt their concentration, same for the QB. He’s the bat in the belfry they’re always thinking about.

I’m going talk the right Inside Linebacker (Will) and Left Inside Linebacker and Left Outside Linebacker (Sam) together.  If you look below, you’ll see there is a TE in my typical offense. As we discussed in the Offensive piece, TE’s are big guys and they usually line up to the right. With the Z on that side as well, it makes it the strong side. For obvious reasons, the LB’s on this side need to be adept at tackling the RB (TE’s often block for them like a FB would), and tackling the TE.

Last season, usually DeMarcus Ware was the Sam, Todd Davis the Will and Brandon Marshall the Mike. As stated above, LB’s can line up where ever they want. They can and do move around depending on which side is weak, the offensive formation and the type of play.

If you have four stout linebackers, it can give you a distinct advantage because the Sam can leave it up to the Will and Mike to cover the middle while he rushes the passer. When Miller and Ware were playing together, they showed how nasty this can be.

The Will is usually smaller and quicker than the Mike and has better cover skills. He’s often going to get tasked to watch the slot, if there is one. On our team, he was also the Green Sticker guy, or as I call him, ‘Greenie’. Only two players on a team are allowed to have a head set that lets them hear their coordinator (or whomever jumps in their ear). The QB for offense and a MLB. Davis was ours. He makes sure that the defense knows the play and is lined up correctly.

Mike is the run stopper and power tackler. With four linebackers, you can use four different skill sets to become a match-up nightmare. However, it all starts with the Fearsome Threesome. Those men need to stuff or at least slow down the rush because if the Will is the ‘cover guy’, he’s not going to be great at stopping the run by himself. That’s where you want your runs to go – right over that Will.

Shane Ray has been groomed to take over the Sam. With Wolfe’s neck issues and Brandon’s continuing injuries, I’d expect Denver to draft a DE or ILB  in a top round. Maybe two. You can’t play a 3-4 without four good LB’s and a good DE. There’s not many NT in this class, but one could be on the list, as well.

In summary. In a 3-4 scheme, the four linebackers, the Von, Mike, Will and Sam each have certain roles. First, stop whatever type of body comes their way. Clog up the middle of the field, discouraging passes. Cover any passes that are to the middle of the field. In plays to the corners, back them up. Finally, sack the quarterback. Rarely, is there a play when a LB isn’t involved.

If plays get past the LB’s and the CB’s (yikes), the Safeties are there for mop duty. There are two kinds and they pretty always line up with the Strong Safety on the left and the Free Safety on the left.

As stated above, when the guys in front of them mess up, it’s up to these safety nets to keep the play out of the End Zone. The Strong Safety is the guy made to stop the run. He’s the bouncer. He’s got his eyes on the rusher and will move up to get him. TJ Ward is our thumper. SS play closer to the line. Occasionally they know a play is a pass and they will full on rush the passer. The types of attacks on the QB will be covered on another day as there are different ways. Since he’s bigger, he’s often teamed up with a LB to take on a  receiving TE.

The Free Safety (Darian Stewart) plays further back, he is tasked with the passer, either the guy getting tossed the deep passes or moving quickly to stop the WR who caught the ball already. He’s also the guy who reads the play so well, he calls out to his fellow DB’s what’s what. While each safety has an expertise, stopping the run or coverage for a pass, both must be great tacklers. While the SS may be better at it, the FS is no slump. And while the FS has better hands and cover skills, the SS still must be a ball hawk.

When plays get down to the Red Zone, everything above changes, but that’s a lesson for a different day. Hope this was informative. Ask any questions below.




One thought on “Football 101: 3-4 scheme, Cover 2 and other Defensive terms

  • April 7, 2017 at 12:33 pm

    Very informative, I’m really enjoying this series. Thank you for the write-ups on these, and putting them in terms fans that might not necessarily know all the ins and outs will understand. Especially enjoy using our players’ names, puts it into context well.


We want to hear from you. Sign up, or use your WP, Twitter or G+ accounts.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: