3-4 Defense in Seattle

Seattle is not going to adopt a 3-4 style of defense this upcoming season. And they shouldn’t.

A loud minority has been insisting the Seahawks make a switch because the roster is full of talented linebackers. If the talent is there, four linebackers in a 3-4 defense makes more sense than three in a 4-3 alignment, right?


A successful 3-4 defense is dependent on talented defensive linemen, not linebackers. It would be erroneous to assume a three-man front could be successful with any average Joe playing linebacker, but the defensive line is definitely the most critical component.

The biggest difference between 3-4 and 4-3 defenses are the gap responsibilities. A 3-4 defense is a two-gap scheme, where the three linemen are responsible for every gap on the offensive line. This  is why the linebackers in 3-4 defenses usually have incredible statistics; the linemen do the dirty work and the linebackers clean up afterwards.

In a 4-3 defense, linemen will typically have only one gap responsibility. This definitely makes rushing the passer easier; linemen in 4-3 defenses will usually accumulate more sacks than those in a 3-4.

Seattle may have talented linebackers, but it lacks linemen capable of making the switch. And just because a linebacker is successful in a 4-3 alignment does not mean they’ll find the same playing in a 3-4.

Both defenses require a nose tackle, but the position is very different and much more critical in a three-man front. A 3-4 defense requires a zero-technique nose tackle who can cover two gaps and occupy more than one offensive lineman. Easier said than done. These skilled defenders are usually close to 350 pounds and very hard to find. Currently, the Seahawks do not have a player that big who is disruptive and capable of playing nose tackle in a 3-4.

Switching to a 3-4 defense also changes the defensive end position. In a 3-4, there are a pair of four-technique ends who line up on top of the offensive tackles. Unlike 4-3 ends, these players are responsible for multiple gaps and required to disruptively hold blocks to prevent offensive linemen from getting out to linebackers.

The Seahawks don’t have the correct personnel on the defensive line to successfully execute a 3-4 defense. A 3-4 defense would be great –pass-rushing deficiencies would go away as the linebackers would be capable of providing pressure – but the personnel is not available.

So what is your strategy on defense when you’re lacking speed and a solid pass rush? Pete Carroll’s “Elephant” defense should do the trick.

The “Elephant” position has been covered quite extensively by the media; some fans are mistakenly convinced it symbolizes a switch to a 3-4 defense. The Elephant is a stand-up five-technique defensive end on the weak side of the defense. In other words, he is a defensive end who stands up on the right side on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle.

When casually witnessed, the Elephant position looks like a fourth linebacker in a 3-4 defense. But the Elephant does not change the 4-3 alignment and the defense maintains its one-gap responsibilities.

The position, however, offers more speed up front, hides the lack of depth at defensive end, and provides better pressure off the edge. The Seahawks will be able to maintain their 4-3 personnel while covering some obvious deficiencies with minor adjustments.

Unfortunately, the Elephant position does not guarantee David Hawthorne additional playing time. Several fans have been clamoring for a change in defensive philosophy only to justify playing time for Hawthorne.

It was initially believed that Aaron Curry, who played a similar role at Wake Forest, would take over as the Elephant and there would be a vacancy at outside linebacker. Early minicamps, however, prove that the coaching staff wants Curry to focus on developing as a strong-side linebacker. Chris Clemons will get the first shot at being the Elephant.

Don’t get too discouraged about David Hawthorne though. Seattle’s talented trio of linebackers (Curry, Tatupu, and Hill) are rarely on the field together due to injuries, suspensions, or otherwise. Depth is always a good thing, and Hawthorne should get plenty of playing time this season.

Despite talented linebackers, a switch to a 3-4 defense is unreasonable. Success in a three-man front is dependent on the linemen, and Seattle doesn’t have the personnel to make the switch. Searching for ways to get all four linebackers on the field is fine, but unreasonably demanding a switch to the 3-4 is irrational at best.

Shaun Dolence: [email protected]
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Tags: 3-4 3-4 Defense 4-3 4-3 Defense Aaron Curry Chris Clemons David Hawthorne Defense Elephant LeRoy Hill Lofa Tatupu Nose Tackle Pete Carroll Seattle Seahawks

  • Jay

    The Seahawks haven’t even let Hill on the field. I think the woman beater will be traded or cut.

  • bigmaq

    You nailed it regarding the 3-4 NTs and DEs. The prototypical NT is a Casey Hampton. Not only do the Hawks not have a player like “Big Snack”, but, there are few in the league today. Additionally, the proto DE is similar to Richard Seymour or Aaron Smith. Long arms which go with their 6.5 ft frames are a must, in addition to the strength from their 300 lb frames to deal with the 320+ lb OTs in the league.

    Plus, it is not just an additional OLB, but, usually it requires a D-1 DE at 245-270, who can both stand up and open his hips to shift from the rush to coverage, to play the 3-4 OLB.

  • brian meyer

    I respect the team for holding the players accountable for their actions. Mainly I mean the Leroy Hill situation. It is a shame he is not on the field, but the line has to be drawn. Act professional, or stop being a professional.

  • EdHawkuli

    This is a solid article. I had no idea what this Elephant scheme was all about. It is a mix of me being a moron and having never actually played football, but well done anyway.

  • Chase M

    I am not defending him, but the Hill thing — if you’ve read the story it does have a sound of sour grapes on behalf of the woman, and that’s not based on what Leroy says, but on the official police report. Less of a “beating” and more of a girlfriend of a wealthy NFL guy who wants to leave him but not his money. She “broke up” and he said, fine get out of MY house. anywho – enough of that. This article is right on. the drive for it stems from our having 4 very talented starting level LB’s(Tatupu; Hill; Curry; Hawthorne) but it has been correctly pointed out that we do not have that Nose-tackle guy. it’s that simple. I am interested to see what a new coaching staff does with the talent we have on defense.

  • Jericho

    Mebane and Bryant could play 3-4 ENDs. Free agent John Henderson could play NT. Curry, Hill, Reed, and the other 3 million OLB/DE hybrids on Seattle could play 3-4 OLBs and Tatupu/Hawthorne could play ILBs.

    The personnel could very well be there with a signing or two! The question is: is that better than the current 4-3 Elephant?

  • Jrock

    I hear all this about an elephant, but I haven’t heard anything about it’s down side. Their must be a reason all 4-3 teams don’t have an elephant, but I don’t knoww what it is. I suppose that the man being lined up off the line gives the offensive tackle more room to get downfeild and block him. I would think that would be a concern, the fact that that may make it easier to run off tackle