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Taking on the defense: A quick primer on attacking the 4-3 and the 3-4

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Differences between playing against the 4-3 and 3-4 are subtle but pronounced.

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Despite the recent rise of the 3-3-5 and the 4-2-5, the primary defenses that most football teams will run are the 4-3 and the 3-4. While those designations tend to be a bit of a misnomer (especially against spread teams, where the D will be forced into its Nickel and Dime packages more often), they are quite important when determining the proper reads for a quarterback to make.

Now, reads will be different for every team, and should be adjusted to the playing style of each individual defense, but some trends have developed in how teams tend to read different defenses. Where one can truly see the differences in the reads between the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses are in the slight changes for each individual play. The basic zone read is a perfect example of the similarities and differences in how to deal with each defense.

In the zone read (either inside or outside zone) the offense purposely leaves the backside end on the line of scrimmage unblocked. If the defender crashes towards the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball himself. If the defender stays home and keeps contain, the running back gets the ball. Where the difference lies is in which player is being read.

When playing against a 4-3 defense, the end man on the line will be a defensive end, and barring a walked up outside linebacker, the end will be the one read. In most 3-4 defenses, however, the end man being read is an outside linebacker, usually with similar responsibilities. The same read applies, but now to the outside backer.

In terms of coverage responsibilities, there aren't many true differences between the 4-3 and 3-4, as coverages vary from team to team. For the most part, every team will consistently drop six or seven defenders, and the only difference is spacing. Where the adjustments mostly lie are in the underneath coverages.

Anyone else who blitzes [beyond five] is the responsibility of the quarterback.

Thanks to its greater number of linebackers, the 3-4 offers a large amount of versatility in which backers rush the passer and which drop back into coverage. This can make things difficult on the quarterback, who obviously has quite a bit to focus on. In most modern 3-4 defenses, the outside linebackers tend to be primarily pass rushers, so when one of them drops into coverage it can confuse the quarterback and cause a big play for the defense.

The blocking scheme is perhaps most dependent on the defensive front. In pass protection, you can reasonably only ask the offensive line to block five guys, with the running back picking up one more rusher. Anyone else who blitzes is the responsibility of the quarterback. What that means is, as soon as the quarterback sees that extra man rushing, he must get the ball out quickly, usually in the form of a hot route in the space the defender just vacated.

Against a 4-3 defense, a basic pass blocking scheme will involve the line picking up the four down linemen along with the Mike linebacker. The running back's responsibility will be picking up the outside linebacker or a blitzing defensive back. Against a 3-4, a basic scheme would involve the line picking up the three defensive linemen and both outside linebackers, while the inside linebackers are the responsibility of the running back and quarterback.

While Mizzou may not see many base formations (four-wide formations make them difficult), they certainly will see some this season. Maty Mauk's ability to read whatever defenses the SEC throws at him this year and make the correct decisions will be crucial.