Ed Donatell, Bob Slowik, Jim Bates and Bob Sanders are names you may not recognize. Or maybe you will. They were the Packers defensive coordinators from 2000-2008. All of these coordinators had one thing in common; they all ran the 4-3 defense. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Packers inherited their now defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Capers brought a different perspective when he joined the Packers staff. He successfully implemented his 3-4 defense in Houston and Carolina. He did, after all, learn from one of the greatest defensive minds in the history of the NFL–the great Dick Lebeau. Coach Lebeau will forever be remembered as one of the innovators of the zone blitz. He revolutionized the 3-4 when he brought in the zone blitz and we see it from almost every 3-4 defense in the NFL, and even in college. The multiple looks that Capers 3-4 defense gives has been one of the biggest advantages since his arrival, and a reason many teams have made the switch to a 3-4 defense. I for one am thrilled to have a defensive coordinator with as much knowledge and experience of Capers.

On the other hand, I do have fond memories of Bob Sanders 4-3 defense in Green Bay. I’ll never forget the 2007 season, my favorite Packers season of all time. The defense was loaded with some of my favorite Packers players like Aaron Kampman, Al Harris and Nick Barnett. Green Bay’s front 7 was, in my mind, one of the best. It seemed as if Coach Sanders could release his front 4 and allow them to wreck havoc on the quarterback and allow the secondary to keep things underneath. Some of the greatest defenses of all time ran the 4-3. One defense that comes to mind immediately when discussing the 4-3 is Tony Dungy’s infamous “Tampa 2” defense that he ran for years. If you’re an older Packer fan, you might remember seeing a healthy dose of that when Tampa and Green Bay played annually when they were a part of the NFC central division. Other coaches that come to mind (of recent years) when discussing the 4-3 are Lovie Smith, Rod Marinelli and Gregg Williams. Since we have discussed a lot of the 3-4 defense, we will take a different perspective in this article and take an in depth look at the 4-3 defense. Then you, the reader, can decide which defense you prefer.

Basics of the 4-3

Tampa Bay is notorious for using and revolutionizing the 4-3 defense, so I knew that they would be a great example to use when discussing the basics of the 4-3. Unlike the 3-4, the offense knows who the 4 rushers will be pre-snap. In a 4-3, if you have your hand in the dirt, chances are you are rushing. This is one reason that coaches like a 4-3–they can release the front 4 to rush the passer and allow the secondary to keep things underneath. The 4-3 is a seven man front. Typically, teams will utilize 4 defensive lineman and 3 linebackers inside the box in order to counter the run game. Here, we see an example of a base under front. In an under front, the nose tackle will be in a 1 technique (outside shade of center) and the tackle will be in a 3 technique (outside shade of guard). Usually, 4-3 teams will make the under or over front their base front. In an over, the 3 technique is set to the strength of the formation with the 1 technique to the weakside of the formation.

When we discussed the 3-4 in many of my articles, we talked about the 4 linebackers–Mac, Buc, Sam, and Will. To recap, they were:

  • Mac – strongside inside linebacker
  • Buc – weakside inside linebacker
  • Sam – strongside outside linebacker
  • Will – weakside outside linebacker

In the 4-3 defense, however, the linebackers are:

  • Mike – middle linebacker
  • Sam – strongside linebacker
  • Will – weakside linebacker

To clarify, the “Sam” will always be set to the strongside of the formation with the Will linebacker set to the weakside. In a set with no tight ends, the Sam and Will linebackers align in a “50” technique, that is, the outside shade of the tackle. The Mike linebacker will be aligned in a “10” technique, or shaded slightly on the center. The first number in these techniques are the same as they are for the defensive line, only the 0 in the number tells them that they are 5 yards off of the ball.

In the under front, as you can see above, the Sam linebacker will actually roll up on the line of scrimmage, making it a 5 man front. Unlike the 3-4 defense, the outside edge players are not wanting to force the play back inside, rather, they want the ball carrier running east and west, that is, they want the ball carrier always running towards the boundary. 4-3 teams implement what is known as a spill technique. Instead of forcing the play back inside, they are intentionally going inside and “wrong-arming” the offensive player and forcing them to go toward the boundary. The objective is to string out the play and get linebackers and defensive backs in the ally to rally towards the ball carrier.

Here is a look at the under front vs. a 20 personnel set from the end zone camera. The Sam linebacker in this case must honor the #2 receiver and play on him. A good nose tackle in a 4-3 defense will be able to command a double team. If the nose tackle here in this under front does a good enough job, both the guard and center must honor him which would free up the Mike and allow him to get to the ball. The Mike linebacker in an under front will shift to a 30 technique and be a B gap player, with the Will also in a 30 playing the backside A gap.

It is important in every 4-3 front that the player identify and know their job, and most importantly, carry out their assignment. When discussing the linebackers, a linebacker will either be a hammer player or a spill player. The spill player is responsible for wrong arming the ball carrier and “spilling” him towards the sideline with the hammer players rallying to the ball. In this case, the Mike should be able to spill the running back in this set to the Sam and the end.

When talking hammer and spill techniques there is one important thing to remember; that you be able to identify who is the primary hammer player and who is the secondary hammer player. If the Sam is the primary hammer player and he is reached by the #2 or tackle, then the strong safety would be the secondary hammer player. He is the next one responsible for getting to the ball carrier.


Now to discuss one of the base, and one of my favorite, coverage schemes in the 4-3; cover 2. As I mentioned earlier, the cover 2 was revolutionized by one of my favorite coaches, Tony Duny. Cover 2 defense should not be confused with the “Tampa 2” scheme. The difference is the depth of the Mike linebacker. In a true Tampa 2 scheme, the Mike linebacker is dropping quick because he is the deep middle player. In a 3-4, both the Mac and Buc linebackers are playing a hook/curl responsibility. As you can see in this clip, the strong safety and free safety are both responsible for the deep halves of the field. Both the strong safety and free safety will have their eyes on the #2 receiver. This receiver will tell them what rout combination that the offense is running.

The corners in the cover 2 are responsible for playing the flats, which is the distance from about the numbers to the sideline. The corners will read the #2 receiver as well. They must have disciplined eyes and get their eyes on the #2. If that receiver runs a rout into the flats, then the corner will play the #2 receiver and pass up the #1 receiver to the safeties. This is an example of playing a pattern match concept, which basically an article of its own. Basically, these defensive backs read another receiver in order to tell them their assignment. This could hopefully be a future article where we dive more in to this concept.

Both the Sam and Will linebackers will be responsible for dropping to the hook/curl area, or about 5-7 yards deep, a few yards outside of the hash marks. The Mike, as we discussed, will turn and sprint about 10-12 yards deep and be responsible for the deep middle. These are underneath defenders. They will take away and drag, in, and slant routes. Their job is to “reroute” these receivers disrupt the timing of throws.

Cover 3

We will take a brief look at a team we all love to hate…the Cowboys. As much as I dislike the Cowboys, they have a tremendous defensive coordinator in Rod Marinelli. Cover 3 is a coverage that can be utilized in a 4-3. Not quite like it can in a 3-4 but a lot of 4-3 coaches love to show it at times. The reason I say that is because a 3 deep look fits in so well behind what a team like Green Bay does up front. With as much 5 and 6 man stunts as Capers sends, a 3 deep look usually is the safest behind it and can utilize every player.

In this look, the defense is facing the Packers 21 personnel set. They start by showing a 2 high look and spinning down into a cover 3. This is a good look because it can confuse a lot of presnap reads by the quarterback. A lot of 4-3 defenses actually prefer showing a 2 high look at all times and then running their coverages from that to confuse the offense. In a cover 3, the strong safety will spin down and be the flat defender with the free safety playing his third of the field.

The corners job is pretty simple; they are responsible for their third of the field, which is the third closest to the boundary. There are times in a 3 deep look where the corners will actually cloud the strong side flats and the strong safety, free safety and backside corner will have a third.

The Sam and Mike linebackers will drop to the hook/curl area and again check for any underneath routes or the #2 receiver dropping and setting up. They will take away these looks with the backside Will linebacker being a flat defender. If there is a #2 receiver, he will check to see if that player runs vertically, and if he does he will take away the seam route and play to the flat.


I hope this article gave you a little insight into the 4-3 defense. This is a defense that the Packers will see many times each year. If you ever watch any older Packer games, you will also be able to know more about what they are running and what goes in behind it. One of my objectives is to try and make Packer fans the most knowledgeable fans in the league. Everything that I have learned working in the game of football I hope to share with each and every one of my fellow Packer Backers!

Go Pack Go!