I am baffled why we are struggling against this defense. It’s not some unbeatable system. If that were the case, everyone would play it. Beating the defense requires fundamentally sound football, though.
This is my theory on how to play against a 3-4 defense. I understand that this is just the surface (game plans, personnel, etc. play a role), but what follows is my blueprint on how to play a 3-4.
Running against the 3-4. “Don’t get Fancy.”
First guideline against the 3-4: stay North and South. The ends play 5 technique (over the OT) and normally play gap control. This frees the OLB’s to stack the edge while being blocked by a TE or a FB. Most TE’s and FB’s are overmatched by the more athletic OLB.
When you run inside (defenses A or B gaps) the defense starts to have problems, especially if your guards and center are physical. The center and a guard neutralize the NT. One guard blocks one ILB, and the FB blocks the other ILB. Blocking an ILB is a much better task for the FB, since the ILB is likely less athletic. The TE can double the playside DE or single block the OLB. You can get away with not blocking the OLB’s (or just chipping them) if your running dives and iso’s.
This also has the added benefit of keeping the defense from blitzing a lot. The defense won’t want to chance anything more than a run blitz. Even then, if an A Gap blitz, Steelers-style, misses, the next tackler is the SS after a good sized gain.
Second Guideline: Be careful with delays or counters. For the same reason you don’t want to run wide, don’t run plays that take a while to develop. You’re just giving the LB’s more time to close on the ball carrier.
Example of how to do this effectively: watch the Super Bowl tape of the Giants running on the Patriots, particularly the first drive.
Passing against the 3-4 Defense. “Run to Pass.”
Run to set up the pass. When you run effectively on the 3-4, it caused their LB’s to stay at home. The ILB’s are reading FB to RB every play, and the OLB’s have to play run first. This gives the OT’s a chance to pass off the DE to the guard, and pass block against the OLB. The ILB’s stepping up against the run opens up the middle of the field.
A good TE can’t really be effectively covered by a 3-4, since the ILB’s can’t run with the TE. Running well almost forces the defense to cover the TE with a safety (another mismatch). That take the defense out of any Cover 2, and at least one WR will be single covered.
If the defense is running zone, it’s even easier. The ILB’s staying at home opens up the middle of the field from 10-15 yards off the ball. The defense can drop an OLB shading to the middle, but it takes away from the pass rush.
Play-action is a must. Play-action is like adding gas to a fire. It doesn’t do anything new, just makes what’s been happening worse. If the ILB’s are committing to the run, play-action opens the seams in the zone more, or allows man-covered receivers a step on a defender still reading his keys.
Don’t do anything that takes time to develop. Screens, gadget plays, etc. don’t normally work against a 3-4, since it gives the LB’s room and time to close with the play.
Take deep shots a few times a game. The run stresses the seams and dead spots in front of the safeties. Throwing deep opens those seams and dead spots more.
Throw to the TE and FB. With the front seven focused on the run, and the DB’s focused on the WR’s, the TE and FB often get lost in the shuffle. A FB flat pass using play action can’t really be stopped by a 3-4 committing to the run.
Stopping the blitz. If you’ve committing to the run, the LB blitzing, twists, stunts, and zone blitzs should be reduced. Fact is, some blitzes will get there. But the blitz that doesn’t get there against play action is going to be fatal for the defense. Pass protection should be solid considering that the front seven is reading run first and then pass, which will slow any blitzes down by a second. Crossing routes as the hot route are effective since it’s easy for the QB to read, and don’t take long to develop.
Example of how to do this effectively: watch the Denver-NE games from 2002-2006.