Communicating perimeter support with three and four down linemen

By Vince DiGaetano | Posted 2/10/2017

Football is a constant cycle of evolution. It is routinely evident that offenses continue to put stress on the defense with formations, motion and run/pass options.

Defenses commonly commit four defensive players to the run game to create fits while having the ability to drop seven players into coverage. Those up front players normally come from a mix of down lineman and up linebackers.

Regardless of how you play it, one gap or two gap, you look to create a new line of scrimmage and areas for second and third level defenders to fit in the run game while allowing them to distribute in the pass game.  Variations of this obviously exist in the course of your defensive plan: rush three to play eight in the pass game or pressure with five and drop six.

No matter how you get there, the base plan needs to have the standard approach. Many defenses have utilized variations of quarters coverage in an effort to gain the best leverage on the offense when defending multiple formations meant to manipulate and stretch the defense.  

Determining the fourth rusher

If your base plan is to use four down linemen, determining the fourth rusher becomes a little simpler to plan for. Many times this is also the case for the offense in determining where fronts will be set as well as angles to gain leverage in the blocking scheme for both rushing and passing.

There are distinct differences between three and four down linemen defenses. In a four-down defense, the fourth rusher is pretty much determined, whereas a three-down defense offers versatility and balance. That provides the defensive flexibility, but it also requires an increase of communication among the entire defense. There is often an advantage when defending zone- and read-based teams by taking away angles and not allowing for a clean, fast read by the offense.

As a defensive coordinator, it is always important to recognize two major factors:

  1. How well do I know my defense and can I recognize the ways it can be immediately exploited?

Answering this question helps to problem solve and adjust as quickly as possible. The quicker that we understand that there is no single defense that can stop all offenses, the more success that we will have. That plays into the idea of setting the front which aligns with the four down rushers.

  1. What type of players do I have in my program that can frame the edge of my defense?

A major factor in determining how you are going to play your front is the number of edge players that are most effective playing with their hand on the ground or ones that are versatile enough to stand up and frame the edge or drop into coverage. Personnel dictates if you can find more hybrid players and helps to become a program staple.

A three-down front creates additional versatility with the direction that you want the fourth rusher to come from to frame the edge of the defense. Some factors include:

  • Passing strength
  • Run strength
  • Field and boundary
  • Tight end location
  • Location of the Back (s)


Alignment and formation variables

Aligning to a full formation often leads to confusion for the defense, especially in the age where offenses are starting to move faster and faster with multiple formations and motions to create open gaps and mismatches.

Splitting the field limits the number of formation variables to choose from and can also allow a grouping of linebackers and secondary players to travel to the same side together, getting used to one another while communicating support calls.

In determining what side of the field they align on, the most common being the field (wide side) and boundary (short side) or side of field (left and right)  creating travel parties the align and communicate together consistently. This consistency helps them to determine what they see quickly and how they want to support it. They can easily identify formation alignment and identify:

  • Number of detached receivers
  • Tight end sets
  • Wing (H back) sets
  • Trips sets (Both tight end and non-tight end)
  • Areas where back is an immediate threat in the pass game

Man and zone-based supports

In three man fronts where you are balanced, you routinely find ways to bring a fourth rusher from the edge aligned as an outside linebacker.

When that happens, you obviously limit the number of players that can distribute in the pass coverage.  Although it is pre-determined based on direction, it is critical that you remain sound in how you support or frame the edge of the defense. 

In teaching this, it often becomes more effective to explain to players in concepts rather than absolutes. This offers the ability to adjust thinking as needed and gives the opportunity to adjust to formations by making the supports with their travel group that has been determined through split field alignment.

A common term used here is “play the picture” based on what you have available. For instance, if the fourth rusher is coming from your side of the defense (and it is your outside linebacker), you are left with one less player. As the offense aligns two or even three eligible receivers to that side (including running backs) it may determine that you need a man-based support to immediately cover the receivers. 

The support needs to be dictated through the best leverage possible. In contrast to that, when you are not bringing the fourth rusher from your side, you are left with the additional player, which could help to dictate zone based support routinely based off of the best leverage.

In the event that players identify that they only have one eligible pass threat to their side, the result is communicating across the defense because they may need to borrow an interior player or safety to match up to a trips or overloaded formation. 

Communication is key in all of this, in order to obtain immediate aggressive matchups and consistently gain leverage on the offense. Meeting time and walk through time is essential to be able to work on the plan while remaining as versatile as possible. 

Through mental repetition to accompany physical repetition, players become accustomed to the pictures they see and the supports they need to play. This helps them to quickly identify the fits they have to make, putting them in the best position possible to make plays.

Vince DiGaetano is the football program analyst at Wagner College. A USA Football Master Trainer, he was a finalist for the 2014 American Football Coaches Association Assistant Coach of the Year award. Before Wagner, he was the linebacker coach at Nassau Community College, the defensive coordinator at SUNY-Maritime and the defensive coordinator at DeWitt Clinton (N.Y.) High School. DiGaetano also is a recruiting coordinator for the Long Island and New York Public School Athletic League.