Do 3-4 teams have an advantage over 4-3 teams in kick/punt return coverage?

At a recent Chip Kelly press conference, Kelly noted that he liked the 3-4 better because of the philosophical advantage of having more linebackers on the roster than defensive linemen, for the purpose of special teams:

“What direction we end up ultimately heading in, I like the 3-4 better. When I first started at Oregon, I think from a special teams standpoint philosophically, if you carry more linebackers on your roster than you do defensive linemen, you help your team from a special teams standpoint, but you just didn’t do that in a day.”

The logic makes sense. Linebackers are typically going to be faster than defensive linemen, and more likely to tackle a speedy returner in the open field. I wondered how the logic actually matched up with the statistics, and so, I aggregated all the kick and punt coverage numbers for each team over the last 5 years, and separated them by 4-3 teams and 3-4 teams. I omitted 4 teams (the Patriots, Saints, Seahawks, and Cardinals), who either run some kind of hybrid defense, or just had some other gray area in terms of their base defense.

First, kick coverage. Over the last 5 years, 3-4 teams held a slight advantage in terms of yards per return, but gave up the home run with significantly more frequency:

Opposing kick coverage 1

Punt coverage was the exact reverse of kick returns. 4-3 teams were better in terms of yards per attempt, but gave up the home run with significantly more frequency:

Opposing punt coverage 1

I also did a separate metric for teams that switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 or vice versa over the last 5 years. Those teams, by my count, include the Browns, Redskins, Dolphins, Packers, Bills, Colts, Texans, Chiefs, and Broncos. Below are the numbers for each of those teams combined when they were running a 4-3, and when they ran a 3-4.

First, kick coverage. This was the same as the overall kick coverage metric. 4-3 teams gave up slightly more yards per return, but gave up TDs with less frequency:

Opposing kick coverage - teams that switched

For punt coverage, again, same as above. 4-3 teams gave up fewer yards per return, but a higher frequency of TDs. The interesting thing for teams that changed their base defense is that their numbers are worse for both kick and punt returns than the teams that did not change their base defense:

Opposing punt coverage - teams that switched

So what do the above numbers tell us about whether or not 3-4 is better than a 4-3 in terms of special teams coverage? Logically, it makes sense, but statistically, I’m not sure a clear argument can be made for either side.

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13 Comments

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  2. Joe D says:

    My thought is talent trumps scheme. Typically Dbs and WRs can easily compose of the “ST” guys. I remember Sean Morey was our S/T ace, and then went onto Ppitt who ran a 3-4 to be their S/T ace… Not to mention a lot of the DBs Wrs are your return guys also..Then sometimes you get the LBs too like Brandon Short and Ike Reese… But as usual, more than what position it’s how good they are.

    I actually called Ike Reese in 2008 and asked him WTF happened to our S/T since in the early 200s they were also..and he basically said TALENT and we went through the LBs that we had back then and the ST guys we had at the time… Remember when Trotter was on ST ? lol

  3. [...] Do 3-4 teams have an advantage over 4-3 teams in kick/punt return coverage? – Blogging the bEa…At a recent Chip Kelly press conference, Kelly noted that he liked the 3-4 better because of the philosophical advantage of having more linebackers on the roster than defensive linemen, for the purpose of special teams [...]

  4. Harry says:

    Any chance that it could be players who were used to a 4-3 switching to a 3-4 ended up being used on special teams when they normally weren’t? This would require a bit more digging, I’m sure.

  5. Steamboat says:

    Not that you’d ever want to do more research on this one, but: the Eagles, who ran a 4-3, employed an extra safety (Colt Anderson) specifically as a special teamer. Therefore, it would be interesting (?) to see how many 3-4 teams versus 4-3 teams devoted extra resources to special-team-specific players. In other words, perhaps Chip sees a player like Colt as a waste of resources. Don’t get me wrong, at times Colt single handedly made the Eagles’ special teams look functional. There where times during the past two seasons when I got up on Sunday to watch Colt Anderson fly down the field (how fucking sad is that?). However, the problem is that he would need to be on the roster at all.
    So, I don’t think your research was for nothing. Nor does it disprove Chip’s idea. Yet. You’d have to evaluate what kind of extra resources, if any, other 4-3 teams devoted to special teams. Unfortunately, that’s super tricky to figure because special teams specialists are positional back ups, at least technically speaking.

    1. deg0ey says:

      I don’t think you’d necessarily need to do much research on that at all; any semi-knowledgeable Eagles fan knows Colt was primarily on the team for his ST contribution. Stands to reason that fans of other teams would be able to shed light on players in the same situation for their own teams.

      1. Steamboat says:

        Finding trustworthy, semi-knowledgeable fans of every team sounds like a solid afternoon’s work, at the very least.

        1. deg0ey says:

          I figured Jimmy could leverage his SBNation connections to get a pretty good head-start on that.

  6. Joe_monkey says:

    I’d argue that when considering the data on aggregate (flawed, I know) by running a 3-4 you gave up -0.2 yds/attempt less and frequency of touchdowns was 0.26% less. It’s an edge, albeit a small one. But if you build up enough statistical edges your far more likely to succeed.

  7. Bob says:

    It’s funny, over on BTB we had exactly the reverse argument, the logic being that 3-4 OLBs weren’t true LBs, they were more DEs, and therefore in a 4-3 defense you had more actual LBs for ST. Thanks for finding some actual data; looks like the whole thing is so insignificant as to be irrelevant.

    1. Yeah, I guess that kind of makes sense too.

    2. icdogg says:

      Yep… bottom line is it comes down to semantics. Changing Brandon Graham’s position name to linebacker isn’t going to make him a better special teamer.

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