Defensive Line Techniques 101


These days, the NFL is getting more and more specialized and technical. All those pass patterns in the “route tree,” swim moves, press coverage, press-bail….the list goes on and on.

What I thought I’d do is clear up some ideas about the defensive line, what each person’s job is, and what the terms mean in a 4-3.

First of all, for you more casual fans, you’ll hear terms like “4-3” or “3-4” tossed about….even “4-4” in a “Tampa-2” scheme.

Okay. It’s simple to remember. The first number is the number of defensive linemen and the second is the number of players manning linebacker spots. Notice I didn’t say “linebackers.”

A 4-3 means 4 defensive linemen and 3 linebackers. This is what the Panthers run, and the physical specifications for D-linemen are a bit different than those in a “3-4” because their jobs are different. Also, in a Tampa-2 “4-4,” no, they’re not getting rid of a safety. The strong safety plays up close to the line, covering the TE in man coverage OR for “8 in the box” run support.

The key to the Tampa-2 is great safety play – you need a guy who can play up close, but who can still get deep so every defensive formation has its own requirements.

Dec. 16, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA; Detroit Lions running back Mikel Leshoure (25) is tackled by Arizona Cardinals strong safety Adrian Wilson (24) during the first half at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s look at the D-line in Carolina’s “4-3.”

4 linemen means 2 ends (always have 2 ends…unless you’re in a very esoteric 1-man D-Line prevent-type defense) and 2 defensive tackles.

Techniques and bodies

0-Technique: This is generally referred to as a “nose tackle” and the 0-tech guy lines up head-to-head over the center. The way to figure out which “technique” it is is by counting shoulders of offensive linemen.

1 is the left or right shoulder of the center.
2 is the inside shoulder of the guard, left or right.
3 is the guard’s outside shoulder.
4 is the tackle’s inside shoulder,
and 5 is his outside one.

Generally speaking, defensive linemen will line up in the “odd” numbers – or outside shoulders – of the linemen. This is what creates the “pocket” when they rush the passer as linemen try to keep them from slipping in underneath them for a shortest-route to the QB. The exception is the 0-technique since zero is considered an “even” number mathematically.

0-technique players are the most massive bodies on the field because they are the anchor in the middle against the run and are always double-teamed. 325 pounds is about as small as they go, and 340 is more like it. No, you don’t want to tick off these guys in dark alleys. That would be bad for your health.

Aug 10, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Dontari Poe (92) is blocked by Arizona Cardinals center Lyle Sendlein (63) in the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

1-technique: This is one you won’t hear that much about, as the run-stopper inside in a “4-3” lines up either here or at the 0-technique, depending on the defensive play call, but the key to remember in the 4-3 as far as DTs go is the 0 or 1 guy is that run anchor.

For the Panthers specifically, this would be Star Lotulelei. Star could well become a star for real, as he has the size (315 lbs) to play the position – tackles can be 295-320 lbs here in a 4-man front – and frankly, Star has the ability to play either DT spot.

These are the guys who might have a career high season of 3 or 4 sacks. NOT their job, but they can pressure the pocket through the middle and right in the QB’s face. Otherwise, their job is to hold their ground against the run.

3-technique: This is the type of DT I really like. Think: Warren Sapp. He’s a classic 3-tech guy. The slasher/penetrator/disruptor in the middle of the defense. In the 2012 draft, Fletcher Cox (drafted by Philly) fits this mold.

Against the run, their job is first and foremost to split 2 defenders and shoot the gap if possible, get in the backfield, and act like a cranky two-year-old. Seriously…that’s what they basically do! Hulk, SMASH!

Against the pass, it’s the same thing. They try to not just push the pocket back – although that’ll be what they do if they cannot penetrate on a particular play – but on pass plays, they’re the interior sack guys.

November 24, 2012; West Lafayette, IN, USA; Purdue Boilermakers defensive tackle Kawann Short (93) moves through the block of Indiana Hoosiers offensive linesman Dan Feeney (67) at Ross Ade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

On the Panthers? D’Wan Edwards and rookie Kawann Short fit this position. I really think both rookies are capable of playing both tackle positions, but the more natural spots are as I have listed here so far as we know right now. The ability to “get skinny” helps, as do polished hand-fighting techniques to get off blocks. Spin moves are also used, but some coaches hate those because you’re turning your back to the ball for a second or two in the process.

There’s also a “swim” move which coaches teach, but also is a bit dangerous. The idea here is to get your body slightly off-set against your blocker, hand-punch him in the side with your outside hand/arm, and then bring your inside arm back, up, and over – sort of like a windmill dunk in basketball – and as you push past the blocker, you bring that inside arm down hard against the back of his shoulder pads usually using the back of your upper arm or your elbow. This move keeps the blocker from re-engaging and gets you past him at the same time. It’s extremely effective when done properly, but the dangerous part is when you’re bringing your inside arm over – windmilling it – you expose your own ribs for a harsh counter-block if the lineman is fast enough, not out of position or off-balance enough, and/or knows your moves from experience or film study.

So, it’s not just “the strongest guy wins” – not at all! It’s all about getting under the other guy’s pads and using leverage. This is how smaller guys are able to block bigger, stronger guys…technique.

This brings us to the…

5-technique: This is lining up over the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder and is prime pass-rushing territory…especially on the weak (non-tight end) side. It’s where the likes of Charles Johnson, Frank Alexander, and Greg Hardy attack from. Their jobs are to rush and sack the QB and to “set the edge” against the run…or force the RB back inside on plays run in their direction.

Dec 22, 2012; Charlotte, NC, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer (3) is hurt as he is hit by Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy (76) and defensive end Charles Johnson (95) helps defend in the first quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

There are a number of “moves” they use and are too numerous to list here, but those I listed for tackles can apply but with almost always facing a single blocker with no help on the other side, it frees up the end to choose if they want to “bull rush” – basically out-muscle and run over your opponent – or “speed rush” – use a hand technique to get the tackle off-balance to the inside enough so that you can accelerate past him and either clobber the QB or face an RB held in for pass protection.

Since a 4-3 end averages roughly 255-280 lbs and a running back does NOT…that RB better be able to get under the rusher’s pads or he’ll wind up with footprints up his chest.

There’s a famous clip where Maurice Jones-Drew completely clobbered a large “Lights Out” Shawne Merriman from a few years back. Pocket Hercules had time to see him after a Play-action fake, then made an inside move to get an angle and not have to take the larger man head-on, and then accelerated his shoulder into the side of Merriman’s chest. It was ugly. Merriman got clobbered and it was awesome.

Check the Youtube clip: “Maurice Jones-Drew lays Shawn (sic) Merriman Out”. Clicking on it will open it in a new window, and check the left side of the screen/right side of the line at about 30 seconds in for the replay.

Summing up:

(for the 4-3)

0-technique: largest DT, ~300-340 lbs, anchors the run defense inside

3-technique: usually the smaller (290-320) DT (as if that’s “small”), disruptive force of the interior DL, penetrates and rushes the passer.

5-technique: DEs, 255-280 lbs in general, pass-rushing is their top job, and setting the edge against the run is a close second.

(for the 3-4)

0-technique: most massive guy on the field (except for possibly an unusually large offensive guard), almost always double-teamed, sometimes tripled, job is to absorb blockers and hold ground against the run. Do your best to push the pocket back against the pass.

5-technique: 295-335 lbs – or about 40-50 lbs heavier than a 4-3 DE, job is to set the edge against the run and/or absorb multiple blockers. Seal off their side against the run and occupy blockers against the pass for the weak-side OLB to pass rush. Star Lotulelei would be a 3-4 END in that scheme.

With only 1 DT, there usually is no “3-technique” in a 3-4, but there can be due to over- or under-shifts, but that’s a specific play call and I’m talking about base defenses.

Dec 10, 2012; Foxboro, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork (74) reacts during the game against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Texans 42-14. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports


This is why people talk about problems “switching” from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and/or back. Different personnel types are required due to the fact that 3-4 linemen are necessarily more massive, as their jobs really aren’t so much to make plays but to soak up linemen to free up the more athletic linebackers to make plays. The 3-4 is what the Baltimore Ravens are famous for running extremely well the past decade or so with Ray Lewis making the plays. Rex Ryan’s New York Jets employ the system as do a number of other teams.

The NFL is cyclical like anything else. a few years ago the 3-4 was the “in-thing” but these days teams seem to be moving back to the 4-3 a bit more, or some “hybrid” schemes like the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots.

Advantages of the 3-4 vs. the 4-3 are that more “exotic” blitz packages can be installed because you have that extra linebacker off the ball and could send either OLB (or both) after the QB. The inside LBs can attack the “A” gap up the middle to overwhelm protection. It’s also easier to “overload” on a 3-4.

The 4-3 means some of those blitzes won’t be available, but other things open up. Zone-blitzing is more common with the 4-3 because it means dropping one or more linemen in a short zone, and frankly I’d rather have someone a bit lighter on their feet than a lumbering 340-lb nose tackle…although Vince Wilfork was actually leading the NFL in interceptions after a few games last year with 2 doing this. So, there are always going to be outliers and exceptions just like anything else, but in a 4-3 you really need a competent middle linebacker.

Need I really inform you that Luke Kuechly is kinda competent at the very least?

Point made.


Since I just mentioned the “A” gap, I thought I’d explain those. They’re easy once you see it – just like the techniques. “A” gaps are on either side of the center. “B” gaps are between the guard and tackle.

That’s it.

Not so bad, huh?

I hope this gives you all some basic understanding of some of the things that go on in the trenches that don’t see a lot of TV air time.

The next time they do show a close-up, watch the linemen and what they do with their hands. It’s really interesting to watch…if you know what you’re looking for.

Peace out!

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