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Back to Basics: A Detailed Look at Defensive Line Play

Like offensive lineman, defensive lineman typically don't attract much attention from the casual fan, seen as the brutes up front that simply run into each other over and over. As FSUn demonstrated so nicely in his recent piece, offensive line play is a coordinated series of movements based on real time interpretation of the defensive front. Without an understanding or appreciation the subtleties required to play on the offensive and defensive line, it's understandable why many overlook these players during the game, except when they make a significant error.

In this piece, we take a closer look at the subtleties of defensive line play, providing an understanding of what really goes on down in the trenches and some important things to look for when evaluating recruits.

Image from here.

Continue reading this thread to learn more about what is some of the most exciting play on the football field.

If you can't control the line of scrimmage your chances of winning a football game significantly decrease. A dominating defensive line, or even lineman, will impact the outcome of a game. If a quarterback has no time to throw the ball, if the running back can't turn the corner, if the offensive line can't control the line of scrimmage, it's over. In this article, we will take a look at some of the basics about defensive line play followed by a discussion about effective line play.

In general, most teams will use 3 or 4 defensive linemen in their base defensive fronts. When announcers and coaches talk about a 3-4 front or 4-3 front, the first number refers to the number of true defensive lineman. The second number refers to the number of linebackers. Occasionally, teams will go to a five man defensive lineman front, but I would say this is exceedingly rare as most teams will walk line backers up to the line of scrimmage to load the line. A four man front typically includes two defensive tackles and two defensive ends. The three man front is a little more flexible, but will generally include a pure nose tackle, a defensive end and a defensive tackle. In a 3-4 scheme, a line backer typically walks up as the fourth defensive lineman. Again, this is a very basic discussion about basic alignment and the schemes and personnel will vary from team to team.

The Basics: Techniques and Gaps

Before getting into the details of defensive line play one must have an understanding of alignment. The image below illustrates the typical numbering system that is used to identify the position of the defensive lineman:

It's not the clearest image but it is probably the most comprehensive one that I could find. The circles represent offensive linemen, with the center being the filled in circle. The letters define the "gaps" between the offensive linemen. The numbers, also referred to as the "technique," identify the locations at which the defensive players line up. For example, a "0" technique is lined up directly on the center, the "1" technique is on the inside shoulder, meaning the side closest to the center, of the guard. You will frequently hear commentators say that a player lined up in the 3 technique or 1 technique; the above image illustrates to what they are referring. Many teams will use the numbering schems in play calling. For example, when I played, the initial part of the play call referred to the base front. If the coach called "431," it meant we were using a 4 man front with the strong side tackle in the 3 technique and the weak side tackle in the 1 technique. Strength refers to the balance of the offense and generally identifies which side of the offense has more players or the tight end or the best player or however the defense identifies strength for their particular scheme.

You will also hear that specific players are responsible for a specific "gap." The gaps are identified by the letters between the offensive players: A gap is between the guard and center, the B gap is between the guard and tackle and so on. Depending on the scheme, a player may be responsible for collapsing a specific gap, blitzing through a gap or occupying a gap. Most defensive line schemes will have the defensive tackles lined up in the 3 and 1 technique. Again, this varies depending on the type of personnel a team has. For example, with a BJ Raj like player, you may have that individual line up in the 0-technique, shaded to the strong side of the play with the intention of occupying the A-gap requiring a block from both the center and guard. I can't tell you how hard it is to play center with a guy right on top of the ball.


Stunts refer to predefined movements of the defensive line. Defensive linemen do not simply go straight ahead on every play. Sometimes they will play straight up and try to maintain their responsibility. On many occasions, a defensive coordinator will call for a specific stunt, making it more difficult for the offensive line to block. These stunts can be done as an entire defensive line with every player crashing to he weak or strong side, or it could be limited to the tackles or individual players. Stunts will change the specific gap responsibilities of the lineman as well as the backers behind them. Often a stunt will be used in combination with a blitz, using the stunt to pull a lineman away or distract the lineman from the linebacker that is now blitzing.

For example, here is a play in which all of the lineman pinch towards the center. This may be used in short yardage situations.

Here is another one in which only the tackles pinch:


And here is an example of a "loop" or "twist" play:

Here is an example of a play that demonstrates a stunt with the linemen combined with a linebacker blitz:

americasfirezone.jpg image by Joe4372


This play demonstrates some sophisticated line play. Look how far the Right defensive end (the one on the left side of the page) is expected to crash down the line. The purpose of this is to pull the offensive tackle toward the center, with the hopes of him turning his shoulders toward the crashing lineman, making it almost impossible for him to pick up either linebacker blitzing from the outside. The whole purpose of this play, if you look at the lineman alone, is to pull the offensive line to their right with the hope of leaving the left tackle alone to block two blitzing linebackers. Defensive lineman do a lot of dirty work to allow the linebackers to play free behind them. A good defensive lineman should be very difficult to block one on one. If a defensive lineman is able to occupy more than one offensive lineman, you are decreasing the number of players available to block the linebackers.


A lineman's stance is exceedingly important in football. Offensive lineman need to be well balanced and not tip off which direction they are likely to step first; they have to be able to move in all directions from a set position. Defensive lineman take a more aggressive stance as they are trying to accelerate off the ball. Here is an example of a typical defensive end stance. This is also referred to as a three point stance. Notice how the player has his head up, has most of his weight on his down hand and has his free hand up.

Photo from here.

Having the free hand is important for getting the hand forward on the initial movement. The player above, Mark Anderson of the Chicago Bears, is in a bit of an exaggerated stance. He is primarily a pass rush specialist and his weight is a little more forward than you would want, but he demonstrates a lot of the principles of a good three point stance. Here is an excellent picture of Jason Taylor demonstrating a more balanced stance.

Photo from here.

A good lineman will not tip off the direction of his initial movement from his stance. Clearly, in a pass rush situation a player will take a more aggressive sprinting stance to get up the field. As I mentioned previously, it is important for a defensive lineman to keep his hands forward or in a good position to fire forward.  By getting the hands firing forward on the initial move it prevents the offensive lineman from engaging. You will see a lot of offensive and defensive lineman working on what is called "hand play". Here is a video of Julius Pepper's training session. Notice how much of the work out includes hand strength and that explosion out of the stance, getting the hands forward and the body extended. Here is a video that highlights our own Everette Brown. Take a minute to not only watch Everette's athletic ability, but look at the different stances of our entire defensive line, watch the way they move, watch their hands, watch how the explode out of their stances. Look at the different stances that Everette takes, it changes depending on the situation. This may be getting into the minutia, but I think this is where some of the most exciting plays in football happen. 

For comparison sake, here is an example of a good offensive lineman's stance:

Photo from here.

Balanced and head up. Notice how his weight isn't placed on his front hand. If you were to swipe that down hand out from underneath the player, his stance shouldn't budge. It may seem that too much time is being spent on a lineman's stance, but it is key to their success. If you give anything away or are out of control because you don't have a good stance, you will not be successful.

Reading Blocks

Typically, you can tell what kind of play the offense is going to run based on the initial step/movement of the offensive line. Part of being a successful defensive lineman is having the ability to react to that initial step, reading the play before it fully develops. Here is a video of USC's defensive line drills. Watch the explosion the players have with the hands, engaging the pads. At the end of the video they show some basic rip/swim moves that players use to shed blocks. Listen carefully to the coach as he gets on his players about keeping the offensive players away from them.

As the offensive and defensive player engage, the defensive player should get some sense of how the offensive lineman is trying to block him, meaning is he trying to hook him, is he trying to drive straight up field, is he settling into pass protection, is he pulling? The defensive lineman has to counter those moves. Imagine yourself as the defensive lineman. Now imagine that the offensive player is trying to pin/hook your left shoulder and drive you to your right. As a defensive lineman, your objective is to extend your left arm and drive the offensive player back into the hole he is trying to create. As a defensive end, if the offense is trying to seal the outside and get around you, you have to fight the offensive lineman and cause the play to move lateral, forcing it further outside while maintaining good leverage to get back inside if needed. I have tried to find good videos on this but I haven't as of yet. But I hope this demonstrates the importance of extending the arms and taking control of the offensive lineman. You will also note that a lot of defensive lineman are wearing smaller and smaller jerseys, having a large part of their arms exposed. This is to give the offensive lineman the least amount of jersey to hold; it's not to show off their biceps. Yes, offensive linemen hold on every single play.

A key block to read is that of the pulling offensive lineman. Defensive lineman are taught to get in the "hip pocket" of the pulling offensive lineman. If you are lined up in the three technique and the guard pulls, follow him as he will take you to the play. Easier said than done as the tackle or center is crashing down on your legs to cut you and prevent you from doing so. Keeping your legs is also a key part of reading blocks. Getting cut makes you useless. Recognizing that a player is trying to cut block you before he gets into your legs is a difficult skill as it happens so fast.

Pass Rush Moves

Watching the battle that develops between defensive ends and offensive tackles through a game is one of the most exciting parts of a football game. One could equate it to a pitcher trying to set up a batter to chase a pitch out of the zone. There are a variety of moves that are utilized by defensive linemen to get past their offensive opponent: swim move, rip move and bull rush.  Here is a nice video from Mac Brown illustrating a couple of these moves. There are multiple variations on all of these moves.

There is the pure speed rush in which a defensive end basically tries to run past the tackle. You will see an end use this a few times in a row, getting the tackle to be extremely nervous about being beat to the outside. The tackle will try to set deeper and deeper and start to turn his shoulders outside. As soon as that happens and if the end recognizes that anxiety, he will use a spin move or rip move to come underneath the tackle. Defensive tackles will typically use more of bull rush technique as they have limited space with which to work. A really important part of a pass rush is recognizing if you're not going to get to the quarterback. If you're not, then you have to get your hands up, particularly on quick drops.

Here is a nice video of Simeon Rice demonstrating the spin move back to the inside. Here is a series of clips of Julius Peppers. Another outstanding video of our own Everette Brown. Here is one of BJ Raji's highlight tapes. The first two highlights demonstrate the classic bull rush move. One of the greatest pass rushers ever: Reggie White

This is a video from Elite Football Academy showing multiple players using a variety of pass rush moves. It's a nice demonstration of the various moves players will use. Here is Jared Allen explaining a good pass rush stance and initial movement and here he is explaining the speed rush.

And last but not least this is an excellent video of the NFL's elite pass rushers explaining how they get it done. It illustrates the hand play and importance of the initial move off the ball. (By the way, I typed my baseball analogy before watching this video)



Classically, there are two defensive line positions: tackle and end. Unfortunately, the readers at TNation are way to sophisticated and well read to recognize that is an over simplification. One could argue that the following positions are represented on the defensive line: strong side end, weak side end, defensive tackle and nose guard. Within those positions, one could break it down even further into run and pass specialists. It is no longer surprising to watch groups of linemen run on and off the field depending on the down and distance. Some teams will flip flop there defensive line from play to play depending on the strength of the play or line up their best defensive end on the weakest tackle or line up their best defensive end on the right side of the defense. The last option typically results in the end rushing from the blindside of the quarterback as most quarterbacks are right handed. This is the reason that left tackles in the NFL get paid so much. A bad left tackle will get a quarterback seriously injured.

In general, a strong side defensive end is the leverage point of the defense. He cannot allow his outside shoulder to get pinned and allow an offense to turn the corner. In general, defensive ends are responsible for containing an offense and stretching plays laterally. Typically, again depending on the scheme, the strong side end is your larger/stronger end as he is playing at the point of attack. The strong side end will typically line up on the inside shoulder of the tight end, again this depends on scheme. He must be able to handle double teams and disrupt the outside of the line, allowing the strong side and middle linebackers to run free behind him. On passing plays, he must disrupt the tight end's release of the line.

Your weak side end is typically where you see your speed and where you will see your one on one match ups. Again, the weak side end must maintain leverage at the point of attack and contain the quarterback. It takes a lot of discipline to play on the weakside of the ball as it is easy to start chasing plays down to early or getting caught inside (see the Boston College game) and allowing teams to reverse the field to the outside. It is imperative that the weak side end stay at home until he is absolutely sure that the play is not a reverse.

Your nose tackle or nose guard is a special breed of player. They need to clog up space, occupy blockers and be disruptive: think BJ Raji. The nose guard will be your largest player on the line. A successful nose guard will allow the middle line backer to roam free behind the line of scrimmage. If you get to the point that your interior lineman are successfully blocked one on one, a team will run all over you and your line backers will be miserable. This position is about power, aggressive behavior and being down right nasty.

Defensive tackles are becoming more and more specialized, meaning they are pass or run specialists. Again, the key to being a successful defensive tackle is being disruptive.

For a more detailed discussion, I would like to share our own CaStauch's take on our defense from a few months ago:

The 43 under- one gap scheme denotes particular responsibilities to each player. Concurrently, each of these responsibilities are themselves the foundation their teammates responsibilities: each position reflexively impacts and allows each other position to function. Starting from strongside and going to weakside, with respect to the defense's point of view of the offense (in that the strongside of the defense lines up opposite the strongside of the offense, usually the one with a Tight End), the first position to analyze is the Strongside Defensive end. The SDE lines up on the outside shoulder of offensive tackle to his side. His position is important because it cuts off the <i>angle</i> from which the offensive tackle can move <i>without resistance</i>. This is the form of protection that he bestows upon the LB behind him: because of the angle of his lineup, the OT cannot easily block down on the second level LB without either going <i>through</i> the SDE or amidst the congested middle of the line. In order to make the former as difficult as possible, the SDE must possess some method of holding his ground. Most naturally, this would imply weight. Usually SDE's range from 270-285 pounds. E.J. Wilson, of UNC (Coached by John Blake, one of the foremost DL minds in the collegiate game) weighs in at 280 lbs. Tyson Jackson at LSU clocks in at 285. Southern Cal's SDE, on the other hand, weighed in this past season at 6'6" 275 lbs.

In addition to weight, the SDE needs some form of body composition that utilizes this girth.  There are two options. The first, is two evenly distribute the weight in a lankier frame, like USC's Moore. A longer body implies longer limbs. This, in combination with the greater amount of space that a longer body eats up, allows the SDE to control the line of scrimmage by <i>dictating</i> the movement of the OL with his longer arms. Another model for this method is Carlos Dunlap from UF. If you were with us earlier in the season, you may remember my piece on spatial and temporal playmakers (  A lankier SDE is an example of such a <b>spatial constriction</b>: his control of his opponent and longer frame shortens the negative space between him, his opposite OL, and the next D-Lineman, thus constricting the space in which the offense has to exploit.

The second option for an SDE to utilize his size is a stockier frame to produce leverage. This requires a slightly heavier player, like UNC's to exasperate the adequate leverage over what is no doubt a much taller OL.

The moral of the story for the SDE is that his job is to be a <i>clogger</i>. He prevents the Linebackers behind him from being blocked by the OL and TE opposite him. His angle of deployment, that on the outside shoulder of the OT and inside shoulder of the TE, along with his girth and size, allow him to do this. FSU has suffered the lack of an SDE for much of this decade. Our SDE this past season?  Neefy Moffett. As admirable he performed at times, his size (256 lbs) preventing him from consistently manning the clogger role needed.  Behind him, we have Kevin McNeil and Everette Dawkins, both of whom may be able to weigh in at the necessary weight (at least 275). We're also recruiting a bevy of diversity at this position, including David Perry (6"6 240) and Darious Cummings (6'2 260) both in their junior years.

Next in line is maybe the most integral man in the 43 under front, the Nose Tackle. He lines up in the gap between the center and guard on the SDE's side. More than any other, his role is singularly that as a <i>clogger</i>. It is imperative that his physical presence prevents either the Center and Guard to a) defend him 1 on 1, freeing up one of the blockers, and b) bypassing the NT to the Mike or Will LBs behind him. To meet this responsibility, the NT, like the SDE, has choices. Either actually clog the middle of the line with his immense girth (this is the popular approach within the NFL and was clearly illustrated by B.J. Raji and Boston College), or prove to be strong enough and have enough of a competent knowledge of technique and leverage that the same goal is accomplished. The latter is more likely for FSU: not only is it easier to teach technique and develop strength on top of necessary bulk, but we've one of the better technical NT coaches in the country. Coming in at a mere 262 lbs, Coach Haggins turned Brod Bunkley into a chiseled 290 lb NT worthy of first round draft pick and pro bowl consideration. Southern Cal's analog was Averall Spicer, 6'2" and 295. Last year, we played with Budd Thacker, who weighed in at 275, and Paul Griffin, at 280 (doubtful). This was the most direct reason for our porous run defense.

The future, however, looks bright if not tenuous. Moses McCray is expected to play at ~305, and will add that impressive bulk with the mechanical muscle memory imbued from wrestling in high school that will make learning the technical skills much easier. Behind him, Jaccobi McDaniel should start at 280 but gain weight steadily from there, and every coach that has witnessed his domination at the last two All Star games has come away incredibly impressed with his technical ability already.

The Strongside Defensive End and Nose Tackle serve as the foundation upon which the 43 under front is built. They are the necessary brick and mortar that enables the next two pieces, the Defensive Tackle and
Weakside Defensive End, to perform as disrupters that cut the spatial and temporal advantages inherent in the Offense.

The Defensive Tackle lines up on the outside shoulder of the Guard on the weak side. His position, labeled a Three Technique affords him the luxury of a one on one matchup with the Guard. Shielded both by the
body of the Guard with whom he’s matched up, and his Nose Tackle’s clogging responsibility tying up the center, it is the Coach’s responsibility to recruit and develop a player that accentuates this disruptive potential. Here, Florida State has traditionally excelled. Darnell Dockett, arguably the MVP of the Cardinals late season surge,
exemplifies this most clearly, as does Travis Johnson. Southern Cal’s Fili Moala weighs in at 6’2" 290, and possesses the necessary fast-twitch acceleration and understanding of technique and leverage to consistently beat the OG he’s opposite and disrupt the play

Florida State’s answer to this need is Justin Mincey. So as long as he develops mentally (stays eligible) and physically (fills out), Justin is potentially the next in a long line of first round picks produced by Coach Haggins. His width and length, at 6’5", allows him to control and dictate the contact with the likely shorter and slower OG. His speed isn’t gone to waste; shielded by his angle and the NT, he is provided an ample two gaps worth of protection with which to work.

Alongside him, the Weakside Defensive End also serves as a disruptor. He deploys on the outside shoulder of the left tackle, and the inherent disruptive qualities and unrivaled spatial isolation are the reasons Left Tackles
are paid more than any position in Football. While the DT is also matched up against a single blocker, he is not awarded the space with which to work like the WDE. As such, he is the principle source of pass rush in this scheme. His size and physique must illustrate this principle goal: normally between 250 and 260 lbs, allowing him not to sacrifice speed and agility with which he can
attack an environment (one blocker and nearly ~30 yards of space) that is unrivaled by any other frontal configuration. While Souther Cal has Everson Griffin, FSU counters with Everette Brown and now Markus White. For all of our struggles these past seasons in fielding satisfactory SDEs and NTs, the WDE position has not been a source of angst, at least personnel wise (schematically however, has caused some frustration, but that is the seed of another article for another day).


Final Thoughts

If you have made it this far, congratulations and thanks for reading. Defensive line play is one of the most exciting parts of football. Hopefully this article provides you with a basic frame work with which to watch the line play and to think about the recruiting process. It takes time to develop into an outstanding defensive lineman, but there are basic skills required. Acceleration, explosiveness and body type are key. When watching recruiting videos, watch for the way a kid comes off the ball, what does he do with his hands, how does he shed blocks, does he stay low, what is his first movement off the ball, does his head pop up or does he move across the line. I would argue that shuttle times and agility are more important for defensive lineman than 40 yard times. Strength is key and a kid has to have the right frame to develop his body to endure the punishment of playing on the line. There has been an evolution in the style of play at each position on the line. As CaStauch nicely stated, "Each position has a specific responsibility and players must be recruited that can fill these roles as best as they can. There cannot be any square peg in round hole recruiting here."

I look forward to hearing your thoughts about our defensive line and defensive line play in general. Clearly, a lot of this article is a gross simplification of defensive line technique, but a summary of some points that I find important.

And don't forget that Florida State has a history of developing some of the best defensive linemen in the country, many of whom go on to play in the NFL:

Bunkley.jpg image by KGXFACTOR

Photo from here.