Defensive Line Basics: Mind the Gap

by Mike Tanier

Before we start, a couple of notes from your trusty editor-in-chief.

First, today we have installed the most often requested feature for Football Outsiders -- printable versions of articles! You'll see the link at the top of each article. In addition, the printable articles come in two versions. When you first click, you get just the article itself for those who just want our writing, or have slow Internet connections. Or, click on "View with Comments" and you'll get all the comments and discussion as well for your treadmill (or other location) reading pleasure.

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A few weeks ago, we ran an article on the difference between the 3-4 and the 4-3 defenses. That article focused on general elements of each system: the responsibilities of individual players, the types of physical specimen coaches look for at each position. That article didn't address the specifics of defensive line play: just what are those linemen doing after the ball is snapped?

It's time to address some basic defensive line tactics. This article may get a little complicated at times. To help clear things up, each section ends with an example that demonstrates line strategies as they might be used by a 4-3 team (the Colts) and a 3-4 team (the Steelers).

Gaps and Techniques

In the last few years, it has become common to refer to some defensive linemen as "3-technique tackles." The term is usually thrown around without too much explanation, often by someone who might not know what he is talking about.

The "technique" being referred to actually specifies a location on the field and the responsibility that goes with that particular location. If a defensive lineman shifts a few feet to the left or right in relation to the offensive line, his duties (and the skills needed to perform them well) change accordingly.

The various field locations are numbered. These numbers are more-or-less universal: everyone from your local high school coach up to Tony Dungy uses the same numbers:

  • 0-Technique: The defender lines up face-to-face with the center.
  • 1-Technique: The defender lines up on the center's outside shoulder.
  • 2-Technique: The defender lines up on the guard's inside shoulder.
  • 3-Technique: The defender lines up on the guard's outside shoulder, between the guard and the tackle.
  • 4-Technique: The defender lines up on the tackle's inside shoulder, though often coaches want 4-technique linemen face-to-face with an offensive tackle.
  • 5-Technique: The defender lines up on the tackle's outside shoulder.
  • 6-Technique: The defender lines up on the tight end's inside shoulder or (if there is no tight end) about 1.5 yards wide of the tackle.

The numbers break down a little at this point; different coaches will refer to the 7, 8, and 9 techniques in different ways, usually denoting linemen playing anywhere from the tight end's outside shoulder to a yard or two wide of the offensive line. The higher numbers also change depending on whether the player in question is a tackle or end.

Stick a zero on the end of any of these numbers, and they can be used to refer to the locations of linebackers. So a linebacker in 50-technique is off the line of scrimmage, positioned between a tackle and a tight end on the tackle's outside shoulder.

A 3-technique tackle, therefore, is one who usually lines up between the guard and tackle, with all privileges, rights, and responsibilities associated with the position. Each technique comes with a set of reads and keys, specific to the defensive system, the offensive formation, and the down-and-distance situation. In most systems, on most plays, a tackle lined up in 3-technique is supposed to shoot the gap immediately; in a 4-technique, one step to the right or left, his job might be to bottle up the offensive tackle so a linebacker can shoot the gap. In the 2-gap, tackles are often told to "draw responsibility" from two blockers, the football equivalent of "eating space" in basketball.

Why is there so much emphasis on 3-technique tackles lately? Basically, there are two types of tackles. There's the Ted Washington type, who weighs 320 pounds before a meal and is known for his size and power, not his quickness (though many of these players are pretty quick). Then there are players like the Kevin Williams and Rod Coleman: 290-pounders who are quick enough to shoot a gap or execute a stunt. These latter players are 3-technique tackles. The Washington-types aren't called 0-technique or 1-technique tackles because they already have a better name: nose tackles.

The 3-technique tackle is in short supply because few players leave college with the right mix of strength, explosiveness, technique, and durability. Systems like Tony Dungy's rely heavily on 3-technique tackles to disrupt the interior of the offensive line. For most defensive coordinators, heaven is a 3-technique tackle who is in the backfield on every play, a 0-technique tackle who requires two blockers and controls two gaps, and a pass rushing end (7,8,or 9 technique) who also requires a double team on every play.

In addition to the techniques, there are the gaps in the offensive line, which are usually lettered. A-gap is the hole between the center and either guard. The B-gap lies between the guards and tackles. The C-gap lies between the tackles and the tight ends. The D-gap is just off tight end, while coaches will often refer to an E-gap a few yards off the tight end but inside of the wide receivers.

To avoid confusion, coaches use numbered "techniques" to denote pre-snap positioning and lettered "gaps" to tell the defender where his responsibilities lie. So a player in 3-technique with B-gap responsibility will basically be plowing straight ahead at the snap. A 0-technique nose defender with weakside A-gap responsibility will be looping one step to the side of the center where there is no tight end (usually his right).

There's a lot of oversimplification here; coaches will use terms like 2a or 2i technique to represent a player lined up six inches to the tackle side of the guard, for example. A 3-technique tackle doesn't always line up in the 3-technique, just as a tight end doesn't always line up beside the right tackle. Real estate is precious in the trenches, so half a foot can make a big difference.

Colts example: On a typical first down, DT Larry Triplett lines up in 1-technique on the weak side; fellow DT Monte Reagor lines up on the strong side in the 3-technique. DE Raheem Brock is over the tight end in a 6-technique, while Dwight Freeney is in the 7-technique, about 1.5 yards wide of the left tackle on the weak side.

Steelers example: Again on first down, nose tackle Casey Hampton is in the 0-technique, shaded slightly to the weak side. Ends Kimo von Oelhoffen and Aaron Smith are just outside the tackles in 5-technique.

One-Gap vs. Two-Gap

As important as the techniques are, gap responsibilities are much more vital to the success of the defense. Depending on the play called and the philosophy of the defensive coordinator, a defensive lineman could be responsible for either one or two gaps.

One-gap responsibility is relatively simple: the defender attacks a hole and must take care of whatever business happens there. He is expected to tackle any running back who goes through that hole, or to force the running back to move laterally into the arms of another tackler. If the offense is passing, the defender's gap is his route to the quarterback.

Two-gap responsibility requires more discipline on the part of the defender. A defensive tackle may be responsible for both the A and B gaps on his side of the field. His job is not so much to crash through a gap as to read the play, anticipate which gap a running back might choose, and clog it. The two-gap defender must quickly diagnose the blocking scheme to determine which of his gaps is more vulnerable.

No defense uses one-gap or two-gap line schemes exclusively, just as no defense lines up in a two-deep zone on every play. But coordinators have their preferences, and most 4-3 teams use predominantly one-gap schemes, while 3-4 teams will use two-gap responsibilities more often.

Players, for the most part, prefer a one-gap style because it allows them to attack at the snap. Some defenders are far more effective when careening towards a gap than they are while trying to read the offense. In the late 1990's, the Redskins signed DTs Dan Wilkinson and Dana Stubblefield, then used them in a scheme that emphasized two-gap responsibilities. The system negated the strengths of two super-athletic interior players, and the defense suffered as a result. (The coach responsible for the dubious decision: Mike Nolan, under the supervision of Norv Turner.)

Colts example: On the same first down play cited above, all of the defenders have one-gap responsibility except Triplett, who is expected to control both A gaps (the one he is aligned across from and the one on the strong side). Reagor penetrates the B-gap. Brock will loop wide of the tight end and take the D-gap. Though there is no tight end to his side, Freeney will also be considered a D-gap defender because of his wide pass rush: a linebacker will be responsible for the area directly to the left tackle's right side.

Steelers example: Hampton and Smith each have two gap responsibilities: Hampton takes up both A-gaps, while Smith must handle the B and C gaps on the strong side. On the weak side, Kimo will shoot the B-gap, eating up a likely cutback lane, while an outside linebacker worries about the region to Kimo's right.

Rules of Engagement

Controlling a gap isn't a matter of rushing in and waiting for something to happen. At the snap, offensive and defensive linemen begin shuffling and colliding at high speeds. It takes great athleticism, discipline, and alertness for a defensive lineman to do his job.

Ultimately, every lineman wants to defeat his blocker. "Defeating" doesn't mean pile-driving him to the ground and grinning down at him, Mortal Kombat style (though that can sometimes work). To defeat an offensive lineman is to take away his ability to block you. Sometimes, this means driving him backwards so you can steer him like a wheelbarrow. More often, it means out-maneuvering him to a position on the field where he doesn't want you to be. In a two-gap situation, it can mean holding your ground and avoiding the blocker's effort to take you out of a gap.

Coaches stress many fundamental elements when instructing defenders on the basics of defeating an offensive lineman:

"Release quickly and low." First step explosion is key: to beat the blocker out of his stance is to beat him through the whole play. Ineffective linemen stand straight up from their base stance, allowing blockers to get low on them. Coaches focus upon initial footwork techniques to ensure that the defender's knees are bent and his legs are properly spaced.

"Cross the blocker's face." Offensive linemen want to block defenders in a certain direction. By moving across the blocker's face during a slant or loop, a defender forces the blocker to twist his torso and change his blocking angle.

"Get your head past the blocker's hip." Penetrate so quickly that the blocker must turn and engage you parallel to the line of scrimmage. Another common bit of coaching advice: use your blocker as a shield. If you can't reach the gap the running back is headed for, the next best thing is to shove your blocker into it.

"Maintain a vision point." The vision point is often the hip of a guard or tackle, or it can be the V of the neck of the opposing blocker. Watching these body parts helps the defender read the play and the blocking scheme while giving him a location to attack when it's time to smash into the blocker.

"Execute on the offensive side of the ball." If a lineman is executing a stunt, loop, or slant, it's imperative that he does so after penetrating the line of scrimmage; otherwise, the defense is just giving ground.

While we think of defenders as attackers, the opposite can be true in the trenches. Offensive linemen have a variety of ways to make life miserable for the defenders. The cut block is an infamous one, and linemen are drilled in techniques to sweep their legs clear of low blocks. Trap-blocking assignments use the defender's own momentum to lead him right where the offense wants him: far from the ball carrier. And then there is good old-fashioned holding: coaches always stress to defensive linemen the importance of not letting the blocker get his hands and forearms into the lineman's upper body, using punches, rips, and swim moves to keep the jersey from getting grabbed.

Once the blocker is defeated, the defender can make a tackle or a sack. At this point, ball location is critical. Defensive linemen generally don't watch the quarterback at the snap: they read the play by the blocking patterns around them. A lineman peeking at the quarterback won't be tuned in to what his blocker is doing and is likely to get held or cut. Once the defender is in the backfield, he must decide whether he's chasing a running back, attacking a quarterback, dropping off to stop a screen pass, or whatever.

Colts example: Reagor defeats his blocker with quickness, beating the right guard on his first step. The guard's block only slows Reagor a little as he penetrates the backfield. Initial quickness also helps Tripplett, who crosses the center's face, rips with his arms to keep the center from latching on, then holds his position. Brock successfully loops around the tight end, while Freeney's wide rush puts him quickly on the far hip of the left tackle. The Colts have excellent penetration.

Steelers example: Hampton reads the weakside guard: when the guard pulls to the strong side, Hampton reads sweep, so he attacks into the A-gap, where the center does his best to divert him. The tackle on Smith's side takes an initial step to his right (Smith's left) in an effort to hook Smith inside. Smith reads sweep and defeats the block by shuffling left and driving the tackle backwards. On the far side, Kimo easily attacks through the hole vacated by the pulling guard, but the sweep is away from him and he can do little more than pursue the play from behind. Note that with more two-gap responsibilities than the Colts, the Steelers linemen have more decisions to make.

Stunts, Slants, Twists and Loops

A "stunt" is a general term for a play that has defensive linemen attacking gaps other than the ones they are lined up over. Most coaches don't officially call a play a stunt unless two lineman are crisscrossing in some way; this type of play is alternately called a "twist". A "slant" is a diagonal attack by two or more linemen. A "loop" is a variation on the slant, usually executed on the outside of the line.

Stunts have different names in different systems; let's look at one that is often called a "jet." The defensive end and tackle on the weak side of the offense will crisscross on this stunt. The end will take an upfield rush, wide of the offensive tackle, while the defensive tackle drives hard at the guard opposite him. The end then suddenly works back inside against his blocker, who by now is several steps into the backfield. The defensive tackle slips outside of the end and rushes upfield after the end makes his move.

Confused? There's a lot going on there. If the jet stunt works, the offensive guard is rendered irrelevant, the offensive tackle has to play multiple choice, and the pocket collapses. Stunts require precision timing; otherwise, defenders run into each other or blockers calmly switch assignments. Stunts can also leave gaping holes in the line against the running game, so most coaches only call them on the weak side of the formation unless it's 3rd-and-15 (stunts can actually help fill cutback lanes, as blockers have a hard time re-adjusting against stunting defenders when the running back ditches the script).

Slants are more versatile, allowing the defensive line to dictate the flow of a play. A typical slant might have a 5-technique end slanting to the C-gap (essentially crossing the face of the tight end and looping around him), a 1-technique tackle hitting a B-gap (crossing the guard's face), a 3-technique tackle attacking the nearest A-gap, and a backside, 7-technique end shooting the backside C-gap. In other words, everyone is moving to the right, exactly where the offense wants the running back to go. Throw in a blitzing linebacker on the weak side, and the offense is in trouble.

The enemy of the slant is the Alex Gibbs zone-and-cut blocking scheme. Slanting defenders find themselves slanting directly into ambushes as blockers take out their legs or push them along using their own momentum. The enemy of the Alex Gibbs system is the unpopular two-gap philosophy: it's hard to cut block someone who is staying still and waiting for you to try something. So goes the give-and-take of NFL strategy.

Colts Example: On the next set of downs, Dungy replaces Tripplett with the faster Josh Williams and calls a jet stunt to the weak side. Freeney takes his blocker wide, then works inside just as Williams starts to twist wide. Freeney escapes the left tackle but is picked up by a fullback. Williams is too slow to get a sack, but he flushes the quarterback from behind and forces an errant pass. The stunt works, and it gives the opposing line something new to worry about.

Steelers example: The Steelers slant left as part of a blitz package. At the snap, all three linemen (now in one-gap responsibility) slant to the nearest gap to their left: Hampton to strong side A, Kimo to weak side B, Smith looping to strong side D. Linebackers Larry Foote and Joey Porter will blitz on the weak side, Porter from the edge, Foote on a delay into the A gap. The slanting line confuses blitz pickup, and while the fullback engages Porter, Kimo occupies both a guard and tackle, Hampton a center and guard. No blocker peels off to stop Foote when he blitzes a split second later, and Foote records an easy sack.

Wrapping It Up

Defensive line play doesn't occur in a vacuum. Linebackers are involved in many stunts and will sometimes start the play in a three-point stance, lined up in 7-, 8- or 9-technique. When coverage rolls one way, the defensive line often slants the opposite way. And every play is fluid, as a change in blocking schemes or offensive motion can force a sudden change of plans on the D-line.

Hopefully, though, this cleared up a little of the jargon that's thrown around when talking about the defensive line. These lineman aren't 300-pound monsters with no brains; they have to be agile, decisive, alert, focused, and completely versed in the fundamentals of their positions. That's why teams invest so much in their defensive lines: guys with this skill set don't grow on trees.


55 comments, Last at 03 Nov 2005, 5:30pm

#1 by TomC (not verified) // Jul 08, 2005 - 4:05pm

Yes! Yes! Oh baby!

I simply cannot get enough of this good stuff. I used to wait all week to catch Jaws on NFL Matchup so I could see maybe 30 seconds of this kind of analysis. Thank God for FO.

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#2 by Dman (not verified) // Jul 08, 2005 - 4:57pm

Great article. I really enjoy these "football 101" type articles.

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#3 by mactbone (not verified) // Jul 08, 2005 - 4:58pm

I really appreciate this, but I'm having trouble visualizing some of it. Is there any possibility of pictures from games? I'd love a link to a video example but understand that's a pipedream.

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#4 by Parker (not verified) // Jul 08, 2005 - 5:07pm

So every year I watch, roughly:

16 games with the local team
8 of the double header games on Sunday
15 MNF games
13 SNF games
4 Misc T-Day and special Thurs/Sat games
9 Playoff games (I'm sure I don't watch them all.

That's a total of 65 games a year for about the last 20 years (Dickersons remarkable 1984 performance brought me fully into the fold. Or was it Wilder?) for a grand total of, about, 1300 professional football games.

Then I read articles like this one and realize that I don't really have a clue as to what is going on out there.

Keep 'em coming.

Oh, and whoever finally installed the 'printable version' button, I'm nominating you for a Nobel this year.

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#5 by benjy (not verified) // Jul 08, 2005 - 5:13pm

Sweet! I've always wanted a Nobel Prize. They never seemed to come in the Cracker Jack boxes.

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#6 by Sean (not verified) // Jul 08, 2005 - 5:49pm

RE 3: Honestly, the best way to learn football fundamentals at this point is to grab an Xbox and a copy of Madden and/or NFL2K5. Go to practice mode and see how everything lines up. 2K5 is actually the better game in regards to defensive line play, as you will have the option to pick a defensive line shift or stunt before deciding on coverage, and in that way you can see exactly what is involved in a stunt or twist.

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#7 by charles (not verified) // Jul 08, 2005 - 5:52pm

Great article.
Tampa Bay is an undersized 4-3 defense and all that resembles the colts as described so nicely earlier. I just wanted to ask, i saw games earlier that tb played against teams like oakland and the chargers where they were running straight at the bucs and their undersized line. Then the bucs started cut blocking the offensive lines of those teams. I can't really say it made any difference in the outcome of the particular games i saw but if anybody else has seen defensive lines do this tell me what are the advantages and disadvantages of this tactic?

Also as a skins fan thank you for reminding of the stubblefield/wilkinson debacle i was wondering why they sucked in dc. But now we have gregg williams so everything is a ok.

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#8 by Reinhard (not verified) // Jul 08, 2005 - 6:06pm

Cut blocking the offensive line like that kind of just creates a pile... not very good for your pass rush, but good if you trust your LB's vs their running back (Bucs vs Oakland would fit the bill?)

And, correct me if I'm wrong, but as an example of DL alertness, if a defensive tackle is being trap blocked, i.e. a pulling OL is coming to clear him out of the running lane, basically that DL will find himself unblocked for a small amount of time... usually this will kind of tell their spider sense to watch out for and react to that OL bearing down on them.

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#9 by KillerB (not verified) // Jul 08, 2005 - 7:04pm

"For most defensive coordinators, heaven is a 3-technique tackle who is in the backfield on every play, a 0-technique tackle who requires two blockers and controls two gaps, and a pass rushing end (7,8,or 9 technique) who also requires a double team on every play."

This is essentially what Tampa Bay had during their defensive prime (1997-2002 seasons), especially after they signed Simeon Rice. Sapp as the 3-technique pass rush tackle, Booger McFarland as the nose tackle, and Simeon Rice as the outside pass rusher.

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#10 by Nathan (not verified) // Jul 08, 2005 - 9:09pm

best article ever.

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#11 by Kaveman (not verified) // Jul 08, 2005 - 10:33pm

Awesome. Looking forward to more.

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#12 by mactbone (not verified) // Jul 08, 2005 - 10:35pm

Well, I've played Madden for the last 10 years and NCAA for the past 5. However, I don't feel like their D-Line represents what's real. In my mind, from Madden a stunt is when one d-lineman moves over left/right and the other moves the opposite way and over. That should make the o-lineman switch assignments but in Madden doesn't do much but have the over guy run around.

I'm assuming that what I described is really more of a twist. I would guess that the best scenario is that the under guy can push both his guy and the lineman who went over's blocker out of the way while the over guy runs through the empty space.

Like I said, I would like to see some pictures so that I can make sure I know what you're talking about. No big deal if it's not possible but it would be nice. Part of why Jaws' work is so good is because he describes what to look at while you're looking at it.

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#13 by T. Diddy (not verified) // Jul 08, 2005 - 11:15pm

Embarassing admission: I always thought "3-technique tackle" meant something like a "five-tool player" in baseball.

Thanks for an incredibly informative article.

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#14 by Hodgins (not verified) // Jul 09, 2005 - 12:10am

I play a lot of d-line and its good to see observers with the brains to realize its importance and understand and explain to people what all the mumbo-jumbo means, good article

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#15 by Chris (not verified) // Jul 09, 2005 - 1:42am

I liked the article just like everyone else seems to have, but I think that we need articles more in depth on the lines (O and D) and their interactions, as that is the most important aspect of football not commonly understood. This was a good start, but it was way too limited in scope.

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#16 by Adam (not verified) // Jul 09, 2005 - 2:44am


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#17 by A. Diggity Dawg (not verified) // Jul 09, 2005 - 11:44am

Okay, so why doesn't anybody else do articles like this?

Pimp the Football Prospecticus to all your friends, folks. These guys deserve some moolah for showing everybody else how it's done.

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#18 by Ryan Mc (not verified) // Jul 09, 2005 - 11:48am

Tremendous article. One question: the 2 technique has the DT on the guard's inside shoulder and the 3 technique on the outside shoulder. Is there a reason why there's no accounting for a DT lining straight up on a guard? Does this never happen?

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#19 by LnGrrrR (not verified) // Jul 09, 2005 - 12:33pm

Re: 18...Maybe in a 5-3-3 alignment? :D

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#20 by Reinhard (not verified) // Jul 09, 2005 - 2:02pm

Trogdor... sounds like a d-line name...

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#21 by Björn (not verified) // Jul 09, 2005 - 3:14pm

Trogdor is the burninator!

But seriously, fantastic article.

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#22 by Terry (not verified) // Jul 09, 2005 - 3:50pm

Great article, brings back good memories...I'm sure the many FO readers who played organized football will agree.

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#23 by Krugerindustri… (not verified) // Jul 09, 2005 - 4:02pm

terrific, just finished my 2nd read through, and I know this one is destined for many more.

Parker(3) makes a great point, throw in college games and cfl and most of us are probably close to 100 games a year without really ever understanding what goes on out there.

2 suggestions:
1. can we/someone save some plays or screenshots from Madden or some other software to illustrate? this should be considerably easier than video.
2. how bout a guide on how to watch a game? it would be particularily useful to be able to tune into a preseason game and make some evaluations of what is actually going on out there without relying on commentators.

great job guys, keep it up.

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#24 by Björn (not verified) // Jul 09, 2005 - 4:38pm

I think that the line strategies are so little known because of how football is presented. We see the game from way up high, and from the side only - not an angle best suited for observing who is hitting what gaps. And, as TMQ notes just about every week, sportscasters don't know the difference between a blitz and a stunt, so how is the average viewer? That is one thing that I really enjoy about those new cameras that fly along the wires on nationally televised games. Not only do they look really cool, often they let you see how the lines go up against each other. Only then does the viewer gain an appreciation for how fast things take place at the line of scrimmage.

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#25 by Reinhard (not verified) // Jul 09, 2005 - 5:56pm

The top down view you can see all the players on the line interact really well... like better than one would think. I like watching replays of running plays in Madden top down.

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#26 by Trogdor (not verified) // Jul 09, 2005 - 8:40pm

Um, yeah, I did play a little D-line in high school and before. And a little O-line, FB/TE, MLB. I'm just not sure how I got brought into this conversation...

And yes, I am busy burninating the countryside, burninating the peasants, burninating all the people in their thatched-roof cottages. Nothing better on a lazy July weekend than wreaking a little havoc.

Anyway, great article, very informative and fun. Good stuff, and I look forward to watching games someday where we can actually tell where the defenders are lined up laterally aside from the rare behind-the-offense replay. This is the kind of stuff I think more fans would know, and be able to learn for themselves, if the camera actually showed it.

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#27 by Makula (not verified) // Jul 10, 2005 - 9:04am

Wow, what a great article.

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#28 by LnGrrrR (not verified) // Jul 10, 2005 - 9:04am

I said consummate V's!

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#29 by Ima Pseudonym (not verified) // Jul 10, 2005 - 10:07am

Great article. Makes we want to get tivo so that I can watch important plays in slomo as they happen to try to pick out what the lines are doing. Unfortunately, in slomo, one loses the sound - including all of the important strategic information provided by the highly knowledgeable announcers.

Re 17: I second the call to pimp for football prospectus. In fact, given Aaron's concerns about reproducing these articles, I hereby call for the editor to insert blatant plugs for football prospectus in each of the football 101 type articles.

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#30 by Paul (not verified) // Jul 10, 2005 - 10:21am

Great article. Thanks.

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#31 by Brad (not verified) // Jul 10, 2005 - 11:19am

Excellent article. As a football fan who never actually played the game, I hear these terms bandied about and had a basic idea what they meant, but now I'll have a greater appreciation for them. Thanks for making this clear.

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#32 by Equalizer (not verified) // Jul 10, 2005 - 11:43am

Artticles are great, keep 'em coming. I run a site devoted to Football strategy within' Madden and NCAA football games and our readers love this stuff as well as our original content - it translates well!!!


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#33 by MikeT (not verified) // Jul 10, 2005 - 3:53pm

Thanks for the responses.

I agree with those who say that today's video games give a great introduction to football strategy. Their representation of defensive line play seems more simplistic than the way they handle coverage schemes and blitzes, probably because to really capture trench play that would have to do a ton of AI work and the game would only play much better to a hard core fan.

18: You asked about "head up" on the guard: in researching this thing I discovered that some teams call 2-technique a "head up" position and then use terms like 2-h and 2-i for shading. Different coordinators and coaches seem to stress different things, as some will say "line up on his shoulder" while others will say "line up six inches wide of his helmet."

As for graphics, maybe it's time for us to create some "chalkboard" software or something. This does tend to make more sense with x's and o's.

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#34 by James, London (not verified) // Jul 11, 2005 - 7:17am

Mike, This is another great read. Clear, concise and far more entertaining than yet another "Player X is over/under rated/paid" offseason piece. When's the next one?

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#35 by Aaron (not verified) // Jul 11, 2005 - 10:31am

Next one is late this week, Michael David Smith on I-Formation.

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#36 by Jim A (not verified) // Jul 11, 2005 - 1:09pm

Great article. One question about the D-Line I've never seen answered satisfactorily is why D-Linemen seem to be rotated more frequently than other position groups. Are there more specialization "platoon-type" advantages related to techiquues to be gained on the D-Line? Is there not as much drop off in ability from starter to backup at the D-Line positions?

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#37 by zach (not verified) // Jul 11, 2005 - 3:25pm

this is completely unrelated, but since this is football 101, i was wondering: what do all of those goddamn special teams acronyms mean? PAT is Point After Try, i know that. but what's WILL? and SAM? and are there other ones i'm not thinking of?

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#38 by MikeT (not verified) // Jul 11, 2005 - 3:54pm

37: Will is the Weakside Linebacker
Mike is the middle Linebacker
Sam is the strongside linebacker

Some teams also use terms like the Joker linebacker (usually a pass rusher) or the Money linebacker (often part of the nickel package). It gets a little crazy, and I'll try to explain jargon as I go

36: Jim, I think on the D-line, a little loss in continuity is worth getting tired players out of the game. Defensive linemen have to run more than offensive linemen and often take more of a pounding (they are double teamed, etc.) Teams almost never rotate offensive linemen these days because a split second's loss of timing can blow up a play. All of the substitutions probably hurt the timing on defense, but a big tackle who is winded won't run the play properly anyway

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#39 by zach (not verified) // Jul 11, 2005 - 4:02pm

thanks mike. no wonder i couldn't figure out what the special teams acronyms meant, they're not acronyms at all and have nothing to do with special teams.

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#40 by Pat on the Back (not verified) // Jul 11, 2005 - 4:05pm

First off, fantastic article.

Actually, rotations just come about due to simple physics. If Fatty A slams into Fatty B repetitively for 6 seconds a pop, straining the muscles in the back, knees, and ankles from explosive acceleration, how long before they snap every ligament in their body? Basically, the big guys are too heavy and hit too hard to hold up to the stresses of the entire game and remain effect and healthy. The bulkier they are, the more energy they have to use to move it. If they are smaller and don't have any bulk, then they lose leverage and probably couldn't be effective over the course of the game.

After you rape and pillage, do you find that your hair gets all frizzy? The smoke from burning babies is just murder on my split ends.

In general, I've always thought the best way to describe a stunt is as the football equivalent of setting a pick. You have two O-lineman trying to "defend" two D-lineman from getting to the RB/QB, so the D-lineman try to slide against each other, putting both blockers onto one d-lineman and setting the other free.

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#41 by Pat on the Back (not verified) // Jul 11, 2005 - 4:07pm

This is why I need to refresh the page before I post. Snuck the answer in on me while I was reading your delightful article.

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#42 by Jim A (not verified) // Jul 11, 2005 - 6:23pm

38/40: Are D-Linemen really heavier or fatter, on average, than O-Lineman? That should be fairly easy to check. Or maybe just the ones who are replaced frequently are. And why do you think D-Linemen do more running than O-Linemen?

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#43 by B (not verified) // Jul 11, 2005 - 6:24pm

Typicially, the O-lineman are larger than the D-lineman.

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#44 by charles (not verified) // Jul 11, 2005 - 7:25pm

RE: 38
Everybody's favorite dynasty the new england patriots rotates both offensive and defensive lineman during games as well as going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 to keep the fat defensive lineman fresh as well as rotating their tight ends and running backs. IMO, i think this has a lot to do with them wearing down teams in the 2nd half of games the superbowl and colts playoffs game would be a good example. My guess as to why other teams don't do this as well is because all of NE o-lineman are basically the same size except for the center but they don't rotate him they only do the guards and tackles and they are all the same size. Most teams right side of the line is bigger than the left side since they want to power run to the strong side and have lighter tackles that can move to handle the blind side pass rushers.

An example of a team not rotating defensive lineman and it coming back to haunt them would be the 2002 giants who blew the 24 point lead to the 49ers in the playoffs. The giants front four had no energy to chase garcia once the niners went no huddle and combined with fassel going conservative the lead was made up in no time. I remember afterwards fassel and strahan both saying that the defense was dead tired.

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#45 by Jim A (not verified) // Jul 11, 2005 - 11:26pm

If the Pats really rotate their offensive linemen (and wouldn't we love to have data on this?) without much loss in continuity or performance, that would seem like a good opportunity for other teams to strive to attain. After all, continuity is just a matter of practicing together, right? The hard part might be finding guards and tackles with the flexibility to play any line position equally well and backups with nearly as much ability as your starters. But maybe if you're willing to pass over the big name, expensive, overvalued guys...

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#46 by Starshatterer (not verified) // Jul 11, 2005 - 11:58pm

The Pats don't rotate their O-linemen, not routinely, anyway. Anyone with NFL Network and a DVR can check this on one of the Patriots' "Game of the Week" they show every now and then in the off-season. I can tell you with 100% confidence that it was Light, Andruzzi, Koppen, Neal, and Gorin up front on every Patriots offensive snap in Superbowl XXXIX, at least all of them that made the show.

What they do that crosses people up, is bring in extra linemen, reporting eligible as TEs or FBs, on short-yardage plays. So on Corey Dillon's TD run in the Superbowl, Russ Hochstein was the lead-blocking fullback.

It's certainly true that the Patriots substitute the front 7 on defense all the time. When you count Jarvis Green and Roosevelt Colvin as backups, you have that luxury. :-)

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#47 by charles (not verified) // Jul 12, 2005 - 1:29am

RE: 46
Your probably more accurate than me in saying that they don't "routinely" rotate offensive lineman and i can't comment on the superbowl because i haven't seen every snap. I do know they were rotating lineman at the beginning of the season against the colts and the cardinals putting klemm in at tackle on some drives and hochstein in at guard on some drives, belichick talks about it in a press conference. After those games i only saw them on national tv so i don't know. Where's Aaron at? The people need to know when the Pats stopped rotating offensive lineman in 2004 if they even did at all.

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#48 by Aaron (not verified) // Jul 12, 2005 - 9:29am

No, no, the Pats don't rotate offensive linemen. They do change up the front seven a lot, yes. Another team that rotates defensive linemen -- the Eagles. Hmmm, maybe there's something to this.

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#49 by Sean D. (not verified) // Jul 12, 2005 - 3:50pm

Re: 48

Every team that has depth will rotate their D-lineman, so there isn't a correlation between the Eagles and Patriots doing it and their success. The example of the 2002 Giants given before was an example of a team without depth on their line. I've never seen a team go into a season with 4 (or 3) guys on the D-line and go with a strategy of playing them the whole game. At a minimum, they rotate on obvious passing downs since hulking 330 lb DTs have trouble getting to a QB running a play from the shotgun.

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#50 by Jim A (not verified) // Jul 12, 2005 - 5:03pm

It has also been my observation that most teams rotate their defensive linemen throughout the game. One of the things I like to do whenever I attend a game live is look for substitution patterns, since we don't usually see these on TV. Sean D. is right, at the very least, most teams follow a fairly predictable base/nickel/dime pattern based on down and distance to go. So on obvious passing downs at least one run-stuffing DTs will go out in favor of a smaller, faster DT and often a speedy situational pass rusher at one DE. Many times you'll see a DT sliding over to DE or vice versa. And of course your LBs will be taken out for extra DBs on passing downs. On offense, teams shuttle in and out WRs, TEs, and RBs depending on the situation, but rarely offensive linemen except on short-yardage situations when they'll bring in an extra tackle or two lined up as a TE.

You could probably show that situational pass rushers are statistically more likely to get sacks, force hurries, etc. than the base D-Linemen. So wouldn't it be possible to find a situational pass blocker to help protect the QB on passing downs? I suppose there's still the continuity argument for offensive linemen, but I also remember in the days before radios in the helmets where teams would shuttle in guards to bring in the playcall from the coach to the QB on every play.

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#51 by Martial (not verified) // Jul 13, 2005 - 1:43pm

Nice article - nicer "printable version" button! Now my dad will actually get to read these.

Another game (for Mac or PC) that gives a good perspective on these strategy issues is PlayMaker Football. Its graphics aren't sophisticated at all, but it gives you a huge amount of control over play design. Just the sort of thing folks who hang out here would be interested in.

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#52 by RIKKI (not verified) // Jul 13, 2005 - 11:13pm

Wow this is right on time I'm teaching the 40 nickle and you couldnt have done a finer job!

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#53 by RIKKI (not verified) // Jul 14, 2005 - 10:06pm

TO Anserw post # 37 there are two I know you left out antler and brave

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#54 by pats1 (not verified) // Jul 20, 2005 - 1:59am

47 - Are you recalling the 2003 season?

Adrian Klemm was long gone before the 2004 season and Russ Hochstein started from Day 1 at LG. Gene Mruckowski was the backup C/G, but never was rotated in or out. Tom Ashworth played the first 6 games before going on the IR, when Brandon Gorin started.

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#55 by Bloomeanie (not verified) // Nov 03, 2005 - 5:30pm

I can't express how I feel about a number of the posts here without sounding critical. Sorry about that but here it goes:

There is zero chance that someone will grasp D or O Line technique by playing or watching video games. Play mental mind games and stroke your ego all you want but if that is the level of your involvement in this game it's a lost cause.

You have either been taught and executed these techniques or you can spend a good deal of time at practices absorbing what's being taught by watching(find a good HS program and MAYBE they'll let you watch).

Few people have the time to do that so video games become their tool. But, once again dont think for a second that Madden 2005 will allow you to grasp technique.

Ain't gonna happen. Sorry, but the reality is: If you don't know it yet you in all likelyhood will never know it.

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