As a general rule, we like to be as simple as possible in our techniques and progressions. We believe that repeatable processes that encompass nearly everything an offense can show us are vital to the success of our players. Our drill work is repeated progressions stressing, “Your technique will make you right.” Furthermore, we believe that playing fast in a good call trumps playing tentative in the perfect call.
We place high emphasis on physicality and effort pursuing the football on every play. Watching video and studying scouting reports are also critical pieces of defending your opponent’s run game.
In mixed downs, our alignment rules are generally stringent and uniform, based on our call and the offensive formation. We typically align with a 60/40 weight distribution with our covered hand down. In our stance, we stress being comfortable and keeping their bodies aligned (feet, knees, shoulders, hands) toward their pre-snap alignment technique. Their eyes should be focused on their man, or first threat, as we employ a man-to-ball key.
Our defensive ends’ pre-snap width is determined by the location of the running back. If the running back is aligned to our side, we get in what we call a “Trading Paint Alignment.” This essentially means if we were to stand side by side with the offensive line, we would be close enough that our shoes would “trade paint” with the offensive lineman. If the running back is aligned away from our side, we loosen up and width align for success. A running back in the pistol set would key both defensive ends to a “Trading Paint Alignment.”
For programs that like to stand their defensive ends up, we still use these general guidelines, except we have gone away from the “near foot forward” thought process. We have found our guys felt more comfortable having their covered foot back, which would be exactly the same as if they were in a three- or four-point stance.
Our defensive tackle’s alignment in our four-down sets work to use to our advantage any spacing the offensive line gives us with their pre-snap splits. Typically, we will align in the middle of the gap. Therefore, the only real difference between our 4i and 3 technique or G and shade would be which hand we have down or foot we have back in our stance. Again, we are trying to use spacing to our advantage by not allowing either offensive lineman to have a leverage advantage pre-snap.
In our head-up alignments, we look to split the cylinder of our first threat. Our post-snap assignment will key us into which hand we will have down. For example, if we are playing a 6 technique and are responsible for the C-gap, we will play with our outside hand down. This would be the same in our 4 technique and 2 technique assuming we are responsible for our adjacent, interior gap. If our gap responsibility is determined by the flow of the offensive line post-snap – which is common for the nose guard in our three-down package – we will key the running back for our pre-snap stance. We assume, until the offense proves differently, the side of the offset running back will be the backside of their run game and vice versa. Therefore, we align with our corresponding gap hand down based on whether we have the front or backside A-gap post-snap.
Pistol sets prove a little more difficult to determine without extensive film study and solid tendencies. In a situation where there is no tell from the offense, we tell our nose guards to align in their most comfortable stance.
Now that we have our base alignment philosophies, we can move to our block-recognition progression. In a head-up or inside alignment, where our pre-snap gap is determined, we base out of a four-step progression. In an outside alignment, we base from a three-step progression. Both of these progressions are all-encompassing of every type of run scheme our opponent can give us and can be tailored to your defensive coordinator’s run fit philosophies.
Our four-step progression generally applies to our 6, 7, 4i, 4, 2, G, and 0 techniques. We believe in this progression due to the ability of the arc release in the various zone read and midline schemes that we see on a week-to-week basis. The four-step progression plays out as seen in Diagram 1.
Our first threat is the person we are aligned across from in our corresponding technique. Our rule is “If he wants us, we want him.” If our first threat does not want us, we do not want him, and our eyes transition to the near hip of the interior defender. If his hip is toward us, he becomes our new first threat, and we anchor our gap responsibility. If his hip is away from us, our eyes transition to traffic.
Traffic encompasses any type of puller action back our way. We frequently use the phrase, “Check for traffic before you cross the street.” The street essentially stands for the heel line of the offense. Since our eyes have naturally worked to the inside in our previous progression, we tell our defensive lineman to see front side to backside to backfield in the scan. Whether your defensive coordinator spills, boxes, or splatters pullers is all determined by your individual run fits.
If there is no traffic, our eyes have already worked their way to the backfield, and we are now able to slow-play or feather the quarterback in their zone read or option game.
Our three-step block progression applies to our 9, 5, 3 and shade techniques. This progression eliminates step two of our four-step progression simply because we are either an edge player or are already aligned on our interior offensive lineman. This progression can be seen in Diagram 2.
These are executed the same as the previous progression with elimination of the second progression as we addressed above.
Again, these two progressions will cover anything an offense can run at you. We have a saying around the office, “A shade is a shade, and head up is head up, no matter where you’re aligned.”
This simply reinforces to our players how completely encompassing these rules are when applied correctly. There have been times in my career where we only three-step and two-step our progressions because we were an exclusive bend-and-chase team, never reaching the quarterback mesh point. There have also been times we have been an exclusively spill, box, splatter, or a combination of the three. That is the beauty of this progression.
Now that we have discussed our alignment and block-recognition progressions, we can discuss how to defeat base, zone, and double-team blocks. We treat these blocks the same, so this progression is largely encompassing, as well. This is also a three-step progression that is simply broken down into a first, second, and third phase of the progression.
The first phase begins at the snap of the football. We strive to get our first two steps into the ground as quickly as possible knowing that contact will occur on the second step.
If we are in a shade, our eye landmark is on the “V” of the armpit. We believe in this landmark simply because the body follows the eyes. In the past, we had trouble with players ending up too thick on their first threat allowing them to get neutralized from their gap. This has greatly resolved that problem. Our eye landmark in our head up alignments is still the “V” of the neck.
Our hand placement in our shade alignment is the gap side shoulder and the gap side number. In our head up alignment, our hand placement is on the cylinder. Cylinder simply means both numbers. Whether we are shaded or head up in our alignment, we always stress to strike immediately with the palms of our hands, our thumbs up, elbows in, and tying our hands together.
We grab cloth when we make contact with the offensive line. As we strike, we stress keeping our body position and shoulder position square and level. This helps ensure that we are re-establishing the line of scrimmage, not playing around blocks, or splashing off blocks. Ideally, the culmination of the first phase should have us tight to our defender, in perfect hand placement, with the brow of our helmet in contact and level with the “V” of the armpit or “V” of the neck depending on our pre-snap alignment.
Our second phase begins with the extension of our arms to continue re-establishing the line of scrimmage and create space for our escape. As we extend, we step vertically with our gap-side foot. This not only creates power to remove the lineman from his spot, but it also slows or stops the lateral movement of the offensive line.
Ideally, body position at the end of the second phase should be at a 45-degree angle with full arm extension on the first threat. Eye placement, hand location, and shoulder level should all stay the same through this process. If the eyes transition to the backfield or ball carrier in this phase, we have a much higher likelihood of being moved from the line of scrimmage or, worse, being pancaked by our first threat. Hand location fundamentals and shoulder levels will aid in the third phase when we work to post or shed our blocker.
The third phase can look one of two ways. The first could be what we call a “Post” which is essentially locking out our first threat, at distance, with our near side hand keeping our gap side leg and arm free. We execute this by re-squaring our body after stopping the momentum of the offensive lineman keeping our near hand posted on his gap side number.
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After we have “Posted,” we stress heavy weight displacement on our inside foot to limit the drift caused by the offensive line trying to finish their blocks. This body position restricts interior gap space while allowing us to transition to a flat pursuit angle if the ball does get into our gap.
The second way this phase could play out is a full escape progression. With our hands still locked in our landmarks at extension, we execute what we call “Driving the Bus.” This simply implies that our hand placement is similar to that on a steering wheel and offensive linemen are as big as busses. We execute a violent steering motion, moving our inside hand down in conjunction with our outside hand up like turning a steering wheel. This action is why it is important to maintain level shoulders and hands so the player does not lose any of that range of motion in this violent action.
After we have “Driven the Bus,” our inside hand can now disengage the gap side number as it transitions into a rip or arm-over movement. Our outside hand will remain engaged until the rip or arm-over is completed in conjunction with our inside foot now stepping through the space we created in our second phase when we worked to extension. We tell our players they should be in balance and able to play in three dimensions after the completion of their shed. Now that we have either posted or shed the block, our eyes can transition to the backfield or ball carrier. The final depth of our defensive lineman – whether they have posted or escaped – is around 1.5 yards behind the original line of scrimmage. This allows for minimal vertical spacing, which we feel is just as dangerous as horizontal spacing on the line of scrimmage.
We attack the double-team exactly the same way we would a one-on-one block. We stress playing our first threat and that the second offensive lineman in this situation, “Doesn’t exist in your world.”
We progress exactly the same way with the addition of the phrase, “Step to skinny, rip to square.” This means that when spacing is created by playing our first threat, we need to take advantage of that by stepping through to finalize our three-step progression. Sometimes this space will never occur. In that situation, we continue to engage our first threat knowing that we are restricting the climb of the combination block up to level two of the defense.
This article was written by Tom Howe, Defensive Line And Special Teams Coach, Northeastern State University. X’s & O’s diagrams are built using Just Play, a digital playbook and player learning platform designed to help teams better prepare to win. For more football-specific content and plays from Just Play Sports Solutions, follow @JustPlayFB and join the conversation today.