2013 Defensive Prototypes: Defensive Line

Come draft time we get inundated with jargon about incoming prospects. Sam Monson updates his Defensive Prototypes series to shed light on various alignments and techniques.

| 4 years ago

2013 Defensive Prototypes: Defensive Line

Every offseason come draft time we get inundated with so much jargon about incoming prospects, it can be easy to get buried beneath it all.

Football, in essence, is not a complicated game, but coaches like to make it more complex in an attempt to out-scheme their opposing number, gaining a cutting edge they might not have from playing-talent alone. So, instead of just linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs, we end up with man or zone, stunts, blitzes, gap control, line splits and all manner of additional nuances to the game we all love to watch.

Way back in the day everybody was lined up more or less the same way when it came to linemen. You lined up directly in front of your blocker, and any given play was essentially a series of Okie drills (if you don’t know what these are, Google it, you won’t be sorry!) to determine if the play was successful or not.

The better, stronger man won most of the time until coaches began to lean not on the brute strength of their linemen, but on their speed and quickness instead, shading them into gaps rather than directly in front of a huge man tasked with halting their progress. Instead of trying to read and react while engaged in a sumo contest, defensive linemen could attack; attempting to stop the play deep in the backfield before it ever got going.

Different defensive schemes call for linemen to be arranged in varying patterns along the line of scrimmage. The difference between 3-4 and 4-3 isn’t simply how many guys have their hand in the dirt (or turf), but where they are deployed.

To try and codify things, a numbering system was devised to differentiate the various alignments for defensive linemen. In fact, several seem to have developed, all similar but with a couple of minor differences where a coach couldn’t just go with the flow somewhere along the line. Below is the numbering system we’ll use to illustrate things:

The numbering essentially begins head-up over the center, and works out toward the line of scrimmage in either direction. The numbers can designate a head-up alignment over a blocker, or shaded to the inside or outside shoulder. So let’s take a look at the major techniques used in the NFL and identify a prototype player for each, starting with that middle spot.


0-Technique (3-4 NT) – Vince Wilfork

This article is all about prototype players, and even though the Patriots play Vince Wilfork less and less as a true 3-4 nose tackle, he remains the image of this position’s prototype.

The 0-technique plays head-up over the center and is responsible for defending both A-gaps. His job is to control the center, often draw a double team from a guard, and still be able to prevent the run from coming right up the gut. Traditional 3-4 NTs are huge, hulking players, often well over 330 pounds and are the largest players football produces because they are regularly trying to hold up against the blocking power of not one but two interior linemen. Wilfork is listed at 325 pounds, but that was the weight he came into the league at, and he looks significantly bigger. His bulk and strength allows him to anchor inside and control the point of attack.

With the way the league has developed in recent years, there are fewer and fewer traditional 3-4 two-gap schemes around, and you will find a lot of players now that play the 0-technique position, but only have responsibility for one of the A-gaps. They will shoot one of them and rely on inside linebackers behind them to come down and fill the other. These players rely on speed and athleticism rather than sheer size and bulk. Wade Phillips is fond of this type of defense and it is why Jay Ratliff was able to remain successful in the 3-4 despite not looking anything like the prototype for that position.

Alternative Prototypes: Dan Williams, Aubrayo Franklin


1-Technique (4-3 NT) – Brandon Mebane

For years the prototype for this position was Minnesota’s Pat Williams, but with his retirement it is time to find a new example. The 1-technique does much the same job as the 0-tech, except that he is shaded over the inside shoulder of one of the guards, and is rarely expected to control two gaps. They are, however, expected to command the double team from the center and guard lined up over him, and thus free up other defenders to be, at worst, one-on-one with their blockers.

Pat Williams was so good at this job for the Vikings that he could actually play two gaps even though it wasn’t in the defensive scheme and wasn’t his assignment. There are a few players who could be the current prototype, but the one I’ve settled on plays in Seattle: Brandon Mebane. The Seahawks play an unusual front, an overshifted 4-3, but Mebane is the player who is assigned to take on the responsibilities of the 1-tech tackle, drawing the double team and trying to anchor against it, freeing up the other Seahawks to make plays against single blocks. A good 1-technique can instantly improve an entire run defense because he makes several players look better, giving them easier assignments.

Alternate Prototypes: Brodrick Bunkley, Michael Brockers


3-Technique (4-3 Pass Rush DT) – Geno Atkins

This might be the most famous of the technique positions, and it’s the one you will often hear mentioned on the broadcast. The 3-technique lines up shaded to the guard’s outside shoulder, ready to shoot the B-gap on his side of the formation. The development of the 4-3 front over the years has evolved largely with the purpose of creating an ideal situation specifically for this player. Guys like John Randle, Warren Sapp, LaRoi Glover and Ndamukong Suh have been able to rack up huge sack numbers playing this spot, but the new prototype is Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins.

The 4-3 Under front (a 4-3 alignment with the front four under shifted to the strong side of the formation) was created to isolate the weak side guard with the 3-technique/under tackle, allowing him a straight shot through a gap to influence the play. This player’s job is to penetrate the line of scrimmage against either a run or pass and disrupt the play in the backfield before it gets going. Unlike the previous two prototypes, this player relies far more on quickness and speed than on his power. Geno Atkins is too quick and fast for most of the linemen he faces, and has the height (just 6-foot-1) to gain a natural pad-level and leverage advantage over almost everybody who tries to block him.

Alternate Prototypes: Gerald McCoy, Kyle Williams


5-Technique (3-4 DE) – J.J. Watt

Like the 0-technique, the 5-technique is a position that has undergone some changes in recent years as the league has moved away from two-gap systems. Traditionally, the 5-technique was a two-gap player, just like the nose tackle, and he needed to control the offensive tackle to his side and be able to stop the run headed through either the B- or C-gap to his side of the field. The old-style prototype for this position was a guy like Ty Warren, when the Patriots were almost exclusively a two-gap 3-4 defense, but now the league requires more from these players against the pass.

J.J. Watt is the new-look 5-technique prototype. The NFL wants the 5-technique now to have length in order to keep an offensive tackle away from his body and be able to react in space, but also speed and athleticism that they were never expected to possess in the past. At 6-foot-5, Watt has the length (not just height… arm length) to prevent bigger players getting into his pads, but he has the agility to beat them off the snap as well, penetrating into the backfield much like the 3-technique in a 4-3 defense. Given the development of defensive systems there is more crossover than ever before between the 3-tech in a 4-3 front and the 5-tech players in a 3-4 front, and, in truth, Watt spends much of his time (28.6% in 2012) playing the 3-tech position in various sub-packages.

Alternate Prototypes: Calais Campbell, Jason Hatcher


6- and 7-Techniques (4-3 DLE) – Jason Pierre-Paul

The 7-technique is often used by teams running a 4-3 defense on the left side of the defense as the run-stuffing, power end, while the DRE is seen as the pass-rush specialist attacking a quarterback’s blind side. He lines up shaded in the gap between the OT and the TE (if there is one to that side of the formation) and, consequently, often plays the 6-technique depending on how the offense deploys. His job is usually to set the edge in the run game, but he is also expected to be able to bring his share of pass rush, either beating the tackle around the edge or forcing his way inside a tight end. Since they’re often expected to fight through a double team, battle past a chip, or simply disrupt the release of the TE, the 6- or 7-tech DE is usually a more powerful player than the speed-rushing end, and almost always a better run defender.

Jason Pierre-Paul may be seen by many as an elite pass-rusher because of the sacks he was able to rack up early on, but in truth he was always a better run defender and remains that way. He is the new prototype for this position, despite splitting his time almost equally between the left and right side of the formation. JPP has the strength to set the edge and force his way inside smaller blockers to make plays in the run game, and more than enough moves and athleticism to bring his share of the pass rush as well.

Alternate Prototypes: Michael Bennett, Terrell Suggs


9-Technique (4-3 DRE) – Cameron Wake

The 9-technique is the speed-rushing defensive end in a 4-3, and is usually used more in obvious pass-rushing situations rather than as an every-down alignment. The Lions and Eagles have used the famous ‘wide-9’ alignment in their base defense, but both have found the limitations of doing that for every snap of the game.

The 9-tech lines up well outside of the tackle, and outside of the TE (if there is one to that side of the formation). If there is no TE present, the alignment can look almost ridiculous because of how wide the end is lining up for his rush. This position was typified by Dwight Freeney for years, but the mantle has passed now to Cameron Wake, who is the new standard by which pass-rushing 4-3 DEs are measured. Wake is one of the best pure pass rushers in football and seems to be able to get to the corner any time he wants to with his speed and burst off the ball. The width which the 9-tech aligns forces offensive tackles to panic and over commit to the edge rush, opening up the inside for the devastating counter move that can be a quarterback’s ticket to the locker room with an injury

Alternate Prototypes: Chris Long, Brandon Graham, Chris Clemons


Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam


| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • river

    How often did Miami/St Louis/Seattle play Wake/Long/Clemons as a 9-tech? If there is no tight end at that side, wouldn’t the speed rush be as effective from a 7-tech while also be in a better position to play the run?

  • esd football

    Sorry, but can’t help it. Your DL alignment numbers are off, 0 and even numbers are always heads up techniques. Odd numbers are outside shoulder techniques. Inside shoulder techs are the even number followed by an I (i.e. inside shoulder of Guard is a 2I, tackle – 4I). However DE techs on TEs are how you pictured them “7 8 9″

    • http://twitter.com/PFF_Sam Sam Monson

      As stated in the article there are multiple different numbering systems that contradict each other. This is the one we’re using.

  • blueduck99

    Any chance we’ll ever see signature stats (hits, hurries, sacks, and stops preferably) separated by alignment for defensive linemen? I know it’d be a ton of work, but I think it’d go a long way towards giving stats a bit more context and leveling the playing field. As it is, we’re left with sorting PRP by “3-4 OLBs” or “4-3 DEs”, which has become a pretty vague term.

    Food for thought.

    • http://twitter.com/PFF_Sam Sam Monson

      It’s something we’ve thought about, and in the future we definitely want to get into normalizing more by specific alignment/position per snap. It’s not on the immediate horizon yet though.

      • LightsOut85

        between then & now…..would we get 3rd/4th down pass-rushing #s? 😀

  • LightsOut85

    Little surprised at JJ Watt’s 3-tech%. Was HOU not in nickel often or do they keep him at a 5-tech in most nickel situations?

  • Alex

    isn´t alan branch the 1-technique/NT for the seahawks??

    • j

      I think he’s more of a pass rusher but I havent seen many Seatle games