Defensive Prototypes: Defensive Line

| 5 years ago

Defensive Prototypes: Defensive Line

This time last year I wrote a piece on defensive line prototypes. This was an attempt to get past the jargon thrown out by people and distill what each position is really supposed to look like.

Last offseason I wrote about the defensive line techniques, and the response was so good that this offseason I have decided to update that article, as well as bring you prototypes for linebackers and the defensive backfield.

Just like the NFL, it all starts up front, and to begin this series we are going to bring you an updated set of defensive line prototypes, to give you an idea of what teams were looking for when they made their picks on draft day.  

The heart of any NFL defense is gap control. In order to be able to shut down the run or to rush the passer, you have to have a defense that controls the gaps along the offensive line, making sure that there is no one area of weakness that can be exploited. If you don’t, offenses today are going to find that hole, and drive right through it toward the end zone.

The differences in modern defenses is in exactly how they defend those gaps, and how they assign players to control them. The same gaps can be manned either by small, quick defenders, or by giant linemen expected to control and defend more than one gap at a time, freeing up other defenders in the process.

In order to simplify the numerous ways a lineman could be expected to line up, a numbering system was devised that would identify whether that player was head-up over an offensive lineman, shaded to his inside, or outside; each position requiring slightly different traits and techniques to play.  Some of these numbers you will know, as they have been embedded into the football lexicon–others are more esoteric.  The only problem with this numbering system is that there are more than one, with subtle differences between them, but for the purposes of this article, we are going to take the system as follows:


Essentially, the numbering begins from head-up over the center, and works its way outward in either direction. Marking each point along the way, each numbered alignment is either head-up over an offensive player or shaded to one shoulder or the other, ready to shoot a gap.

Now that we have seen the system, let’s talk about the main techniques you see in the NFL and the prototypes for each.


0-Technique (3-4 NT) – Vince Wilfork

Last year the prototype for this was also Vince Wilfork, and even though the Patriots’ defense changed, he remains the best example. The 0-technique plays head-up over the center, and is responsible for defending both A-gaps (the spaces between the guards and center).  His job is to control the middle of the line, often drawing a double team from a guard, and still be able to plug either one of his gaps to shut down a run intended up the middle.

Wilfork’s ability to play two gaps is instrumental to everything the Patriots do, even if he doesn’t always play over the nose anymore. Being able to control those two gaps usually requires man-mountains. Wilfork is listed as 325 pounds–that seems like a major undersell to me–and it’s that sheer size and strength that allows him to anchor inside and control multiple, smaller blockers at the point of attack.

Today’s NFL has seen a rise in more aggressive, one-gap 3-4 defenses and you will see players now that line up as a 0-technique, but instead of playing both A-gaps, they will shoot one, relying on a linebacker behind them to plug the side they don’t attack. These players rely on speed and agility rather than size and bulk, and don’t really fit the prototype we are looking for.

Alternative Prototypes: Sione Pouha, Paul Soliai, Casey Hampton


1-Technique (4-3 NT) – Sione Pouha

The 1-technique is a slightly different player in the NFL, doing much the same job as the 0-technique, except he is shaded over the inside shoulder of one of the guards, and is rarely expected to control two gaps. Pat Williams was the prototype last season, and he was also an unusual player because he often did defend two gaps, even when it wasn’t in the playbook.

The 1-technique is expected to command a double team from the center and guard, which frees up other linemen, especially the other defensive tackle, to be one-on-one with their blockers. While Williams was the prototype for this position for years, with him no longer in the league, that mantle has passed to Sione Pouha. The Jets’ tackle is versatile enough to play in multiple positions along the defensive line, but what he is best at is this role; able to absorb a double team or two-gap when he has to, but control his space and work toward the point of attack, freeing up defenders by the attention he commands.

Alternative Prototypes: Brodrick Bunkley, Haloti Ngata, Alan Branch


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

The 3-technique is probably the best known of the defensive line techniques, and has somehow become mainstream parlance when few of the others have. This player lines up shaded to the guard’s outside shoulder, ready to shoot the B-gap on his side of the formation. Entire defenses have arisen around trying to get this player the most beneficial situation possible and allow them to wreak havoc in the backfield–and some Hall of Fame players will owe their busts in Canton to those defenses.

Guys like John Randle, Keith Millard, Warren Sapp were all able to rack up monster sack numbers because of this technique and its fit in a defense. Unlike the first two tackle positions, this technique relies on speed, and explosion, and is the interior pass rush presence in a 4-3. Last season a new prototype for the position emerged: Geno Atkins of the Bengals.

In his first season Atkins displayed some impressive pass rushing ability, but looked to struggle against the run and was rendered a situational force only. Last season, however, he learned how to penetrate and play aggressively against the run and, if anything, his rush only got better. He is now the league’s prototype, despite bigger names out there stealing the limelight.

Alternative prototypes: Tommy Kelly, Kevin Williams, Kyle Williams
, Ndamukong Suh.


5-Technique (3-4 DE) – Justin Smith

Another technique in need of a new prototype, with the injuries to Ty Warren, we’re looking for a new person to pass the torch to. The traditional 5-technique is a two-gap player, lining up directly over the offensive tackle, and responsible for the B- and C-gaps on his side of the formation. He has to be able to stack tall offensive tackles and shed blocks to make the stop in either one of his gaps. 3-4 nose tackles can control their gaps on the interior with sheer bulk (in short areas their strength and size is paramount), but on the edge, against taller tackles, 5-technique players need not just size but ‘length’ (height and arm length combined).

At 6’4 and 290lbs, Justin Smith has the requisite size, length and agility to dominate this position. He also has fearsome strength, plays with fantastic leverage, and has a motor that simply won’t quit. This allows the 49ers to use him in multiple positions on their D-line, kicking inside to more of a 3-technique role in nickel situations, and makes him the most dominant 3-4 DE in the game. Justin Smith is more than good enough at every facet of the game to be the NFL’s new prototype 5-technique.

Alternative prototypes: J.J. Watt, Brett Keisel, Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson


7 & 6-Techniques (4-3 DLE) – Terrell Suggs

Most teams running the 4-3 defense want their best pass rusher coming from the right side of the line, so that he can rush from the quarterback’s blind side and increase the chances of getting the turnover with a hit the QB never saw coming. As a result of the quickest, most explosive guy manning that side, the other side of the line has tended to be positioned by a bigger, run-stuffing, power end. That is the 7-technique.

He’s usually responsible for setting the edge in the run game, but also expected to be able to beat the right tackle for pressure or to force his way through tight ends and backs to do the same. Since right tackles are often the bigger, slower, power players compared to left tackles, the 6- or 7-technique ends are usually a more powerful player than the speed-rushing DREs, and are almost always better run defenders.

The game’s best run defender as a 4-3 defensive end is Terrell Suggs, who was recently injured, but hopes to return before the end of the season. Suggs has the brute strength that practically ensures he will be blocked by an offensive lineman, because he will simply toss smaller blockers aside and make the play. Though he actually plays on the right more than the left side of the line in the Ravens’ defense, and he also plays OLB almost exactly as often as he plays DE, Suggs is the perfect prototype for this technique.

Alternative prototypes: Michael Bennett, Ray Edwards, Justin Tuck


9-Technique (4-3 DRE) – Jason Babin

The “Wide-9″ has become part of the football landscape thanks to Jim Washburn and the Eagles’ defense. Though this technique has been around for years, and used by plenty of NFL teams in certain situations, none have used it as widely as Washburn, especially as part of their base defense.

The 9-technique is the speed rushing defensive end, and is usually used more in obvious pass-rushing situations than as an every-down alignment, such is the size of the gap left between the DRE and anybody else inside him. The 9-technique lines up well outside the offensive tackle, and outside even the tight end if there is one on that side of the formation. If there isn’t a tight end there, the alignment can look ridiculous with the defensive end maintaining width to be able to attack the passer, and it can put a tremendous amount of pressure on other defenders to cover up the gaps left in the defensive front.

Dwight Freeney was our prototype for the 9-technique last season, but after a down year, we are switching to a player that plays in the defense that employs it as an every-down technique: Philadelphia’s Jason Babin. Babin has the speed and burst to rival any pass rusher in the NFL, and with such a wide alignment he can cause havoc working around slower offensive tackles.

Alternative prototypes: Dwight Freeney, Chris Clemons, Chris Long



Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamMonson … and be sure to follow our main Twitter feed as well: @ProFootbalFocus

| Senior Analyst

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

  • elkman8102

    Great Article Sam.

  • Mr. Boogie

    This was a great article. For someone who never played football in high school or college , this was a great way to learn what those positions are supposed to do, and who is the best at doing it. I usually am just yelling “get him!”, and now I can say sweet things like “control that B gap you 5 technique DE!”

  • snowman88

    I love these protoype articles!!!

  • ncoolong

    Very insightful, and I think you should point out Steelers NT Casey Hampton as a prototypical 0-technique as well. Wilfork is definitely an excellent example, but he moves around a bit more, depending on the defensive call. Hampton never moves from the 0.

    • Sam Monson

      He’s listed as one of the alternate prototypes.

      • ncoolong

        Sorry, I missed that

  • uppercut

    For an update on last year’s article, I still really enjoyed it (besides straight up stat-listing, this is my favorite type of write-up)

    We’ll find out eventually – but is your LB prototype article going to include 3-4 OLB, or just “typical” LBs? (4-3, + 3-4 ILB)

    • Sam Monson

      3-4 OLBs will be included in the article. Look for it on Wednesday.

  • cdub

    Great article!

    I cant wait to read you LBs version.

    My only question is, if Justin Smith plays only half his snaps as a 5tech, and the other half as a 3tech, where do you classify him?