2014 Defensive Prototypes: The D-Line
We’ve hit that time of the off-season again. With the NFL Draft put back to the beginning of May the pre-draft talk is growing ever-more ridiculous as people scramble to fill the time until Radio City Music Hall goes live.
We hear each year about the various techniques that prospects project to in the NFL and it’s easy to get lost beneath all of that jargon while in reality they’re all talking about the same few positions we know and love.
Football can be as simple or complicated as you want to make it, and where one man will talk about a nose tackle, the next guy will talk about a 0-technique. Whether you want to label players by their position or specific techniques the traits and skills of that individual remain the same and we can get lost down the rabbit hole making things more complex than they need to be.
Why are there even a load of different techniques to begin with? For years in football everybody was lined up more or less the same way in the trenches. You lined up directly in front of your blocker, and any given play was essentially a series of Oklahoma drills (if you don’t know what these are, Google it, you won’t be sorry!) with the runner just trying to find a gap that opened up with a successful block. It was barely organized chaos.
The better, stronger man won most of the time until coaches worked out a way around that physical advantage. If you didn’t have the biggest, strongest guys in the land, get guys who are quicker or faster. You can then shade 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 wrestling match, defensive linemen could attack; penetrating the line of scrimmage and attempting to stop the play deep in the backfield before it ever got going.
Different defensive fronts call for linemen to be arranged in varying patterns along the line of scrimmage. The aim of each is the same – account for each gap along the line that the running back could potentially burst through. 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. It’s the most widely accepted system and the one several NFL people have told us we should be using. For those using a different system – apologies!
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) – Dontari Poe
The age of the massive 3-4 defensive lineman has passed. Fewer and fewer teams are using the old two-gap system and man-mountain linemen are growing thin on the ground. Most teams that run the 3-4 in today’s NFL are doing so within the realms of a one-gap system, rather than asking their linemen to occupy multiple gaps. Vince Wilfork’s injury means the torch has passed for at least a season to Chiefs NT, Dontari Poe.
Poe is a throwback to the glory years of monstrous nose tackles. He would sit happily in a photofit lineup alongside Ted Washington, Keith Traylor, Jamal Williams, Gilbert Brown and others and not look out of place. What’s most remarkable about Poe though is that he is an every-down force for the Chiefs. Playing at well over 330-pounds he was on the field last season for a mind-blowing 1,004 snaps in the regular season to lead all defensive tackles, he played another 59 in the playoff loss to the Colts.
Poe has the physical bulk to play two gaps, occupy a pair of blockers in the middle of the defense and free up players around him to make plays. He also has impressive quickness and the power to push the pocket from the middle and influence the plays even in sub-packages which today’s prototype needs to be able to do.
The modern 3-4 nose tackle can’t just be a massive space-eater. He needs to be able to affect an offense in sub-packages and on passing downs as more than just a sink hole for blockers. Poe can be that guy and for now he is the new prototype for the position.
Alternative Prototypes: Dan Williams
1-Technique (4-3 NT) – Brandon Mebane
The first of our prototypes that remains unchanged from 2013. The 1-technique does much the same job as the 0-tech, except that he is shaded between the center and 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.
For years this prototype was Minnesota’s Pat Williams, who 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. Brandon Mebane is that guy for the Seahawks within their unusual shifted defensive front. Mebane is the power force for them against the run, the man tasked with defeating a double team and clogging up the interior, forcing the run out towards the perimeter and extending it laterally.
With Seattle being blessed with an abundance of linemen he hasn’t played in sub-packages as much as a player like Poe, but that isn’t to say he can’t do it. He has shown the ability to generate pressure and push the pocket in the past.
A prototypical 1-technique doesn’t just look great against the run himself, but allows players around him to reap the benefits of that extra occupied blocker. He can improve an entire run defense.
Alternate Prototypes: Marcel Dareus
3-Technique (4-3 Pass Rush DT) – Gerald McCoy
The 3-technique is the technique everybody knows. It’s the one position that has transcended coach-speak and actually come close to making it into regular football parlance. Everybody knows the 3-technique is the pass-rushing defensive tackle in a 4-3. He is the guy tasked with bringing interior pressure and wreaking havoc in the backfield.
3-techniques are shaded outside of the guard to one side of the formation, usually isolating them one-on-one with that blocker and giving them the best chance to create pressure. Geno Atkins was the 2013 prototype and in truth could easily still be that guy, but injury in 2014 opened the door for somebody else and it would feel wrong not to acknowledge the great season Gerald McCoy had in some small way.
McCoy lived up to every ounce of his potential in 2014, raining down destruction on offensive lines despite zero help around him on the D-line for the Bucs. He is quick enough to penetrate immediately at the snap and strong enough to exploit that speed and affect both the run and the pass. McCoy ended the season almost twenty grading points better than any other DT in the PFF rankings and came close to emulating Geno Atkins’ 2012 season that I thought was an outlier we wouldn’t see again for a while.
Atkins and fellow 2010 draft class member Ndamukong Suh are both worthy alternatives for this prototype.
Alternate Prototypes: Geno Atkins, Ndamukong Suh
5-Technique (3-4 DE) – J.J. Watt
Another holdover from 2013, the new 3-4 defensive end prototype is J.J. Watt, and will likely continue to be until his career finishes some time down the line. 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. Ty Warren might be the last of the prototypical 5-techniques when it comes to two-gapping. Just like the nose tackle, 3-4 ends were needed to control the blocker lined up over them and be able to stop the run headed through either the B or C-gap to his side of the field.
With the move towards one-gap systems regardless of the number of players with their hands in the dirt the 3-4 DE has become a far more flexible player. Guys like Watt are built like old-school 5-techniques with impressive length and size but they have the speed and quickness to ply their trade at multiple spots along that front.
Watt is the new-look 5-technique prototype. The NFL wants the 5-technique to have that length in order to keep an offensive tackle away from his body and be able to react in space, but he also needs 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.
Watt has the kind of speed that interior blockers aren’t used to contending with and the kind of power that perimeter blockers can’t handle. That combination he uses to devastating effect all over the line, leaving guards grasping at air and overpowering tackles and tight ends with brute strength.
Alternate Prototypes: Calais Campbell, Muhammad Wilkerson
6- and 7-Techniques (4-3 DLE) – Michael Bennett
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 lines up.
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.
Michael Bennett has been an impressive player for a while now but really shone on the bigger stage in Seattle on the way to their Super Bowl win. Bennett can certainly bring his share of pressure but is also a powerful run defender and shows the kind of strength to be able to kick inside and rush as a defensive tackle on passing downs. He has the strength to set the edge against the run but more than enough speed and quickness to hold his own as a pass-rush presence either outside or inside the defensive front, giving his coaches great flexibility.
Alternate Prototypes: Justin Tuck, Carlos Dunlap
9-Technique (4-3 DRE) – Robert Quinn
Last year’s prototype was Cameron Wake, despite the fact that he actually plays on the left not the right side for Miami, and in truth he could still easily be that guy, but he was surpassed and then some in 2013 by Robert Quinn
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 in recent years, 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 prototypical speed rusher now is Quinn, who is the new standard by which pass-rushing 4-3 DEs are measured.
Quinn has speed and burst off the line in his rush that we haven’t seen perhaps since Freeney was at his best. He can turn the corner on offensive tackles seemingly at will at frightening speed, often closing on the quarterback within 1.5 seconds of the ball being snapped. This speed coupled with the width a 9-technique lines up with causes offensive tackles to over commit to the edge rush, desperately trying to shut off that speed to the outside but in the process opening up a wide door inside for a counter move.
Freeney’s inside spin was always his most devastating weapon, but Quinn has been so unstoppable with his outside speed that he hasn’t really needed to go to the well on his inside move too often so far.
Alternate Prototypes: Cameron Wake
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