The NFL is as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. At its heart, it’s still a game of blocking and tackling. The offense tries to move the ball
10 yards, and 11 guys on defense try to stop them, and over and over we go. So how do we get from that to Cover 1, 2, 3, quarters, man or zone, stunts,
blitzes and A-gaps, 3-technique tackles and nickel backs? Well, coaches get involved.
Coaches have spent the past 80+ years implementing various tweaks to try and put their players in the best situations to succeed. It’s not that often you get your hands on a superstar – the guy so talented he can execute any assignment and can change games from any alignment – so the rest of the time, you’ve got to scheme around the players you do have.
And so we come to defensive line techniques.
Once upon a time, everybody lined up in more or less the same way on the defensive line, usually directly in front of their blocker. It was a case of the better, stronger man wins, like an Oklahoma drill (if you’ve never seen one of these, google it, it’s well worth it!), until coaches started to figure out that shading them one way or other allowed them to have a much easier route into the backfield and they could be proactive, not reactive when it came to playing defense: instead of reading and reacting, they could attack and stop the play before it got going.
Today’s wide range of defensive schemes call for linemen to set up in different positions along the line as their roles and responsibilities are so varied now compared to what they once were. In order to make things simple (or at least simpler … in theory), there was a numbering system devised so everybody knew what everybody else was talking about. You’ll be familiar with some of these numbers, the more common ones have passed into everyday football parlance – most people know all about the "3-technique" defensive tackle. You’ll know a few more of them if you’re heavily into NFL Draft coverage, as Mike Mayock especially likes to toss the monikers around when discussing prospects.
Of course, being coaches, they couldn’t just agree on a universal standard, and discrepancies remain between numbering systems, but they’re small differences, and for the purposes of this discussion, we’re 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. So let’s talk about the main
techniques used in the NFL and point to a prototype player for each, starting from the middle:
0-Technique (3-4 NT) – Vince Wilfork
The 0-technique plays head-up over the center, and is responsible for defending both A-gaps (between the guards and the center). His job is to control the
center, often draw a double team from a guard, and still be able to prevent the run from going right up the gut. That’s why traditional 3-4 NTs are
monsters. Wilfork is listed at 325lbs, but he looks a lot bigger than that, and it’s his sheer size and strength that allows him to anchor inside and
control multiple, smaller, blockers at the point of attack.
With various one-gap 3-4 systems around these days, you find players that play the 0 technique position, but instead of playing both A gaps, they’ll shoot one and rely on linebackers behind them to plug the other. These players rely on speed and athleticism off the ball rather than size and bulk. The Cowboys under Wade Phillips were fond of this type of defense and Jay Ratliff was particularly adept at disrupting plays in the backfield from his NT spot.
Alternative prototypes: Aubrayo Franklin, Paul Soliai, Sione Pouha
1-Technique (4-3 NT) – Pat Williams
The 1-technique does much the same 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. He is, however, expected to command a double team from the center and guard, which frees up other linemen to be one on one with their blockers.
Pat Williams has been the prototype for this position for years. Williams was an immovable force in the middle for the Vikings and required two players to
try and shift him from the point of attack, leaving Kevin Williams single-blocked by a guard, and allowing linebackers to run free to the ball and make
stops close to the line of scrimmage. A good 1-technique DT can dramatically improve an entire run defense, because he makes several players’ jobs much
Alternative prototypes: Haloti Ngata, Antonio Dixon, Colin Cole
3-Technique (4-3 Pass Rush Tackle) – Tommy Kelly
Probably the most well known of the defensive techniques, the 3-technique lines up shaded to the guard’s outside shoulder, ready to shoot the B-gap on his
side of the formation. Various line shifts and defensive schemes have been developed with the express purpose of getting the 3-technique the most
beneficial situation possible, which is why guys like Warren Sapp, John Randle, Keith Millard and now Ndamukong Suh have been able to rack-up sack numbers.
The 4-3 Under front, discussed in our article on Hybrid defenses, was
designed to isolate the weak side guard 1-on-1 with the 3-technique (or under) tackle. This player’s job is to penetrate the line of scrimmage through his
B-gap and disrupt plays in the backfield, whether pass or run. Unlike the first two tackle positions, the 3-technique relies far more on speed and agility
than brute strength. Oakland’s Tommy Kelly is arguably the NFL’s prototype for the position. At 6’6 and 300lbs he is quick, nimble and has the kind of
burst off the ball that can make it tough for a blocker to recover position.
Alternative prototypes: Kevin Williams, Shaun Rogers, Kyle Williams
5-Technique (3-4 DE) – Ty Warren
Much like the 0-technique, the traditional 5-technique is a two-gap player, lining up directly over the offensive tackle, he is 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 of his gaps. Nose tackles
rely largely on their mass to control blockers and gaps, but defensive ends from the 5-technique have to be able to handle offensive tackles, who have
grown into man mountains over the past decades. This is why part of the scouting profile for these players isn’t just size, but ‘length’ (height and arm
Though he has seen his game time curtailed over the past few seasons through injury and the ever increasing use of sub-packages in nickel and dime situations, the prototype NFL 5-technique player remains former Patriot Ty Warren. Warren is quite possibly the NFL’s best run stuffer from the 3-4 DE spot and he has the prototypical length (6’5) and size (300+lbs) that teams look for.
You might ask why I’m not listing Justin Smith, a player we regard as clearly the best 3-4 end in football, in this spot. The answer is because Smith often doesn’t play the traditional 5-technique in the 49ers’ defense, and does much of his damage inside as a DT in their sub packages (in more of a 3-technique role), and often knifes into gaps while shaded slightly to either side of the tackle (in more a 4 or 6-technique). He is certainly well capable of playing the 5, and would be a perfectly reasonable example, but if coaches were drawing up a player for the traditional 2-gap 5-technique role, he would look like Ty Warren.
Alternative prototypes: Stephen Bowen, Kendall Langford, Shaun Smith
7 & 6-Techniques (4-3 DLE) – Ray Edwards
The 7-technique is often used by 4-3 teams on the left side of the defense as the run-stuffing, power end. He lines up in the gap between the RT and the TE
(if there is one on that side of the formation) and is just as often playing the 6-technique depending on how the offense lines up. He’s usually
responsible for setting the edge in the run game, but is also expected to be able to beat the RT for pressure in the passing game, or force his way inside
the TE to do the same. Because they’re often forced to fight through a double team or at least a chip from the TE, and they face the ‘power’ right tackle,
the 6 or 7-technique DE is usually a more powerful player than the speed rushing DRE, and almost always a better run defender.
Ray Edwards is the prototype for this type of player. Edwards is a strong run defender who has enough pass rushing skills to be able to beat his man with speed or power. There are better run defenders as 4-3 DEs in the NFL, but they just don’t happen to play the 6 or 7-technique much. Other players you could make a case for being the prototype here would be Trent Cole and Terrell Suggs. Both players play on the right side of their formations, but they often line up just outside of the tackle and rely on strength and leverage to be exceptional run defenders.
Alternative prototypes: Terrell Suggs, Trent Cole, Juqua Parker
9-Technique (4-3 DRE) – Dwight Freeney
The 9-technique is the speed rushing defensive end, and aside from a few defenses in the NFL, is often 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 almost
comical with the defensive end maintaining width to be able to attack the passer. Dwight Freeney is the NFL’s prototype player from this technique. Freeney
has the speed to beat anybody around the edge and the low center of gravity to be able to dip his shoulder and turn the corner on much taller offensive
tackles. The width that he aligns at often forces the tackle to panic and over commit to the edge rush, allowing Freeney to spin back inside to a gaping
Alternative prototypes: Jason Babin, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Chris Clemons