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4-3 Defensive Line Play

Defense starts upfront at Western Michigan
by: Tim Daoust
Defensive Backs Coach, (formally D-Line Coach), Western Michigan University
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What You Practice Must Mirror Who You Are

We are a true Attack 4-3 front with an aggressive Cover 4 scheme behind it as our primary coverage (See Diagram 1). As a base rule we spill all blocks in an attempt to make the ball go east and west before it can hit us north and south. While priding ourselves in being assignment sound, we play fast– but smart– at all times. The drills and techniques we use as position coaches must mirror who we are as far as scheme, personnel, and goals are concerned. The 4-3 scheme fits our personnel as we move big linebackers to defensive line, physical safeties to outside linebacker and aggressive corners to safety, ultimately maximizing the number of athletes we have on the field. Our primary goal is to stop the run first; therefore, all 4-3 schemes and personnel associated with it are centered on stuffing the run. Regardless of scheme it is critical you practice drills in individual periods that can be seen on game day.

Diagram 1: WMU's attack 4-3 cover 4

Having an understanding of who we are defensively allows me to focus on my coaching objectives specific to the defensive line. First and foremost, we will be tough on the defensive line. Toughness is mental more than physical. To achieve this I am demanding in all dealings with my players. Demanding in their academic achievement, weight room performance, social behavior, meeting room expectations and especially practice habits. We attempt to apply pressure to our players at all times, making practice harder than anything they will face on game day. My second objective is to instill pride in the defensive line as a unit. It is critical that more than lip service is spent on ensuring that your players understand their role in the defense is essential to the team’s success.

To achieve this I teach the ‘Big Picture’ to my players in an attempt to show them where they fit in the scheme of our defense. This illustrates not only their role but the roles of others, stressing the importance of counting on the man next to you to carry out his assignment. In addition to teaching the ‘Big Picture’ I have found it helpful to show clips of how our play on the defensive line has created success for other individuals on our defense. Examples such as a teammate’s tackle for a loss, interception or forcing a quarterback into a bad throw can often times be traced back to success on the defensive line. My final coaching objective for the defensive line is to be clear, sound and simple in my teaching/coaching strategies. It is of the utmost importance that each one of my players knows his role and is able to execute it in a pressure situation. My philosophy is to master the primary fundamentals of defensive line play, keeping the players’ minds clear while allowing them to play at full speed.

Base Stance
It is crucial that we align in a stance that will maximize our body’s movement. Stance is broken into a three part progression.

1. Feet-shoulder width apart, with a toe to instep stagger. The near foot to the lineman you are attacking is back in your stance.

2. Power Angles-bend in the hips, knees and ankles. Forty percent of your weight is distributed on your feet with your mental weight placed on your upfield foot.

3. Hands-near hand to lineman you are attacking is down on finger tips, extending directly out in front of your near foot. Sixty percent of your weight is placed on your down hand, with your off hand directly below your chin, thumb up and elbow tight to body (See Diagram 2).

Diagram 2: Proper stance

Base Alignments
Similar to many 4-3 fronts against single tight end formations, we align in a traditional ‘over’ front. Interior players are set with a tight end side B-Gap defender (3 Technique) and a weak side A-Gap defender (1 Technique). As a base rule our interior players align with their down hand inside the foot of the player across from them. Where we differ from most is that we play our defensive ends in a ‘Tilted’ alignment. To the tight end side, the D-Gap defender is aligned in a tilt 9 technique while the weak side C-Gap player aligns in a tilt 5. The defensive ends’ rule for alignment is to line up at a 45 degree angle pointed directly to the hip of the man across from them (See Diagram 3).

Diagram 3: WMU over front

There are several reasons we feel the ‘tilt’ end favors our athletic personnel as well as our philosophy of stopping the run while playing fast at all times. Defensive ends in our scheme are former linebackers, therefore aligning them in space plays to their strengths as better athletes than offensive lineman. The ‘tilt’ aligns our end in a position that gives us a great edge to our defense. It also creates an advantage for the end against any down block by the man he is keying, because now his first step is directly at the down block rather than wasting any movement up the field. Therefore any pulling lineman or fullback is met by a defensive end running full speed, ready to deliver a violent collision (See Diagram 4).

Diagram 4: Spilling blockers

We also believe that you must now account for the backside end while running zone blocking schemes; otherwise he is capable of chasing the play down backside (See Diagram 5). We do not ask our ends to be square players down the line with run away. They turn and run the heels of the offensive line in pursuit of the ball carrier. Any reverse by the offense is not handled by the defensive end; we believe you cannot ask an end to chase the inside zone and play the reverse at the same time. The final reason we believe in the tilt is that it puts us on a great line to rush the edge of the opposing blocker when pass shows (See Diagram 6).

Diagram 5: Backside pursuit

Diagram 6: Edge pressure

In addition to having base rules for alignment there are other cues that put our players in the best possible alignment to carry out their job. We call these cues ‘Factors of Alignment.’ In an attempt to keep teaching simple I have narrowed it down to three categories for the defensive line. The most important factor is the defensive call. The cardinal rule while lining up is to get into an ‘Ability Alignment,’ meaning get lined up where you need to be to carry out your assignment for that given defensive call. Second is the players’ proximity to the football before the ball is snapped. Interior players should widen the base of their stances giving them a more powerful base, preparing them for the more physical nature of the position. Defensive ends can narrow the base of their stances as they do not face the double teams and combination blocks that the inside men face. The final factor in getting aligned is offensive tendencies. Through film study it is our job to give players a manageable list of tendencies an opponent may have. Things such as down and distance, personnel, formation, alignment, game situation and stances have been simple tendencies our defensive linemen have been able to use to their advantage.

Keys for the defensive line remain consistent for all four linemen. Two simple keys will trigger our takeoff and then identify the play. We use the football, or any opposite color movement inside of us, as our movement key. Once in motion we now attack our pressure key, which is the near hip of the offensive lineman we are lined up on. For example, if you are the 3 technique, your pressure key is the near hip of the guard. By attacking this key it will put us in the optimal position to carry out our assignment.

Take Off
While taking off as defensive linemen we believe if we shoot our hands and hips first, our feet will follow. This means we continually emphasize the punch aspect of our takeoff because our feet along with the rest of our body will naturally follow our hands in the direction we punch. A large portion of our individual practice will be spent on punching every day, as it is the most important aspect of what we do. Take off is broken down into three parts:

1. Punch - Defensive lineman’s near hand (down hand) is delivered to the near number of the lineman they are attacking. Off hand controls the outside half of the blocker under his outside pad, while always punching with thumbs up and hips down.

2. Press - Thumbs up and hips down, working to lock out opposing lineman while maintaining your head in your assigned gap.

3. Disengage - Low man always wins; using this principle utilizes one of a number of block escape techniques to get in pursuit of ball carrier.

Block Reactions Zone Schemes
(See Diagrams 7 and 8) • Punch and press lineman as he zones to you.

• Outside arm must get long to control outside pad of lineman.

• Penetration disrupts all zone schemes.

• Pace ball, disengage and attack ball carrier.

• Backside stay tight to pressure key and maintain gap in pursuit. • Staying tight to pressure key minimizes the chances of being cut by adjacent lineman.

Diagram 7: Two back zone fits

Diagram 8: One back stretch fits

Power Schemes
(See Diagrams 9 and 10)
Defensive Tackle: Punch and press your pressure key to control your gap and defeat your key first. Once you feel double team, sink your shoulder, bring hip and knee to pressure as you fight to run through gap with leverage.

Diagram 9: Two back power fits

Diagram 10: One back power fits

Nose: Punch and press your pressure key, keeping your hips square to line of scrimmage and attempting to decrease the size of the front side A gap.

Tilt 5: Recognize lineman is not giving you pass set, get hips square to line of scrimmage and constrict backside B-Gap.

Tilt 9 (Diagram 9)
Run tight off of pressure key’s down block.
Goal is to take two offensive players out as you spill the power.

Tilt 9 (Diagram 10)
Get hips square to line of scrimmage to constrict the C-gap for the outside linebacker.


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