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17 Cornerstones of Defensive Line Play

by: Steve Grimit
Defensive Line Coach, St. Cloud State University
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St. Cloud State University has a long tradition of excellence on the defensive line. In 2008, both defensive ends earned All-American honors, marking the third such honor in the past four seasons. Two of these players were named most valuable defensive lineman in the conference. Talented players are obviously the most important ingredient in our success. Utilizing an attacking and aggressive system of play has allowed these great players to play fast. Playing fast is a must in a position that does not allow time to think about your next movement. The cornerstones of defensive line play need to become second nature, creating a confident and aggressive player.

· Explosive stance. Having sixty percent of the weight forward allows players to attack first. A toe to instep stagger is ideal if comfortable. If the stagger is toe to air and a short step is taken you end up back at toe to instep and essentially you have taken a false step.

· Key the ball. Keying the ball gives us maximum get off. Seeing the ball is very easy for the interior players while tilting the ends gives them an easy view to the ball along with a good pass rush angle. We work on get offs every day at the beginning of practice. Keying the football also diminishes offsides penalties.
· Attack-Attack-Attack. This is the first thing I write on the board every fall and is the basis for all we do. If you do not attack and have a great get off, you will never be a great pass rusher. If you do not attack you will never win the neutral zone. If you do not attack it will be difficult to defeat double teams and scoop blocks.

· Short First Step. This allows for a quicker reaction to common blocks like a reach block. This short attack step is straight forward and comes down before we know what the offensive lineman is doing. A long first step will cause a defensive lineman to be reached before the first step even hits the ground.

· Attack the half man. This is vital in all elements of defensive line play. The aiming point is the number you are shaded to. In the pass rush attacking the full man greatly limits the number of rushes you can utilize and the effectiveness of the pass rush moves. If you aim too wide in the pass rush the offensive lineman will usher you past the quarterback making a nice pocket for the QB to step up in. From a run block standpoint if you aim too wide you will be easily scooped if the ball is going away from you.

· Play with your hands. As you take your first step, the hands begin to shoot low to high. Thumbs are up, elbows are in. Low to high is very important as this will keep the defensive lineman in a good position to play football. As the hands violently strike the offensive lineman, you must gain full extension right away. If full extension is not gained immediately, it becomes much harder to accomplish. If full extension is not reached, you will get held. I tell my defensive linemen if they are held it is there fault. Do not play belly-to-belly. Full extension is also needed to disengage from a block to make a play and making plays is what it is all about. When disengaging from a block to your outside clear down elbow over the top of his elbow. If you do not clear the offensive lineman’s hands he will put a hand on your hip and drive you past the hole.

· Get a pre snap read from the stance or splits of the offensive lineman. If the center and guard are very close on one side and they have a big split on the other side they are scooping to the big split. The nose should tighten his alignment towards the big split. If it is a passing situation and the linemen are sitting back, take a bigger first step to ensure a great get off. It is not as important to move side to side on the second step in the pass rush.

· Slant steps and gap charge steps must also be attacking steps. Step one is with the foot towards the slant side and attacks through that gap. As step one is taken you must react off the offensive lineman you are slanting towards. If he is scooping away from you, come out of your slant and flatten down the line. Chances are that is the direction the ball is going. If he is scooping towards you, use what I call a ricochet technique and work away from him in the direction the ball is probably headed. Step two is straight up the field unless your read tells you something different. If step two crosses over or catches up to step one, this puts the defensive lineman in a bad position to play football. If the offensive lineman in front of you bucket steps and takes a shoulder turned scoop path, close the hole with his body. Close the hole with your body or his body. This will stop you from getting washed past the hole and opening a bigger seam behind you.

· Stay low. Pads under pads, headgear under headgear (this is what constitutes being low). Every defensive line coach tells his players to stay low, but what does it mean to be low. Explain what staying low means to the defensive lineman and how to accomplish staying low (Bend your knees).

· Keep your feet at shoulder width. Narrow feet when battling an offensive lineman means you are in a poor football position (I talk about the football position often, Butt down head up feet wide all the time). If the feet are too wide it becomes difficult to disengage from a block.

· Always keep your feet moving. If your feet stop in the pass rush you will never regain in time to get timely pressure on the QB. If your feet stop while you are battling an offensive lineman in the run game you will always lose.

· Maintain inside position with your hands. Who has leverage? It is always the lineman with inside position. If you don’t have it, get it and maintain it. In the pass rush, inside position is vital to have success in the power, bull rush series. Inside position is also required to execute a proper butt and pull move.

· Honor all pass sets. If you wait until draw clears, you will never be an effective pass rusher. If you recognize draw, yell it out and retrace your steps back through the same hole. The same thing holds true on screens, although screens are easier to feel. On screens the offensive linemen often disengages from his block very quickly tipping his hand that it is screen. Some of the best hits and fumbles are caused by a retracing defensive lineman on a screen play.

· Take what the offensive lineman is giving you in the pass rush. Feel the pressure, weight distribution, and understand what the offensive lineman is doing with his hands. When the offensive lineman’s weight is back, then use a power series move. The power series consists of a bull rush, butt and pull, butt and rip, and a butt and elbow pop. A power move must begin with a violent strike. Follow the strike do not hit and rock back.

· Utilizing the clear series works well against offensive linemen that extend their hands in the pass rush. The clear series is simply clearing the hands off as you continue to work toward the quarterback. St Cloud State teaches several standard clears including a dent, sweep, and chop; however, the players are told there is no wrong answer in clearing the hands. It is a personal preference.

· Rip series pass rush moves require the defensive lineman to step and rip with the same arm and leg. Lean into the rip side while throwing the bone low to high. If the defensive lineman does not lean on the rip side, he will get bounced outside, and make it extremely difficult to regain an effective rush. As the defensive lineman rips and steps, he must point the toe to the quarterback and reach with the outside arm – flipping the hips and wrapping tight to the sack. If the offensive lineman is doing a good job of ushering the defensive lineman upfield, the defensive lineman must spin or hump back to the quarterback.

· Great effort, hustle and emotion make the difference between good and great. You can never be a great defense without these traits, so why would you ever play without them? u

About the Author: Defensive line coach Steve Grimit is in his 17th season at St. Cloud State University. During that time he has coached 29 All-Conference defensive linemen. Grimit previously coached at both Valparaiso for four years and Western Illinois for three years. He was co-captain of the 1985 WIU football team and received his Bachelor’s Degree in 1987.


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