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Setting the Tempo by Attacking and Reacting

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By Kevin Cristillo, Defensive Line Coach
Kentucky Christian University
   My philosophy as a D-line coach is to be aggressive and stop the run.  As a defensive lineman, your main job is to stop the run.  By stopping the run you are dictating the tempo of how the game is going to be played.  Almost every team wants to establish a run game presence so that they can complement that with their passing game.  Stopping a team’s ability to run puts them in a situation where they have to throw the ball.  This makes play calling easier for a defensive coordinator by taking the guessing game out of it.

    Every defensive lineman wants to get as many sacks as possible. You can do this by putting the offense in more passing situations.  That is done by playing good defense on first and second downs by stopping the run.  This will force the offense to pass in order to keep the drives alive allowing D-lineman more chances at rushing the quarterback for sacks.    

   Defensive linemen are at the first point of attack for a defense.  This is why they set the tempo for how the game is going to be played.  In every play, they participate in a mini-battle against the person across from them.  They have to be relentless and have an attitude.  Attitude is the sense of having the mentality that “I will not be blocked.”  If the offensive lineman likes you during practice or the game, then you are not playing with an attitude.  A defensive lineman must obtain certain levels of quickness in order to pass rush and pursue the ball, strength to get off of blocks, and intelligence to understand and recognize formations and blocks to be successful.  Drills are done every day to improve on these skills for game day.   
During the first defensive line meeting we go over four aspects in our D-line progression:

  • Stance          
  • Alignment
  • Keys
  • Assignment

Stance - I have heard some different philosophies about stance and how a D-lineman should be.  When starting out teaching about stance, I want my guys to be comfortable.  They should be able to sit in their stance and not fidget.  In today’s game, more teams are going to no-huddle offenses.  A basic rule I go by with my D-line is that if the offensive lineman is in a stance, then you are in a stance.  I get frustrated and constantly get on my guys about getting in their stance and getting set.   Get your signal or play call and get in your stance.  We do this so that the offense does not have an advantage with their O-line being ready to attack in case of a quick snap or direct snap to the back.  Their fingers should be slightly stiff with some bend in them.  Your fingers act as a cushion from your weight to the surface or ground. The defensive lineman should have his inside hand (to the ball) down and inside foot back (to the ball).  This puts you in balance by having three equal points to help balance your weight in your stance.  I describe this to players as a tri-pod effect. Your feet should align having a good heel-to-toe stagger relationship.  You should have a flat back, butt up, and looking through your eyebrows. You should have good flexion in your hips, knees, and ankles.  Our defensive tackles need to have a wider base to help them take on double teams better while our defensive ends can get more of a sprinters stance or feet shoulder width apart.  Your off hand should be relaxed, elbow bent out in front, ready to attack. 

Alignment - Both defensive ends are going to be in five techniques outside the eye of the tackle.  The nose is lined up in a one technique on the inside eye of the guard and the defensive tackle is lined up in a three technique on the outside eye of the guard.  

Keys - Both defensive ends are keying the outside number of the offensive tackle.  The nose is keying the inside number of the guard, and the tackle is keying the outside number of the guard.  It is very important when we talk about our keys that we talk about attacking our key. 

Assignment - Both defensive ends are responsible for the gap outside of the tackle known as C gap in the run game and contain rush in the passing game.  Our nose is responsible for the gap between the guard and the center known as A gap in the run game and he must stay in the rush lane during passing game.  When the nose gets out of his rush lane is when the quarterback usually finds a seam to scramble.  The tackle is responsible for the gap between the guard and tackle known as B gap in the run game and rush lane in the pass game. With the way of the spread offense and zone concepts today, your gap can move.   All defensive linemen must stay in their assigned rush lane during a pass rush.  If they get out of their lane, that is when quarterbacks, both slow and fast, find room to run and gain yards.  All D-lineman can make underneath moves, coming back towards the line of scrimmage when they are deeper than the quarterback.

   As a defensive line coach, I really stress three things every single time one of my players attacks his key.  These three coaching points are very important for a defensive lineman to be successful and win his own battle.  By doing all three of these you put yourself into better position to defeat the block of an offensive lineman, maintain your gap responsibility, and most importantly, make plays.  These things are hand placements, staying low and driving your feet. 

Hand Placement - You must win the battle with your hands.  If you get your hands inside, get good extension, and have your thumbs up before the offensive lineman gets his hands in yours. You are now able to control and react to the block better.  This also helps with the pass rush.  Using your hands to get the O-lines hands off you makes it easier to get to the quarterback.

Stay low - This is something that every player on the field struggles with.  It is paramount for a defensive and offensive lineman to stay low because of the nature of their positions.  They are at the first point of attack and the lower man with leverage usually wins the battle.

Drive your feet - It is very important that once you win the battle with your hands and stay low, you must finish by driving your feet.  I have seen many times when a player shoots his hands inside, stays low, but does not drive his feet.  Then the offensive linemen keep driving their feet and replacing  their hands and driving the D-linemen out.  You have to drive your feet in order to keep leverage and momentum. 

   Being able to react to all of the different types of blocks is something that is also very important for a defensive lineman.  As a defensive lineman, you can get three different types of single run blocks from an O-lineman.  You can get a down block, base block, and reach block.  Attacking their key is very important in defeating all of these blocks.  We are an attack and react defensive line.  What this means is that we are going to attack our key and then react accordingly to the different types of blocks.  You hear all of the time that you have to read the blocks of the offensive linemen.  This gets your players standing up and looking in the backfield.  A lot of young D-linemen, and a few older ones, want to attack but stand up and look in the backfield to figure out what is going on.  This is when the offensive lineman gets underneath the D-lines pad level and drives them out.  By stressing the importance of looking through your eye- brows at your key and to attack your key and react to the block, this puts the D-lineman in a better position to defeat his block.

   Attacking their key helps the defensive lineman do his job and maintain responsibility for his appropriate gap.  By attacking their key, and reacting to the block, their key will lead them to the ball.  Attacking and reacting to blocks puts you in your gap even when the gap moves with the O-lineman. Your gap may move depending on what kind of block you get from the offense.  By attacking your key and reacting to the different types of blocks, you maintain gap integrity.  Teaching this technique makes the defensive line become more aggressive.  It allows the D-linemen to use their athletic ability, it helps them be in the correct gap for the overall defensive philosophy, and instills the message that the defensive line is going to set the tempo of the game. 

   Every day an attack drill is done to help with the process of attacking and reacting.  A teaching progression is followed when teaching and performing this drill.  You start out by breaking up into two groups.  You will have an offensive group and a defensive group.  While the defensive player is in his stance, the offensive player is three to four yards away and walks towards him.  As a D-lineman, you must time when you shoot your hips and hands out of your stance and attack your key.  It is important to make sure that the D-line is attacking their key at the correct time.  Being too early simulates off sides and too late simulates them getting out of their stances late.

Step 1 in the progression: Start out having the offensive person walk at 50% speed towards the defensive player.  The defensive player then attacks his key working on proper hand placement, shooting their hips, eyes on their key, and keeping their gap integrity. 

Step 2: Have the offense move towards the defense at 75% speed.
Coaching point-Remember the offensive player will always try to go full speed at the defensive player.  The pace should be three quarters speed towards the defensive player. 

During this step of the progression you still work on hand placement, shooting hips, eyes on the key.  Now you drive your feet and move the offensive player back, keeping your gap integrity. 

Step 3: Offensive player moves at the defense at 75% speed, then 100% during the block.  This part of the progression is when you allow the offense to incorporate one of the three single blocks you can get after they engage the defensive player.  
Coaching point- Be sure the D-line is working on the same coaching points: hand placement, shooting hips out of their stance, eyes of their key, and driving their feet.

 By attacking your key and reacting to your block, you are able to play with a more aggressive mentality.  This helps with defensive linemen that want to stand up and look in the backfield.  Having proper hand placement, staying low, and driving your feet are points to stress while attacking and reacting.  With being an aggressive D-line, it allows you to set the tempo of how the game is going to be played.  Hopefully, this article will be beneficial to other coach’s defensive line play.



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