The defensive line may be the most important unit on the field. If the defensive line does it’s job, they can create havoc for a quarterback or stone a run game all on their own. If the defensive line can get pressure on the QB, it makes the back-seven’s jobs much easier. There is no substitute for lining the front with studs. A strong d-line can impose it’s will on an offense and take over a game.
Here’s what I’m looking for when evaluating defensive linemen.
Defensive End (3-4):
The prototype 3-4 defensive end is big bodied with a strong frame and good weight to anchor if necessary. Ideal size is somewhere around 6’5”+ and 290-300 lbs. A 3-4 defensive end must be strong at the point of attack and not get pushed off the line of scrimmage. He must be able to maintain 2-gap coverage when asked to do so by not getting turned from being square with the LOS. This is achieved through good leverage techniques with good leg and core strength. Instincts and discipline are critical to making the correct play read and then maintaining his gap responsibilities. He’ll have quickness out of his stance with the ability to leverage either an offensive tackle or guard into certain positions or angles. Arm strength and length is necessary for the DE to lock his elbows and keep the OT from getting into his body. This will also allow him to manipulate an OT when the play develops. Good length and upper body strength will help to stack and shed blockers when he meets the ball carrier; it will also help him to get his hands in throwing lanes and bat down passes. He must be disciplined in his attack as committing to a single gap at the wrong time will leave his defense susceptible to big gains on the ground. In pass rushing situations, a 3-4 DE must have good techniques to chuck or scrape a blocker. Ideally, he has good speed to get to the QB or RB, but if he doesn’t, it’s important he has enough athleticism to move laterally to get down the LOS, pursue a ball carrier, and to keep a RB from getting the edge around him. It is more important to have the strength to collapse the pocket on passing downs than the speed to chase someone down, but the ability to do both is best. A 3-4 DE will see double teams at times and will take a beating so a strong motor and both mental and physical toughness is key as well.
Defensive End (4-3):
The 4-3 defensive end is typically smaller and more athletic than a 3-4 DE. A 4-3 defensive end has much more of a pass rushing responsibility than his 3-4 counterpart. Ideal size is 6’3”+ and anywhere from 255-285 lbs. The LE is generally larger than RE to play the run, while the RE is typically more speed/athleticism oriented as a pass rusher. Athletic ability and strength will trump size every time at this position. Speed is a must-have skill, along with the quickness out of his stance and decisiveness to make a blocker commit and then counter with the appropriate penetration technique. Very important that this type of DE also have the strength and toughness to gain leverage, stack, and shed blockers so he can set the edge on run plays. It’s good to be aggressive, but preferably plays under control in respect to the game situation. He never should get up field beyond the QB. This position is much more of an athletic position – I want explosiveness in every facet. I would even like for his play to be described as violent. He should launch off the ball and possess good short area quickness to adjust to get around his blocker. This player will pursue the ball carrier a lot so speed over longer distances is important. Reaction speeds and intelligence are important for his counter moves when the opposing OT sets his anchor position. A high motor is desired so that if a first move doesn’t succeed, he doesn’t give up on the play and continues to the QB or RB. His athleticism should allow him to put the OT in positions that compromise his leverage and will help him set the edge and reroute ball carriers to the desired area. In evaluation terms, when asked to play contain, it’s important to note how he sets his anchor and how well he maintains that anchor against a larger and stronger OT. He must be able to fight off chip blocks and occasional double teams to get to a desired destination. The athleticism of the ideal players at this position allows them to be versatile special teams players as well. He’ll also make good use of his hands to keep the blockers’ hands off of him.
Nose Tackle (3-4):
Very large bodies but height isn’t a major issue as sometimes the taller heights can work against the ability to get good leverage and squeeze through tight spaces. Ideal size is around 6’2” and 315-325 lbs. This is one of the toughest & most unrewarding positions on the field. A nose tackle’s main responsibility is to handle double teams, eat up blockers, and let the LBs behind him pile up tackles in the hole. Must be super powerful to not get pushed off the ball. He’ll be instinctive and athletic enough to diagnose and move laterally to clog holes or make tackles. He must be tough mentally and physically as he will get banged around by multiple blockers for a full 60 minutes and must maintain focus and drive. Strength is a key component to the success of a NT. He must be able to lock his arms and hold off defenders which will allow him to release and move into the hole when necessary. The power and strength combination will allow the NT to push the middle of the line and essentially destroy the pocket on passing plays. Sacks are really just a bonus because his main goal should be to disrupt the pocket and get pressure in the face of the passer, hopefully moving him off the spot and creating havoc. Unless he’s a special player, in the NFL today, this guy is usually removed in obvious passing situations so pure power and strength along with toughness are paramount to anything else.
Defensive Tackle (4-3):
A 4-3 defensive tackle needs to have girth – big bodies that are similar to that of a 3-4 DE but more athleticism and penetration abilities. It would be tremendous if this player could still maintain the stoutness to not get turned out of the hole, also. For size, about 6’3” and 300+ lbs. is just about perfect. Depending on technique and scheme this position can vary a bit as some teams will play a 4-3 front but still ask their guys to maintain a 2-gap discipline, while others teach a one gap responsibility. Either way, these guys need to have width, strength, and athleticism to both push the pocket back into the face of the QB and not get pushed off the LOS on run plays. This position is much more about penetration and pocket disruption than its stack and shed 3-4 counterparts. A good first step is important but he must also then be able to anchor or penetrate depending on the play diagnosis, so play recognition is vital. Athleticism here is important because this position must be able to move vertically (up the field) and/or laterally (down the LOS) on a play to play basis. This is one position where effectiveness on film needs to be studied because winning the individual battle can be done in many different ways. This is one of the positions where I’m looking as much at production as I am physical skill set. A full repertoire of techniques is nice to have, but some of the best DTs work solely on solid execution of a couple of different disciplines.