Basic Play of the Front Seven
In this chalk talk article I will discuss the very basics of how your front seven plays the game. I won't go into tremendous detail here in this article, but I will try to lay a foundation for future chalk talk articles.
Basic Defensive Line Play
Defensive linemen must have size, strength, balance and quickness. All four are required to be a good defensive lineman. The first job of your defensive line is to control the line of scrimmage, and with that you need players with the size and strength to defend the initial charge of the powerful offensive linemen in today's Big10 and sufficient quickness to move to the ball after they have avoided those initial blocks.
It is just as true today as it was when Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, and the Four Horsemen played football, the team that controls the line of scrimmage usually wins the game.
Penn State fans have seen me post over the years about balance among linemen. This is the most overlooked of the above attributes important to effective line play. Many young high schoolers are so wowed by lifting numbers and "getting huge" that they don't pay attention to the kinds of drills necessary to create good balance. It often winds up being the difference between reaching their full potential and just becoming another average player.
A defensive lineman at Penn State has to be ready to be knocked off balance by any of three offensive linemen in front of him. Because of that it is important to set up effectively in the position that gets them the best trade off of balance, explosiveness and power. This will typically mean getting low in a three point stance with the legs flexed and coiled, the hips slightly lower than the shoulders, and one stretched forward with fingertips evenly placed on the ground and the weight evenly balanced throughout the player's body.
In most defensive alignments today, down linemen are given the responsibility of defeating one player and making sure that player cannot block them in a particular direction or penetrating one gap in the offensive line. In the former situation, the defensive lineman should key on the three man triangle in front of him to get an early read to the play and to be prepared to fight off the man attempting to block him.
In the latter situation described above where a defensive lineman is to attack a gap in the defense, it is the responsibility to fire off at the snap and enter that gap as fast as possible. This is to be done with a maximum emphasis on quickness through the gap while maintaining the best balance possible.
In situations where a defensive lineman will be attempting to defeat a particular blocker, it is important to still try to control one side of the play. Let's assume a defensive lineman is going to protect his left side from being attacked by the ball carrier. In this situation, you'll see a Penn State defensive lineman charge the offensive lineman at the snap, step with the right foot, then drive the right shoulder and forearm underneath the chest and pads of the blocker. It is critical that the defensive lineman get his right shoulder to attack the right side of the blocker and force the blocker to alter his stance from square to the line of scrimmage to angled to the line of scrimmage. If he does this he has the blocker beaten.
At this point the defensive lineman would then raise the blocker up and off balance, force the blocker backwards to that side of the play, free himself and move to the ball. It is also important to be able to do this while keeping the left arm free. If the left arm becomes engaged the defender will likely lose this battle and be thrown off balance himself.
One of the single most important things for any defensive lineman to learn is to fight through, not around, pressure. As a DL feels which direction the OL is trying to move him, it is important that he fight that pressure. If the lineman tries to go around such pressure he will invariably take himself out of the play.
Basic Stunt Calls
In addition to the basic charge of the defensive lineman, all linemen must know how to execute a variety of stunt calls.
If an offensive line coach at Iowa or Ohio State were certain that the Penn State defensive line would charge straight ahead on every play their job would be easy. They could then be very aggressive in "steering" and "sealing" defenders away from the play if that were the case.
In today's game a variety of different techniques are used to confuse an OL to win the battle on any given play. The three basic techniques would be slants, loops, and gap shoots.
In a slant charge left, a defensive player would line up on a blocker straight up but slant his approach to the left of that blocker attacking the outside shoulder of the blocker.
The purpose of the loop charge is to allow the defender to get completely outside of the blocker. In a left loop charge this is accomplished not by charging at the snap, but rather by moving sideways a full stride until his right arm and shoulder are fully outside the blocker's torso.
When the offensive line becomes concerned with stopping straight ahead charges, slants, and loops, the gap shoot becomes very effective. A gap shoot is exactly what is sounds like. A player lines up centered off the outside shoulder of a blocker or directly in the middle of a gap depending on how the offensive line is split. At the snap the defender uses maximum explosion to shoot thru the gap.
Basic Linebacker Play
Every defensive position is important, but perhaps none require a greater diversity of skills than that of the linebackers.
Linebackers need to possess a combination of the strength of defensive linemen and the speed of defensive backs. They also require the intelligence to read their keys quickly and accurately. All in all, it requires tremendous athletic ability.
Usually a linebacker will key on an offensive lineman not covered by one of the down linemen or on the movement of the line as a whole. In the diagrams below I describe what action should be taken depending upon what the offensive line key tells the linebacker.
The linebacker reads the opposing offensive lineman. If the lineman charges forward the linebacker rushes forward to attack.
If the lineman double teams another defender the linebacker reads the play in the backfield and penetrates if it is a run play.
If the offensive lineman pulls out of his stance and moves to either side the linebacker needs to follow with him.
If the offensive lineman drops back in pass protection and there is no blitz call, the linebacker should then read the movement of the TE and backs, move to cover one of these players or merely defend his underneath zone while keeping an eye out to defend a possible delayed run play.
Basic blitz and stunt calls for linebackers
One of the basic tenets of overall defensive play is to create plays for losses. An offense gets 3 downs to generate 10 yards of total offense. If they fail to do so, they will be forced to punt the ball on fourth down unless we are talking about special situations.
Gaining 10 yards on 3 downs requires an offense to average only 3 1/3 yards per play, something that is relatively easy to do for most offenses. In fact, almost all offenses do average more than this amount throughout the course of a football season. Common sense tells you that unless a defense can create negative plays from time to time prior to the offense moving the ball the entire length of the field, the offense has a huge advantage.
So, creating negative plays is an important goal for any defense. You can do this by gaining mismatches where you get a stronger, quicker player on a weaker, slower offensive player, or by creating numerical disadvantages at the point of your defensive attack into the offensive backfield.
Against teams like Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa it was difficult to create a mismatch in personnel because these teams had players of equal physical ability to that of Penn State. In such circumstances it is important to gain advantage by creating confusion and by gaining a numerical advantage as described above out of that confusion.
To confuse offensive blocking schemes, linebackers will often move as the ball is snapped rather than wait to read their normal keys before attacking. The most common and basic stunts charges for linebackers are in coordination with defensive line calls. If the defensive line call is to slant or loop to either side, then the linebacker call will be move opposite the line call to cover the vacated area.
The linebacker would then move into the gap created by the defensive line stunt and penetrate as quickly as possible and move to the ball.
Below is a diagram of a play that occurred against Ohio State this year that perfectly illustrates many of the techniques I described above. This defensive call combines a slant by the two tackles, up field penetration by the DE's, a read and react by the MLB and strong safety, and a pre-designed gap blitz by each of the outside backers.
Ohio State is in a 3rd and 1 play early in the 2nd quarter and the defense is thinking run as Ohio State initially sets up it's offensive formation with split backs. But the two backs flank out to each side and the defensive call changes to a stunt by the defensive line combined with a blitz by each of the outside backers.
Here is the diagram followed by further explanation.
As you can see from the drawing, Ohio State is lined up with the TE to their right. The TE is represented by the letter O on the outside of the offensive line. That is the strong side of the play. The two H backs have been flanked out to each side respectively. I have noted the H back on the strong side with an H and on the weak side with an F. The two wideouts are noted with the letter R and both are split out wide.
The QB is under center and drops back to pass at the snap.
Our strong safety Sean Mayer had come up to play in the box at the snap and stayed there even after the two backs flanked to the outside of the offensive line. He will cover the H back as he goes out into the right flat in pass route.
The weak safety will cover the other H back in pass coverage. As is often the case when you try to create a negative play with a blitz, the two corners are in man coverage.
The TE runs straight downfield in pass route and is taken by MLB Gino Capone.
Penn State has called a blitz, Ohio State has 5 players in pass route, all 5 are accounted for by PSU defenders, and the Ohio State offensive line has 5 men trying to block 6 pass rushers.
In this particular situation Penn State is at it's weakest in the secondary. Any open receiver more than 1 yard downfield is a potential first down pass target. But Ohio State is looking for a bigger play downfield at the same time that Penn State is seeking to create a negative play in the backfield.
Penn State has a numbers advantage which they enhance dramatically with the use of the two slants/outside shoulder rushes by the two defensive tackles.
At the snap, the defensive tackle lined up on the right guard (the guard on Ohio State's strong side) slants to the inside towards the center. The defensive tackle lined up on the left guard also slants towards the center. These two movements totally occupy the right guard and the center.
Both defensive ends fire up field at the snap. The DE on the weak side is taken by the LT. The wsOLB shoots up field right at the offensive left guard. This creates a need for the left guard to take him on to protect the QB. It also negates any opportunity the offensive line may have had to shift over to the strong side to account for their personnel shortage to that side.
The DE on the strong side cannot be blocked by the TE since the TE is out in pass route. The OT on the strong side executes a kick out block to push the DE on that side, Michael Haynes, to the outside.
Derek Wake at the ssOLB spot is the man Ohio State has noone to block, and he shoots the gap between the right guard who had to commit to our DT and the right tackle who just kicked out to block Michael Haynes.
Derek Wake takes a straight line to Ohio State QB Craig Krenzel and tackles him for a loss of several yards leading to a punt and change of possession back to Penn State.
I hope this article helps in your basic understanding of front seven play. I will enhance this in the next article in the chalk talk series.