Talking Football: The DL in a 4-3

RU severely missed the departed Ramel Meekins in 2007. RU's defensive style, predicated on stopping the run - first - took a hit as the run-stuffing, gap-clogging DT's playmaking was not replaced. Today, we'll review the notion of Defensive Tackle (DT), the different responsibilities for the seemingly similar position (two DTs) used by Rutgers, and the common terminology used to refer to them.

Rutgers' employs the base defense known as 4-3. That refers to 4 down linemen (DL) and 3 linebackers (LBs). The defensive scheme has enjoyed a significant resurgence in the professional and collegiate ranks since the 1990's.  It's been the style of Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano since his arrival at Rutgers, but probably more due to necessity than anything else.  Nevertheless, the defense has its important advantages, which are basic reasons for its increase in popularity.

Today's football fundamentally has a run-first orientation. Viewers of the NFL and listeners to popular commentators such as John Madden have often heard the expression of run to set up the pass - this is precisely what is meant by run-first orientation.  Consequently, defensive coordinators' primary job in finding success (i.e., stopping the initial forward progress of the offense, from which the passing game may develop) is found by stopping the run. The 4-3 defense allows one to do just that by adding an additional lineman to stuff gaps.  The 3-4 defense, on the other hand, takes away a single lineman and adds a player in what is referred to as a sitting back position (i.e., a LB).  Aside from the personnel numbers (4 vs 3) the primary difference between the 4 down linemen (in a 4-3) versus 3 down linemen (in a 3-4) is size.  A 3-4's down linemen, needing to clog up space left open by the withdrawal of a single down lineman, are necessarily bigger/larger.

The 4-3 defense, however, has an additional advantage. It is what is referred to as a personnel friendly defense. Finding big, athletic defensive tackles is often difficult. The trend in college is the usage of the 4-3. Dominant players such as Glenn Dorsey (formerly of LSU), who could just as easily perform successfully in a 3-4 are not easy to find and recruit. It is easier to find and recruit smaller DTs that are as fast, or faster, as athletic, or even more so, than their larger brethren.  Hence the success of the 4-3 style in the college game.

The 4-3 defense, the story goes, was invented by Tom Landry (then with the New York Giants), as a way of stopping Hall of Fame RB Jim Brown.  Others have attributed its initiation to a variation of what was known as a 5-down lineman defense, instituted by Bill George (formerly of the Chicago Bears).  George, often noticing the short passes completed just beyond his reach, into the secondary, decided to drop back into coverage rather than bump the Center directly ahead of him. The 4-3, as the story goes, was then born.

Defensive linemen are referred to by their technique.  All that indicates, however, is where they line up. And all that indicates are their responsibilities.  The term is confusing because it does not indicate anything about a particular player's style of play, or actual technique used on the field.

Ramel Meekins was a 1-technique DL, at Rutgers.  Eric Foster, on the other hand, was a 3-technique.  DLs are not interchangeable, and neither are 1- or 3-techniques (in terms or personnel).  Techniques are descriptions of the defensive line, as they line up opposite their OL brethren.  Each number corresponds to a particular location across a particular OL.  The numbers proceed from 0 to 9.  Each technique will refer to a certain gap responsibility by a DL.  Hence, in the 4-3 defense, because each DT is responsible for clogging up 1 gap (or hole), each DT is said to have one gap responsibility.

The lineup proceeds as follows.  The 0-technique is the position taken up by a DL (nose tackle, or NT) directly opposite of the center.  Rutgers does not position their players in a 0-technique.  The 1-technique (e.g., Meekins), is positioned on the side of either shoulder of the opposing Center, and is said to have A-gap responsibility (see figure below).

To the right of the Right Guard (RG) is the B-gap and to left of the LG is the other B-gap.  Lining up adjacent to the 1-technique, but shifted toward the right shoulder of the RG, with B-gap responsibility, is the 3-technique (e.g., Eric Foster).  The 3-technique, often lighter on his feet and more athletic, is quickest to the point of attack.  The 3-technique is the needle that shoots through the opposing OL.  The 1-technique, often strongest, but not as athletic, has the responsibility of piercing through the A-gap, something Meekins was able to do, despite the double team of the Center and LG, with regularity.  His quickness, shiftiness, and strength at the point of attack, were a combination that created havoc for opposing OLs.  Creating an imbalance on one side of the OL allowed Eric Foster to roam with less opposition on the other side.  Hence, the 1- and 3-techniques, though each with their distinct responsibilities, can make life easier for the other.

The 1-gap (DL responsibility in the 4-3 base is 1-gap - see image above), 1-technique (e.g. Meekins) is typically smaller, very quick, and strong.  He is quick to the point of attack, busting through the A gap and either bringing down a RB or attacking/pressuring the QB.  Size, for the 1-technique, with a 1-gap responsibility is not the major characteristic of necessity.  Quickness and strength, coupled with the ability to pierce his gap of responsibility are the main issues of concern. 

Since the departure of Ramel Meekins, Rutgers has been unable to fill his hole.  His size, physical attributes, were advantageous to the RU style of D, rather than weaknesses.  A popularly misconceived notion is that big DLs are often the only path toward success.  Bigger may indeed not be better.  The 4-3 is predicated on speed and athleticism, not size, and the personnel must fit this style.

Or else, the defense, and primarily the run-defense, will suffer.

Matei may be reached at mgeorge@rutgersfootball.com


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