Football 101- Defensive Line Assignments

Probably the most important position on the defense is easily the most overlooked by fans that just watch the football on every play. But if you see a really good defensive game, chances are you are watching a defensive line that is dominating their offensive counterparts. In today's 101 installment, we take a look at that unit.


The players that line up in front of the offensive center and guards are referred to as defensive tackles. On every down they typically have two important jobs. The first is to make sure that the running back can't run unimpeded up the field. If the tackles clog up the middle of the line, then the running back will have to go around the traffic, which provides the linebackers and safeties extra time to catch him and bring him down. The second is to push the center and guards backward on passing plays. Since the quarterback will be stepping back when he throws, the tackles will try to cave in the area in front of him, which will make him run to either side, where hopefully there are defensive ends coming at him from the edges or from behind him.

Most offensive lines attempt to create a U-shaped protective barrier in front and around the quarterback. This is known as "the pocket", and if this safe area is not being held by his center and guards, the quarterback will be hemmed in, and the defensive ends will have a much better chance of getting him. That is what the defensive tackles aim to do – crash the pocket.

There are a lot of different ways to align the defensive tackles, and they are given different names depending on where they line up. On the offensive line, there are gaps between the linemen. Those are the areas that defensive linemen are responsible for, and each tackle has to know how many gaps they are in charge of defending. Sometimes the defensive scheme is set up to where he is responsible for only one gap, and the other gaps will be someone else's responsibility. In these schemes, the tackle is playing in a one gap defense. The tackle will usually line up right in the gap, thus they are not directly facing any one offensive lineman.

In other schemes, the tackle will be responsible for two gaps. In a two gap defense, the tackle will line up directly in front of an offensive lineman, and his main task is to push that lineman backwards and make sure the running back doesn't run past on either side of his lineman. If your defense is playing a two gap scheme, it will require larger and stronger defensive tackles who can control an offensive lineman. The premium with two-gap schemes is on size and power. If your defense is playing a one gap scheme, it can get away with playing smaller defensive tackles that are faster and more athletic, because they are trying more often to penetrate into the offensive backfield rather than hold ground.

In a two gap scheme, the tackles are supposed to control the linemen, thus making sure that no one is blocking the linebackers behind them. That leaves the linebackers free to make the play and tackle the runner. Thus in a two gap scheme, defensive tackles won't typically have huge stats. If the linebackers behind them are piling up big tackles for loss and quarterback sack statistics, the defensive tackles are having a good game.

This is one chief reason kids enjoy playing in one-gap defensive schemes – there are more opportunities for big plays.

In a one gap scheme, the defensive tackle stops the running back if he comes into the tackle's gap, and on passing plays the tackle rushes to the quarterback's area through his gap and either rushes the throw or tackles the quarterback for a sack. Thus you are giving those linemen more of a chance to pile up tackle and sack statistics.

The bottom line is that if you want to be especially good at rushing the passer, go find four very athletic, and maybe somewhat smaller defensive linemen and line them up in a one gap scheme. It gives them the best chance to get at the quarterback. However the risk in this scheme is that you always have at least three gaps unprotected, so you'd better have three excellent linebackers that are able to cover the gaps that are left open.

Conversely, if you want to be good at stopping the run, find four bigger defensive linemen, and play them in a two gap scheme. Now the offensive linemen all must be assigned to your defensive linemen, and this should clog up the interior running lanes. Then you have three linebackers unblocked to go find and tackle the running back.

Two of the most used types of defensive attack techniques are called a stunt and a zone blitz.

In a stunt, one defensive lineman will occupy an offensive lineman diagonally (for this example, we'll say he will take the guy on his left). Then a second defensive lineman who started on the first lineman's left will take a half step backwards, run quickly around behind the first lineman, and into the backfield through the hole the first lineman created to his right.

In the zone blitz, one or two linebackers will rush on the same side of the center. So you have a center, a guard, and a tackle trying to stop a defensive tackle, a defensive end, and two linebackers. This is an automatic mismatch.

The obvious risk in this attack is that you leave a big hole in your defense where the two linebackers left to get into the backfield. What the defense can do about this is to have the defensive tackle and perhaps defensive end drop back from the line and try to defend those areas where the linebackers just vacated. When a defensive linemen drops into zone coverage like this, he is said to be "flexing".

Gaps in the Offensive Line

The linemen on the offensive line typically line up a few feet away from each other. The gaps between them are both lettered and numbered. The gap between the guard and tackle is called the B gap. If your defensive scheme has the defensive tackle lined up in the B gap, but shifted over a bit towards the guard, that defensive tackle is referred to as a 3-technique. If your tackle lines up in that same gap but is shifted over a couple feet to line up on the tackle's shoulder, he is referred to as a 4-technique. And if you line up a defensive tackle directly in front of the center, he is referred to as a nose tackle.

Nose tackles are always two-gap players, and are typically very big and very strong men, usually well over 300 pounds with long arms and torsos. These guys have the responsibility of clogging up the entire center of the field and keeping the center and at least one guard busy. If you have a good nose tackle, chances are your middle linebacker is going to be the star of your team. The nose tackle won't have any gaudy stats but if the linebackers behind him are having big games, that is his reward.

Conversely, a 3-technique tackle is supposed to run through his gap immediately. He is a 1-gap player who is not supposed to get tied up in the fray. He should be athletic enough to shed blocks and get into the offensive backfield to disrupt the play. 3-technique tackles are usually lighter, quicker players that weigh closer to 280 or 290.


At the outside edge of the defensive line are the defensive ends. As opposed to the tackles, who have a job that's very complicated, the defensive ends have a very simple job. On running plays, the defensive ends make sure that the running back cannot get outside of them. They want to force the running back inside towards the linebackers and defensive linemen. If it's a passing play, the defensive end has the job of rushing the quarterback and either tackling him or disrupting his throw.

Defensive ends should be very fast, so they tend to be somewhat light for a lineman. Some of the most effective college defensive ends only weigh in the 245 to 260 pound range.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Arguably the best defensive end of all time was Reggie White, who weighed about 300 pounds but ran like a deer. But there aren't many of those out there. Top Stories