The NFL has changed drastically over the last few years in terms of what they are looking for in defensive linemen. John Vogel explores this in Scouting 2.
In Scouting 1, we talked about accuracy and placement and the difference between them, although they are directly related. In the Scouting 2 article, the focus will be on how the scheme influences scouting.
Anyone who knows me understands that to me. Football is life. That’s why I find it so easy to talk and write about the finer details of football. It’s part of the mission here at NFL Sapient – to make you more cognizant of the game. Football is a beautiful sport, and so many intricacies within the game make it incredible.
This article is inspired by a conversation I had with a Pittsburgh Steelers scout at halftime during the 2019 Music City Bowl. We had met before the game and spoken a good bit about some of the players in the game, played by Mississippi State and Louisville. We bumped into each other in the press box while picking up dinner. “What did you see out there?” he asked me.
I briefly explained a couple of the guys who had caught my attention and mentioned Chauncey Rivers, an edge rusher for the Bulldogs. “He won’t make it,” the scout told me. What he went on to explain to me is what inspired this article.
Understanding how scheme influences scouting
We hear analysts in the industry talk so much about places being “the right fit” for a player. This is simply because the scheme is everything to NFL teams. It’s why an NFL Draft Board is only 100-200 players deep. Not every player coming out of college or free agent on the market will be evaluated as a scheme fit. Think about your favorite player who went to a different team and didn’t pan out. It happens all of the time.
Because of this, it’s important to understand general schemes while scouting. It’s easy to get caught up watching what a player can do, but it’s more important to watch what a player can’t. This is what allows you to evaluate prospects more effectively.
The first section of this article will be starting with basic scheme elements on both sides of the ball. Once we have successfully identified the general philosophy of the trenches, we will move into more specifics to scouting the defensive line – more specifically, the interior defensive line.
Scouting 2: Pass protection philosophy
There are only so many things that an offense can do to protect the quarterback. That’s the idea of the offensive line – protect the quarterback and allow him to get a throw-off downfield to pick up a big chunk gain. The quarterback position has undoubtedly become the most important position on the football field. Offenses are structured around the quarterback’s skill set, and they pay the position more than any position on the field. The positions that directly affect quarterback play (left tackle, edge rusher) are the next highest-paid positions.
This graphic above will be our guide as we discuss some offensive and defensive philosophies. I want to clarify a few positions to keep the article intentions clear.
A nose tackle is a big defensive tackle that is on the field to consume double-team blocks. A team employing a nose tackle wants them to take two blockers on every play. After his big Clemson performance, Georgia nose tackle Jordan Davis repeated the age-old saying, “two on me means somebody is free.”
#Rams Aaron Donald led NFL in pass-rush first pressures with 380 last season. 61 more than the next player.#Bears Khalil Mack was second behind Donald in pass-rush first pressures with 319— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 2, 2021
Since 2018, Donald has the most Sacks [46.5] and most TFL pic.twitter.com/9xBEilFSko
Defensive tackles aren’t as focused on eating blocks as much as they are penetrating gaps. You want your defensive tackles to work into the backfield to make big things happen. Think Aaron Donald – the perfect example of a defensive tackle prospect. Oftentimes he draws two blocks and has shown he is one of the rare players who can beat them. Let’s talk more about gaps.
Understanding defensive philosophy
There are two main philosophies to the approach that defense’s take to the interior of their defensive line, although both are related in many ways. Most of this is related to “gaps” that describe where defenders attack the offensive line.
The A-Gaps are between the center and the guards. Your dive concepts go here generally, as well as draws.
The B-Gaps are between the guards and the tackles. Many of your inside zone run concepts are based here. The running back reads the hole and decides whether he takes it through or bounces it through the A-Gap.
The C-Gaps are outside the tackles and between tight ends that may be outside. Those are your outside power runs as well as outside zone concepts like stretch plays.
We’re going to spend a lot of time talking about “techs.” These are gaps, named by legendary Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, that describe the defensive linemen’s position on the line. The numbers are odd, to an extent, but no one has dared to change them over the years.
We will be focusing mostly on 1, 3, and 5-tech in this article. These are typically used to describe the versatility of defensive linemen. Defensive tackles are mostly 3-tech linemen, while nose tackles are 1-tech.
Scouting 2: Using a 4-man front to overwhelm pass protection
Hopefully, that’s pretty well understood now. Let’s discuss what most NFL defenses are using – a four-person front. This is most common because of the effectiveness it has against run defenses. The four-person front oftentimes opens lanes for linebackers to plug gaps.
Against five-man protection, the offensive tackles oftentimes face one-on-one battles on the edges against the defensive ends. The offense’s ideal situation is to double the better defensive tackle with the center and a guard and go one-on-one across the remaining defenders.
Not every team likes to operate with five-man protection. Most prefer to use a tight end to help and assist the edge. This is the most common protection currently in the NFL. The tight end oftentimes assists the offensive tackle in blocking the star defensive end to buy the quarterback more time.
Because of this tendency, the NFL ideally wants two defensive tackles that force the offense to double team them. It’s harder to make a sack off the edge than to make one up the middle, so the offense prioritizes the inside while in pass protection. If the defense can accomplish that, you can force the offense to go one-on-one between a defensive end and a tight end, even in six-man protection.
Scouting 2: Using 3-man fronts confuse pass protection
Traditionally, the three-man front was designed to get a better pass rush on a quarterback while protecting the perimeters of the line. Now, with defense’s playing against three-receiver sets so often, the nickel has somewhat changed how the three-man front is operated.
Nowadays, the three-man front is very similar to the four-man front in terms of how they want the scheme to operate. Essentially, instead of having two inside defenders and two edge rushers, the three-man front utilizes a 1-tech inside and two 3-tech players as defensive ends.
The philosophy is to get the interior defenders to eat as many blocks – five ideally – to get the edge rusher a free look or a 1v1 opportunity with a tight end. If the front can force the offense to commit more players to pass protection, that’s a win for the defense who can fight fewer options in the backend and relieve stress off the secondary. Fewer receivers downfield means fewer mistakes in coverage.
Tools and traits in 1-tech defenders
The 1-tech defender is usually a monster built to destroy offenses. He’s a big, space-eating defender with the strength to gain push off the snap and force the offense to commit at least two linemen to block him.
When looking at a 1-tech defender, there are certain traits that we want to see. Pure brute strength is probably the most important thing. Power and strength are vital to the position and can force an offense to commit two blockers to contain it. After that, burst and handwork are good to see too.
Burst is what we use to measure the get-off speed at the line of scrimmage from the snap. Coming out of a three or four-point stance isn’t the easiest thing. We want to see the defender up and engaging the blocker before the blocker can set. That takes quickness. Once he engages, his hand placement is ideal for controlling the block and forcing help from another blocker to crash in. If he stays low and gets his hands under the pads, he can use his strength to push back and condense the pocket. That’s the ultimate goal of 1-tech. Condense the pocket.
This year, we have one of the best 1-tech defenders that we have seen in probably ten years who should be going through the 2022 NFL Draft cycle – Jordan Davis from Georgia. Not only does he have the ideal size and strength for the position, but he is insanely nimble and athletic.
What you’re looking for in 3-tech defenders
Let’s talk about 3-tech defenders. Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is a clinic to the vital points of the 3-tech defender. Donald isn’t ideally the size you want at the position (6’0″ 290 lbs) but has the finest technique in the defense.
Like the 1-tech, we want to see a quick get off of the snap. However, rather than contain the block, the handwork has to be more refined. As he engages the blocker, I want to see the tackle hand fight to gain positioning inside and win the gap. If that can be accomplished quickly, it will force the tackle to commit to assist and surrender the edge, assuming that he has help outside.
Quickness is more important when scouting the 3-tech than strength. I’m not saying to disregard strength but don’t get caught up in a strong 3-tech who doesn’t offer as much quickness or effective hand fight. Those players are “a dime a dozen,” so I’ve been told.
How important is versatility in this area?
Being able to play the 1 effectively and 3-tech positions is a huge part of an evaluation. It’s not something that we see too often, especially in the modern era of football. This type of versatility extends careers, which extends to players who can play 3 and 5-tech. Look at Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Brandon Graham for example. He was a first-round pick in 2010. His ability to effectively play both 3 and 5-tech has extended his value in Philadelphia and kept him there his entire career.
Aaron Donald has made a living dominating as a 1 and 3-tech player. I think Donald plays the 3-tech better, but he is a solid 1-tech as well. Versatility is a key factor in roster decisions and deciding who is most desirable to keep around a team.
Scouting 2: Conclusion
In conclusion, defensive line play has drastically changed in the last ten years to conclude this edition of the Scouting series. The shift really started at the college level when the Alabama Crimson Tide was out-maneuvered by Ohio State in the 2014 College Football Playoff. Alabama had played many big defensive linemen, and Ohio State forced them to run to the perimeters with an edge-based offensive attack. The rise of Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay-style schemes (something we’ll talk more about in Scouting 3) changed this in the NFL as well – they’ve been forced to adapt.
The Philadelphia Eagles set the blueprint in the NFL after the 2017 season (the Super Bowl Season) when they introduced the defensive line rotation to the league. The fresh bodies in the game helped battle the perimeter-based offenses and limit their effectiveness in wearing out a defense. Now, defensive linemen are at a premium because of the value of having a deep, talented rotation.
I tell the young players that I talk to all the time – learn different techs and improve your arsenal. You can always get stronger, quicker, and more coordinated with your hands. Learn how to absorb double team blocks, “two on me means that somebody is free.” There is a need for this talent in the NFL, and they will find you.