A defensive lineman’s job is simple; protect your gap and create chaos. If it is a run play, attack your gap and make the play. If the run play goes away from you, attack your gap and pursue flat down the line to make the play if the runner cuts back. If the play is a pass play, then rush your gap, contain the quarterback in the pocket and get one hand up to cut the quarterback’s field of vision.
The weapons of a defensive lineman are his feet and his hands. Good footwork off the snap of the football puts the d-lineman’s hips squarely into his gap and in position to defend his piece of turf. The body follows the feet is a fundamental we stressed in everything. The hands skills, which we called the quick draw/lockout, allow the d-lineman to keep the blocker away from his body. Keeping clean allows him to be an effective defender, not a player getting run down the field by the offensive blockers. Whoever wins the battle of the body in the football trenches usually has the greatest amount of success. The ability to legally use one’s hands to lockout and shed blockers is about the only advantage the defensive lineman is given, so he must use his hands effectively as well as his feet.
In the effective defensive line scheme, the defensive lineman must command a double team by the offensive lineman. We taught the defensive lineman to hold their ground and not give a single, teeny-tiny inch of their turf to a double team block. We taught them to make a wall and/or a pile in the offense’s intended running lanes at the line of scrimmage to disrupt their rhythm. If the offense had to double team our defensive lineman on every play, it allowed our linebackers to move unabated to make plays. If the offense chose to man block our defensive lineman, we taught our kids to take advantage and dominate the game. Our d-line goal was NEVER to get beat one on one.
One of our biggest challenges for the defensive line comes when facing the power offense teams. In our experience, it was the teams that ran the Double Wing offense and the Double Tight Wishbone Belly offense. Contrary to popular football belief, these compressed formation offenses are not boring “3 yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy offenses. They are both big play offenses, capable of scoring from anywhere and everywhere on the football field at virtually any time the defense makes a mistake.
These teams are usually aggressive, athletic, physical and relentless in their approach and attitude. As a defense against these teams, we must knew we had to match the offense’s aggressiveness; we must match their athleticism and physicality, and we must be as, or more, relentless. What we want to do as a defense is eliminate their big play capability and stop them cold at the line of scrimmage or force the offense to methodically move down the field in a “3 yard and a cloud of dust” manner. It was absolutely vital that the defensive line made a wall and forced piles of humanity in the running lanes. We wanted to test their patience and force them out of their comfort zone and rhythm. We knew if we executed on each and every play of the game, it became a battle of will and patience. And honestly, I would have taken our kids in a battle of will and patience anytime and anyplace, against any opponent.
Of course, we had to work on these skills all season in order to reach proficiency. Footwork, quick draws, and lockouts were drilled daily. But, when it came time to play the power running teams, we have to ramp up our skills in making walls and forming piles at the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, this isn’t a skill learned through talk or only through hitting dummies. This is a skill learned through contact and challenge and repetition. It is a mental skill as much as a physical skill. Nobody in their right mind really wants to fire off the ball, drive their shoulder pad through the offensive lineman’s thigh pad while punching up and out with the butt of their hands to only end up at the bottom of a pile of humanity every single play. But, that is what we had to do, so we came up with the Bullfights. The Bullfights were one of my favorite drills of all time. We incorporated into the weekly defensive line preparation for the weeks where the defensive line had to up our game.
We placed six 2” x 6” boards about four to five foot long on the ground parallel to each other around five yards apart. The defensive linemen would match up in pairs of “similar’s”, or guys of similar size, age, aggressiveness, etc. One partner would line up in a three or four point stance, straddling the board at one end, while the other partner would do the same at the other end. The pair would almost line up helmet to helmet in their stances to avoid a high velocity collision or to give advantage to the quicker lineman. On the whistle, the two would fire off the line and struggle for position and leverage while keeping one foot rooted on either side of the board. The goal was to drive the opponent either back off the board length or force the opponent to lose foot contact on both sides of the board.
We’d drill about 10 reps of this with the partner and then we would match up for an elimination tournament. The same basic setup and rules, except with the winners of each round move on while the losers had to work their way up a consolation bracket. In the end, there were only two remaining bullfighters slated for the finals. Always fun, always exciting and always drove home the point of how we needed to play our defensive line position.
I wish I had a video of one of these competitions. They were so much fun. Making piles of humanity at the line of scrimmage…I do miss that horribly!