In the past I’ve done a series of Defensive Prototype articles, showing the present day ideal model of each of the traditional types of player, starting with the defensive line and moving backwards. This year I’m going to approach it slightly differently, at least along the line of scrimmage, because for the first time PFF has been recording exact defensive line technique data as well as positional data for each and every player in the league. Instead of showing you the prototype for each defensive line technique in the abstract we will be showing you the guys that played that technique the most in the 2014 season.
The first thing to note is that there is more than one D-line technique naming system out there. We use our own designation system at PFF and this gets translated to different systems on the back end when we supply that data to our NFL team customers, but for the sake of this article we will be using the following system:
This is the system originally devised by legendary coach Paul ‘Bear' Bryant, and is still, the most widely used system, particularly in the NFL.
Why do these techniques exist? Football at its heart a game of blocking and tackling, but perhaps most importantly it is a game of gaps. In order for a defense to stop the run they need to have every gap along the line of scrimmage covered. Without doing that the running back has a free running lane into the secondary. Do that once, you risk a big play. Do it consistently and you’ll never get your defense off the field except when they concede a touchdown.
How teams choose to assign responsibility for those gaps is what determines whether they are running 3-4 or 4-3, 5-2, and all of the various derivatives of each defensive front you can think of. That gap responsibility doesn’t just extend to assigning one player to a gap all across the line, but can involve assigning two gaps to one player, freeing up a defender to pursue the ball without the weight of a gap responsibility to slow down his progress.
So let’s start in the middle of the defense with the nose tackle. Nose tackles can play in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 front, but they are the closest player to the middle of the line, and in old two-gap systems line up directly over the center in what is called the ‘0-technique’.
The reality is true two-gapping systems are dying out in the NFL, replaced by schemes and systems that prefer the attacking, one-gap fronts whether they are three or four-man lines. There are still some teams that employ more two-gapping defensive linemen than others, but nobody plays it every down. Keep in mind that the more teams play nickel and dime defensive packages the less those teams employ two-gapping base defenses overall.
The 0-technique's job is to control the center, often draw a double team from a guard, and still be able to prevent the run from going right up the gut. That’s why traditional 3-4 nose tackles are monsters. While most defensive tackles are north of 300 pounds, two-gapping nose tackles are usually north of 330. They make other behemoth linemen look small by comparison, and it is their sheer size and strength that allows them to anchor inside and control multiple, smaller, blockers at the point of attack.
With various one-gap 3-4 systems around these days, you find players that play the 0-technique position, but instead of playing both A-gaps, they’ll shoot one and rely on linebackers behind them to plug the other. These players rely on speed and athleticism off the ball rather than size and bulk. The Cowboys under Wade Phillips were fond of this type of defense and Jay Ratliff was particularly adept at disrupting plays in the backfield from his NT spot.
The graph shows the top five qualifying players in terms of the percentage of snaps they spent playing the 0-technique. Only one of these players – Chris Baker – spent more than 50% of his snaps (50.8) playing 0-technique, that is how little it is used in today’s NFL. The Eagles employ perhaps the most heads-up alignment from their players of any NFL team and their nose tackle Bennie Logan is next on the list, with those two some way clear of the next players.
After them, the percentage of snaps the next three players actually played head up over the center dwindles into the twenties. Dontari Poe once again played over 1,000 defensive snaps this season, but just 23.1% of them were head up over the center in what we envision a pure nose tackle to be. The rest of the time he was lined up with a shade to one side or even further away from the center of the line. That is how far the league has moved towards one-gap attacking fronts. It speaks volumes about the direction the league has moved in this area that only two of these five players have a bigger spike at 0-tech than they do at 1-tech, meaning three of the five actually play a greater percentage of their snaps on a shade than they do head up over the center.
The league has become more of a one-gap landscape, and the era of the behemoth 3-4 two-gapping nose may be over. There are still occasional holdovers out there, but they are increasingly becoming part-time players and guys who are expected to be able to play other techniques as well.
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