In 2011, I first wrote about the league’s prototypes for each defensive line technique. In addition to watching and grading every player on every snap of the NFL season, PFF also records far more detailed information that our team customers get access to and use as part of their internal processes. One data point they get is the exact alignment of every defensive linemen – by technique – as opposed to simply a rough description of where a player lined up by position.
The league has changed, and some positions have almost completely died out. The old-school, two-gap 3-4 defense has become almost completely extinct, and the only difference between teams in today’s NFL is whether they align in an over- or under-shifted front. Though the numbering system has remained the same, the actual deployment of players along the defensive front in today’s NFL falls almost entirely into just four remaining buckets: nose tackles, over guard defensive tackles, over tackle defensive ends and true edge rushers.
The defensive line technique numbering system has been around for years, and while there are a couple of variants of this system, particularly on the outer edges of it, the system we will be using is below as a reference.
Nose Tackles: 0-technique, 1, A-gap alignment, 2i
The time of the gargantuan two-gapping nose tackles is pretty much over. There are still some behemoth nose tackles in today’s NFL, but they are expected to be better athletes than their erstwhile counterparts and typically still only attack one gap. Last season, true 0-technique (head-up over the center) alignment accounted for just 4.2% of all snap alignments among players that line up along the defensive front.
The other development from these players is that they are expected to move further along the line of scrimmage than they used to be. Vea is the modern nose tackle prototype, and while he played a good number of snaps in that 0-technique alignment last season, he also moved out as far as a 4i technique (inside the offensive tackle) on a regular basis. Vea has monstrous size but also rare quickness given that bulk, as he is able to overpower a single blocker but also attack with quickness and momentum in a way that didn’t use to be in the job description.
Defensive Tackles: Over Guard, 2, 3, B-gap, 4i
This is where the interior pass rush comes from. When thinking of all of the best interior pass-rushers in the league, they ply their trade in these alignments the majority of the time. Nobody played more 3-technique snaps than Grady Jarrett in 2021. Aaron Donald led the league in snaps from a 4i alignment, and DeForest Buckner lined up directly in the B-gap more than any other player in the league.
These players are smaller, quicker and faster than their nose tackle counterparts. They allow the nose tackle to occupy more than one player inside, and they work to be isolated one-on-one with a guard on one side of the formation. It has grown more complex than it once was, but this is the evolution of the original Jimmy Johnson Miami Dolphins defense.
Donald is a unique player and may be the best to ever do it when all is said and done. He remains a little undersized relative to the rest of the league, but it’s hard not to see him as the prototype for the alignment taken to extremes, as today’s 3-techniques are quick, strong and inhumanly fast, relying on their ability to destroy a guard one on one of they get the opportunity.
Defensive Ends: Over Tackle, 4, 5, 6i
In much the same way that the traditional two-gapping nose tackles have died out, so too have the old, two-gapping defensive ends. Players such as Ty Warren were once prototypes for a defense that just isn’t being played anymore. Five-technique was a term that used to be talked about a lot at draft time, but almost nobody is playing 5-technique snaps with any kind of regularity in today’s NFL.
Miami’s Zach Sieler was the only player in the league who played more than 100 snaps from a 5-technique alignment. Players such as Maxx Crosby and Cameron Jordan have a lot of snaps lined up either on the inside shade of a tight end or even head up over him, whereas other edge rushers rarely have to consider the effect of a tight end. This can be a result simply of whether the defense aligns to match the strength of the offensive formation or whether they just keep players on their preferred side of the line more often.
Garrett could be the prototype for either of the last two position designations. He was one of the best edge defender prospects to enter the NFL in years and has developed into one of the best players in the league. Garrett is an athletic freak who can win in all ways. He has the speed to beat tackles around the edge in space in addition to the size and power to mix it up inside or navigate tight end help and his run defense responsibilities.
Edge Rusher: 7, 9, D-gap
The real difference between these edge rushers and the defensive ends that play over the tackle is how much they have to deal with tight ends, and whether they are typically aligned to the strong side of the formation. This can often be a product of run defense responsibilities, as some designated pass-rushers struggle to defend the run or when contending with multiple bodies. While some edge defenders have no problem playing the run at a high level while mixing it up with tight ends as well as tackles, others are deployed almost exclusively outside of the formation, giving them space to work with at all times. Leonard Floyd lined up in a 9-technique almost 600 times last season, with no other alignment accounting for more than 64 snaps.
Teams that play with a nominal “3-4” alignment will still likely have the majority of their snaps from edge rushers in this bucket. The Pittsburgh Steelers‘ T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith both ranked inside the top 20 for snaps lined up as a 9-technique, as did both edge rushers for three other teams.
He may be a declining force, but Miller remains the prototype among edge rushers. He would be the perfect designated pass-rusher if not for the fact that he was also an elite run defender. Miller has the rare ability to dip and bend around the edge, which maximizes the impact of his speed by shortening the distance to the quarterback. He also has one of the most devastating inside counter moves anybody has ever brought to the table, and those combine to make him a major problem for any tackle one-on-one. Miller isn’t quite the player he once was, but he still showed last season he is capable of 10-pressure games and taking over when the chips are down.