D-Line Manual: Keys to the 3-4 Under Front

Given the success and recent prevalence of the spread offense, many teams have attempted to increase the amount of speed on the field by installing a three man front. In order to have another look, perhaps a primarily run-stopping option, we adjust frequently to what we call the 3-4 Under, which resembles a traditional 4-3. We have had significant success in this transition. We played it most during a three game stretch in 2013, wherein opponents gained, (between the tackles), less than 100 yards… combined. It should be noted that this production was a systematic success, a product of our defensive staff, and the years of hard work and devotion on the part of our players. With great understanding of the scheme, we were able to move seamlessly between fronts.

Our base 3-4 front features traditional 4-0-4 alignment (Anchor, Nose, Tackle):

Our Under front includes one primary adjustment: walking our biggest, strongest outside linebacker down to the line of scrimmage. We played him in a 2 point or 3 point stance relative to strategy and possible stunt. The obvious – and most essential – benefit of this front is that it allows, by alignment, time for our inside linebackers to read and move without taking on a block. When executed correctly, the 3-4 Under occupies all five offensive linemen:

Anchor aligns in a 5 technique (subtle outside shade of the Strongside Offensive Tackle).

Nose aligns in a strong side 1 technique (shade of the Center, which not only occupies the Center, but demands the Strongside Guard’s attention (generally resulting in some sort of combination block)).

Tackle shifts down to a 3 technique on the Weakside Guard.

Buck aligns in a 5 technique on the Weakside Tackle.

Before we instruct athletes how to play, it is important to find the type of athletes we need to accomplish those things we will instruct. It is our job as coaches to put our players in position to succeed, which includes talent evaluation – we can only ask an athlete to do a job which they are capable of doing.

Anchor (5-tech) – Absolutes: We look for long, strong bodies to play the strongside. An Anchor should be heavy handed (strong, aggressive, accurate hand-play), he should have mobile hips and the ability to play both laterally (toss, sweep) and vertically (rush the passer). Ideals: In years when we were lucky enough to have Anchor with high athleticism, we were able to be more creative with our zone drop options to the field.

Nose (1-tech) – Absolutes: Leverage and toughness are the two must-haves to play nose in the Under front. We are asking this player to occupy two offensive players as often as possible. He must bend well and play low to the ground, be great with his hands, quick off the snap, and be able to turn his hips to split double teams. Ideals: Identify a mismatch – either size and strength (many teams will play their 1 technique Nose as a ‘space-eater’ – a 275lb Nose with great strength and the attributes mentioned above will provide cover for inside linebackers), or fantastic speed (if he can consistently turn a Center by beating him off the snap, any sort of cross-center guard pull will be interrupted).

Tackle (3-tech) – Absolutes: Great hands and eyes. A good Tackle can maintain separation and react quickly to his visual cues. He needs to have the strength to play a base block, and the field-savvy to follow a pull, spill a trap, play screens, and rush the passer. Ideals: We have had the most success with smart 3 techniques – and they have to be field- smart. When we can ask a player to show false alignments, be mobile pre snap, stunt with accuracy, and still be able to filter through visual information at speed – that is when we know we have a special player.

BuckAbsolutes: The Buck is a hybrid player – we’re looking for the biggest, strongest, rangiest Linebacker of the group, or the fastest, most athletic Defensive End. He has to be able to drop and cover the flat if necessary, blitz with success, and play strong on an Offensive Tackle. Ideals: Speed – if we can quickly switch back to our Base 3-4 without needing to sub a player at Outside Linebacker, we have more confidence in frequently running the Under Front.

Process Matters

Defensive Line is the hardest part of the defense to play. Not only is it extremely physical ‘in the trenches,’ but they are at the disadvantage of not knowing the snap count or play. Linebackers, at 4-5 yards, have more time to read, as do Defensive Backs, but the Defensive Lineman have a fraction of a second to play physical, accurate football, and make decisions that support the scheme.

As coaches, it is our job to make their job as easy as possible. We have to scout and understand all possible offensive plays and schemes our defense might experience – all blocking schemes, misdirections, formations and tendencies; from there, we have to develop simple rules for our players to follow – the rules, if followed, must account for all scenarios. I tell our defensive front all the time: the play doesn’t matter – your keys matter, and your reaction to those keys will make you successful. For instance, our Nose does not play Power – he plays a double team just like we teach him, and that allows our team to defend Power. Our Anchor does not play Toss – he plays a reach block in a way that allows him and our team to stop Toss.

Remembering my time as a college and professional Defensive Lineman, I would be frequently be frustrated when given direction “Just go!” – and while there is a time and situation for a coach to encourage his athletes to play outside themselves, I was always left with basic questions: just go where? go there how? We equip our athletes with an understanding of the process, and the components of that process, while letting the result speak for itself.

The Basics

As a coach, I try not to give my players more than 5 keys to remember. I call it the Rule of 5. If I ask them to remember anything more than that, I feel as though I have given them too much to process, which results in slower play. We want to play fast and accurate. So we keep it simple and direct, and we do not waiver from our expectations. Here is what I ask my players to focus on, in order, and with Perfect execution:

  1. Stance
  2. Attack
  3. Control
  4. React
  5. Finish
  1. Stance – Stance begins with focus and understanding. Understand the called front and play, and use supreme focus in your alignment. A 5 technique asks you to put your inside hand down, inside foot back (and ready for first step), appropriate pre-snap weight distribution (relative to stunt, if applicable), and aligning our inside eye with the Offensive Tackle’s outside eye, for example. Coaching Point: Slow it down. During the first few film sessions, we will pause before the play, identify our strict alignment in the front, and show the players who is perfect in their stance/alignment, and who is leaving the defense vulnerable before the ball is even snapped.dline
  2. Attack – We spend a lot of time here. The attack point is precise and requires focus, speed, and aggression. Once we are in our stance and aligned correctly, we lock our eyes onto the point of the offensive player we are about to strike. For example, a 5 tech Anchor will lock his eyes onto the upper outside corner of the Offensive Tackle’s jersey number – once he sees movement, he attacks with his hands: full extension, elbows in, thumbs up, bring the hips. The object of the attack is to knock a blocker off his path and allow an extra moment to process/read the block.dline attck

Coaching Point: Sight not sound. Incorporate plenty of drills wherein an athlete’s movement is based on a visual cue: ball on a stick, live action and team segments on varied snap counts, etc.

  1. Control – Upon attack, the player should be under control: arms extended and controlling a block, good (low) pad level, feet and hips underneath him (careful not to overextend and lose balance). Coaching Point: during handwork drills, whistle or call a Freeze command – if the athlete is under control, he should be able to freeze his position and correct, if necessary.
  2. React – This is the key step. This is what separates athletes from football players (that is, you might be athletic, but can you play football?). Our best Defensive Linemen are the ones who react to blocks as simple as breathing – there’s an ease to their movement – they see and go, see and go, see and go, without hesitation. Abiding by the Rule of 5, we try to become masters of five types of block:
  3. Base Block
  4. Down (or Inside Release)
  5. Reach Block
  6. Double Team
  7. Pass Set

Base – Assuming the athlete has accomplished proper Attack and is under Control, Base block becomes a test of grit; that is, the athlete must maintain his gap assignment and leverage. Coaching Point: Don’t pick a side! We cannot create interior lanes. Down (or Inside Release) – A powerful and accurate Attack should slow an Offensive Lineman’s interior movement. Whether he is blocking down on another Defensive Lineman or releasing inside for one of our Linebackers, the task is simple: squeeze. Squeezing keeps the Offensive Lineman off our players, and puts us in position to Spill a Trap or Kickout Block. To squeeze, we drop our interior elbow to the hip of the offensive player, maintaining pressure, therefore maintaining the line of scrimmage (and our gap). *After a Down Block, keep eyes open for a Trap – we Spill (or Wrong-Arm) all Trap Blocks, which seals off any interior lanes. Assuming the Defensive Lineman has taken care of his Down Block, he should have squeezed himself into perfect position to Spill the Trap. Coaching Point: Run Down Block/Squeeze/Spill recognition as often as your practice schedule allows! The big plays we have given up between the tackles are rarely because we’ve been physically beat – interior lanes open up because we lose our position and get trapped. Reach Block – Get width! The Defensive Lineman must keep his arms extended, and work to keep his hips outside the block. In the worst case scenario (and this would only happen after a poor Attack), should a Defensive Lineman lose position on the snap, he must work underneath the Reach Block, then sprint horizontally down the line of scrimmage in the direction of the initial block – he has turned himself into a cutback player (by getting blocked) and should be ready to make a tackle after the Linebackers and Defensive Backs establish edge force. Coaching Point: This is one of those instances where coaches tend to teach schematic responsibility instead of breaking the idea down so it is more easily digested – that is, a coach might direct his player to “Keep Contain,” instead of telling him to react to the Reach Block, keep arms extended, hips outside the block… we find best results come from explaining why and what a player should do, then spending the bulk of the time teaching them how. Double Team – Powerful Attack, then turn into secondary pressure. As always, a good Attack increases the odds of success, against a double team it limits the potential of the initial blocker to get hip-to-hip with the second blocker – that distance between hips is all the opportunity a Defensive Lineman needs to be disruptive. Once the player feels secondary pressure, he should turn his back to the pressure while pressing forward to split the space between the Linemen’s hips. This needs to be practiced over and over until it is a knee-jerk reaction: secondary pressure = turn and press forward. Over and over. Coaching Point: Know when enough is enough. To establish a behavior as habit, it must be practiced – it is up to the coach, however, to know when it is time to pull back. In a double team drill, the Defensive Lineman is at a clear disadvantage – let him rest – he can’t help the team if he’s injured and sitting on the bench. Pass Set – Speed is important, knowing when to turn the corner is crucial: speed can get you pressure, the turn can get you sacks. Pass Set might be the easiest block variation to recognize, but it has the highest amount of response variation. Each coach needs to develop pass rush moves he is comfortable teaching, then progressively install. We start with a Bull Rush on one edge of the Offensive Lineman, then go from there. From Bull Rush we move to Push-Pull, then use that to set up our double moves. Regardless of how a player wins his one-on-one battle, it is important that he know when he has won: if he waits for green grass, he will never find it… once he is hip to hip with his blocker, he should rip through, drop his inside shoulder and turn the corner toward the Quarterback.

Coaching Point: Stay within the toolbox. We ask our guys to start on level one: hands on half of a man, Bull Rush. Once they have mastered it they can move on to level two. In a given year, we might allow three to four players full range of moves, to use at their discretion – otherwise, we have a handful of big guys who master the Push-Pull, Rip and they stay there all year with great success.

*Zone Block – from a Defensive Line perspective, a Zone Block is the same as a Reach Block, since the footwork is too similar to differentiate at full speed.dline control

  1. Finish – Do what you are supposed to do, over and over, and the Finish will take care of itself. Stay low, stay hungry, and arrive in a bad mood! We teach safe tackling daily, but many tackles by Defensive Linemen aren’t pretty – they don’t have to be, they just need to put the ball carrier on the ground. Putting yourself in position to make a tackle is the key.

Coach with Standards

Establishing Goals is great and common practice – e.g. holding a team under 10 points, 3 takeaways, 2 sacks per game, etcetera – but establishing Standards will get you there. Two sacks per game, but how? Our Coaches develop – and hold their athletes true to – a process. The coach should have clear view of his expectations and communicate with clarity. He must hold players to a well-established standard: Do what’s right because, well, consider the alternative.

Identify what a successful process looks like, then break that process down into components (I suggest no more than five components, if possible), and make adherence to those Standards the bedrock of your system. If all Standards are upheld, the system will run smoothly. Defensive Linemen play fast, play strong, play smart, and uphold the standards we set forth – that is our expectation.


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