Understanding Urban: Reading Defensive Fronts

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Established October 31, 1996
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Last updated: 08/08/2012 4:41 AM
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Understanding Urban: Reading Defensive Fronts
By Ken Pryor

(Editor’s Note: Ken Pryor is an offensive coordinator who works with the wide receivers at North Point High School in Waldorf, Md. He has been a long-time contributor to The-Ozone, and has been asked to help us better understand Ohio State’s new offense since Urban Meyer was hired back in November.)

During a recent interview, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller revealed an inexcusable reality. According to Miller, he was never taught how to read defensive fronts during his first year of tutelage in the program.

My initial thoughts were shock and awe, followed by anger and finally resignation.

When recalling all the issues at play last season, it made sense. Of course he didn’t, what with everything else that went wrong once erstwhile head coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign in May.

If nothing else, Miller’s revelation spawned the idea for this column, as Ohio State’s sophomore quarterback is not alone in lacking a full grasp of what it means to decipher a defensive front. Let’s take a look at some of the aspects Miller will be learning under Urban Meyer and Tom Herman during those extended hours of film study.

What is a Defensive Front?

The defensive front is the number of defensive linemen and linebackers the defense presents to the offense before the snap. Defenses are generally numbered with the first digit denoting the number of defensive linemen in the system. The second number refers the number of linebackers.

Thus we have terms like the 4-3, 5-2, 3-4, and 4-4 when it comes to defensive schemes. However, there are times when this description is invalid. The “46,” for example, was named after the jersey number of Doug Plank, a strong safety who was used by the late Buddy Ryan in a tight linebacker position.

The 46 system does not use four linemen and six linebackers. This is a common misconception.

There are a varying ways to align a defense on the field. Some defenses are odd-man-fronts like the 5-3, which means there are an odd number of defensive linemen. Other defenses, like the 4-4, implement an even number of defensive linemen.

Whatever scheme a defensive coordinator chooses to employ is generally guided by the personnel at his disposal, along with the types of offenses the team will face. If a coach has a dominating player at nose tackle, it may allow him to use odd defensive fronts. A number of smaller, yet aggressive and quick players will allow for multiple linebacker systems like the 4-4 and the 5-3.

This column about defensive football would be deemed incomplete without reference to gaps and specific techniques used by defensive players. These gaps and techniques are in direct correlation to the player’s alignment against a particular offense. It should help clear up any confusion when terms like “3 technique” are thrown around for players like Johnathan Hankins.

What are Gaps and Techniques?

A gap is the space between offensive linemen, while technique describes how the defender should align on his offensive counterpart. Football rules require the offense to have a minimum of seven men on the line of scrimmage, so there will always be a minimum of eight gaps.

Picture 1 (below) specifies how offensive gaps are given letter names from the inside out. Thus, the center/guard gap becomes the "A" gap (on either side), the guard/tackle gap is labeled "B" gap (again on both sides of the line) and outside the tackle is “C” gap, while anything outside the TE is “D” gap.


Every football fan has, at one time or another, heard an announcer use the term “gap responsibility” or “gap integrity.” These terms simply mean a defensive player who is aligned in the gap generally holds responsibility for that gap; any offensive play attacking a player’s gap must be thwarted.

This is where things can get tricky. Some defenses, like the 5-3 (an odd man front), are slanting defenses. Slanting defenses are designed to confuse the offensive blocking schemes by aligning in a position to attack either gap. This is why slanting defenders are referred to as “two-gap players.” A slanting defender can strike to either side of the offensive player he is aligned on.

Where Does “Technique” Come into Play?

In the game of football, it's not enough just to say a defensive tackle is aligned “on” the offensive tackle. The width of an offensive tackle may create a lot of room for error in the heat of battle when it comes to alignment. To solve this problem, and to make it easier to counter the strength of an offensive formation, defensive coordinators use a simple numeric system for their d-line techniques.

Picture 2 (below) depicts a simplified version of Bum Phillip’s numbering system for the defensive line. His system is one from which most coordinators derive their own gap technique numbering. Even numbered techniques (2, 4, and 6) are “head up” on the offensive players. Odd numbered techniques (1, 3, 5, 7 & 9) are aligned on the inside or outside shoulder of the offensive player.

The “0” technique is a head-up over center. We will call “shade week” or “shade strong” telling the nose tackle to align over the center’s strong side or weak side shoulder. Also note the “4i” tech is being utilized. This is an inside technique with an even number (recall “4” is head-up with the tackle). This allows us to keep all numbers at single digits for simplification purposes.

Figure 2: Defensive Technique


What is 4-3 Under/Over?

Under former defensive coordinator Jim Heacock, Ohio State’s preferred defense of choice (when they were not in Nickel packages) was the 4-3 Over/ Under.

The Over/Under 4-3 defense is merely a variation of the base 4-3 defense, where coordinators shift more linemen to the suspected point of attack. The alignment still showcases four down lineman and three linebackers, just as in a basic 4-3.

The strongside defensive tackle (i.e. Hankins) will take a ‘3 technique’ position across from the strongside offensive guard. The backside defensive tackle will move over toward the strongside tackle and position himself in a '1' technique. The two defensive ends line up over the offensive tackles.

One linebacker lines up on the line of scrimmage (but not in a 3-point stance rather he is in the “up” position or a 2-point stance) over the tight end. Another linebacker lines up off the line, just outside the weak-side defensive end. The third linebacker lines up off the line, but in the gap between the weak-side tackle and end.

As seen here:


When in the Over 4-3, the strength of the defense is on the offense's strongside. With a simple shift to the Under 4-3, the strength of the defense moves to the weakside. To get from the Over formation to the Under, simply shift the defensive tackles over one spot so they are now over the center and the weak-side guard.

The strong side defensive tackle is aligned in a '1' technique over the strong side guard, while the back side defensive tackle takes a '3' technique position across from the opposite offensive guard. The linebacker playing the gap between the weak-side tackle and end then shifts to the gap created between the strong-side tackle and end.

As seen here:


Linebacker Notes

· When there is a tight end, whether an over or an under call, the strong side outside linebacker will move to the line of scrimmage to the tight end's outside shoulder.

· The positioning of the backside outside linebacker and the middle linebacker can vary with the over or under call, the offensive formation, and whether or not a blitz is called.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Over/Under

1. When aligned in the Under front, the offense can create massive problems by running into the back side A-gap with power, iso, lead or even counter.

2. The Over/Under front can be devastated by a midline option team. A lethal quarterback will determine the side of the midline call according to the spacing of the defense tackles.

3. Presents multiple blitzing and pass coverage schemes provided by the Over/Under fronts.

4. The Over front allows the defense to not be outmanned at the strength.

As we might expect, Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton have their work cut out for them in the film room. But learning the defensive side of the ball can only make them more well-rounded quarterbacks, and that could make Ohio State a very scary team to face this fall.

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