Fundamentals : Defensive Techniques

We’ve spent the past few weeks talking mostly about offensive fundamentals, so today we’re going to switch sides and talk defense.

As the draft approaches, you’re likely to hear commentators talking about defensive prospects in terms of “technique.” Now, to the rest of the world, this sounds like it would be a good descriptor for a player’s particular method of play, right? As in, “he has really solid technique.”

But because football likes to keep you guessing, that’s not at all what it means.

(If you’ve learned anything from this website, you are probably not at all surprised. When it comes to football terminology, nothing is ever what it seems.)

In this set of circumstances, a defensive player’s “technique” has nothing to do with his fundamental skill level and everything to do with where he lines up on the defensive line.

Let’s review where exactly the defensive line is by first reviewing the players on defense:


Here we see the defensive ends and defensive tackle up front on the defensive line, the linebackers behind, and the safeties and cornerbacks in the secondary.

Pop Quiz time!

What defensive formation is this defense running?

If you said 3-4, you’re right! Great job! There are 3 defensive linemen up front and 4 linebackers behind them.

Bonus Question!

There’s only one tackle lined up in the middle of the formation. What is the name for this position?

It’s, of course, named by the corresponding facial feature (of course!): the nose tackle. Mysterious Football Lingo strikes again.

Ok, moving on: to make it a little easier to see which area of the defense is where, here’s a color-coded copy:

defensive zones

So when we’re talking about defensive techniques, the only players in question are the guys all the way up front on the defensive line: the defensive ends and tackles.

As mentioned above, a technique is solely the lineman’s position on the field.


Techniques are identified by numbers, starting with zero, and increase from inside to outside (almost always – this is still football, after all). Even numbers are D-linemen lined up directly over their corresponding offensive linemen. Odd numbers indicate D-linemen lined up to the outside shoulder of the O-linemen.


There are two schools of thought when it comes to numbering defensive techniques. One is more confusing than the other, so we’ll start there:

football, fundamentals, techniques

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The line shown in shapes isn’t the defensive line; it’s the offensive line. The square C is the center, then the guards, then the tackles, and the TE is the tight end. The numbers indicate the defensive techniques.

You can see that the even numbers (0, 2, 4, 6) are all lined up directly across from an offensive lineman. On the occasion that a defensive lineman would line up inside an offensive lineman’s shoulder, the technique is marked by an “i” for inside (2i, 4i). The alignments that occur on the outside of the offensive lineman’s shoulder are marked by odd numbers (1, 3, 5, 9). The exception to this rule is the tight end: the inside position is marked by a 7, and the outside position is marked by a 9. In this example the tight end is on the offensive right of the formation, but were he on the offensive left instead, the same numbers would still apply – 7 for inside, 9 for outside. You’d think, logically, that the numbers for this alignment would be 7 for the outside, 6 for over top, and 6i for inside, but that’s not so. I kind of love the explanation given by Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson for how this came about: “No one knows why that is the case but Coach Bryant numbered it that way and no one has the guts to change it.”

Coach Bryant is Bear Bryant, legendary Alabama head coach. I can understand why no one thought it best to make the tweak.

Someone, however, must have had the guts to make the tweak somewhere along the line, because there’s another system of numbering that works much more sensibly:

football, fundamentals, technique

image source

In this system, the zero technique is still aligned directly over the center. From there, techniques are assigned numerically down the line from 1-9 (if a tight end is present) or 1-6 (if no tight end is present). Even though it doesn’t follow the “even lines up over” rule, it’s still a little easier to follow.

So despite the systems being a little wonky, once you get past that, it’s not too bad, right?

Now the question is: who goes where? What type of player fits the mold for each technique? Let’s consider that in terms of odd-numbered techniques (except for zero), the ones most frequently used to describe defensive linemen:

0-technique: usually the biggest guy of the bunch. He’s traditionally (but not always) responsible for blocking the center and defending both A gaps, so he’s got to be large enough to take up a lot of space on the field.

1-technique: similar physique and job description as the 0-technique, but he usually defends one gap (the A gap), not two, and should command attention from both the center and the guard.

3-technique: the lineman aligned in this position is poised for disruption. It’s his job to shoot the B gap and get into the backfield to disrupt any running or passing plays. As per Pro Football Focus (which is a must read for more information about these techniques – or about anything football, for that matter): “Unlike the first two tackle positions, the 3-technique relies far more on speed and agility than brute strength.”

5-technique: this alignment is designed to block the B and C gaps, not so much through size, but through length. The 5-technique player is usually large, but also tall.

7-technique: it’s all about setting the edge and stopping the run for the 7-technique player. In the case of a passing play, the lineman in this position should also be able to elude the tight end and the tackle and get into the backfield to disrupt a passing play.

9-technique: these are the speed rushers; the guys who are going to fly off the defensive line and into the backfield to rush the quarterback.

So, what do you think? Clear as mud? I know we kind of dove into gaps in this post as well, and I don’t think we’ve talked about them before – consider that your spolier alert for next week’s fundamentals post :)

Author: Beka