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Conversations With The Coach: Gap Control

Last week the edge play of the Notre Dame defense led to my posting of a conversation that I had with The Coach about his two cents on defensive edge play. This week I hit him up about a related topic. Gap Control along the defensive line.

The Question

What is your take on the play of Notre Dame’s three down linemen thus far?

Many of the ND faithful seem to think that the two DE's (DT's in the old 5-2) aren't playing well because they don't get much penetration. The way I have always understood it they really aren’t supposed to. Isn’t their primary objective gap control?

I realize there are many variables that could be in play here. Things like the defensive call itself, stunts and pressuring the quarterback once you read pass all change things up but I wanted to get your take on the perception of the 3 down linemen and their lack of penetration.

The Coach

I've been considering this "Front 3 responsibilities" thing since I received this message from you. Sounds like you have the gist of it, but I'll apply a few coaches points anyway.

I have to say that I actually don't know a whole lot about the TNT play in a 5-2 look because, when I was coaching, we always played an even front or 4-3 look. I also have a hard time calling the two outside guys "defensive ends" because I have always known them as defensive tackles in the 5-2 look. I realize "defensive ends" is the terminology that goes with the 3-4. Here I will try to outline standard, basic technique for down defensive linemen, regardless of what type of front the defense plays.

For this discussion, we are only talking about the three down linemen in the defensive front, the nose and two "defensive ends". First of all, the basic technique for any down defensive lineman, regardless of the type of front he plays in, is to control a gap. I believe that in most instances, but not always, the nose man is expected to control both "A" gaps. Running into the backfield, "shooting a gap", running around blocks and trying to create havoc in the backfield is detrimental to the team play of the defensive front 7 and will result in disaster sooner than later.

These interior front lineman should not be running up field unless they have read pass and are trying to get to the quarterback. Even then, these guys are expected to stay in their rushing lanes to avoid opening up big spaces for the quarterback or a running back to run through on a draw play. Down defensive linemen may occasionally line up in gaps and/or "shoot gaps", but only when they are specifically told to do so in the defensive call from the sideline. This is called a stunt.

When this is done, it must be called from the sideline as a stunt so that the entire front seven will be prepared to make adjustments to their techniques and gap responsibilities in response the stunt call. Again, running up the field through gaps is not standard play for down defensive linemen. In the following paragraphs, I will try to outline standard alignment and technique for down defensive linemen.

Lets start with the Defensive Ends. On the tight end side, the DE, in a 5-2 look, will likely line up on the outside eve of the OT. He is responsible for C gap, between the OT and TE. He must control the OT and C gap. The DE cannot allow the OT to cut him off from C gap. On the snap of the ball, the DE should step with his inside foot and split the stance of the OT. His second step should be to place his outside foot in C gap.

As he is taking these steps, he should get his hands under the OT's pads to keep him off his body as he reads the flow of the ball. He cannot just run into C gap. If he does this he is not controlling the OT and he is also turning him loose to block down on an inside linebacker, which is a cardinal sin for a defensive lineman. Defensive linemen are expected to keep offensive linemen off inside linebackers. Down linemen are supposed to tie up offensive linemen and make it possible for inside linebackers to read and run to the football.

Also, if the DE runs through C gap, and the OT wants to take him that way, then he is making it easy for the OT. He is also creating a huge hole in B gap. The inside linebacker likely has B gap, but the wider the hole, the harder it is to fill. Also, if the DE gets by the OT and runs blindly up the field, he is making himself vulnerable to trap blocks by pulling guards or even the back side tackle. Again, he is making it easy for them. He has pretty much taken himself out of the play.

So, the DE must control the OT and C gap. His outside foot is in C gap and he has his hands under the OT's pads and is reading the flow of the ball. If flow takes the ball to C gap, or out on "the edge", the DE is in position to make the play or pursue. His pursuit is down the LOS with his pads square to the line. If the flow of the ball goes the other way, inside of C gap, the DE has to fight across the OT's face and pursue down the line to the ball. If flow is to the opposite edge of the LOS, then the DE must leave the LOS to pursue at an intelligent angle to intercept the ball on his side of the LOS at the opposite edge.

If there is no TE on his end of the LOS, the DE might be asked to slide town to the OT's inside eye and take responsibility for B gap. I don't think this happens very often. It just depends on the defensive call that comes from the sideline. He might be expected to play the split end side the same as he played the TE side and take C gap. It depends on the call, or the defensive game plan for that week.

The Nose man's basic technique should be basically the same as the DE's, but he is expected to take both A gaps. He simply lines up on the Center's nose, and at the snap, he gets his hands under his pads and controls him while he reads flow. Like the DEs, the Nose should not try to run through a gap unless told to do so in the defensive call.

He should control the Center, find the ball and pursue down the line with his pads square to the line. The defensive call may sometimes align the Nose in one A gap or the other to force a double team with the OG and C. Of course, when this is done, adjustments are made along the defensive front to change other players alignments and gap responsibilities.

These are the basic alignments, techniques and responsibilities of the three interior defensive linemen in a 3-4. We could go on forever about specific reads and responsibilities vs. various types of blocking schemes, but we were trying to keep this explanation basic. The main point of emphasis, again, is that interior defensive linemen are not supposed to run upfield, through gaps, or run around blocks. I think I have explained why they must not do this. When they do, they are taking a risk, and making the whole defensive front vulnerable.

I hope this is clear and everyone can understand it.


My Response

Thanks for breaking all of that down for us. After watching the BC game twice I thought the ND defensive line actually did a great job with this. I know that is obvious considering that they only gave up 5 yards rushing, but your comments also brought a couple of specific strengths into focus.

I think Ian Williams is doing a great job with all of this at NT. He has been a beast this year. At the DE spots Ethan Johnson and KLM also seem to be doing pretty well controlling their gaps. One thing that instantly came to mind after reading your response is how often you see KLM disengage from his blocker and take a great angle to chase down a play on the ND side of the LOS on the opposite edge. His athleticism really gets highlighted when he is in pursuit.

At the end of the day I think that all three of those guys are doing a pretty good job with their basic assignment of controlling their gaps. If they can do a better job of creating pressure on the QB once they read pass they would really be playing some good football. I will continue to try and keep a close eye on all three of those positions going forward.

Readers what do you think?

Also if there is a specific aspect of the game that you have been wondering about let us know in the comments. You just might spark our next round of conversation.