An Xs and Os Primer: Ohio State's DL Positions

By Ross Fulton on July 18, 2013 at 2:00p

With the college football season approaching, it is a good time to take a step back and provide a basic understanding of every position Ohio State will put on the field this fall, explaining the techniques and skills necessary for each position.

In today's football it is no longer descriptive to say someone is a "defensive tackle or defensive end." We need to go a step further to understand what Ohio State and other coaches are looking for when they recruit and place people in positions.

Today I want to start with a unit group where this micro-analysis is particularly important, the defensive line. 

One Gap

To understand the positions on Ohio State's defense we must start with the explanation that the Buckeyes (and most other college teams) play a one-gap defense (as opposed to two gaps). As the name infers, every front seven defender is assigned one gap that they are responsible for.

Against a traditional 21 package (2RB, 2WR, 1TE), a one-gap defense allows you to cover all seven gaps at the line of scrimmage with one man each and still employ four defensive backs. A one-gap defense also allows the defense front to play more aggressively and not have to try and control an offensive lineman to control two-gaps.  

The one-gap approach facilitates Ohio State shifting its defensive line from head-up over offensive linemen to playing in the gap between them. The Buckeyes will either shift their defensive line over towards the wide-side of the field and/or the offense's strength, or under, or away from the strength. The linebackers then shift strong or weak to compensate. 

For instance, the Buckeyes base from a 4-3 under. The defensive line shifts weak and the linebackers adjust to the strength.

Here is is from game film:


But Ohio State will also play an over defense, particularly when they are in nickel defense.

Runnin' Techniques

In theory, a team could have a left and right defensive tackle and have them shift one gap over either. But that is not what most one-gap teams, including Ohio State, do. Instead, they have one defensive line position that will always play the same position and will flip sides depending upon the over or under call.

For instance, one defensive tackle always aligns between the center and guard. He knows that if the call is under he is going to the side that the defense is called. If it is an over call, he is going away from the defensive call. The same principle is true for the defensive lineman that lines up between the offensive guard and tackle, and on down the line. 

The defensive line positions are designated by the techniques they play, referring to the gap where the defender lines up. The gaps are numbered from the center outward. Even number techniques mean that the defender is aligning straight across from the offensive linemen. Odd numbers denote that the defender will align in the gap between two offensive players. An "i" technique falls in between, where the down lineman aligns on the eye of the offensive lineman.

1, 3, 5 . . .

As a four down linemen, one-gap team, Ohio State's four defensive line positions are a 1-technique (or nose guard), a 3-technique, a 5-technique, and a 7-technique (Leo or Viper). The terms go beyond nomenclature to signify a specific type of player the Ohio State coaching staff is looking for. 

In the 4-3 under, the nose guard often plays to the offensive formation's strength – the side the offense tends to run the football. Ohio State wants a plugger, someone who is stout against the run, can take on double teams, and make a pile if need be. Tommy Schutt and Joel Hale will likely fill this position.

The 3-technique also needs to hold the point of attack. But as an interior linemen often away from the formation they should have a quicker first step, able to split the guard and the tackle and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. As I have previously written:

The '3' technique is a crucial fulcrum for this defense. From the under, the 3 is to the boundary. When an offense puts their formation strength to the boundary and runs that direction, the 3 must control the line of scrimmage and redirect the running back.

Then, when OSU is in its nickel over, the 3-technique is to the field and again in the crucial position to reset the line of scrimmage against front side zone plays. [Jonathon] Hankins filled this role superbly. He was unblockable at times and opposing offenses often had to game plan to double-team him or run away or outside.

The task now falls to Michael Bennett. He is a more natural fit for this position than defensive end (where he played last season) because he is quick off the ball but does not have the sustained speed to play the edge. The key for Bennett is whether he is big enough to maintain position at the point of attack. Schutt could also play 3-technique in certain situations.

The 5-technique (or strongside) defensive end requires a skill mix between a defensive end and tackle. He is the bigger of the two defensive ends. The 5-technique often lines up to the offense's strength between the offensive tackle and tight end. He must first and foremost be stout against the run, able to handle double teams, and not give ground. At the same time, a 5-technique must have sufficient speed to maintain leverage and track down backs outside the tackle box. Adolphus Washington has the ideal skill set for the position but must demonstrate consistency. Incoming freshman Joey Bosa is another prototypical strong side defensive end.

The Viper is a hybrid between a defensive end and outside linebacker. Ohio State's Viper aligns in a 2-point stance even though he is a defensive lineman. The Viper often aligns away from the offensive strength, outside the backside tackle or end on the line of scrimmage. The Viper is smaller than a 5-technique, and he must be long and athletic, with a greater emphasis on pass-rushing ability. The Viper is also occasionally called to drop into coverage. As with Washington, his sophomore counterpart Noah Spence is a prototypical fit for the position, and will look to build upon an impressive freshman campaign.

In short, each defensive line position is specialized and requires a specific skill-set. It is these positions that the Ohio State coaching staff is looking to recruit and fill.          


Comments Show All Comments

stevebelliseeya's picture

As always Ross, quality piece.....thanks for the information.

"We are eternal. All this pain is an illusion." - Tool

Young_Turk's picture

I played, but a long time ago.  On the 4-3 Under diagram, it looks to me like the line is shifted to the strong side (the side with the tight-end, or strength).  Is there something I don't understand, or am missing with this?


Ross Fulton's picture

It just depends where you start from. When ppl are talking about the under, they are comparing it to a traditional 4-3 defense, where the two defensive tackles align over the guards, and the defensive ends line up over the front side TE and backside OT.


From there, everyone shifts away a gap. The NG shifts inside from the frontside OG. The backside 3 tech shifts away from the backside guard, etc. The frontside Sam linebacker then walks down over the TE to compensate.

AltaBuck's picture

Thanks Ross....I was wondering the same thing.

I am Groot - Groot

Young_Turk's picture

Thank you for this information.  I'm still a little confused, so please bear with me.  Right above the diagram, is the following.

For instance, the Buckeyes base from a 4-3 under. The defensive line shifts weak and the linebackers adjust to the strength.

The way I'm still seeing it, it looks like the diagram shows a line shift to the strength, while the quote reads the line shift is to the weak.  


Fugelere's picture

The defensive linemen are V, 3, 5 and E.  the strong side of the offensive formation is typically determined by where the TE lines up.  Since none of those players are lined up over or to the ouside of the TE (who is the last man on the line of scrimmage on the right side of the offensive formation) the d-line is shifted to the weak side.  
The LBers are represented by W, M and S.  the LBers are shifted to the strong side because the S (for Sam or strong side) LBer is lined up over or outside of the TE.
At least that's the best way I can explain it, hope it helps.

Young_Turk's picture

Think I got it after reading a couple times your suggestion and Ross' response.  I think I was going off of N as nose-guard, a position I always associated with being over center.  Instead of that, it's a 3 technique, and so the shift is to the weak side from the strong/front side guard.  
Man, I can't get over how specialized  and precise everything is.  Now I see what those assistant coaches salaries are going for.  
Thank you!


Fugelere's picture

Don't thank me yet. I retread my post and I realized I made a mistake.  The d-line in the diagram are actually labeled V (7 tech.), 3, N (1 tech.) and 5.  So the 3 tech is the DT.  Sorry about that.
I understand your confusion about the Nose guard.  I was always taught that he lines up over the center's nose, hence the name nose guard.  Nowadays it's any interior d-lineman that lines up over center or in either A gap.
PS: You're right about shift, in the under front the DT will be aligned in the backside B gap

Ross Fulton's picture

Yes, I see how the use of the term "nose guard" is confusing. That is why referring to the techniques is in some way easier. With the under, think about it this way. He is a defensive tackles that moves a gap inside (from 2 to 1 technique) away from the call. So he is just a DT playing inside a gap.

yrro's picture

How long has OSU been running the 4-3 under with these assignments? I'd like to see a list of the best/most well known OSU players at each position - might help make things a little clearer in people's minds.
Love the write-up as always, Ross.

omahabeef1337's picture

What can the defense do if the offense lines up, then shifts a bunch of guys/motions a TE over to flip the strong side of the formation?

Ross Fulton's picture

Generally can handle it one of two ways. If you are calling an under D to the offense's formation strength, and they shift and flip their strength, the Defense just shifts from an "under" to an "over."  It is an easy adjustment and really only involves the end moving out and the LBers shifting.


If the under defense is called to the field and the offense shifts into the boundary, then generally everyone on the defense just stretches to the weak side, just as they would have if the O came out with its strength to the boundary. Viper moves out to outside the TE, 3 tech plays more of a 4i, etc.

omahabeef1337's picture

But if the defensive personnel doesn't move around, then wouldn't the offense have an easier time running at the viper and 3 technique?

Ross Fulton's picture

In theory yes, but that's why the 3 technique is such a critical position.


The defense is making a trade-off. It may be slightly weaker at the point of attack, but a) it increases simplicity in dealing with shifts, and b) if the offense wants to run into the boundary the D can use the sideline as a 12th man.

omahabeef1337's picture

Also, it seems like these days (with versatile DE/OLB and OLB/DB hybrids like OSU's "viper" and "star"), one-gap vs two-gap tells you more about a defense than 3-4 vs 4-3... is that accurate?

yrro's picture

One-gap vs two-gap has always told you more about a defense than 4-3 vs 3-4. 3-4 might change your ideal body types, but your players are rarely going to match those ideals in college anyway.

Fugelere's picture

Almost all modern 4-3 teams are one gap.  However the 3-4 can be either or depending on the coach and/or personnel.  Some teams in the NFL (NE I believe) have mixed both styles and had certain linemen two gap and others one gap.  I don't know if anyone is doing this on the college level though.
You are absolutely right about hybrid players/position blurring the line between 3-4 and 4-3.  I could easily see how someone watching our defense line up with Spence or whoever in the Viper/Leo position in a two point stance and think that it's a 3-4.

Tom57's picture

One way I've always thought about the techniques, esp as we now specialize, is that there is an A gap Tackle and a B gap tackle. There is a C gap End and a guy who stands up between the C and D gap where the TE would line up.

Tom57's picture

The somewhat confusing to consider whether it's over or under, the  1 technique or A gap tackle is always resp for the A gap to the formation strength, and the 3 technique is always resp for the B gap away from the strength.
So the 1 Tech just shifts and the 3, 5 and LEO tech has to flip if the TE goes in motion. I think that's one reason the DL align to the field and boundary in many cases so they can ignore the formation shift.

Michibuck's picture

Nice job, Ross, as always.

Hovenaut's picture

Love the concept and terminology behind the defensive schemes. Eager to see things unfold within the front seven as all this young talent is unleashed.

I'm under the opinion we see a good bit of that 4-2-5 look, especially with being lean at LB and the depth/talent OSU has stocked in the secondary.

In any case, the Silver Bullets are back and look to be nasty.

Thanks for another great breakdown Ross.

Ross Fulton's picture

I touched upon this in my defensive article for the Lindy's preview. OSU is in nickel at least 75% of the time. Therefore the Star (aka nickel back) is far more important than the 3d LB.

Hovenaut's picture

Can't wait.....ordered it yesterday.

NuttyBuck's picture

I still don't understand one thing. How the hell is UFM gonna keep up with the Bucks?!! 
Go Bucks!!!

CentralFloridaBuckeye's picture

Great article Ross.  Love getting the Xs and Os info. 

pjtobin's picture

Thank you very much Mr Ross. I have boys to young to play yet. But I will be able to teach them what your teaching us. Thank you for taking time out of your life for us fans. 

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

BeijingBucks's picture

This is Gold.  I have always been interested in the 'shifts' as it seems more and more the chess match before the snap is critical to creating numbers to be able to take advantage of.  When you know the QB is reading one player do you fake him out ever?  Or are fundamentals more important than 'poker tells'?
I always thought this was the biggest difference between pro ball and college... the Defenses in the NFL have such experienced personnel across the board at all positions they can better disguise/fake their intentions -- zone, blitz, man etc.
Man these write ups make me feel like even more of a Noob and I've been watching this game for decades

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton