Film Study: Why Joey Bosa Will Thrive in San Diego's 3-4 Defense

By Jonathan Stephanson on May 2, 2016 at 11:30 am
Joey Bosa

Joey Bosa has faced questions surrounding his perceived lack of fit in a 3-4 front throughout the draft process. Is he an outside linebacker or defensive end? Can he transition to the stand-up edge rusher spot and play pass coverage?

While certainly relevant, these questions fail to analyze the variety of 3-4 schemes and number of sub packages run in the NFL today, instead relying on generalizations about the ideal player profile to fit a defensive scheme that has rapidly evolved over the last decade. Simply put, all 3-4 defenses are not created equal.

Before moving on to the film it is vital to understand the difference between the traditional 3-4, 2-gap defensive front and the modern 3-4, hybrid front that has taken the NFL by storm.

When analyzing the 3-4 many media members, bloggers, and commentators visualize the Bud Wilkinson ‘Okie’ front in which three down linemen 2-gap across the defensive line, freeing up linebackers to scrape to the ball and take the ball carrier to the ground. 


While a small number of NFL teams (most notably the Pittsburgh Steelers) still utilize the multi 2-gap front, most teams have adopted a hybrid 3-4 that mixes gap principles or relies entirely on 1-gap run fits.

One-gap 3-4

Under the guidance of progressive coaches like current Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, many odd fronts no longer require three ‘space eaters’ along the defensive line to hold double teams in order for the linebackers to make the plays. A majority of today’s 3-4 schemes (like Phillips’) rely on penetrating defensive linemen to make plays at the line of scrimmage. San Diego’s is no different.

There is always a role for a defender of Bosa’s caliber in the penetrating, 1-gap front San Diego plays. Furthermore, hybrid fronts place extra value on players that can be moved around like chess pieces, playing the run game on early downs before sliding inside or outside to rush the passer on third. In today's pass-happy game most defenses spend a majority of snaps in their nickel defense, further minimizing the value of a lineman that can do little more than eat blocks.

During a draft-night interview Chargers’ defensive coordinator John Pagano (a Wade Phillips disciple) left little question as to Bosa’s fit in his 3-4 scheme.

“We see him as a five-technique in our base defense,” Said Pagano. “He’s a defensive end in our sub defense. Everybody wants to rate everything off of base defense these days, and the last two or three years we’ve been in sub defense, which would be a nickel or a dime defense -- a four-down look. I think our numbers were at 70 percent.”

During the Chargers’ post-draft press conference General Manager Tom Telesco noted the Florida natives’ versatility saying “He’s an outstanding pass rusher, on the edge and moving him inside to rush, but in addition to that, he plays the run extremely well. So for us, he’s very balanced. To find a player to help us in both areas, which we think we need, he’s not just strictly a pass rusher.”

Bosa agrees with his new teams’ assessment, saying “I think I can fit wherever they want me.” He went on to add “You’re in base 70 percent of the time, so it really doesn’t make much of a difference. My versatility is something I think this team liked, so they’re going to put me where they see fit, and they’re going to find the best spot for me to help the team win.”

After allowing former strong-side defensive end Kendall Reyes to walk in free agency, Bosa will move into a clearly-defined role within San Diego’s base and sub package defense as a 5-technique on run downs, before sliding outside obvious passing situations. Bosa will rarely be asked to play 2-gaps from this alignment, instead 1-gapping or run stunting with other defensive linemen and linebackers. 

SD Base with Positions

While San Diego’s base defense may be a 3-4 in philosophy, it aligns like a 4-3 under on the field. The nose tackle and strong-side defensive end (Bosa’s role) will align to the strength of the formation, with the defensive tackle aligning to the weak side. The WILL and SAM create the five-man front, lining up as stand-up rushers outside the EMLOS (End Man on Line of Scrimmage) to complete the run fits.

SD Base D Balanced

Against a ‘balanced’ front (equal numbers of skill players on each side of the formation) the 20-year-old Florida native will generally align to the wide-side of the formation, as most teams show a run-direction tendency to this side of the field. Notice the defensive tackle again aligns to Bosa’s side, creating an under front via alignment.

SD Nickel

When the Chargers go to their nickel defense, expect Bosa to slide outside and align as a traditional 5-technique, the position he excelled at within Ohio States’ base 4-3, over defense. From here he will be unleashed to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks using strength, power, violent hands, and motor.

Whether in a base or sub package on early downs Bosa will make his money stopping the run. A 3-4, 5-technique must be stout at the point of attack as he will often face double-teams as most teams show a directional run-tendency to the strength of the offensive formation (remember Bosa’s position will generally align to the side of the formation with more offensive skill players). 

Telesco is a believer in Bosa’s ability to be a disruptive force defending the run game, saying “The way he plays the run. He’s stout, strong and powerful.  Has great hands and a great feel for it.”  

Over his three-year career at Ohio State the 2014 national champion continuously demonstrated the ability to be a wrecking ball against the running game, shedding blocks and blowing up plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. During Ohio State’s 44-28 Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame, Bosa defeated blockers with power and violent hands several times before his first quarter ejection for targeting.

Already down 14-0 midway through the first quarter, the Irish offense has moved the ball out of the shadow of their goal line to the 25-yard line. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford elects to run a basic Inside Zone play away from Bosa, although the 2015 All-Big Ten selection has different plans.

Lock it Wide

Expecting a tight end to block a player of Bosa’s caliber one-on-one is borderline criminal. Let's take a deeper look into the play to breakdown the strengths that made the St. Thomas Aquinas High School product such an attractive target to his new team.

Lock Out Close

Start with the hands. Notice how Bosa attacks the blocker’s chest plate, delivering a violent punch with the thumbs up before locking out with the left arm. The lockout is important because it prevents the blocker from establishing any leverage as he cannot reach Bosa with his hands.

Because the blocker cannot establish leverage on Bosa he is able to squeeze (constrict) the C-gap, which turns out to be a vital component of the play as the defensive tackle (#52) is destroyed by the right tackle and right guard combination. The tailback wants to hit the backside A-gap before the squeeze forces the cutback. There were yards to be gained here if ball carrier could press the hole.

The finish is likely the most impressive part of the play. Watch Bosa locate the ball, use the locked-out arm to shed the block by flinging the tight end aside, and take the ball carrier to the ground.

While Bosa made his living on the edge during early downs, the Silver Bullets’ co-defensive coordinators (Luke Fickell and current Rutgers head coach Chris Ash) often moved him inside on passing downs to create favorable personnel matchups. The former Buckeye made the most of his interior run-stopping opportunities, as evidenced from a play late in Ohio State’s 35-10 victory over the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Facing third and ten late in the fourth quarter, the versatile playmaker has moved inside to a 3-technique (head aligned over outside shoulder of guard) to bring more edge rushers to the line of scrimmage in an obvious passing situation.


The Nittany Lions have clearly thrown in the towel as they hand the ball off to run the clock. Rather than block Bosa straight up the offense elects to wham block (different coaches will use different terminology for this block; you might also see it referred to as an arc or trap block) the defender, likely hoping to catch him penetrating too far into the backfield.

Beats Scoop and Wham

Two things stand out here. First, the right guard (#72) wants to ‘scoop’ to the second-level linebacker while making minimal contact with any defenders. Watch Bosa’s violent punch knock the scooping guard off balance, allowing the linebacker to scrape towards the ball. This is a great example of keeping the linebacker clean to pursue the ball by preventing a free jump-through.

After disrupting the guard’s scoop, he turns his attention to the wham block coming from the wing. This is a grown-man’s block that #11 does not want any part of. Notice how Bosa attacks the block with his inside foot and shoulder to maintain his run fit (the B-gap), putting himself in position to again locate the ball and make the tackle for a minimum gain. Bosa truly is a man amongs boys here.

In addition to Bosa’s ability to impact the run defense, San Diego believes he will vastly improve production from the strong-side defensive end in the pass-rush game due to his ability to rush to quarterback.

“He’s an outstanding pass rusher, on the edge and moving him inside to rush”, Telesca said.

Despite recording only five sacks in the 2015 season after amassing 13.5 the year before, stats do not reflect his value and skill as a pass rusher. Bosa was often double and even triple-teamed throughout the season, allowing other defenders to stuff the stack sheet while he continued to apply pressure from a variety of positions.

Playing alongside edge linebacker Melvin Ingram (10.5 sacks and 65 tackles last season) should pay immediate dividends, as the former All-American will not command double teams until he proves he can consistently beat NFL tackles one-on-one.

Although not the most flexible athlete in the hips, Bosa has shown the ability to bend the edge on outside pass rushes throughout his college career. What he lacks in pure athleticism he more than compensates for with above average ‘get off’ at the line of scrimmage, hand use, and dip as he turns the corner.

Early in Ohio State’s 49-7 thrashing of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Bosa demonstrated the aforementioned pass rush traits as he used an outside rush to bring down quarterback Chris Laviano.

Bend the Edge Tight
Bend the edge and use the hands

Bosa’s explosion at the snap of the ball forces the right tackle to open his hips early, leaving him off-balance and unable to deliver a strong blow to the chest plate. The defensive end shows off his outstanding technique, using his arms to swat away the blocker’s hands before finishing with an upward rip from the inside hand. He completes the bend by dipping the inside shoulder and turning the corner on the way to a sack.

While not a prototypical two-gap defender, Bosa brings the necessary traits and skills to thrive in San Diego’s hybrid front as a 5-technique defensive end. Already a fan-favorite at Ohio State, Bosa’s versatility and passion for the game will quickly endear him to San Diego fans as well. There is no sure thing in the NFL, but this writer expects Bosa to silence his doubters sooner rather than later

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