Factors, Part 1 – "trench warfare"


It is often said that in the NFL “the battles are won or lost in the trenches”. I’m going to handle this post as if this statement might actually be true (the way we talk about QBs, RBs, and WRs [and pay them] notwithstanding).

This post follows one I did earlier on “Trends” and some excellent posts that followed it, especially one by Emmett Smith, “Analyzing Nose Tackles” and one by elvisalex, “The Offensive Line 2.0; A Redefined Stance”; and numerous articles by Steve Nichols, Hoosier Teacher, all over the place but especially in MHR University. In fact, truthfully, I am reacting to and trying to organize in my own mind much that has been posted on MHR which has gotten my interest.

BTW, this is not an argument or rebuttal. I’m just going to define some factors that, in my mind, organize much of the information, thoughts and opinions given on this site about the best way to build a roster given the recent trends in the NFL, and then a few implications that I see. I think I’ll use two separate posts to keep some separation in the factors I see.

My points in this first post are based rather loosely on the belief that the trenches should be and are increasingly getting more attention than in the past and that it is having an effect on the game. In important ways, the trenches have become of first importance.

In the Trends post I talked about the increasing size and speed of players and the move to the prominence of the passing over the running game for most of the teams in the NFL. Here I’d like to pick up on some more specific factors that I see as evident.


Emmett’s post on Nose Tackles made some important points. He defined three primary 3-4 defensive approaches (using Steve Nichols, “Hoosierteacher’s article, The Modern 3-4 Defense, in MHR University series): Fairbanks-Bullough (or simply Bullough) used by NE; the Phillips 3-4, developed by Bum Phillips and use by Wade Phillips at Dallas; the Zone Blitz 3-4 developed by Dick LeBeau and used at Pittsburgh.

The Bullough system uses the NT in a two gap formation.

The Phillips system uses the NT in a two or one gap formation with emphasis on penetration

The Zone Blitz 3-4 uses both two and one gap depending on down and distance adjusting to the situation in a kind of amoeba defense rushing or dropping any number of people near the line of scrimmage.

If you haven’t read Emmett’s post it is definitely worth reading (it is now off the board but should be in the archives) for a thorough and helpful description of the three systems. Two points he makes I want to hold in suspension: all three versions use some form of two gap technique; one gap techniques are used to emphasize penetration into the backfield and “blow up the play” result – QB harassment or sack, etc.

While Emmett uses his emphasis to evaluate potential NTs – Dan Williams vs. Terrence Cody (which I will comment on later) – I’d like to use Emmett’s emphasis for something else. His emphasis has a lot to say about the front seven of the 3-4 defenses; and the way they are used in the various possible systems.

BTW, I’m going to refer to the front three (or four) as DL, and divide themin the 3-4 defense into NTs and DGs (DTs confuses them with NTs, and DEs confuses them with OLB/DEs).

DLs are expected to have most, if not all, of these qualities in abundance (I have used the word “prototype” but may abandon it; Emmett favors “typical” and I don’t dislike the term):

·         Control the run;

·         Occupy two or more blockers;

·         Push the pocket toward the QB;

·         Make quick reads and quick responses.

·         Penetrate to harass the QB;

Obviously, these qualities require other qualities:

·         strength,

·         speed, and

·         smarts.


In the real world, individual DL players have various amounts of some or all of these qualities. There are few, if any, “prototypes”. There are lots of “typical”.



You do four things:

1.        You work with what you have;

2.        You define your preferred system(s); (more than one considering various situations – i.e. down, distance, game situation, etc.

3.        You attempt to upgrade (through FAs and draft) to better run your preferred systems.

4.        You adapt along the way to the circumstances as you develop your roster – DL players’ individual skill packages that are available, schemes possible, opponent preferences, etc.

Here is first place where the term “team” is more than a pious aphorism. We’re not just talking about “coordination”, “same page”, “team spirit”, etc. We’re talking about the way in which one player’s skill set impacts on the skill set of another, then others, and then the whole unit. The result is that the combination of skills determines the system or systems best suited for the defense. Theoretically, the more systems available for the various situations in which a defense finds itself – down, distance, etc. – the more successful the defense will be. Here is one place where player versatility is important.

It would seem logical that talking about “team” in this way, assumes that the matching of these skill sets starts or begins at some point with a specific unit, position, or player.

I’m going to assert that, at least on defense, it begins in the trenches. In the 3-4 the mixing and matching of skills begins with the front three; and within that group, it most often begins with the NT. There is sometimes a DG whose skill set dominates the DL and it could be said that it begins with such a dominant player. I’m not necessarily challenging that, but the skill set of the NT plays large even in such a situation. His skill set still figures in combination with the DGs to determine which system or systems are most congenial to the defense. If the combinations include high marks in the qualities listed above, the variation of potential systems increases significantly.

If the DL players are great in all of the qualities above, presumably your options have few limits. It certainly means that the “back 8” can spend less effort covering DL weaknesses and can concentrate on quick reads, tackling, pass coverage, and package pressure.


In the real world, however, it is more complicated. You seldom have three complete “stars” as your down linemen. What do you do? “You do four things….”

Starting with what you have, you define what system(s) can be used. In addition, you define what systems(s) you want to be able to use and then you upgrade. After that, you adapt to the talent level that you have currently attained. That’s simple. It requires players (and coaches) that are smart, tough, versatile and team players (who buy into “complementary” play – is the term or concept McD uses, I think)

However, doing #2 and #3 should involve some attempt to rate or prioritize the before mentioned qualities expected in DL players. What are the more important qualities on the list for members of the DL, especially in the schemes you hope to use?

Emmett’s article on NT analysis seems to assert that this depends on the system that is preferred by a team – some systems emphasize two gap control, some penetration and harassment, some flexible “amoeba” approaches, etc.

However, his article actually makes another point that I find helpful. All of the systems as he defines them use some form of two gap control, some more than others.

 The reason they do so is almost fundamental to the 3-4 concept. (This is stressed in Steve’s article on Nose Tackles in MHR University. BTW his articles on the 3-4 defense are absolutely required reading.) Two gap control can free another player for coverage or penetration (i.e. blitz). It’s what theoretically helps to make the 3-4 more effective in the passing game. There is a general theory (again described by Steve) that, because of rules about blocking (use of hands, etc.) a DL player is worth about 1.5 of an OL player. (In the old 4-3 it meant that the actual ratio is 6 to 5 in favor of the DL, the 4 DL players being actually worth 6 OL players.) If, in the 3-4 defense, 1 DL can occupy 2 OL that ups the ratio by another full player (some will say my math is faulty – i.e. it ups the ration by .5 player; but I use “higher math”: i.e - if 3 DL can occupy 5 OL that frees 2+ more defensive players, not just one).

My point is that the priority of qualities, no matter what system you prefer, should begin with two gap control and its accompanying pocket pressure, at least in the case of the NT who is the lynchpin of the 3-4 defense. With one gap systems you’re basically working with an adaptation of the 4-3 (which is built on the one gap premise of putting a DL in each of the four gaps between OL).  If you like systems that emphasize penetration, in one gap systems you can use either OLBs, ILBs, together with NT and DGs to cover all four gaps.

It seems that using one gap control for the NT is most effective on obvious passing downs, when penetration is desired (It’s theoretically not even necessary to cover every gap on a passing down if you get great penetration – let a blocker(s) block nothing leaving more rushers unblocked – which is what blitzes try to do). On running plays one gap control on the part of the NT leaves the DL vulnerable (since one of the gaps is not filled by a DL) to various blocking technique that open holes (trap blocks, chop blocks, rides, etc.), which is what I saw with the Bronco defense repeatedly during the end of last season.

My point is that a 3-4 defense has the most attractive options (they all run more than one scheme, depending on the situation – down, distance, field position, time remaining, etc.) if the NT can control 2 gaps. Every possible “scheme” or variation does best when this is the first priority. Without it you are compelled to use compensation or adaptation schemes. (The acquisition of Jamal Williams is concrete proof that the Broncos recognize this fact. However, given his age, injury history and the stamina requirements of ‘No Huddle” offenses, adding a younger clone would be a welcome addition.)

As a result, one place I might disagree with Emmett has to do with his opinion of Cody. Cody may indeed be overweight, slow, stupid, undisciplined, un-athletic and every other bad thing you can think of for a DL. But he is the only NT in this draft who is consistently described as the best at being able “to cover two gaps, to eat up blockers, and to push the pocket”. I have not seen this said of any other NT in this draft. So either, being able to do this does not require “speed, smarts, discipline and sleekness”. Or he is not as overweight, slow, stupid, un-athletic and undisciplined as is reported.

Other NTs may be able to do or acquire these basic qualities. I like some of the other NTs in this draft as well (Cam Thomas especially intrigues me). But they also have recognized potential flaws. They either have issues with “upper body strength” (Dan Williams), “high level experience” (Cam Thomas), etc. And, for me, there is a certain appealing logic in thinking that if you want to draft an NFL quality two-gap NT you have the best chance of finding one in a player who “did it best” in college, than in a player who didn’t.

But IMO lacking the ability of the NT to “cover two gaps, eat up blocks, and push the pocket” will limit the possibilities of the 3-4 defense not just for the rest of the DL, but for the rest of the entire defense. You’ll have to compensate in other places (ILB for sure, OLB probably, etc), probably also in schemes available for situations.

I don’t know if Cody will turn out to be a great, or even a good, 3-4 NT. I do think he will rise in the draft simply because of his reputation as “a two gap NT who eats up blocks and pushes the pocket.” I’m also not saying that Cody should be drafted by the Broncos no matter the risk. There are other factors involved.



The biggest changes I see in the OL have to do with responding to the emergence of the 3-4 defense.

In the 4-3 defense, which concentrated on filling the gaps, the first priority was to stop the run and then respond to the pass. All kinds of blocking techniques were developed by the OL to counter run first defense – trap blocks, chop blocks, zone blocking schemes, etc.

4-3 defenses confronted the passing game with DE’s who could also pass rush, especially the RDE who charged from the blind side of the QB. Stunts and blitzes were also used to counter the pass.

The consequent counter of the offense was to emphasize the importance of the LT who must protect “the blind side” and who, as a result, became the most important OL player (if not the most important on the entire Offense after the QB), and to use FBs, blocking RBs and TEs to counter the blitzes and stunts, etc.

With the emergence of the 3-4, things have changed some.

First of all, there is the increased emphasis on the push up the middle. If the front three can occupy all five OL, all of the LBs (and some of the DBs) have pretty free access to the QB when they choose to go after him. Consequently, RBs, TEs (two or three) have to be used to protect the edges (and even the middle).

So the first thing that is happening is that the OC and OGs have become vastly more important. If they can stop the front three of the DL, all kinds of wonderful things can happen for the offense (the Broncos couldn’t do this last year and it showed).

The OC becomes as important, if not more important, than the LT, for he counters the lynchpin of the 3-4 defense. If he can handle the NT, one on one in power blocking, the “trickle down” effect is most encouraging. First of all, he gives more flexibility to the OGs.

If the OGs are thus freed up to be more flexible (because the OC can handle the NT), they can concentrate on the DGs. If they can handle them, one on one, that leaves the OTs to deal with OLBs (somewhat easier than dealing with DEs in the 4-3) with help from RBs, TEs or anyone else available to help, should it be needed. However, OT’s might be able to deal with OLBs one on one, if the interior line is able to protect the pocket from the front three DL. The trickle down then might free the TE somewhat from protection (enhancing Scheffler’s role) and provide an opportunity for deeper patterns (there is actually a pocket for the QB to step into).

You need your very best linemen in the middle, even if it means using former OTs to get them there (and paying them for it).

My point is that also on the offense, it begins in the trenches. I see it as an important factor is building the roster in response to recent trends in the NFL.

And it is encouraging that McX have added significant size through FA to the OL. I expect, as do most on this site, that another addition or additions will be made in the draft. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they bit on one of the top 3 or 4 OTs generally ranked in the top ten, should one fall to #11.

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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