Coaches Corner

November 2, 2012

The Five Most Important Drills for Defensive Line Play

By Cornelius Coleman

Regardless of the type of defensive scheme your coaching staff is running, it has become evident in today’s game that defensive line play is the key ingredient to a successful defensive unit. In the earlier stages of the game, defensive linemen were used to plugging holes and keeping opposing offensive linemen off of scrapping linebackers. But in today’s game, it has become pivotal that defensive linemen possess the ability to get upfield and make plays on ball carriers. There are five traits a D-Lineman must possess in order to be successful: 1-quickness, 2-speed, 3-aggressiveness, 4-persistence, and 5-the ability to finish plays.


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As a former defensive line coach, there were three main principles that I communicated to my players on a daily basis. First, a good defensive front must always play with a sense of reckless abandon. This is a concept which means, throughout the course of a game or single play, athletes must find a way to lay it all on the line on every single snap. D-Linemen must understand that they play a position which involves physical contact on every single play. Thus, the first time a lineman takes a play off or does not compete at 100%, he increases the chances of getting injured. Secondly, D-Linemen must play fast all the time. There is a common notion within our coaching fraternity that ‘speed kills.’ As a defensive player, the faster you get to the ball carrier, the better the chances are for you blowing up an offensive play. I train all my players to aggressively attack the outside shade or shoulder of their opponents. In the scheme of my 4-3 gap defense, I want my players working a half a man. This concept allows my players to maintain body leverage and gives them the ability to bend and lean into the path of the ball carrier.

Third, as a defensive lineman, you must understand that you have to play with an unselfish nature. For example, if I am the strong side defensive end in a 4-3 gap scheme, and the offensive unit is running the counter offensive guard to my side, I need to understand that I have to get hands on my key which would be the tight end or tackle, to slow down his progression to our Sam linebacker. Once I get hands on my key, it is my responsibility to attack the pulling guard, hitting him thick inside and running him upfield, making the play bounce outside to the Sam linebacker. Within the scheme of any sport, players have responsibilities that they must abide by in order to be successful as a team.

Throughout the course of my coaching career, I have grown to adopt a teaching tool that I call “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” These are a combination of five intense practice drills that I teach on a regular basis in order to have a successful and dominating unit upfront. Several of these drills consist of multiple opponents. The first drill is called “Explosion” in which there are three separate components (See Diagram 1). The first drill teaches initial get-off speed. Divide your unit into position groups (end, nose, tackle, and Leo or speed rush DE) and have them line-up in four lines across a particular area. Each unit gets into their stances and, on the sound of the whistle, explodes out as far as they can in one singular motion, landing forward on their chest. The objective of this drill is to have players get use to exploding while springing out of their stances. The winner of each individual unit is done for the drill and can fall back in line. The losers of that particular unit keep going through the drill until there is only one person left in line. The lone individual that is left in the line at the end has 25 push-ups to do before the next go-round. You want this drill to be an active learning tool, but also competitive in nature.

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An additional drill teaches attacking speed. Align two players of the same position (end, nose, tackle, and Leo) side-by-side holding a tennis ball in each hand. On the release of the tennis balls, the two players explode out of their stances and catch the balls before they hit the ground on a second bounce. This teaches point of attack and the ability to close in on a ball carrier before they get to the line of scrimmage.

The third component teaches balance and is often called “Replace the Hand.” Have your players align in a normal three or four-man front. Whichever hand your players choose to have on the ground, they must place that same leg up in the air. On the command of your whistle, they must explode out of their stances. After the players reach a certain depth (three to five yards), give a second command by moving the football left or right. Once they have adjusted to the pursuit angle (left or right), have them run through the ball. This drill teaches balance at the point of attack, the ability to cut and adjust to the speed of the ball carrier.

The second drill is called “Quick Feet” in which there are several components (See Diagram 2). The majority of these drills can be done with half-moon bags. These particular drills are structured to teach foot speed and balance all in one. You should align five to six bags along the side of one another, leaving a yard between each space of the bag. Then have your players go through them one at a time.

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First, have players run through the bags placing one foot between each hole. Then have them follow-up by placing two feet between each hole. Have the players then shuffle through the bags keeping their heads up and knees bent, always working on balance. Third, align two or three bags beside one another, having players get in their stances along the tip of the bag. Then have them take a read and punch step, then run side-to-side over the bags, finishing where they started and explode through the ball. The last component of the drill has two players lining up against one another on a hill and on the sound of the whistle, the defensive players have to chop their feet and drive their opponent up the hill. This drill teaches players to constantly stay light on their toes at the point of attack.

The third drill is called “Hand Fighting” in which there are two different components (See Diagram 3). In the first component, you want to teach your players the ability to hand fight on the run, primarily because the game is a speed-intense sport. I teach my linemen the techniques of a swipe down, cross swipe, and “break the wrist.” Have players align in a single line across a formation, partnered up with another player head-to-head, in a two-point stance. On the sound of the whistle, have them hand fight one another along a ten-yard stretch. Defensive linemen must be able to break the hands of their offensive counterparts in order to beat them to the point of attack.

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The second component of the drill has players partnered up while standing in a two-point stance. Have the defensive player close his eyes, envisioning the type of block the offensive player will perform and, on the offensive player’s movement, the defensive player will react. The goal of this particular drill is to have the defensive player react to the initial hand movement of the offensive player, then counter with a move – rip, punch through, bull rush, club, etc. This particular drill teaches separation, which is imperative in defensive line play.

The fourth drill is called “Low Man Wins” and it is a drill that I teach in order for my players to possess the ability of splitting double teams (See Diagram 4). I instruct my players to attack their post man, and as the double team player comes to help, the D-Lineman places his body between both players, not allowing the second player to get what is called a ‘reach around.’ Once the defensive lineman has gained leverage, not allowing the second offensive player the chance of taking over, I instruct my players to keep their feet moving and drive their initial first key. In the event the initial post player has gotten off to the second level, we teach to split the double team and locate the ball carrier.

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However, if the initial post player along with the second player continues to drive your lineman off the ball, instruct your player to grab their initial key and pull, with the approach that he can cause a pile on the ground. This technique allows linebackers the ability to continuously flow and scrape over the top. This is a drill I combine with our offensive linemen. That way, both sides of the ball get ample work at things they need to work on. I normally conduct the drill in chutes in order to mandate that the players stay consistently low.

The last drill in my sequence of mass destruction is known as “Rings of Acceleration.” This is a drill that teaches two components – the art of bending and leaning into the path of the ball carrier – as well as the ability to change paths while in full stride (See Diagram 5). Large rings are needed in this particular drill. In the first component, the coach places three tennis balls throughout the spacing within the paths of the rings. On the sound of the whistle, one player will run the outer parameter of the rings in the form of the number eight, grabbing and bending around the curves of the rings.

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In the second component, you will align two players directly behind one another in a three-point stance and, on the sound of the whistle, the players chase each other. If the player behind you tags you, then you must turn and chase him. This is a great drill for pass rush situations. It teaches defensive linemen that once they reach the quarterback’s pocket, they need to bend and lean inside to collapse the pocket or force the quarterback to throw on the run.

With the modern changes of the game, defensive linemen are not just known as “gap stoppers” anymore. They are now known as “reactors”, players that can dramatically change direction and react to ball carriers. It makes it vital today that coaches learn how to teach drills that enhances an athlete’s explosion and acceleration ability. The biggest thing that you can do to enhance the productivity of your D-Linemen is to give them praise when appropriate. Offensive and defensive linemen rarely get any praise for making plays or playing an exceptional game, but we know that it is those two positions that can dominate the course of a football game.

This article is courtesy of Gridiron Strategies. Go to www.gridironstrategies.com for more information.

The opinions of the writers do not necessarily represent the opinion of the NFL.

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