Coaches, we’ve all heard the proverbial phrase “defense wins championships” many times. This is true in just about every sport at every level but I would like to take that one step further when referencing the sport of football by specifying that “defensive lines win championships”. The 2012 Superbowl between the Giants and Patriots is an example of that and when I had friends ask me who I thought would win the game I didn’t even hesitate to say the Giants. The strength of the Giants’ defense was their front and this was also the case in the 2007 Superbowl when they beat New England. I picked them to win that game also based on the strength of their defensive front alone. During the 2011 regular season, New England averaged 32 points per game. They scored just over half of that in the Superbowl by putting up 17. That number resonates with me and here is why.
If you’ve read my bio you will have seen that I grew up next door to Joe Collier, the former defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos and innovator of the famed “Orange Crush” defense. His son is only one year younger than me and we grew up playing youth league and high school football together. I spent lots of time at his house. One of the things Coach Collier always said is that if you can hold an NFL team to 17 points or less you have a great chance of winning any game. Coach Collier was innovative in how he moved his players around on the defensive front, particularly Carl Mecklenburg. Denver’s defensive front was notorious for putting pressure on the QB and they did so based on deception versus having superior personnel.
I am an offensive coach but if I were to build a team it would be done so with the defensive front being the strength of the team. Many people think that an offensive line is where you start when building a team but I happen to disagree. I think the heart of any team should be the defensive line. There are many ways you can compensate for the lack of a quality offensive line but there are very few ways to compensate for a poor defensive front.
If you have the ability to put pressure on the QB with only four down lineman there are so many more strategies you can implement defensively. By not having to blitz to put pressure on the QB you don’t expose yourself in man coverage, particularly if your secondary is weak. You can have an average secondary if your defensive front is strong. Not only can you put pressure on a QB by having strong players on your defensive front but you can do so with deception alone even when you don’t have dominant athletic specimens up front as was the case with Coach Collier’s defenses.
So, at the high school level I think that it is a good idea to put your best players on the defensive front or learn how to create deception by moving key players around. They don’t have to be big if they can be taught how to rush the passer off the edge. To preface a suggestion on a drill for defensive lineman, at one of the programs I use to coach at I actually had my wide receivers work against our offensive tackles in practice. This was for the benefit of the offensive tackles. The line releases I teach wide receivers are very similar to what a defensive end can utilize to get around an offensive tackle when rushing the passer. Our offensive tackles benefited greatly from having to work against the speed and agility of our wide receivers. This is a way to create an up tempo practice scenario.
On the flip-side, have your edge pass rushers work line releases against the defensive backs. This is an up-tempo situation which will condition your defensive ends to work against a much quicker and more athletic opponent. The key for the edge rusher is developing quick footwork and hand techniques. Obviously, a smaller defensive back is not going to have the strength of an offensive tackle but the key is working those first couple of steps to gain an advantage off the line. If a good edge rusher can get that offensive tackle off-balance within the first couple of steps then strength doesn’t even become a factor.
I am big on innovative drills to improve the skills of players. Too often coaches teach techniques or utilize drills that they learned from a coach before him who also learned from a coach before him and so on and so on. Although proven effective, certain drills can date back decades. It’s good to create new ways of doing anything so don’t be afraid to work outside of your comfort zone and be innovative! To see our defensive line demonstration video on techniques with former NFL defensive line coach John Pease click here.
Coach Van Tassel