Training Camp: Playing Offensive and Defensive Lineman

Linemen. What are they doing?  It looks like they run at each other and just start pushing.  But the fact is that the play of the linemen can determine the success of the team.  I learned more about this at Columbia’s football camp and from watching game film with the Source. To get an idea of what type of person plays this position, when the Source scouts a player for the linemen positions in college, he looks to see whether 1) the player can do two things at once and 2) he has enough attitude to get knocked down and get up again without ever quitting.

The linemen on both sides of the ball need to be able to quickly determine what their opponents are doing and have the athletic skills, strength and positioning to counter it.

  • The offensive lineman needs to either give his quarterback enough time to pass the ball or make a hole for his rusher to go through, which usually means he is keeping the defensive players from going where they want to go and off of his side of the line of scrimmage.
  • The defensive lineman needs to determine where the ball is by determining what is opponent is doing.  If it’s a passing play he should attempt to put pressure on the quarterback who is still holding the ball, but if it’s a running play he will try to stop the runner who has the ball and create a wall that he can’t get through.

When it comes to offensive lineman, coaches want to see if he is correctly engaging or stepping back, depending on the play.  On a running play, he should be engaging and hitting, but if it’s a passing play, he should be stepping back.   Why is that?  Because by stepping back, it opens up the field of vision for the quarterback and therefore the entire offense will step back with him to help protect him.  Former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie was the person who first introduced that concept to me.  Standing just 5’9, Flutie won the Heisman Trophy in 1984 for Boston College and played in the NFL and the CFL, where he was voted #1 in TSN’s top 50 of all time list in 2006.   He explained that by stepping back, it always allowed him to see more of the field and that anyone who had a height disadvantage could step back just a little bit more to make up for that.

Football is a game that involves many disguises in order to camouflage ones strategy and therefore, a defensive line coach wants to see if his player can “read” what the opponent is doing and anticipate his next moves and where the play is going.    The first thing the defensive lineman needs to determine is where the ball is going to be (in whose hands) and a key indication of that is knowing whether it’s a passing or rushing play.  If it’s a rushing play, the defensive lineman needs to try to tackle the runner coming forward.  If it’s a passing play, he needs to try to get through the offensive line and put pressure on the quarterback who has stepped back from the pressure.

As mentioned above, a clue as to the type of play the offense has called lies in how the offensive lineman moves.  But its not that simple to read.  The NFL’s Carlos Dunlap (defensive end) provides some tips for recognizing this as his job as a defensive lineman is to recognize what the offensive lineman is doing.  He says that the general assessment is:

“If [the offensive linemen] is coming at you or gaining ground towards you or if he’s meeting you as you come off the ball, then you know it’s run.  Because if it’s pass, he’s going to get depth—he’s going to back away from you so he can play you better.”

He adds a tip for recognizing it too (bonus material, not found in the original interview):

“It’s pretty easy to tell when you’re coming across the ball—if he meets you within TWO steps, you know it’s run.  If he doesn’t and if he’s KICKING BACK AND STANDING UP to get depth away from you, then it has to be pass.”

Likewise, the offensive lineman needs to read the defensive lineman facing him and determine which direction he is going and where the attack is coming from.  The NFL’s Orlando Franklin (offensive tackle) explains this and the critical aspects of the offensive lineman’s job:

“Just being able to recognize it quicker than a lot of people.  When you’re beat off of a stunt, it’s because you just don’t recognize it as quick as you need to…you gotta wait on it.”

The “stunt” that Franklin refers to occurs when two defensive players try to trick the offensive linemen by switching positions in a way that leaves one offensive lineman out of position to block, therefore freeing up another defensive player to attack the quarterback. When a player “stays at home” it means he doesn’t fall for the stunt and maintains his assignment, while adjusting to take on the correct player accordingly.

To read more about linemen and their terminology, read All About Linemen.

To read more from the Training Camp series, see Playing Inside vs Outside Linebacker or  Playing Defensive Back.