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Thursday, 13 October 2011

Life in the Trenches: A guide to playing on the line

Playing on the offensive and defensive lines seems like a very thankless task. You’re not going to make the big play that wins a game very often and can go years without so much as touching the ball.

I compare it to playing front/second row in rugby union; doing all the grunt work so the little skinny guys can get the glory. It takes a certain selfless attitude to want to play on the lines. But it’s very, VERY fun.

I’ve played 4 seasons of football between university and senior level. I’ve started at Left Tackle, Left Guard, Right Tackle, Tight End and Defensive Tackle, sometimes playing both offense and defense during the same game, something no professional ever does. So here are the basics to each side of the ball, things that coaches have drilled into me over and over and over again so that they are instinctive now.

Offensive line:

There are 2 stages to blocking on the O-Line, they’re called “Stance & Start” and “Fit & Finish”.

Logan Mankins is one of the best
Guards in the NFL, and it starts here
Everything starts with a good stance. On offense you need to be low and balanced, with your head up so you can survey the enemy in front of you. Your feet should always be pointing straight ahead so as not to tip any play direction to the defense, there should be no weight on your down hand so as to keep yourself balanced and able to move forward or back equally well.

On the snap of the ball it’s important to come out fast and STAY LOW. Too often players will stand straight up and then advance. This destroys the point of a good stance and immediately hands the advantage to your opponent. Your first few steps should be short with your feet just more than shoulders width apart. This keeps you coiled like a spring and gives you mobility.

The “Fit & Finish” part is all about hand placement and footwork.

On the offensive line it’s key to engage the guy you’re trying to block. Getting your hands latched onto his chest plate is vital. Once there, providing your square in front of him, you won’t be called for holding and can control where he does, or doesn’t, go. When your hands are locked on you can start to drive those pads up into his chin. This will force his head up and make him stand up. You’ve won the block when this happens, provided you’ve stayed low yourself.
Toby Durant (#72) playing RT for Nottingham University
gets under his opponent and drives.
Pic courtesy of J. Bridges

The next step is footwork. It’s crucial, on both sides of the ball, to keep your feet moving. Short, choppy steps are ideal so as not to sell yourself one way or another end up allowing the defender past you or the blocker to overpower you. If you’ve got a good hand location but your feet stop the defender can move outside of you. At this point your good hand placement becomes holding and all is lost.

Defensive Line:

On the defensive side a lot of the same fundamentals apply. Keep your pad level low and your feet pumping and good things will happen.
Jason Taylor (#99) in a textbook defensive lineman stance

A good defensive line stance is to be down like a sprinter, ready to burst forward. A lot of weight is shifted forward onto their down hand as defensive linemen very rarely need to go back into coverage, it’s all about attack on that side of the ball. Not tipping where you’re going is not quite as important on defense but it is good practice to keep your shoulders square to the line of scrimmage so you can move fluidly to either side.

Once the play has started it’s important to keep the O-Line’s hands off of you. One of the best at doing this was Michael Strahan. You’d see him come flying around the edge of the line with his hands flapping around, swatting at the offensive linemans hands like they were a bothersome fly. This kept him from getting stuck on a block and provided increased mobility.

The defensive lineman in green fights his blocker while
looking past him for the ball
The other key on defense is vision. You need to look past the guy who’s trying to block you and see where the football actually is so you can adjust your angles of attack. If you find yourself unable to get this down you can also tell where the play is going but reading the pressure the offensive lineman is applying on you. If he’s trying to push you to the left, the play must be going right. Once you know where the ball is heading you need to get rid of the blocker and get to the ball.

I love playing on the line, and suggest trying it out to anyone who’s big, but still wants to play football. It’s not just a place to put fat guys, you need to be fitter than you think. The little people who run after the ball get subbed out and given a rest. Not Offensive Linemen. The D-line will often be rotated as playing defense is more tiring than offense, but even then if you’re good you’ll be on the field more and more. It’s hard work, unrelenting and occasionally painful. But oh boy is it good fun.

-          Toby Durant (@TDonSport)
-          The Pulling Linemen

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