Pass Rushing Mentality, Run Stopping Reality
By Derelle Hankins, Defensive Line Coach
“Play the run on the way to the QB!” That is our philosophy as a defensive line unit. Our defense is confident enough in our ability to stop the run; therefore, we rely on our ability to rush the quarterback as our method for halting an offense. With that being said, having a strong desire to rush the passer absolutely does not negate the ability to efficiently stop the run. Just to be clear, there is no difference in the way we fire off the ball whether it is a run or a pass.
My belief is that if a defensive lineman fires off the ball every snap with the expectation that an offensive lineman is going to pass set, he will always sprint out of his stance which is ideal for neutralizing run blocks, especially double teams. This article will focus on how we are able to aggressively play the run while dedicating a large degree of focus on getting to the quarterback. Our foundation as a “pass rush first” defensive line relies on these four key aspects that we speak about daily: being an Olympic sprinter, key reading our target, using active hands and having flexible hips. Once those four things are emphasized, the rest boils down to gap integrity, assignment, discipline and a full understanding of the defense and its goals. That is how a defensive line unit turns a good defense into a great defense – focusing on pressuring quarterbacks while adequately stopping the run.
We pride ourselves on being the fastest defensive line in the country. The goal is to be a gold-medalist Olympic sprinter at the snap by focusing on the first two steps. Firing off the ball with tremendous speed means half the battle is already won. The goal up front is to create a new line of scrimmage approximately 1-2 yards in the backfield on every snap, especially against the run. This can be done by fitting up an offensive lineman and driving him backwards or by getting vertical penetration through a gap. We prefer to focus on the latter since our players are only responsible for one gap.
From a defensive perspective, we do not want to allow the offensive line to fire off the ball with good leverage or quickly climb to our linebackers so we make them turn their shoulders and block sideways. Shooting the gap is the most effective way to get an offensive lineman to turn his shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, or what I call “opening the door.” Once the offensive lineman’s door is open, the speed aspect takes over and it becomes a race to the quarterback or running back. This is where “key reading” your target comes into play. Every week we will study the opposing offensive line’s movements (our key). We want to know what part of his lower body moves first (foot, knee, hip) so that we can quickly mirror that movement (our read) while getting vertical penetration through our gap. An offensive lineman will tell you
if the play is a run or pass and he will also tell you what direction the play is going all within the first second of the ball being snapped.
Being able to disengage from an offensive lineman is the difference between that tackle for loss/sack and a missed opportunity in the backfield. Our defensive linemen have active hands to fight off blockers and make those necessary plays. I like to tell my players to think of the quarterback or running back as a paycheck and the offensive line as a work-week. They cannot expect to get paid without first putting in a solid 40 hours of work, meaning don’t get caught with your eyes in the backfield without having first taken care of the guy right in front of you. A significant amount of our practice time is dedicated to drills that focus on hand placement, hand timing and hand violence. Some of these drills include being put into bad positions; that is, how to disengage when the offensive lineman has good leverage with both hands inside. When looking at the importance of using hands in pass rush, my stance is quite simply that an offensive lineman cannot block you if they cannot touch you.
Our fourth aspect that we focus on is flexible hips. We will begin every practice with different variations of hurdle work. The defensive linemen will step forwards, backwards, sideways and under each hurdle to engage and stretch the hips in preparation for that day. Having flexible hips is the final piece of the puzzle that allows our players to win at the line of scrimmage. Drills that incorporate a constant “flipping” of the hips are crucial to the development of our defensive linemen. The goal is for each player to keep his lower body on the same path toward his destination, whether that is the running back or quarterback while being able to adjust his upper body to what the offensive lineman is doing. As a defensive line that focuses primarily on rushing the passer, it is extremely important that they be able to adjust their hips on the fly if the ball is actually handed off to a running back.
While many defenses will still choose to use large, gap-plugging defensive linemen, there is something to be said about quicker, more agile players who are capable of getting in the backfield quickly and causing disruption. Our defensive linemen are definitely not space eaters, but they are just as physical as their bigger counterparts.
Specifically, there are a few keys I use in my coaching to develop great pass rushers that can stop the run with equal intensity. Those coaching keys are: over-emphasize the things we want to achieve, over-exaggerate the drills to make them realistic on game day, over-simplify the responsibilities of the defensive line and the defense, and maintain enough consistency that allows the players to get very good at the few things we do while being able to adapt to new offenses each week. Making sure the defensive line is prepared and challenged throughout the week makes for an easier Saturday afternoon.
Blocking schemes will continue to evolve and offensive linemen will become more athletic, but one thing will stay consistent: a defensive lineman running around in the backfield WILL cause chaos.