When the New York Giants signed nose tackle Damon Harrison in free agency, it was with the understanding that he would be transitioning to a new defensive scheme. The New York Jets used 3-4 defensive front, while the Giants under Steve Spagnuolo used a 4-3 front as the base of their defense. He remarked to reporters that the change didn’t bother him, both systems are basically the same for his position.
Now the Giants are transitioning to a 3-4 defense with the arrival of defensive coordinator James Bettcher from the Arizona Cardinals. But while the scheme change might not mean much for the nose tackle, it does introduce a new position for many fans — the 5-technique defensive end.
With a mostly new position in a foreign scheme, there of course come questions regarding who fits where, and how players will be used. For our first foray into Bettcher’s scheme, we’ll take a look at the 5-technique.
Who is the 5-technique?
If you have watched the NFL Network’s coverage of the scouting combine, the answer to the above question should leap to mind — and probably echo in Mike Mayock’s voice.
The 5-technique is the defensive end in a 3-4 defense.
Backing up a bit, let’s start with why the 3-4 defensive end is called the “5-techique.” All defensive line positions or “techniques,” are referred to as such based on where they line up with respect to the offensive linemen.
Strictly speaking, as the chart shows, the 5-technique lines up across from the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder. The term has become something of a catch-all for the defensive end in a 3-4 defense, and the player could line up shaded to the tackle’s inside shoulder (4i) or heads-up (4 technique) on any particular play.
Generally speaking, though, a defensive end will line up over the offensive tackle.
Coming from a 4-3 defense, it is perhaps easier to think of the 3-4 defensive end as a ‘hybrid’ position, somewhere between the familiar 7 and 9 - technique defensive end and 3-technique defensive tackle positions. As such, the players who man the position are typically bigger and more powerful than their counterparts in a four-man front. While a prototypical defensive end in a 4-3 Under defense — such as Steve Spagnuolo ran — is generally between 260 and 275 pounds, the 3-4 defensive end tends to be between 290 and 300 pounds. Though as we’ll see, there is certainly some variance in player body types, and good reasons for it.
What does the 5-technique do?
The precise job of the 3-4 defensive end largely depends on the scheme of his defense. There are two main types of 3-4 defense: the 2-gap and 1-gap defenses, and the defensive end has different duties in both of them.
Most old-time Giants’ fans will be more familiar with the 2-gap or “Okie” 3-4 front from when the team used that defense in the 1980s. This is the older and more venerable form of the 3-4 defense, going back to the University of Oklahoma in the 1940s. This front is called a “2-Gap” defense because — predictably — the defensive linemen are asked to be responsible for two gaps apiece.
Looking at the chart in the previous section, the nose tackle, or 0-technique, is responsible for the A-gaps to the left and right of the center. Meanwhile, the defensive ends are responsible for the B-gaps inside of the offensive tackles, and the C-gaps outside of the tackles (between the tackles and where the tight ends would be if they are in-line).
In this alignment, the defensive line’s goal is to control blockers, keeping offensive linemen from working to the linebackers at the second level and freeing them to make plays. Typically, these defensive linemen are bigger, so they can control their blockers and deal with double teams. The defensive ends used in this alignment are not generally pass rushers, and not normally known for their agility and explosiveness. Because of the size of the linemen and how the linebackers are able to play downhill, this front is generally reserved for short-yardage situations in the modern NFL
Most 3-4 defenses in today’s NFL are 1-gap schemes.
Where the 2-gap front is bigger and more powerful, the 1-gap scheme is leaner and more aggressive — more suited to dealing with today’s offenses. In the 1-gap front, each defensive linemen and outside linebacker is responsible for attacking a single gap, except for the nose tackle, who still controls both A-gaps.
Rather than simply occupying blockers, defensive ends in these defenses are asked to shoot gaps and try to disrupt the offense behind the line of scrimmage. Because of this, the defensive end is generally lighter and more athletic, around 6-foot-5, 285 to 295 pounds — J.J. Watt is the prototype for the position.
Breaking things down a bit further, there are two different versions of the 1-gap 3-4 front.
The first is the 3-4 Under defense, innovated by “Bum” Phillips, father of current Los Angeles Rams’ defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips. In this alignment, the weak-side defensive end slides inside slightly and plays a 3-technique (also called the “Under” tackle, as in the 4-3 Under). This defensive front is functionally similar to a 4-3 Under front, with the outside linebacker next to the defensive end who is shaded inside effectively playing as a standing defensive end.
The second iteration of the 1-gap 3-4 defense is the “Eagle” front, originated by Fritz Shurmur, uncle of new Giants’ head coach Pat Shurmur when he was the defensive coordinator for the Rams. The “Eagle” front slides the defensive ends inside slightly to the 4i-technique, or off the offensive tackle’s inside shoulder.
The easiest way to identify an “Eagle” front is that the nose tackle will be lined up directly over the center and both defensive ends will attack the offensive tackles’ inside shoulders (the B-gap). In this case, their goal is to shoot that gap and disrupt the backfield.
How does James Bettcher use the 5-techniques?
Bettcher typically uses a 1-gap front, but he employs his defensive ends in a variety of ways — using both “under” and “eagle” fronts.
First we’ll look at an example of him calling an “eagle” front.
Before the snap you can see defensive ends Frostee Rucker and Olsen Pierre lined up off the inside shoulder of the right and left tackles, respectively. It is easy to see Rucker (92) attack the right tackle’s inside shoulder and though the left guard pulls to the right, you can still see Pierre attacks the left B-gap, signifying the Eagle front.
In this alignment, new Giant Kareem Martin is playing linebacker, but is effectively lined up as a stand-up defensive end over the tight end. In this front, his job is to control the gaps to either side of the tight end and set a firm edge on running plays, which is exactly what he does before coming off of his block to make the tackle as RB Samaje Perine tries to get through the line of scrimmage.
Moving to later in the game, we see the Cardinals employ a 3-4 Under look.
Before the snap, you can see both the nose tackle (94) and defensive end (95) shaded to the strong side of the offensive formation — the 1-technique and 3-technique, respectively. The outside linebacker to the right of the defensive front is effectively the weak-side defensive end.
Rather than having the defensive line trying to occupy blockers so the linebackers can flow to the ball, the entire defensive front attacks its respective gaps, with Rucker very nearly coming up with the tackle for a loss.
But Bettcher’s schemes aren’t limited to formulaic fronts. He is an aggressive and creative coordinator. At times he will overload one side of the offense, such as in this play.
Here he has just one defensive end, lined up at the 2i technique, and an outside linebacker, on the right side of the offensive formation, while having his other two defensive linemen (at 3 and 5 techniques, respectively) and Martin (9-technique) on the left side of the offense.
The alignment creates havoc in the blocking scheme and opens rushing lanes for his linemen on the weak side, leading to the incomplete pass.
Other times he will remove the nose tackle completely, leaving just his two defensive ends on the field.
In this case, Bettcher creates spacing problems for the offense and uses the speed of his defense to capitalize and swarm to the football. Also note that Kareem Martin has gone from outside linebacker to playing 3-technique defensive tackle.
In some instances the Giants’ defense under Bettcher will look remarkably similar to what Steve Spagnuolo ran in 2016. Generally speaking, 3-4 defenses morph into 4-3 fronts in nickel situations, which effectively means a 3-4 Under defense will become a 4-3 Under defense. However, in other situations the Giants’ defense will be a radical departure from what the latest generation of Giants’ fans have seen from their team.
How Bettcher employs his players is also going to be an adjustment for fans. They will not only have to get used to seeing a bevy of new faces on the defense, but seeing old faces employed in different ways. The Giants have a remarkably flexible group of defensive linemen with whom Bettcher can scheme. Harrison is the top nose tackle in the NFL, while Dalvin Tomlinson and B.J. Hill have both the movement skills to play defensive end and the power to play the nose.
Elsewhere, Josh Mauro, Kerry Wynn, and R.J. McIntosh are almost prototypical 3-4 defensive ends, and also able to rush from the 3-technique in nickel or Under fronts. Olivier Vernon, Kareem Martin, and Romeo Okwara have the size to play on the line of scrimmage, but also the athleticism to rush as linebackers.
Given Bettcher’s track record from Arizona, the Giants should have an intriguing defense in 2018, and understanding how he deploys his defensive front will be a major aspect of appreciating the defense as a whole.