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defensive end skillsBy Mike Kuchar, X&O Labs Senior Research Manager

As a follow up to last week’s report on training your 9-techinque to play the run game, this week’s research will center on how that 9-technique player could play the pass game.

By Mike Kuchar

Senior Research Manager

X&O Labs

As a follow up to last week’s report on training your 9-techinque to play the run game (click here to read the report), this week’s research will center on how that 9-technique player could play the pass game.  Again, it’s important to clarify that a 9-technique is any player on the outside tip of the tight end, or third player in a three man surface.  For the purpose of this report, we’ll focus on the outside linebacker type in an even (Diagram 1) or odd (Diagram 2) front.

As we detailed in the last report, playing the 9-techinque position is so vital defensively because you must have the speed to rush the passer while having the strength to handle the D gap in the run game.  Combine this with the athleticism required to play zone coverage with the needed speed to play man coverage and you see how important it is to have a player with all these skills.  We wanted to know which kind of player coaches look for when evaluating the 9-techinque defender, so we asked.  We came up with the following results below.  In no particular order:

Qualities of a 9-Technique Defender (Based on coaches’ responses)

  • "I used to be a believer in the bigger DL type body to play end, but over the past years, we have had more success with the faster OLB type." - Kurt Gielink
  • "Our most successful 9-tech were 6-3 to 6-4 basketball swing player type bodies." - Keith Albers
  • "Like any other defensive position the best eagle defenders we have understand how to read blocks. They have to either squeeze a down block, fight a reach block, or see high hat from tackle and get to the flats in our cover 3." - Anonymous Feedback
  • "Fearlessness, usually your best athlete. Someone who is big enough to take on a tight end or even a tackle, but also someone who can drop in coverage, keep contain, and occasionally play man coverage." - Gary Alleva
  • "Too strong for backs to block & too quick for OTs to block. Could out leverage TEs"- Tony Demeo
  • "We like for this player to be physical and quick. He should never get reached and must be able to react flat down the LOS on any down block from the TE. We like for him to be a great speed rusher because his distance from the OT makes that player's pass protection difficult vs. speed."- Rick Wimmer
  • "Relatively long and tall kids. Maybe a bit slow to play OLB consistently but better feet than typical defensive linemen." - John Talley
  • "Our Sam LB is a player most often in a nine technique. We would prefer not to substitute personnel and our Sam also has to play an Apex technique when #2 is removed. Because of this our Sam is usually a bigger safety who has the ability to play in space. Since he is a bigger safety he usually is smaller than the TE and because of this we play him wider when he has to align in a nine technique. The best Sam that I have coached in my four years as a defensive coordinator was about 6'3 215 and former high school safety." - Scott Sperone
  • "We would like a kid that is athletic and can run, but it’s also important that they can use their hands and understand leverage. We won't sacrifice technique for athleticism though. At our level (high school) it’s more important to squeeze and wrong arm than it is to pass rush." - Anonymous Feedback
  • "Our 9-tech player was more like our weak side LB. While most of the time he was a rush end, we did use him for Zone and even Man coverage’s (Man coverage on TE). We felt someone similar to that of the Will LB could handle any of the calls/coverage’s we would use from this technique and wouldn't have to switch him out or be out of position if we had to change our call at the LOS." - Daryl Taaffe

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When we started our research, we were under the assumption that the 9-technique defender (if not a defensive lineman) was mainly a pass defender and not a rusher, particularly in odd front defenses.  So, we weren’t that surprised when we got the results of our tally below.


The results between pass defenders and rush defenders in the odd front were pretty much even, mainly because those defenders are usually linebackers in nature.  But when we polled our coaches that run the even defense we’ve found those 9-techique defenders in the Under defense are pass-rushers first, and coverage players second.

So, because our results were split between being pass defenders and pass rushers, in order to accommodate the needs of both defensive structures, we’ll explain both scenarios of the 9-technique being a coverage player as well as a rusher below.  Since the majority of 9-techniques are pass rushers, we’ll start there.


Case 1: Using the 9-Technique as a Rush/Contain Player

Through our research, we’ve found that the 9-technique outside linebacker is rarely a pass rusher unless in pressure situations.  In most of these situations, coaches will play some form or three deep pressure behind it by dropping a safety (Diagram 3). 


Even though they may not be pass rushers by nature, it’s important that coaches teach the proper rush techniques to these backers once they blitz.  In order to teach his 9-techniques how to rush the passer, defensive ends coach Kurt Gielink at Solon High School (IA) continually works with the hoops drill (Diagram 4).  Gielink details his hoops drill below based on the following progressions:

Defensive End Pass Rush Drills (using the hoops)

Body Lean

  • Start in 3-pt stance at bottom of hoop
  • Take off staying low and leaning into the hoop all the way around
  • Emphasis on sprinting while keeping body lean
  • Repeat drill from opposite side

Body Lean w/ Rag pick up

  • Same drill as above but place a rag inside the ring – as player passes it –must reach inside and pick up the rag without stopping
  • Emphasis on staying low while sprinting and keeping body lean

Body Lean w/ Bell Dummy

  • Same drill as #1, but place a bell dummy at top of circle as the QB
  • Emphasis on body lean to QB
  • Also work in swiping at the QB’s throwing arm
  • Also begin emphasis on not rushing past the QB
  • Can combine #2 and 3

Rip vs. Coach (or player) w/ Hand Shield

  • Start in 3-pt stance at bottom of hoop
  • Coach (or player) w/hand shield stands just inside the circle
  • On movement, DE takes off and begins rip move
  • Coach w/ hand shield acting as OT will put pressure on the back of the DE’s rip shoulder; maintain pressure all the way to top of circle
  • My point of emphasis is for the DE to maintain lean and gaining ground up field toward the QB – not allowing for OT to push DE outside of rush lane or past the QB

Repeat from opposite side

  • This drill can also be adapted for live 1-on-1 rush when players have pads on
  • I will also place a bell dummy at top of circle as QB, giving the players the feel of where the QB will be in relation to their pass rush lane

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As Gielink states, most of the time this progression takes less than 10 minutes and he does it in spring ball when players have no equipment.  It teaches them the proper lean necessary to get to QB level.  Jared Pospisil, the defensive coordinator at Union High School (IA) does a similar drill with what he calls his "Vice Drill" (Diagram 5) which teaches outside linebackers to rush everything from outside in.  His overriding thought is, "don’t let the ball carrier/quarterback get outside of him, and don’t get hooked."


Drill Set-up:

  • Place two cones on the line of scrimmage to represent the EMOLS and the ball.
  • Place one-cone two paces directly behind the EMOLS cone; to represent the EMOLS’s best two pass set steps.
  • A coach or player represents the ball carrier, standing 5 to 7 yards directly behind the center cone.
  • The rusher aligns wide enough from the EMOLS as to avoid the EMOLS’s best reach step.
  • A coach or player should kneel over the center cone to simulate the ball snapping.

Basic Drill:

  • The drill begins when the coach simulates a snap.
  • The rusher explodes forward to simulate beating the EMOLS to the second-step point.
  • When he reaches the second-step cone, the rusher dips his shoulder and bends his path to the target (the ghost of the BC).
  • The rusher executes a slight creep-in to gather his feet to simulate a tackle.



The rusher should align wide enough so that the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOLS) cannot hook the rusher with his best reach step.  However, the rusher should not align so wide that he cannot put pressure on the ball carrier immediately or so he cannot react to a down block by the EMOLS.


  • The rusher’s path should initially be straight up field to beat the EMOLS’s deepest pass set —especially the blocker’s first two deep pass set steps.  The rusher should consider it a race to the edge between himself and the EMOLS.  Then, once he clears the EMOLS, the rusher’s path should bend inward to the Target.


  • The rushers first read must be the EMOLS.  The rusher’s secondary target is the ‘ghost’ of the nearest or deepest back to him; this could include the QB.  The ghost indicates an imaginary player standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the nearest or deepest back.  Remember: the target may move according to the type of play.  Therefore, the rusher must adjust his path if the target moves: if the back runs to the rusher, the rusher must widen his path; if the back runs away from the rusher, the rusher must collapse his path.

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Vice Drill Progression


1.  Discussion and demonstration of thought pre-snap thought process, alignment, path, and target.

2.  Get-off up field

3.  Get-off and bend vs. stationary target(s)

* Adjust target depth and width

4.  Get-off and bend vs. moving target(s)

5.  Get-off and read EMOLS vs. stationary target(s)

6.  Get-off and read EMOLS vs. moving targets(s)

7.  Get-off, bend, and knock down door on stationary blocker

8.  Get-off, bend, and read ‘open door’ or ‘closed door’

* Vs. open door, continue to QG

* Vs. closed door, knock door down (Drive blocker into QB)

Supplementary Reads and Equipment

  • Instead of an EMOLS cone, use a coach/player to simulate a pass set, down block, or reach step.
  • This could also help a rusher work on his pass rush moves (hands, shoulders, etc.)
  • Give BC or blockers hand shields that the rusher must either knock down or collide with.

* Align BC as an off-set back in a shotgun set; have the QB and BC perform cross action so that the rusher may have to readjust his target.


* Instead of a BC, align a player or coach as an off-set FB or near back in a wing-T set.  Have the back either try to reach, kick out, or pass set the rusher.

Case 2: 9-Technique vs. Horizontal Stems

For the most part, those 9-tehnique defenders will be responsible for flat coverage in zone structures.  Against a three-man surface, the most immediate threat to the flat is either the tight end or a backfield player such as a fullback.  We’ve found that 73.6 percent of coaches employ a quarters or two-safety coverage structure when playing with a 9-techinque defender.  This means first threat to the flat must be taken by that 9-technique.  Regardless of the coverage structure, one credo was reiterated over and over again by the coaches we polled:  "Don’t let the tight end release unscathed."  It’s the 9-techniques job to harass him and get his hands on him every snap.


In order to do this, Dale Sprague, the outside linebacker’s coach at Washington and Lee University, teaches a "bench press" technique (Diagram 6) by his outside linebackers in his odd scheme.  He’ll line up his 9-techinque player with their inside foot to the tight end’s outside foot right on the line of scrimmage and preaches the "triangle read" progression, which consists of the shoulder pads and neck through the facemask of the tight end.  "If that helmet and facemask turn and he (tight end) rips his inside arm we know it’s an arc release and he’s heading to the flat," said Sprague.  "We teach a bench press technique and work to get knockbacks.  The depth of the first step will tell him if it’s a run or pass read."

Where the depth of the tight end can become convoluted is in slam releases by the tight end most common in naked schemes (Diagram 7).  In order to combat this scheme, Sprague has his 9-techinque peripherally read the play side tackle to detect the play scheme, while reading the shoulder level of the tight end.  "We have to pin him down inside hard once he starts to come off.  His shoulders and facemask will tell us everything," says Sprague.  "We will see both the high hat of the tight end and tackle pop up which tells us it’s a pass.  We will have to lose a little bit of ground in order to see everything.  His (tight end) inside step and eyes will tell us everything we need to know.  We have to concentrate on the shoulder level read of that tight end to tell us if it’s a run or pass.  If he’s working to get his shoulder pad level under our 5-technique (defensive end) we know it’s a run.  If he’s not assertively working down the line of scrimmage we need to be aware of the slam release."

According to Sprague, in order to train the eyes of that 9-technique he will have him read the level of the play side tackle for the following reads.  He’ll set up the tight end on a hand shield with a play side tackle next to him.  We’ll work the following reads:

  1. Tight end will work shoulder to shoulder with tackle, we squeeze and look for something to kick us out like a backside guard on the counter schemes.
  2. Tight end will work play side (at me) with the tackle, now we’re seeing an outside zone or stretch scheme.  We must use our bench press technique and work to get vertical, flattening the tight end out.
  3. Tackle releases down and Tight end base blocks, now we must occupy the C gap by getting his (tight end) body into the C gap.
  4. Tight end gives a slam release and tackle steps lazily to the inside, we’ll have to see the tackle with a high hat read and lose ground anticipating the tight end to work to the flat.

Once of the most productive zone coverage drills we found was submitted by Tripp Stone, the defensive coordinator at Byrd High School (NC).  Out of his quarters coverage scheme, Stone will work a combo coverage drill.  He’ll use trashcans to simulate offensive lineman and work a combo drill with the inside and outside linebackers in his 4-3 scheme.  He’ll line up the tight end on the edge with a running back in the backfield.  The whole purpose of the drill is to locate the #2 and #3 receivers (most commonly the tight and the back).


"We’ll make a banjo call to let the inside linebacker know if he has him or if he comes in and the outside linebacker has the guy going out," says Stone.  "If the tight end releases immediately to the flat, the outside linebacker takes him and the inside linebacker steps up looking for the running back working to the hook/curl area (Diagram Eight)

If the tight end releases up field, the outside linebacker must get a jam and drops looking for the running back to the flat (Diagram 9). 

Finally, the last read Stone will use is when he works the tight end on a drag.  The inside linebacker steps inside to handle the hook/curl zone while the outside linebacker jams and sinks looking for the running back to the flat (Diagram 10).


Researchers’ Note: You are reading the summary version of this Research Report. To access the full version of this report – including the corresponding Statistical Analysis Report featuring the raw coaching data from our research – please CLICK HERE.


Concluding Report

Once again, X&O Labs would like to thank all the coaches who participated in our 9-technique survey and provided their feedback for this report.  Just a quick note, that we’ll be on our spring trip next week.  So please check the website periodically for updates from our on-location sites.


Questions or Comments? If you have a question or comment, please post it below and Mike Kuchar will respond shortly.



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