Teaching Defensive Line Play in the Midway 3-4

By Aaron Nowell, Midway High (Texas) Defensive Line Coach                                                   

We run a 3-4 defense here at Midway and predominantly line up in a 5, Shade and 4i. We will play double 5s or double 4is and occasionally double 4s. Our defense relies on our three guys up front to make the offense use five to block our three. You must be selfless to play defensive line at Midway High School.


All of our alignments are tight; we talk with our kids on being “thicker/thinner” on a guy based on our assessment of his skills. Our 5 tech will line up on the OT’s outside eye with his inside eye. The Shade will line up to the same side of the center as the 5-tech with his inside eye on the outside eye of the center. The 4i with align his outside eye on the inside eye of the offensive tackle.

Our defensive linemen will vary their distance off the ball based on many factors (formation, down and distance, field position, etc.). Our pre-snap keys for each position are as follows:

  • 5 tech has the same pressure key and visual key – the offensive tackle.
  • For the shade, the center is his pressure key with the near guard being his visual key.
  • The 4i works the offensive tackle as his pressure key with the near guard being his visual key.

We work on being violent with our hands and letting our hips drive our arms to our aiming point of the offensive linemen. The defensive lineman’s man hand, the hand he has down that aligns to his pre snap alignment, will strike the offensive lineman in the V of the neck. We will strike out pressure key on the snap of the ball with our first step, again letting our hips drive our hands.

Our eyes go to our visual key; this tells us where our second step needs to be. We put a heavy emphasis on getting our second step in the ground before our visual key gets his second step down. Now we know what block we are getting, now we can establish ourselves in our fit. To be considered in our fit, our helmet, numbers and hips must be in our gap. Our ball get-off, meaning length of steps, is always determined by down and distance as well as formational tendencies of our opponent. When in doubt, play run first!


Any drill that we do is always done with some sort of ball movement to start the drill. This past season we did not have one offside penalty on a defensive lineman. I truly feel this is a direct result of not doing drills on a cadence that require a ball get-off.

We start everyday with ball get offs. We first go through run game get-offs, here we are looking for a fast second step while maintaining low pad level. Even though they are not striking an opponent, the defensive lineman will still shoot his hands and then redirect on his third step and sprint.

Next we will progress to pass rush get-offs. Here the focus is to really gain ground as if we are trying to beat an offensive lineman to his set point. Again, how fast can you get that second cleat in the ground? The defensive lineman will flip his hips and work a rip or club-over and sprint back to the line just as they would when the ball is thrown.

The second drill we do daily what I call stretch the stretch. This drill is done from a two-point locked up position with both guys head-up. Here the focus is to not get your outside arm and leg overtaken. A coaching point we use is run your hips, then defeat the block. I like to make this drill a competition drill with the guy who gets reached doing 5-6 pushups or up-downs. The kids pick what we are playing for each day. I do this drill from the sideline with the bottom of the numbers being the “marker” that you have to win by.

The third drill we do is a double team drill; here, the key is the drill is going to be as good as the look you get from the double. Once a week we work this drill in a good-on-good situation with our starting offensive linemen.

In this drill we want quality looks vs just getting a lot of reps to say we got a ton of reps during that period. Our defensive lineman can play the double several different ways. I tell them to play it how they feel they do it the best.

The first way we teach the double is our pressure key becomes the post of the double team and our visual key becomes the drive. We want to strike the post, throw our hips into the drive, and jerk the post while trying to punch back through our gap.

The second way we teach it is to strike the post, throw our hips into the drive, and sit on his thigh.

The third way is to stay square on the post and dead leg the drive as he tries to punch through our hip. Obviously not every kid can do each of these the same, so we try to equip them with various ways to defeat a block so they can find a way to be successful.