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The Future of the Two-Gapping Defensive Lineman

by Terry Matthews  |  @Gridironalytics   |  Published November 11, 2018

Image Credit: Erik Drost

A league that thrives airing the ball out offensively, playing multiple-receiver sets as standard, and values the QB position so highly they’ve made a norm of giving even middle-of-the-road QBs enormous contracts that dwarf everything but the contracts given to elite-of-the-elite pass-rushers — is increasingly going to find little use for two-gapping defensive linemen, the kind that specialize almost exclusively in filling up running lanes.

Today two-gapping D-linemen like this are pretty much approaching extinction. By contrast, one-gapping interior defensive linemen are experiencing something of a renaissance – a renaissance that includes massive financial remuneration, as they’re signed to some of the largest contracts in professional football (Aaron Donald, Fletcher Cox, and previously Ndamukong Suh and Mo Wilkerson). These new breed of one-gapping interior D-linemen typically play out of the 3 or 5 technique – again, think Aaron Donald or Fletcher Cox – 300-ish lb athletes explosive out of the blocks, capable of getting consistent penetration down-field, with almost as much — or more — utility in the passing game as they do versus the run. This breed of interior defensive lineman is taking over the NFL, with more and more creeping into the first-round of the NFL Draft every year.

Compare this with the defensive lineman of yesteryear, who’s physical make-up was entirely in concert with the demands associated with a league that was run-first, thus required of their D-linemen a stout physical frame with a great anchor and immense raw power, something that was preferential over the explosive athleticism and quickness that’s valued today.

However as offensives throw the ball on average more than ever — what future do two-gapping D linemen of this ilk have when they have little-to-zero application even as interior pass-rushers?

Good question. The answer is, as with many things: it depends. The pure two-gapping interior defensive linemen, especially in a 3-4 defense, is still around. Indeed there are modern versions of the 3-4 that employ the nose tackle/0-1 technique as a two-gapper, while assigning the D-linemen to either side of him in attacking one-gap techniques.

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And this works because a property of the two-gapping nose tackle is that their bullrush is so potent more than one offensive linemen is often required to properly deal with it and snuff it out. Thus creating one-on-ones elsewhere.

But this really is an imperfect strategy.

One of the more notable defensive players coming out of college in the 2019 NFL Draft will be Ed Oliver. If you haven't had the pleasure of watching Oliver play, go Youtube him, the site has numerous highlight packages that perfectly illustrate what Oliver is: the cutting-edge of a new breed of defensive linemen, who in terms of athleticism and specialization look more like re-purposed linebackers than old school nose tackles.

And describing the rise of players like Oliver as a further nail in the coffin of the old-style two-gapper wouldn’t be hyperbole.

Compare Oliver with the some of the last remaining out-and-out two-gapping/1 techniques still plying their trade in the NFL, and it reads almost like they play at a different level of defense—let alone a different nuance of the same position. (Example: two-gapper Damon “Snacks” Harrison weighs in at 355lbs, whilst standing 6-3; whilst Ed Oliver stands 6-3 and weighs in at only 290lb. Yet both are interior D-linemen, often lining up at the same technique).

But Oliver is exactly what teams want: someone who is accomplished at killing run plays at source by using their speed and superior athletic ability to get into the backfield, as well as showing up strong with that valuable interior pressure on passing downs.

Not that someone like Snacks Harrison doesn’t still have utility within the game: he’s an elite run-stuffer, and basically the quintessence of what a good old-school barrel-chested nose tackle was – and still is in Snacks case – someone who’s value rested almost exclusively in filling up running lanes and smashing an opponents run game.

As long as someone like Harrison is still about (as just one example of the two-gapper plying their trade in today’s NFL) then its probably unfair to say they’re likely to go completely extinct. Harrison is a great exemplar of the value the two-gapper brings a team, and inventive defensive coordinators will always be able to scheme up something that can use all that raw strength at the point of attack.

However as teams attempt to weaponize the interior of the defensive line, and load up on athletes who’s primary role is giving their team pressure up the middle, then it follows that the relative value of the out-and-out run stuffing two-gapper will continue to decline.

That is as long as the “passing era” continues anyway…