Oregon's star defensive end, DeForest Buckner, has recently been named a finalist for "Polynesian college football player of the year," a major honor when one considers the tremendous talent the Islander peoples have put into the game.
Despite playing as a strongside end in Oregon's 3-4 system, which isn't a featured position, Buckner is third on his team with 61 tackles and while producing havoc with 13 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, and five pass break-ups (no doubt mostly batted at the line with his 6'7" frame).
Number 44 for Oregon has an enormous impact on every game in keeping with his enormous 6'7" 300 pound frame. He's also part of a growing trend within the game towards building defenses around big defensive ends that can clog interior gaps and free up the types of smaller athletes that defenses need to field to combat the spread.
What Oregon has specifically been doing for a while now, and is now gaining steam as a nation-wide tactic, is to employ 4i technique DL within an odd (three down linemen) front and turning the DE position from an "attack the edge" weapon into a position with multiple roles and responsibilities that primarily set up the linebackers to be the playmakers.
The 4i technique, as you can see in the below screenshot, is lined up on the inside eye of the opposing team's offensive tackle.
Here's how it works.
Attacking the offensive line
The most vulnerable part of the offensive line is the edge, where the wall of massive bodies ends and is met by wide open spaces and the kinds of speedy athletes that can keep a QB or offensive tackle up at night. Consequently, the best athletes on an offensive line are almost always the offensive tackles.
While great running teams make it a point to field excellent guards, the offensive tackle is still generally a featured part of the rushing game who's going to take on the task of reach-blocking athletic defensive ends or climbing up to the second level and clearing out linebackers. Besides what he offers in pass protection, the great offensive tackle who can block in space is the worst nightmare of the anti-spread defense which is staffed with undersized tacklers in the defensive backfield.
Enter the 4i-technique strongside end.
Because this player is lined up directly across from the offensive tackle, he can prevent the OT from opening up a running lane by angle-blocking him and he can prevent that OT from easily climbing up to a linebacker, instead leaving that task to a guard.
Here's an example from the Houston Cougars' defense of how a good 4i-tech SDE can free up linebackers to run free and ruin running schemes:
Here the Cougars have true defensive tackle Tomme Mark, a 6'2" 305 pound senior, lined up across from the Memphis right tackle in a 4i technique. He attacks the tackle from the snap and drives him back, preventing him from advancing the point of attack and creating running angles and options for his running back, and also freeing (along with the nose tackle) both inside linebackers to read the play and flow to the action without having to fight through traffic.
The first linebacker is able to attack the H-back behind the line of scrimmage and the second linebacker finishes the play and stops an inside zone run with double teams from getting a single yard on 2nd and 1.
Here's an example from Oklahoma's win over Baylor where none of the DL are double-teamed but the result of having a 4i-technique makes it hard to run through the interior gaps when the guard has to try and advance to the next level while the tackle attempts to control the SDE:
The Baylor guards didn't do a great job of connecting with the Sooner linebackers, even in these confined spaces, but here you see it doesn't matter because the 4i-technique Charles Walker (a 6'2" 297 pound natural 3-technique) uses his leverage inside of the right tackle to work his way into the vacated B-gap and make the stop on 3rd down.
If the offense wants to try and run the ball outside of the tackle they face a challenge because the guard has to reach the linebacker before he gets outside and he's almost never going to win that footrace. If the offense wants to double-team the 4i end they also have a challenge because he can get inside of the tackle so easily and make it hard for a guard to reach him. You can see a Baylor attempt to double a Sooner DE here:
What you have here is basically a combination of the basic 3-4 defense with the 46 "bear front" where it's very easy for the defense to cover up problematic OL with their own DL and free the linebackers to run to the football.
Lining up a big, powerful DL across from the tackle is also beneficial for the pass-rush, as the offense's best pass-protector is now tied up keeping him under control and is less available to help block blitzing linebackers. This is where DeForest Buckner really shines.
Against Stanford the other weekend, Buckner was double-teamed on almost every passing play, in this instance by the left guard and left tackle:
Oregon just brought a base, four-man rush with the OLB on the opposite side of the formation blitzing the edge, but you'll notice that Stanford has their RB also check inside before releasing into a route because every other Duck pass-rusher has a 1-on-1 match-up with the lesser pass protectors across the Stanford OL.
If the Ducks had a great pass-rusher at any of their LB positions it would be child's play for them to work out ways for that player to attack the weakest parts of opposing teams' protections while Buckner tied up the left tackle and possibly another blocker as well. Even without that adjunct Buckner has a chance to finish the year with 10 sacks.
Freeing up fast players to play fast
The screenshot of Buckner above facing a Stanford "trips" spread set (three receivers to one side of the formation) reveals a major benefit of lining up DEs in 4i-techniques for the linebackers. Oregon is trying to disguise their coverage on this play between a cover 4 scheme in which the linebacker has to be able to get wide and cover a slot receiver or a cover 3 scheme where the safety will drop down and the linebacker can fit back into the box.
They ultimately drop into cover 4, which ordinarily would cause a problem for the linebacker who would be split between trying to cover a receiver outside the hash marks and filling an interior gap on a run. However, because the DE is positioned to attack the OT and fill the b-gap, that linebacker has more time and less space to worry about in handling his assignments.
In addition to allowing fast players to stay in space, the 4i-technique SDE can also play a major role in freeing up linebackers to flow to the football and outnumber the offense at the point of attack by filling or squeezing closed cutback lanes. You can see Buckner doing this against a cut block on this Stanford stretch play:
This is a QB run, so the Cardinal should expect to have a numbers advantage at the point of attack, but Oregon's two 4i-tech DEs ruin the play for them. Opposite Buckner, sophomore Henry Mondeaux (6'5" 280) takes on the right tackle and prevents him from sealing the edge for Stanford QB Kevin Hogan to take. Meanwhile, Buckner fights off a cut block and makes it impossible for Hogan's lead blocker to open up a cutback lane so the big QB can get downhill and fight for first-down yardage.
When the cutback lanes are closed because of effective backside end play from the DEs it can really free up the inside linebackers in a defense to fly to the football.
The ideal 4i-technique strongside end
Oregon really has the market cornered on these types of players as their system has been utilizing them for several years now. When Buckner departs for the NFL next year then Henry Mondeaux will be ready to step up as the main DE on the roster and the young player already has four sacks this year in a reserve role.
Height and reach is very valuable as these players are battling with offensive tackles that are often 6'4" or better with quick feet. Size also matters since they need to be able to anchor and set the edge or work their way inside and fill interior gaps. Finally, they need to be solid athletes with quick feet of their own so they can beat offensive tackles off the ball add something in the pass-rush besides waving their long arms in the passing windows.
Oregon will snatch up tons of players that are 6'4" or better every single year and many of them end up growing into strongside ends after they reach campus. Buckner was a 6'7" 238 pound "weakside end" prospect and his predecessor Arik Armstead was a five-star talent that projected anywhere from offensive tackle, to strongside end, to defensive tackle. Henry Mondeaux was a "TE" prospect who's simply grown into a 4i-tech after arriving.
As this technique and style of defense continues to grow popular as an anti-spread tactic you'll see more tall, lanky DL that aren't quite quick enough to be elite outside rushers and aren't stout enough to dominate on the interior become prized players as defensive ends.