Analyzing Coach Karl Dunbar’s Philosophies on stopping the Run

When the Pittsburgh Steelers hired Karl Dunbar as their defensive line coach, they hired a man whose knack for details, were comparable to those of offensive line coach Mike Munchak. Throughout his career as a defensive line coach for several NFL teams, most notably with the defending National Champions Alabama Crimson Tide, Dunbar has always maintained the same ideas and philosophies when it comes to being an effective defensive lineman. The Steelers defense unit last season was one who led the league in sacks, yet were also among the worst at stopping the run. For Dunbar, his ideas are not solely based on getting sacks but to consistently stop the run. Dunbar’s teachings are seemingly basic, yet these basics are still very much applicable for defensive linemen in today’s NFL.

Dunbar’s Run Progression Process

Coach Dunbar has always been an advocate for basic fundamentals when it comes to every defensive lineman play, in particular when it comes to stopping the run. Each component of his process is correlated with which each other.

  • The first component of the process is the alignment/assignment, which is designated in the huddle.
  • The second component entails the stance which according to Dunbar, stays the same on run and passing plays, the exception being short-yard or goalline plays.
  • The third component involved attacking the blocker and reacting.
  • The fourth component entails defeating the blocker, no matter what type of blocking technique is used by the offensive lineman.
  • The fifth component involves pressing the blocker and locating the ball. This step is in essence, an extension of the fourth part, as Dunbar emphasizes the idea of pushing the opposing lineman back
  • The sixth component involves completely eliminating the blocker by making what he called a “volatile release”.
  • The seventh component involves pursuing the ball carrier with what he calls “great angles”.

All these noted components are the basis of his drills which are run continuously in practice, as Dunbar is a proponent of repetition.

In the example seen below, the Crimson Tide defensive line is seen practicing the components, attacking the blocker and reacting. The emphasis in this drill is the use of hands to attack the blocker; at the same time, the lineman must always have their head up to anticipate which blocker is coming towards them and react accordingly.

The Process in Action

In this sequence seen against the Auburn Tigers, the Crimson Tide defensive linemen are applying a mix between Dunbar’s third and fourth concept in the run progression. Note how each of the d-linemen is attacking their respective o-linemen in front of them, by creating separation with their hands. Secondly, you will notice the middle and left d-lineman are also peaking at the same time to locate where the ball carrier is going, this is essentially the drill seen in the previous clip applied in a game.

In this next example against Texas A&M, the Crimson tide is showing three defensive linemen; one at left-end outside, nose tackle (shaded), and defensive right tackle. As the ball is snapped, notice how each of the d-linemen attacks, creating separation against their opposing linemen; from this position, the Crimson Tide defensive linemen are able to locate and pursue the ball carrier at the same time. The Aggies running back is given no room to run; thus resulting in a tackle for loss. This is a prime example of the fifth and seventh component in the run progression.


For the Steelers defense this upcoming season, much of their success will come in the trenches. With long-time defensive line coach John Mitchell making the full transition to assistant coach, Dunbar is the exactly the type of coach the Steelers defensive line needs to ensure their continued success. With a return to fundamentals and a renewed emphasis on stopping the run, the defensive front has the potential of becoming the strength of the entire unit.


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