Choosing A Defense

It’s a lot like picking an offense! Defense is a reactionary game with out a doubt, but there are a lot of options to consider when deciding who you want to be as a defense. Gone are the days of being good pursuers and tacklers, then being able to line up in anything you want. It is true that I believe those are the foundations of good defense but having a coordinated effort on defense is essential to building a winning program. While a lot of this might seem simple, as you read this article I’d like you to take some time to consider if you are coordinating a defense and have a plan to hide or cover your weaknesses, because you do have weaknesses. Let me talk about some of the principles of a coordinated defense.

The first thing I am going to tell you, I read years ago in a book by the legendary football coach Tom Flores of the Oakland Raiders. He said that the defense was in a tough situation because there were 15 zones on the football field and you only had 11 guys to cover them. Those zones were laid out as the 8 running lanes (A-D gaps on each side of the center) and 7 passing zones (4 underneath and 3 deep). In today’s game there are really 16 zones, as an extra zone has developed in the underneath area of the field. Most coaches today refer to these 5 zones as the flat, (to both sides) the hook/curl (to both sides) and the middle zone. In this quandary lies the chess game that is today’s football. Trying to decide which zones you are going to defend and how you are going to defend them along with how many extra zones you are going to try and cover. Basically the deck is stacked against you, the offense has the advantage, kind of like the house has the advantage in black jack at a casino. The trick is if you are a really good card player you can level the field and get to 50/50 odds. That is what defense is all about at the upper levels today, getting back to those 50/50 odds. That puts you at the advantage, why you may ask? Because, at 50/50, it becomes a crapshoot for the offense. They may win some hands, and you may win some hands but how many times will they beat you 18-17 before they bust (have to punt). So the scramble is on to figure out how to defend a coming opponent. Hopefully as you read this you are starting to realize why scouting is so important in football, especially to a defense. Now, the thing I want you to understand is, those zones, and what can be eliminated as you try to shrink the houses advantage. When I refer to upper levels of football I am speaking of college and pro games. In those games, most teams are reasonably capable of being able to hurt you in all of the 16 zones I mentioned. Once below that level, only about half of the high school teams are capable of stretching the field and using all 16 zones. Jr. High teams and youth teams are almost never capable of this, at least not on a consistent basis. I consider picking what zones are to be defended week to week, or even sometimes level-to-level decisions. At the high school level and below, college and pro teams make those decisions on a down to down basis. We will discuss this further as this article progresses.

The 2nd principal of defense that really stuck with me came to me in a conversation I had with one of the great coaches in the game. A fellow by the name of Dr. John Ward. Dr Ward has coached high school football all over this country at both the high school and collegiate levels. His advice to me during a discussion about rushing the passer was to never rush 4! He said rush 3 and drop eight, or rush 5 and drop 6, but never 4, dropping 7. For years, I wondered what he meant by that, why it would not work, its what the pros do on most downs, right? What he was really trying to tell me was trying to play in the middle makes you weak all over the field. The pros do what they do for reasons that you will never face. He was telling me as a high school guy to make a decision on what you were going to defend, and defend it, using its advantages to the max to try to protect your weaknesses. He was talking in terms of 4 rushers and 7 cover guys cause that is what related to his level and the topic we were discussing but in reality he was saying, pick your poison, and make it work.

Now, as we go forward, with 2 principals I learned, its time to determine who we want to be as a defense. What is our game? To me this is simple choice, do you want to be an attack defense, or a react defense. Most teams below the collegiate level are not capable of being both. You are one or the other. The reason for knowing this about yourself is not only to coordinate the scheme of the defense but it is vital to understand this, as it is going to effect the way you teach, and the techniques you teach your players. I see a lot of guys who play react type defenses but want their lineman to attack the backfield. They usually get scored on pretty quick too. LOL. Take the time to pick a defense that has A) been run before and been trouble shot and B) fits the personality of the team or at least the knowledge base of the coach.

Here is a list of some general tips you might want to consider in picking a defense.

  1. Is your team made up of smaller, faster type kids or bigger and slower? If you are big and slow you may want to consider a funnel type of defense where as a smaller, faster team might want to consider a spill and kill approach. I personally feel that this decision is the first one that should be made in picking your defense.
  1. Based on the level you coach, how many players are the good offenses in the league going to demand you keep in an off the ball position? I.e., LBs and DBs. most youth leagues do not require more then 3 players deep to efficiently cover the passing game.
  1. How many lb type players do you have? The lb core is the heart of any defense. There are defenses out there that employ anywhere from 1 to 5 LBs. you either have to be able to supply that demand or be able to make them yourself. See my speed camp article for that.

Using the lbs as the basis for the defense you want to run is to me the most important of the traits for defense. Once you determine for instance, that you can produce 3 players in a regular yr that are capable of lb duties, you can now start to narrow choices of defense down to schemes that require 3 lbs or less. JJ`s 33 stack comes to mind. It employs 3 LBs, though the 2 outside guys are much more important to the scheme then the mike. That defense needs 2 LBs.

Wanting to run the 44 Stack with only 3 LBs is not a good idea. While running the 5-2 defense with 4 or 5 lbs at your disposal would seem like a waste of a resource. Your not going to put them at DT, are you? After determining how many LBs you can afford to deploy the next question is how many DBs are you going to deploy, or a better way of putting it is, how many DBs is your competition going to make you deploy? Your answer at the youth level should be 1, 2, or 3. 3 being extreme cases of having to deal with pass happy teams that can actually complete a fair percentage of passes thrown. At the HS level the number is usually 3 or 4. This is important. Why? Because it is going to affect the way you play, here’s an example, you are running a 3 LB system and the team that wins the trophy every year in your league runs spread and can throw the football. You need two good cover corners and 2 safeties to defend this offense. You now have 7 guys backed off the football. You have a 4-man line to work with. You now know your defense. You are going to be running a 4-3. Having determined that you are a 4-3 now you have to decide how do you want to play.

Are you ready to make the decision about how you want to play? Some of these decisions have been made for you; the important part is recognizing them. Now that you have determined you are a 4-3 team, you need to decide if you are going to attack, (i.e., gap control), if you are going to react, (playing flat down the line), or if you want to spill plays (to the outside to your waiting safeties). In my estimation, you do not want to play a spill defense with only 4 dl at the youth level. You are going to get your ass kicked, I promise! The distance you have to cover to spill goes up as you take DL off the LOS. I personally feel you need at least 5 guys committed to the LOS to spill effectively at the youth level. Therefore, you need to be a funnel defense by either gap control or reactionary means. As a mode to funneling, you will find, if you look at all the defenses, there aren’t any out there that funnel anywhere but c gap. No one wants a ball carrier funneled straight up the field. It’s the quickest path to the end zone, no one either wants to get beat around the end on sweeps and watch his players chase helplessly as the fastest guy on the field goes in untouched. Therefore all funneling defenses, at least all the ones I have ever seen, funnel to c gap. In our 4-3 defense in this exercise, we have guys controlling gaps in the middle of the field with our contain men on the edges pushing plays back into the interior so that our lbs can run to c gap and make the tackle. Being able to give LBs arrival points is vital to the success of a defense. We want our 4-3 lbs to know that the ball is going to end up back at c gap. We want them to arrive there to make the stop. If they can trust in that fact, all they have to do is read flow (or any key you give them) to get to their known spot. If you are requiring them to guess at the arrival point, then you are slowing them down and hurting your own team’s chances of getting a stop. This is not to say that we don’t employ a plan for plays gone wrong with techniques and pursuit angles, but we do want them comfortable in knowing where they are supposed to be as a play develops. That is not something that can be done on pure reaction.

Hopefully with this information, you can, as your season approaches, evaluate your players and make an informed decision about how to stop the offenses in your league this year.

Good luck and happy hunting.

Submitted by Darrin Fisher

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