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Football: Developing A Defensive Philosophy

Updated on July 31, 2009

Start Out Right And You"ll End Up Right

Sooner or later, if you’re in this game any length of time, you will have to develop a defensive philosophy. This is the cornerstone of your program. Hopefully, it’s what you base most of your decisions on. Unfortunately, coaches sometimes start having trouble when they get away from their basic philosophy. As I see it, two problems immediately arise when a coach comes up with this pearl of wisdom.

Number one: It changes as offenses change. Obviously, the defensive philosophy of twenty years ago was designed to stop a more run oriented style of play. Today, with the wide open style of the modern spread offense, that philosophy has changed. Therefore, any philosophy has to have some flexibility built in. However, flexibility doesn’t mean making wholesale changes every month.

Number two: It has to be multi-dimensional. I don’t know of an all encompassing philosophy that covers every situation all the time. Consequently, one’s philosophy is necessarily broken down into several components.

Naturally, I realize there aren’t too many absolutes in football. However, I’ll try to list some here that I think should be included in a sound defensive philosophy:

1. You must stop the run. We’ve all heard this many times I’m sure. But why? I feel the major reason is to take away the option of wanting to pass as opposed to having to pass the ball. Obviously, if you can stop the run, your opponent now has to throw the ball. – There is a big difference between wanting to throw and having to throw –! This should make defending against your opponent more manageable. Unless, of course, he has such an overpowering passing game that it doesn’t make any difference if you stop the run. In this case, your opponent is simply relying on his offensive personnel being superior to your defensive people. If that turns out to be true, he usually wins. I believe that is the level that all of today’s teams are trying to reach. Obviously, it is the reason why recruiting is so crucial in college coaching.

2. The only perfect defense is the one sitting on the bench behind you. This is more than just an idle statement. No matter how good your defense is, sooner or later your opponent is going to score if they are constantly on the field. Obviously this means your offense has to hold on to the ball long enough to give them a rest once in a while.

3. The best pass defense is a strong rush. You may have the best coverage personnel in the country. However, they are not going to be that effective if the quarterback is given time to throw the ball. Even today’s average quarterbacks with average receivers, will be able to move the ball if you can’t bring pressure.

4. On the snap of the ball, if you think, you’re too late. Your players must practice something over and over again until it becomes an automatic response to what they see. Obviously, if they hesitate or are guessing, they will be on the ground and the ball carrier will be gone before they can react. This is especially true if they are stunting or blitzing. If they just blindly get up field, all kinds of things can happen. All bad! They must still react to what they see and not run by ball carriers, get trapped or cut blocked. Etc, Etc. Defense can be compared to a counter puncher in boxing. When he sees his opponent throw a certain punch, he automatically counters it with his own. He doesn’t stand there and think about it! It should be noted that there is a difference between anticipating and guessing. Anticipating is okay because it is based on knowledge of your opponent’s tendencies. Guessing isn’t okay because the defender is relying on pure luck. You must always do something in football for a reason. Guessing is not one of them.

5. 75% or more of the game is played on the hashmarks. Most offensive teams place the strong side of their offense to the field. – Rarely do we see “trips to the boundary” –. They would much prefer operating where they have the most space. Obviously, this means their offensive game into the boundary is sometimes neglected. If this is the case, it means the defense can use that short sideline as a “twelfth man”. More importantly, you can bring pressure from the wide side and force your opponent to operate into the boundary. Naturally, defending one third is simpler than two thirds.

6. There is no substitute for speed. Obviously, the ideal situation is to have big strong players that can run. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world and you must dance with the girl you brought to the prom. – Unless you can recruit or draft –. Therefore, with the 3-3-5 stack defense find the fastest eleven players you have and teach them to run to the ball. If they have a little size, great. If not, don’t be overly concerned. This is especially true against the Spread Offenses we’re seeing today. In reality, what we’re seeing today are huge, slower offensive linemen with very large line splits. That, in itself, gives the faster defensive player a great advantage. Because of his quickness, he can line up almost anywhere and still beat his opponent to his gap responsibility on the snap. His stature also works to his advantage since his pad level is automatically under his opponents’.

7. Attack, read on the move. Again, in defending the Spread Offense, align your defensive linemen as tight to the ball as they can get. Anticipate the snap and attack your opponent! Teach them to take their “power step” toward their key and react to what they see. It’s the same for any blitzers.However, what they must not do is play a soft “bend but don’t break” technique. In my opinion, that is a good way to get trampled upon.

8. Keep the game fun. It is, after all, a game. However, in order for the game to be fun, practices must be hard work. – That’s where the confusion lies –. In college, I grew up with the philosophy of making practices so hard that Saturday was a day off. In those days we seemed to know what kind of game we were going to play by the end of Tuesday’s practice. There seemed to be a rhythm that everyone got into and nobody seemed to mind practicing hard. So, how do you make practices fun while remaining productive? There are several ways and I’ll mention a few.

  1. Practice tempo: Players are always moving. No standing around.
  2. Practice length: Long enough to get things done. Stick to definite time.
  3. Full speed, “live” drills: In small groups most of the time. Avoid injury.
  4. Drill familiarity: Avoid adding too many new drills continually. Allow players time to perfect the ones they know.
  5. End practice with something fun: Perfect play drill. “Hit the crossbar drill”. Etc.
  6. Don’t try to resurrect a practice that died: Let them go early and pick it up the next day.
  7. Conduct Thursday night practices under the lights: Especially in August and September. Players usually practice better when they’re not battling the heat.

9. Eliminate the big play. Most teams that can conduct a twelve play drive will make at least two mistakes sometime during the drive. By eliminating the big play, you’re giving your opponent the full opportunity to beat themselves with those mistakes. In committing those mistakes, they have created 2nd and 3rd and long situations for themselves. Obviously, these situations reduce the number of options the offense has. Usually they pass, run a draw play or throw a screen. In my estimation those three plays are easier to defend than their entire offensive repertoire. Ideally, if you can hold your opponents to 3 yards or less per carry and 10 yards or less per catch, you will put them in the above situation continually.

10. The average football play lasts six seconds. Obviously, the game consists of many short, violent bursts of energy. If this is true for the games, then it should be the way I conduct my everyday drills in practice.Oftentimes, coaches are guilty of clock mismanagement because they either forgot this axiom or they were ignorant of it in the first place.

11. You play the way you practice. Generally, if the players are allowed to “slop” through it during practice, they stand a very good chance of doing the same thing during a game. The whole idea of practice is to simulate what goes on during the game.

12. In order to end up right, you must start out right. Players must get into a proper stance and alignment, read the right keys, and take proper angles to the ball. If they start out in this manner, chances are pretty good they will have put themselves into a position to make a play at the end.

13. Never sacrifice quality for quantity. Much too often, coaches think they will be successful if they can just add one more stunt, or put in another coverage. When, in reality, they have too much in already! Obviously, it is better to be able to execute a few things well, than many things poorly. – When Defensive Coordinators were in elementary school, they should have only learned subtraction –.

14. It’s only confusing until you understand it. This involves knowing something about your team’s experience and their learning curve. As long as your players don’t exhibit confusion, you can add new weapons to their arsenal. Usually, the more experienced players can be given more to learn than the inexperienced. However, coaches must recognize when they have reached their team’s learning curve limitations.

As you can see, it is difficult to write, in a brief sentence, a total defensive philosophy. However, if I had to sum it up in a short statement, I guess I would say: “I’m going to attack from a strong power base, read and react on the move with quickness, swarm to the ball and gang tackle for sixty minutes. We will practice this way, while keeping it fun and challenging. We must make winning our most important goal. If it is not, we need to take down all the scoreboards”.

Unfortunately, the above reads more like a mission statement than a defensive philosophy. It is meant only to be an example. If that one isn't to your liking….How about “our philosophy is to create 3rd and long situations”? This one even I can remember. Thanks for taking the time to read and feel free to leave me a comment. Also, if you would, please click on an ad next my article. It will be appreciated.......


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      LJ Willis 6 years ago

      Very informative..Thank you for you time in writing this.