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Which Defense is Right for Your Players?

By Coach Wade

"Good offense will win you games, but good defense will win you championships." ~Vince Lombardi.

Defense is, to me, the greatest part of football. It requires better athletes, better organization, and better planning than any other aspect of this multi-faceted sport. Even though good coaching means that I make every possible attempt to maximize the amount of time my offensive unit is on the field, I must confess to enjoying our time on defense much more. Offense is about execution, but defense is about reaction.

It is this reaction that makes defense so much more difficult than offense. At all times defenders must respond to what the offense presents to them. Formations, motion, fakes, shifts, there is a long list of tricks that offenses can use to confound and bewilder the defensive players.

As a coach, anything you can do to simplify your defense will improve your players' ability to make the correct responses on game day.

Certain aspects of defensive football are simpler than others. For example, even my grandmother, who last watched a football game from start to finish in 1940, understands the concept of man-to-man. Simply put, "Billy, you cover that guy," is easily understood by even the most inexperienced of personnel. "Johnny, you stand here and watch the quarterback, no matter what else happens. Also, even when the play looks like a run, you need to stand here and wait before you can run forward and make a tackle," is not quite as easily understood.

When selecting a defense, I advise using some of the same rules that I stated in my article on selecting an offense. You want a defense that offers you:

1) Mechanical Advantages,

2) Simplicity and,

3) Effectiveness.

The problem lies in determining what kinds of attacks you will be facing, and thus determining what you need to do to gain a mechanical advantage against it. That's a tall order.

To start with, you need to have a working knowledge of youth football in general, and your league and opponents in specific. Online forums such as the Double Wing Football Coaches Forum can help considerably for the former but only scouting and experience can help you determine what types of systems are being run in your area.

Generally, youth football teams feature a run-first approach to offense. Youth players usually don't yet have the skills or physical maturity to be adept at the myriad of traits necessary for passing the football, and their coaches rarely have time to train them properly. This is only a guideline, though, so I do not advocate any defense that ignores the pass. Invariably you will face at least one team with the talent and coaching skill to pass effectively.

All right, I think we can agree that while you can't ignore the pass, you should be mostly concerned with stopping the run. With that in mind, and remembering that we need to keep our defense simple, how can we set up our personnel to gain the greatest number of mechanical advantages against the offensive players?

To start with, how many players is it necessary to keep in pass coverage? Well, there are eleven players on the defense. The most common youth defense is the 5-3. That's five down linemen, three linebackers, and three safeties. (Actually two corners and a free safety.) This gives you five players whose primary responsibility is defending the run, and six players who are primarily responsible for stopping passes. Does this make a whole lot of sense when we are mostly concerned about our opponent's running game? We've got more than half our team back worrying about a pass we'll probably see six times a ball game.

It sure don't make sense to me!

I somehow manage to quote Jack Reed in just about everything I write. I think it's because he uses so much common sense in his books. His feelings about defense are no exception.

Coach Reed advocates the Gap-8 defense for stopping the run. I happen to agree with him. I used the Gap-8 with great results in 1999 with my undefeated Kodiak Lions. In 2000, my assistant coach took over and used the defense again. (I had purchased copies of Reed's books for both of my assistants as 'thank you' gifts the season before.) In 2000, the Lions were even better, and went the entire season without allowing an offensive touchdown. Only a 0-0 tie and a blown kickoff coverage kept them from a second straight undefeated season. (The Lions finished 4-1-1 in 2000.)

Why does the Gap-8 work so well? Well there are a number of reasons. To start with, seven offensive linemen on the line of scrimmage means that there are eight gaps for the offense to run the football into. (According to the laws of physics, two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, so the offensive linemen themselves will prevent a ball carrier from passing the line of scrimmage between the gaps.)

By placing a defender in each gap, we prevent the ball carrier from running there, too, even if our defenders do nothing more than fall face first at the snap. We have gained a significant mechanical advantage over the offense. Before they can run through a gap, they have to move us out of it.

Does this mean that I think every football team in America should run the Gap-8? No. There is a lot more to be concerned with when you begin to select a defense.

Coaches who know me are probably staring in astonishment at their monitors after reading that last paragraph, but it's true. There will be teams this year that do quite well with a 4-4 zone or a 5-3 "Monster". They'll be successful primarily for at least one of two possible reasons. Either they have enough talent to win lined up backwards and naked, or they have a coach that knows what he's doing.

This is where simplicity becomes so important. As a coach, you must be able to teach the rankest, rawest rookie player on your team every possible defensive responsibility he could have under any possible conditions.

This is a tall order. If you are a new coach I strongly suggest that you find the simplest system you can locate and make it simpler if you can. Remember, you are a coach, with a grasp and knowledge of the game that is deeper and broader than that of your players. If you cannot glance at an offensive formation and immediately know where your defensive linemen should be, then you have no right to expect your eight year old players to do so!

With that in mind, be wary of defensive systems that require a lot of stunting. Stunting is a technique used primarily by defenses that are trying to confuse the offensive blockers. It can be done by two linemen, as in figure 1.1, or by a lineman and a linebacker as in figure 1.2.


Figure 1.1: Line Stunts.


Figure 1.2: Line and linebacker Stunts.

Stunting is a great way to free up a linebacker or lineman to rush the passer, or attack the ball carrier. The problem is not in execution, it's in memorization. Each stunt that you add changes the fundamental nature of your defense. For example, refer to figure 1.1. Notice that the linebackers are not involved in the stunt. This means that they are free for pass coverage, whether you need them to drop into the hook zones, or take a running back out of the offensive backfield. In figure 1.2, however, the linebackers are now a part of the stunt, and their pass responsibilities must be handed off to the defensive backs. What if the free safety covering for the weak side linebacker forgets to move up and cover the short zone on a pass play?

Worse for you, each stunt must be practiced over and over again until it is committed to muscle-memory by every member of your defense. The best way to think of stunts, is as an entirely new defense that must be learned and practiced.

So, in short form, if you have five stunts from one basic defensive alignment, then you in reality are running five separate defenses. It's not terribly difficult to make your defensive system terribly complex, and you can do it without even realizing it.

Imagine a football team that uses three different defenses, say a 6-2, a 5-3, and a "46" (*- The "46" is not a four lineman, six linebacker defense. It is named after the jersey number of the outside linebacker Buddy Ryan created the defense around. Don't line your players up in a 4-6, please!). Three different alignments doesn't sound like much, does it?

Okay, now let's imagine that the defensive coach of this football team installs a couple of line stunts for each front. He wants to keep things simple, so he installs a slant strong and a slant weak for the defensive line. He does this for each defensive alignment.

For passing downs, he wants to be able to rush his linebackers, so he also adds three linebacker stunts for each alignment.

Are you keeping count? If we stopped here, we are asking our players to learn fifteen different defenses!

Count them: (three fronts) X [ (two line stunts) + (three linebacker stunts)] = fifteen different defenses. And remember, we said we were keeping it simple and only installing two line stunts and three linebacker stunts!

We've gotten awfully complex awfully fast. The KISS (Keep It Super Simple) method is a very important part of picking a defense.

The most important thing to look for in a defense, though, is its effectiveness. A whole lot of coaches are going to hit the fields this year and place their kids in screwy alignments that are fundamentally unsound (Like the 4-6 I spoke of above. Who's covering the pass in that alignment?).

These mistakes would be forgivable if there were not such a wealth of information out there. I enjoy creating new offensive plays and new defensive systems as much as the next coach. When I think of myself, it's as the next Buddy Ryan or Bill Walsh. In total honesty, though, while I feel comfortable in my knowledge of offensive and defensive football, I'm an infant compared to either of those men, who have been in football longer than I have been alive. It's nothing short of arrogance for me to imagine that I could create a sound offensive or defensive system out of whole cloth.

Find a source of information on a defense you are interested in. The simplified defensive playbooks we have here are a good starting point, but they are only a starting point. Find as much information as you can about the system you would like to run.

When considering the effectiveness of a system, ask yourself, "Is this defense effective against the attacks I am most likely to see?" If the answer to that question is "No" then don't use that defense! (Duh!)

For example, nobody doubts the effectiveness of the 3-4 Flex defense at the pro level. One look at the Super Bowl winning Baltimore Ravens is enough to convince me that their defense is a good system.

But the pros pass 67% of the time! Remember, we're trying to find a youth football defense! In youth football, teams pass less than ten percent of the time (and that's still way too much, in my opinion). What kind of sense does it make to use that defense in a league of eight year olds?

None at all. Unfortunately, there are coaches out there that are going to do precisely that this season. Most of them won't win a single game.

A great defense brought my 1999 Kodiak Lions a division championship, and a repeat performance in 2000. A great defense brought the Baltimore Ravens a Super Bowl title.

A poor defense got the Rams knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, despite having the NFL's number one offense.

I ask my players the same question at the start of our first defensive practice. "Hey guys. If we don't let the other team score any touchdowns, then how many touchdowns do we need to score to beat them?"

Even your greenest rookie player can answer that one.

Good luck.


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Copyright 2007 Derek A. "Coach" Wade. All rights reserved.