Lessons in Defense
Early in my career, I had the good fortune of coaching under and learning from several outstanding defensive-minded coaches. I have learned many defensive lessons over the last 30 seasons. One of the first lessons I learned back in 1983 is still imprinted on my brain and still applied in my coaching—that lesson involved the importance of practicing the fundamentals. I was coaching the defensive line at the University of Colorado. We had gone through 20 spring practices and two weeks of preseason football camp in August in preparation for the season. After warm-ups each day, I devoted a 10-minute block of time to drills that emphasized the fundamentals of defensive line play.
The first drill simulated attacking an offensive lineman, fitting in the offensive lineman’s body, gaining separation from the offensive lineman, and disengaging in the direction of the ballcarrier. The players started on their hands and knees in a six-point stance. On my command, each defensive lineman delivered a blow with his hands into the breastplate and under the armpits of a simulated offensive lineman (a sled). After four reps apiece, the players would then get into a three-point stance. On my movement, they would step with their back foot, then their front foot, attacking the sled and leading with their hands. The emphasis was on the defensive lineman stepping with six- to eight-inch steps and getting both feet on the ground before making contact with the sled. I refer to this action as “winning the line of scrimmage.” The defensive lineman should maintain a flat back and a perfect fit on the sled during and after contact. In this flat-back position, their body should be like a “human harpoon” that cannot be bent backward.
In the next drill, the defensive linemen paired up. One player simulated an offensive lineman who had fired off the ball and made contact with the defensive lineman. The offensive lineman was now leaning on the defensive lineman. The defensive lineman would align his body in a “perfect fit” position with his hands in the armpits of the offensive lineman (the defensive lineman must make sure to keep his hands inside the offensive lineman’s hands). On my “lock out” command, the defensive lineman gained separation from the offensive lineman. The defensive lineman would violently thrust his arms out while maintaining a low pad level and a wide base with his feet. On my “separate” command, the defensive lineman shed the blocker and shuffled laterally in position to make a play on the ballcarrier.
In the middle of August, I could see improvement in these fundamentals during the live contact drills and scrimmages with the offense. I felt my players had mastered the fundamentals in this area, so I cut the 10-minute drill sequence from our practices. Two weeks later, after studying the game tape from our opening game, I was disappointed to see that my players often did not have inside hand position on the offensive lineman. Furthermore, my players were often not in good position to separate and shed the offensive lineman while in pursuit of the football. Consequently, they did not get off blocks as well as they should have and did not make as many plays as they should have.
At that point, I realized the importance of practicing key fundamentals that players need to execute repeatedly in the course of every game. Your players’ ability to execute fundamentally will determine to a large extent the success of your defense. You should be able to see the drills you do in practice on your game tape. If you can’t, you need to change the drills.
When I joined the Northwestern staff as the defensive coordinator and linebacker coach, I quickly identified the skills needed to be successful at the linebacker position, and I designed drills to teach those skills. I still use many of these drills today. When I was on the coaching staff at Colorado, head coach Bill McCartney wanted his football teams to be great fundamentally. He felt that if the players at each position executed their role in the defense, it would be impossible for an offense to have success play after play. When game tape showed our team’s performance starting to slip, Coach McCartney would make sure the subsequent practices provided adequate time for fundamental drills that would address the areas needing improvement. The results were not always immediate; however, within a couple of weeks, the players would improve at each position and as a team.
Another lesson I’ve learned is the benefit of playing zone coverage in the secondary. Zone coverage gives defensive backs depth and vision on the ball, which puts them in position to front the ball up when it penetrates the line of scrimmage. Explosion plays—that is, runs and passes greater than 15 yards—win and lose games. Allow me to illustrate this point. In 2005, Penn State University won both the Big Ten championship and the Orange Bowl, and our defense finished 10th in the nation in scoring defense. During that year, the Penn State defense only gave up nine runs over 15 yards in a total of 12 games.
Several factors are essential to minimizing explosion plays. First, a defensive system must allow depth and vision in the secondary so that players can keep the ball inside and in front of them. Second, the defensive team must be great at tackling. Third, every player must know where his area of responsibility is within the framework of the defense. Most explosion plays in the running game are a result of one of two things: missed tackles at or near the line of scrimmage or a loss of containment that allows the ball to get outside the defense and on the perimeter.
Bill McCartney used to continually say, “Defenders must know where their help is.” Each player should be in perfect position on every play of every practice. Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect performance. Fourth, successful defenses play with passion and a tremendous resolve to stop their opponent. They are tough minded and will play with great effort all the time. Pursuit becomes their trademark. As Winston Churchill said, “Whatever it takes, as long as it takes.” Pursuit and the proper course of pursuit should be taught on every play of practice.
Finally, I often emphasize that there is a start and a finish to every play, with six to eight seconds in between. The defensive huddle, presnap information, each player’s stance, the ability to execute fundamentally, and the start of the play are all vitally important. However, it is the finish of the play—when a defender meets and puts the ballcarrier on the ground or makes a play in the passing game—that is critical to the success of the defense. A defender must incorporate all of the coaching points mentioned; in addition, as he meets the ballcarrier, the defender should be in a balanced, square position, with his feet shoulder-width apart, his knees bent, and his head up. I cannot emphasize this enough.