Building a Championship Defense
I thought it was refreshing to hear a coach talk about the overvaluation of the defensive scheme as it refers to winning games. As coaches, we can get hung up on trying to be something that we are not, searching for the latest blitz or coverage package, or too focused on what other (“better”) teams are doing schematically. When we do that as coaches we lose sight on what defensive football really boils down to, tackling and pursuit.
Yes, there are some schemes that are better than others, but there are no “catch-alls” in football. What may work for Mike Elko at A&M might not work for me at Midlothian HS. That being said, we can all find value in fundamentals, and it is important to understand survival bias and how it affects the way we approach our work as coaches. Schemes will always evolve, but no defense can be great without relentless pursuit and great tackling.
The opening line in Elko’s clinic was a statement regarding the overall defensive scheme, “Forget it,” he stated. As long as defenses line up correctly and there is an overemphasis on the little things (fundamentals), any defense can be successful. Elko suggested there are five objectives of a championship defense:
- All out effort
- Angle of pursuit
- Tackling and turnovers
- Eliminate fatals (80% of TD drives have an explosive play of 20+)
- Don’t sacrifice fundamentals and focus on stopping the run
The overall effort of a defense has to be cultural and cannot be compromised. This is something that you see from all the top defensive minds. Belichick has his “Do your job” mantra, Saban talks about an unrelenting commitment to excellence, and Don Brown has a “no tourist” policy. Elko follows suit when regarding effort and talked about how that culture has to be created. It’s human nature to seek the path of least resistance, but it is the coach’s responsibility to push his players to do better.
Elko talked of a story about his first practice at A&M. It took the 1’s 11 tries to get the effort he wanted during his most basic pursuit drill (5-cone pursuit). It is a non-negotiable for him and starts with what he refers to as a “Smart Swarm.”
Pursuit comes down to a few simple things, judging angles and using your leverage (where is my help?). Leverage is something that is tremendously important and players must know where they are on the field and how others are reacting off of them. For example, it isn’t smart for a CB to rip inside when he has to keep outside leverage. Understanding how each link on the chain reacts to each other is important when creating a swarm mentality.
Many times coaches see pursuit as solely an effort or talent issue. The phrases, “my guys aren’t very fast,” or the over-reliance on “speed kills” can hamper the development of leverage angles. When faced with less speed, it is crucial for coaches to teach and explain pursuit angles, and development is a must. An over-reliance on a team’s speed can undervalue the need to rep pursuit angels.
This is a great example of survival bias, but at some point, athleticism will equal out and your players need to know how to use their pursuit angles. Basically, when athleticism is level, the results fall on the fundamentals. That is your floor. When the field is level, where is your edge?
Elko suggested that pursuit is actually a skill set and needs to be worked on a daily basis. At A&M, Elko uses several pursuit drills weekly to make sure the Aggies are always cognizant of their angles and effort. Two keys Elko discussed was to press the (near) hip and leverage the ball (where are you coming from?).
I talk with my players on a daily basis about getting their eyes to the near hip (where the logos rest on your pants) of the ball carrier. I have even gone further as to discuss the angle of the runner’s shoulders, basically, where is he headed, north/south or east/west, because this also changes how you leverage the back. One thing that Elko discussed was how he simulates tackling in open space, stating that it is hard to wrap up in “big space” tackling situations and even at his level, taking someone to the ground in practice is inefficient (risk of injury). At A&M they never take a ball carrier down in practice, rather they focus on position and “tag off” on the ball carrier (press hips into runners near hip and run throw backside). One, it eliminates unneeded contact and keeps the ball carriers healthy, and two, it focuses more on the angle of pursuit and good tackling posture.
Elko’s coaching points are to press your hips on the ball carrier’s near hip and tag the runner as you run past him. His argument here reflects what many of us have probably seen. Players naturally in drills want to get in front of the ball carrier and “front” the runner. This creates issues because the defender has now sacrificed his position on the near hip.
I have seen this when visiting other colleges or listening to defensive coaches speak at clinics. This not to say that you don’t practice wrap and drive, but rather when teaching open-space tackling focus more on the angle of pursuit and attacking the near hip rather than the actual physical task of taking the runner down (same foot, same shoulder strike). The health aspect is also another reason. Reducing high-speed collisions during practice is something we all can look into, especially if we can get the same, if not better, results.
In regards to leverage, players need to know where they are in the fit and where their help is coming from. I have always talked on the site about how defenders are links in a chain, all connected to the original anchor points, the D-line. Understanding fits are on the coaches and is also a priority when discussing pursuit. Elko explained that the D-line’s objective is not to make the play, rather set the angle for the second level on defense and close the gaps. Overpursuit by the D-line and now the second level defender has to rock back. If the second level defender over pursues as well, the ball carrier will cutback to open space.
One point Elko made was that explosive plays happen when the D-line works down the field to get the ball carrier and not down their line of pursuit. The D-line feels like they are helping by taking a downfield angle, but instead, are opening up the defense for a cutback. One way Elko works this is in a two-man pursuit where the D-lineman attacks a barrel then works down the line of scrimmage for the RB, not turning and taking a downfield angle, rather, down the line. It is the LBs’ or safeties’ duty (usually 5-6 yards behind) to leverage the RB and force him to the sideline (using the tag-off technique described above).
Elko opened this section of his lecture with the stat that turnover margin is the #1 indicator on winning. I think most coaches would agree. Aligning with what Elko said with pursuit, turnovers are something that you have to be committed to and develope. At A&M, they focus on turnovers every day and in every period. This is done by constantly being cognizant about how and when a player can disrupt the ball. Elko stated that they coach missed opportunities on film.
At my current school, Midlothian, we use the acronym “A.T.” when talking about ball disruption. “A.T.” means “attempted turnover.” We even keep track of them during practice. The players do several up-downs if they don’t reach the goal. We leverage this with loafs (ATs – loafs = number of up-downs). If the number is positive, the coaches do the up-downs (ATs > loafs)! Something can’t be a priority unless the coaches constantly talk about it and commit to it. The kids love it when the old guys have to get up off the grass!
We talk about ATs to the point that the kids fight to see who has the most “AT’s” during a game. It even has its own column in our production points for that week. It is awesome during practice, or even in the game when the sideline is yelling “AT! AT!” as their buddy is trying to strip the ball from the ball carrier. It has been something that we have developed over time and now the kids have it ingrained. WE are fighting to get that ball!
Elko went on to describe the two different types of fumbles, something many don’t really think about but is very important. The two types are “clean ball” and “dirty ball.” I really enjoyed this part of the clinic because it discusses the two most likely situations for defenders, a ball in open space and a ball in tight space. How a defender reacts to each scenario needs to be different. In a clean ball situation, you want the defender to scoop the ball up and press to the end zone. Elko talked about bending the knees and scraping the knuckles on the ground. In a dirty ball situation, a defender needs to drop on the ball and secure it before the offense can jump back on it. His coaching points here were to grab the tips of the ball, tuck it, and squeeze to protect it.
Each fumble type is from a scenario on the field and Eklo builds drills around them. One mistake coaches make, Elko pointed out, is that in most fumble drills the coach rolls the ball at the player. This rarely happens in a game. To make sure his defense is getting game like looks, Elko will roll the ball from behind the defender and from other directions (either side), rarely rolling the ball in front of the defender. Even using a block destruction drill that ends with a fumble from behind.
Creating the actual turnover is just as important as scooping the ball up. Elko talked about how he teaches his players to use different techniques when attacking a ball carrier. If the point of the ball is exposed, punch. If the ball is not exposed, rack the hands and try to pry the ball carriers hand away from the ball, all while securing the tackle. Most coaches’ have drills focusing on both these techniques, but probably never mention when to use them. Something to think about as you build your turnover circuits and have Spring/pre-season meetings with your players.
Finally, Elko discussed attacking an exposed QB. He teaches the “tomahawk,” or chopping the hand down on the ball in the QB’s arm. Disrupt the throw. Elko expressed the need to teach everyone on defense how to use the chop, especially if they are blitzing. Just like with a ball carrier, understanding leverage on a QB is important too. If coming from behind or the side, chop, but if coming straight ahead raise the same arm as the QB’s throwing hand. Basically, get in the way of the QB throwing the ball.
A&M’s RPO Defense
Split Safety (Two-High)
If you have visited this site, then you understand my passion for two-high defenses and how they align versus Spread offenses. Elko reiterated many of the same principles I talk about on this site, especially versus RPO heavy opponents. That being said, I’m also not blind to other schemes, and single-high structures definitely have their place in this game. Determining what structure to use boils down to the QB and the offense that is built around him. There is no “catch-all” defense. If there was, we’d all be running it!
There are two different types of RPO offenses, dual-threat or run/pass based (non-mobile QB). Dual-threat offenses utilize the QB in the run game, manipulating the conflict player with Read plays (Zone/Arc Reads or Spread Option). The added value of a running QB can stress the fits of any defense because everyone has the ability to run the ball (new-age Triple Option). Add a throwing option for the QB and the defense is stretched horizontally as well as vertically. This is where a two-high structure is needed.
Elko explained in his lecture, and I whole-heartedly agree, that a two-high shell allows you to cheat the back sets and the mesh point. The scheme also gives you a plus-one versus the QB run game. “RPOs are defended with body presence.” This statement by Elko aligns with everything I have ever written about defending RPOs.
In my book, Cautious Aggression, I devoted an entire chapter on utilizing a two-high shell to combat RPOs. The first priority is to eliminate pre-snap RPOs by alignment, or as Elko described “body presence.” The key is to maximize cover downs by manipulating the front and keeping the conflict player in limited space (preferably the boundary). Below is the typical 20 personnel RPO offense. There are four total choices a defense has to handle.
The objective pre-snap is to force the offense into the box. By eliminating the space Spread teams want with cover downs and coverage structure, a defense has now made the offense predictable. Above, the full cover down by the Sam eliminates the Bubble. To the boundary, a defensive coordinator could opt to press the CB on the single-WR, thus eliminating the “Hitch Read.” The two-high structure eliminates the backside Post read as well (what Clemson calls “Rattle”). This coverage structure puts “plus” numbers around the passing game (three-over-two to the field and two-over-one to the boundary). This makes the offense predictable by forcing them into the box. Elko’s comments on a two-high structure align with this thinking.
Elko described that most RPO offenses have two sides to them, the post-snap (what I refer to as the “Read” side) and the pre-snap (what Elko calls the “leverage” side). The Read side refers to the RB’s alignment. Most RPOs or read option plays are designed off the QB/RB mesh point. By setting the front to the field versus a 2×2 set (Field Call), the defense has allowed the Ni to be out of the box fit and able to achieve a full cover down (inside-eye of the slot). The pre-snap side is called the leverage side because the offense will read the leverage of the secondary pre-snap to see if they will throw it or work to the other side (what I refer to as a Flop Read). The best example of this is found in two-back or Y-off teams that use a Hitch or Post -read backside.
In Elko’s defense versus a 2×2 formation, the LBs (Mike and Will) are going to leverage the weak side (illustrated above). These ‘backers are tied to the fits (both have gap responsibility) and are away from the RB. To support the overhangs, Elko can use a 2-Read concept to assist with WR screens. This is pretty typical with most base RPO defensive schemes. Running a trap coverage (2-Read or actual Cover 2 with a sight-read) allows the overhang to sit in the curl/seam longer, the safety now doesn’t have to take the slot man-to-man, and you have a quick force player in the CB who is reading the slot versus WR screens.
To the boundary (leverage side), the CB needs to read the mesh. Elko explained that in most RPO offenses, run action doesn’t mean verticals. These types of actions are usually there to suck the ILBs in to throw high-percentage throws like slants or hitches into the exposed zones, especially when the secondary is backed off. Read the mesh to be able to play the QB’s intentions away from the RB. This allows the CB to gain a quick throw read.
Each side has certain responsibilities and is supported by the coverage scheme or alignment. Elko stressed the need for the LBs to know who is in the fit and who is out. This streamlines coverage distribution and assists versus tempo teams. Leverage and physicality were also stressed. Elko explained that in a split-safety scheme, you are a zone-action defense and your perimeter players have to be good at block destruction.
Elko aligns with many defensive coordinators around the country and slides his LBs strong versus 3×1 sets. This is the opposite of his adjustment to 2×2 (slide LBs weak). Many modern four-down defenses use a true Ni who is out of the box fit as much as possible, a “$” ‘backer is similar to a Will and is delegated the #3 WR versus Trips. This keeps the Mike in the middle of the formation and in charge of securing the middle of the box at all times.
The thought process behind this is a defense wants to protect the Ni at all times and ensure he isn’t a box player. This can kill pre-snap RPO reads and simple WR screens to the three WR side. The $-backer (Will) is now playing in a similar position at all times as well. In 2×2 he would align weak and help secure the weakside overhang (typically called the Will LB).
Versus 3×1, to keep the Mike as a “plugger,” a defense can flip the $-backer strong and align on the #3 WR. This type of strong shift versus 3×1 puts the boundary safety (BS) as a primary fitter in the box (“B” gap). Below is an illustration of how Elko’s defense would align to a 3×1.
Saban fits 3×1 alignments the same way and usually runs some kind of a “game” or stunt to help the sinking safety in his fit. The stunt keeps the safety from actually be responsible for an interior gap. Most defensive coaches would agree that they don’t want to live with a secondary player as a box fitter. To ensure this, Saban will give a “Jimmy” call to the Nose side (3 tech. set to the Trips) telling the 5 technique he will be playing what I refer to as a “heavy” technique.
In a heavy technique, the DE will rub into the open “B” gap if the OT out blocks and would chase the Dive if the RB was set to his side. Saban teaches a “peek” technique where the DE hold his ground, “peeks” inside for the RB and rubs into the “B” gap if the RB comes to him. By doing this, the safety stays in an alley fit and not a true box fit. Below is a clip of Bama running a “Jimmy” call to 3×1. #49 will rub into the “B” gap when the OT bases out. You can even see the boundary safety (#14) sink into the box at the snap.
Essentially what Elko is doing is creating the same look in 2×2 when the offense goes 3×1. The $-backer replaces the Ni and by setting the 3 tech. to the #3 WR, Elko ensures that he is not in conflict (or in the fit) and can take #3 vertical. He is also a better athlete than Mike and can carry a TE vertically or cover down a slot WR. The boundary safety (BS) becomes the “Will” LB. To help the BS, Elko uses a run stunt away from the RB to ensure an alley fit or to hold the OL. Elko could even set the 3 tech. to the RB and again, play games away from the RB to ensure the $-backer can cover down to the #3 WR without being in direct conflict. As Elko said, take away as much as you can pre-snap with body presence.
Note: If you have followed this site at all you know I am a little different when it comes to Trips or 3×1 formations. I prefer to set the front away from the three WR side. Even though this puts your Mike in “conflict,” by running a “heavy” technique with the 5 tech. to the Nose you get the same thing you would with the “Jimmy” call above, except your LB is the fitter and not the safety. This also allows you to bracket the “X” WR and be plus-one to QB runs (or any run backside). Below is an example of my thought process.
When you are constantly sinking in the safety backside versus 3×1 you are exposing yourself to play-action Posts and Digs from the “X” WR. Because the backside safety is in the fit, he must honor the play-action. This window of opportunity is just what a Spread OC wants, especially if they are a 3×1 Y-off team. By keeping a true two-high structure you are giving yourself more freedom to counter what the Spread is trying to do backside. It also keeps your safety in his natural fit and you don’t guarantee the offense a one-on-one situation with what has traditionally been the offense’s best WR. Something to think about as you build a defense. Always be cognizant of the counters.
Want more info on defending Trips runs? Defending Trips — Fitting the Run
The “traditional” Run/Pass offenses use their QB’s arm to its advantage, and not his legs. This type of offense utilizes box reads to decide whether to run or pass. RPOs are not just for dual threat QBs. Clemson, for instance, was able to use their designed RPOs against Alabama with a limited runner in Trevor Lawrence (he even ran a few times!). Not saying that Lawrence couldn’t run, but the Tigers used his elite arm talent and their ground game to put Bama in a bind. Eklo explained that he likes to use single-high alignments as a change-up, or when the QB isn’t a running threat.
The main point that Elko opened up with, in reference to his single-high coverage, is that offenses are basing their attack on the defense’s shell. To Eklo, the single-high adjustment is a change-up to his base two-shell look versus the Spread. Single-high coverage allows the defense to outnumber the box; every gap is filled and everyone is responsible for a gap or a man. By single-gap fitting the box, everyone is able to run to the ball with aggression. There is no “read.” Single-high coverage, Elko explained, also allows the defense to cover down to everything. Pre-snap, this takes away any RPOs like we discussed earlier in the article. In a two-high scheme, there is going to be a conflict player, single-high takes that away.
As with anything, there are pros and cons. Elko explained earlier that a two-high shell gives the defense a plus-one versus QB runs that is needed when defending Read offenses. Single-high coverages are used as a changeup to load the box and great if the QB isn’t a running threat. In a one-high shell, the defense loses their QB player. Something all DCs need to be cognizant of when developing a plan of attack.
Versus 2×2 formations, Elko favors a weak roll. Again, aligning with his two-high scheme of shifting the LBs weak. In a two-high shell, the LBs have to adjust. I call this “pull-the-chain.” In a single-high scheme, the secondary has to adjust. This weak spin vs 2×2 allows the Will to get back into the box and out of conflict. This is similar to Saban’s Rip/Liz shown below. The Ni (*) and the DS are the overhangs and will carry the seams. The outside alignment inhibits WR screens.
Where Elko is different in his Match 3 approach is to the RB’s side. Elko tells the overhang to the RB to leverage the slot, or “squeeze” the #2 WR. This puts the overhang in inside leverage, forcing the slot outside. Elko explains that he tells his players to not expand outside of #2 and do not expect help inside because of play-action (PA). By doing this to the RB’s side, Elko walls the quick slant or snag route by the slot. As a change-up, Elko will use bail techniques by the CBs (look like press then bail out to deep third) or play Cover 1 (man-free). Elko has his CBs even read the mesh to read run/pass. If the CB sees run action, they will bail slower anticipating a “sit” route (hitch/stop).
Want more clinic notes? MQ has you covered.
- Don Brown (Univ. of Michigan) Lone Star Clinic Notes (Feb. 2017)
- THSCA Football Lecture – Kirby Smart’s Defensive Evolution (June 2018)
© 2019 MatchQuarters.com | Cody Alexander | All rights reserved.
Go deeper than just X’s and O’s. Have a philosophy. MQ’s books are available on Amazon and Kindle:
As always, support the site by following me on Twitter (@The_Coach_A) and spreading the word to your coaching friends by liking and retweeting the articles you read (even sharing them via Facebook and LinkedIn).
Do not hesitate to contact me with questions through the site’s CONTACT page or through my DM on Twitter. I enjoy speaking with you guys (iron sharpens iron).
– Coach A. | #ArtofX