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Defensive Game Planning


In this X’s O’s Football breakdown, we take a look at defensive game planning.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Your Personnel

The first thing you need to do, find the strengths and weaknesses of your personnel. This will help you pick what kind of front to run(30, 40), and what will be your base coverage, as well as your change of pace coverages. Once you have established these things, you can begin working on your actual game plan.

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Example of an actual defensive play call sheet

Here is a list of questions you must be able to answer, and these answers will form your game plan.

1. How will you stop the run?

You must figure out what adjustments you will have to make to stop the run(this includes options as well), and if you can make the needed adjustments from within your base coverage. Remember, your base coverage is only a frame from which you build around, and not the lone coverage you will call. Keeping that in mind, your base coverage probably will not be a viable option versus run heavy opponents. This is going to, in all probability, force you into run blitzing, and making use of the bluff blitz feature, QB contain, etc. Stopping the run is your number one priority, and you must have multiple answers to stopping the run set in stone before proceeding.

2. How will you stop screens?

Screens are constraint plays, their sole purpose is to keep the defense honest. You must have a plan in place to stop them ahead of time, because waiting until you’ve been gashed for major chunks of yards in-game is obviously too late.

3. How will you handle the quick passing game?

You cannot allow your opponent to just dink-n-dunk the ball up and down the field on you. Well, you could do that, but you will not be happy at the end of the game. So you will have to find safe answers to the quick game, ones that won’t leave you vulnerable to deeper route combinations.

4. How will you defend the intermediate to vertical passing game?

Here is where your base coverage, along with your change of pace calls, should do the job. However, if you are unable to get pressure with a four man rush, you will be forced to blitz. You must have at least a few blitzes ready to dial up when this occurs, because this is going to happen, regardless of how good your front four may be.

5. How will you deal with compressed/bunch sets?

As you know, these sets can be a real pain to defend, so you will want to have multiple coverages and adjustments to handle them.

6. How will you defend trip(3×1) formations?

3×1 sets put stress on your defense by structure alone, and will require special adjustments to defend. For some ideas on dealing with trips, check out how Nick Saban and Garry Patterson handle 3×1 sets. There are also some Cover 2 pattern-match coverages(2-Buster, Clip coverage)that might give you some creative ideas to combat 3×1 sets.

7. How are you going to handle empty sets?

Just as 3×1 sets stress the defense by alignment, so do empty formations. These, just as 3×1 sets, will also require individualized coverage and front adjustments.

8. How are you going to defend short yardage situations?

Your approach will vary greatly defending on down, field position, score, time remaining, and your opponents tendencies. You will really need to have a plan in place for the following short yardage game situations: 2nd, 3rd, and 4th down on a long field, red zone, and goal line.

9. How will you approach long yardage situations?

How you play this is will be dictated by down and distance, and field position. There are two school of thought on this situation: 1. Rush 3 or 4, and drop 7 or 8 into coverage. 2. Blitz. Neither one is right or wrong, and is a personal preference. If you are blitz oriented, this could be a great time to drop 7 or 8 into coverage. This same change of pace ideology applies to those that are more conservative, too, and this could be a great time to dial up a blitz.

10. 4 minute defense: What kind of defensive calls will you make late in the game, when you must get the ball back?

You may need to refer to how you answered question number one, but that depends on your opponent. Your opponent may be aggressive, and not concerned with taking time off the clock. If this turns out to be the case, how will you defend this? Will you use blitzes, and if so, what blitzes will you use? Will you lean on your base coverage, and your change of pace coverages? You must to know how to handle this scenario before entering into a game; knowing ahead of tinne will keep you from panicking.

11. 2 minute defense: What coverages and fronts will you call when your opponent only needs a field goal or touchdown to tie the game, or take the lead?

This can be played a number of ways, and you must figure out what will work for you. Your answers to the first 10 questions should help you formulate a plan for this situation. However, you cannot go into the last 2 minutes of a game without knowing what defenses you are going to call.

Final Thoughts

Once you have answers to these questions, you will have a pretty thorough defensive game plan. I’ll finish with a few things that you should always keep in mind when making your defensive play calls. Always factor in down and distance, field position, time remaining in half/game, score, your opponents tendencies, and what personnel grouping your opponent will have on the field when making your play calls. The personnel grouping, along with down and distance, will help you decide which sub packages(nickel, dime, quarters) you will use.


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