Organizing Your Defensive Secondary

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by Bill Shephard

A philosophy of secondary play helps the coach to know what is needed out of the players and steps that can be taken to improve the defensive back. This involves not only drills but practice field time and game field time.

As an added note, it is hard for your players to know what you want them to achieve or how to play the position unless you the coach, have a measurable and active philosophy concerning the secondary. Defensive schemes and concepts of pressuring offensives both against the run and pass are becoming more prevalent in football today.

Yet with all the development of the fronts and stunts, the secondary can be left behind. Simple man coverage is not always the answer to match the defensive fronts and alignments of the traditional front seven.

Improving a defense needs to start at the secondary and move forward. It starts with a philosophy and the following five steps can help to enhance the productivity and development of not only a solid secondary but the overall defense.

1. Stances and Starts

It is very important to maintain credible play, so be in the correct position in alignment and use proper technique to insure maximum coverage. Nose over the toes when back pedaling helps to maintain balance and the opening of their hips after taking the proper read-steps will allow for better reaction by the defensive back to routes and runs by the offense.

Drill work should be done daily to emphasize proper starts, stances and techniques when offensive plays start. This is also a good time to get a pre-snap read or confuse the offense with secondary movement.

2. Alignment and Assignment

This is a must in order to be a good secondary player and have a solid defense. The secondary has to match the fronts or you can have holes in the defense that a good offensive coordinator can take advantage of. All secondary positions should know where they must line up on the offensive personnel and be at the proper depth.

Game-to-game adjustments or stunt responsibilities may alter the alignments and assignments of defensive secondary. Coaches and players need to be prepared for motion, formations and receiver position used by offenses to gain an advantage. Failure to have the secondary in proper position is the one of the leading causes for big plays. This should be practiced daily with use of 7-on-7 pass skeleton and combination defensive back vs. offensive receiver drills (2-on-1 or 2-on-2 defending against routes or block/tackling drills).

3. Improving Secondary Play

It is very important that the following three steps take place to improve game play of the defensive secondary.


Knowing the down-and-distance and the possible plays that an opponent can run will help in the anticipation and reaction of a defensive back. Coaches should share with players in the scouting report key plays to look for and inform players if the opponent is down/distance motivated in play calling or field-position oriented.

Formation recognition is very important to improving game play. Film time, team time and scouting review will help players be ready for on-the-field adjustments and offensive plays. Never turn your back on the offense and be prepared for adjustments. Communication with other players prior to the start of play is very important.

Information given in the huddle is vital. Too many times players are not paying attention to what is communicated from the sidelines and miss information, resulting in misalignments and missed assignments. This can heavily influence what happens in the next play. Players should break the huddle prepared for the next play and never turn their backs on the offense. Huddle discipline, information from signals, and reminders of assignments are all vital to improved game play. Communication amongst defensive players should continue out of the huddle.

4. Know Your Defense

It is so important that all defensive personnel know the strengths and weaknesses of their own defense. Knowledge of what gives you an advantage and helps you to counteract an offensive formation or play is crucial to any defensive scheme.

Secondary players usually see offensive formation or motion advantages first so they need to be ready to adjust to them. Knowing your keys and focusing on players or formations can give the defense an advantage and success against the offense.

5. Be Physical

Knowing the defense is important and reducing the thinking and increasing the physical play can also help the secondary and the defense to be more successful each play and each game. Play through the whistle, stripping receivers of the ball after the catch, aggressive reaction once the play starts, and solid tackling will help secondary player improve.

Continual drill work done the correct way, with coaching input will add to the improvement of both physical play and game development. Body position on receivers and proper alignment in coverage leads to confidence.

Too much time is spent on flashy schemes and ways to succeed on the short term. Development of a philosophy and how you chose to emphasize your defensive package as a team – and as a staff – may improve the opportunity for greater success over a longer period of time.

Secondary play is key to being productive on defense. You must spend time developing it the right way. Having a well organized and workable philosophy of secondary play will help any coach to be more productive in practice and improve the play of the individual players and total defense.

Bill Shepard has been involved in coaching football for over 25 years. He has served as an either an assistant, coordinator, and/or head coach at both the college and high school level. He has written articles, authored a video series and worked many camps during those years. He is a teacher and coach at Durand High School in Durand, Ill., and resides presently with his wife Sue in Rockford, Ill.

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