Three Principles For Fielding A Smart Defense

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By Hank Schrader, Former Defensive Coordinator, Bellevue (Wash.) High School

Defense to me is an action-reaction confrontation. Defense is about making the offense commit mistakes or preventing them from executing. For any defense to be sound, it must adhere to three principles.

Those principles include:

  1. The defense must be in an effective alignment to counter the offense.
  2. The defense must use keys to get the defenders to the correct area of the offensive attack.
  3. The techniques used by the defensive players must allow them to execute their defensive responsibilities with maximum success.

As we all know, the football line of scrimmage gives the offense eight running gaps (four right, four left) and nine passing zones (three behind the line of scrimmage and six past the line of scrimmage). The first defensive rule of a sound defense is that somebody must have primary responsibility for one or more of these areas.

While coaches may use a single-gap technique to stop the run (eight separate defenders for each of the running gaps), others use two-gap technique to free up defenders to do other things.

Most defenses use the front seven defenders to control the eight running gaps at the line of scrimmage. They also can just assign one person to stop a potential ball carrier. Then, someone must be assigned to cover the nine passing areas or to cover a potential receiver anywhere the receiver goes. This now creates endless possibilities in alignment and assignment.


The next step is to develop keys to help players recognize where the offense is going to attack. There are many ways to teach keys but I will quickly touch on the basic keys I found most helpful.

  • For the defensive line, I use a hit, lift and look key. Play your gap, penetrate to heel depth of the offensive line and find the ball.
  • For inside linebackers, I use three key techniques. For I backs, key fullback to tailback. For split backs, either cross key or key the near back. For Wing T, cross key the backs. I cross key any three-back formation.
  • Outside linebackers or D-gap defenders have contain responsibility for ball-away and the ball coming toward them, keeping outside leverage.
  • Pass defenders key the nearest receiver to second receiver unless in man coverage.
  • Safeties have keys that are all over the map; it depends on the defensive design.

Just make sure that the keys do not make your players think too much. They must see and go. Or, as a colleague of mine used to say, he wanted defenders who got to the ball quick and in a foul mood. Aggressive defenders win ball games.

Once the alignment and assignment is decided, coaches must develop techniques that allow their players to execute assignments. Whole books are written about this. My only other advice is to make sure the technique fits in with the design of the defensive scheme.

I have always used a simple saying to remind my defensive players what they must do on every play: “I must know my alignment. I must know my assignment. I must get my man. I must not make a penalty.”

When reviewing your game film, look for the three principals of a sound defense. Was it alignment, key or technique that was done right or wrong? Then combine this review with the only three defensive stats that count, which are third- and fourth-down stops and conversions, turnovers, and scoring defense.

Win those three stats and you will win most games.

The one stat I would not be too concerned about is yards allowed per game. It’s just overrated.

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