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Defending The Spread In The War Eagle 4-2-5

By Jason Haddock, Assistant Head Coach, Defensive Coordinator, Booker T. Washington (Fla.) High School

The War Eagle 4-2-5 is primarily a zone coverage defense, built to be strong against the myriad of spread offenses we see in our region. While we don’t run a lot of man coverage, the secondary is still full of athletes who can break down, flip hips, and turn and run with receivers.

While the offense spreads the field to run the ball, the secondary has to have enough speed to shrink the field and give run support.


Defensively, we are allowed first pick of all our athletes. Players may come to us having played certain positions, but we try to fit them where they can be successful and help the team the most. By putting the best athletes into their best-fit positions, teams can build their defenses on a solid foundation.

Defensive linemen in this scheme must be quick and strong. No longer are coaches looking for the typical, large-bodied lineman. We look for athletes who are strong, can stay low, play with exceptional technique and have great hands for getting off blocks. Backups need to be almost as good as the starters.

To keep linemen fresh, stick to a 3-to-4 play rotation with defensive tackles. This allows players to stay fresh longer through the game. It also allows for more frequent in-game adjustments if needed.

The linebacker core is the backbone of the defense. Players must be intelligent. These are the defensive captains must quickly receive a call from the sideline and communicate it to the defense, call the defensive strength, line themselves up and get the defense aligned.

Linebackers need to be athletic and have great hips. They need to work downhill quickly and change direction when needed. These needn’t be the strongest players but strength will help them get off blocks and fill holes. We put our best athletes at outside linebacker.

Quick and agile, defenders must have a solid grasp on the defensive scheme and how coverage zones support each other. The down safety needs to be one of, if not the best, athlete on the defense. He is a hybrid player, filling the role of traditional safety and linebacker when rolled down in Cover 3.


The defense’s strength is predicated on one of four markers:

  1. Tight end
  2. Single wide receiver
  3. If balanced, to wide side of field
  4. If balanced in middle, to left

If there is no tight end, then the single wide receiver is the strength designator, and so on.

Our 4-2-5 is built up front with a traditional line. The ends (E) and tackles (T) typically line up in a 5-3-shade-5, with the 3 technique to the strength in our base package. The shade can also be lined up in a 2I, or head up 2 on the backside as an adjustment.

The linebackers balance the line support with the Mike linebacker (M) and Sam linebacker (S) balanced behind the line, and the Whip linebacker (W) outside the tackle box but still in a support position.

To balance the Whip, we have a down safety (D$). This almost gives the appearance of a 4-4 defense, but with the flexibility of adjusting coverages and looks after the ball is snapped.

Corners sit 1×7 inside of the wide outs and the free safety (F$) sits on the roof.

We base out of Cover 3, finding that a single-high safety allows for maximum run-stopping defense. Diagram 1 illustrates this concept against trips.

Diagram 1

In addition to Cover 3, we are able to run Cover 1, Cover 4, and our Eagle coverage (modified Cover 2). Diagram 2 shows our Eagle coverage against trips.

Diagram 2

Against a doubles look, we widen our linebackers and check into either Cover 4 or Eagle, depending on weekly opponent adjustments. In both cases, we show a two-high safety look but can run either coverage.

Against doubles, our linebackers check “jet.”  This causes the Sam and Whip to widen and apex between the No. 2 receivers and end man on line of scrimmage (EMOLOS). They play 3 yards deep and read off the offensive tackle.

The Mike sits at 5 yards and spies the QB, looking through the center and both guards for his read.

Jet can change meaning week-to-week for the line. The tackles can line up in the 3-1 combo, double 2s, double shades, or any combination that allows you to mix up what you show offenses on film.

Think about what you can do differently against an offense that isn’t too difficult or too big of a change for your tackles. Diagram 3 shows the jet look against doubles, with Cover 4 drops.

Diagram 3

Empty is another formation we see that can cause trouble for the 4-2-5 if not covered correctly. Against empty, we check Eagle. Corners press and are responsible for the first wide receiver “out.” Whip and Sam are responsible for the first “in” route, and the D$ and F$ are responsible for first “deep.”

These receiver responsibilities allow for maximum coverage, but enable linebackers to quickly support against the QB draw. Diagram 4 shows the Eagle look against a 2×3 empty formation.

Diagram 4

Running multiple coverages allows for a few positives. First, the defense can be flexible. We run multiple coverages and multiple blitz packages, which allows for easier in-game adjustments and easier teaching practice days.

Second is the ability to disguise coverages. Whether in a single-high or two-high safety coverage, the defense can adapt on the snap of the ball. If you find yourself running primarily two-high safeties, you can spill down your D$ at the snap of the ball to roll into Cover 3.

At the same time, running a traditional Cover 3 look allows for the D$ to turn and drop into quarters coverage after giving the quarterback the single safety pre-snap look. Your D$ also turns into a blitz threat when spilled down in Cover 3.


The zone coverages run in the War Eagle defense allow for us to be aggressive and attack the quarterback. The Whip and the D$ are blitz machines, causing havoc in the backfield and able to get there quickly due to their athleticism.

The Sam and Mike are also able to blitz gaps behind defensive linemen who pull the offensive line with them to open up blitz lanes.

Linebackers are usually blitzed in tandem: SMOKE for a Sam/Mike blitz, WHAM for a Whip/Mike blitz, and Double Fire for a Sam/Whip blitz.

By playing so much athletic ability at the inside and outside linebacker positions, you allow for blitz combinations to come from anywhere, be it the QB’s blindside, the front side, or straight up the middle.

Pass-heavy teams, or traditional passing downs (i.e. 3rd and long) allow for multiple opportunities for blitz combos in the game. It is important, however, to work these during a blitz period in practice during the week. The back seven need to understand how the blitzes work and where overlapping coverage needs to occur. Diagram 5 shows the WHAM and SMOKE blitzes against doubles.

Diagram 5 – WHAM
Diagram 5 – SMOKE

The 4-2-5 is strong against downhill and edge runs, whether it’s the dive or zone read concept. Flexibility in the secondary allows for shrinking the available playing field and almost daring quarterbacks to throw the ball. It is that mentality that is a must.

“No fly zone” isn’t new or unique, but it works for my athletes and they stick with it. The ability of this defense to stop the run, stop the pass, disguise coverages, and fervently blitz makes it an ideal and balanced defense to deal with the spread.

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