GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS: Setting Up Your Defense To Counteract Pre-Snap Motion

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By Cody Alexander, Cornerbacks Coach, Lovejoy High School, Lucas, Texas, & Author, Coaching Blog, MatchQuarters.com

If No One Moves, They Won’t Move.

Offenses utilize motion and shifting to out-leverage the defense to attack how a defense sets its strength/front. Auburn University, for example, has built an entire offense based upon using pre-snap wide-receiver motion to move defenses and to out-leverage a defense’s alignment.

PHOTO A: Auburn Using Pre-Snap WR Motion To Confuse A Defense.

Jet motions are another great way to get a defense moving in a specific direction. Defenses are forced to move with the jet motion to try and gain outside leverage on a quick motion. This rotation can be counteracted by an offense with counter plays and play-action passes.

Simple motion has allowed teams like Auburn – as well as teams who run Slot-T variations – to expose defenses who over-rotate or try to spin toward the motion.

Pro-style offenses use the trading and shifting of offensive players to get the defense confused or to over-rotate. In a pro-style offense, the TE creates an extra gap and can play upon how the defense sets its strength.

Offensive-minded coaches like Brad Harsin, the head football coach at Boise State (as well as previously Arkansas St. and Texas) have made a living on moving players around to gain leverage on opponents.

PHOTO B: Boise State Using Motion.

Unlike the Auburn Slot-T jet motions that use speed to out-leverage the defense, pro-style offensive shifts and motions use a defense’s alignment and rules to lure a defense to set a certain way, before shifting or motioning to gain leverage.

An added value to all this movement occurs when teams utilize unbalanced sets, which is yet another way to out-leverage the defense.

Motioning and shifting in an offense is a cat-and-mouse game. The offense moves its pieces around, probing to find the weak spot in a defense.

A primary key for defensive success, however, is that a defense must be sound and move as little as possible. If the defense doesn’t need to move, then the offense is simply shifting just to shift.

How We Got Here

Motion is an offense’s way of isolating a player in man coverage or forcing a rotation of the defense to gain an advantage.

Defenses that are man-heavy, and “lock” players on their man, can be attacked using motion as well. Offenses will often motion a receiver to see if the defense is in man coverage, or to create a mismatch/leverage for the receiver in motion.

Football is all about angles. Utilizing motions and shifts, gives an offense a way to quickly reset the front and attack the defense.

Tactics such as TE trades and multiple shifts force the defense align the correct way, much like the swinging gate during a PAT attempt forces the defense to account for every player. Eliminating the threat of motions and shifts really boils down to the way a defense sets its strength.

Defenses who utilize alignments that have “strong” and “weak” sides, are susceptible to shifts and motions because if an offense flips its formation, the defense must then realign as well. This can create a mass of humanity in the middle as d-linemen and linebackers, as well as even the safeties, are shifting from one side to the next.

Much like up-tempo pace that offenses use today, teams that heavily shift also understand that the defense wants to have certain players aligned to a certain formation.

By shifting or motioning, the offense is putting the defense on their heels, or forcing the defense to play “left-handed.” Once defenses realize that teams can hurt them by shifting, most begin playing their defensive ends by field or boundary and then just flipped the interior lineman, thus eliminating the need to shift. Even though the issue with the lineman is resolved with this adjustment, it still leaves the linebacker in a bind if his defensive coordinator is not setting the strength by field and boundary.

In 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, the linebackers were originally named for where they should line up. The Sam LB is positioned to the strength, the Mike LB stays in the middle and the Will LB aligns himself on the weak side of the defensive strength call.

DIAGRAM 1: Sam LB Aligned To Strong Side.

To start, most defenses align the Sam LB to an offense’s strength, which is usually the TE in a 21 personnel “Pro” set.

The next step in the evolution of offense was the shift to 11 personnel. This tactic caused problems for teams who set the strength to the TE, because the Will LB was now stuck guarding a WR.

Sam LBs are almost always the most-athletic of all the LBs. Since the beginning, many d-coordinators have wanted their Sam OLB to serve as more of a strong safety than a Mike LB. The shift to more athletic offensive sets forced DC’s to change how they set the strength.

As the pro-style spread (11/20 personnel) became more prevalent, the Sam LB has become even more of a hybrid player, and defenses started to send him to the passing strength and away from the TE (even going as far as flipping the responsibilities of the safeties: Strong = TE and Free = Pass Strength).

The Will LB has become a hybrid defender, too, but more like a Mike LB who must possess the ability to play in space – only away from the passing strength.

(In actuality, however, the Mike LB usually only plays in space versus a 10 personnel 3×1 set, and depending on how a team defends Trips, they’ll spin into Cover 3, and the Mike LB may never leave the box).

Once offenses figured out that the defense was setting the Sam LB to the passing strength, they began to put formations into the boundary and ran change-of-strength motions. The defense was suddenly left with a Sam LB and Will LB flipped, and the offense had the advantage.

The next step in defending against the spread offense and its motions was to eliminate the Sam LB position altogether and replace him with a safety.

In basic 4-2-5 schemes, there are two Strong Safeties and one “centerfield” Safety who is never relied upon to sink into the box. The rock-and-roll (RnR) concept was born. (See Diagram 2.)

DIAGRAM 2: RnR Concept (Rock And Roll Concept).

The Mike LB and Will LB essentially became box defenders and were rarely asked to cover wide receivers unless it was 10 personnel, 2×2. In a RnR concept, there is a “Spur” and a “Whip” Safety (or strong and weak).

The Spur Safety is akin to the hybrid Nickelbacks seen in the modern game today, and the Whip Safety serves as the Down Safety and is aligned to the boundary in most 4-2-5 quarters teams.

When offenses began to utilize shifts and motions, the Safeties would rotate, or rock-and-roll, to re-shuffle the strength. Offenses soon took advantage of this defensive adjustment and attacked the Safety as he tried to quickly backpedal into position.

This brings the journey full circle. In the beginning, defensive coordinators wanted to align their personnel by strong and weak to the TE-side (mainly 21 personnel), but as offenses started to use shifts, they turned toward setting the strength by field and boundary.

This same cycle happened again – as offensive coordinators began spreading defenses out. As a result, defenses began defending the spread by aligning the Sam LB to the passing strength but were exposed when teams used change-of-strength motion to put the Will LB and Sam LB in opposite roles. Again, DCs adjusted by shifting back to field boundary calls.

Setting Up For Success

As stated earlier in the article, if the defense doesn’t move, neither will the offense. Motion is used as a means to gain leverage in a spread scheme. Most spread offenses utilize two types of motion:

    1. Quick Motion

    2. Leverage Motion.

Offenses utilize quick motion (like a jet motion) to get defenses to rotate or attempt to beat them to the edge.

Leverage motion is used when teams change the strength (like when a defense sets itself based upon the passing strength) to get the best match up or out leverage man coverage.

To combat both types of motions, defenses need to have rules in place so that defenders can line up quickly and absorb any motions they may see.

An easy way to do this is by divorcing the front from the back seven.

Base Rules

The first order of business is for the defense to have a base set of rules for each formation. This strategy allows defenders to quickly read and react.

If the defense was a strong/weak strength setting team, it would be caught off guard if defenders guess wrong on the strength side. As the offense got set, the whole defense would then be force to flip its alignment. To combat this and prevent it from happening, defenses should be aligned field and boundary.

With spread and up-tempo style offense becoming the new norm for defensive coaches, the easiest way to align the strength, and place the defense in a best case scenario is to keep the Sam LB and Cover-Safety positioned to the field. The Will LB and Down Safety travel to the boundary.

When you think about it, this alignment rule makes sense because most of the game of football is played on a hash mark, so why not use the hash marks as an alignment tool?

Most offenses will not run their entire offense into the boundary (FIB) and if they do, the defense has done their job – by essentially making them “left-handed.”

With the advent of hybrid defensive players, and more defenses shrinking in size to gain speed to combat the spread, it’s not too much of a reach to ask a Sam LB to fit into the box periodically.

In Diagram 3 (shown below), the strength is set to the field. If the ball is aligned in the middle of the field (MOF) the Sam LB must go to the same side as the back.


DIAGRAM 3: Alignment When Ball Is In The Middle Of The Field.

Against spread teams, most quarter-coverage defenses set the front to the field, as well. This allows the Sam LB to cover down on the slot. To the boundary, the Will LB serves as the fold player.

If the back jogs, or flips sides, nothing changes. The Will LB remains the fold player, and the Sam LB stays in his cover down.

By “traveling defensive players” together, defenders gain the ability to self-correct. It also builds camaraderie between those pairs of players.

The CS and the Sam always travel to the field, while the DS and the Will LB always position themselves “head to the boundary.” This alleviates the stress of waiting for an offense to line up.

Against up-tempo spread teams, this split-second gained defensively can be the difference between an explosive play for the offense or a loss of yards.

Divorcing the front from the strength call, allows the defense to align quicker. The strength call only needs to be called once, to the front. The LBs and the secondary defenders know where to line up by the position of the ball on the field.

Creating a set of front rules and “formationing” your defense creates a quick anchor point for the defensive players. Alignments are quick and crisp – with everything dictated once the offense is aligned.

If an offense puts the formation into the boundary, the defense aligns how it normally would, except the Will LB and the DS are now the traditional “strong-side” defenders.

In the Diagram 4 (shown below), the offense is aligned in a trips set and has positioned its formation into the boundary.

DIAGRAM 4: Under Front (Rule For 3×1).

The front is aligned in an Under Front (the rule for 3×1) and the Will LB covers down to the No. 2 WR, just like the Sam LB does to the field side.

As more defenses turn to rely upon hybrid players, this concept is not difficult. The Mike LB never changes. If the offense motions back to the field (change of strength motion) to create a 2×2 set, the LBs adjust and no one really moves. The Sam LB still covers down to the No. 2 WR and the Mike LB aligns in a “zero.” The safeties don’t go far either. Your defensive coverages are adjusted and the defense is aligned correctly.

Versus a 10 personnel if the defense sets the front strength to the field it almost ensures that – no matter what the offense does – the front will not have to be reset.

Even if the offense motions to 3×1 FIB, the front is aligned in an “Under” because it is set to the field.

Blitz Adjustments

The rules a defense creates to set its strength directly correlates with how an offense chooses to attack it.

Offenses use motion as a leverage tool. Positioning the front and the Sam LB/CS duo to the field creates little movement when coming up against a motion/shift team.

Even if blitzing, by setting the strength the to the field and positioning the front formationally, it can alleviate any potential problems, too.

If a defense is a zone blitz team and blitzes by formation, the adjustments to movement should already be built into their rules. The main issues with movement are when an offense changes the strength. To combat this, whether you’re a man or zone-blitz team, you just need to “pull the chain” with the linebackers.

Man blitzing gives the defense the luxury of having a two-shell look and doesn’t give away the blitz because one safety is spinning.

Against motion, being able to stay with a two-high shell allows the defense to move even less because no one is sinking back or coming down to meet the motion man. Players literally just slide over and are in position.

Creating a blitz package with little adjustments to motion allows the defense to stay in the blitz rather than “Omaha,” which is another reason why offenses use motion against blitzing defenses.

Remember our recurring theme: “If no one moves, the offense won’t move.”

Top Motion Adjustments

The hardest motions for defenses to deal with are “change-of-strength” motions because it forces your entire defense to adjust. Having a divorced front and setting the Sam LB and CS positioned to the field allows for quick adjustments.

Other than the LBs and Safeties adjusting to the width of WRs, the interior lineman are the only ones that have to move, and that’s only when teams go from a 2×2 formation to 3×1 formation.

Any defensive base alignment must align to anything at any time, even motions and shifts. A TE trade should only make the LBs and interior lineman adjust.

Again, the best way to combat motion is to not move. If the defense doesn’t need to flip or re-shuffle everyone on the field, then offenses just line up and play, making it easier for the defense.

Shown below in Diagrams 5-10, are the top three motion adjustments seen in today’s game. With spread offense being the dominant form of football today, it isn’t hard to fathom these three motions as being the top three seen by most defensive coordinators.

DIAGRAM 5: (10) 2×2 to 3×1 – Change of Strength

DIAGRAM 6: (20) 2×1 Across Field Motion

DIAGRAM 7: (11) 2×2 to 3×1 – Change of Strength

DIAGRAM 8: (11) 3×1 to 2×2 TE Trade [FIB]

DIAGRAM 9: (11) 2×2 to 3×1 TE Trade [FIB]

DIAGRAM 10: (21) 2×1 Trade – Change of Strength

Concerns, Conclusion

The main concern facing teams that set the Sam LB and CS to the field is what to do when an opposing offense aligns 3×1 into the boundary.

In any 3×1 FIB, the Sam LB becomes the Mike LB. Even in 20 personnel, if a team chooses to set the formation into the boundary, the Sam LB becomes a box player.

As defenses use more hybrid players to combat tempo and spread schemes, the concern for putting a smaller player in the box is a real concern. That being said, however, most offenses do not run their entire offense from inside the boundary, and if they do, the defense has done their job by forcing the offense to do what is not normal. Most offenses use FIB much like motion, as a means to out-leverage a defense.

If a defense is faced with using a small Mike LB (the Sam is in the box), it can handle several plays a game where the Sam LB has to hold the box. In a perfect world the defense would align to the offense with the correct personnel, but against up-tempo teams, and teams that utilize shift/motion, that can’t be the case.

Up-tempo and spread schemes force a defense to simplify. The best way to hold defensive formational-integrity is to stay in a two-shell and bump the linebackers on motion.

Spread offenses are more concerned with width. Those offenses want to get their athletes in space. The best way that defenses can combat this strategy is to place a defense’s best athletes to the field.

Divorcing the front strength from the back seven to strength allows for defensive flexibility, while allowing your defense to adapt to any formation.

Base Rules:

1. Set the Sam LB and CS to the field, and set the strength of the form to the field versus a (10) 2×2.

2. Keep the strength rules as simple as possible (Sam/CS to the field, strength to the field if 2×2, and check Under to 3×1 sets).

3. Don’t concern yourself with the Sam LB being the Mike LB in 3×1 FIB. If the offense wants to put all its athletes in limited space, then it is limiting its options (what we call, “making itself left-handed”).

4. Use a “pull-the-chain” technique with the LBs. With motion, even in man, all the LBs need to do is adjust their alignments back to the base of the new formation.

5. Always remember, if the defense doesn’t move, flip, or re-shuffle with motion, the offense will stop motioning.

Cody Alexander is the Cornerbacks Coach at Lovejoy High School in Lucas, Texas. He is also the author of the coaching blog, MatchQuarters.com

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Contact Cody Alexander by Email: coalexan732@gmail.com

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