3 Keys to Defensive Game Planning


I’m a firm believer in a few crucial keys to defensive game planning. Over time, I’ve gone from someone who was very complex to someone who is very simple when it comes to defensive football game planning, as some of Strong Football’s most loyal followers probably know.

This post details 3 crucial elements, in my opinion, to defensive game planning. I think when you try to stick to more than 3-5 keys, you really aren’t emphasizing any one of them in-particular.

Defensive Game Planning Key #1: Only Coaches Know Tendencies

Your job, as a coach, is to understand what the opposing play caller is doing. Your players goal is to execute your plan to the best of their abilities. In marketing, I’ve learned an important lesson. If you provide too many calls to action, your success rate on any of them will be pretty bad. The same applies to coaching. How does this apply to your goals in defensive game planning? By giving the players too many objectives, especially with today’s sophisticated offenses, you decrease the likelihood that they will execute their main objective (execution of the play called) to the best of their abilities.

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Maybe you have one stand out who can multi-task well, but as we all know on defense, a lot of times you’re really as good as your weakest link. Let’s keep those players performing at the highest level possible by not overloading them with tendencies. Sure, if it’s 3rd and a mile, they should play looser. But if they try to over-analyze a play because their overloaded balancing statistics in their head, they won’t be 100% focused on their key objective, specifically executing their assignment on the play.

I’ve said this before on here, but I really liked it. The Bucs under Kiffen and the Bears, under Lovie Smith, never had players rely on stats. Their read key was always their primary indicator, so it was all post snap. When Warren Sapp went to the Raiders, they tried telling him that the opponent ran 50% of the time out of a certain set. His response? “So I’ll be right 50% of the time? If I follow my key, I’m right 100% of the time.”

Defensive Game Planning Key #2: Give the kids ownership

This may seem that this is counter-intuitive given my last point, but I think this element of defensive game planning and the last one work well together. Have a base call and a pressure call if you’re not a split coverage team, and if you are a split coverage team, let the safeties choose between two calls depending on the receiver set. So if I call “Base”, we will use our best base call versus whatever formation the offense presents. Give us 2×1 Pro? We’re in Quarter Quarter Half (invert) with the safety down in the box. In a 3 x 1? We’re in 3 cloud.

For pressure situation, this allows us to never have to check out of a blitz. If we call pressure, and the team lines up in 2×1, our kids might execute the NCAA blitz.

Now why do I think this works better then simply lining up and running our play? Because if we’ve prepared well throughout the week, the kids aren’t thinking, especially since we don’t give them anything else to think about in terms of stats. The kids align in the right playcall, and we read our keys and fly to the ball. I actually believe that lining up in one play call may be more difficult then easily checking to a new play. The player needs to know how his alignment changes if the formation is slightly different. If we just check to the appropriate play, the kids will know how to align.

Finally, I think giving the kids ownership goes a long way. Kids don’t have ownership over stats. But if the kids know that their responsible for getting into the right play, they will make a quick decision and want to execute it even more. Again, I know this is the hardest part to follow given how I said we want to simplify the process for the kids, but I think this does exactly that. The kids check to their play based off of our defensive game planning, and simply execute it.

Defensive Game Planning Key #3: Minimize Risk

The easiest way to lose a game is to give up big plays. In defensive game planning, you should focus on avoiding big plays. That’s why, in this system, I like the kids base plays to be fairly safe calls. I like the kids to be able to just read their keys and run. When you analyze an offense, determine what is their strategy for getting explosive plays.

To analyze explosive plays when doing your defensive game planning, understand what is the offense philosophy for setting up big plays. Are they an air raid team which bases off of 4-verticals? Do they use the running game to setup play action? Make sure your coverages prevent these plays. Make a team really march down the field as much as possible.

Defensive Game Planning: Conclusions

These are just my thoughts on defensive game planning, and there are plenty of coaches who do it differently. My goal, on defense, is to prevent giving up big plays and out execute the opponent. By getting into the right play for the formation, executing the defensive play call to the fullest ability, and focusing on avoiding explosive plays, the defense can be efficient.