5 Keys to Developing a Defensive System in Football


Last year, I was asked to put together a new defensive system for our football team. We were moving from the Fritz Shurmur Eagle 5 linebacker defense to a more modern 4-3/4-4 defense.

As I was sifting through endless books, playbooks, and clinic materials to compare what all the best and brightest minds in the game of football were doing, I realized that there are five keys to creating a defensive system, and only 2 have anything to do with X’s and O’s.

football defensive systems

Fritz Shurmur’s 5 Eagle Linebacker Defense wasn’t cutting it anymore.

Key #1: Your base front and coverage need to be durable enough to use against a multitude of offensive sets.

No matter the way you choose to align your defense, whether it be a 4-3, 4-4/4-2, 3-4, 3-3, 3-5, 46 Bear etc. your base better be good enough to align to a majority of the different offensive sets you will be seeing in a given season.

The same can be said for coverage as well. You need to have a coverage that you can align in no matter the offensive set and still feel like you have a chance to defend whatever the offense will be throwing at you.

For us, we went with a 4-3 Cover 2 for the flexibility we had in aligning to the different offenses we would see. Sure, we would work in different variations of the front and coverage, but if the crap started hitting the fan, you could count on us being in this defense.

Key #2: Communication is King

When you are developing your defensive system, make sure you come up with a way that will help your players easily identify with what you are doing.

You may use “coach speak,” a made-up name, colors, or even numbers to tell your players how to get aligned. The key is having all of your players on the same page so that when the bullets start flying in a game, you players can communicate with you and each other to get the mission accomplished.

Key #3: You need to have some type of install plan to convey the material to the players.

As I went through the process of figuring out what we wanted to do and how we wanted to communicate that, I realized that we would need some type of plan to implement this system.

Now, there are two schools of thought on this. The first is to only install something after your players get the information you were previously teaching them. This works well if the proceeding material builds off of prior knowledge gained while learning the first. It makes for a much faster install and learning curve if there are only minor tweaks to the base defense.

The second such method has been popularized by the Air Raid coaches where they will install their package in a 3-5 day rotation/cycle where they will basically install everything in the course of a week, and then re-install the same material the next time back through making it easier for the players to understand the concepts as they go back through the installation process a 2nd and 3rd time.

Personally, I chose the first method as I knew we’d really be spending the most amount of time in our base defense. Similarly, the adjustments we were making relied upon know the base defense and moving accordingly based upon the new change.

Key #4: You’ll need to be able to attack/blitz from inside and outside in your defensive system

This is a key that I quickly realized we were lacking toward the middle of the season.

As I was creating our alignment rules and blitz package for our defensive system, I neglected the fact that some teams would still be able to run to an area on the field I was trying to keep them from running to by shear force.

football defensive systems

Adding a Blitz like Zach Davis does in his 3-4 Dime Package Makes a Difference

We play some bigger teams upfront that can negate some of our alignment advantages we would normally have against weaker teams. This oversight created some problems on Friday night as we were unable to stop the bleeding at times. I have since added an outside blitz that will take care of this problem.

Key #5: You need a set of read/reaction keys that help your players play fast

This key is probably the most important key of them all. Hence the reason I saved it for last. To me, this is the difference between giving up a gain of 1 or 2 yards as opposed to 3 to 4 yards on a run play and a pass of 5 yards or less compared to an 8 to 10 yard gain.

During my offseason self-scout, I realized that the majority of the plays we gave up big yards on were due to a player who either misread or didn’t read his key. When we read our keys and reacted, we were extremely likely to make a great play where the offense gained minimal yards.

This is where I think teams that are average to below average can make the biggest headway in terms of improvement. I believe this, because the extra half second a player can get by knowing where the play is going can be the difference between 2nd down and a touchdown. You can guarantee this will be an area of emphasis during the summer for us.
If you have any questions, please feel free to email me jobyturner[at]gmail.com or DM on Twitter @jobyturner. Thank you for your time.