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By Mike Kuchar

Senior Research Manager

X&O Labs

Mike Kuchar is the co-founder of X&O Labs and the Defensive Coordinator at North Brunswick Township High School (NJ). In addition to coaching, Kuchar is also a veteran football writer. His work has been featured in ESPN the Magazine and numerous sports publications.

In our first general survey that went out to subscribers earlier this month, we received numerous requests to research linebacker play, particularly reads and block destruction.  While we started our spring research block, I figured I’d kick things off with some of the things we do at North Brunswick Township High School, in central New Jersey.

As a coordinator, I’ve consistently found it difficult to fit my linebackers into gaps.  It could become confusing at the high school level to tell LB’s to watch gaps and not people.  As I started to do this, I began to think I was committing LB blasphemy until I heard esteemed Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi talk about how he does some of the same things out of his 4-3 scheme.  In true Narduzzi fashion, he quipped about how his diminutive sized frame in high school prevented him from doing anything else but running to the football full speed.  That’s exactly what I want my LB’s to do, run full speed to the football.  If I can teach them about the importance of gaps in the process, that’s a bonus.  But to me, nothing compromises speed.

We operate mainly out of the under front vs. two back sets, but with the advent of spread formations, we’ve often had to make adjustments.  What we try not to adjust is our core, which will primarily be a six-man box with two 30-technique inside LB’s.  From a philosophical standpoint, our goal is to outnumber offensive backs with linebackers.  We’ll be in a three-linebacker core against any two-back sets, and a two-linebacker core against any one-back sets.  For the purpose of this report, we’ll focus on our Mike LB (strong side) and our Will LB (weak side).

Quick Note about the Sam (SLB) I should mention that when you run the under front, your Sam LB is treated as a different animal.  Against tight end personnel teams, he’ll play on the line of scrimmage, essentially as a glorified defensive lineman.  So when we start our installation, he’ll go down with the defensive line and work our "V" of the neck reads (a report for another time).  He’ll have to spill all perimeter plays to our strong safety.  Then when we play spread, no tight end structures, he’s a "space" player.  His reads will still be the end man of the line of scrimmage, but usually now he’ll become the force player.  Based on who you have, it may make sense to rotate that player with more of a Nickel type.   Like I had mentioned previously, we play the Under front defense against TE personnel teams (Diagram 1).  But the premise is simple, we want a six man box.  A coach once told me, "don’t alter the box."  We try to keep our two inside linebackers (Mike and Will) in 30-techniques (outside shoulder of the guards) with our heels at five yards.

We all know you defend what you see, and in our conference, at least 75 percent of the teams we play are two-back teams.  We see a variety of 21 personnel pro, 22 personnel pro, Wing T and Option-like structure.  When we do see some form of one-back spread, we will play more of a 4-2-5 structure, because we want to keep our core intact (Diagrams 2 and 3). 

We are big believers in muscle memory.  We want our kids to be comfortable with their line of sight pre-snap.  The Mike and Will linebackers are generally our best defensive players, so we want to just wind them up and let them play.  Often times, repetition can override talent, so we continually work to teach the "same as" theory, many different schemes will look the same to those two players.  This is something I’ll address later.

Surprisingly, we don’t talk much about gaps.  Sure, we teach our LB’s the structure of the defense, but we rely on understanding gaps only during pre-snap.  Getting aligned correctly is our first responsibility; it was Bill Belichick who once said "Over 90 percent of breakdowns on defense are caused by being out of position pre-snap."  But we all know that once the ball is snapped, that technical thinking goes out the window, and organized chaos ensues.  We want to get to the ball in a hurry, and the last thing we want to do is slow them down by fitting into a voided gap, particularly if the ball is not there.

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With that said, everything we do mirrors the steps of the back, regardless of the formation.  We talk about path to flow in our reads.  Our keys are back to near guard in that order.  We’ve tried to get on the guards first (and we usually will when playing non-conventional offenses like Wing T or Option) but our kids are looking in the backfield anyway.   So why not help them do it the right way?  Our two 30-tech backers will mirror the step of that back immediately.  If he’s downhill, we’re downhill.  If he’s lateral, we’re lateral.  If he’s tight, we’re tight.  Everything is predicated on that back.  If it’s a two back set, we’re on the tailback.  I realize that many coaches teach their backers to key the fullback in I sets because he’s the one that creates the extra gap, but traditionally he’s not the one getting the ball.  If it’s a single back set, we’re on the single back.  The only time we’re on the fullback is when we play unconventional offenses, like Wing T or option schemes, because in those schemes the FB is the featured back.

Play Side Guard Reads Once that back gives us our direction, we are able to pick up the flow of our play side guard.  We identify what that guard is doing by four movements:

  1. Is he gap stepping (blocking away from us)?
  2. Is he zone stepping (laterally stepping towards us)?
  3. Is he base blocking (vertically stepping towards us)?
  4. Is he pulling?  5. Is he pass protecting?
Once we diagnose that, we search for open gaps in the defense, but not particularly the ones we had pre-snap.  Gaps move consistently, so we look for what we call cloudy and clear reads in regards to gaps.  If the gap is clear, we take it.  If it’s cloudy, we scrape for the next open gap.

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Back Reads We classify our path to flow as four potential directions in which I will discuss in detail.  For every flow we see, we have a systematic approach to how we are going to handle them.  Our progression includes back path, guard flow, post-snap movement and proper block destruction.  Our four schemes are the following:
  1. Tight flow
  2. Full flow
  3. Fast flow
  4. Split flow
Tight Flow:
  • Potential Play Structure: Dive, Trap, Iso, FB Belly
  • RB Path: Downhill, no lateral step
  • Guard Flow: Play side - Base or gap block, Back side - Base or gap block
  • LB Post-Snap Movement: Attack step, fill open window with force
  • Block Destruction:  Play side - Shock. We will "shock" the opponent by using a near foot, near shoulder technique, meeting him on his side of the line of scrimmage. Back side - Compress

This type of flow is common in short yardage and goal line situations.  It’s a clear read for our backers, but the key is to attack the lead block on his side of the line of scrimmage.  It’s an aggressive offensive scheme, but we need to be the aggressor.  Our block destruction is a shock, which to us is a near foot, near shoulder technique.  We don’t use our hands; we feel we need to be thicker than that.  We try to win outside, forcing the ball in, but as stated previously, we will always have a force player to either side of the front side backer.  We emphasize being more physical than anything else.  It’s a bonus if we’re able to separate and make a play on it.  We just want the ball to bubble out.

To see examples of defending tight flow, watch the video tutorial below (make sure your speakers are on):

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Full Flow:
  • Potential Play Structure: Inside Zone, Power, Sprint Draw
  • RB Path: Downhill with lateral step
  • Guard Flow: Play side - Gap step away, Back side - Pull away
  • LB Post-Snap Movement: Shuffle and press to next open window
  • Block Destruction:  Play side - Compress or Shock (based on cloudy or clear), Back side - Compress C Play with hands, squeeze (constrict) the gap

We see this type of flow more than anything else.  The key to this action is to keep the LB’s shoulders square.  Again, we need to match the action of the back.  If his shoulders are squared, our shoulders are squared.  This is essential because potential cutback.  Nowadays the inside zone is a cutback play and the power play is hitting in the A gap, so we tell our LB’s "if the back’s in the box, you’re in the box."  Again, rarely do they have force so they don’t need to be over the top.  We don’t talk about "stacking the DL," we talk more about "tracking the back."  The proper block destruction is a "compress" technique, which means we will play with our near shoulder and our near hands.  The word compress simply means we will shorten, not expand any play side gap.  If we can’t make the tackle, we will take our blocker and push the hole. The back side LB must play with his hands and try not to come underneath any gap blocks.

To see examples of defending full flow, watch the video tutorial below (make sure your speakers are on):

Get Instant Access to X&O Labs’ Full Library of Game & Practice Video. Click Here!

Fast Flow:
  • Potential Play Structure: Speed Option, Jet Sweep, Toss, Outside Zone (Stretch)
  • RB Path: Ear hole look, shoulder perpendicular to L.O.S.
  • Guard Flow: Wide zone step, bucket step or pull
  • LB Post-Snap Movement: Open shoulders, get out of the box
  • Block Destruction:  Play side/Back side LB - Dip, rip and run (no contact zone)

Again, we’ll mirror the back.  If the back is out of the box, we’re out of the box, it’s that simple.  Some teams pull that front side guard on these schemes (which make it easier for us) but some do not.  Either way we are trying to cross face all blocks, constrict our front shoulder level and get running.  We try not to use our hands.  This is the easiest scheme to diagnose.  Our two interior backers can run and not worry about cutback.  We’re mainly a quarter’s coverage team, so the cutback responsibility will be handled by our back side safety.

To see examples of defending fast flow, watch the video tutorial below (make sure your speakers are on):

Get Instant Access to X&O Labs’ Full Library of Game & Practice Video. Click Here!

Split Flow:
  • Potential Play Structure: Counter Trey, HB Counter, FB Counter, Split Belly, Wing T Sally
  • RB Path: Misdirection step
  • Guard Flow: Play side - Gap step away, Back side - pull away
  • LB Post-Snap Movement: Shuffle then rock step
  • Block Destruction:  Play side/Back side - compress

Finally, split flow is the flow we see least of unless playing a Wing T team.  Pro teams have gotten away from the traditional Redskin counter trey, but instead they are pulling an H-back or full back off the ball.  To us, it’s the same read.  The key to diagnosing this scheme is what we call "seeing" color.  To the back side of the play (usually the Will’s read) it’s a simple identification if his guard pulls.  If that guard doesn’t pull and the offense still runs misdirection, he looks for any color opposite the play.  As soon as that color flashes, he’s tacking his rock step and pressing the next open window (gap) just like he would in a full flow scheme.   The front side or play side backer is still working his compress technique with his hands and constricting and open gap.  Perhaps the biggest concern we’ve toiled over the last few years is whether or not we will allow our LB’s to come underneath gap blocks.  Staying with the principle of playing fast, we’ll tell them if they can press quickly enough, constrict their pads and flatten out then go make a play.   I realize this is nowhere near remarkable coaching, but you’ll find some kids can do it and some can’t.   In any case, can’t chew him out for making a play.

To see examples of split flow, watch the video tutorial below (make sure your speakers are on):

Get Instant Access to X&O Labs’ Full Library of Game & Practice Video. Click Here!

Concluding Report: One of the best things I’ve done as a coach, and I’m not sure where I got this, is film each of these path/flow concepts from the perspective of each of those linebackers.  For example, I would have our kids line up as an offensive line and I would stand as a linebacker and film all of those concepts as the Mike and as the Will.  Now they can actually see what each play concept looks like coming at them.  I would give them a copy of the film so they can study it.  We did this early in the pre-season.  One of the major advantages of predominantly running one front is that you know how teams are going to block it.  You just need to classify your run game into two and three man surface blocks.  If we ever get Y trade (which we do a ton because of how we play) we will just switch the Mike and Will pre-snap and bring the Sam over.  Now, that Mike is still seeing three man surface blocks and the Will is seeing two man surface blocks.  In my opinion, nothing gets players to play faster than comfort ability.  I learned that one the hard way.  When you put your players in a spot they are used to playing, you have a greater chance of success because they’ve seen it all and you’ve repped it all.   Now when things go wrong, it’s a matter of execution, not scheme.

Hope you enjoyed the report.  Again, feel free to contact us with any research ideas you may have in the future.  Those clinic reports are coming in by the dozen.  Would love to see what you’re doing.

Questions or Comments? Mike Kuchar will be available to answer your questions.  Just post your question or comment in the "Comments" section below and Kuchar will respond shortly.

Copyright 2012 X&O Labs




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