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By Mike Giancola, Defensive Coordinator, Bridgewater College (VA)

The split zone concept continues to be an influential way for any offenses to get defenses out-gapped at the point of attack, which is exactly why you’ll need more than one fit pattern to defend it this coming season.

By Mike Giancola
Defensive Coordinator
Bridgewater College (VA)
Twitter: @CoachGiancola



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Zone schemes have been a regular staple of offenses across the country for close to two decades now.  Athletes on the football field year in and year out continue to get faster and more athletic, allowing offenses to be more dynamic.  The fluidity of zone schemes let coordinators be more "simplistic" in concept while also taking advantage of potential mismatches in the run game, allowing for a play to hit in several different gaps based on the blocks up front and the reads by the tailback.  Just like any other base scheme, zone runs evolved over time.  With the heavier use of 20 personnel and Y-Off 11 personnel sets in today’s game, many offenses utilize the split-back inside zone play.

Diagram 1


The difficulty in defending the split-back zone comes from the extra gap created on the backside of the play with the slicing sniffer.  The question defensive coordinators need to answer is: how do account for the extra gap?  Here we will discuss various ways to remain gap sound in defending the split-back zone.


Defending Split-Back Zone

Depending on our defensive call, we have four ways we will defend the split-back zone.  The idea behind each is to keep gap integrity while providing adequate numbers in the box to allow for one of our defenders to be unblocked to make the tackle:

  • Screw Down a Safety
  • Treat the Sniffer as a Pull
  • Trail the Sniffer
  • Rat the Sniffer


Situational Implementation

As a staff, much of the teaching we do in terms of our scheme is done conceptually.  We found (through copious amounts of trial and error) that teaching this way allows players to take ownership of the scheme, think less, and play faster.  As such, we will pair the different approaches to defending split back zone with our front calls.

As we install fronts and teach our run fits, each front has a base fit and corresponding rules.  Simple call tags (discussed below) can slightly adjust these rules to better defend certain offensive schemes.  A simple guide for when we use these concepts is:

  • Screw = Base Even Front Call
  • Sniffer Pull = Adjusted Even Front Call (keep 4 shell)
  • Trail = Base Odd Front Call, Adjusted Tight Front Call
  • Rat = Base Tight Front Call



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  • The fit pattern Coach Giancola will use to get a numbers advantage in the box to account for running QB’s.
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  • The fit pattern Coach Giancola will use in his Odd front package to get a third level defender to account for the extra gap created by the Y.
  • The fit pattern Coach Giancola will use to get two third level defenders to account for the extra gap, which protects against boot concepts synonymous with split zone action.
  • Plus, narrated game film of all these fit patterns.


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At the end of the day whether you are defending zone, gap, or iso schemes it is integral to game plan how to account for gaps in the run game. It is important to note though that whichever way you decide to defend the run you should be as consistent as possible week to week so the players can play fast and THINK LESS. Be true to what you do on defense, and the rest will take care of itself!



Meet Coach Giancola: Coach Giancola just completed his second season at Bridgewater College. In the 2018 season, Bridgewater led the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in rushing defense at 125.2 yards per game. Before Bridgewater, he spent five seasons at Westfield High School (Chantilly, VA) as the Defensive Line Coach (3 seasons), Special Teams Coordinator (1 season), and Defensive Coordinator (1 season). Coach Giancola joined the Bridgewater staff after helping Westfield win their second straight VA Class 6A State Championship.





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