Organized stems at the line of scrimmage place blockers in conflict, create negative plays and forces offensive lines to have sound blocking rules.
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Pre-snap defense line stems create the appearance of complexity, thus creating confusion while giving defense lineman sound responsibilities. Organized stems place blockers in conflict, create negative plays, force offensive lines to have sound blocking rules and allow defensive lineman to make aggressive plays and keeps offensive line pads off linebackers. Every organized and competitive team has spent numerous days working through defensive fronts and blocking schemes. Stems, in both odd and even fronts, place blockers in conflict and creates a defense which is destructive rather than reactionary. Any offensive line can block “vanilla” defensive fronts. Incorporating and using stems among your defensive front will make your players faster and more explosive.
At Sioux Valley, we have a mixture of players who put their hand down on the defensive line. We believe in an aggressive style of defense, which often places eight players in the box. The reoccurring non-negotiable theme among our defense line players is “no one gets off the ball harder than us.” At Sioux Valley, we place athletes on the line and stems are one way to allow our athletic lineman to make plays. Our Head Coach, Dan Hughes, has integrated a lifting program which has yielded success in order to have athletic lineman who can get off the ball. Sioux Valley defensive linemen are extremely strong in the hips, core, and explosive muscles. This tactic yields success in pre-snap movement among our defense. Our players can be even faster and more explosive if we place them in situations which allow them to showcase their weight room gains.
Eighty to ninety percent of our defensive line strategy is gap alignment. Stemming allows us to show a gap and fill that gap, or show a gap and cross-face into a gap with which we were previously aligned. Every stem has a counter action. Just because we stem over, this does not show which gap is each player’s responsibility. Along with deceptive defensive line gap alignments, stemming allows second level players more opportunities to mix in simple blitz schemes, which appear very complex in cohesion with stems, but are very simple. Mixing in stems will also keep second level players pad free from offense lines blocking linebackers.
We start with simple stems during the summer and from day one. While we may stem as little 10% to 50% in game action, many of the reps that we drill on in practice and team time contain pre-snap movements. The more time defense lineman spends practicing stem actions the quicker and more confident lineman become. Practicing stems more than we use them also forces team communication and defensive line engagement during team time. Now defensive lineman has to cognitively engage in team play, rather than the monotonous activity of beating the gap or JV player across from them. Stemming also forces defensive lineman to know defensive techs/alignment. In order to build vocabulary and practice stems, here are just a couple ways we use to build on stem progression:
- Sled work
- Football on a stick drill work
- Team pursuit drills
- Handbags or shields drill work
- Individual time defensive line time before games
When do we Stem?
If I were to project our stem percentage, I would place it around 25%. Of course, our methodology of stemming is always paired with the weekly scout, but there are a few considerations I think about when a stem is sent in.
- Does stemming give my team an advantage in this down and distance?
- What gap does the team want to put the ball in this scenario?
- Who do I have on the field?
Down and distance when we often stem:
- 1st and 10
- 2nd and very short
- 3rd and long
- Vs. 5-man offensive lines
- In need of a turnover or big play
Day One Cossacks Stems
The integration of stems in the Sioux Valley program derived from program success. Stems were first incorporated into our coaching philosophy after Sioux Valley played in what is essentially the Final Four in our classification. The team we were playing would frequently stem back and forth from a 40 to 50 front. After realizing how much time we would have to dedicate and how sound our blocking rules would have to be in order to perform our offensive objectives, this set me on a quest during the off-season on how we could put teams in conflict. The more overarching goal was to create confusion for the opposing offensive lines. As in most teams in our classification, generally, eight or nine players play both ways. Also, as I am sure is common on your team, offenses generally need more practice and preparation time. So moreover, the quest for defensive line confusion had to be simple, simple enough that we could master the skill but still create confusion without defensive uncertainty. This led to the integration the following season of our two basic, yet staple, defense line stems: “Two Down” and “Fluster.”
Two Down and Fluster are inserted into our Cossack defense on day one. Both stems are the basic principles which guide further complex actions. As depicted in the diagrams, both stems complement each other in either front. At Sioux Valley, we use split-field principles. As described in the communication section, the sides of the field are dictated by offense strengths. Offense strength is scout driven, but often fall under the areas of wide side/short side, offense formation, motion, and stud player alignment.
Stemming Across and Stem Timing
While opinions vary on the methodology of stems and stem movement, we prioritize, to a high level, knowing your job and doing your job. If I am uncertain if a player knows their job and knows which gap they are responsible for, this forces “vanilla” defensive calls. Once again, no one gets off the ball harder than us! Athletes make great stemming defensive lineman. I would rather have a 200 lb. one or three tech, then a 270 lb. DT who only has the lateral quickness to only play head up on a singular gap. A couple of coaching points we look to incorporate into defensive line stems are the following:
Linemen need to stem over low and never “pop” their shoulders up or expose their numbers to an offensive lineman. In the clip below, you can see the difference between how players stem. Note how the one tech lowers the OL pads, stays off his knees and has his head positioned. You will see physical flaws in both of the defensive tackles.
The closer the stem happens to the snap, the better. The number one focus point is the players better be ready to go at the snap. Allowing players individual decision-making time concerning when to stem creates stems which never look the same and make it that much more difficult to read and communicate techniques on the offensive end. Some players will master the skill, and some will need to stem earlier. We do not use a clap or a call for specific stem time.
For us, stemming is always an erratic action. This is one way in which we prevent teams from trying to adjust, or somehow capitalize on our pre-snap movements. Seldom, if ever, do we stem play after play. Some games we stem a ton and other games very infrequently. Here are the methods by which teams try to adjust against our movements:
- On noise or the silent count.
- Teams solution to prevent pre-snap movement is to reduce pre-snap time. We tell our players, “Great, they have traded the count for something we only sometimes do.” If a team does have quick snap tendencies, we will use tempo concepts and other looks. During likely quick snap counts, such as 4th and 1, we will use slants and other gap alignment methods rather than stems.
- Hard count
- Know your team, pay attention in practice to who jumps on stems. I have had players who were able to better focus their attention on ball movement because the cadence is all white noise in a stem. I have also had younger and oftentimes less disciplined players continually jump on hard counts when paired with a stem. This is another reason we teach the slide stem, rather than the pop your hips up. Players who often jump, have their hands off the ground and are almost in a crouched position.
- Check at the bubble
- Pair your stems up. If they are running at the point where you stemmed from, run more Fluster or another complementary stem. I like to combo my stems to always hide gap responsibility. Never allow a clear bubble to be established among your defensive line. Stems help disguise where the bubble is at.
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- The stem vocabulary Coach Fast and his staff uses which gives direction and type of movement to first level defenders.
- The “Two Down” stem progression Coach Fast uses in his four-down front structures.
- The “Fluster” stem progression which Coach Fast uses as a complement to affect blocking schemes in run downs.
- How Coach Fast builds in stems against quick count, check with me and read based offenses.
- How these stems are mixed with pressures to affect protections.
- Plus, raw and narrated game film of all these concepts.
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Stems create complex looks and create opportunities for big plays. Stems allow your defensive line to play faster and create uncertainty among offense lines and place quarterback reads in conflict. While stemming visually appears complex, having simple stems with clear communication allows coaches to place defense lineman in any particular gap, even if players do not align head up on a gap. When simple stems, such as Two Down, are paired with counter stem actions, such as Fluster, they give the illusion of an intricate defense.
Stems force preparing teams to have sound blocking rules. Stems will create the feeling of having another defensive lineman on the play side. Stems will often force unnecessary doubles or unblocked players. Stems also help to keep second level players clean and block free. Mix in simple second level actions, such as your basic blitzing schemes, paired with stems and prepare for offense line sensory overload. In preparation for this article, I asked two defensive linemen on next year's team, “Why do you like stemming?”
“The offense line is always like whom do I block... it creates illusions”
“Sometimes we say you can put the ball here and sometimes we close that gap. I do not know why other teams do not stem against us?”
Meet Coach Fast: Jordan Fast was nominated as the 2017 South Dakota Assistant Football Coach of the Year. Along with the defensive assistance from Head Coach Dan Hughes, and assistant coaches Cadwell, Trygstad, Becker, and Schiller, the Cossacks have become a perennial powerhouse in South Dakota’s 11B classification. Coach Fast has spoken with numerous coaches at various clinics throughout the upper Midwest about the Cossacks odd and even fronts using the strategy of appearing complex to create confusion while allowing players to play fast and aggressive.