The beauty of the 3-4 is we can manipulate who the force player is by changing the coverage call, while not changing the alignments or assignments for the box players.
By David Pitman
Sachem North High School (NY)
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I recently wrote a sort of manifesto, putting the defensive system that I have adapted and evolved over the course of my almost 20-year coaching career into words. I want to share part of the introduction:
“I have read many articles promoting the value of playing multiple fronts and although I understand this value, I believe that it also promotes the ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ mentality. In our system, we talk about playing a singular front with multiple coverage checks and adjustments. Our players are given visual keys and taught that action leads to reaction. If they can master this action and reaction, I believe that we can compete. In high school, we have to coach the players that show up and at times those players will not be the most talented players on the field, but by concentrating on a singular front we create mastery, it is this mastery that defines ‘What We Do.’”
In my original article, I spoke, in a general way, about a 3-4 defense built around a “box” that rarely changes. We play a 0 and two 4is with two ILBs aligned at 5 yards over the guards almost 100% of the time. By consistently, “Closing the Box” we can through automatic coverage checks be prepared to play against a multitude of different offenses. We believe that this consistency allows us to be a sound high school defense year in and year out.
If we can trust that the box will be closed, we can now focus on the “shell”. The shell consists of two OLBs, two corners, and two safeties. We will align them pre-snap in a two-high look and move according to the coverage check made by the players on the field. The beauty of the 3-4 is we can manipulate who the force player is by changing the coverage call, while not changing the alignments or assignments for the box players. The difference between our philosophy and others is we believe that maintaining the stability of the box is essential to being consistently successful. The flexibility of the shell allows us to do this. It is because of this that we put a focus on training our OLBs and Safeties. They are the key to this scheme and where you will put your best players. They are true “Hybrids.” Cody Alexander states in his book Hybrids: The Making of a Modern Defense, “The beauty within football is the constant cat and mouse game between offense and defense. As the modern game moves forward defenses are constantly being challenged to adjust to the way the modern offensive game is played.” It is the OLBs and Safeties in this system that allows for those adjustments. They also allow you to be competitive with lesser ability players at the other positions who have, again, mastered their limited and repetitive alignments and assignments. This is why as the defensive coordinator I coach the safeties and often drill the OLBs and safeties together. They must be an extension of the coach on the field.
Notice in the above diagrams the box remains intact vs a number of different offensive formations.
In the above diagrams, we will adjust the shell to align to different formations and play different coverages.
The purpose of this article is to detail how we teach the OLB.
The Shell: OLBs
We play with two stand up OLBs. Their alignment is determined by the coverage check made by the safety. For example, if the safety checks the coverage to cover 2 scheme then he will align in the apex between the #2 receiver and the EMLOS. If the safety calls for a cover 3 scheme he will either become an on the ball defensive end (if the safety has taken force) or a 4x4 off the EMLOS in a traditional 4-4 OLB position prepared to be the force player to his side. The OLB must be able to play on the line of scrimmage, in the apex, and over a #2 receiver. This is challenging and we have traditionally flipped these players strong and weak to highlight the things each player does well. These players need to be able to edge rush the quarterback and drop into a number of coverage schemes. This diversity requires a great commitment from the player and the coaching staff. The OLBs are given the EMLOS as their visual key. Their reactions to the actions of this player will in a sense, set the edge. Depending on the coverage and force call the OLB will be responsible to either force the run back inside or spill the ball carrier to a defensive back who has been established as the force player. Because the OLBs reactions are connected to the actions of the EMLOS we can introduce it in the spring and summer. As was stated earlier, the EMLOS can only do a few things. The EMLOS can reach, scoop, pull to/away, block down, or pass set. Each of these actions has a complementary reaction. I feel the urge to apologize for being repetitive, but that is the underlying theme of our defense. It is this repetitive nature that gives us the confidence, that gives us an edge as we face multiple offenses throughout the season.
OLBs will align on the line or in space, usually the Apex between the #1 and #2 receivers.
The OLB Type
The OLB must be a hybrid player. He must be able to play in space, so he needs to have speed and agility. He also needs to be able to play on the line and stand up to a base block of a TE or a kick out by the FB or guard. He needs to be a smart player who understands his alignment and assignment. He will sometimes be the force player and sometimes be a spill player. Because of this, he will need to be a physical player who is, like all our defenders, a great tackler and who is disciplined enough to trust his visual keys. The OLB will also make big plays in the run game and in the passing game, he needs to be the type of player who will take advantage of these opportunities. Due to the hybrid nature of these players, I will discuss in two sections: On-Line Defender and Apex Defender.
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- On line of scrimmage reaction and block destruction off the following blocks: Down, Reach, Base, Scoop, Pass Release and Pass Set.
- Off line of scrimmage reaction and block destruction, both in force and non-force responsibilities off the following blocks: Down, Reach, Base, Scoop.
- Pass coverage responsibilities from cover two, cover three and cover four structures.
- Details of the “Shell Key Drill” Coach Pitman uses to train the eyes of OLB’s by simulating actions of the EMLOS with ball to and ball away actions.
- Plus, raw and narrated game film of these concepts.
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Over the course of my 20-year coaching career, I have coached in almost every defensive system including 4-3, 4-4, 3-3 stack, 4-2-5, and 3-4. I have also tried to consume as much defensive thought and discussion from a variety of sources. The 3-4 that is discussed here is, in my opinion, the best way to combat the week in week out challenges facing high school defensive coordinators today. Each week you may face a different offense, from year to year your talent pool is different, and we are dealing with kids that are being pulled in many different directions by other sports, academics, and the reality of being a teenager. Also, if you coach in a place where your players play both ways or are not the prototypical plug and play players you need a system that is built for them. In a sense, we take average “tweeners” and through teaching and repetition build a sound competitive defense and create masters. These players become so confident in your base package it allows them to play fast and free but in a sound way. “What We Do” is a mantra, it is a belief system, and it gives us a competitive advantage on the field.
Meet Coach David Pitman: Coach Pitman began his coaching career at his alma mater, Cornell University. He coached for one year under Don Brown at Northeastern University. He has spent the last 17 years coaching on Long Island at the high school level as both a head coach and defensive coordinator. He recently completed a 6-year stint as the defensive coordinator at Half Hollow Hills High School West where his team competed in 5 straight county championship games, winning two. Coach Pitman is currently the defensive coordinator at Sachem North High School. In his first year, the defense cut their points per game by more than half. He currently lives in the Sachem community with his wife, Michelle and three amazing kids Jack, Addison, and Charlie.