We base out of an even front with our DL playing “sticky” to the OL. This sticky alignment helps our front four use their hands against an offensive lineman who cannot work to second level defenders. This is a critical prerequisite to controlling the line of scrimmage.
By George Karafantis
X&O Labs Board of Advisors
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Great defense begins with stopping the run. Defenses that are dominant will always be great against the run. This requires a strong front 6 that play sound, physical and fast defense. One of the most challenging run schemes that great offensive rushing teams possess are gap scheme runs. For the sake of this article we will focus on defending these gap schemes. Gap schemes will include Guard pulls, Tackle pulls, G and T pulls as well as any combination of OL / Back pull or wrap blocks.
The modern gap schemes are run from traditional under center, shotgun and/ or pistol backfield sets. They utilize pullers at the point of attack that can be lineman or backs. They come from play side or backside or a combination of those. Some are run from one back or two back, others from empty. As defensive coaches we understand that offensive structure changes fits however, I believe that there are five simple steps and/or requirements that a defense must follow in order to help themselves stop any and all gap runs.
The first step a defense should incorporate to help defend gap scheme is to employ a sticky defensive line.
Any great run defense with have a strong front six in addition to a back 5 that is not afraid to get involved in the run game. Defense comes down to ability to align properly, desire and effort, and position integrity. Defending gap scheme is no different. We base out of an even front with our DL playing “sticky” to the OL. This sticky alignment helps our front four use their hands against an offensive lineman. This is a critical prerequisite to controlling the line of scrimmage. We have four DL that, ideally, will include two physical DT’s, a hybrid type DE/OLB type and a fast/disruptive DE. We call these positions a Stud (Strong End), Weak End (DE), Nose (Strong DT) and a weak defensive tackle (DT). Our base and most utilized front is an under front shown in diagram 1.
Some successful defensive coordinators swear by utilizing penetrating and disruptive DL that aim to attack gaps and cause havoc through penetration, we DO NOT. We use the stud as the primary disrupter and allow him to play with slightly more freedom when it comes to alignment and responsibility. All other DL are taught from day 1 to be “Sticky” to the OL that they are aligned on. This means heavier alignment on their physical key. The sticky nature of alignment is to help them use their hands, which is a requirement of any defensive linemen we play.
We tell our DL that their nose should align with the OL’s outside number on their jersey. We utilize both right- and left-hand stances and their stance depends on the alignment technique. A simple rule we tell them is, whichever hand is closest to the man they are aligned on, goes down (3 pt stance). Diagram 3 is a screenshot of our sticky alignment with the strength being to the offensive right.
The $tud is the strong DE to the right. He is allowed more flexibility with alignment whereas the other three DL are more head up or sticky. The weak end on the left is slightly wider than I would have liked here and can be even stickier. The tackles are almost head up, but not quite.
The thought process for having stickier defensive linemen is that our aggressive and physical get offs will disrupt the down blocks that are synonymous with gap scheme. Because of the closer proximity to the OL that they are aligned on, they could prevent a clean “release” of the OL onto another DL or second level defender. This is done with hand placement and extension against their physical key.
From the offensive line perspective, they will also make the back block, by whoever covers for the puller, much more difficult to execute. We want to reduce the size of gaps that the offense thrives on. Stickier, aggressive and physical DL play helps with this. We bend one, or both of our ends, so if they see a down-block they should be flying down the line of scrimmage and if the OL is slow to pull or have tight splits, the backside bending end can factor into a front side power or counter.
Swarm to the Ball
Dominating defenses will always run to the ball and in order to get that we begin all defensive practices with swarm drill, our pursuit drill. When you spill all blocks that causes the offense to run east and west, increasing the amount of time it takes for yardage to be gained. In order to make tackles every defender must be relentless and sound in their pursuit of the ball carrier. This, like any other skills must be taught and practiced. Effort and desire must come from within however we stress it to our players as relentlessly as their pursuit of the ball should be. Diagram 7 shows our swarm drill and everyone's responsibility.
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It is important to note that, as in any defensive game plan, our focus and adjustments to defending the run game depends on some offensive variables. The number of backs in the backfield as well as the structure of the offensive formation, for instance 2x1 or 3x1, etc. will determine fits. We may also substitute more physical outside safeties, especially to the weak side if our weak safety has trouble fitting from his normal alignment of 8-10 yards deep.
The five keys we use will sometimes be tweaked, however it is my belief that without a strong foundation to fall back on, your defense will struggle. So make sure to have a focus and never waiver too far from that philosophy.
Meet Coach George Karafantis: George Karafantis has been coaching football at the high school level for 16 years, coaching in eight championship games at three different schools. Has coached every position at the varsity level on both offense, defense and special teams. He is currently a member of X&O Labs’ Board of Advisors.