The Cage works to give each player in our scheme a job to execute beyond just owning their gap. We utilize our cage in four-man, five-man, and six-man rushes.
By Holden Whitehead
Special Teams Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach
Alfred University (NY)
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It is safe to say that the evolution and utilization of the mobile QB have become a staple in many successful offenses, at all levels of football. As a defensive-minded coach, having to game plan to stop a mobile QB, who can make things happen and extend plays with his feet, to hurt you with his arm, is a challenge that more and more defenses face every Saturday. Here at Alfred University, we embrace the challenge of being a relentless pass-rushing team, accumulating 113 sacks in 4 seasons. A large part of our success is since we look at our D-Lineman as playmakers, not sacrificial lambs. We want our D-Lineman to make plays, whether it is stopping the run, setting up the blitz, or our four-man pass rush, we utilize The Cage. The Cage works to give each player in our scheme a job to execute beyond just owning their gap. We utilize our cage in four-man, five-man, and six-man rushes. We stress to our players that if everyone does their job correctly in The Cage, then everyone will eat. We look at everyone in the backfield as food for the defensive line and we are the wolves that must embrace the hunt. Each wolf has a specific and crucial role.
In our defense, we want our guys playing fast, not thinking, so we keep the concepts as simple as possible. What the cage presents is a vision beyond maintaining your gap. On day one, we present the cage to our men as being comprised of the four cage players, two high cage players, and two low cage players. This gives each of our defensive linemen one of these responsibilities. Pass Rushing is an art, but at the end of the day it comes down to three things: get off, having a plan, and the finish. Our read keys are simple, and we call them the “Three B’s”- Ball, Block, Backfield, and we read them with our eyes. When seeing movement we get off, exploding low off the ball. Then, our eyes go to the block, where we read the offensive lineman’s pass set and technique. Finally, once we defeat the block, our eyes move to the backfield. Now we are ready to dive into The Cage.
Our base four-man front is comprised of a 5-tech defensive end (our End) and 1 Tech Nose Tackle on the strong side, with a 3-tech defensive Tackle and a 5-tech defensive end (which we call our Rush) on the weak side based on our defensive call. Both the End and Rush are declared to be high cage players, with the low cage players being our interior Nose and Tackle. Each player must understand where they fit in the run scheme with their gap assignment first, then implement their cage responsibility. Everything starts up front, and our guys must take ownership of their jobs, playing for the man next to him, and the defense as a whole. That is when we have something special. Our cage players work in unison to condense, squeeze, and suffocate the backfield. Notice, we never use the phrase “contain the QB.” I cannot reiterate enough the shackles that it puts on a defensive lineman when you say contain. We never want to contain our players; we want to unleash them. Our words reflect our mentality and using terms such as condense, squeeze, and suffocate motivates our players and allows our guys to play relentlessly. Diagram 1 shows our four-man cage and the responsibility for each player.
We teach our slants and slices continuously. We start with the right-handed stance. That means our right foot is back, in a heel to toe relationship, and our right hand will be down. We want at least 80% weight down on that hand, ready to explode low on the get off. Our coaching points for the slant and slice from this stance are as follows:
- 6-inch bucket step with right foot
- Cock your right arm back
- Rip and grab grass with left arm to give a natural rip
- Keep shoulders square and read cloudy vs. clear in gap or movement stepping down to you
- Always get to space and get vertical
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The Cage concept gives pass rushers a goal to achieve beyond their assigned gap. Pass rushing is an attitude, and our pass rushers need to be relentless and have a formulated plan to help them succeed in their rush. The low cage players look to condense the passing lanes and get their hands up against three-step and RPO. Our high cage players work in unison with the low cage to never let the QB escape. The Cage works to condense, squeeze, and suffocate the backfield. Drilling this simple concept has been pivotal to our success in getting after the QB’s these past four seasons. The cage philosophy creates an atmosphere of having your brother’s back. Each player has a job to do, and if they all do their jobs, everyone gets a chance to eat. If one brother fails, the whole team fails. The cage is a culture-building concept that shapes our entire scheme. Once the players understand and execute that concept of playing for the man next to them, the whole picture becomes clear, and that is when you know you have something special as a team.
Meet Coach Holden Whitehead: I’m the Special Teams Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach for Alfred University. This is my fourth-year coaching at Alfred University. During my first three years, I was a graduate assistant coach grinding away and learning everything I could about the game. In those three years, I fell in love with the Front 7. I coached linebackers my first year and had the opportunity to work with a 2-time AFCA All American linebacker, and we went on to win the Empire 8 Championship in 2016 in my first year coaching. In the last three years, I have coached the D-Line and specialized with Defensive Ends and our 3-4 pass rushers. This past year I was promoted to Special Teams Coordinator. In the last 4 seasons, we have had 113 sacks, and I have had the opportunity to coach our conference’s defensive player of the year the 3 out of the 4 last seasons.