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By Steve Nelson

Head Coach

Fowler High School (CA)

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talking to thomasEditor’s Note:  Steve Nelson is the Head Football Coach and Strength and Conditioning Coach at Fowler High School in Fowler, California. His 3-year record is 31-6, including 2 section championships and 3 league championships.  He was selected league coach of the year 3 times in addition to being selected to coach local all-star games twice. During that span, Fowler defenses have held opponents to an average of 13 points per game. Prior to becoming the head coach at Fowler, he served at defensive coordinator at Mt. Whitney High School in Visalia, Calif. and at Selma High School in Selma, Calif. Nelson graduated from Fresno State University. 

In our 3-4 defense we base in a 4 man pressure, quarters coverage scheme.  Our underneath defenders play a big role in how effective we are and how loose or aggressive we need to be with our secondary.  Unfortunately, we don’t have the kind of athletes that are division 1 college-type players that allow us to man cover or do more 1-on-1 type schemes.  Instead we have taken the match-up zone concept from basketball and applied it to our defense.  Our linebackers are asked to follow a specific progression that allows us to soundly match-up to any route combination.

To identify receiving threats we use the simple numbering system shown in diagram 1.  The eligible receiver closest to the sideline is the #1, the next is #2, etc.  This counting system applies to both sides of the ball, meaning there could be a number 1 or 2 on both sides of the ball.  This counting system allows us to easily assign a coverage progression to each underneath defender.  The outer-most defender follows a #2-#1 coverage progression, and the middle defender follows a #3-#2 progression.  The idea is to initially cover the first receiver in the progression and then move to the other if the first receiver goes to another area.


We use the CMA responsibility concept to guide our underneath cover guys.  CMA stands for Collision, Match, Alert.  Our primary responsibility is to collision (Diagram 2) the first receiver in our progression if he presses vertically past 5 yards (our lb depth vs. detached #2).  If the receiver stems to our inside shoulder, we collision violently, but do not follow.  If the receiver stems to our outside shoulder, we collision and try to re-direct his route toward the numbers.  We stay with this receiver until he reaches a depth of 10-12 yards before moving to the 2nd receiver in the progression. If #2 is a TE we will align on the LOS, outside eye of TE and collision any release before progression to the #1 receiver.  We view getting to #1 vs. an attached #2 secondary to physicality at the LOS on a TE.  We make adjustments in our secondary play to allow our OLB to be more aggressive in the box.


If the receiver does not push vertically for 5 yards—meaning he runs a shallow crossing route or flat route—we are not going to chase, attack or cover him.  We are going to match (Diagram 3) any out breaking short route by working to the inside hip of the next receiver in the progression.  This gives us the outside leverage necessary not to get out flanked, but also takes away deeper passing lanes.


To see how Coach Nelson applies these concepts when there isn’t a #2 receiver,  click here to join the Insiders.

We are going to alert (Diagram 5) inside defenders to any shallow crossing, or inside route by giving an "In" call before attacking the inside hip of the next receiver in our progression.  We teach our #3-#2 defender to sit on an angle route by a running back rather than leave the low hole area vulnerable.


The Collision, Match, Alert concept and coverage progression also give our coaches simple, direct catchphrases to "coach on the fly" during team and group periods.  Additionally, we feel that the simplicity of the concepts allow our underneath cover guys to match up with more athletic offensive athletes in a zone scheme.  As with any defense, it is impossible to cover every route/area.  So, we leave the flats uncovered, but really emphasize aggressively rallying to any throw to the flat area with an 11 hats on the ball mentality.

Outside linebacker technique:

  1.  Align at a 5 yard apex half way between EMOL and #2 receiver
  2. Stance: inside foot forward, heel- toe relationship, bend at knees and hip
  3. Key read is EMOL
  4. Pass coverage progression is #2-#1
  5. If pass, hold at 5 yards, square feet, load hands, and maintain leverage on inside shoulder of #2 receiver
  6. If no #2 receiver, progress immediately to the inside hip of the #1 receiver
Inside linebacker technique:
  1.  Align over OG with heels at 5 yards, feet even, hands off knees
  2. Key read is near OG
  3. Pass coverage progression is #3-#2 on strong side (mike), & #2-#1 on weak side (will)
  4. If pass, take flattest path possible to 1st receiver in progression
  5. Must "wall-off" middle by not allowing any receiver inside
For specific diagrams showing how Coach Nelson’s team address common route combinations,  click here to join the Insiders.

It is important to note that we do not follow this progression in our 5 man pressure/fire zone defenses.  Our primary fire zone is a 4 under, 2 deep or cover 2 fire zone.  Our linebacker responsibility in pass coverage is to wall off the middle of the field in a #2 to #1 progression.  We will step down to stop any underneath route from getting inside us. However we will not be so aggressive vs. a vertical release to ensure the receiver stays outside and doesn’t use our over-aggressiveness to slip off a collision and get inside.


In the end, we feel that this concept helps us be able to compete on an annual basis with teams who may have bigger athletes than we do.  By controlling the underneath and establishing a physical level of play, we are able to negate some of their advantages and disrupt timing enough to get our rushers to the quarterback.  Hopefully this was helpful for you guys and I look forward to answering any questions you have about how we make this concept effective.

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  • How he applies his CMA concept vs. Single Receiver sides.

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