On Monday’s each week throughout the season, after a weekend of watching football, I will discuss adjustments on offense, defense, and special teams as well as discussion of adding wrinkles. We will also discuss how these changes can be implemented in practice.
A few seasons ago I was talking with a coach on my podcast about in-season adjustments and he made a great point that any changes during the season should be “micro” adjustments. Those would be things like an adjustment versus a certain front on offense, a variation in alignment on defense, a refinement of technique, etc.
“Macro” or big changes should be saved for the off season. Those would be like changing an offensive system or installing a completely new coverage. Those take a lot of time to install and get ready for game day.
So our focus is on the “micro” changes in this series. Those are the things that can give you the edge you need to stay ahead of your competition.
The focus today is on adding stressors to your game plan.
First let’s focus on the offense.
Use Procedures to Stress a Defense
I watched several games this weekend from multiple levels, and the first stressor that I think can work in an offense’s favor, especially in the early weeks of the season, comes in the area of procedures including tempo.
This time of the year is typically hot and usually it’s the first time for starters getting a full game under their belt this season. Being able to operate at a fast tempo certainly can stress a defense at this point in the season, but not all teams are uptempo. I still like a non-no huddle offense to have some procedural tools that allow them to move fast.
I saw that from a team this weekend that used one word calls to perfection even though they typically huddled as their base procedure. They did this at optimal times – after a big play when the defense was scrambling to get to the ball, on short yardage situations when the defense was looking to get big personnel in the game and was already in the process of subbing (the defense had to call time out twice because of this – we will discuss that later), and on the goal line.
The offense clearly had a small set of plays that they practiced and were ready to execute and that became an advantage for them. The defense that was used to having some time to catch their breath and get a call in between plays was left scrambling in these situations and in a base call.
How do you install and practice these? Well if they are plays that you will utilize throughout the season, then I’d be sure to script those into every team period. Situational understanding is important, so if it is one that you use after a big play, then after a play in your team period that has a big gain throw it in there. Let the coach or manager spot the ball down the field and immediately get into your procedure for that one word call.
If it is a situational play in the open field like 3rd or 4th and short, be sure to be using situations on every down. I always like the chains out in a team period. At the very least give every play context by having someone call out down and distance.
So again, here your offense would get up to the ball as fast as possible and execute that play after hearing the one word call.
Sugar Huddle to Cause Chaos
I saw a team that did a great job with their formations. They used some shifts and motions on most plays. I love that idea and we will talk about multiple movements in a minute.
What I didn’t like is after breaking the huddle, this team took time to get aligned. Some of their formations were unique and definitely required adjustments from the defense but the defense had plenty of time.
What I would like to see from an offense here is better tempo out of their huddle. I would even suggest for this team that they use the sugar huddle and get close to the ball and break out of it quickly then start their movements.
I explain how we created procedures to use this huddle effectively in the video.
Link to course – Learn more about using procedures as a weapon here: Targeted Attack – Use Tempo as a Weapon
If you are going to move, get on the move!
A shift done slowly really does not stress a defense that much. Shifts should be done at a “run” pace. It doesn’t have to be a sprint, but it certainly isn’t a jog or a walk.
Some of the most successful offenses in the NFL move almost every play. They like this because it stresses a defense in that they have to recognize, communicate and adjust. I’ve said this before on the podcast, that’s three opportunities to be wrong.
I know a lot of uptempo teams have explored the idea of adding more shifts and motions into their offense. I believe there is a simple way to do this by tapping into your lettering system that you use to label your players.
So let’s discuss a double move in other words, a shift and a motion. You could move both players at the same time in a shift and get set or you could shift the first and one second after he is set, go in motion.
Why do it this way? Well again it is forcing more communication on the defense and adding that stressor.
One team I saw utilized a TE trade only. That was their only movement during the game. I love a TE trade only against teams that like to align to strength. The defense they were facing though was a field and boundary team. Both ends could play over the tight and both tackles could play a 1tech or a 3tech and all they did was shift their tackles in the front and bump the end out. That trade doesn’t necessarily stress them much. It does force some communication, but you could see it was an easy adjustment. What would have stressed them more was a trade changing run strength and then a motion changing passing strength. This adds more stress to the defense, especially when you start to use a mix of no motion and go on the quick, trade only, then trade and motion, and sometimes only motion.
I did like this team’s strategy of utilizing only a handful of plays, but they were very vanilla in their attack allowing the defense to line up on most plays and play their call. The offense used only a pro I (which I did love seeing again) and a Twins I. I love these formations, but at the very least, I would play around with the movements to make the defense have to do more.
If I were that team, I’d also vary the alignment of that fullback. While they did run fullback dive a few times, I thought they could force a defense to cover more gaps by also placing him in a wing off the TE or the open side tackle. In my opinion, this could help get their outside zone play going a little more because the gaps are spreading the defensive front.
It also allows for more threat in the passing game even if that player isn’t thrown to a ton, he is an eligible receiver near the line of scrimmage. They could still run out of their preferred I formation but now they have added more stress with moving his alignment around.
This is easily practiced. In just a 5 or 10 minute run through they could really start to perfect their shifts and motions. They did operate out of a huddle, so I would be sure to do the same in a run through. Linemen do not need to be involved in this period. Cones, cans or a line strip could replace them and allow them to walk through their schemes.
With a shift and motion run through period, the skill players are given a formation call in the huddle, they break and run to their positions, and go through their movements all the way up to the snap. This could be done with multiple groups.
The emphasis is on moving fast and making sure all movements are legal. This is very important early in the season, I saw too many illegal procedure penalties for my liking.
Coaches can stress the defense as well
From an offensive coach perspective one thing I saw that many teams can work on is getting better information from their box. I saw too many opportunities squandered because there either was a flaw in communication or the box wasn’t seeing it.
If you have not done it already, be clear on what every coach is watching and charting on each play and also be sure everyone knows the procedure of how to communicate it. Sometimes I think coaches get too caught up in trying to identify specific coverage instead of just seeing space. I saw this in one game that I attended and I kept saying “if they throw a corner route here it’s a touchdown.” Based on alignment I could see the space the defense was giving up. We certainly want to be detailed but remember we only have seconds to do something with the information, so we don’t want it to be complex and we don’t want to outsmart ourselves.
If you have newer staff members or are a new staff, this takes some getting used to, so in terms of practicing it, get the headphones out in practice and get used to communicating. Even though you may be scripted, have everyone go through their communication procedures on every play. Noel Mazzone, who will be joining us next week to kick off another in-season weekly series, would call everything in practice without a script. He would only have the situation. He felt it gave him the reps he needed to call a game. Likewise, I saw this from Mike Leach when I attended a Mississippi State practice last year. Remember that we need reps as coaches as well.
Lastly, on the offensive side of the ball, do not be afraid to have a gadget in even if it’s a non conference or non district game. A win is a win, so don’t feel like you need to hold back. I saw the Browns use one in a preseason game and the commentators said that Kevin Stefanski said they could expect to see one in the game because that’s what they do,
From an implementation point I would install these a few weeks ahead of when I expected to use them, and I always would have our skill players practice those skills. If you have a receiver who will throw a double pass, be sure he is getting some catch and throw reps every week to work on that skill. Make you reverse guys practice exchange in a quick individual or pre practice period. Make sure that halfback is getting some reps on getting the ball on a hand off or pitch and running and throwing the ball. You will get a few reps here and there to practice the whole play but the critical ball handling aspects should be repped throughout the season.
Adding Stressors on Defense
I have a couple here in terms of preparation and removing stress from your defense. First, the idea is to get your best 11 on the field. Depth charts are great, and in the course of a single game, a second teamer will most likely play, but what do you do in the case of an injury? How does the next most dynamic defender get on the field if one of your starters goes down?
What tools do you have or how does your structure accommodate a change? For example, let’s say there is an injury to your starting end and your next most dynamic guy is an undersized outside linebacker. He clearly gives you more than the next end. Do you have something structurally that allows you to get him on the field more? What can you do to make a micro change like I mentioned earlier?
It’s something to think about now. Always understanding who your best 11 are trumps a depth chart in many situations.
Let’s use the example of a four down team. I saw a team using multiple outside linebackers. They were alternating during the course of a game. Then a player went out with cramps. He was clearly one of their best defenders and he played defensive end. Just based on watching the next player run in for him, I saw a big drop off and fortunately that player was back in the next series.
The question becomes what can the defense do to adapt to a three down situation?
These are questions to ask now and work into practice. Prepare for all contingencies. As you go through the season, what do you need to package up to be able to get a different 11 on the field if you do not feel someone next on the depth chart is not your best option.
It may never come into play, but when it does you are prepared. It can also be used as a change-up. Maybe that DE also plays offense and getting him a break here and there, especially early in the season is a smart thing to do.
These packages that provide variations can add stress to the offense. Maybe you go to an odd front and use movement to get back into your even front gap responsibilities.
Link to course: 3 Down Change Ups to Your 4 Down System- Jeffrey Dittman
Use movement post snap to stress the offense
Speaking of movement, it is definitely a stressor on an offense at every level. I saw offenses have issues with it in the high school games I watched as well as the NFL games. It was always something we would spend extra time on. However, movement done wrong can get you out of position and open huge gaps. Most young defensive players need work on being able to play a gap especially when the gaps are moving like on an outside zone scheme.
Having run a ton of outside zone, more often than not, we would exploit teams that moved because a defender could not adjust well to that gap moving and we’d end up with a nice running lane.
So how do you work this in practice? Part of the issue is that many walkthroughs for defensive linemen are on cans. Cans do not move. Schemes and offensive linemen do. Be sure to work against the moving gaps and work technique to hold that gap responsibility and come off and make the tackle. Adding extra contact doesn’t have to be the answer. Using 5 or 6 guys with shields who get a scheme off a card and then execute the movement provides the stimulus the defensive lineman needs in order to play the scheme the right way. Think about implementing something like that into your walk throughs. The cards can be the schemes you will see that week.
Work box players on the “engaged tackle”
The other issue I see is working the engaged tackle. Are you working enough in tackling where your defensive line
The primary focus is working with interior lineman and in box players that create leverage in short spaces. Engaged Tackles occur more than half the time when interior defenders are at the point of attack.
How important is coaching the engaged tackle? 70% of a defensive lineman’s tackle is made while engaged with a blocker. A linebacker will have this situation about 30% of the time. He explains how it’s important to understand how this works. Coach Dig explains it here.
Link to Course: Winning Gaps with Engaged Tackles by Vince DiGaetano
Use the offense’s tools Against them
Lastly, I mentioned earlier that the team got caught in a substitution in a short yardage situation. This is something to prepare for in terms of coach communication as well as how to play it with your team on the field. Maybe you want a bigger guy into the game but as happened in this scenario you will not get him in. The answer is to be sure you not only teach that in an installed or isolated situation, but that you also work it within the context of the game situation in a team period.
The other suggestion I would have is to have eyes on the sideline at all times. Assign someone in the box to be in charge of letting you know what personnel is in the game as well as if their coaches are signaling for an uptempo play. Work out some simple code words between the coaches so it is easily communicated and understood.
Special Teams Stressors
Finally, let’s look at special teams. I saw two adjustments that need to be addressed. The first was on a kickoff. In the second line, there was a #79 as what I would call the “tight end” on kickoff. He is second line – outside. The kickoff team did a nice job with a hand signalling system between the coach and the team that indicated where the ball should go. The coach was reading alignment as well as who returners are and directing the kicks and coverage. I like this procedure. It definitely allows you to put stress on the defense and ensure you have the right call. Back to #79. He immediately became a target. After the first touchdown, the coach spotted him and directed a pooch his way. They recovered it, but it was a smart move to try this. If you have non skill players on kick off with an ineligible number, you better ensure he can handle the pooch kick. If he can be sure to get him some work catching those.
From a practice standpoint, think about getting all of your players who might handle a pooch or onside kick some individual work. If that player is a back up, send him for a 5 minute period during the week to work with your kicker. The kicker can pooch kick and he can get reps catching it. This can be done with all of your return team players.
The second stressor opportunity missed was by a team whose quarterback is the punter. Now they philosophically may believe in what they are doing 100% and the formation they used. I can’t discount that, but I do believe they can give the defense more to prepare for on 4th down if the QB is presented as a threat to run an offensive play.
I especially would do this midfield – going in. The punt team was double tight with a three man shield. That presents limited opportunity for the QB to be a threat. In this case let’s assume the special teams coach has conviction that this is the right formation to punt from. That’s fine, but you could align in a formation that is spread out and then shift into that tight punt. The defense has to align to defend and then on the shift send the returner back. You don’t have to do it all of the time, but there could be an area of the field where you do it.
I’d handle that aspect of the punt team separate from my punt reps. I’d at the very least have a walk thru period every week working those pre shift plays. I might work one rep in punt team periods or in regular team offense periods, but I’d work it.
So that’s it for this week. Think about what you can do that is simple for you but will provide stress to the opponent.