THE BACKBONE DEFENSE

For Youth Wishbone Attacks

The Backbone 6-1-4 defense provides the best platform I know of for attacking the Wishbone formation. This is true whether the offense is using the Wishbone to run the option, power football, or any combination of the two. I should point out that there are two versions of the Backbone -- one the 6-1 I am discussing, and the other a 4-3 where OLB's replace the outside DT's. The 43 version is better for facing a passing attack, but I believe the 6-1 provides a better defense against the option and power aspects of the Wishbone running game, especially at the youth level. CHOOSING BACKBONE PLAYERS BY POSITION: Ends: These should be good, tall athletes. Foot speed is a bonus, but the most important aspect is intelligence -- "football smarts". The Ends are asked to shut down the off-tackle power play AND remove one of the options. He would be considered an outside-linebacker type in other defenses, but we do not give him any pass coverage responsibilities. He shuts down the C gap, plays his option responsibilities when called for, and rushes the passer outside-in when necessary. Inside Tackles: Strength, size and speed -- in that order. Your inside tackles have the job of keeping the center and guards off of your Mike LB, closing down the trap, and putting an inside rush on the quarterback. You may choose to have one IT crash and one read in passing situations, with the reading tackle responsible for inside screens and draws, or actually dropping to the short middle zone in a zone blitz.

Outside Tackles: Your OT's don’t need the strength and size of the IT's but speed becomes essential. The one thing the OT's must do is prevent the offensive tackle from blocking down to the inside. If he does that, he keeps the Mike backer free to tackle the FB. He plays right through the nose of the offensive man he is lined up across from. Mike Backer: Plays as far from the LOS as the FB does on the other side. He mirrors the FB and goes wherever he does. His pass responsibilities are to check the FB for a delay or draw, then drop to the short middle and mug crossing routes. The IT's protect him from the middle of the offensive line, so he is free to tackle the FB from B gap to B gap. Converted FB's make very good Mike linebackers. Cornerbacks: Speed kills. Your quickest kids play here, and have only one assignment -- cover the end they are responsible for. Your strongside CB can be a bigger, slower kid, since he will face TE's -- but if so, you will have to flop him to whichever side the TE lines up on. CB's can release their receivers to pursue the ball once it crosses the LOS, and not a second before. Invert backs: This is a hybrid defensive back - linebacker position. The I-men mirror the two Wishbone halfbacks. They line up at the same depth from the LOS as the HB's, and line up on their outside shoulders to maintain outside leverage at all times. If a HB dives forward, his I-mirror comes forward to stop a run or cover a pass route. If the HB moves laterally, the I-back goes with him. Speed and tackling ability in the open field are both essential. OPTION RESPONSIBILITIES: There are two option coverage packages commonly used with this defense, which I call Hook and Cross. I will first detail the option responsibilities which don't change, then detail how the two packages differ. Inside and Outside Tackles: Against a true triple option, the IT's will be blocked and the OT's will be read by the QB. In either case, both are responsible for preventing the big gain up the middle by the FB. Whether they are being blocked or not, the IT's and OT's must fight their way to the FB. The IT's are exerting inside-out pressure against the offensive guards -- they line up inside eye, but their charge is through the guards' facemask. The OT's charge straight ahead against the offensive tackles, and prevent the down-block on the Mike backer. Mike: Has the FB. Follows him sideline to sideline, tackles him whenever he touches the ball, as close to the LOS as possible. Hits him before he can build up a head of steam.

Cornerbacks: Stay with the TE and SE until the ball crosses the LOS. Backside End: Trail on flow away as deep as the deepest back, looking for reverse, counter or cutback. HOOK: In this option coverage, the playside End attack the QB after ripping a TE and checking the off-tackle hole. (If on the SE side, the End checks the offtackle hole for a power play first, then attacks the QB if option shows.) The I backs mirror their halfbacks, so the playside Invert will attack the lead HB blocker as soon as possible, while the offside I-man will follow the offside HB to the point of attack if he gets the pitch. Speed is of the essence -- the I-men have to arrive at the same time as the halfback they are mirroring. Even half a step can make the difference between at tackle behind the LOS or a big gain.

CROSS: This is a great change-up from Hook, and one we use when the QB is much less of a running threat than the HB's. The playside End hits the TE (if there is one), checks the off-tackle hole, then attacks the pitch man. He sprints to take away the pitch to the HB -- covering the HB man-to-man in the backfield. The offside I-back takes the QB if he keeps the ball and turns downfield.

PASS DEFENSE: A quick word about the 4-3 version of the Backbone: If you can find two OLB's who can keep the offensive tackles from blocking down on the option play -- that is, who can effectively replace your Outside Tackles against the run -- you will have a better platform for shutting down the pass. The alternative, if you want to be able to play something other than man pass defense, is to ask your Ends in the 6-1 to cover the HB's out of the backfield on passes (i.e., call Cross in passing situations or likely play-action downs, and have the Ends stay with the HB's until the ball is thrown). There are pro's and con's to both choices, but what matters is what kind of personnel you have available.

The Wishbone obviously lends itself better to play-action passing than to any other kind of forward pass. First, there is only one spread receiver, so the defense is not spread sufficiently to throw between defenders; second, the QB/FB mesh from the Wishbone is the single best play-fake in football, exerting an amazing pull on short defenders in particular. The Backbone 6-1 has two basic ways to combat the pass. (Note: Again, the 43 version provides more pass defense possibilities.) Both are diagramed below.

Cover 0 provides for continuity from option coverage to forward pass coverage. Cover 0 as diagramed is identical to the Hook option scheme, until defenders realize a pass is underway. It is imperative that anyone who sees a pass develop yell out "PASS! PASS!" to help other defenders switch to pass coverage responsibilities as soon as possible. Notice the SE-side Corner and Invert backs stick with their option responsibilities -- the Corner because he always plays pass until the ball crosses the LOS -- while their TE-side equivalents start their option responsibilities before flowing with play action and dropping into zones. The TEside Corner drops vertically first, making sure the TE is not releasing on a delay pattern, before heading toward the deep middle zone.

Cover 2 is a straight zone defense, best used in likely passing situations. In the play diagramed above, the defense is still reacting to the option threat first, before dropping to their zones. Note the MLB has the choice of tackling the FB or dropping to his weakside hook zone. Also notice the strong OT hits his offensive tackle counterpart before dropping into the TE dump pass zone -- this is not really a zone blitz, because no one is blitzing, but it allows you to play zone without giving up the "look-in" pass to the TE.

Here the backs and LB's drop to their normal C2 zones. The strong OT has taken away the quick dump pass to the TE, and reads the QB's eyes until the ball is thrown, then pursues. This coverage isn't fool-proof, and is best used on likely passing downs, but it provides a valuable addition against the dropback pass, while still offering protection against the option and play-action pass. Please feel free to contact me with any questions regarding the Backbone, especially if you would like more information on the 4-3 version. Ted Seay seayee@hotmail.com