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Kevin Loney, Head Football Coach, Nichols College (MA)
I’m truly honored to be able to write a report like this for my peer coaches. These game-planning philosophies are a product of a number of stops along my coaching career and a lot of trial and error. Thankfully, I’ve been blessed to spend time at all three levels of NCAA college football, and I’ve had the distinct honor to learn at the feet of some of the game’s best. Through all of this, I‘ve learned that the most important reality is that at the end of the day, football games are won by players, rather than schemes.
Step 1: Evaluate Talent
With that in mind, I firmly believe that the even before we can put our marker on the grease board, our first responsibility of coaching is to be able to objectively evaluate talent. We must figure out objectively what our players can & can’t do. We must also be able to assess objectively what the opposition’s guys can & can’t do. What are the matchups? Where are the mismatches? How can we exploit our pluses? How can we hide or protect our minuses? Next, we must figure out what do our guys need to do to improve their weaknesses. Then we must ask ourselves, “can we get it taught and how long will it take?” For example, I was blessed to spend two seasons at the University of Notre Dame as an intern and a Grad Assistant with the Offensive Staff under Coach Charlie Weis. After the 2007 season, we took the time to go through each snap of the season and evaluate our scheme, what did we do well, and what did we struggle with. We had a protection called 64 Scan. It was a pretty in depth protection concept and we as a staff felt that after watching it we should de-emphasize it in our playbook. After listening to us, Coach Weis felt that it was a concept that we would need in 2008. Our job was to take almost our entire spring and training camp practices to get it re-taught and practiced enough that it would not be a liability. After all that work and practice time, it went from being our worst protection to one of our best.
Step 2: Establish a Philosophy
Once you have evaluated your talent, you can begin to establish a defensive philosophy. Here at Nichols, we start with a few simple premises: •First, we believe that we must dominate 1st down and first and possession & 10 snaps.
•We want to get the offense off schedule, which means putting them in long 2nd downs which we believe lead to low
percentage 3rd downs, which lead to punts. We coach our players that it is the job of the defense to take points off the board. We must turn TD’s into FG’s, turn FG’s into long FG’s or failed 4th down attempts, and finally force punts instead of FG’s
Step 3: Come Up With Answers
Our coaching staff believes that at the end of the day, it’s our job as coaches to have and create answers to the challenges presented by the opposing offense. We take time during off-season as a staff to come up with answers to the things we don’t see often. For us, it’s the Triple Option, Wing-T, Spread, and Pistol offenses. For High School coaches, it may be the Single wing, or the Double Wing. I challenge my offensive staff to do the same with defenses they don’t see often like the 3-4, 3-3 and various types of zone pressures. Once we’ve put our answers to these issues together, we try to use late pre-season practices and possibly spring to introduce these answers to our players, we don’t think that the first time they see them should be in preparation for the game.
Step 4: Evaluate Film
The next phase of our game-planning involves intense film study. The questions we want to get answered are the following: •Who are they? •What do they do? •Why do they do it?
•Who are they doing it with? •Why are they doing it with that guy? It is imperative that you are thorough in film breakdowns. This is especially imperative for young coaches, because of their tendency to speed through film breakdown because it takes a long time. Remember, the only thing worse than no information, is bad information. Our lack of proper film study cannot be the reason that our players make mental errors, as football is a game of who makes the least situational mental mistakes. Once we have down all of our research, we have to get our players up to speed. We work to make sure that our players take ownership of their film study by making them fill out a film review sheet. They must evaluate his strengths and weaknesses to figure out how they can win their individual one-on-one battles. Ultimately, players make mistakes and they have both physical and mental limitations. How many times have we called the perfect call only to have a player make a physical or mental mistake that hurts us? What I’ve learned is that you cannot defend everything. We work to focus on the bread & butter of the opposing offense and take away what they do best. For example, if we’re playing an option team, are they a QB/FB team, a FB/Pitch team or QB/Pitch team? If you can take away the things they can’t live without and the job gets easier. Our process for attacking offenses begins with evaluating down & distance tendencies, then personnel tendencies, followed by formation tendencies, and finally play tendencies. When attacking offenses, some of the questions we ask are… •How similar is the offensive play-calling on 1st and 2nd down? •As we put our defensive calls together, can we use the same calls on 2nd & 7 as we did on 1st & 10? If so we group these situations together as base downs. •Where do they break tendency on 2nd down? Once we know that, we can game plan for those situations as well. •Once we’ve attacked their 1st & 2nd down tendencies, we can move on to 3rd Down. We all know that the key to great defense is to get to 3rd down and get off the field. We have to identify the 3rd down distance at which they change their play-calling and then we have to figure out if that should put us in a substitution defense, such as Nickel or Dime. We break 3rd downs into 4 categories, 3rd & 1-3, 3rd & 4-6, 3rd & 7-10, and finally 3rd & 11+. Once we have completed 3rd Down situations, we move on to other situations, the first being the Red Zone. Unlike most staffs, we don’t take for granted that the Red Zone simply begins at the +20 yard line. However, we believe that the Red Zone begins where the offense starts trying to score, thus changing their philosophy on previous parts of the field. Once the offense gets there, we break the Red Area down into 4 distinct areas below:
•High Red Zone: From the +20 to the +16 yard line. We rarely zone pressure and we tend to make base game-plan calls. •Medium Red Zone: From the +15 to the +11 yard line. In this area, we will bring man pressure, and run some form of red
•Low Red Zone: From the +10 to the +3.
Our calls down here will be very similar to the Medium Red calls. However, we must be cognizant of crossing routes and goal line fade throws.
•Goal Line: Ideally the Goal Line area is anything inside the +3 yard line; however, it is important to note that the goal
line starts wherever the offense decides to change mentalities and personnel. The previous notes on film study cover the bulk of our film analysis. Once those major situations are handled sufficiently, we move on to a number of unique game time situations. The “Money Down” situations are opportunities for us to make momentum building or potentially game-changing plays of our guys are prepared for them.
“Money Down” situations include the following…
Short yardage: Which consists of Third and One, Fourth and One and Fourth and Two. We then look at the “Coming Out Zone” which is the -1 to -4 yard line. Things we should expect here from the offense are hard counts (who cares if they false start, they lose inches, if we go off-sides, they gain yards). We look to see if they will take a shot down the field. We would also look to see if they try to throw intermediate play action (10-15 yard passes). Intermediate play action is a problem because most defenses in the coming out situation will load the box for the run or and/or try not to get beat deep, the intermediate throw allows the offense to take advantage of this. Next, we look for what we call “Waste Downs” like 2nd and One, where the offense may take a shot downfield knowing that they will attempt to convert the next down. However, we must be cognizant of where the offense is on the field and the flow of the game may come into play here. For example, if an offense takes a shot on 3rd and One, we should also expect a 4th down attempt rather than a punt.
Step 5: Information Analysis
Once we have compiled all of this data, we must now analyze the information to decide our play calls. Our play calls are usually decided upon the following… •What are their top two or three personnel groupings? •What are their top formations? •What are their top 5-6 run plays? •What are their top 8-10 pass concepts? •Do they have heavy tendencies? •What are their main concepts that give our scheme a hard time i.e. rule breakers? •How often do they “break out”? We define the term break out as the offense aligning players in un-normal positions, like lining a Running Back or a Tight End as a Wide Receiver. Once we have evaluated their personnel tendencies, we move on to play types. When we talk about play types, we assess the following information. •What types of runs are they using; option, zone, gap-schemes, Wing-T?
• What type of protections do they use in 3-step and 5-step concepts? Do they use “Big on Big,” “Slide” or “Half Slide”
• In the pass game are they, in the Shotgun, under center, are they a quick game, vertical passing, move the pocket?
•Do they employ screens and if so are they to the receivers or the backs? •Do they use a lot of gimmick or gadget plays? •Do they use Empty?
Step 6: Personnel Analysis
As we continue our preparation, we focus on very simple things regarding the opposing personnel. We start with the Offensive Line; do they get movement, do they stalemate, how is their pad level? With the QB, we want to know if he is a righty or lefty, is he a pocket passer, a runner, or a combination of both? For the RB’s, are they power or scat backs, are they patient runners or are they constantly in a hurry? Do the WR’s block down field or are they prima donna’s? Are the TE’s physical or finesse blockers? We also want to know who the weak link is, especially upfront (this goes back to the earlier conversation about match-ups). We are always looking for ways to create turnovers, so we want to evaluate the ball security of all of the ball carriers. We also try to evaluate the demeanor of individual players, who is the hot-head, who are the cheap shot artists, and most importantly, which guys play with a motor or picks their spots to play hard?
Step 7: Figuring Out What to Call
Once we have completed all the above analysis, we finally move on to figuring out our calls to work versus each situation. We first create a list of calls that we like for the week. Next, we work to find overlapping calls (in other words, what can carry over to various down and distance situations). We also want to see what calls are the uni-taskers (single situation calls)? Once we’ve figured out the uni-taskers, we must evaluate if we absolutely need them. If we believe we need it, we then must decide if a uni-tasker can become an adjustment between series or at halftime? If we decide that we can do without it, we table it because it’s one less thing to practice. Remember, whatever you plan to run during the game must be taught well enough & practiced well enough for your players to execute it with confidence. If you can’t get it right, you may have to take it out for this game or put it at the bottom of your call list (you probably won’t get to it). We believe that walk-thru & meeting opportunities are critical. It is also important to remember that different kids learn differently, some kids need meetings, some need walk-thru, some need one-on-one time, and some of them may need all three. The one thing that we all know is that all of our players need quality film time. Though scouting reports matter; players and coaches need good accurate information to do their jobs effectively. We cannot make assumptions, it is better to have no information than bad information.
Now that I’ve shared with you the steps we use at Nichols College, I’d like to hear some of the steps that you use for defensive game planning. What do you do that is different? Post your ideas and strategies in the comments section below. I always like to hear from other coaches. This is how we all learn and get better as coaches.