So I figured I'd try to give some insight on how to stop this potent offense that has taken the college and high school game by storm. Three areas you need to be good at on the defensive side of the ball are:
- Defensive Team Speed
- Excellent Open Field Tacklers
- Gap Responsibility and Pursuit Discipline
I'm not going to get into whether an odd front is better than an even front, sliding to strength or away from strength, slanting, angling, cover 2, cover 3, combo coverage, etc...
1) Defensive Team Speed
It's obvious when you look at the landscape of both the college or high school game that players like Patrick White, Noel Devine, Armanti Edwards, Terrelle Pryor, and Percy Harvin have required defenses to have fast, athletic players to match the speed of these great athletes. When I say 'speed', I don't mean 100 meter dash speed per say, but football speed, which is usually an athlete that not only can run fast in a straight line, but can also run fast, stop, then re-start again at a rapid rate. Change of direction speed, the ability to accelerate, decelerate, then re-accelerate at a rapid pace.
Is a player born with this? Some are for sure. Can a player work on this type of speed? Absolutely! It's called change of direction training, such training facilities as The Parisi Speed School and Velocity Training teach it around the country. Google them both to check it out, I know Parisi's sells videos on it, go to Parisi's website by clicking here, they call it 'Deceleration Training'.
2) Excellent Open Field Tacklers
The one big thing a spread offense try’s to exploit is the need for defenses to be in open space, a lot of times with even numbers in that section and that takes away the classic 'gang tackling' concept that so many defenses preach. It's much harder to gang tackle when you're spread all across the field and isolation of areas of the field are what spread offenses are looking for.
Working on open field, individual tackling is of utmost importance for defenses. The ability to break down in the open field, make good contact, then grabbing cloth as you bring down the offensive player is very important to teach your 2nd level players (Linebackers and Defensive backs).
One very simple part of being a good open field tackler is teaching the defender to have their head up, and eyes open right up to impact. This may sound simple, but in individual drills at practice ask your players how many of them close their eyes right before contact. You'll be surprised at the response. It's a natural human reaction to close your eyes before any contact and football is no different, but you need to change that if you want your players to be good open field tacklers.
Angles of pursuit are also critical, and I don't mean just the game saving angles of pursuit, you need to work on the intermediate angles of pursuit, and what to do when you get there (tackle and then strip) and are ready to deliver an open field blow.
3) Gap Responsibility and Pursuit Discipline
I remember when the great Denver Bronco teams of the late 90's gave defenses fits with their zone blocking scheme and the ability of Terrell Davis to cut back on over pursuing defenses. Well now in 2008, you're seeing at the college and high school level spread offense zone teams do the same thing to over aggressive defenses who insist on flying over the top to get the zone hand-off, only to get burned by either the tailback cutting back against the pursuit, or the QB (who's now the best athlete on the team and one of the fastest) tucking it on the zone read and bootlegging the other way.
The ability for a defense to be disciplined in gap responsibility and pursuit starts in practice. It needs to be worked on in individual, group, and team settings.
It all starts with confidence in the team that all 11 players believe in the other 11 and if I do my job then the team will benefit. Now don't confuse what I'm saying with not being an aggressive defense, it just needs to be ingrained in your defensive players that your pursuit angle (meaning anything ran away from you) should never pass the ball carriers 'inside' pocket or armpit at your level.
Once they pass your level, you need to fly to the ball, because a cutback at that point is not a concern at your responsibility level.
Now if the ball is coming your way (play side), you still need to keep your outside arm free and never give the corner, again believing in your play side teammates that they're pursuing and your backside teammates that they're pursuing at the correct angles.
One of the best college teams I've seen do all of the above the last two years has been the University of South Florida, especially in their games versus West Virginia the past two years.
USF's defensive staff would be a great group to go visit and clinic with if you need to stop a West Virginia style run dominant spread offense. Best wishes on your preparation for next year, believe in your plan, your coaches, and players.
Source: Mark Colyer, http://www.spreadoffense.com/