Principles for a Sound Youth Defense
Developing a sound defense is a key element for youth football success. Youth football defense is not about scheme, it is understanding and teaching the basic principles of defense. There are three basic principles that apply to any youth defense (6-2, 5-3, 4-4, or any other variation) and they are the building blocks of a great defense.
Principle #1: Great Tackling
One principle that applies to youth, high school, college, and even the NFL is good defenses tackle well and bad defenses do not tackle well. The best way to become a great tackling team is to practice it every day. Running a tackling circuit with several stations is the most efficient way to practice tackling. Make sure you divide the players into smaller groups based on position, age/experience, or skill so your players get maximum reps.
If you are a new or experienced coach, I recommend checking out USA Football’s Heads Up Tackling. It not only explains how to tackle but more importantly how to tackle safely. Bobby Hosea has some great videos and drills on tackling which emphasize safety (click here to see a video).
Principle #2: Alignment and Gap Responsibility
Lining up properly sounds easy but I have seen plenty of examples where defenses do not properly adjust to the formation or get sloppy in their alignment and get burned for a touchdown. Make the offense earn a touchdown, do not give them an easy touchdown because you are not aligned properly.
Alignment Example #1: Unbalanced Look
The pictures below show an unbalanced look from the single wing formation (UBSW). In the picture below the defense does not shift to the overload and the offense has more blockers than defenders on the right.
The picture below shows the defense properly shifted to the unbalanced formation and there is no advantage to the right. The reason teams run an unbalanced formation is they hope the defense will not shift.
Alignment Example #2: Spread Look
The second example shows an adjustment to a 2x2 spread formation. In the picture below, the OLBs move out to cover the slots. If the defense does not adjust it could be a big play. Note: some teams will use this formation to get defenders out of the box and run the QB. From scouting we knew they liked to throw from this formation and the QB was not a big running threat.
Once the defense is properly aligned, each player must know their primary gap responsibility. The basic idea is to have a defender every gap so no gap is undefended. It is important that defensive lineman go through their assigned gap and do not free-lance. Linebackers are assigned a primary gap responsibilty but they must also read and flow.
Alignment and gap responsibility sounds easy but if it is not constantly stressed the kids will get sloppy. Shifting and alignment needs to be practiced, do not wait until game day a try to shift the defense from the sideline. Hopefully, you have some film or know what formations your opponent runs so you can practice aligning properly.
Principle #3: Proper Pursuit
A youth players natural instinct is to just the chase the football but they must be coached to pursue with a purpose. Taking bad angles and over pursuing are the two biggest mistakes. The main plays you need to stop in youth football are:
- HB or play action pass
Proper pursuit and discipline is required to stop these plays. We use a pursuit drill too teach these techniques. Below is the team pursuit drill we run every day at practice. The basic philosophy is to turn everything back into the "flow" and and "slow play" the backside looking for boot/conter/reverse (a big play in youth football against defenses that over pursue).
These are the basic techniques to stop the main plays:
- Sweep: Playside DE and CB must turn the play in, LBs must attack downhill and stay on the inside hip of the RB
- Off-tackle: DE cannot get upfield too far and leave a huge gap off tackle, LBs must attack downhill. Moving the DTs to the C Gap can also stop the off tackle.
- Counter/Reverse/Boot: backside CB, DE, and OLB need to stay home and not over pursue
- HB or play action pass: corners take a two step read drop before attacking the run and the safety stays high until the runner crosses the LOS
Run the four main plays with coaches and/or players and have the defensive coaches make sure the players are pursuing properly. The position coaches should work with their group on pursuit during individuals before running team pursuit.
The principles seem obvious but they need to be stressed and they need to be practiced. It only takes one mistake to give your opponent a cheap score. I have used applied these principle and have recorded 31 shutouts in 36 games. The free 5-3 defensive playbook includes all these topics and it is great reference for any coach.