In 1992, there was no Internet, no YouTube, no Facebook, no GIFs shared on Twitter, no sideline laptops. Scouting an opponent was done by studying a game, live and in-person or by studying VHS game film. My job description, as defensive coordinator of an AAU-style, 22-under summer team in 1992 was the same as my high school head coach job in the fall – stop the run.
Until 1992, we defended the same opponent every week – run first, run second, pass third. The only difference was helmet logo and jersey design – every opponent dressed differently but looked exactly the same… until game 5 in 1992. Here’s what culture shock looked like then: 500-plus total offensive yards and a 2:1 pass-run ratio. Our opponent’s previous week’s stat sheet featured an upside-down pass-run ratio that turned the league upside down – 67% of their plays called were passes, 33% run. And, 67% of their yards were in the air, only 33% on the ground. This team re-defined “balance”: 2:1 pass-run play-call ratio, and 2:1 pass yards-run yards ratio.
Game 5 was our first time defending a 2:1 pass-run ratio. Our undefeated opponent was in the process of slaughtering a high-performance league with a run & shoot offense, bombing through the air and on the ground. They were a pass-first team. And pass-second team, but they could run at will. Yet, they were labeled a “finesse” team by our coaches and players – “soft.” We bashed them at practice, meetings, and during film study. I encouraged it. The “soft, finesse” label was our reaction to what we didn’t believe in – pass first, pass second, run third. We bashed them because they threatened our perceived sanctity of the game. If you didn’t play “smashmouth” football, you weren’t a real football team. But, our bashing stopped after we studied them on film. Studying their film taught me lessons in the science of coordinating a defensive:
1. A true, balanced offensive attack is not defined by numbers. A true, balanced attack is defined by will and capacity, the potential to pound you equally in the air and on the ground. A 50-50 split on the stat sheet is not direct evidence of a balanced offense. A 50-50 split is only circumstantial evidence of a balanced attack. A 50-50 split in pass-run plays called, is not the main, direct evidence that you’re going to face a balanced attack. The main evidence is what they can do in the air and on the ground if you don’t stop them. A true, balanced attack is the outcome – yards gained and points scored by the equal power of air game and ground game. When the opponent shows the will and capacity to pound your defense into the ground by air or ground, you’re facing a balanced attack.
2. One element of a great offense is defensive weakness and ineptitude. A bad defense makes an offense look good. A weak defense makes an offense look stronger than it is. The worse the defense, the better the offense looks. The defense that allowed the 500-plus yards on the film I was studying, weakened physically and psychologically because they couldn’t keep up. They couldn’t stand up to a fast-paced, pass-first offense because they were in worse shape than their opponent. Opposing strengths and weaknesses work together as a team. Mediocre defenses don’t just get physically pushed around. They get psychologically pushed around as well. Getting pushed around in body, mind, and soul manifests in the inability to stop the strength of the opposing offense. If your defense cannot build its strengths to match and exceed the opponent’s strengths, their offense will look like images in your side-view car mirror do: closer, bigger, and faster than they really are.
3. Defenses don’t win championships. They contribute to championships but they don’t win championships alone. “Great defense” is an abstract concept, open to wide-ranging interpretation. “Great defense” is the product of a complex mixture of high-performance on defense and low-performance on offense. Winning championships takes high-performance on offense and special teams.
4. Pass-first, pass-second teams are more dangerous than run-first, run-second teams because they use the entire field and the entire offensive unit. They challenge your fitness level, physically and psychologically. They do more than spread your defense. They force your defense to play at higher levels, literally and figuratively. “Higher levels” has a dual meaning – higher performance level and a higher geographic level on the defense – downfield. We call downfield our “outfield.” Spread offenses create your outfield. Run-oriented teams don’t. They play in the infield. Spread offenses force you to cover the outfield to make big hits before the offense does. Run-first, run-second offenses make your outfield complacent by teaching your outfielders to play as infielders. Playing the outfield is more than chasing the long ball. Playing the outfield is taking away the run at the highest level. If your secondary doesn’t change its mindset against a spread, pass-first, pass-second team, they will only cover deep “ground” and never cover the opposing “ground” game. Spread offenses re-define “ground & pound” by moving the ground game to the highest level. When they ground and pound you deep, they will ground & pound you short. Essentially, spread offenses create a multi-level ground & pound game. If your defense cannot physically and mentally handle multi-levels of ground & pound, your defense will get pounded into the ground. If they can handle it, it will force the spread offense to change its multi-level approach by abandoning the outfield and sticking to the infield. The moment you change a spread offense’s mindset, you change their character. Change their character and they become someone they don’t recognize. When a spread offense loses their identity, they lose their true self, self-confidence, and the game.
5. During my 15-year police career between 1975-1990, I learned the difference between zone-policing and district policing. I realized that the same principle applied to defending a spread offense – change zones to districts, creating freedom within a geographic area. Instead of one player manning a zone, several players man a district. The key to stopping our first spread offense opponent in 1992 was separating the field into districts – a defensive strategy that pounded and grounded our opponent, holding them to only 234 total yards and 13 points in our 28-13 win.
There was no email, no websites, no screen communication in 1992. So I interviewed the top minds in run-and-shoot philosophy – by ancient landline telephone. They gave me a crash-course in how to dismantle a defense regardless of how tough they thought they were. My job was to find a way to not let it happen to us. They taught me how to think differently about moving the ball, gaining yards, about bashing and gashing offensively on the ground despite the label of a “pass-happy offense that couldn’t cut it on the ground.”
I had made the mistake of participating in and encouraging off-field bashing of our upcoming opponent. Believing if you didn’t ground and pound, you were soft. If you shook the Football Establishment’s unwritten rules of winning in the trenches, you were an outsider, an unworthy foreigner who represented a threat to mainstream thinking. If you didn’t play like us, you were disrespecting the sport. But all this rhetoric was just a manifestation of bulging F.A.T. – fear, anxiety, tension – grown through the unknown – we had no idea how to stop them. And it was us who were disrespecting the sport by bashing a foreign system that was working and working harder than we were.
By the end of my film study, I had changed my perspective. No more off-field bashing. Bash them on the field. No free passes, no free releases. No box. No distinction between run defense and pass defense. No difference in pressure. No such thing as blitzing the pass. We blitzed the play, pass or run. Our interior linemen were expected to drop into coverage. We reduced and minimized the number of dual responsibility players. We pressured the backfield not just the quarterback. We re-defined and re-structured the concept of pressuring the backfield by adding it to our pursuit-angles curriculum. We stopped differentiating between rushing the backfield and pursuit angles. They were the same.
Research is only as good as its relevance. One week was not enough to change our system. We added to it instead, without ripping out the heart and soul of our SWAT Defense. We learned to embrace every style of offense because the greater the diversity in opposing offensive systems, the stronger our system grew.
Our first spread opponent played by the rules but they used formations we had never seen before. The used the field in ways we’d never seen before. They distributed the ball like we’d never seen before. They played at a tempo that we had never played at before.
Twenty-four years ago, we were blessed to face a spread offense so different that it scared us into changing, not through subtraction but through addition. Thinking straight under pressure doesn’t just happen. Nothing just happens. It takes life-long learning and practical experience.
Blessings + all good things