X's and O's series: stopping a scramble

In our new weekly series, GoBlueWolverine tackles your questions about anything football. Josh Turel and Victors Club Message Board poster "CoachBt" break down the onfield X's and O's. In this edition the duo tackles some of the keys to defending mobile QBs.

This week's question was submitted by Victors Club Message Board poster, “maizewave”:

Question: “How do you defend mobile quarterbacks? What are some of the schemes that are used, and are there any tradeoffs?”


You can easily take away just about anything in football, but in the process, you will give something else up. Most football fans know the term “spy“. A spy is a defender that basically shadows a player on the offense. You can spy any skilled position player, but you have to be prepared to give up something else. For instance, if Michigan spies Troy Smith, they have to take a defender out of coverage or the pass rush.

Most of Michigan’s problems with mobile quarterbacks come on scrambles or broken plays. This comes from break downs in fundamentals by the defense. A few of the biggest errors are defensive linemen not staying in pass rush lanes, linebackers getting too deep in their drops and opening up the gap between them and the defensive line, and defensive backs and linebackers not reacting to the quarterback when they cross the line of scrimmage and by punishing him. If Michigan’s defense would come up and start putting major hits on opposing quarterbacks, you would start to see coaches putting their quarterbacks on shorter leashes. (LaMarr Woodley’s hit on Drew Stanton a few years ago is the perfect example).

As for which specific defenses that are better against mobile quarterbacks, I believe that schemes that rush four defenders and use some sort of zone blitz package are the most effective. Rushing four defenders helps eliminate some of the lanes or gaps that quarterbacks have to escape through. Most quarterback coaches instruct their quarterbacks to use what is caused backside seam to escape. The backside seam is an A or B gap to the side away from which the quarterback is looking. For example, if throwing a three step drop pass to the right side, the A or B gap to left would be the backside seam.

Many teams are going back to schemes used in the 60s and 70s and assigning one defensive lineman the task of controlling the middle of the line of scrimmage. He is responsible for middle screens, draws, and keeping quarterbacks in the pocket. When using this philosophy as part of zone blitz package, they will then blitz one of the linebackers or one of the defensive backs off the corner or through the gap the defensive lineman would have rushed in. The theory is getting immediate pressure off the edge or up the middle makes quarterbacks pull down the ball and look for a seam to escape. When the quarterback pulls the ball down, the defensive player that stays at the line of scrimmage is now in position to come off blocks and make the tackle. The quarterback is not as aware of him because it appears he is being blocked, but he is coached to keep the offensive lineman off his body so he can move laterally and make the play.

In closing it is important to remember that it is the second defender in that is key to sacking or containing the quarterback. The first defender’s job is to make quarterback pull down ball and force the quarterback to make a quick decision. With the quarterback able to duck under, move laterally, or step into the pocket he has a good chance to avoid the first defender. It is in this vulnerable position after making the first defender miss that most sacks occur by the second defender. You can use linebackers or even safeties in same role as the defensive tackle, especially if you are in a nickel or dime package.

Josh Turel:

When defending mobile quarterbacks, there are some things you can do scheme wise to slow them down, but your best weapon is great fundamentals. It may seem like a dull answer but you will find defenses that stop mobile quarterbacks the best are ones that are fast, disciplined, and play with excellent technique.

One of the areas in which Michigan has struggled a bit in the past is quarterbacks running from the spread formation. Defensively, I don’t think there is anything tougher than stopping a mobile quarterback from the spread offense. The factor that makes it the most difficult is the reduced front defenses have to play to defend these systems. With defenses subbing in defensive backs for linebackers, you’re sometimes left with only five defenders in the box. The reduced amount players up front makes their technique that much more critical.

If you’re going to contain a speedy quarterback, you have to get off blocks. If defensive linemen and linebackers aren’t getting off blocks, the quarterback is going to have plenty of room to run and get past the first line of defense.

From the spread, the quarterback has more natural running lanes and he initially sees the field well with a reduced front. One of the keys for the defense is to make what he sees before the snap much different from what he sees after the snap. Like CoachBt alluded to earlier, defenses have to influence the quarterback and force him to make quick decisions when his outlet gaps are shut down. This is where defensive coaching is premium. If the coordinator can draw up some effective twists, stunts, line stems and zone blitzes, he can keep the quarterback guessing as to where the run lanes will develop.

Another point your defense must stress is run support from the secondary. This area is something the defensive backfield did not do well against Texas quarterback Vince Young in the Rose Bowl two years ago. The key is getting off blocks, using proper angles to the play, and tackling well. Because of the reduced defensive fronts, as we explained earlier, the secondary now bares more of a run support burden.

For Michigan, stopping mobile quarterbacks will be a constant issue on defense because of how the league is now. Practically every school has a quarterback that can move. Troy Smith, Drew Stanton, Drew Tate are some of the top guys still around, but the youth movement around the league is full of quick quarterbacks as well. Isiah Williams from Illinois and Curtis Painter of Purdue highlight some of the up and coming dual threat quarterbacks in the league.

Be sure to check back next week for another mailbag feature.

Want to submit a mailbag question? Join us on our Victors Club messageboard or in our weekly chats held every Monday night at 9pm.

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