This is not intended to be the gospel on secondary play, nor does it imply that this is how it's done at Notre Dame, or any other college. It is a personal approach, used in high school, and like Coach Weis will often say, I stole, learned from, and copied from whomever I could. Football coaches are the greatest thieves and copiers I know. It is my biggest regret that I didn't hear Coach Lewis before my coaching days were over. Also, I will only cover the play of the secondary as it relates to pass defense.
More and more games, at all levels, from high school to the pros, are decided by the efficiency of the secondary's play. Successful secondary play requires your personnel to limit the opposing quarterback's completion percentage, yards per attempt, total passing yardage, third-and-long conversions, and big plays. Failure to limit the aforementioned aspects of the offense will most likely put an L on one's schedule.
In order to be successful a member of the secondary, each defensive back must have a belief in himself, in the concepts of the defense, and must exhibit the attitude that says "throw the ball my way." No positions on the defensive side of the ball face more pressure. The secondary is the last line of defense, and while a defensive lineman's mistake may be covered by a linebacker or a defensive back, and a linebacker's mistake may be covered by a defensive back, no one is back there to cover for a mistake made by the secondary as a whole. No one's mistakes are more glaring to the average fan, and quite often no one is more vilified by fans than secondary players.
In order to achieve success in secondary play each member of the defensive backfield must adhere to five basic rules:1. You never get beat deep
2. Your first responsibility is the pass
3. You must communicate
4. Know your reads
5. Know your keys
It is, of course, unrealistic to believe that your players are never going to get beat deep, but the attitude must be constantly reinforced, constantly on the mind of all defensive backs (DB), and they must face that pressure and its consequences in daily practice. You may get beat deep during the season due to not performing the proper technique as the ball arrives, or the receiver makes a play on the DB, but you never want to get beat deep on mental mistakes or not following the proper techniques of the pass drop.
Responsibility for the pass is the DB's first and foremost reason for being on the field. Daily drills featuring straight passing plays, play action, halfback passes, flea flickers, fumbled snaps, and their subsequent recovery by the quarterback, who ends up throwing the ball, reinforce this concept. Dailey drills during individual time and group time must constantly provide reps for these situations if they are to be second nature to the DB's. On most reps, and throughout the DB drills, the coach is throwing the ball. In high school your quarterbacks are usually DB's themselves and are involved, as DB's, in the drills.
On a personal note: As the season rolled on I would progress from using a game ball, then an eighth grade ball, and finally a Nerf ball. The reason for this was the daily grind of reps in practice and by season's end my elbow would be so inflamed I couldn't throw the Nerf ball without pain because we had that many reps daily. I threw the ball far more, on a daily basis, than our quarterbacks did. In my mind's eye it was worth the pain to get as many reps as possible against all patterns and from all of our coverages.
Communication is essential, and despite the mouth piece, must be practiced just like any pass coverage drill. High school or junior high players don't face the crowd noise that college or pros do, but calls before the snap and during the play require communication, usually through code words, to identify who one has responsibility for, the call of a pass, the ball in the air, and the routes being run.
Reads involve the formation, personnel groups, the quarterback's progression to a three step drop, a five step drop, and a seven step drop, how the tight end responds at the snap, and whatever the coach has drilled the players that he feels is important to stopping the opponent's passing game. The secondary must also be aware of field position, the hash they are on, and down and distance.
Keys are garnered from film study and are often formations that the opponent is more likely to pass from and particular physical actions of the receivers or quarterback. How a receiver gives away a pass play by his actions, and how he may give away the route he is running are invaluable keys should a coach be able to isolate them. The quarterback's shoulder positioning and eyes are also keys that the DB's will focus on at the snap if in zone coverage.
Obviously, there's a lot going on physically and in the mind of a good DB before and during a play. Add that to the idea that DB's are often left on an island, and the responsibilities and stress factor of the position far exceeds any other position.
Look for my next article on playing man and zone defense in this series coming soon.