Ideally, each member of your secondary should posses the following:1. Good speed
2. Quick feet
3. Hips, or the venerated hip swivel
4. Body control
5. Good hands
Foot speed can't be coached, but it sure helps to have it. Speed, both flat out, and more importantly the ability to use closing speed, can make up for technique mistakes and help negate the advantage the receiver has in knowing where he's going. If you taped the Army AA game, our new recruit, Raeshon McNeil, showed that he could close effectively when the receiver got a step on him. Re-watching him would definitely be worthwhile.
However, secondary play is more than just pure speed, it's also about quick feet. Secondary play is a series of quick steps, and one quick step at the right time heightens success, while one wrong or slow step, or failure to make the proper step, heightens failure. Speed without quick feet usually places a player at the wide receiver position versus being a defensive back (DB).
Hips, or if you prefer, hip swivel, defines a player's ability to change direction fluidly while hitting his drop, and maintain a cushion (that space between the DB and the receiver) on the deepest receiver in the DB's zone. This fluid motion separates a good DB from an average one. In order to successfully play pass defense, a DB must be able to roll the hips from one side to another while reading the quarterback's eyes and maintaining that essential cushion. If the receiver has closed on that cushion the ability to roll the hips and turn and run with the receiver is paramount.
Body control involves the ability to retreat as easily as it is to go forward and to change from retreating to forward movement, or converting to lateral movement. If you can't move in all three planes, backwards, forwards, and laterally, then you can't play in the secondary. Lateral movement, often overlooked by the casual fan, is often the difference between good defense and poor defense. As you watch football games, notice how many interceptions come from moving laterally during the course of a season.
Good hands often place a player on offense, but since the attitude of the defense is not only to hold the opponent in check, but to create turnovers, DB's need good hands. Successful secondary coaches teach their players that the ball is theirs, and they have to go after it whenever the opportunity presents itself, and the goal is to intercept the ball at its highest point. The concept of intercepting at the highest point means that the ball doesn't come as close to the receiver by waiting for it to come to you.
Attitude is that idea that you want the ball thrown your direction, that you relish the opportunity to showcase your ability, relish the idea of one-on-one, and that you've used everything in your arsenal to defeat the opponent play after play. Players that dread the ball coming their way seldom make the big plays. Think back towards the attitude of Shane Walton and you have an idea of what I mean.
Stance and Technique
I was going to talk about stance for corners and safeties, but it seems like that's a lost art in college. Players are more apt to be making calls and disguising their coverage versus assuming a stance from the get-go. They also don't always adhere to the traditional stances, turning up field and running like a receiver as the ball is snapped. During the recent BCS championship game I watched for the "normal" corner stance and saw it employed very few times, but it was used. Coverage, philosophy, and down and distance seems to have a lot to do with when one technique is used over another.
What follows is a URL for secondary stances. The reader may chose to look it up if they feel the need. The site also shows all football positions by stance and alignment, as well as basic offensive and defensive formations. It's worth a look for the casual fan.
Alignment of DB's at the snap depends on coverage, formations, individual responsibilities, and the coach's scheme, but the skills that are employed at the snap are the thrust of the rest of this article.
Very Basic Zone Play
A DB who is playing zone should be into his backpedal at the snap, eyeing the quarterback, pushing off his outside front foot, while taking a backward step with his inside rear foot. The shoulders are in front of the hips and begin to raise slowly during the initial steps, but never are they to be above the hips. By having his shoulders in front of the hips a DB will be able to stop his backpedal and drive forward much faster than if he was erect in his drop. It's important that the DB understands that he is to master running backwards, and not be pushing himself backwards. He needs to master this skill in going straight back and at angles as well.
The forward movement, push, or recovery, that the DB performs to jump on the receiver and his pattern must be taught and drilled to reduce the time the DB takes to get to the receiver. The back pedal is stopped with a short back step that he must push off from to move forward. A long back step will take longer and reduce the power the DB has to move forward. Often when you see a DB fall, it's that his step is a long step, he loses his body control, and his forward push is delivered from an unbalanced body position. However, field conditions can also lead to this step being too long or the DB falling.
Let's assume the DB is displaying the proper backpedal technique on a play. He better be fundamental in his backpedal as he hits his drop because he has reads he needs to be making. A read is an indication of what the offense is going to do, and it may be as simple as the direction the offensive backs are flowing, the quarterback instantly dropping back, or as complex as what the tight end may be doing at the snap of the ball. All this is done while he is still in his drop.
Assuming that the DB reads pass, and he has yelled pass to his fellow defenders, his focus turns to the quarterback's drop. The three, five, or seven step drop is a good indication of the type of pattern that the receiver is going to run. For example, a three step drop may indicate an out pattern or a slant, but in this case he must also be aware of the deep fade thrown from the same three step drop. Nothing is set in stone by reading a quarterback's drop, but it is usually an indication of the type of pattern, short, medium, or long, to come.
As he reads the quarterback's drop he also reads the quarterback's eyes and shoulder position. A quarterback may try to look a DB off, but he has to turn his lead shoulder toward the receiver he is throwing towards. It's important to know that at this point the DB is keying the QB, but must be aware of the deepest receiver in his zone through his peripheral vision and maintain his cushion. If the cushion is breached he essentially turns into man to man coverage, running with the deepest receiver in his zone. The DB should also be schooled on the QB's arm action. QB's will pump fake with a short arm motion. The DB cannot bite on this fake and must wait on the long arm action of the actual pass.
When the quarterback puts the ball in the air all DB's yell ball, and our specific DB, in this article, drives forward on the pass in front of him, or adjusts to the ball on deeper patterns as its in flight, moving to the area where his judgment takes him to the highest point. Since it's assumed that he has greater depth than the receiver he should have the play in front of him. DB's are taught that it's their ball, and they are to play through the receiver and go for the ball. Hopefully they intercept and give the cry "bingo" or "oskie" to tell the rest of the defense that they are now on offense. Should the receiver gain position on the DB then man coverage techniques take over.
All that is discussed above happens in a matter of seconds and speaks for the need of drill, drill, drill, to make things second nature. Experience is a major asset as well. Coaching a player to play this position, repeating individual drills and live reps can make these skills second nature, but it's the player that exhibits a football sense that makes him stand out above others as a DB.
We have plenty more to come on secondary play so stay tuned for my next article in the series.