Coach's Mailbag

Once again our board coaches answer a number of great questions from our readers. Zone blocking schemes, the difference between linebacker positions, disecting the offensive line positions, and the prevent defense are all addressed in this latest edition of Coach's Mailbag.

Question: 1

Could you have someone talk about the reason for the current rise in zone blocking as a blocking scheme and its strengths and weaknesses?

Zone blocking is anything but "current." It has been a dominant running game concept for at least a dozen years if not fifteen. The zone concept developed as a result of the development of multiple front defenses which nullified power and counter/ gap blocking concepts. The zone concept allows a team to have some very basic rules to attack any defensive front which is presented. As long as the OL (offensive lineman) covers up the defenders, then the RB (running back), who is a superior athlete to the OL, and has more time to read and react to the defense, determines the outcome of the play and decides which holes to run through. The zone scheme is the ultimate equalizer in the run game. If all run game was called solely on the basis of creating a defined hole, then the defense would have the advantage by disguising gap responsibility. Also, the zone scheme allows teams to spend a bulk of practice time on the passing game and still have an effective run game because the OL have such simple run game concepts that they require relatively little repetition. Most of the burden is on the RB, who can spend drill time on zone read concepts.

The primary weakness of the zone concept is that it requires a RB to read on the run rather than simply attack a hole and run downhill. This is far more difficult than it sounds. It is also why so many top high school backs wash out at the college level. They are unable to make the adjustment to being "read on the move" backs.

The zone plays allow a back like Darius Walker, who is not a super fast back but has great vision, to be very successful. There are two basic zone concepts, inside zone and outside zone (the stretch play), ND also runs zone variations with "wham" blocks on tackles and ends where the HB (halfback) or FB (fullback) traps an interior lineman.

In the basic inside zone play against a four-man front, the RB reads the block on the first down lineman to the play side to the backside inside LB (linebacker). If the DL (defensive lineman) is covered up by the offensive lineman then the RB will hit the line hard playside toward the B gap. If the DL's head appears in the gap then the RB checks to the backside LB, he is looking to see if the LB has been covered up by an OL or of he has overrun the play. This tells the RB to cut back. When you hear how patient a runner Walker is, this is where his patience pays off, he allows the OL time to get to their combos, and read the LBs, but he has the quick reactions necessary to take the ball vertical as soon as the seam shows or to recognize that the play is dead and he needs to get back to the LOS (line of scrimmage). The other part of this obviously is vision. Walker probably has the best vision of any back ND has had in the last 15 years. I guarantee that if you asked him what each player on the defensive front did on the play, he would be able to tell you with incredibly high accuracy. If he didn't have this kind of vision then his lack of top end speed would make him a very average RB. He is not average. Conversely, a player like Ryan Grant, who probably was faster than Walker, was not successful running the zone play because he couldn't make the reads and react quickly to what they tell him. Grant generally would end up barreling the ball playside for very little gain because he lacked patience and couldn't see the backside of the defense.

The outside zone play is a little different and teams run this play many different ways. The basic idea is to allow the back to hit a seam off tackle or to bounce the play outside. Generally speaking, the outside zone play is not a cutback play because the back will be cutting back into the defensive flow from the inside. This is the play that ND ran successfully against Michigan in Walker's freshman year repeatedly. Walker stretched the defense, with help from the OL, created seams on the perimeter of the defense and was able to take the ball vertical for good yardage.

One of the things that people should realize about the inside zone is that it is designed to gain about three yards. It is the modern equivalent of the FB dive. However, because it can cause defensive overflow, big plays can come from cutbacks by the RB when backside LBs and safeties misplay their run fits.

Question 2: Please compare and contrast the linebacker positions - Apache, Will, Sam, Mike. What determines their placement - position of the ball on the field, location of offensive personnel or both. What physical attributes make a given player better suited for one position versus the other. What players does a given position typically key on to read the offense and where they need to go pre and post snap.

In a standard 4-3 set, the defense has a strongside outside LB (Sam), a middle LB (Mike), and a weakside LB(Will). How these players line up varies from defense to defense. It all depends on how the defense calls offensive strength. The simplest way is to call run strength to the TE side, so Sam is always to that side. Other teams use boundary vs. field to determine strength (this is the most common way colleges do it), in certain situations you may determine passing strength instead of run strength.

Since this question is more directed at ND's defense, I will address that as I understand it having studied Minter's concepts and the 4-2-5 in general. The Apache LB is equivalent to a Sam LB in terms of alignment and responsibilities. He generally lines up to the field side in if there is a two-deep shell behind the defense. He will have a flat coverage responsibility or a hook/curl responsibility in zone coverage depending on the zone scheme. He may be covering a TE, RB, or WR in man coverage depending on blitz/coverage scheme. This player must be a very good athlete and a jack of all defensive trades. He is typically an "on the ball" run defender in a two-deep scheme, he may have contain in single safety zone or free safety man coverage. This position is very different from what the Sam LB was under Kent Baer's scheme. It seems that this is the LB that Minter likes to take out of the game when he goes to a nickel defense.

The Mike LB is a primary run stopper sideline to sideline. He is the most protected LB in terms of OL being able to get to him. He has strong-side A gap responsibility in the base defense, but often blitzes in Minter's schemes. He drops to the middle hook zone in the basic zone defense. He has to be able to run, shed blocks(or avoid them altogether) and be a sure tackler. Mitchell Thomas is the best candidate physically for this position currently on the roster. I will be interested to see what happens here since it has been discussed that Crum will get a look at Mike. I suspect that Minter would prefer a taller player than Crum at this position because of the pass coverage element. A Mike LB must be able to cover a lot of ground. Because of the way football has evolved the Mike no longer has to be a huge guy. Miami (FL) plays guys who weigh about 220-225 here with some success.

The Will LB is a gap-plugger and cutback defender. In the base defense he has weakside B gap. If run shows to his side, he plugs B right away and bounces the run to the sideline. This player has very little protection as the weakside guard and tackle both have easy releases to him. The Will will see a lot of contact from those two positions or from an isolation block by the FB. This position requires a big body in the 4-3, like Corey Mays. If given a choice between small and fast and big and not quite as fast, most coaches will probably take the size. The Will LB has hook/curl responsibility to his side in basic zone defenses. He may have to cover a RB in man coverage and will blitz as well.

Keys: These are the simplest key concepts, keys vary greatly depending on defense called and other factors. They are in no way complete or definitive. Reading keys is critical for LB's because this tells them how to react. At the college and pro level, it is a critical skill. Many great athletes remain on the bench because they never master the ability to read and react on the move.

Apache: Keys thru TE or tackle (if no TE) to nearest RB

Mike: Keys thru strong side guard to nearest RB

Will: Keys thru weakside guard to nearest back

Question 3: I'd be interested in what Coach Weis and Brady Quinn discuss during their meeting on Friday's before a game.

Response 1:
I too would love to know what they discuss on Friday.

Response 2:
Ditto. I believe that Mike has videos of press conferences with Coach Weis and Brady Quinn where Friday meetings were touched on. Whether he has them on file on site due to the three minute rule is something I don't know, but you may want to check the More Stories section of the Latest Stories section to see if they are filed.

Note: I don't believe we still have them on Irish Eyes

Response: 3
I would pay good money to sit in one of those meetings! I meet with my QB each Friday at lunch to discuss the game the following day. I use the opportunity to read the player's confidence in the adjustments that were planned and practiced during the week in preparation for the opponent. In addition, I usually walk through the playbook as a quick review as to what plays I may call in during the game and why. I also walk through the unique qualities that the opposing team has from previous opponents and discuss what they should expect as far as the opposing coaches tendencies and adjustments. Each coach has their own way of bonding with and motivating their QB's and this is the time to use those skills. It is the best and most timely opportunity to sit with your player outside of practice and refocus them in on their specific role and the success that they will experience by concentrating on what they practiced all week. There is a lot of anxiety and looking ahead to Saturday's opponent during practice that week, and the time is best used to relieve any anxiety and just concentrate on the mental aspect of the following day.

I have recruited and worked with a number of players that have had successful careers in college and beyond. One common complaint is that they often feel like they have had coaches that don't care about them as individuals and do not have open lines of communication. This is the time to show them that you do care about them as an individual and make them feel good about your desire to be in their corner the following day.

Question 4: What are the advantages and disadvantages of the size of the offensive line gaps. Some teams you will see with very wide gaps and others, the O-linemen are very tight one to the other.

This is a great question that I have been personally working on this past year. I have also asked this question to many of my coaching peers and have received different answers each time. I believe that you will continue to see wider gaps between O-linemen this year for teams running a spread or modified spread offense (one back). It forces the defense to spread their line to guard against sweeps, options, screens, etc. A number of folks have commented to me that they would simply spread their LB's to cover the edges and keep their D-Line tight but if you are looking at 4 or 5 receivers running up field, if forces them to drop into coverage zones also.

A number of teams with smaller and quicker linemen have been spreading their lines in order to open lanes and buy time for the QB to throw downfield. If you are working out of a four or five receiver set against a team with a strong pass rush, you really do not have the time or personnel to be able to stop the rush and get the ball up field. If you spread your O-line, you can buy that extra time and open up other options for the QB. In addition, most teams that are using this scheme will always have an outlet receiver in a short route or blocking and releasing in case of a blitz. The safeties are forced into coverage and if there is a blitz, there will be an open receiver.

I also think that this spread formation works very well if you have a smart QB who is able to make quick pre-snap reads and find that one D-Back (defensive back) who blows their coverage. In addition, if you have a mobile QB it opens up the opportunity to run to open lanes. It also favors the receivers who can adjust their routes based on where the defensive strength is coming from and the safety support. If anyone on the board has ever had to play D-Back against a four or five-man spread, they understand what I am talking about. It is chaos out there!

My primary concern with spreading open the field with your linemen is, like many other trends in college football, smart coaches will find ways to defend this offense pretty quickly and you will have to make adjustments when you don't necessarily have the time or personnel to do so. In addition, if you play a difficult schedule like Notre Dame does, you are going to run into defenses with very fast LB's and DE's that can get to the QB in a blink. The trend for smaller and faster LB's will force your O-Line in tight. Imagine a 4.4 LB or DE rushing full speed and untouched in direct route against Quinn? He may get the ball off but he will be done for the season. I recruited smaller yet quick linemen this year to run this style of offense but if it doesn't work, I will have to make dramatic changes to the offensive scheme and probably will not have the correct personnel to do so.

Question 5: What do you look for in a guard that is different from a tackle or, for that matter, a center? Are there distinguishing characteristics you look for in each of the three?

Center: I like to see a center that can make excellent reads and call them if necessary as the quarterback for the offensive line. I also prefer a "stout" and powerful build with the smarts to make the D-Line and LB reads, make a consistent snap and are also explosive enough to take on a NT (nose tackle) and drive at the same rate as a guard. They are usually of similar stature to a guard. In addition, the stout and shorter nature of a guard over a tackle is an advantage in being able to squat in their stance with a hand on the ball and maintaining that stance as a QB makes their reads and adjustments. That is easier said than done.

Guard: The guard position also requires a stout and powerful lineman who is strong enough to take on an interior lineman without being stood up. Just like the center, they need to be able to stand low on a D-Lineman (low center of gravity) and create lanes for passing as well as drive block for the RBs. Usually they are smaller in height than a tackle but they need to be quick enough to pull along the line when necessary.

Tackle: The tackles can differ in offenses depending on your offensive scheme. For example, I use my best tackle always lined up on the right side of the line next to a TE therefore always having "power" on the right side. There are a number of plays that can be used to fool a defense when you are showing "power" on one side consistently. The tackle on my strong side is usually the tallest player on the O-Line. Many coaches (Weis, Parcel's etc.) often use two tight end formations so they need to load up on tall, powerful and quick tackles. They are difficult to find and recruit as we have found out until this past year at Notre Dame. The tackle should be quick/fast, tall and have the wingspan to stop the outside rush but protect the inside also. The size, wingspan and speed of a tackle is absolutely necessary to stop today's quick DE's as well as WDE's that tend to take a wide rushing lane to the QB. Dwight Freeney from the Colts is a great example of a guy who is extremely fast but also has excellent technique to beat a tackle. The tackle also needs to have the strength to take on large DE's who are rushing inside or directly at them. Another important aspect is their technique in using their hands. Talented DE's use all types of different arm and hand moves today to beat a tackle.

As mentioned earlier, true tackles are hard to find due to their overall size, (height and strength). There are a number of quality lineman that come out of high school each year in the 6- foot to 6-foot-3 range at 275 -300 pounds before college conditioning programs. How many guys do you see with the size and mobility as a Sam Young each year? I am intrigued by the possibilities of Will Yeatman (sp?). He is a tall, rangy and an athletic prospect that will take a few years in the training room but has the physical gifts to make an outstanding tackle prospect within a few years.

Question 6: Are they (the board coaches) believers in the "prevent defense". I would like to know if the defensive coaches really believe the prevent defense is a good strategy for holding a lead in the 4th quarter. I would also like to know if the offensive coaches fear the prevent defense when trying to mount a 4th quarter comeback. So many times it seems that the prevent defense back-fires. In fact, the prevent defense has failed so many times in big games that most fans I know firmly believe "the prevent defense prevents you from winning". Why do so many defensive coaches abandon what has worked all game in favor of this historically flawed 4th quarter strategy? It drives me crazy!

Response: 1
I understand the frustration of the questioner, since losing a game as the clock is winding down hurts far more than getting pasted. Yet, the whole aspect of what defense to use as the game nears completion is a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation that all coaches deal with. I've watched my favorite pro and college teams lose games in the last few minutes playing the prevent defense. I've also seen them lose being burned by the blitz.

I've used the prevent defense at times, and I've shunned it at times. For me there is no set answer. It's a feel type of thing, one based on film study, scouting, and the way the game has progressed up to that point.

There are several things to look at when deciding on implementing a prevent defense. First I look at my personnel and their personnel. Do they have a burner, or other threats, that can potentially beat our defense for the big play, or have we clamped them successfully during the game? How well does their QB avoid the rush and what kind of runner is he? Where does the opponent have the ball? How much time is left on the clock? What type of two-minute offense does the opponent have? What have we planned for this situation? I imagine all coaches make their decision based on the above criteria, with a little bit of intuition, or hunch, that they have at the time.

If the opponent is deep in their own territory, with little time to go, specifically under a minute, chances are I'm going to use it. My decision on this would involve field position, time, personnel, how we pressured the QB throughout the game, and what kind of runner he may be. If I'm confident in what we've done throughout the game, I'd continue with the base defense with one exception, that being the kind of two-minute offense the opponent has. That exception is a key point, because the opponent's two minute offense is usually not what you saw throughout the game. It weighs heavy on what you chose to implement defensively. Also, one can be in a prevent defense and change up, come out of the prevent defense, and send the house after the QB.

At any rate, if you are not successful stopping their offense in the waning moments of a game with the defense you've been playing the whole game, the prevent defense, or blitzing, then you're left open to second guessing. It's the nature of the beast in being a coach..

Remember that the coach must make his decision during the heat of the moment, under the gun of his job being on the line, the assistants urging him to do one thing or another, and based on the criteria I mentioned above. If it works, he's a hero, if not, he's a bum. Catch 22.

I never feared any defense when behind. What I feared was the clock. Any defense can be successfully attacked, if you have the time. As an offensive coordinator you should have confidence that you can score on any defense, and that confidence needs to be exhibited to, and instilled in the players, or they will not perform with confidence.

Response: 2
I grew up worshipping "Da Bears" and their attacking 46 defense. I'm a big believer in pressuring the QB. But the prevent defense has its place as well.

We've all watched games where a defense had great success by pressuring the QB for 3 1/2 quarters, then became passive and either lost the game or barely held on to win. But I believe we've also watched hundreds of games where the prevent defense worked perfectly and preserved the win. I would imagine it's very likely we forget these situations because the game wasn't memorable. The team was ahead entering the fourth quarter won, and there was no late-game excitement.

The DC's job is to win the game, not preserve a great total defense ranking or a shutout. Late in the game, the DC is often "playing the percentages." With a lead, whether big or small, he has to decide what scheme gives his team the best chance to preserve the win. His thought process can be the following: "They have a lot of field to cover; time is on our side (as the clock continues to wind down); if we play it safe, they will need to be almost flawless in the short passing game, always get out of bounds or get each first down to stop the clock; they are likely to make a mistake or two, and that will get us the win." The percentages tell him it is his best chance to win. Even if pressuring the QB has been successful all game long, it only takes one mistake by a DB who doesn't have adequate help over the top by a safety to cost the team the game.

At the high school level, it's even more effective. Most high school teams don't have advanced passing offenses, so it is very unlikely they will be able to complete the multiple short passes needed to move the ball down the field. But at the college and pro level, that advantage disappears.

On a more technical side, many other factors come into play. The personnel available to the DC will be a major factor. If a team has good zone players, and these players are sure tacklers, the prevent defense is a good option. The talent level of the opposing QB, and his ability to scramble are also important.

However, I'd like to add that as a fan, I hate watching the prevent as much as everyone else. It can be drive a fan crazy. The best DC's know when to mix things up and send pressure, even late in a game. But I do believe the prevent gets a bit of a bad rap, as all of us have "kicked the dog" after watching our teams blow a lead playing prevent, but we quickly forget when the prevent defense works.

Response: 3
It depends what you mean by prevent defense and how close the game is. However, in general I am opposed to a three DL, no rush, drop eight into coverage defense. I prefer a two-deep, five under scheme with some route disruption in which the corners are well coached in running deep and playing quarters if necessary. If your team has been playing good, sound defense all game, I see no reason to jump into a prevent. QBs and WRs at the college and pro level are too adept at busting zone coverages. Defense is meant to be played aggressively. I think that a prevent defense makes defenders less aggressive.

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