We won't get into specifics like defensive fronts, but rather the basic talent characteristics required to stop a Spread offense. Anyway, a team can stop the Spread with more than one front or alignment so we'll not focus on which is better (odd front vs. even front, sliding to strength or away from strength, slanting, angling, cover 2, cover 3, combo coverages). We'll leave that to the coaches. you can apply these fundamentals to any defensive alignment that you run.
Defensive Team Speed
It's obvious when you look at the landscape of both the college or high school game that players like West Virginia's Pat White and Noel Devine, Appalachian State's Armanti Edwards, incoming Ohio State freshman Terrelle Pryor, and Florida Gator Percy Harvin have all required defenses to have fast, athletic players to match the speed of these great athletes. These guys have effective "football speed" - they can run fast in a straight line, but can also run fast, stop, then re-start again at a rapid rate. They've got change of direction speed, the ability to accelerate, decelerate, then re-accelerate at a rapid pace. In recruiting evaluations the "pro shuttle" has become increasingly more important in determining quickness. The drill measures lateral movement from point A-to-B-to-C, then back to A. It also measures an athlete's ability to stop and start. Anything below 4.1 seconds is considered quite good. Just about all of the Owls current 2009 skill position players are below this mark.
Is a player born with this? Some are for sure. Can a player work on this type of speed? No doubt! It's called change of direction training and incorporates "deceleration training" in a lot of cases.
Excellent Open Field Tacklers
The one big thing a Spread offense try's to exploit is the need for defenses to be in open space. Sometimes if an Offense can just accomplish having even numbers at the point of attack they takes away the classic 'gang tackling' concept that so many defensive coaches preach. It's much harder to gang tackle when you're spread all across the field. Spread offenses look to create isolation for defenders.
Working on an open field, solid individual tackling is critical for defenses. The ability to break down in the open field, make good contact, then "grab cloth" as you bring down the offensive player are important fundamentals to teach 2nd level players (Linebackers and Defensive backs).
One very simple part of being a good open field tackler is teaching the defender to have their head up, and eyes open right up to impact. This may sound simple, but in individual drills at practice you can ask players how many of them close their eyes right before contact, and you'll be surprised at the response. It's a natural human reaction to close your eyes before any contact and football is no different, but you need to change that if you want your players to be good open field tacklers.
Angles of pursuit are also critical, and not just the game saving angles of pursuit, you need to work on the intermediate angles of pursuit, and what to do when you get there (tackle and then strip)then be ready to deliver an open field blow. We always practice angles of pursuit with our youth defenses.
Gap Responsibility and Pursuit Discipline
The great Denver Bronco teams of the late 90's gave defenses fits with their zone blocking scheme and the ability of Terrell Davis to cut back on over pursuing defenses. Now in 2008, you're seeing the same thing at the college and high school levels. Spread offense "zone" teams do the same thing to over aggressive defenses who fly in over the top to get the zone hand-off, only to get burned by either the tailback cutting back against the pursuit, or the QB (soemone like Pat White who's now the best athlete on the team and one of the fastest) tucking it on the zone read and bootlegging the other way.
To play against a Spread offense a defense must be very disciplined in gap responsibility and pursuit. That ability is learned and repeated over and over in practice. It needs to be worked on in individual, group, and team settings.
A Defense must have confidence that all 11 players believe in the other 11, and "if I do my job the team will benefit". Aggressiveness is still important to any defense, but pursuit angles should never pass the ball carriers 'inside' pocket or armpit at your level.
Once they pass your level, you need to fly to the ball, because a cutback at that point is not a concern at your responsibility level.
If the ball is coming your way (play side), you still need to keep your outside arm free and never give the corner, again believing in your play side teammates that they're pursuing and your backside teammates that they're pursuing at the correct angles. South Florida did a great job of this against West Virginia the past two seasons.
Next week we'll discuss defending the Spread offense passing game...
With excerpts from Mark Colyer, High School football coach