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MHR University - Some Tricks for Reading a Defense


As a former defensive coordinator, it pains me to share how those evil offensive coordinators go after the noble defenses in football. But heck, we're all friends here, right?

There are two levels of breaking down a defense. The first level is tactical. This is looking at indivdual players to determine intent. I'm not going into this aspect today. A lot has been written and discussed about this level, and I'll save it for another day. In simple terms, a tactical read of a defense includes things like a QB or OLman reading a blitz. This might be the result of a LB cheating up to the LOS (line of scrimmage). It might be a clue from game film that when a certain player does something small (like the way his left foot is turned, or the angle at which his arm is bent) unintentionaly signals what he is going to do. Coordinators on the same team watch for these "tells" so they can inform their counterpart of the weakness.

But I want to get away from the player level reads, and clue you in on coordinator level reads (strategic reads). The booth is looking at pictures, as is the coach, the OFF coordinator, as well as the QB and his position coach. Why? You see it on TV all of the time, and now we'll tear down the mystery.

Read on...

Many of the strategic level reads done by the offense can't be done in real time. With a tactical read ("strategic" and "tactical" are my own terms to simplify the material) an offense gets immediate benefit. They know who is blitzing, or who is covering who. But the advantage is short lived, and lasts for the play.

The wider read is more difficult, but pays dividends for several plays or for the entire game. In some cases, a good read can last for several games between division opponents until the other team wises up.

One example of coordinators getting a read is using "man in motion". There are many reasons to put a man in motion, and a future University article will probably go in that direction. Sometimes a MIM is used to place a TE where he can block a rush (based on a tactical read), or to trick a team into shifting the defense to the wrong place. Maybe the TE is moving out to catch instead of block. In the case of a receiver, it may be to take advantage of a weakness in a defense. When RBs shift (either th HB or FB) it may signal an elaborate run blocking set up, or a switch between pass blocking and going out for a screen. But a MIM is not always what it appears to be! Sometimes it is used to get a read on the defense.

One of the favorite tricks in the bag of an advanced OC is to use MIM to get a read on the defense. Consider some of these reads that one can gain from a motion.

1. If a player goes in motion, and his "cover" doesn't move with him, the cover is in zone. Continuing the motion across the field, the motion player can also force other players on the defense to stand or move and clue the coordinator into who zones and who doesn't on certain plays.

2. A MIM also tells an OC if the defense is using MAN-1 or MAN-2 coverage. This has nothing to do with double coverage, and sometimes an uninformed sportswriter makes the mistake of thinking MAN-2 means such. In fact, there are two ways a defensive coordinator uses man coverage. Let's explore this in more detail.

Man-1 is a simple "man on man" coverage. If my TE motions to the other side of the line, his cover (let's say it's the SS) follows him across all of the way. AH! But if the defensive coordinator uses MAN-2, it means the defensive players switch off coverage as the TE moves across.

This is rarer and more advanced, but works for some schemes and situations. Let's say the TE is in motion from the strong side to the weakside. As he moves across, the strong safety follows him to a point. When the TE reaches the SAM, perhaps the SS drops back into zone, and the SAM now follows (and covers) the TE. As they pass the MLB, the SAM moves back to his original assignment, and covers (let's say) the FB, and the MLB now move with and covers the TE. The defensive players call verbaly to assure that everyone knows when the assignment is handed off.

The read you can get from determining MAN-1 versus MAN-2 are huge, but take some time to develop on the sideline. Perhaps the verbal handoff in a MAN-2 scheme is weak between a couple of defensive players, and the OC can advise the QB to time the snap count to "snap" at the precise moment the two (poorly coordinated) defensive players switch the assignment. Also, the read can help the coordinator figure out exactly what kind of plays and assignments come from certain formations in certain "down and distance" situations.

There are many other applications, but those are just some of the reads you can get just from a man on motion. Yes, sometimes a MIM is called for the sole purpose of getting a read, and not for an advantage on the play.

What other tricks are used? One trick used by coordinators involves using game time photos to determine the shape and size of a zone used by a defensive player. Guess what? Human beings playing in zone do not zone in a perfect circle or square, nor do they do they zone for a perfect number of yards specified by the play. No two players zone exactly alike. Want a bizzare example of just how deep this "signature zone" goes?

At one of the coaching seminars our coaches flew to, we saw a college level coordinator (not even a pro level guy folks) show us a film. It showed professional defensive players (DBs and LBs) in zone, but the body was "whited out" by computer. The film showed multiple plays where the player kept his zone or went after a target. Based on the player's moves, a computer generated line appeared that showed the player's zone limits. Get this: there were coaches in the room able to read who the player was based on the shape of the zone. This was shown with several players as examples. Another facinating point was that the same player could be shown, but using entirely different example plays (even plays he ran with a different team). The shape of the zone remained the same, and unique to the player.

The point of the demonstration was interesting. Apparently, you can't really teach a guy to change much about how he zones an area in terms of size and shape. But I took something else form the demonstration. Plays can be designed to take advantage of a player's zone limits. After the class, I asked the gentleman doing the presentation if this was the case. "No, not at the college level", he said. "But the pros sure as hell do it".

How's a defensive coach to adjust? That's for another article. For now, a few quick pointers would include

  1. Excellent execution, regardless of what the opponent knows.
  2. Sending "false tells".
  3. Change the playbook every now and then (Listening Coyer?)
  4. Ask the OC to do reads on your defense when he has time (ask the head coach to make him!)
  5. Use (are you ready for this?) tricks of your own to read the offense!

Entire books could be written on how offenses read entire plays. Unfortunately, there isn't a wide enough market for the books, or enough time and space for a single MHR-U article. I've just given a few examples here of reads the pros use. The HS level I was at clearly wasn't this in depth.

But the next time you see the QB looking at those photos, you'll know he isn't looking at the same formations over and over again. He's looking at a series of photos from a single play, and seeing how the defense runs the play. There are typically marks on the photos from the coaching staff of things picked up on for the QB to be aware of. These are the strategic level reads that have been generated over several plays (or games) that show tendancies (soft reads) or consistent actions (hard reads) of the other team.


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