Correcting Mistakes: Effective halftime defensive adjustmentsby: Matt Fulks
© January 2006
Fifteen minutes. A short amount of time, especially when you’re trying to sum up how your defense performed during the first 30 minutes and determining how to approach the next 30.
Despite the short amount of time, halftime strategies vary from coach to coach. But Mickey Andrews, the long-time defensive coordinator at Florida State, looks at it another way. “Each football game is like a test in the classroom,” he said, “but there you don’t get to go in, take 30 minutes on your test, get a 15-minute break to talk about it with other people, and then go back in and finish the same test. But that’s football. It’s about two halves and determining in the first half how a team is trying to attack you that day.”
The secret to effective halftime adjustments is organization. Not only in the locker room, but also during the first half.
“The biggest key is to try to adjust as the game’s in progress. Also, get accurate information,” says Linfield College defensive coordinator Joe Smith. “If you do those two things, you can limit the adjustments needed at halftime. One thing we try to do as the game’s going on has been keeping a record of what’s hurting us. … Then, at halftime, you can review those adjustments quickly and make the necessary changes if needed.”
TIME MANAGEMENT 101
In most successful instances, the first few minutes of halftime gives the players a chance to collect their thoughts, while the coaches assess the team’s play in the first half. “The biggest thing for us is to process the information that we get from the coaches upstairs, particularly a team’s first-down plays,” said Jerry Holmes, the second-year defensive coordinator at Hampton University. “We’ll go through all of that as quickly as possible, make some decisions, and then go in and talk to the team about what we want to do.” For Hampton, Florida State and other schools, that’s less than five minutes.
“Then, we’ll go into the dressing room and let each coach talk with his unit individually for a few minutes,” said Andrews, who completed his 22nd year at Florida State in 2005. “We want our players to see where we were successful, but on the other hand, there might also be some problems that we need to fix.
“After we talk individually and then collectively as a defensive unit, Coach (Bobby) Bowden will take the last four or five minutes to talk with the entire team.”
Some variations to the halftime ritual include the head coach talking with the team during the first few minutes of intermission, while the position coaches determine what, if any, adjustments need to be made. Or, sometimes the defensive coordinator will talk to the unit as a whole before the players break off with segment coaches. Ultimately, you just want your players to have the wherewithal that will help them during the second half.
“As importantly as looking at the first half,” Smith says, “is letting them know what we can expect in the second half. And we get them to believe that this is how we’re going to stop it.”
“It’s not about what you do on the board; it’s about your players doing it on the field and being accountable together,” Andrews said. “Finding a way to affect their approach to the game mentally is what determines so much about how you make halftime adjustments. It’s not nearly as much about X’s and O’s as it is getting in their heads and getting them to play your kind of defensive football.”
MAKING EACH UNIT BECOME ONE
Oftentimes when the units – defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs – split off with their coaches during halftime, the coaches prioritize specific adjustments that need to be made in the second half. Usually, the priorities depend on the defensive plan that week and whether it’s being executed. For the most part, the changes might be as simple as making sure a defensive back is getting the right read on a receiver or that a linebacker seals off a hole before the running back gets there.
At Pearl River Community College in Mississippi, defensive coordinator William Jones goes through a mental checklist for each unit. “The main thing with the defensive line is how the offense is blocking us,” said Jones, who just completed his fifth season at PRCC. “What are their blocking schemes versus the pass and are they doing anything different on the run? Are they zone blocking us or are they loading us, or are they doing a double team? Are they running a lot of power off-tackle stuff? In pass protection, how are they using the back to make sure we don’t get to the quarterback?
“For the linebackers, we’re making sure that they are adjusting to formation and personnel changes. Who do we need to stop and how are we going to do it? With the secondary, because we’re a corner-two team, are the corners re-routing the receivers? Are the safeties adjusting to the formation with their depth?”
Then, for the defensive coordinator, it comes down to making sure that those three units become one on the field. “How do we make each position play better and tie it all together?” Andrews says in much the same way as he would on a Saturday afternoon. “Everything you do in life, or in the classroom, or on the football field, is about attitude. What kind of attitude are you going to carry out to the field in the second half? Then, as a coordinator, it’s not about who has the best player; it’s about whose player plays the best … as a unit.”
“TIGHTEN THE CHIN STRAP” WHEN TIMES ARE TOUGH
The game remains fresh for Pearl River’s William Jones. The Wildcats and their 23-game winning streak, trailed rival Mississippi Gulf Coast 32-6 at halftime during 2005. PRCC simply wasn’t playing well on either side of the ball. At that point for Jones – and most successful coaches when faced with a big halftime deficit – it became a matter of X’s and O’s combined with a different mental approach to the second half.
“We just told the guys how, since we had beaten Gulf Coast by 25 points (in 2004), they were going to try and put it to us,” he said. “We told our guys how their toughness and character and the things they represent were going to come out. We told them to forget about the first half, and just go out and dominate the second half.”
The Wildcats eventually lost that game 55-47, but Jones’ approach to the second half helped his team stay aggressive and in the ballgame.
“We went into that game wanting to do about four things on defense,” Jones said. “At halftime we took a couple things out and just went with two sets. If you’re down in the game and not playing well, you need to narrow the plan to one or two things that you can do well. That gives the kids some confidence coming back. I’ve always believed that a confused player is a non-aggressive player.”
Florida State doesn’t face many blowouts at halftime. When the Seminoles are down or in a close game, however, Andrews and the other coaches have used one phrase to help make a difference. “One constant that we’ve found through the years is that the best adjustment you can make at halftime sometimes is to tell the guys to tighten the chin strap,” he said. “Make it a little tighter and get after your opponent a little harder. Do all of the things that you have to do if you’re going to be a great defense. Sometimes, putting them in a situation to be successful comes down to execution and getting a little more out of a player.”
Unfortunately for every team, injuries play a factor in winning and losing. But what if an injury happens early in the game to the defense’s best player, and he won’t be returning in the second half? “If you lose your star player, one of the dangers is that everyone feels they need to do more,” cautions Smith. “We usually can fix what’s hurting us if it’s just one player. If you have a strong team concept and a cohesive unit, other guys will rise up, and someone will be the natural leader.”
“If we have a guy get hurt, we’ll make the adjustment and do what our personnel allows us to do,” Holmes said matter of factly. “We have so many packages here that we regularly play 19 guys on defense. Everyone has an important role on our team.”
In fact, William Jones and Mickey Andrews echoed similar sentiments. During most of Pearl River’s games in 2005, Jones played all 28 guys on defense. That raises confidence for the coaches and the players. “We prepare the back-ups as if they’re the stars,” Jones said. “How do you know how a guy’s going to react to a crucial situation, such as a goal-line moment in the fourth quarter if he’s never faced it in practice? It may not be identical, but guys shouldn’t be overwhelmed with a sudden change because of an injury.”
“Everybody is important on this team whether he has the label of first-stringer, second-stringer or third-stringer,” said Andrews. “Because if a first-string player goes down, the backup becomes the first-string guy and the third-stringer all of a sudden becomes the backup. We’ve been fortunate in many games to play the backups and even the third-string players.”
STAYING INTENSE WITH A LEAD
Jerry Holmes has been there. During an NFL career as a cornerback with the New York Jets, Detroit and Green Bay, Holmes has been with teams that had a big halftime lead and then went into a prevent defense during much of the second half. “We’d be winning the entire game and then all of a sudden our coach would switch us to a two-minute defense, and teams started picking up yards on us,” Holmes remembers.
So, he didn’t implement that philosophy as Hampton’s defensive coordinator. If Hampton has a big lead at halftime, Holmes doesn’t make drastic changes. Or let up. “Here, we believe in finishing them off,” he said. “We won’t make plans at halftime to sit back and play three or four deep with a big lead.”
As one coaching cliché goes: play the entire game as if the score is 0-0. “Our guys really want to believe in that idea,” said Smith, who’s been Linfield’s defensive coordinator since 1999. “We’ve always used the approach with our defensive team that we’re going to play hard regardless of the score.”
After all, if you have a big lead, why change anything? “You go with what got you there,” says Pearl River’s Jones. “If we have a big lead, our opponent has to beat us with our best call, which should be the one the kids feel they can execute 100 percent of the time.”