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Poetic Justice

The Poets of Whittier College Prepare Defensive Linemen Using Tendencies
by: Gifford Lindheim
Former Defensive Line Coach, Whittier College
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My job as defensive line coach is to help my players attain our team goals, our defensive goals, and their individual goals. One of the ways I do this is by preparing them during the week for situations they may encounter during the game. On Saturdays, I do not want them thinking; I want them reacting. For this reason, I am very careful with respect to what I expose them to during the week. I try to keep it simple.

At Whittier College, we are not blessed with a myriad of technology at our disposal. In fact, most of our breakdowns are done by hand. We chart our opponents using every offensive play and filling out a form that defines down, distance, field position, formation, yards gained/loss, and the play run. We draw in the play as we see it in the box adjacent to the play formation (see the play chart). After charting the opponent, we split the responsibilities and prepare a scouting report for the players. The report is detailed, yet streamlined into main categories.

Down & Distance Recognition

Between the time one play is ran and a new one is begun, players must find what the down and distance is for the next snap. Just knowing the down and distance, you may be able to cut the playbook in half or more. For example, third and short is a down where defensive linemen can focus on stopping certain run plays. Conversely, second and short might have more options for the offense, such as play action passes. Usually, I can give my guys at least one down and distance tendency per game. I can take the offensive element of surprise out of the game for two, five or 10 plays per game. It is an opportunity for the defensive line to be confident and “play fast.”

Example second and long= RB screen as a favorite play.

Field Position/Hash Tendencies

One of the tendencies that I look for in evaluating our opponent is to examine the coaching personality of the opposite staff. After watching enough tape, I can get an understanding for how coaches respond to field position. Some coaches get conservative in the red zone. Some coaches do not change their offense at all. In general, the red zone and third down forces coaches to use plays that they have had success with in the past. I try to relate coaching tendencies to my players. I call it their “field position personality.” In crucial moments look for these plays run out of these formations.

The red zone is one vital personality area and the other is when teams are backed up in their own end of the field. If I can relate an opponent's field position personality to my players, it gives them an opportunity to be a pro-active player juxtaposed to being reactive.

A tendency that our defensive coordinator feels strongly about is hash mark tendencies. Some teams are field or boundary oriented. Some teams are right-handed and some are left-handed depending on personnel groupings or packages. For instance, some teams will not boot leg a QB to his non-throwing arm. Some coaches run power plays behind a dominant guard or tackle and counter plays to the other side so they can pull that same player. We certainly would like to know those tendencies. We look for strong tendencies and try to communicate those to our players in an easy to understand and effective manner. A hash tendency breakdown will reveal any tendencies.

Example: Left hash= 70% run to the field side.

Formation Recognition

The one tendency that I look for the most is formational tendencies. This includes formations used and plays run from those formations; motion is treated separately. Oftentimes, offenses divulge huge tendencies by the type of motion used and when it is employed. It is a tremendous advantage for players to know that their opponent's playbook has been shrunk by motion. On film and during a game, we look for audible cues. Some teams have audible tendencies. For example, some teams will audible to max protect and two-man routes. In general, we have the playbook narrowed after the QB calls an audible. As much as an offense may try to disguise how they are presenting the same play, ultimately they are bound to a preference they have shown in the past. Formation recognition allows players to play calculated odds. Each and every week, I look for a formation recognition tendency that our players can “hang their hat on.” It gives them confidence which will, in turn, lead to better performance.

Example: I-formation= 80% run (favorite play=lead weak) 20% pass (play action)

Man Recognition

The final tendency before the snap of the ball that the DL should evaluate is the weight distribution of the OL in front of them. OL are big and strong guys who tend to tip plays by placing too much weight forward (run play) or too much weight backwards (pass play). By observing an OL, one cannot only help determine his actions but possibly that of the whole line.

Communication among members of the defense is of paramount importance. If all four DL (and possibly LB) shout out “light” or “heavy” calls, the defense can anticipate pass (light all the way across), run (heavy all the way across) or some type of counter play (light on one side and heavy on the other). Man recognition is something to be emphasized during practice. It is a habit that can greatly help DL. Psychologically, offenses get frustrated when they hear defensive players calling out plays before they are run.

Example: LG tips his pull on the counter.

Watching Film

Many coaches differ on how they like to watch film. Every staff has its own preferences among staff members. I like to watch the opponent's entire game. I like to watch both sides of the ball because I feel it gives me insight into the coach's personality. I want to know things like how did the offense get the ball back. Some coaches will have tendencies after obtaining possession in certain ways. For example, some coaches will go for the home run after a turnover. Some coaches are ultra-aggressive near the end of the first half, etc. How do they play when they fall behind? What about when they take the lead? How do they play in certain field positions? I will have the players involved in watching film by having them callout formations, upcoming play and tendencies recognized – it keeps them involved and excited.

Example: The Offense starts each half in a no-huddle look.

Position Analysis

I streamline the information that my DL must know each week. There is a delicate balancing act between acting on tendencies and becoming paralyzed by them. How much information can player digest and assimilate each week? Generally, it depends on the players' football IQ. I will give the DL the three to five strongest tendencies we have. We review them in meetings and at practice. Sometimes with a DL that has a great football IQ, I might increase it to five to nine tendencies to look for in a week. For a weak football IQ, it may be only one play tendency to focus on for a given opponent.

One way that I try to prevent overload is to prepare each DL position for specific plays that attack them. I want my players to anticipate the plays that attack them and react to the plays that do not. Positional analysis allows DL to narrow their scope, play aggressively and beat plays designed to attack them.


As coaches, our job is to prepare the players to perform to the utmost of their ability. You do not have to have all of the technology of the NFL to give your players an advantage. I see my job as one of being a strainer of information. There is a delicate balance that takes place for all coaches when deciding how much information to include in a game plan. Remember, it is not how much a player knows; it is how much the players need to know to play their best on Saturday.


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