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Wisconsin: Developing a Defensive Game Plan

by: Dave Aranda
Defensive Coordinator, University of Wisconsin
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In preparing a defensive game plan, there will be many things to take into consideration as you study your opponent. There will be many questions that you must answer about the opposing offense and your defense in order to put together a solid game plan. Below are several key points and areas that must be considered as you watch the game film and cut-ups. By “Defining” and “Identifying” your opponent’s offense you can begin to formulate your game plan:

Define the Offense by:

    I.  Situation
        •  Down and Distance
        •  Field Position
        •  Game Clock

    II.  Personnel
        •  Groupings (21, 20, 11, etc.)
        •  Match-Ups
            A.  Strength (Run and Pass)
            B.  Weakness (Run and Pass)
            C.  Specialist
    III.  Formations
        •  Pro, Twins, Trips, etc.
        •  Backfield Sets
        •  Shifts
        •  Motion
    IV.  Runs
        •  Down and distance (Field Position)
        •  Personnel
        •  Formations
            A.  Shifts
            B.  Motion
            C.  Match-ups

    -  Inside Running Game
        •  Blocking Scheme
        •  Techniques

    -  Outside Running Game
        •  Blocking Scheme
        •  Techniques

    -  Running Game Based on Situations
        •  From the Passing Game (Draw)
        •  Coming Out
        •  Red Zone
        •  Short Yardage
        •  Goal Line
        •  Two Minute
        •  Four Minute
    -  Gimmicks (Reverses)

    V.  Passing
        •  Down and Distance
        •  Nickel
        •  Red Zone
        •  Short Zone
        •  Goal Line

    -  Personnel Formations
        •  Under Center
        •  Shotgun
        •  Shifts
        •  Motion

    -  Match Ups – Best Coverage Match Ups
        •  Who to double?
        •  Who to roll up to?
        •  Who to single?
            A.  Is the TE a factor?
            B.  How do they use their backs?

    -  Pass Action
        •  3, 5, and 7 step Drop Back
        •  Flow Pass
        •  Play Action
        •  Boot and Dash

    -  Pass Blocking (Protection Schemes)
        •  3 Man Rush
        •  4 Man Rush
        •  Zone Blitzes
        •  Man Blitzes
        •  Hot Reads
        •  Gimmicks (screens and shovel passes)

    - 2 Minute Offense (Hurry Up)

Identify within the Offense

    I.  Personnel Match Ups
        (Strengths and Weaknesses)
        •  Blocking
        •  Coverage

    II.  Tendencies
        •  Down and Distance
        •  Field Position
        •  Personnel
        •  Formation
        •  Shifts
        •  Motion

    III.  Reactions to
        •  Defensive Fronts
        •  Coverage Shells
        •  Blitz Alignments

Once you feel comfortable with your assessment of your opponent, you can begin to put your game plan together.

Game Tapes and Cut Ups

The best source for information is obviously the game tapes. When watching game tapes you should watch not just your opponent’s most recent games, but also games in which they faced teams with similar defenses to yours. You should watch for what success a defense is having versus your opponent and how what they are doing correlates to what you do on defense. Look for how subtle things affect an offense and how they react. Does movement and showing blitz affect them? Does the quarterback look to audible? Do they reset their fronts? Check their play calls? Do they reset their backs or do receivers realign? These are a sampling of things to look for as you watch the actual game tapes.

As you get to the cut ups, things will become more specific and detail oriented. You will be able to see how they react to personnel, down and distance, formations, field position, (coming out, red zone, goal line) and game time situations (4 minute, 2 minute). You will be able to see if they like to play match up with personnel and what tendencies they have on specific down and distance situations. Do they want to run on first down by being in 21 personnel or another personnel grouping? Do they anticipate blitz on second and long and get into a max protect alignment? Do they bring out a specific personnel group hoping for a mismatch, or even align in, shift to or motion into a specific formation to put you into a front or coverage that they can exploit? How do they attack particular blitz looks and how do they try to protect against them?

As you view the game tapes and cut ups, you will be able to gather the information needed in order to answer these specific game plan questions. Then you can begin to decide what personnel groups are best to use in particular situations to stop their running game and passing game. What fronts and stunts are best against their particular blocking scheme? What coverage is best against their passing attack? What particular pass rush and stunts are best versus their particular pass protection? What type of zone blitzes and man blitzes should you use for run downs and passing situations? All these specific questions must be answered as you put the game plan together.

Run Game

For the most part, a defense’s run front is reflected in the philosophy of the head coach and/or coordinator. When attacking an offense it is important to understand what they want to do offensively and what their philosophy against particular fronts is.

Do they prefer to run inside or outside based on your personnel and your front? Do they want to “wash” a gap control front? Who are they going to trap? Do they want to run counters versus a two-gap control front? Do they want to run misdirection versus LB’s that read the flow of the backs to determine which gaps they have strongside or weakside. Knowing whether or not an offense is a strongside or weakside run team will allow for specific fronts, stunts, and run blitzes. If they are a lead scheme team (Run or Pass) keying the FB will take your LB’s to the ball. You would be better off with the LB’s in a 2-gap front and your D-Line in a “gap control” front for good run support and good pass rush get off.

Having a feel for what situation and what down and distance tendencies they have would allow you to put your defense in a 7-man or 8-man front. Disguising your coverage, force and run support is also vital in not allowing the QB to have a pre-snap read in order to prevent him from making an audible. The defense must take into consideration how they want to react to one-and two-back offensive run schemes. Some offenses will implement a one-back scheme. By going to a “one back”, the offense is trying to see how the defense will react. Will the defense remove a LB from the box and be gap deficient, or will they keep 8 in the box and make themselves vulnerable to an outside pass? That is why it is important that the defense have a “single gap” eight-man front mode which will give each man one gap to fill no matter which direction the ball goes. This allows them to be able to help in underneath coverage.

After evaluating your opponent’s offense, its strengths and weaknesses, it is vital for the coaches to decide on the defenses that would best utilize your personnel, allowing them to play with confidence and minimizing the opportunity for mistakes.

Passing Game

It must be determined what type of passing game you are going to be facing. Does this offense employ a “West Coast” style of offense? Are they a “Play-Action” team? Do they like to go vertical? Is “Boot” a big part of who they are? What routes do they run versus 2 deep, 3 deep and quarters coverage? Combination coverage? Man coverage? What do they do based on down and distance? What about field position, personnel, game situations, and formations? Is there a particular player that we must pay special attention to? Can they force a mismatch? If they motion or shift will they force the defense to adjust and put you at a disadvantage, or can you check your coverage?

The coverage you use should be based on what you do best in a specific situation. Is there a specific player that needs to be taken away by rolling up the zone to him or doubling him in man coverage? If a team does not have a superior receiver, then the defense must look at what routes need to be defended. If they read cover 2, are they going to try to split the safeties? And if so, then you will have to carry the number 2 receiver vertical. If you are in an eight man front with a 3 deep zone on first down, will they go 4 vertical and attack the seams? If they do, your flat defenders will have to carry vertical. Certain route combinations will also pose specific problems for a specific coverage, so you will have to work specific techniques for the LB’s and DB’s to take away the options within these route combinations.

Man coverage is clear cut. Know the match ups and who can be covered one-on-one and who has to be doubled. In man coverage it is important for the defender to understand where the help is coming from and force the receiver to help.

Another big factor into what types of coverage to be in is going to be the pass protection used. How good is their pass protection? Is there a weak link to their offensive line that can be exploited? Is their pass protection flawed? Do they have trouble with certain stunts? Do they slide their front? Do they man protect? Scan protect? Do they keep their backs in? Do they max protect? Or, do they get into a max look? Do they use 3, 5, or 7-step drop? Do their routes demand that the QB get it off on time? A certain coverage will affect the pass plays they will use.

Zone Blitzes and Man Blitzes

Another aspect of the game that needs to be addressed is how to effectively use zone blitzes and man blitzes. Offenses have tendencies that are based on down and distance, by personnel and formations, and even by field position. So, some ZB’s and MB’s can be used to stop the run and others can be used to get additional pressure on a QB and force an early throw.

Understanding how and when an offense is vulnerable to zone blitz or blitz in general will allow you to have a feel as to what type of blitz to use. That is, a run stopping blitz or a passing blitz. For instance, if a team has a tendency to run the ball on second and short, a run-stopping blitz can be very effective. Are they an inside running team or an outside running team? You do not want to run an outside blitz and have the ball run inside. If a team has a tendency to throw the ball on second and long using a 5 or 7-step drop, then a pass blitz would be effective.

Understanding how they run block and pass protect versus blitzes can help to determine which blitzes can be most effective. If they slide one way or the other it would be good to bring four form the opposite side. If they scan protect then bringing 3 by 3 is a must. If a team keeps a back into block then a “Blitz the Back” could be very effective forcing a Back to block a  LB or D-Lineman. You must understand how they will react in a passing situation as well. Knowing how they sight adjust and who the “hot” receiver is can help to put you into the right type of blitz and coverage.


Understanding what a QB s going to do when he gets under center is important to the defense. It will allow the coaches an opportunity to anticipate an audible and thus prepare how the defense will react to that audible. The defense can hold or disguise their movement so as not to tip off its front coverage or a possible blitz thus not allowing a QB chance to audible. It will also give the coaches an opportunity to put some false keys into the game plan for the QB to look at and possibly fooling him into a bad audible. It is vital to understand what teams tendencies are in certain situations or how they have reacted to certain defensive looks in the past. These are clues as to why and when a team will audible.


There are many questions about your opponent that must be answered before you can begin to compile a list of defenses to consider for your game plan. As you evaluate your opponent and identify their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the tendencies they have you can begin to shape the list of defensive plays that you wish to install that week. As you know you must compile a game plan that will be effective versus specific personnel groupings and what front and coverage can be best versus those personnel groupings.

You must know how the offense wants you to react to substitutions, shifts and/or motions, and how you are going to attack them. You should have a good feel for what they want to do when you are in a 7-man or 8-man front and playing zone or man coverage, or how they react to when you are some form of blitz scheme. Also you must understand what they are going to do in certain down and distance situations and how you are going to attack in those situations.

There must be a decisive plan for when you get into critical field positions such as “coming out”, “red zone” and “goal line”. A mistake in these critical areas can be the difference between winning and losing. Game time situations are also critical because of the nature of having to either get the ball back or not allowing them to kill the clock. Remember that when you are installing your game plan, the more carryover and the limited amount of adjustments and rules you have, the easier it will be for the players to retain and learn the new game plan.

So, in your game plan book there should be a number of “Core” fronts and coverage that will define the type of defense you will be employing versus specific down and distance, game situations and personnel groupings. These defenses will serve a good “Base” for you to build your game plan with. You should look at these defenses and decide how to best utilize them versus this week’s opponent. You may have to rely on checks and adjustments that are built into the defense versus a team that likes to shift and motion. Or perhaps use an automatic front and coverage or blitz the formation versus the formations that the offense may align in. These will allow the players to put themselves into the best possible fronts, coverage, stunt or blitzes.

By trying to maintain the integrity of the schemes that your players are familiar with and have had success with you can simplify the teaching process. So, without having to make too many adjustments or create too many new rules and techniques for the players to learn you can limit the number of practice reps and the amount of meeting time needed to teach. There will be a defense or two that you will find you need to install new or with some different rules or techniques. But, since there is some carryover with your core plays you will be able to spend more time on a smaller number of “New” defensive plays that will need extra work.

About the Author: In 2015, Dave Aranda enters his third season as both inside linebackers coach and defensive coordinator at Wisconsin. He previously was the defensive coordinator at Utah State University. A graduate of Cal Lutheran, Aranda has also coached at his alma mater as well as Houston, Texas Tech, Delta State and Hawaii.


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