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Let’s Talk Football: Defensive Play Calls

By Coach Tom Bass Thu, 08/05/2010 - 7:39am

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George sent the following question:

I coach 11-12 year olds, and this is the first year we will use play calling from the sideline. We run a 4-3 and a 4-4 on defense. We blitz a linebacker or a safety on occasion, and I plan on doing stunts for the defensive front line. Any advice on how to effectively call plays that is not too complicated?

Hi George,

My feeling is that your defensive play call should have a natural rhythm and sequence that is easy to say and is constant throughout the year.

An example of a call for us would be: 34 Pinch Cover 2.

The first part of the call always referred to the configuration for our front defense. In your case this would be 4-3 or 4-4. This was an alert for any player who was not on the front called to head for the sideline. This would be your base defense and gap assignments.

The second part of the call Pinch was reserved for any line action, linebacker blitz or secondary blitz. We tried to have one word describe the action (Pinch) that we were going to use on that play.

For us, Pinch told all of our two defensive ends (3-4) to pinch to their inside gap. In your case using four DL, all your defensive linemen would drive into the gap on their inside and get penetration across the line of scrimmage (LOS).

You might also use 4-3 Slant Right Cover 3. A Slant (followed by a direction) call for your defensive linemen would tell your two defensive tackles to slant into the gap in the direction of the call (right or left) and the DE on the side of the call to slant to the gap in the direction of the call.

Another call might be 4-4 Twist Left Cover 3. The Twist Left call would tell the defensive end on the left to drive into the gap to their inside and the left DT to step up two steps and then come around behind the charge of the defensive end on a two player stunt.

If we ever wanted to change the order of the stunt as to who goes first and second, we merely added the word "Change" after Twist and then the tackle knew to drive first into the gap on their outside and the end to take two steps forward and then come around behind the charge of the DT.

We found through the years that we had much fewer mistakes when we employed this method rather that adding a new term to change the order of the stunt.

In our 3-4 defense, we named each of our linebackers: Sam (strong side outside), Will (weak side outside), Mike (strong side inside), Mac (weak side inside).

If we wanted to blitz a linebacker, we would use their designated name and the call might be: 34 Will Cover 2. Will told our team that the weak side outside linebacker (Will) was going to blitz across the LOS on the snap coming hard from the outside. Everyone else would play normal defense. A variation of this call might be Will Pinch where the DL on weak side would pinch inside to go with the blitz.

When we wanted a stunt with the Will backer and the defensive end on that side of the formation our call would be Will X-IT. Now our Will would charge first driving hard behind the OT and the DE would take two steps forward and then come around behind and to the outside of the Will backer's charge. Again, if we wanted the end to go first and the backer to come behind, we would add the word "Change" following X-IT.

All of our backer blitzes were called in this manner. If we call a Mike or Mac blitz, the backer would charge straight ahead and read the flow of the backs to determine which gap to run through. In your 4-3, you could do this with your MLB (Mike) to either side of the center, but you will have to designate the gap (inside or outside the guard) in your 4-4 defense so that the blitzing backer and the DT do not run into one another.

When we wanted to blitz more that one linebacker, we came up with a new term: Sam & Will = Saw, Sam & Mike = Smike, Sam & Mac = Smack, Mike & Will = Millie, Mac & Will = Wally. A typical call might be: 34 Saw Cover 1.

If we brought a defensive back, we used the designation of Cat to designate a corner blitz (followed by left or right), Hound to designate a strong safety blitz and Fox to designate a free safety blitz. A Cat or Hound blitz always came hard from the outside of the formation on the snap of the ball while our Fox blitz would normally be in one of the guard-center gaps. A typical call might be: 34 Hound Cover 3.

Finally you will give your pass coverage call. Typically going into a game we wanted a two deep zone coverage (Cover Two) and a linebacker blitz with two deep (Will Cover Two), a three deep zone coverage (Cover Three) and a linebacker blitz with three deep (Sam Cover Three), a man coverage with a free safety (Cover One) and a linebacker blitz with man coverage and a free safety (Mike Cover One), and a man coverage without a free safety with two linebackers on a blitz (Smack Cover Zero). You may not need all of these variations in coverage, but you need to keep an accurate list of what you will be using in your play call.

You will want to develop your own terms that have meaning to you and your players, but I really believe the system that I have outlined is not complicated. It will work, and it can be consistent for you all through the season.

First, the front: 4-3 or 4-4. Second, any change in line assignments or stunts, any type of linebacker blitz or any defensive back blitz. Finally, the pass defense coverage that your team will use for the play.

Start with your base defense and call it in this manner and then as you add new segments to your defense, you will have the appropriate place to add them to your defensive play call.

Don't be in a hurry to get everything in. If your players are making mental errors, stop adding new material for a while. Remember you only have a certain amount of time to practice and you never want to make a call in a game for a defense that you have not had time to teach and practice effectively.

I also tried to remind myself that it was not what I knew that counted but it was what my players knew and understood that that made the difference.

Coach Tom Bass

Coach Tom Bass, a 30-year NFL Coach and the technical writer and advisor for USA football, is also the author of several highly acclaimed football coaching books, including "Play Football the NFL Way" (St. Martin's Press) the only authorized NFL coaching book, "Football Skills and Drills" (Human Kinetics) and "The New Coaches Guide to Youth Football Skills and Drills" (McGraw Hill). If you would like to order a personalized autographed copy of Coach Bass' books, copies of his printed In-Depth Coaching Clinics, or NFL or College Sport Maps, please visit