Every system needs objectives. Without an objective, I don’t have a tangible metric by which I can determine if my changes are helping or hurting the overall mission.  Once the objectives are identified, then I can focus on practical rules or ideas which will help me accomplish those objectives. Both the rules and objectives are really high level. They aren’t anything that can be applied to the pitch, but rather are the first steps to creating the system properly.

On Defense: “Bend but don’t break”

Though there are many philosophies to playing defense in football, I am firmly in the “Bend but don’t break” camp. The idea is that I can let an offense move the ball against me but when they get into the scoring area, I tighten up and prevent them from finishing the job. The strategy is pretty simple. From there, I have set up some rules that I have designed my tactics around.

Rule 1: Don’t give up the big play

My first goal is to stop the big play. Whether it’s giving up the score or letting the opponent get the ball deep into my half on a single pass. But it’s not just about avoiding a long ball or counter attack. The goal is to force the opponent to make as many plays as possible to get to goal. Every time the opponent has to make a play, whether it’s a pass, dribble, run, what have you, there is a chance for a mistake and an opportunity for me to take advantage. This means when I am choosing between defending deep or trying to attack a ball carrier, I defend deep. Cover. Cover. Cover. Keep the ball carrier in front of me.

Rule 2: Don’t give up easy plays. Contest everything.

It’s not about stopping everything, rather my goal is to just make it difficult for the opponent. By pressuring plays I increase the chance of my opponent making a mistake. Pressure the ball carrier, make passing lanes tight, pressure the receiver on the pass, anything to make the play more difficult without taking a big risk. A lot of plays are still going to get through, it’s expected. I only need to stop one play. The more plays, more chances to make the one stop that matters to end the attack.

Rule 3: Don’t Break!

When I get pushed back, and I will by design, then I need to tighten down and keep them from scoring. Typically that means I’m going to stack the middle of the field in front of the box. If I can force them to recycle possession back into a less dangerous location, that’s a victory.

Rule 4: Stop the run.

Running with the ball is the ultimate “easy play”. So this is really an extension of Rule 2 but is important enough to merit discussion. Again this isn’t always about actually stopping the ball carrier or offense. Instead, I am simply trying to get a player up in their face. This forces the opponent to make a riskier play, either a pass or to dribble through the ball carrier and gives the rest of the defense time to reset and tighten up the LOS.

Rule 5: Take away what your opponent does best

This is the hardest rule and the most idealized version of the defense. If I can take away what the opponent is trying to do, then I can force the opponent to change or work my way around their game plan. This is by far the hardest of the rules, because it requires an accurate reading of the opponent team to identify what they are doing and knowledge of roles, OI, and marking options to correctly counter. This is some next level stuff here and because I could do as much harm as good, I have been slow to add this into my game until I am more comfortable with my abilities.

On Offense: “Run to Daylight”

Early in the sport of football, plays (particularly running plays) were very rigid in their design and execution. A play would be designed to run through the “A” Gap and that is exactly what would happen. It didn’t matter if the defense stacked the “A” Gap, you still ran into it because the play was only designed to attack that one spot. Oftentimes this resulted in wasted plays running into a pile of bodies because both sides would stuff the Gap the play was designed to attack.

Taken straight from my namesake, the philosophy of running to daylight is that you set up a play that should be favorable for you and then give the ball carrier the freedom/responsibility to find a gap with space (the daylight) and take the play through that gap. I try to bring the same sort of idea out in my offense. I try to put players into advantageous situations and then rely on their reading of the field and intelligence to find the space and pick which gaps to hit and how. Like on defense, I have a few rules that I use to help design my tactics, but because I put a lot on my players, it’s a more simplistic system to implement.

Rule 1: Take what the defense gives you.

This is the offensive reciprocal of my defense. The idea is that I don’t try to force anything specifically and instead put a lot of options out there and want to use the least risky based on how the defense is set. It’s important that I don’t force something that isn’t there, which in turn, lowers the risk of me making a mistake or giving the opponent a play on the ball. However, that said, if the reward justifies the risk, or we can minimize the risk, then we will be happy about taking the chance. It’s not about total risk aversion; it’s about risk vs reward analysis.

Rule 2: Make the defense defend the entire field.

I want to force the defense to defend the entire field, this not only has benefits in stretching a defense to open up the zones and gaps, it also ensures that I have the entire field available should an opportunity arise. If the opponent is giving me a “C” Gap for free, I need to make sure I have a player who can and will take advantage, even if I would have preferred the A Gap.

Rule 3: Create and exploit favorable matchups.

For me, creating favorable matchups is paramount to designing my tactics and how I try to play my games. Because I rely so heavily on letting the players pick how to attack, it is very important that I give them good options to pick from. If there aren’t obvious choices and easy plays available, then the player may be more apt to try to force something that isn’t there. Forcing plays means taking a bad risk.


Eric Ssewagudde · September 21, 2017 at 10:55 am

Another rocking post. I am intrigued to see how these principles are implemented being that soccer has the same 11 players on the field and the framework to allow them to achieve these objectives. Absolutely fascinating!!

James · November 7, 2017 at 2:30 pm

Wow – I know very little about American Football but this explanation has got me to look at my tactics in a whole new light. Its interesting how a new point of view can really open your eyes

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