By Joby Turner

The “wrong-arm” or spill concept is one of the most argued techniques amongst defensive coaches.

History and purpose

Many older coaches who cut their teeth in the 5-2 defenses taught their defensive ends to “box” or contain all pulls in order to force the ball back into bigger and stronger middle linebackers. Then, Jimmy Johnson and his defensive assistants developed the concept of block down, step down (BDSD) and spilling.

What Johnson and his staff had done was to move smaller, quicker players to the linebacker and safety positions to get as much speed a possible onto the field. The old “box” idea wouldn’t work with these players, who were typically being smaller and lighter. The idea to spill or wrong arm allowed these players allowed them to use their best asset – speed – to chase plays down as the ball-carrier would be going parallel to the line of scrimmage instead of perpendicular.

The best way to get the running back to move side to side was for the defensive end or defensive tackle to get inside of the puller to make the runner cut somewhere other than his intended destination. To do this, the defensive player had to take his outside arm and rip through the puller trying to get inside where the ball-carrier would be going.

Since many people of the time believed in keeping the outside arm free, the term “wrong arm” was coined, because the player uses the “wrong arm” to attack the puller. This philosophy/technique, along with BDSD, changed the way many defenses play.

Wrong arming allows teams who are outmatched in size and strength to even the playing field by making bigger players run side to side while the smaller, faster guys chase the ball-carrier down, negating the size disadvantage. The concept itself seems rather simple, but for the concept to work properly, it takes a carefully choreographed dance between the defensive line and the linebackers.

BDSD and gap exchange principles

The idea of the wrong arm goes back to this concept of block down, step-down. If a defensive lineman has his visual key or the person he is aligned over blocks down, then the defensive player must step down and replace the heels of the down blocking player. Think 9 technique vs. tight end down block on power. What happens while the defensive end replaces the heels of the tight end is known as a gap exchange with the Sam linebacker.

Tight end bocks down on Sam linebacker

End and Sam gap exchange

Now, in order to get the ball-carrier to cut toward our now unblocked Sam, we must execute a wrong arm technique to force the ball outside. This allows our free players to make a play.

The one problem on paper many coaches have with this technique is that you trade one for one with your defensive end and their fullback. However, there is a way to get the math back on your side. It’s all in how you coach it.

How to teach and drill the wrong arm 

The first key to executing the wrong arm starts with stance and the initial footwork of the get off. Without the proper angle, the wrong arm becomes less effective and harder to execute. Feel free to use whatever stance you prefer your defensive linemen to have, but there are a couple of details that need to be mentioned.

First, I like to align my defensive linemen pretty heavy on their counterparts. This ensures we should get some type of hands on the offensive linemen as they down block. The second priority is that the defensive lineman must step with his foot near a 45-degree angle toward the crotch of the defender he is aligned over. Less than 45 degrees is really good if you know the player is down blocking for sure. However, the 45-degree rule works great versus the other various blocks we see in any given game.

A good example of the 45-degree rule can be seen here.

This is an example of a bad first step.

After the defensive lineman takes his initial step, he should be trying to initiate some type of contact on the offensive player as he is moving down. This contact helps the linebacker execute his gap exchange with little to no contact from the offensive tackle. The intention is to just knock this player off of his course. A good punch or stiff arm to the shoulder pad area usually does the trick.

This is not ideal hand placement here, but anything to get the tackle off-balance.

Simultaneously as the footwork and punch are happening, the defender must train his eyes to look down the line of scrimmage for any type of puller. The 45-degree step helps players in this regard, but you must train them to not worry about the backfield action. This correct eye placement will help them see the puller and react accordingly.

After the defender recognizes the puller, he dips and rips his shoulder underneath and through the pads of the pulling lineman. The defender must maintain his feet on contact and really run through the puller.

The key is to dip the outside shoulder as low as possible to give the puller a very small target to hit. Also, keeping the pads below that of the puller ensures that no accidental contact occurs forcing the defender off balance.

The defender should be throwing his right arm and leg inside of puller.

Maintain a lower shoulder surface and pad level.

The shoulder doesn’t get dipped, causing unnecessary contact.

Now, remember how I mentioned earlier how you can get the math back in your favor? Here is the key. Your defensive player must now “run the circle” or “do-si-do” after executing the rip move. This entails staying as close to the puller and trying to work back toward the outside where the ball-carrier is going. This critical detail gets the math back in your favor and allows your player the possibility of making the play from behind.

I learned the “run the circle” terminology from outlawjoseywales and Deuce on the Coach Huey message board. I adapted the ”do-si-do” terminology after I realized that if you can lock your rip move underneath the arm/shoulder pad area of the puller and run the circle, it resembles the popular square dance move. I found that this terminology made it easier for the players visualize what to do after making contact. Feel free to develop any terminology you feel is easier for your players.

Joby Turner is the head football coach at Clarksville (Ind.) High School. You can follow him on Twitter @JobyTurner.

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Dan Guttenplan