By Michael Giancola
Undoubtedly, offenses that run tempo or no-huddle put extreme stress on defensive players and coaches alike. The no-huddle philosophy is working its way into more and more offenses even if it’s not wholesale. Some coaches keep it in their repertoire for certain situations to get the defense on its heels. Regardless, this is something defenses need to account for in some capacity.
Of all the position groups on defense, no-huddle and tempo offenses put a lot of pressure on the defensive line. Bigger bodies are naturally exposed to a game that is fast paced. Like anything else in defensive football, this is something that can be accounted for. Normalizing the tempo, increasing the defensive tempo in practice, having a clear plan for substitutions and simplifying alignments for the defensive line allows them to be comfortable against teams that try to gain the advantage by speeding up the pace of play.
No-huddle and tempo offenses are a daunting task for any defender. The key is to normalize the speed of play, especially for the defensive line. Exposing them to tempo early and often is crucial. Here are a few ways to accomplish this:
- Crystal Ball Drills. August practice is a long and arduous, especially with the advent of off-season camps and practices. Crystal ball drills are periods in practice that focus on things players will see in the future. Taking a ten minute period or two early in the season to expose the defensive line to tempo situations will pay tremendous dividends. These can be full team drills, as well as defensive line specific drills.
- Scrimmage against No Huddle/Tempo Teams. If possible, try to schedule at least one scrimmage against a team that utilizes tempo. The main advantage to this is it exposes your players to tempo offenses while the stakes are low. Mistakes will inevitably be made, but it’s better to make those mistakes and learn from them in a scrimmage than in a game that matters in the standings.
- Explain and prepare for the limitations of No Huddle/Tempo Offenses. Teams that are true no huddle and high tempo need to be relatively simple in scheme. This does not include teams that rush to the line, get lined up, hard count then look to the sideline for a play call or audible. Teams that do that, while fast, allow defenses to adjust as they adjust.
- Know what “home base” is. Overcomplicating scheme against a no huddle or tempo offense is a fool’s endeavor. That doesn’t mean playing base defense all the time is the way to go, but when the bottom begins to drop out the players be comfortable and excel at playing within a simpler scheme.
Increasing the tempo in practice
Effectively increasing the tempo of practice when playing no huddle/tempo teams during the week helps mimic what the defense is going to see come game time. However, avoid devolving practice to the point where guys are running around like headless chickens. This will take precise planning on the part of the coaches, and can be achieved a few different ways:
- Tempo alignment periods. Formation recognition and aligning correctly constitutes a majority of the challenges when playing a fast paced team, and getting the front aligned quickly is of paramount importance. To reconstruct the speed of the game for the defensive line, have them turn their backs to the line of scrimmage. Set up an offensive line while their backs are turned. On command, have them turn around and get aligned based on your rules for the week as fast as possible. The goal is to get aligned within five seconds. If you want to increase the stress, have another coach with another line ready to go for the next rep.
- No huddle pursuit periods. Pursuit periods can serve a variety of purposes, chief among them are conditioning and assuring all players are running to the football. However, tailoring pursuit drills to the offense you play that week helps drill more than just those. Run/pass, rabbit and formation recognition pursuit drills are great for making the conditioning aspects more practical.
That idea holds when it comes to no huddle pursuit drills. This drill can be run for the defensive line or the defense as a whole. Logistically it is not complicated, but it moves fast. Place cones at the corner of each endzone and on the 50 yard line on the numbers (four cones total). Use a scout line or cans and scout skill players as the offense, and start them on the +40 yard line. The defensive line (or defense) stays on the sideline until the initial whistle blows. Once that happens, the offense aligns as the line runs onto the field. Calls are made and the ball is snapped within 15 seconds. The coach will point to one of the four cones and the line will run to it. As they pursue to the cone the scout offense runs up ten yards to the +30 (don’t forget the cans if you use them), and aligns in a new formation. Blow the whistle again, and the line needs to run back to the new line of scrimmage to do it again. Repeat at the +20 and the +10.
- Have two scout huddles for Team and Perimeter periods. If it can be managed based on numbers, having multiple scout huddles to work against the defense makes the tempo of team and perimeter periods more representative of the game speed. Group the plays you script into threes. As one huddle runs the play, the other is looking at the next scout card. When the play is done the next huddle is already moving towards the line of scrimmage.
Keeping the linemen fresh against a no huddle/tempo team is a must. However, wholesale changes of the front between plays is a formula for failure. Develop a concise plan for substitutions that the players know and stick to it. Use this as a guide:
The most imperative task of defending no huddle and tempo offenses is aligning properly. Due to the pace of play, keeping alignment rules simple for the defensive line will help immensely. At times, alignment rules can be messy, so limit the amount of thinking that the line needs to do presnap. Also, the onus needs to be put on the defensive line to align correctly. The linebackers and secondary battle the same issue. Compartmentalize presnap assignments to make sure each position group is policing themselves.
Mike Giancola is the defensive line coach at Bridgewater College in Virginia. Before Bridgewater, he coached at Chantilly (Va.) Westfield High School. As the Special Teams Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach in 2015 and the Defensive Coordinator in 2016 Coach Giancola helped Westfield win back to back state championships in class 6A in Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @CoachGiancola.