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October 2, 2009 • FootballXs and Os

Ball disruptions in football: Winning with defense

At Apache Junction High School in Arizona, we believe our defense has as much responsibility as our offense in winning football. We try to achieve this by creating turnovers and scoring points. We have had considerable success at this and once led the state with 62 takeaways in 14 games.

DSC_8676The most important aspect in the correction of turnovers is simply instilling the proper mentality in the players. You don’t just talk about it. You have to show your players how important it is to actively practice turnover techniques.

We define ball disruptions as a conscious maneuver to directly take the ball away from the opposing offense. We break this into five categories:

1. Caused fumbles

We feel that this is the greatest area in which our defense can gain an advantage and the most important ball disruption. We break the types of fumble-causing maneuvers into four subcategories that we work on individually each week.

Hit hard. The first and easiest of these concepts is simply to punish the ball- carrier on every play. 

Hat on the ball. We want our players to put their facemasks on the football as they run through the ball carrier on head-on tackles. 

Tag team. We have two defenders form a triangle with the ball carrier about 10 yards away. Both defenders hit the ball carrier. The tackler who makes initial contact should have the dominant position and make a “you-you” call. As each defender drives back the ball carrier, the second of the two punches or rips the football. We tell our players to hold the ball carrier up for just a second, and the ball should be free on the way to the ground.

Open-field tactics. A key to our success is our effort to simulate many of the exact situations and angles that occur in a game. In the open field, we always want to make a concerted effort to strip the ball. Based on the defender’s evaluation of how the carrier is securing the ball, he will use one of three main techniques.

  • The hammer: If there is no space between the ball carrier’s body and his tricep, meaning we can’t see the ball from the back, or if he is swinging his arm, we grab the collar with the away hand, violently yank the ball carrier back and strike down on the top of the ball, nearer to his fingers, with a closed fist. Secure the away hand over or around the shoulder to grab the jersey on the carrier’s chest. Try to straighten his ball arm to his side so he can’t secure it. Always run the feet and never be dead weight.
  • Punch and rip: If we can see ball from behind, we want to use a similar technique with the away hand and throw a violent upper cut into the ball. If the ball doesn’t dislodge, open the hand, twist the palm outward, grab the front of ball by the carrier’s fingers, and violently rip his arm down and pull it behind his back as you run your feet. We teach player to ride the carrier’s facemask into the turf. 
  • Fingers: If a ball carrier is already engaged with a defender and is securing the ball tight to his chest, we want to secure his body with one hand and grab his fingers on the ball with the other. We “peel” his hand down and away from the ball.

Recovery. We specifically drill recovery tactics. We have a scoop and score station and often use multiple players to simulate offensive tacklers and defensive blockers who usher the ball carrier into the end zone. We also work an angle pursuit drill to deflect an opponent off a clear path to the ball and box him out from recovering.

We also stress ground tactics when fighting for a ball. If two opposing players have their hands on the ball, one should roll into the opponent and use body leverage to separate his body from the ball by rolling onto his arms and wrenching the ball free.

2. Interceptions and pass breakups

The next two ball disruptions are skills we begin instilling during the spring. We create the mentality of our defenders that a reception is never complete until the receiver becomes a ball carrier, at which time we will use fumble tactics.

This mentality allows our players to break up many passes that have been caught but not secured. We want receivers to earn their catches. Therefore, we never condemn a player who gets a pass interference call for being aggressive and playing through the receiver’s body to break up the pass.

There are five phases to this technique:

Attack angle. Our aiming point is the far, downfield side of the shoulder. We take a tackling angle first.

Our top, or downfield, hand should grab the bottom of the jersey near the hip to secure the tackle (never reach; run the feet through the receiver). A common mistake is to swipe at the pass. We teach the players to “shoot” the arm nearest to the LOS, placing the hand in front of the receiver’s hands, palm out. Of course, we must use the proper hands; reaching with the top hand completely takes the defender out of position to make a tackle.

Shielding. Once the above body relationship is established but the ball hasn’t arrived, the defender releases the downfield hand, rips it back around to join the other hand and accelerates in front of the receiver, tight to his body to shield him from defending the interception.

Splitting the arms. If the receiver makes a catch, the defender takes his outstretched front arm and hammers violently down on the receiver’s forearm, attempting to bring the arm behind his back. Simultaneously, the downfield hand releases the jersey and strikes upwards into the other arm of the receiver attempting to split and rip the receiver’s arms off the ball as he makes the tackle and rides the facemask into the turf.

Highest point. On deeper, higher passes, we teach our defenders to shield the receiver and leap up and back toward the ball. A key to defending and intercepting deep routes like fades is to not look back for the ball if the defender is trailing. The ball is going to the receiver’s hands — focus on that, get there, and good things will happen.

3. Altered passes and batted balls

The final two ball disruption categories pertain mostly to defensive linemen or blitzing backers. An altered pass is any situation where a defender has forced the QB to change his arm angle, trajectory or follow through. There are a few simple concepts for these two disruptions.

Condense the pocket. An offensive lineman’s helmet is just as effective as our hand to limit a QB’s follow through.

Opposite hand up. We want to rush the QB hard and put our left hand up and in front of the throwing lane in the case of a right-handed QB. Never leave your feet in this situation.

Both hands and jump. If, at the last moment before the QB releases the ball, a blocker is square in front of the defender, the defender should raise both hands and elevate like a volleyball block to obstruct the passing lane.

4. Scoring

The second part of our defensive philosophy is to score touchdowns. Most of these come from interceptions, but we try to take advantage of other opportunities like loose fumbles and blocked punts.

Our basic philosophy on scooping and scoring fumbles: If a ball is loose and we are the closest player in an open-field situation, our players will get one chance to field the ball cleanly on the run. If it is bobbled or dropped, we tell them to get down.

On any return of a takeaway, the blocking is key. The most important part of this is to first convince players that just getting the ball back isn’t good enough and everyone’s block could make the difference.

Second, the player with the ball makes a call so that all players are aware of the turnover and can block to score. Many teams use OSKIE or BINGO or something similar. We use a WETSU call, which is an acronym I stole from another coach; it stands for “we eat that stuff up.”

After hearing a WETSU, players have to get to the nearest numbers on the field. They have to establish a clean path between the sideline and numbers. We call it “clearing the sidewalk for the president.”

Finally, we encourage good returns by requiring all 11 players to break down on the ball at the end of the return or recovery. We have a unique defensive chant that all eleven will say before they come off the field. We do it after every turnover, practice, passing games and regular season games. Our players take pride in it, and the player with the ball leads it. We call it “getting paid.”

5. Implementation

Once again, things are easier said than done. We implement this attitude with a few strategies.

  • Drill the techniques every week. 
  • In practice return all interceptions live to the whistle in practice. Our offensive players are well aware that they should keep their heads on a swivel.
  • In spring football, score all loose balls, fumbles, INTs and incomplete passes.
  • Work pursuit drills with all players going for the ball. Teach them to be in position to take advantage of a caused fumble.
  • Set goals and rewards. Our goal is four takeaways and one score a game. 

6. Drills

We have a turnover, takeaway circuit every week where we use these drills.

  • Scoop and score
  • QB pressure
  • 1-on-1 recovery
  • Ground fighting tactics. Start both players on the ground, facing each other, each having a grip on the ball.
  • Hat on the ball
  • 2-on-1 tag team
  • Lateral pursuit, finger peel
  • QB in pocket and on the run. Hammer down on extended arm, bringing his arms to his side.

We often use slipcovers on our balls to reduce grip so that the defenders have a better chance of success in the drills. This also reinforces ball security with our offensive players.

Incorporate a takeaway element into tackling drills. Takeaway should always be on their minds. Our team believes that our defense can get the football back at any time, in any situation. This proved true on countless occasions and won us games we may otherwise have lost.

Takeaways are the fastest way to change the momentum of a game and increase your position of winning. If you put your philosophy into practice and your players adopt it and then own it, you will add an entirely new element to your chances of attack.


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