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January 13, 2011 • Football

Football: Developing your defensive backs

The difference between winning and losing a football game is often directly attributed to the quality of play from the defensive secondary.

The modern defensive backs must be trained to support both the running and passing games with the help of the system, accenting the need for a carefully thought-out developmental plan that helps the coach and players maximize the essential skills.

Before constructing the plan, we ask the following questions:

  • What is the defensive scheme asking the secondary players to do?
  • How much meeting and practice time do we have to implement the plan?

The answers help us select and prioritize the skills and drills needed for player development. The three critical areas that serve as the focal points of the plan are flexibility, agility and reaction time. Flexibility is the cornerstone for developing good technique and improving the overall athleticism of a defensive back. A high level of flexibility enables your defensive backs to effortlessly glide in their backpedal, hip flips, speed turning and playing the ball at its highest point. It must, therefore, be the starting point of development for defensive backs.

A good flexibility and stretch routine has to be emphasized during the offseason and maintained during the course of the competitive season. The flexibility and stretch routine should target the neck, shoulders, chest, upper arm, lower back, upper back, hips, torso, thigh, groin and calf muscles. The routine and explanation of each stretch should be given to each player as reference.

By implementing the standard flexibility test, we can help monitor the effectiveness of the flexibility and stretch routine and make adjustments as necessary. Most importantly, a good flexibility and stretch routine allows the muscle that our athletes gain from weightlifting to have a sufficient amount of elasticity and range of motion, which ultimately improves a player’s speed and agility.

The next phase of development is foot agility. The proper or improper placement of the feet often determines the success or failure of the pass defense. We all have witnessed times in which a defensive back makes a great read on the ball and then gives up the big play because he either under-cuts or overplays the ball. We also have witnessed outstanding defensive back play from those who lack great speed but have exceptional feet agility. There are numerous agility drills to choose from, however.

During the season, I believe that a battery of daily line drills along with specified zone and man agility drills can provide a solid foundation for defensive back development. I like the use of daily line drills, because they reinforce many of the basic movements and emphasize total body control by constricting the space that the defensive back has to work with. Most importantly, these drills should be incorporated into the offseason and summer conditioning program on a weekly basis. This helps eliminate many technical flaws prior to spring ball and fall camp, thus placing a greater emphasis on understanding the defensive scheme and coverage package.

Following are several of the line drills that I like to use on a daily basis during the season. Time can be saved by having up to five players execute the drills simultaneously.

Backpedal turn

DIAGRAM 1 shows the backpedal turn.

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On the coach’s command, the defensive back starts his backpedal, using good technique. Next, the coach signals a directional turn to either the right or the left. The defensive back then flips his hips and turns toward the assigned direction (staying on the line) and sprint for five yards after executing the turn.

45-degree downhill

DIAGRAM 2 shows the backpedal 45-degree downhill.

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On the coach’s command, the defensive back starts his backpedal. Next, the coach gives a directional turn to either the right or the left. The defensive back then plants his outside foot. (If the directional turn is left, the outside foot will be the right and vice versa). He takes a 45-degree directional step toward the assigned direction with the opposite foot and sprints downhill for five yards.

90-degree out cut

DIAGRAM 3 shows the backpedal 90-degree out cut.

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On the coach’s command, the defensive back starts his backpedal, using good technique. Next, the coach gives a directional turn to either the right or the left. The defensive back then plants with his outside foot (if the directional turn is left, the outside foot will be the right and vice versa). He takes a 90-degree directional step toward the assigned direction with the opposite foot and sprint straight ahead for five yards.

Line drills coaching points:

      • Maintain balance and consistent hip height.
      • Do not be high when initiating backpedal steps or turning out of your backpedal.
      • Do not use false steps or be high in drive transition.

The third critical area for development is improving the reaction time of the defensive back as he progresses from getting his read to defending a pass. Also, contributing to the defensive back’s success or failure in defending a pass lies in his ability to recognize individual routes as they develop and breaking hard on the football when the ball has been thrown.

Reaction drills are basically partner drills that can help improve route recognition and help the coach identify a player’s strength and weaknesses in defending various route concepts. Most importantly, these drills can be adjusted weekly to the route concepts of the opposition.

Following are several reactionary drills that I use most often. Make sure that the receiver executes the drill with as much precision as possible.

45-degree break

DIAGRAM 4 shows the 45-degree break.

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The defensive back aligns approximately one foot behind the receiver and keeps his eyes focused on the receiver’s hips. The receiver’s eyes should be focused on the coach. The coach gives the signal for the receiver to start backpedaling.

As the receiver backpedals, the defender backpedals, keeping his eyes focused on the receiver’s hip. The coach then gives the receiver the cue to break at a 45-degree angle downhill to either the right or the left. The defender must recognize the break without taking false steps. He must be ready to make a play on the ball as the coach throws it to the receiver. If the defender cannot intercept the pass, he must be in position to either deflect the pass or secure the tackle.

90-degree out break

DIAGRAM 5 shows the 90-degree out break.

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The defensive back aligns approximately one foot behind the receiver and keeps his eyes focused on the receiver’s hips. The receiver’s eyes are focused on the coach, who then gives the signal for the receiver to start backpedaling.

The defender backpedals with the receiver keeping his eyes focused on the receiver’s hip. The coach then gives the receiver the cue to break at a 90-degree out-cut to either the right or the left. The defender must then recognize the break without taking false steps. He must be ready to make a play on the ball as the coach throws it to the receiver. If the defender cannot intercept the pass, he must be in position to either deflect the pass or secure the tackle.

Route recognition

DIAGRAM 6 shows route recognition (the Post is the route of choice).

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The defender aligns approximately five to eight yards from the receiver (leverage determined by the coach). The coach is in a position that prevents the defender from seeing the instructions signaled to the receiver. The coach tells the receiver what route he wants him to run, and the defensive back defends the route using the techniques taught by the coach.

Reaction drills coaching points:

    • Be alert and ready to react.
    • Stay in backpedal as long as possible.
    • Do not be high when initiating backpedal steps or turning out of your backpedal.
    • Do not use false steps or be high in drive transition.
    • Read routes and take appropriate angles to the ball and receiver.
    • Focus eyes on the receiver’s hips and expect a break when they drop.
    • Watch eyes and hands for ball clues.


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