January 29, 2010 • Football

Time Related Defenses

The 4-minute, 2-minute, and Prevent Defenses

Every football defense is constantly affected by time-affiliated elements. The way in which these time-sensitive situations are planned and executed will often produce the victory or defeat.

Allow us to show you how all this is put together in the four-minute, two-minute, and prevent defenses.

Four-Minute Defense

When your opponent is ahead near the end of the game, they will seek to run time off the clock – allow the play clock to run down 20 or more seconds before snapping the ball.

Offenses will use up as much time as possible and call plays that keep the clock running.

Passes, if any, probably will consist of play action or roll-outs which will allow the quarterback a run or pass option. Quarterbacks will be coached to take a sack or loss of yardage instead of throwing the ball away or taking a chance on an interception.

Runs will usually be conservative in nature with no high-risk exchanges.

Double handoffs, reverses, and tosses probably will not be used. Runs will normally be the basic ones that have been successful throughout the game.

Wide runs, which eat up clock, will be desirable. Runners will be coached to stay in bounds and secure the ball. They are traditionally taught not to fight for extra yardage in an effort to avoid fumbles in a four-minute scenario.

Formationally, the offenses will use tight formations which add extra gaps to protect against outside blitzes and penetrations.

Quarterbacks will use short snap counts and avoid hard counts.

Some offensive coordinators will choose to keep the same personnel on the field to avoid illegal substitutions or confusion.

Four-Minute Defensive Tactics

Each week’s defensive game plan must have provisions in place to function in the four-minute window. In a four-minute situation, the defense must:

  1. Save time-outs for just this situation. When calling time-out do it aggressively! Do it as the runner is going down. Know where the officials are located.
  2. Force turnovers. Strip the ball. First man ensures the tackle while others strip the ball.
  3. Force three and out. Prevent first downs.
  4. Force runners out of bounds.
  5. Treat each down as a short yardage play.
  6. Use aggressive fronts. Minus yardage plays are desired.
  7. Scheme solid run support
  8. Use run blitzes.
  9. Unpile quickly. Get off the runner and allow the officials to spot the ball.
  10. Have practiced “clock time out” situations. Players must be aware of what stops the clock. Defenses can’t waste time outs on plays that do this.
  11. Have a defense for the knee-down or victory play. (Miracles do happen.)

Diag. 1 illustrates our Armageddon call for the kneel-down play.

Prevent Defense

This is typically used in the last four-minutes of the half or game when your team has the lead. The prevailing philosophy is to contain your opponent while eating up the clock.

Objectives include: slowing down the offense when you have the lead and forcing them to use a lot of time moving the ball. You want to bleed slowly and keep your opponent from executing big plays.

Distinctions must be made between the usage of a prevent defense at the end of the first half and second half. As a basic rule, prevent defenses are used with two minutes or less in the first half of the game. A prevent situation during the second half is usually called with four minutes left in regulation. Another major difference between first and second half proven scenarios is that, usually, a field goal isn’t as disastrous should it occur just before halftime. At the end of the game a field goal could decide the game.

Prevent situations must be included in any well-grounded defensive game plan. You should anticipate using this defense virtually every game. All too often, the outcome of the game rides on the success or failure of your unit during this time frame.

Defensively You Must:

1.Adjust your prevent calls to match the offensive style of the opponent.

2. Mix up the defensive calls. Don’t allow the offense the luxury of knowing what to expect. Blend pressure with bend-but-don’t- break looks.

3. Use defensive-back loaded coverages (five or six defensive backs).

4. Have the availability of overloaded or double team coverages.

5. Avoid coverages where defensive backs are placed in one-on-one situations with no deep help.

6. Allow sufficient quality practice time. Bill Walsh says that prevent defense is the most poorly coached defensive category in football.

7. Coordinate rush lane integrity.

8. Gang tackle. Keep the ball-carrier in bounds.

9. Foster an “I’ll make the play” attitude.

10.Be aware of double moves (i.e., quick and go, out and up, etc.)

11. Coach players on the critical circumstances (i.e., what stops the clock, what starts the clock, time, score, what the offense needs, etc.)

Two-Minute Defense

In many games, the most important time interval is the last two minutes of the game.

Many games are decided in this short interval. The two-minute framework is only 1/24th of a high school game or 1/30th of a college or pro game, but in many cases this time frame decides who wins and who loses the game. Two-minute offenses put stress on the defense by changing the tempo of the game through the use of an up-tempo pace which limits defensive substitution and adjustments.

A great example of a perfectly executed two minute situation occurred in the Tennessee-Florida game of 2003 when the Vols, who had done nothing offensively in the first half, scored on the last play of the half on a Hail Mary play.

This gave Tennessee a 7-3 lead going into halftime even though they had been offensively inept up to that point. It gave the Vols a tremendous lift going into the half in a game they won 24 to 10.

A crucial question you must ask as you game plan is how are you, as the defensive coordinator, going to approach the two-minute period? The age old debate of how to best approach the two-minute period puts added pressure on you.

Coaches who bring pressure are grilled if they get torched, but by the same token, coaches who go soft are criticized for not bringing pressure should the offense score.

Defenses have to find a happy median. A flexible defensive package allows for a variety of rushers mixed with zone, man, or combination coverages. Some teams zone blitz the quarterback while dropping into a safe deep zone.

Tactical Situations

Not all two-minute situations are alike. There are numerous variables that affect offensive and defensive play calls. Following are some of the most important:


Are there two full minutes or something less in the half or game? Conventional wisdom says to use a no-huddle offense with 90 seconds left after a big gain or spike the ball if too much time will run off. The offense will begin using its time-outs.

However, they will save one time-out. With one minute remaining it is advisable to throw downfield in the sideline area. The offense can chance a throw down the field if they have one time-out left. A spike will typically take 10-12 seconds to execute.

What does the offense need? A field goal, a touchdown and extra point, a touchdown and two-point play, or do they need two scores?

Offensive Times-Out Left:

Does the offense have its full complement of three time-outs? If so, they can mix their calls and not have to throw on every play. With time-outs, the offense can use the middle of the field and incorporate running plays. With one or no time-outs, the offense will be forced to work the sidelines and avoid running plays that can eat up time.

How Effective is the Opponent’s Field-Goal Game?

This comes into play should a field goal be desirable. What yard line do they need to reach to attempt a makeable field goal?

What is the Offense’s Base Philosophy?

Is the offense known as a passing team, running team, or is it balanced? Obviously, a balanced run-pass attack or a passing team has a better chance to succeed than a one-dimensional run team that has to rely on play-action passes.


What are the weather conditions? If conditions are horrid, the offense might seek to run draws, screens or short passes instead of down-the-field throws.

Down and Distance:

Obviously down and distance considerations are very important. On possession downs, such as third and fourth down the offense must focus on plays that will get them first downs instead of trying to break big plays.

Teams that need a touchdown will look at strategy through a “this is four- down territory” mentality. Third down calls will obviously be colored if this is the situation as opposed to a situation where a field goal is needed.

Field Zone:

How far does the offense have to go to score? Obviously, distance colors offensive play calling. For example, with less than a minute to go before the half with the ball on the offense’s end, most offensive coaches will call a draw play to see what happens. Do you have the luxury of making them go the long way or do you have your back to the wall?

Certainly variables such as score, time, etc., in conjunction with field placement, will help decide your calls.


What does the offense need? A field goal or a touchdown? The score differential colors strategy.

Offense Needs a Touchdown:

  • They are in a four-down mode no matter where they are on the field.
  • They will avoid sacks. The quarterback will throw the ball away.
  • On fourth down they will throw the ball up for grabs.
  • On the last play, the ball-carriers will keep the ball alive by laterals or fumbles.

Offense Needs a Field Goal:

  • The offense will avoid loss-of-yardage plays.
  • Plays will be run to the middle of the field.
  • They will avoid the hashes.
  • When in field-goal range, they will call conservative plays.
  • In an overtime situation or a cinch winning field-goal position, they may decide to kick on an early down.
  • They will seek to run down the clock as far as possible before kicking.
  • You may be forced to use your time-outs to save enough time for your offense.

Base Two-Minute Defensive Strategy:

To effectively combat an offense in a two-minute situation, the defense must know how variables such as time, score, offensive timeouts, the offense’s field-goal game, and offensive philosophy will affect the offense’s play-call mindset.

The main objective for a two-minute defense is to keep the clock running while, obviously, keeping the offense from scoring. To do this the defense should:

  1. Gang tackle.
  2. Unpile slowly but be on-sides for the next play. Get the defensive call quickly.
  3. Protect the sidelines. Turn the ball-carrier inside.
  4. Keep the ball-carrier in bounds.
  5. Commit no penalties. The game can’t end on a defensive penalty.
  6. Call time out only when instructed from the sideline.
  7. Know the offense’s formation rules.
  8. Distinguish their code words, especially if they use them more than once.
  9. Understand that the offense will usually go on quick counts if the clock is running. We should get an edge on get off. Be careful, however, they may go on longer counts if the clock is stopped.
  10. Know the down and distance and time left.
  11.  Be careful of gambles.
  12. Be aware that the offense may be in a four-down mode.

Educate your players about these time sensitive periods in a game and, above all else, practice these situations so they can function and succeed when the game is on the line.

About the Author

Kenny Ratledge is defensive coordinator at Sevierville (TN) County H.S.

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