Defensive Philosophy: How to Play With Eyes and Feet

Imagine you are playing Free Safety. You are playing the deep middle third of the field. You line up 10 yards deep with one Receiver to the right and a Tight End with a Receiver to your left. Two Running Backs plus a Quarterback get set in the backfield. The ball is snapped. What do you do next? Well, that depends on what your coaches have taught you.

Some coaches harp on technique, others stress the schemes, and still others believe hustle cures all. Every coach should have a coaching philosophy that helps explain to their players the “why” of their tactics. A coaching philosophy is not a tactic, it is the tool used to bridge the gap between tactics and why you’re choosing to coach that particular way.

For example, my defensive philosophy is to “Play with eyes and feet.” Every opportunity I get, I ask my players, “What do we play defense with?” To which they (should) respond, “Eyes and feet!” I ask the players this question when we install a defense, I ask them during drills, and I ask them at the end of practice. I try to make this phrase as memorable as possible for them.

A philosophy is something the players can easily remember and quickly recite. The philosophy should express to the players what you, as a coach, want them to do while they’re in the game. A philosophy does not take the place of a scheme, X’s and O’s are always needed. However, a philosophy could serve as a reminder if a player forgets his job.

Eyes and Feet

Before I continue with this example, I’ll explain my defensive philosophy so you can begin thinking about your own. I use this doctrine with both my middle and high school teams, simplifying it for my younger players. If you have one, I’d love to hear it in the comments. If you don’t have one, I urge you to create one for your players. Using this defensive philosophy as a teaching tool has helped my players understand their jobs more clearly and ultimately improved their play.

The first part of “Eyes and Feet” is our eyes. When we play with our eyes, this means we are reading our keys. Cornerbacks, Strong Safeties, and Outside Linebackers typically read the end man on the line of scrimmage (Tight End or Tackle) to determine if the play will be a run or a pass. Inside Linebackers read the Guards to determine where the ball is headed instead of Running Backs because blocking is almost always needed for a successful play. Whereas a Running Back doesn’t have to get the ball, they could simply be a decoy.

The second part of “Eyes and Feet” is our feet. We practice reacting as often as possible. As soon as the defensive players see that the play is a run by reading their keys, they find the ball carrier with their eyes. Then they use their feet to get to the ball carrier as quickly as possible. Conversely, if the Offensive Linemen show pass by standing up tall, the defensive players know to get to their drops and find the men in their zones. We play more zone-based defense than man-to-man, so keys would be different if we were playing a man-to-man coverage.

In the opening example, if the same Free Safety does not remember what he is supposed to do, he should revert to the philosophy: “Eyes and feet.” He would remember that we use our eyes to read our keys and once we read our keys, we use our feet to take us to the action. He should find his key as soon as possible to tell him what to do next in my defense.

Trickle Down Effect

The key to a good philosophy, on either side of the ball, is to come up with one that has a trickle down effect. Many of us have heard about the coach who never punts. Coach Kelley’s philosophy is simple: “Keep possession.” He rarely punts and he onside kicks after every touchdown. He wants to keep the ball in his team’s hands at all times. His philosophy trickles down with a positive effect. If he doesn’t turn the ball over, his opponents cannot score. If his opponents cannot score, he wins the game.

Using “Eyes and Feet” as our philosophy, we are teaching players to read their keys and always move their feet. Always moving our feet had a trickle down effect on our players’ hustle. Because they were always trying to get to the ball, we forced massive amounts of turnovers (+22 on the season). Having this many turnovers helped contribute to our ability to win eight games throughout the season.

Better feet means more hustle. More hustle means more turnovers, better gang tackling, and ultimately a more effective defense. Whatever philosophy you choose to employ, be sure it has a positive trickle down effect for your players.

A United Front

Creating a philosophy for your team or your unit is helpful not only for your players, but for your coaching staff. Sometimes coaches are not on the same page when teaching schemes and can give players conflicting advice on how to play their position. If your staff has trouble with this, adding a philosophy to your unit’s play may help smooth things out.

By adding a clear coaching philosophy, you are giving your coaches and players an overarching theme to how they should be performing in the system. Each of my position coaches knows to start teaching players based on their eyes first, then their feet. If players’ eyes are not reading their keys, their feet won’t take them to the correct spot.

Having a philosophy can also help you make decisions clearer and quicker. Coach Kelley, the coach who never punts, rarely has to debate whether or not he’ll punt. On top of that, his offensive coaches know they need to practice fourth down situations and his defensive coaches need to practice being put in tight spots if the offense cannot convert on fourth down. Working together becomes easier when the whole staff is on the same page.

The best teams and units have a uniting theme that helps them win. Some put it on T-shirts, others know it by heart. The benefits of a direct philosophy are clear communication, positive trickle down effects, and the ability to make clear and quick coaching decisions. What does your team’s philosophy look like?