Shatter the Zone
If run correctly, the out-and-up can shatter the zone defense. Whether you’re facing a cover 2 (two deep defenders) or some variation, like a three deep, box or diamond coverage scheme, you can open it wide up with this play. What’s the catch? You have to run it right. We look at the out and up against a cover 2 defense. This is a 7on7 look, but the same thing can be run in 5man, 6man, 7man and 8man football. Line up twins to the side where the ball will go (here its right). The wideout (outside receiver, Z) should line up about 10-12 yards from the sideline. He is the decoy. Some sort of fake communication to draw attention to the wideout can be used (receiver tapping his head or the QB making eye contact and calling a fake hot route). The slot receiver (inside receiver, Y) should line up halfway between the ball and the wideout. On the snap, the wideout will head straight for the center of the field. The purpose is to draw the deep right defender into the middle of the field. This will be particularly effective if the QB locks his eyes on the Z receiver. The Y receiver will line up with his inside foot forward. On snap, the Y receiver will take two steps and plant his inside foot on the second step. About 2-3 yards off the line, the Y receiver will cut hard to the sideline. He will not change course until he is 1-2 yards from the sideline (very important). As soon as he reaches the edge of the field, the Y receiver breaks deep. The other routes are safety valves. If it’s run right, the Y receiver will break open soon after the cut. The QB should hit him quickly, or let it unfold and hit him deep. The defense may not even notice the Y receiver until the ball is being launched over their heads.
The same play will work against man coverage. The routes need to stay crisp. The Y receiver should run about 3/4 speed until he reaches the sideline, then turn it on. If the Y receiver has not signaled the fake, he should be able to break away and get separation down the sideline. If the defender is playing off the Y receiver, consider making the first cut 5-7 yards deep.
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So you’ve rounded up some buddies, some of them have rounded up their buddies and you have enough players to field a flag or touch football team. You’ve thought of a clever team name and registered for the league. Congratulations, the easy part is over. Now you have a team to run. Sound easy? Maybe not easy as you’d think, especially when the coach is a player. Here are some tips to stay competitive and avoid turning a group of friends into enemies in the meantime.
Do We Need a Coach?
“I’m playing for fun with some friends, do we really need a coach?” It’s a common question, but the answer is: you most likely already have a coach (you may not use that title, but handling scheduling, calling plays, and rotating players makes you coach). A good, competitive team will need leadership and organization. Also, in many informal settings (rec leagues, weekend football, etc) you will have no-shows and scheduling conflicts. For this reason, it is good to have more players on the team than will play on the field each down. BUT, this also means having more players than spots. When games become important (playoffs or championships), don’t be surprised if all 14 players show up for the first time all season. For the unprepared coach, this can be a real problem. Flexibility on the field is hugely important to respond to different challenges mid-stream, and without a defined leader calling those shots, you will find there are suddenly several coaches on the field, each with strong, differing opinions.
Coaching Style and Structure
Communication is key. Whatever strategy you use, communicate it to the team as early as possible. This goes for planning, plays, practices, rotations, schedule and everything else. Usually the guy who ends up coaching is one of the better athletes on the team. Often he’s the QB. In some ways that makes coaching easier – its a natural leadership position, play-calling and organization flow well and the concern about playing yourself more than others disappears (for offensive plays). If you are not the QB, it will be difficult to be the sole coach for all the same reasons. If this is the case, consider creating a “coaching committee” of 2-4 players, including the QB. That way play-calling, structure and organization still comes from a singular point. You may want to form a committee like this anyway to avoid some of the interpersonal and ego-related issues that can surface. Taking a player out of a game is far easier if it comes from two or three “coaches” than it is coming from one player-coach. Of course, it can be more complex making calls from the field, and if disputes arise in the committee, there is no final word.
The more organization the coach(es) have the better. Having set plays and strategies improves performance and can help with putting people in positions and making rotations. A set rotation may be preferable to replacing players on the fly to ensure better distribution of play time as well as distribution of skill. Also finding player strengths is important – if one guy is especially effective on defense, you may be able to keep him engaged and interested without adding him to an already full offensive rotation, all without sacrificing talent.
Fun and Winning: a Delicate Balance
This dilemma affects most every (unpaid) coach, from the Dad youth football coach to the junior high team coach, and especially the player coach. And there is definitely no one-size-fits-all solution. The balance between winning and fun will be different for each player on the team. There are players that would rather sit on the sidelines the entire season if it meant winning, while others would play without keeping score, just for love of the game. The first step for the player coach is to determine where your team comes out on the question. Are you in the lowest division in the coed football-for charity league? If so, chances are that fun is the reason to be playing. Do you have a slate of ex-college players, who want to practice just so the championship is within reach? Probably a winning-mentality. Most people voluntarily engaged in competitive sports probably enjoy winning, but you have to find out at what cost. Early in the season, you will have more leeway. Once playoffs arrive, you’re playing for keeps. But even along the way, winning games can be very important. Consider starting some of the non-playmakers so when the crucial final 2 minutes arrives, you’re not compelled to play a weak lineup. Also, making a “Red Team” lineup in addition to the regular rotations allows you to fall back on a pre-established system and quickly get your best team on the field when you need it. Oops, the “here-to-have-fun” guy just gave up a 60 yard touchdown and you need to score in 46 seconds: bring out the Red Team. At the end of the day, people need to have fun to keep playing on your team, but if well managed, the mix between adequate involvement and being part of a winning team, should work for the whole group.
A parting thought: remember why you’re playing. It’s not the superbowl, you don’t have professional athlete insurance on your legs, your game is (probably) not televised. Is it worth losing friends, offending people and hurting feelings just for the sake of the win? If you have a hard time answering this question, first, take a deep breath and re-consider your life purpose, and then, surround yourself with like-minded players and go win the championship.
I’m in a co-ed flag football team. Our offense is solid and it has helped us win the regular season. However, we have not played all teams. We hope to reach the other undefeated team in the championship game. They have a running QB who is fast as hell and can actually throw (we have watched his games). Our defense is: fastest female rusher, two girls short on each side, one tall quick middle guy, two guy corners and two guys long. This has worked really well but we have not faced a fast QB. Any suggestions on dealing with this fast QB? (when we man up the QB always finds our weakest guy). Thanks!!!
The Ninja Speaks:
It sounds like the quarterback you will be facing in the playoffs is a strong player who can hurt you running or throwing. The first question is whether your league allows QBs to run when rushed. For purposes of this answer, we will assume the QB is free to run when rushed.
For this playoff game, you need your best player on their best player. This means rushing or spying the QB with your superstar. The way you’ve described it, this QB will put a move on your rusher and have the entire field at his disposal. Also, by not having an effective rush, it will give the receivers time to break away and find an opening in the field. It is extremely difficult to hold coverage for more than a few seconds in any league, but especially in a flag league where defenders have not had the benefit of a few years of organized football. This is not to take anything away from your fast girl rusher, but unless she is also truly superior athlete, there is a good chance that her speed and efforts are wasted. Consider keeping her as a rusher with your best player also rushing or hesitating and then pursuing the QB once he has made a move in the pocket. Often speedy QBs are not comfortable sitting in the pocket and will make a move soon after getting the ball. As a QB, standing still with people running at you, it’s actually very easy to make a move and break free, using the rusher’s momentum against her. It takes a lot of discipline and experience to rush in under control and not be eluded by a shifty runner.
What you need to avoid is giving the QB the benefit of time and space to run or throw to an opening in your defense. Also, his accuracy and timing will be drastically reduced if he has a good rusher in his face. He will force bad throws, he will make bad choices, and at the end of the day, you have taken away at least one, hopefully both of his weapons. You don’t need to default into man defense. Consider one deep guy, corners that drift back as the play progresses, two linebackers picking up middle and short threats, and rushing your fast girl and your best player. With the corners drifting back, you may open up some shallow routes, but you should be able to maintain coverage on the deep ball.
These strategies and more can be found in my playbooks and the Ultimate Strategy Guide and Defensive Handbook in my dojo.
No mistakes. No mercy.
It doesn’t take playing too many seasons of flag football to be able to count up the wins earned and losses given away because of missed flag pulls. But with practice, your team can greatly improve its flag pulling ability and start winning more of those close games.
Practice. Many teams don’t practice at all, but those that do practice route running, catching, throwing, running live plays and occasionally the stray defensive set. But almost never do you see a team practice flag pulling, even though it s a crucial part of the game (that happens nearly every play).
Technique. Aside from practice, the defense needs to have good technique. Too many players stop running and swat at the flag, which is fluttering and flapping. The likelihood of grabbing a flag with the swat method is lower than by using many other techniques. What’s worse, if you swat at a flag and miss, you’ve probably lost your ability to make a play on the runner because he’s still moving full speed and you’ve stopped to swat. Instead, use these three techniques from the Ninja’s Ultimate Strategy Guide, to improve your game:
- First, don’t swat and don’t stop your feet. Keep up with the runner and instead of swatting across at the flag, with one hand rip down the runner’s body (assuming your league uses tear-away belts rather than velcro flags) and rip the belt off and with the other hand you can take a swipe at the flag.
- Second, slow the momentum of the runner. Most leagues allow some contact without a penalty, so wrap up the runner completely for a split second and then in one motion rip the flag. If your referees are especially sensitive to this kind of thing, just put your body in front of the runner. It will make him stop his forward progress and make a cut. The result is a much easier target and more success.
- Finally, get your team in the habit of pursuing the runner from anywhere on the field. This is the best defense against pitches and will save you from missed flag debacles. Swarm the ball!
Here’s a Good Drill:
Form a line of flag pullers about 10-12 yards off the line of scrimmage, centered on the field and facing the line like a defensive back. On the line, have three lines spread out (wide right receiver, wide left receiver and center). Coach/QB will release one receiver from the center, right or left position and throw a quick pass (to work on other mechanics). As soon as the ball is caught, the flag puller releases and pursues the receiver. One point for the offense if he misses the flag, one point for the defense if he pulls it.
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What drills can I run to help my defense with ZONE. I’m having a hard time showing and teaching them. This is my 1st time coaching defense. Thanks in advance,
The Ninja Speaks:
“No feather can fly. But a wing full of feathers soars.” -Further Musings of the Master
The first thing to realize is that there are two components to a successful zone defense: Scheme and Execution. Drills and practice need to revolve around those two themes.
Scheme. The wrong zone defense will get beaten no matter how hard you practice or what drills you work on. Having a good scheme is vital. Some league formats (like 4on4) make running a zone defense very difficult. But with enough players it’s just a matter of the plan and carrying it out. If you have purchased a playbook from my dojo, you will have received the defensive handbook with plays and tips to success on defense. Also see the recent post on a great 7on7 flag football defensive look. The important piece of running a successful zone, is to be able to tailor it to the offense you’re playing. Have a couple of different sets ready for different offensive looks. An aspiring Michael Vick quarterback requires more linebacker support and maybe even a dedicated defender to spy the QB, whereas an immobile gunslinger with strong receivers demands more attention in the secondary.
I like a base cover 2 defense with two deep safeties, two cornerbacks a linebacker and two rushers with blitzes and rotations out of that format. As some earlier posts mention, man-on-man defense is a good alternative if you have the athletes. Also experiment with a hybrid.
Execution. The second, and probably more important, aspect of a good zone defense is execution. Brush up on some of the fundamentals from the Ultimate Strategy Guide that comes in our playbook packages like the backpedal, keeping your head on a swivel and maintaining proper field vision. Work on breaking on a ball, swarming the receiver and reading the QB’s eyes. But those pieces are peripheral to the core zone defense key: staying in the zone. By far the biggest problem with zone defense comes from guys who are not used to playing disciplined, organized football abandoning their zone coverage responsibilities. One or two flashes of sandlot glory and suddenly a cornerback who is supposed to cover the flat is flying across the field with a receiver, hoping for a pick. DEFENSE HAS TO STAY IN THE ZONE. Work on fundamentals, work on vision, definitely work on swarming the football, but if you want to practice for a zone, practice staying in your spot. Have a skeleton defense line up in the zone coverage. Consider arranging a point scheme for receptions and touchdowns (to get the defense trying to win), and then start sending receivers through the zones. Double up receivers in a zone. Try to run routes that will pull the defenders out of position. If a defender blows coverage, pull him out, replace him and have him stand and watch the defense from the offensive side of the ball (not running a route, just watching). This will give perspective on what it looks like as a QB when zone coverage fails. Also, emphasize communication. When a receiver cuts across the field, he likely goes in and out of 2 or 3 zones. If the defenders are communicating what’s happening, this fosters the cohesive defensive front, and will improve your team.
The key is to think about the zone from an offensive perspective. Any good offense that’s targeting the zone will do what they can to exploit the zone. Pull a defender out of his spot and hit another receiver in the hole. A good quarterback knows which routes split a zone defender and where to look for an opening.
You don’t need a long list of specific drills to improve your zone coverage. You need a good foundation and scheme, and then you need to work on execution. Yes, fundamentals play a big part, but the zone defense is only as good as the players executing it. Each defender has to trust and rely on the guy next to him to pick up the receiver that crosses from one zone to another.
I have a 7 on 7 touch football team and we do not have a defense in place. Our offense is not that strong and I think that having a stronger defense might help win games. What would be the best defense to IMPLEMENT? I have thought of putting the CB’s in man coverage and the rest of the team in zone. This is my first season as manager and I am USUALLY an offensive guy and no one to help with defense. Thanks!
The Ninja Speaks:
“The best offense is a good defense.”
- Very Original Saying Invented by the Ninja in his Wisdom
Your issue is a common problem in flag football. The limited extra attention devoted to the team strategy is spent on offense, trick plays or updating stats. But developing a consistent defensive scheme and flexible formations is key to taking your team to the next level.
A blend of man and zone defense can work great if you have the right personnel. If the offense is showing a three receiver set, and if you have the athletes to man up on all three receivers, it gives you a lot of options to cover the dump off, run or scramble. In that type of formation, lock down your corners and a safety an man coverage and use two rushers and two linebackers. To give your team an edge, work on a blitz and rush scheme that mixes up the linemen and linebackers, occasionally sending three. Be aware of leaking linemen (assuming they’re eligible) and a scrambling QB.
Also consider what the Ninja calls “Shadow Cover 3” – A less aggressive true zone option with corners starting in the flats and drifting back into deep third coverage with a middle safety and two backers and two rushers.
This is just a start to what you can do in a 7man league on defense. If you haven’t already, visit my Dojo and pickup a 7man playbook. These all come with the Defensive Handbook and the Ultimate Strategy Guide which will propel you and your team to the next level.
No Mistakes. No Mercy.
Hi. I play in a league with only 8 games per season (less with rainouts). Our team has not played that much together, but we don’t want to take a lot of chances during regular season because losses might hurt our playoff seed. Should we take risks during the season or play defensively? Thanks - Johnny
The Ninja Speaks:
“Fear of the open road weakens both hand and head.” - Trileon’s Adages for his Heirs
Playing “defensive football” all season is a surefire way to ensure mediocrity. Particularly if you are a new team, you will have a very difficult time accessing the players’ true potential and tapping the pockets of talent in your team without taking risks and making mid-season changes as needed.
The two most important things to remember about playoffs are:
- If your team makes it to the playoffs, you’ll have to beat the best team to win the championship.
- If you don’t make it to the playoffs, you’ve already spent too much time thinking about it. It’s time to re-tool and look to next season. Your system doesn’t work.
The first question to ask is how likely is it that your team doesn’t make the playoffs. Some leagues let all but the bottom one or two teams in the playoffs, but others only allow four teams. Know your league rules before the season starts, but once you’ve got a general idea of where you need to be to qualify, ignore the playoffs for the first half of the season. Sitting at the computer refreshing the standings screen multiple times a day is a mistake, and drilling into your teammates’ heads how crucial it is to win X games before you step onto the field is likely to have destructive consequences. Play to win and play to improve, but don’t obsess over the win/loss count and where you stand in the rankings. Your team will benefit much more by having worked out the kinks (through wins or losses) than it will from having so carefully tried to manage wins and losses (which may not work anyway) that half of the players could be adding more.
That said, there may come a point with one or two regular season games left, where a win or a loss determines whether you advance to the playoffs. Play that game like it’s the championship game – nothing else matters that day except a W.
And as for the first issue, yes you may not have to play in the first round, and yes you might skip over having to play a strong second seed, but in the end, your team will win or not win the championship by virtue of being the best team out there. Does it help to be the first seed? Of course, but if you’re so focused on playoff berths that you’re afraid to experiment with a spread set of receivers or to try the guy who keeps reminding you he played QB in high school or to run man coverage with an extra blitzer, you missed out.
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What’s up man. I purchased your 7-on-7 option playbook online and it is some great stuff. Most of the plays are drawn up against what you call a “Rhino Base 2″ I was wondering. what do you do if they line up differently in a different defensive look? If you could give me a response when you get a chance. Thanks. -Zeke A.
The Ninja Speaks:
“It is not where the blade begins, but the arc of the slice and where it comes to rest that matters.”
“Tora – Master Swordhandler”
Thank you for your purchase of the Poison Dart Passing playbook from my Dojo. You have already taken steps on the path to victory. All of the plays in the playbooks are shown against a shell defense, but do not be fooled by the simplicity.
Most of the plays can be run against a zone defense or a man defense. That is, they are designed to find holes in a zone defense, but can be extremely effective against a man set as well. The main differences between running against a man defense and running against a zone defense will be the way the routes are run. Against a man defense, routes should be sharper and timing more precise. An out pattern should show no hint of a cut until it’s too late and the receiver has made his move. Against a zone defense, however, the receiver has a little more freedom to make the cut sooner or later, to round it or cut it hard, depending on the position of the zone defenders. For example: if you are a receiver running a shallow flag route (straight, then a cut 45 degrees to the outside), if it looks like the deep safety is sucking up to jump the out route in front of you, cut a little later and a little deeper to get behind the safety.
Success against a (good) man defense will hinge on your QB’s ability and how you’re your timing is. Practice is key to getting timing down. Otherwise you only hit your stride by the end of the season. In flag football, particularly with smaller teams (4man, 5man, 6man – even 7 man), it is very hard to play shut-down man defense against a good well-practiced team. If every defender is a superior athlete than the receivers, this can happen, but good sharp patterns and well timed throws can pick apart almost any man defense.
Spend a little time with the Ultimate Strategy Guide that came with you playbook purchase. Also, to really open up your options, consider upgrading to the Ninja package with 100 plays of all types.
No Mistakes, No Mercy.
The Ninja Speaks:
“Swift is the flight of the chased. The samurai lies in wait.” - Master’s Journal
There are many flag football leagues like yours, some with as many as 8 players, but mostly 4man or 5man style. But you make an excellent observation about a tough decision made from the sand-lot all the way to the pros. What to do about a quick QB?
Cost/Benefit: If your league is 4man or 5man, there is a real cost-benefit analysis to be done before going after a speedy QB. Leaving him alone gives you and extra man in the defense, but also allows him lots of time to make a throw.
How’s His Gun? The first question is what are the QB’s strengths? Is he just fast, or does he also have a strong arm? How about accuracy? If speed is far and away his greatest strength, you’re probably better off letting him try to thread the needle in your stacked defense than trying to flush him out. Most passing leagues also have some sort of time limit to throw. But if he is dangerous throwing the ball as well, the choice gets more complex.
Man it Up: By sending a rusher or blitzer after the QB (especially in 4man or 5man), you do a couple of things. First, you commit to man defense. It will be extremely tough to run a zone defense with 3 or 4 guys while sending another. And second, in addition to manning up on receivers, you are manning up on the QB as well.
Managing Talent: Do you have the athletes to pull it off? There are some teams whose best player is their QB, (plus rushing in fast after a quarterback gives him the upper hand to make a move and get free), so you may want your best athlete matched on the QB. If you do that, will the result be a big mismatch on their 6’ 6” TO look-alike receiver? Remember, though, that if you rush your best athlete, in theory, he should make the job of the other defenders a lot easier by putting real pressure on the QB.
The Swivel: Make sure that the other defenders keep an eye on the QB. If he makes a move past the rusher, you’re going to need support to keep him from funning for a huge gain.
The Mega Rush: Also, sending 2 men will work only rarely. If they have a completely useless receiver, or if their QB is not very good, you may be able to fake coverage on two bunched receivers, but with a QB who is even close to decent,
Making the Call: So if you think you’ve got the men to pull it off, rushing the QB will result in forced offensive errors, but remember it creates opportunity for the QB to make a big play on the ground as well. If you try it and the QB gets free a few times, change personnel or abandon the rush. If the QB is fast, but not a great ball slinger, let him sit back there and try to make a tough throw.
By The Flag Football Ninja
Visit My Dojo: www.FlagFootballNinja.com
Hey I play middle linebacker in a 7 0n 7 flag football league in Florida. I was wondering if there is any techniques you could provide me with. Our team plays zone defense about 99% of the time. also occasionally we will go from having 3 linebackers/ 1 safety to having 2 linebackers/2 safeties so if you could also give me some tips on outside linebacker as well i would really appreciate it. Thanks – D.J.
The Ninja Speaks:
“With its prey transfixed on its brightly colored tail, the fire lizard strikes from the flank.” - Observations of a Predator
One of the best strategies for a dynamic and effective defense is to keep the quarterback and the offense guessing. As soon as they have pinned down your defensive formation, any quarterback with moderate talent can pick you apart.
You should develop two or three formations that the team is comfortable with – these would probably include a 3 linebacker set to stop the middle threat, a cover-2 formation with two safeties deep, and maybe even a prevent look with the deep field split up into thirds. You can jump between the formations depending on the situation – 4th and long, you don’t want just one safety back.
But with just two or three formations, you can still give the offense dozens of different looks. If you’re going to send two or three rushers, consider sending the safety and dropping a lineman, or blitzing a cornerback and filling his spot from the inside. If your league allows blocking on the line, confusing the offensive linemen will translate directly into better pressure on the quarterback which means more rushed throws and more big plays.
There is no reason your defense needs to be set when the ball is snapped. You can have guys shifting all over the filed. Backers showing blitz, safeties playing up off the line. If you have decent athletes, they should be able to settle into their zones by the time the play develops.
One tip to keep in mind for an outside backer (depending on the rushing and scrambling rules of your league), is to make sure someone is covering the QB. This is where it’s important to know your opponent – on some teams the QB scrambling is their primary weapon. If you’re relying only on your rushers, and a quick QB gets outside, the defense will give up at least a 10, sometimes a 20 or more yard gain.
The Highland Tiger
7on7 Zone Defense Formation
The formation: Two defensive linemen, two backers, two cornerbacks and one deep safety.
The Rushers: As mentioned above, switching up the rushing will prove much more effective than just sending two guys up the middle. Also, match the rushers to the offense. Sometimes you don’t want your biggest guys on the line, sometimes you want your fastest. Depending on the offense, the line or spying linebacker may be the place for your best athletes (this topic is discussed in more detail in the Defensive Handbook, packaged with all FlagFootballNinja.com playbooks).
The Cornerbacks: The corners will start out spread wide and only about 5-7 yards off the line. They will defend against the quick out or flare into the flats. But as the play progresses, they are going to drop deep and each cover 1/3 of the deep field.
The Linebackers: In addition to alternating their rush with the rushers, the backers will cover the short and short middle of the field. Each one should pickup the QB rolling to his side. They also cover releasing linemen (if eligible). These guys have to work well together because if one steps up to cover a rolling QB, the other needs to pick up any holes behind him. Also, as the cornerbacks drift deep, the linebackers will have to cover the flats.
Safety: Safety should start about 10-15 yards deep in the middle of the field. He will have deep crosses or anything else behind the backers. But keep in mind, on a long bomb down the sideline, the cornerbacks may be in a footrace, so the safety should get over and help.