Many youth defensive coaches contact me asking what is the best defense for youth football. It is the Gap-Air-Mirror which I invented and perfected with the help of my readers. Below are comments on that defense and some of the others I have seen in my career as a youth and high school coach.
Gap-8 is a misnomer in the twenty-first century. I am now calling it the gap-air-mirror defense. The gap-air-mirror defense has down linemen in the A and B gaps, contain men lined up on air (no offensive player in front of them) just outside the offensive interior line, tight end, or wing, and man pass coverage in which the defenders mirror the alignment and movement of the eligible receivers. It would only be a true gap-8 if the offense lined up as they did in the old days when the gap-8 got its name, against a double-tight-end, full-house-T, wishbone, wing-T, or power-I formation.
It is very hard to justify any other youth defense. Youth football is generally a running game. This defense stops the run, especially the wide-side toss sweep which is the main play used by most of the teams that have a really fast kid in youth football. It’s probably the best youth pass defense as well because of the strong rush, plugging of receivers, and man coverage, which are the best youth-pass-defense tactics.
The January/February 2000 edition of The Extra Point* contained the following comment about college football. “If you can’t pass today,” said [Don] Nehlen [Head Football Coach at the University of West Virginia], “you'd better learn how to block nine, or 10 or even 11, because they're all going to be up there.” I would add, “Unless you are a youth coach, in which case they will not all be up there because youth defensive coordinators are too ignorant and too timid to take advantage of inability to pass by increasing the number of defenders ‘in the box.’”
* The Extra Point is the Official Publication of the American Football Coaches Association, which is dominated by college coaches.
The 10-1 is the gap-8 with bump-and-run corners. The gap-air-mirror defense is a 10-1 against one-back offensive formations, but only against those formations. Against two- and three-back formations a 9-1-1 or 8-2-1 would be correct. The Gap-Air-Mirror becomes a 9-1-1 or an 8-2-1 when the offensive formation so indicates.
If you can’t talk your head coach into using the gap-air-mirror in general, at least use it when the other team lines up in a power I. The power-I play that is coming is probably the isolation play or blast or double lead and only defenders low in the A and B gaps will stop it. I watched one of my readers in a playoff game. He was running my offense, but let his defensive coordinator run what he wanted,which was a 5-3. The opponent was running a power I using mainly blast plays which were ripping off gains of 5 or 6 yards a carry. “Letting your coaches coach” is only a good idea if they are competent.
This is the most common youth defense. If the 5-3-3 fails, the coaches can blame the kids. On the other hand, if the gap-air-mirror fails, the coach will get blamed for using that “ridiculous” defense. The 5-3-3 looks “normal” to other coaches and parents. Their idea of a good football defensive formation can be summed up in the words, “some guys on the line, some guys deep, and some guys in between.” The problems with the 5-3-3 in youth football is that it has six guys whose primary job is zone pass defense, at a level where few passes are thrown, only about 15% are completed, nearly that many are intercepted, and man pass coverage is clearly the only way to go.
Legendary NFL defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger and I were sitting together watching a University of California spring practice one day. When he asked what I did and I mentioned youth football, he said he was about to speak to a youth football league’s coaches. He said he was going to recommend only man pass coverage and asked if I thought that was correct for that level. “Absolutely!” I said.
The 5-3-3 also puts linebackers in charge of certain gaps and therefore requires those linebackers not to take a step or even lean in the direction of fakes and misdirection. That discipline takes years to develop.
In the gap-air-mirror, the linebackers are lined up on their receiver and only have gap responsibility there if the receiver stays there to block them. They rarely make reads of the backfield flow. The one middle linebacker in the gap-air-mirror has no gap. He is redundant, so his taking a false step in response to faking or misdirection is not important.
Whatever defense you use, you should read at least one book on how to run it. As far as I know, no book on the 5-3-3 has ever been written in the history of football. I’ll bet you think that cannot be true. OK, so tell me the title and author of the book on how to run the 5-3-3. (I have the Slanting Monster and Multiple Monster Football defense books. I do not consider them 5-3-3-s like youth coaches run.)
The “training wheels” version of the gap-air-mirror for coaches who think the gap-air-mirror make sense, but who do not have the guts to use such a radical approach. Not really very close to the gap-air-mirror because it is an odd defense rather than an even one. Odd defense are very different from even ones. Head up is very different from lining up in the gap. I have rarely seen this defense tried at the youth level and never seen it succeed.7-diamond (7-1-2-1) or 7-box (7-2-2)
This defense has not made sense since the era when all offenses used double-tight ends and full-house backfields. Also, it generally is a zone pass defense which Bill Arnsparger and I do not think works at the youth level. (Zone defenders get mesmerized by the ball and focus entirely on it and are blind to receivers in their zone including receivers who are behind them. Been there. Done that.)
My gap-air-mirror defense is actually a 7-3-1 when lined up against certain formations, like the single-wing offense.
A reader told me he used this (not against the single wing) and had a 5-1 record in a weak league. I analyzed it at a page of my Web site. His version was garbled from a high school coach’s Web page diagram at http://members.xoom.com/bcwarrior/Defense/wide7/wide7jumbo.gif. The high-school version of this looks OK, but I think it is not a good idea for youth football because some circumstances require you to switch man-pass-coverage responsibilities, which is a complexity you do not need with kids.
Once again, there is no book, not even an old, out-of-print one, on how to run this defense.
Common youth goal-line defense. Works great. I generally ran wide to score extra points and red-zone touchdowns because this defense was so common and so effective inside. It is lucky for the youth offensive coordinators of the world that hardly any youth defensive coordinators have the guts or smarts to use this defense other than in goal-line situations.
Once again, there is not book, not even an old, out-of-print one, on how to run this defense.
6-1-4 and 6-2-3
When I coached high school defense, they would not let me use the gap-8, but they would let me use the 6-1, which I figured was the next best thing. Actually, it did not work very well. Many of my readers like the idea of the gap-air-mirror, but are afraid to try it, so they do the 6-1 or 6-2, not because they want the 6-1 or 6-2, but only because it’s closer to the gap-air-mirror than the 5-3. Defense does not work that way. Changing from a 5-3 to a 6-2 is not just putting one more guy on the line. It changes the fundamental nature of the defense.
I suspect some guys like my gap-air-mirror idea, try the 6-2 because they are chicken to go all the way to the Gap-Air-Mirror, then, when the 6-2 doesn’t work, say they have thereby proven that my Gap-Air-Mirror does not work because it would no doubt be worse than the 6-2. Say what? I know of no level where the 6-1 or 6-2 are popular or successful.
A reader told me that I am wrong about the 6-2. He used it with great success. However, after going back and forth by email, I learn that he has 8 men on the line of scrimmage, two linebackers, and a safety. That’s 8-2-1 which is what my GAM is against certain offensive formations.
He also makes all sorts of adjustments like squeezing the eight linemen in tight if the opponent is running inside. In other words, he is running a defense that is closer to my GAM than to a 6-2. And he is coaching at the mite level (7-9) year olds. Kids under 9 are banned from most football camps because they are too young to understand the game. We had trouble getting our 8-year olds to understand that we were on defense when the other team was snapping the ball. At that age, the play book and the game bear only rough resemblance.
The actual names of the six-man line (not front) defense are wide tackle six and split six.
Once again, there is not book, not even an old out-of-print one, on how to run this defense. So you are not running THE 6-2. There is no THE 6-2. You are running a cockamamie defense with six men on the line that you invented.
Generally used by high schools that are trying to cover up personnel weaknesses. Substitutes trickery (stunts) for talent. The problem at the youth level is that it is too complex—especially with regard to who contains on the wide side of the field. Also, even when you bring all four linebackers, they are standing up. In the gap-air-mirror, the interior line charge is low as it must be. One coach I knew who used the 4-4 found the contain responsibilities got all fouled up because they were assigned to the outer four rather than the outer two guys. Sometimes there would be confusion as to who had contain on this play. It was hard to train four good contain guys instead of the normal two. Also, when the linebacker was the contain man on a given play, he was coming from so far away from the line of scrimmage that he was often fatally late to his contain responsibilities.
Without disciplined and sure contain men, you are vulnerable to the most effective youth play, the wide-side toss sweep. This is also a very pass-conscious defense, which is inappropriate in youth football. I suspect the main reason for use of the 4-4 in youth football is to imitate the local high school or the youth coach’s former high school.
There are lots of books on the 4-4.
Cover 1 man under pass coverage
The only way to go in youth football. Simple and effective when combined with a good pass rush and preventing inside releases by receivers. I tried cover zero man under once. It did not work. You need at least one guy in zone.
Zone pass coverage
F’get about it. You'll spend the whole season being amazed at how your defenders can let receivers run by them unnoticed time after time after time. You will spend the whole season saying “Don’t let any receivers get behind you,” only to watch your defenders let a receiver get behind them three seconds later. Every time a receiver goes through their zone laterally they will follow him into the adjacent zone, leaving theirs empty. You probably need five practices a week and total platooning on defense to make zone pass defense work at the youth level.
At the high school and higher levels, they mix both zone and man during a game. Some youth coaches try to do that as well. May God have mercy on your soul if you do that.
Real men blitz. I never do. I used to. I learned my lesson. With a Gap-Air-Mirror, you are essentially outnumbering the blockers on every play. Outnumbering the offensive blockers is one of the purposes of a blitz when you are in a defense with fewer defensive linemen than offensive linemen.
Another purpose of a blitz is to confuse offensive blocking assignments by bringing a guy who is unexpected or who comes from an unexpected angle. Heck, youth offensive linemen are always confused as to their blocking assignments. Generally their coaches have never worked out blocking assignments, let alone taught them to the players in an effective manner. There is no need to confuse them any more, nor any benefit from doing so. Plus, most experienced youth coaches go to extremely narrow line splits, like four inches, so there is no gap through which to blitz.
On offense, I run zero line splits and totally ignore blitzing. Occasionally, you run into a rookie youth coach who uses his high school or college line splits of one, two, or three feet. Blitzing kills such teams. The Gap-Air-Mirror kills them worse.
When youth coaches blitz it’s generally out of the vague notion that some principle of coaching says you have to blitz some of the time. These coaches further believe that the percentage of the time that you blitz is a measure of your manhood. Such coaches do not understand the purpose of a blitz, and are blind to the fact that it is not working, but is making their defense unsound.
A blitz is, in reality, a second defense which changes the responsibilities of several players. I never could get my players to execute one defense satisfactorily, let alone two. The blitz is primarily a pass-defense tactic. Youth passing is generally a joke. You should not do anything to discourage your youth opponent from passing.
When you rush more than five, you are forced to go to man pass coverage. Most of the proving-their-manhood youth coaches who blitz do not know that and therefore play zone pass coverage behind a blitz. That is mathematically unsound—suicidal—because there are too many zones to cover with five guys.
Your linemen may need to do stunts if a plain old charge isn’t working. That is, they are getting blocked and are unable to carry out their gap responsibilities. I never found that to be the case. Our plain old low line charge totally shut down all inside runs. Our problems with wide runs came from lack of discipline by our wide-side contain man, not getting blocked. Stunts may be needed to get high-speed penetration against direct-snap formations like the single wing, shotgun, or scrimmage kick.
Used by youth coaches who watch too much TV.
Actually, Vacaville once had their center dive to all fours to his right after every snap to cut off my defensive guard. I should have blitzed my middle linebacker over center and had the guard drop back into coverage, although personnel-wise, I would probably have to have the two defenders switch positions before the play. I wouldn’t want one of my youth guards playing middle linebacker.
Nickel and dime packages
Used by youth coaches who watch too much TV.
Football coaches ask their players to give 100%, but they often only give 83% or some such in return. One way youth coaches shortchange their players is to use a defense that they do not believe is the best possible one because they are afraid that if they use the best one, they will be criticized.
The gap-8 is often derided as obsolete. They are at the pro and college level because the passing games there are now so sophisticated. Pro and college teams used to use the gap-8, but that was back when their offenses used to run most of the time. But high school and youth offenses have not completely made the transition to sophisticated passing games for a number of reasons. The ability to pass the football is rare. There are enough good passers to staff 30 pro teams and 100 or so Division I-A college teams, but not 15,000 high school teams and certainly not 50,000 or so youth teams. Also, developing a quality passing game takes more time than youth teams have with their limited practices and need to have most players go both ways. Truth to tell, the vast majority of youth coaches are not knowledgeable enough about passing to lead their teams successfully in that direction.
Your defense should take away the most important threat first. In youth football, that is the wide-side toss sweep. There is no better sweep defense than the Gap-Air-Mirror. The second most important threat is the blast play. There is no better blast defense than the Gap-Air-Mirror. The third most important threat is the counter. The reason counters work is they get linebackers going the wrong way initially. Those of us who run the Gap-Air-Mirror only have linebackers against certain offensive formations.
The fourth most important threat in youth football is the slant pass. The Gap-Air-Mirror takes that pass away by lining defenders up on the inside shoulder of the receivers and preventing them from releasing inside. The defenders also go with the receivers when they finally escape. And there is one defender playing zone right where the slant is thrown.
The 5-3 is demonstrably inferior at stopping these four plays when compared to the Gap-Air-Mirror. Even youth coaches who know little about football ought to be able to see that. There are some plays that the 5-3-3 is better at stopping, like out passes, but those plays are not significant threats at the youth level. All defenses have weaknesses, including the gap-air-mirror. What you are trying to do is match the weaknesses of your defense with the weaknesses of youth-football offenses. The Gap-Air-Mirror should be weak against the out and fade passes and against trap plays if your linemen are not used to them. But youth offenses generally do not have those plays or are weak at executing them.
Understand what you are doing and why. I do not know all. So it is quite conceivable that a smart youth coach may disagree with me and come up with a better defense. But you do not achieve that by blindly imitating TV or high-school defenses. What you do must make sense given the offensive threats you face.
“NFL and college coaches know the most, therefore their defense must be the best.” For what? Stopping Tom Brady? I agree. But you don’t have to stop Tom Brady. I’ll bet that the vast majority of NFL and college coaches would use the gap-8 if you forced them to coach a youth team. The same applies to competent high-school coaches. Varsity high-school coaches generally know more than youth coaches, but that does not mean youth coaches should follow their example.
There is more passing at the high-school level. Opposing coaches are smarter at that level. Plus high school coaches are generally terrified of losing their jobs and most will refuse to follow the lead of G.A. Moore, the winningest active Texas high school coach, and use the 10-1. In their heart of hearts, many high school coaches believe the 10-1 would be the best defense, but they fear criticism by local parents, sports writers, and school board members who know little about football. In other words, your local high-school coach may not be using the defense he thinks is best. He may be using the best defense he thinks all the local pseudo coaches will allow him to use. If so, he’s one of those give-83% coaches.
In short, many youth football teams are perennial champs because they have a distinct recruiting advantage, in spite of the poor coaching they receive. On Wall Street they have a saying: “In a bull market, everyone thinks he's a genius.” A similar thing happens to the youth-football coaching staffs of teams with systemic recruiting advantages. There are a lot of incompetent youth coaching staffs who never had to learn to coach because they have large personnel advantages over all their opponents every year, yet because of their wins, those coaching staffs think they are geniuses.
“Well, we won the championship using the 5-3 last year, so we must be doing something right.” (This is usually said with a smug smirk.) Teams that win youth football championships are surely doing something right, but it may not be coaching. In high-school football, leagues are organized by student-body size. In Little League, no one team is allowed to draw from a population greater than 20,000. But in youth football, there are often enormous disparities between the talent pools of teams in the same league. One season, I coached a 7th, 8th, and 9th grade team from a community where the high school had freshman football. Some of our opponents were in communities where the high schools had no ninth grade and there was no junior-high football. In other words, it was my 7th and 8th graders against their 9th graders. We had a population of about 30,000. Some of our opponents had populations of 10,000; others had populations of 370,000 (OK, that town had two youth football teams). Our town was wild about soccer. We had to beg to fill our four youth football teams. Many of our opponents were in towns where soccer was relatively unpopular.
The better your players, the less it matters what defense you use. If you have the most talent by far in your league, it does not matter what defense you use. But if you are equal to your opponents talentwise, or somewhat below your opponents, you’d better pick the best possible defense.
Should I update this article?
Here is an email I got from a visitor to this Web page—and my answer:
Thank you for making so much information available on your web site. I realize it is a culmination of many years of coaching and research, and that (I have heard) you've been focusing on HS football these last several years.
That said, I'm curious as to whether you are/will be updating your youth information to any great extent. Specifically, I was perusing your article on youth defenses, and noticed it seemed to be a touch out of date. Over the last few years there have been some contrarian defenses put out there at the youth level, including Jack Gregory's 6-3 (he put a book out on it this year), Steve Calande's 46 Gambler (used by a Pop Warner 9-11 year old champion in 2006 I believe), Dum Coach's DC 46, and JJ Lawson's 33 Stack Attack. I can only speak to JJ's and Jack's - they are very youth friendly and focused heavily on stopping the run. I have heard great things about the 46 defenses as well, I believe they are hybrids of Buddy Ryan's 46 applied to the youth level.
Again, I can understand if you lack the time to update free content when you're not necessarily coaching at the youth level any longer, but still wanted to ask.
name withheld by request
The statement that I’ve been focusing on high school football the last several years is false. In the last several years I came out with Football Clock Management 3rd edition (all levels), improved Gap-Air-Mirror Defense For Youth Football, two new editions of Coaching Youth Football Defense, Coaching Freshman & Junior Varsity High School Football, reprints of Coaching Youth Football and Coaching Youth Flag Football, 2nd edition of Youth Baseball Coaching, a new Single-Wing Offense for Youth Football book that include material about the NFL Wildcat offense, and the Contrarian Edge for Football Offense (all levels).
The guy who told you I’ve been “focusing on high school football these last several years” lied to you. Is he doing that to persuade you that his book is better than mine? The last time I coached high school football was in 2005, more than several years ago. [The writer said the guy was not selling books and is a fan of my GAM defense.]
Every time one of my books sells out, which happens several times a year, I review it to see if it needs to be updated or just reprinted. As a general rule, the only reason for an update would be a rules change.
My testimonials pages include three recent (“last several years”) Pop Warner national championships and a California High School State Championship by a coach who said he used my Single-Wing Offense for Youth Football at that level.You say there have been “some contrarian defenses put out there at the youth level.”
Youth defenses have 8 guys in the box and tend to be layered because youth coaches are dumb enough to think they should have multiple lines of defense. 8 men in the box is OK, but layers are unsound. You have to plug all the gaps and cover all the recivers or all the passing zones. Layering puts many, if not most, defenders too far away from their gap or receiver.
How, pray tell, do any of these “new” defenses warrant my changing my book? For example, most of my blocking is wall blocking which is the sort of simplicity that youth football requires. When you are wall blocking, you set the wall where you are supposed to. The nuances of the “6-3” (did you know that requires man pass coverage all the time) or the 46 gambler (you don’t blitz in youth football because of narrow line splits) or the other “new” defenses are irrelevant. A wall is a wall. Whether the defenders trying to get through the wall came from a “6-3” or 46 matters not one whit.
My off-tackle play has the line captain make a line call before every play. It tells the rest of the line where the playside DT is aligned. We block each DT location differently. We’ll make that same line call and block that same way against these “new” defenses as we do against the “old” defenses.
You imply that there are all sorts of different ways to do a youth football defense. No, there aren’t. Everybody has to have two contain men, 2 or 3 interior linemen, and backs to cover the six passing zones or the five eligible receivers. Where exactly are Jack Gregory or Steve Calande or whoever going to put them that will bother the readers of my books? The wide defenders are aligned on the WRs. The 8 in the box are in an area about 7 yards by 4 yards. How many different places can you put eight guys in an area that small? If they do something unusual on defense, as opposed to contrarian offense about which I wrote a book, they will create a weak spot. Knowledgeable coaches will spot and attack that location immediately. Others will find it eventually like a blind pig finding an acorn—by running various plays and going back to those that worked.
It sounds like you are asking me to acknowledge the existence of some recent books on youth football defense in my free articles. Why bother? My coach readers communicate with me almost daily. Not a single one has ever mentioned having any difficulty with these or any other defenses. Today I got two such calls. One reader just got killed by one of my readers using my single wing offense and my GAM defense. He was ordering the single wing book.
Whenever I see a need to improve my books, I do it. I read them from cover to cover every time I sell out looking for stuff I feel should be changed. Usually, I just clarify things with more detail. Years ago, I got a lot of mention of off-tackle defense problems so I devised solutions which my readers say worked. One is in a dramatic story I just posted at www.johntreed.net/GAMcomments.html.
I am not coaching at any level at present. I have plenty of time to update when necessary.
The writer’s complaint, he later explained in a subsequent email, is that I did not mention these “new” defenses above in this article. I have been in a zillion post-game pizza parties where coaches and fathers endlessly drew up new offensive and defensive schemes and plays on napkins. I am not surprised that they are now also in books. But there is no need for an update every time another diagram hits a napkin. I will not react until there is some new fundamental approach to defense that actually causes offenses trouble. “New and improved” is the most powerful, and widely used, advertising language known to Madison Avenue. But most “new and improved’ products or services are barely new and not improved at all. So it is with youth football defenses.
In the two decades I have been involved in youth and high school football, the only fundamentally different defense I have seen is mine. As a coach, I have faced 6-man lines, 5-2’s, 5-3’s, 5-4’s, 4-4’s, 3-5’s, gap-8s, etc. I also had to run all those defenses when my superiors, not I, got to decide which scheme to run. The only one of those defenses we ever even adjusted to was the gap-8.
You generally have to run outside against it. The others are all covered by my blocking rules to the point that we did not even discuss such things as “This week we’re playing a 3-5 team guys.” We just aligned our scout team in the 3-5 and walked through all our blocking assignments. You can see the 11 wrist coaches, containing blocking rules in most cases, that we gave each of our eleven defenders in my book Coaching Freshman & Junior Varsity High School Football (pages 93-95). I think you will find they work just fine against these “new” defenses.
Every week when I coach, I diagram all my plays against the upcoming opponent’s defenses. Every week I take some plays out of the game plan for that week because some don’t diagram well against a particular defensive alignment, whether it’s old or “new.” Throughout the season, I refine my blocking rules here and there, always keeping in mind that the new version of the rule needs to work against all defenses, not just the defense we face that week. The fact that I am out of date because I do not discuss every now book that comes along is incorrect. Generally, in spite of the new name and hype, it’s almost indistinguishable from some defense I did discuss.
I did not invent the basic concepts of man pass coverage or boxing the wide-side end or low gap charge, but I filled in a zillion necessary details and added ways to deal with the unique youth football problems of having many weak players and minimum play rules.
If anyone running my single-wing offense is systemically having trouble against these or any other defenses, I would like to hear about it. I provide free “tech support” on the advice in my books. I can usually diagnose the problem and prescribe an effective remedy in a minute or two. A number of my testimonial givers mentioned in their testimonials that they contacted me during the season with a problem and that my advice promptly fixed it.
I’ll post your email and my answer on my Web site. That will be my “update.”
John T. Reed
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