Free Special Report on the most common mistakes youth coaches make
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Copyright 1999 John T. Reed

Ever since I first got into youth football, the sweep play has bedeviled me, on both sides of the ball. It was the hardest play to stop on defense. And, because I rarely had speed, it was hard for me to run on offense.

Why the sweep is so effective

Teams that have the fastest kid on the field can generally run the sweep all day, usually successfully. Teams that do not have one of the fastest kids on the team generally cannot successfully run the sweep unless they are very smart about how and when they run it.

There is no coaching in the typical youth pitch sweep. I will give the coaches in question credit for figuring out that the play works for them, and for teaching the quarterback how to make the pitch, but not much else. They simply pitch the ball to the fastest kid on the field and he runs around the end. The play works because both teams are incompetently coached. The sweep path takes the ball carrier away from his incompetently coached teammates, who would otherwise get in his way. And because the defense is poorly coached, he breaks contain and is lose in the open field where his natural speed and agility are the determining factors.

This particular play is a simple game of tag. In tag, the fastest, most elusive kid wins. There are no coaches in the game of tag. None are needed. Nor are any coaches needed in the youth pitch sweep.

I have attended hundreds of youth games and pre-season scrimmages. Time and time again, I have watched sweeps dominate the games. But when I got to high-school coaching, where I started as a JV defensive coordinator, I mentioned that the sweep was the main play to stop. The very experienced, successful head varsity coach said, “Not at this level. In high school, the main play is the off-tackle.”

Why would the sweep be the main play in youth football and the off-tackle play be the main play in high school? They have competent coaches in high school. They know how to coach their kids to stop the sweep. The off-tackle works better because it offers a handful of well-coached players in the vicinity of the point of attack who can be deployed using various blocking schemes and work as a team to succeed. In youth football, the sweep is a one-man tag game. In high-school football, the sweep is just another play requiring blocking. There are relatively few blockers available at the sweep point of attack, so it is not such a hot play at that level.

Another interesting difference between youth and high-school football in my area: In youth football, the big city teams (e.g., Oakland, Sacramento) with the fastest players are perennial champions. But at the high-school level, the suburban teams (e.g., Orinda, Pleasanton, De La Salle) with the slowest players are perennial champions. When my oldest son’s team, Miramonte High School, played El Cerrito for the North Coast Section Championship in 1998, the local paper pre-game story wondered if Miramonte’s “Clydesdales” could defeat El Cerrito's speedy backs. A Clydesdale is a big, slow horse. They are most famous for pulling the Budweiser beer wagon. My son and his “Clydesdale” teammates beat speedy El Cerrito 40-0. It was Miramonte’s second consecutive NCS championship.

There is a third stage: college recruiting. When it comes time to hand out football scholarships, the big-city kids again cash in on the natural ability like they did in youth football. The suburban high-school football stars play no-scholarship college football or none at all. Why? The best big-city kids get more scholarships for the same reason they succeeded with the sweep at the youth level. They have more athletic ability and coaching quality does not matter in who colleges recruit or youth-football sweeps against poorly-coached defenses.

Why do the big-city teams win at the youth level and the suburban teams at the high school level? Coaching. At the youth level, hardly any coaches know what they are doing, so the games are just foot-race-tag games when they run the pitch sweep. But at the high-school level, the suburban schools are more sought-after work places so they attract the best teacher-coaches.

Big-city kids who go to Catholic high schools often find themselves on successful teams but, again, these are more sought-after teacher-coach jobs than working at big-city public schools.

Fill sweep

The pitch sweep is not the only version. My son’s high school team generally did not use the pitch sweep. The head coach said it requires a faster tailback than we had. (My son was the tailback and ran about a 4.8 40 in high school.) Instead, he used the fill sweep. In the fill sweep, the playside guard pulls outward to lead the sweep as a blocker. The quarterback fakes a handoff to the fullback who fills the hole in the line left by the pulling guard. The quarterback then gives the ball to the tailback who was lined up behind the backside (away from the side you are sweeping to) tackle.

The fake dive causes a poorly disciplined contain man to hesitate, thereby allowing the pulling guard to gain outside leverage on him. That lets the tailback break contain and get around the end. This is also a good youth play because poorly trained youth contain men fall for the fake and decide they should go help stop the dive play.

Green Bay sweep

The most famous sweep play was the Green Bay Packer sweep of the Vince Lombardi era. In fact, that play was not a sweep. Rather it was an off-tackle/sweep combination. Three famous phrases define the play.

The tight end was to “take the playside contain man wherever he wanted to go.” Actually, that’s not literally true. Rather the tight end was to push the contain man flat along the line of scrimmage in whatever direction the contain man initially tried to go around the tight end. In other words, use the defender’s initial momentum against him. But the tight end was not to take him all the way to where he wanted to go because he wanted to go to the ball carrier.

Secondly, the ball carrier was to “run to daylight.” That is, neither the off-tackle nor the sweep path was prescribed in advance. Rather the ball carrier was to read the tight end’s block. If the defender tried to go outside, the tight end would push him further outside and the ball carrier would cut inside. If the defender tried to go inside, the tight end would push him inside and the ball carrier was to go outside (the sweep). Whether the play ended up being a sweep or off-tackle was determined by the playside contain man on the defense.

In the play diagram, there is a Y shape for the behavior of both the defensive contain man and the offensive ball carrier. One branch of the Y was a solid line; the other was a dotted line. The dotted lines were opposite each other. That is, if the defender went inside, described by a dotted line, the ball carrier was to go outside, also designated by a dotted line. Solid lines defined the defender’s outside path and the ball carrier’s inside path. This play is described in more detail in my book Coaching Youth Football. It is described in great detail in Vince Lombardi on Football. There is a lot more to the play.

In a famous video clip often seen on TV, Lombardi ends his chalk discussion of the sweep with a loud “in the alley!” The alley is a path between the blocks of a wideout coming in on a safety and the playside guard going out and blocking the cornerback outward. After the running back clears the contain man being blocked by the tight end, he needs to get into the alley between the two downfield blocks.

This play was extremely successful, even though the Green Bay players were known for a relative lack of talent and speed.

My sweeps

I have only been able to sweep twice in my youth coaching career. In 1993, my tailback was Will Sykes. He had just enough speed to turn the corner with defender finger nails scraping off his shoulder pads. To do that, he had to give a little shoulder dip fake to make defenders think he was cutting upfield, then he would continue on his sweep path as they planted to stop the cutback.

In that sweep, we had our flanker crack back on the contain man when the play went toward our bench (the flanker was always near our bench).

That play worked best when we first set it up with numerous off-tackle plays. We ran the single wing so our off-tackle play was powerful (many lead blockers). The defensive contain man would get frustrated with so many off-tackle plays running inside him that he would start to cheat inward in his alignment and in the speed of his reaction to the snap. We would constantly watch the contain man. When he cheated enough, we would call the sweep. Because of his cheating, the contain man would get blocked in by our wing and the flanker would be free to crack on a linebacker. The opposing coach would yell at his contain man for letting us outside and we would go back to running the off-tackle play.

In 1998, I coached a youth flag team where we had a pre-season tryout and draft and all the players were from the same three suburban communities. I drafted for speed and got the second, fourth, fifth, and eighth fastest kids in the league. Finally, I had speed. We cracked our split end on the contain man and had our wing and blocking back lead blocking. The second and fifth fastest kids in the league were the lead blockers. The eighth fastest kid was the tailback. The tailback simply ran around the end behind all those blocks. The play was very successful for us, although we rarely had a big gainer out of it.

In our final playoff game, my blocking back was sick so I put my youngest son, who was the 50th fastest kid in the league, at blocking back. The play did not work with him there because he got in the way of our tailback instead of getting in the way of the opposing linebackers.

Defending the sweep

Your contain men must be extremely disciplined to do what they are told, not go off looking for adventure in someone else’s area of responsibility. Do not use your best athletes, even though this is the toughest play to stop. Use your most obedient athletes. The details of stopping the sweep are in my Coaching Youth Football, Gap-Air-Mirror Defense For Youth Football, and Coaching Youth Football Defense books. Basically, you box the wide-side end if you can get away with it. If not, they slide along the line of scrimmage staying outside the sweeper. The key is they must do their job every single time. The problem comes when they decide to do something else. Discipline or die at this position.

The contain man does not generally make the tackle on the sweep play. Rather he is like a ranch dog who keeps the cattle in the middle so the cowhands can rope them. You must also have full-speed, competent pursuit. They make the tackle. The pursuit includes a trail man to stop the reverse, outside-in pursuers to keep the ball carrier from getting to the sideline and inside-out pursuers to prevent the ball carrier from cutting back against the grain. This requires weekly drilling in which coaches insist on full-speed and correct paths.

Crack with motion man

A lot of teams put a man in motion, then crack-back block him against the defense’s contain man. This works pretty well because most coaches do not practice for it. The contain man cannot defeat the crack-back block. The cornerback on that side must yell, “Crack!” and take over the contain responsibilities. That leaves a passing zone or man-covered receiver open. If you are in zone pass coverage (don’t be), the defensive backs must rotate over to cover the pass in the area vacated by the corner turned contain man. If you are in man coverage, the contain man must take over the man-coverage responsibilities on the crack-back blocker in case he goes out for a pass.

When I was a high-school freshman offensive coordinator, our halfback run-pass option involved the wide receiver faking a crack-back block on the contain man, then running a corner route. We even had the wideout yell “Crack!” in case the opposing cornerback forgot. The running back would read the cornerback. If he covered the wideout, the running back would keep the ball and run a sweep. If the cornerback took over the contain responsibilities, the running back would throw to the wideout running the corner route.

If you are having trouble with the contain man when you run your sweep on offense, try using a motion man to block him, although you need at least one other play off that same motion or it will give the play away. If you’re having trouble stopping the motion-man-crack sweep when you are on defense, teach the procedure I just described, walk through it, then practice it live.

Biggest play in youth football

The sweep is the biggest play in youth football because fast, poorly-coached teams can succeed with it against slower poorly-coached teams. Good coaching stops it at the high school level and can do so at the youth level as well. Slower teams generally cannot have much success with this play. In 1991, the relatively slow Vacaville Bulldogs won our state championship. We asked them how they did it. “We never ran outside the tackles,” was their answer. They were a well-coached team (although not well enough coached that we did not knock them out of the playoffs the following year).

Run the sweep if you have speed. Devote much of your defensive practice time to stopping it.

Good luck,

John T. Reed