Developing "Defense in Depth" Within Your Kickoff Coverage: Brent Gossett

Brent Gossett – Lutheran High School of St. Charles
Defensive Coordinator
Special Teams Coordinator 2015-2016

When coaching Kickoff, coaches are often heard saying, “stay in your lanes.” This coaching holds true during the “Speed and Read” zone, but what happens in the “Avoid/Fly” zone and the “Attack/Strike” zone? It’s in these zones that our players need to understand when to continue pressing the field vertically and when to fold the field horizontally. Ensuring that our players understand the “WHY” and the “HOW” of pressing and folding is critical to building defense in depth on kickoff.

How you name the players on kickoff is not important, but to keep us on the same page, we number the positions from the outside in, that is to say, the player closest to the sideline is one and the player closest to the kicker is five. We further refine those positions with an “R” for the players on the right side of the ball and an “L” for the players on the left side of the ball, which translates to R1–R5 and L1–L5 (see fig. 1 for coverage responsibilities). Now that we are all on the same page, how do we create defense in depth?

It starts with the gunners and in this case the gunners are the R5 and L5 players. These players are expected to get down field as fast as possible and cause the returner to run horizontally. We don’t expect these players to make the tackle, we expect them to redirect the returner. This redirection should direct the returner to either our alley players (L/R4) or our force players (L/R3). It is important that these players understand their spacing and how it relates to the gunners. Our L/R4 players need to know that if a gunner (L/R5) crosses their path they MUST fold behind the gunner. If the L/R4 players fail to fold we will be left with a hole in our second layer of coverage. In the video clip below we see what happens when our L4 fails to fold under the L5 as he crosses the path of the L4. The L4 leaves an open alley for the returner, allowing the returner to turn vertically up field.

Contrast the play of the L4 with that of the R2 in the following clip. We can see how our R2 player executes the fold technique when the R3 crosses his path.

In addition to folding under a crossing teammate, we also need to train our coverage players to key the returner’s shoulders. We should fold when the returner’s shoulders turn vertically up the field. This helps narrow, or squeeze, the field. With that being said, we must return to vertically pressing the field when the returner’s shoulders turn horizontal in your direction. If the coverage players are not disciplined in reading their fold and press keys there will be holes in the coverage.

The R5 and L5 are the first level of coverage, and the L/R4, L/R3 and L/R2 are the second level of coverage, which leaves the third level that I like to call “the safety triangle.” The safety triangle is created by the relationship between the kicker and, in the case of this coverage, the L1 and R1 players.

Looking at fig. 1, we see that the L1 and R1 player’s responsibility is to sprint to the “gear down” landmark, fit the ball if contain is lost and build the triangle if contain is maintained. So, what does that mean and what do we teach? The L1 and R1 need to sprint through the speed and read zone to the gear down landmark which is about 10 to 15 yards behind the first and second level coverage. L1 and R1 should be keying the returner. If the returner runs up field or away from your position begin working straight across the field—in other words, fold the field horizontally. If the returner works toward your position immediately redirect vertically—in other words, press the field vertically.

In video clip 4 we see our safety triangle in action. As our R1 advances down field he executes the fold technique to squeeze the field. Once he reads the returner advancing toward his position, he redirects and presses the field vertically.

In video clip 5 we see what happens when our R1 and R2 do not execute the fold and press techniques. This emphasizes why our players have to be disciplined in their fold and press reads and their execution of the techniques.

An essential part of the safety triangle is the kicker. The kicker must be disciplined and own the responsibility of the “ultimate safety.” We want the kicker set up 15 to 20 yards behind the coverage, and we want him to squeeze the returner to the boundary. We can think of the kicker as a “spy” matching the returner. The image below illustrates the kickers’ relationship in the safety triangle and his relationship to the rest of the coverage team.

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Video clip 6 shows all levels of coverages working together and the players correctly executing the fold and press techniques. We can see how the 1st level redirects the returner; the second level keeps the returner moving horizontally and the R1 makes great fold and press reads.

In conclusion, it’s not enough to teach your kickoff coverage team to run down the field and “stay in their lanes.” It is important to consider how you will minimize the effect should the return break your coverage, because it will happen. We create “defense in depth” on kickoff by:

Getting gunners downfield to redirect the returner

Teaching players when to fold and when to press vertically

Setting the safety triangle