How To Defend The Spread Offense

Spread offense guru Chip Kelly once said, “We have an attack mindset from the get-go. We’re going to try to pressure you in as many ways as we can, from the tempo we play at to the formations we run.” The spread is just as difficult to master on the offensive side as it is to develop a defensive game plan to combat it. And if you’re used to defending offenses with bigger personnel, then this will be quite a change.

Throughout this article, I’ll discuss some of the focal points every defense should have in their arsenal to prepare them for a matchup with a spread offense.

Understand the Spread

In order to stop something, you need to know what you are going up against. In the case of going against the spread, you need to understand at least the basics of a spread offense. Keep in mind the primary goal of this type of offense – to spread the field. With this being the case, you need to understand every inch of grass on the field is a possibility.

Through team meetings and practices leading up to the game, players need to be informed on the various formations and plays they’ll be up against. A final piece of advice in understanding the spread is to not let the offense dictate everything. Each team has their own philosophies and as a result, you should always attempt to stick to your philosophy.

Here Dave Aranda demonstrates a way of defending the spread. 

Source: Defending the Spread Offense – Dave Aranda


Due to the many twists that are a mainstay in spread offenses, defenses need to promote a culture or mentality where everyone swarms to the ball. The spread creates a lot of situations where players are out in open space. In scenarios like this, tackling becomes vital.

It can be the difference between a 5-yard gain and hitting pay dirt. However, a swarming defense will lead to numerous players sprinting to the ball to prevent the load being placed on one individual player. In practice, coaches need to teach the vital basics of tackling: low-pad level, eyes up, reading the hips, and explosion.

Athletic, Heady Linebackers

There’s no way of getting around the fact that the spread is fast. Spread offenses usually have a plethora of quick and agile receivers, halfbacks, and quarterbacks. Since tackles normally come from linebackers on rushing plays, the linebackers need to be versatile enough to be adequate in shooting the gaps and in coverage.

An article on SBNation stated, “If the players in the middle can’t recognize what an offense is doing and help the rest of the defense adjust and get lined up, the defense’s ceiling is limited.” This proves they need more than just the physical skills. Linebackers are the leader of the defense. They need to serve as coaches on the field and get everyone in the proper formation.

Tall, Physical Corners

Anyone familiar with the NFL is most likely aware of the new wave of tall, physical cornerbacks that has been gaining steam for a few years. This new breed isn’t only effective against standard offenses, but also against the spread. The main reason is that they can help shorten the field. As I mentioned earlier, the goal of the spread is to make you think you have to defend every blade of grass on the field.

This is simply an unrealistic task for a defense, so you have to come up with solutions to shorten the field. Enter the tall guys on the outside. Since a spread is run with so much pace, you need to throw them off their rhythm. Physical cornerbacks can handle the bump-and-run duties with so much more success. They can create more obstacles for receivers and get in their heads early in the contest.


Another effect of the up-tempo nature of spread offenses is the wearing down of the defense. After the drive lasts a handful of plays, the defensive player’s conditioning comes into question and their effectiveness drops as well. The best solution is to implement sub-packages that keep safeties and middle linebackers on the field as much as possible, but rotate in nickel backs and defensive lineman. With this said, one way to disguise the extra defensive backs is to utilize disguises.

Spread offenses will have formations where they have 4 or 5 receivers out there and you don’t want linebackers defending these guys in space. So, utilize a package like a 3-2-6, which consists of 3 defensive linemen, 2 linebackers, and 6 defensive backers. Prior to the snap, they’re set up in a 3-4 formation, but then can rapidly change directly after the snap. Obviously, the availability of many sub-packages will depend on the personnel available, but they are an excellent combatant to a spread offense.

Frustrate the Offensive Line

Spread offensive linemen are usually more athletic than traditional linemen. They need the ability to get to the next level on rushing plays and so forth. Going back to the disguising concept from above, you can’t let the line get comfortable. Coaches need to be trying new formations and players must be looking for potential holes in the protection. Through these blitzes and stunts, you can frustrate the offense line and the disguises in coverage increase the odds of an errant throw or turnover. But also remember, you’ve got to be great at the basics, like defeating base blocks!

Defend Concepts, Not Plays

Oftentimes, coaches make a huge mistake when they choose to attempt the irrational task of teaching their players individual plays that a spread offense may run. Spread teams have hundreds of individual plays, which makes this an overwhelming mission. The best way to ensure players are prepared adequately is to learn to defend their individual concepts. Then, players will know the basics and must react based on the formation at hand. Whether it be keeping a running quarterback in the pocket or understanding the many facets of the triple option, it is best for coaches to just focus on whole concepts.

Goal Line Defense

The game can be won and lost by what teams do when they have the ball in the red zone. Whether they get 3 points or 7 can have a huge impact on the final result. With this said, the spread offense also has its own kinks when it comes to possessing the ball near the end zone. The one good thing is that they aren’t as difficult to defend here because there isn’t as much space available to work with. As a defense, you need to have the confidence that you can come up with the critical stop even against a dynamic offense.

First off, you need to understand their goal line packages. This will tell you a lot as to whether they like to throw it or run it when they get the ball deep in the field. With a rushing play, every defensive player should be aware there are many potential ball carriers. From an end around with the receiver to a triple option, the possibilities are plentiful. A passing play will likely involve a quick pass to the outside or a slant across the middle. The key is to understand their philosophies.


LSU Mastering the Spread Defense

One team that has mastered all facets of the spread defense is the LSU Tigers. The Tigers have always been known for their elite defense. Much of this goes to their tremendous recruiting efforts, which includes many players that have gone on to be NFL draft picks. They always have linebackers and safeties that act as leaders on the defense.

At the same time, they utilize elite corners on the outside, like Morris Claiborne and Tharold Simon, who can take on a man one-on-one to allow the defensive coordinator to disguise other players. In the end, a lot of it comes down to personnel and coaching. Coaches have to know how to best utilize their talent to combat what the opposition is putting on the field.

Control the Game!

Defending the spread is no easy task. Take a quick look through box scores of teams like TCU, Baylor, and Oregon. After a brief overview, you’ll see these teams have no trouble putting up big numbers against respectable teams. You may not be able to shut them out, but you have to be able to throw them off their rhythm. Shorten the field, frustrate the offensive line, and put pressure on the quarterback. These will all help in your effort to control the game! Learn how to become an all around dominate defense!


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