Eliminating “daylight” from the axiom “run to daylight”

[Ed. Note: This post is by Jerry Gordon, a defensive guru (and good friend of mine). He recently authored a book on the 4-3 under, Coaching the Under Front Defense.]

The only way to stop backs like Herschel Walker is to eliminate their daylight by filling all the gaps.

The term “run to daylight,” made famous by Vince Lombardi through a book named just that, became a mantra for running back coaches across the country. It is also (unsurprisingly) exactly what defensive coaches fear the most — a runningback who can see the hole and run to daylight.

I was a college running back coach for six years in the early and mid 1990s and coached a kid, Rene Ingoglia, who did a bit more than simply havet a cup of coffee with the Buffalo Bills.** I asked him what he saw when he ran the ball and how he always seemed to find the hole. He told me that all he saw were flashes of color and he simply went to the hole where there was no color.

From us defensive coaches, it is up to us to provide a solid wall of color that encompassing every possible hole or gap. Although this seems simple in theory, it is much harder than it appears. Defensive coordinators are confronted with a number of problems.

First lets take a look at the I-formation, the formation of the great running teams of yesteryear. Over the decades the I has produced some of football’s most prolific rushers, including Archie Griffin of Ohio State, O.J. Simpson of Southern Cal, and Herschel Walker of Georgia. Any defensive coordinator worth his salt has to have a plan for the I.

As you can see in the image below, an offense in the I presents seven gaps to defend.

As stated above our goal is to put a player in each gap. The problem is that the gaps are not stationary. Let’s take a look as the offensive lineman come off the ball to our left .All the gaps have moved. Each defensive player must move and still fit into his proper gap. Remember the offense know the snap count, we don’t.

In the diagram below, all our gaps have moved to our left.

In the next figure, we are aligned an under defense, which a common front against teams that have a tight end and two backs in the backfield. Under defense is generally characterized by a linebacker over the tight end, defensive ends aligned in an outside shade on the offensive tackles, a nose shaded on the center to the tight end and a defensive tackle in an outside shade away from the tight end.

The important thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter what front we present to the offense — all gaps must be filled with color. A motto that I picked up from CoachHuey.com is to “play defense, not defenses.” It’s more important that we play well as team than to present a ton of different defensive looks to the offense.

Now that we know our gaps can move, the next thing to consider is that, since the fullback is in the middle of the offensive formation, he can insert himself anywhere along the line of scrimmage to thus create an extra gap for us to defend.

Because the offense is now presenting us with another gap to defend, as shown in the diagram above, we must now add another defensive player to combat this extra gap. This is one of the reasons why the I formation is so deadly. A clever offensive coordinator is going to insert him in most every gap from play to play.

Let’s take a look at how we might defend against an Archie Griffin or Herschel Walker running an isolation play towards the tight end — the strong side of the formation. Remember, although the play might be headed one way, the great runningbacks can expose any weakness and can cut the run back.

In the next diagram, because the fullback creates an extra gap between the offensive guard and tackle the strong safety must come up to fill the extra gap.

Now every gap is filled by a player. The tailback has nowhere to run. Of course, offensive coordinators have pens and pencils too, and once they see that the free safety is flying up to tackle the tailback near the line, they will release the tight end to throw a pass to him at the spot where the strong safety came from.

As a result, a second, and maybe better way, to defend against a strong side isolation run is to bring the weak safety into the picture because he doesn’t have an immediate vertical threat to worry about. In the last diagram below, the weakside (“Will” or “W”) and Middle (“Mac” or “M”) linebackers fill the extra gap created by the fullback.

Now the weak safety must come down and present color in the vacated gap left by the will linebacker. Again, every gap is covered; there is nowhere to run, and now the strong safety can cover the immediate vertical threat presented by the tight end.

In sum, to play great run defense you must  attack your assigned gap, shed blockers, pursue the ballcarrier, and make the tackle.  Play defense, not defenses.

** Footnote: Ingoglia was inducted into the UMass hall of fame, spent time with the Bills, and, in a bit of trivia, scored a touchdown in World Bowl VII of NFL Europe. Lawrence Phillips, the famous Nebraska star and NFL cast off, also scored a touchdown in that game.]

  • DrB

    Nice article, shows why the I-formation is my favorite

  • Mike W.

    Coach Gordon,

    Thanks a lot for your post. And many thanks to Chris for having you, and for recommending your book.

    I had a question regarding how the under defense deals with change of strength. Assuming you’re facing 21 personnel, what happens if the TE motions to the weak side? While it is easy enough for the Sam to follow the TE, or have the Will replace the Sam, my question goes to the movement of the DL and the foundation of the defense.

    Of course, aligment-wise, both ends do not have to move. With regard to the tackles, your book recommends the Mike to tell the DT’s to slide away from the strength. While this is fine if your DT’s and DE’s are mirror images of each other, many under coaches (Pete Carroll most notably) advocate having specialized players on the DL (i.e., the +5 is a stout run-stuffing end, the +1 is a line plugger, the -3 is more disruptive and thus likely smaller than the +1, and the -5 is almost a hybrid player who has the ability to drop into space in fire zones).

    If your DL follows Pete Carroll’s guidelines, change of strength poses a big problem. For example, if your line shifts to match the TE’s shift, your smaller -3 and -5 players are now playing the +1 and +5. Accordingly, they become pluggers in the event of a strong side run; jobs they are not suited to perform. Especially with your current post in mind, I would think this endangers the defense’s ability to preserve its gaps, and as a result, the entire foundation of the defense.

    Accordingly, I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this. I understand that at a certain point, your -3 and -5 players, regardless of what their primary missions are, will have to go out and play football. However, I was wondering if you had any coaching points to help them (and the defense as a whole) accomplish their mission.

    Thanks a lot,

    Mike W.

  • Tim

    This illustrates the importance of a big NT to play the 1 tech or a shade and command the double team. Even though he is responsible for 1 gap, he effectively eats up two gaps because the OL can’t combo off to a linebacker.

    When we are in Under and we get a Y Trade we’ll just check to Over. Sam aligns as Will and Will aligns as Sam which is not optimal, but it’s an easy adjustment for the kids.

    We are seeing more of the detached Y (wing alignment) with a lot of different motions (jet, slide, return). That makes it tough because you just don’t have as much time to adjust to the strength change and exactly where that gap is moving.

  • Jerry

    Thanks for your question. Good points BTW…Let’s go through this scenario… The Tight End lined up to our left..the Sam would align to our left and the Will would be to our right with a 3 technique and a 5 technique. there are a # of things a Te can do here if he were going to move..#1 he can back off the ball and the offense could run a play, #2 he could back off the ball and go in motion with the ball being snapped at any time or #3 he could back off the ball go in motion and then line up as a TE on the other side.. Once a team sees you making massive changes in your structure, a good offensive coordinator will make sure that you have all your adjustments correct..for this reason, when the TE leaves all we do is back the Sam off the ball …if the TE would then set up on the right side, our 5 technique would move to a 7 technique (which is his rule we teach from day 1) and we can play cover 4 or cover 3 from there…Yes, In this case we do allow an offense to dictate a front but then again we are only moving once defender perhaps 6” . The kids aren’t confused and we get to play fast football…Play Defense…Not Defenses

  • DrB

    Jerry’s response is what i was about to post, that is what Kevin Steele does to adjust his front when the TE goes in motion to shift the strength, though I have seen him check to Over.

  • Mike W.


    Thanks a lot for the response.

    First of all, I wholeheartedly agree about playing defense and not defenses. Chris had a great post about influential books a while back, and I remember hoping to see some Bob Rotella mentioned. While his focus is on golf, Rotella’s entire premise to sports psychology is that athletes – regardless of what sport they’re playing – perform their best when they’re not thinking, i.e., when they’re just being athletes.

    As far as the scheme goes, I think what you’re telling me is that you better have a FS who can tackle. If the TE does reset on our right and the offense runs anything off-tackle, it looks like the new 7 will take the D, the Will will take on the FB in the C, the new +3 will have the B and the Mike will have the A (unless the Sam or SS gets the cut back and the Mike can play over the top). Regardless, if the ball carrier flows outside, or if the Mike gets caught in the wash, it looks like the FS becomes the free tackler.

    Thanks again.

    Mike W.

  • Jerry

    You are correct. If you are playing this defense, your safeties better be able to tackle….Everyone on defense is taught to shed, pursue and tackle…Basic football and turnovers win games

  • Tyler

    I’m surprised Chris allowed a power football guy on his site. 😉

    The spread stuff is interesting, but give me 21 and 12 personnel with ISOs and pulling guards all day long.

  • Jimmy

    So how do two gapping teams play this? How is the DLine taught to read the play? Does two gapping sometimes get confused with drawing a double team?

  • Jerry

    Jimmy, That is an interesting question..I know that some of the big boys (USC and Alabama) double gap some of the defense..This IMO does create some confusion,although not against double teams. When double teamed, the DL takes the gap from where the pressure comes from..generally the outside. After the USC Oregon game this year Coach Carroll basically said that his defense was too complicated for that game and his guys were confused…same thing happened (IMO) when USC played Oregon State the year before. Even at that level..God you have some of the best athletes in the country…..K.I.S.S.

  • Coach H

    I am anxious to see how Pete Carroll does in the NFL with this defense, if he even implements much of it.

    From an offensive perspective, what do you guys think gives this defense trouble from a pro set? What are the weaknesses?

  • Ted Seay

    To me, the real test of the Under (or any contemporary scheme) from the I is not an Iso, but rather the A-gap power play that Minnesota, the NY Giants and others have used to such effect over the past few years. Unlike the way most offenses teach the Iso, A-gap power really IS a “run-to-daylight” play than can and does break anywhere from the backside B gap to outside the TE’s block.

    Of course, if you marry it up with a speed sweep, you’re REALLY ready to cause some problems for defenses:



  • What I like about the I-formation is that it can be such a violent attack. Most coaches have a strategy to defend it, but that’s not enough by itself. You also have to have some tough defenders that have a lot of endurance and love to hit.

    The reasons why Nebraska, Ohio State, USC, Georgia and so many others were successful with I-formation was because they’d ground their opponent DLs, LBs into dust by the second half. Come 4th quarter defenses are tired and pretty banged up.

    The other great thing about the I is that it features a fullback that blocks, runs and can even catch play action passes out in the flats.
    They never get enough credit in my view.

    Cool tailbacks in the I-formation? Definitely. But man, forget about the fullback at your peril: Texas A&M’s George Woodward (blocking for Curtis Dickey), Nebraska’s Andre Franklin (blocking for Jarvis Redwine and Roger Craig), Ohio State Pete Johnson, USC’s Lynn Cain and Mosi Tatupu, Michigan’s Rob Lytle and Russell Davis, Georgia’s Willie McClendon and Jimmy Womack.

    Behind every great tailback ever noted for this I-formation offense, you’ll find an equally dangerous fullback.

    In other words, fullbacks rock. Now if they’d only make a comeback in college football!

  • Old South

    Smart Football analysis on Tim Tebow going before Jimmy Clausen?

    Someone put Mel Kiper on suicide watch (and Todd McShay on multiple homicide watch).

  • DonkeyPunch22

    Greg Schiano of Rutgers had a lecture on just this topic. He also added the scenario of a pulling gaurd from the backside. When a lineman pulls, he wrote, a gap is reduced from the backside, and a gap is introduced to the frontsiide. So, your sound run defense not only needs to be ready to adjust to new gaps from a full back, but from a pulling lineman, too. Great article coach.

  • RobinFiveWords

    I wonder how many color-blind running backs there are in college football. Maybe in the NFL. According to Wikipedia, almost 1 in 10 men has some form of color vision deficiency.

  • Brian

    This is a lot more interesting and informative (and a better use of time) than arguing about Tim Tebow.

  • DoItRight

    Coach H,

    Remember this, Pete Carroll learned “The Under” from Monte Kiffin many years ago when he was a GA at Arkansas under Lou Holtz. Ever since then, he has been a committed advocate of “playing this defense, not multiple defenses”, specifically “The Under” and the variations within this 4-3 PERS scheme, becasue he knows the answers to problems because of the scheme. In 1988, at the Minnesota Vikings, with Floyd Peters as the DC running “The Under”, Monte Kiffin as the LB Coach, and Pete Carroll as the DB Coach, the Vikings had 5 Defensive All Pros: Keith Millard-3 Tech, Chris Doleman-Weak End, Scott Studwell-Mike LB, Joey Browner-SS, and Carl Lee-CB. And that commitment to “The 4-3 Under” scheme and variations has continued at every stop since(NYJ, NE, SF, USC, and now SEA). The “Under” is the perfect front vs traditional 2 RB teams because of Safety versatility allowing them to drop down in the Box to stop the run. But, hey, numerous teams in the NFL, College, and HS are running The “Under”…. Utilized properly, in an attack mode, it is a scheme of beauty.

  • Great article, very informative and well thought out. Thanks.

  • I know this is seriously boring and you’re skipping for the next comment, but I just wanted to throw you a big thank you – you cleared up some things for me!