The Bartlett Defense: Part 3 - Reads and thought processes

Happy Tuesday, friends.  A few of you have been asking in comments around the site how my move has been going, and the answer is that it’s been kind of a cluster-(you know what).  My moving company packed up my stuff on Friday 6/29, and they told me that they average three to five days for delivery.  A few days ago, I got tired of spending money on hotels, and I started camping out on the floor in my new place, with no furniture.  As of Monday night 7/9, there’s still no telling when my stuff is coming to Florida, and the company wasn’t too sympathetic to my plight when I called them this morning.

Other than that, though, things are good. I started the new job, and everything is cool there.  This whole thing is a big adjustment, and it will require figuring out some new habits and routines, but I’m going to try to start returning some normalcy to my writing schedule this week.

Today, we'll do Part 3 of my series on the Bartlett Defense.  If you’re just joining us, or want to refresh your memory, please see the following links:

Part 1 – Personnel and Alignment

Part 2 – Principles for 100% Soundness

Part 2.5 – Responding to an Excellent Comment

For Part 3, we’re going to talk about the specific keys that each player on the defense will be asked to read on each snap.  Before I start on that, though, I want to make a quick point.  Down and distance really matters a lot to a defense, because while most people don’t like to admit it, a lot of defense is making educated guesses based upon knowledge of tendencies and good old common sense.

On 1st and 10, an offense can do just about anything, and have a good feeling about getting to a manageable yardage to gain on second down.  For that reason (considering the average offense), the defense is going to want to take a less aggressive and more reactive approach to defending the run and the pass.  If it’s 2nd and 15, a run is much less likely, so you can sell out for the pass.  The same is true of third and long. 

That’s not to say that you can ever only guess, but if you have a good idea, you can live more easily with adjusting to being wrong than you can on a tendency-neutral down.  These read assignments are for those base downs where no clear tendency exists.  This defense needs players who are smart enough to adjust their thinking and prioritizing situationally, though, so keep that in mind.

Defensive Line


  1. Check the body posture of the linemen and TE nearest you.  Are they leaning forward like they want to charge out and hit you in a running play, or are they neutral-to-back?  I’ve heard coaches call this the knuckle check – if you can see white in a lineman’s knuckles, think run.  If not, think pass.
  1. How do the QB’s feet look?  Many right-handed QBs will align under center with their right foot slightly back, and defenders should know from film study if there’s a clue to be had here.  If the right-handed QB has his left foot back, that almost always indicates a run to that side.
  1. Does the QB seem more concerned with the box count, or with the positioning of the safeties?  The very best QBs won’t give away the play in this way, but many will.
  1. Does the offensive formation suggest a play?  Specifically, for a DE, does the body posture and/or alignment of a WR suggest that a crackback may be coming?


  1. Read the initial step of the offensive linemen.  If it’s a lateral read step, the play is probably a zone-blocked run to that side.  If a Guard pulls, more often than not, it’s an angle-blocked run to the opposite side of where he started.  If you see half-hearted run action, assume that you have a play action pass.
  1. Be cognizant of an offensive lineman who lets you get deep into the backfield and then releases you in setting up a screen.  The best defense against that play is an aware DL.
  1. Play your assignment first, until the offense declares itself.  Upon that declaration, though, get to the football with a strong sense of urgency.
  1. For the closed side players, (Chuck and Nate), the priority is getting double-teamed, and keeping both blockers occupied.  Never forget to trust the free player behind you, and to let him flow to the ball.



  1. Note the alignment of the offense, and align yourself accordingly.  If the offense shows 2 by 2, each LB is assigned to align inside of the inside receiver on each side, five yards off the line of scrimmage.  If the offense shows 3 by 1, the backside LB becomes a straight-up MLB, and the frontside LB becomes a traditional OLB, aligning inside of the first inside receiver of the two on the heavy side. 
  1. If the offense starts in 3 by 1, and motions to 2 by 2, or vice versa, the LBs will shift with the change in alignment.
  1. The LBs are doing the knuckle check too, and they’re also set far back enough to look at the body posture of the RB.  Does he look like he’s setting up to sprint, or to anchor in pass protection?  How is he aligned?  Is there a FB to one side or the other?
  1. Do the inside receivers (especially if they’re TEs) look like they want to block or go out into a pass pattern?  Many, many TEs will give it away when they are assigned to block, because so many aren’t good blockers, and seem to feel like they need to sell out on it with all their effort.


  1. What is the action of the OL?  It’s very critical that the LBs are able to diagnose play action from their initial movement.
  1. Are the inside receivers blocking, or running downfield routes?
  1. Is the RB blocking or is he running a pattern as an outlet?  This is a really crucial read, as the designed shortcoming of the Bartlett Defense is in the short outside flat area.

Inside DBs


  1. How wide are the splits between the outside receiver and the inside receiver on your side?  Does the alignment of that player say anything about the route he’ll run?  For example, an outside WR who aligns close to the sideline isn’t going to be able to do much more than run a go route, or something in-breaking.
  1. In a 3-by-1 look, the backside DB will align tighter to the line to help with the outside run to the weak side.  He’ll adjust along with the LBs if motion changes 3-by-1 to 2-by-2, or vice versa.
  1. Look closely at the weight distribution of all WRs to your side.  Is any looking like he wants to step backward quickly to catch a smoke pass?
  1. Your correct alignment is halfway between the outside and inside receivers to your side, five yards off the line of scrimmage.  The exception is the aforementioned 3-by-1 offensive alignment.


  1. Diagnose run or pass.  If it’s a run, move forward aggressively to set the edge.  If it’s a pass, carry out the specific coverage assignment that the play calls for.
  1. Upon a pass diagnosis, analyze the action of both receivers to your 2-by-2 side.  You’re looking for recognizable route combinations which the offense likes to use, and which you know well from film study.
  1. Maintain proper over-under spacing.  (We’ll cover this at length in Part 5).  If your inside player stays in to block, focus on tightly covering underneath your outside player.
  1. Read and adjust to any flat action by the RB.  This is primarily the LB’s responsibility, but you’re the backup.

Outside CBs


  1. Look for run-pass clues, such as WR body posture, and the alignment and posture of the inside receiver.
  1. Focus on the alignment of the outside WR.  Your correct alignment is halfway between that receiver and the sideline, nine yards off the line of scrimmage.
  1. Watch for smoke-pass clues, as you’re naturally out of position to defend it well.  Be ready to advance quickly and aggressively on it.


  1. Diagnose run or pass.  If it’s a run, move forward aggressively to back up the Inside DB, who is setting the edge.  If it’s a pass, carry out the specific coverage assignment that the play calls for.
  1. Upon a pass diagnosis, analyze the action of both receivers to your 2-by-2 side.  You’re looking for recognizable route combinations which the offense likes to use, and which you know well from film study.
  1. Maintain proper over-the-top responsibility on your outside WR.  (We’ll cover this at length in Part 5). 
  1. Be cognizant of movement toward in-breaking routes from the outside WR’s vertical stem.  You’ll have to trail that route, and you may or may not get Safety help inside, depending on his read of the overall action of the play.
  1. Watch for inside-out scissor action off of a double-vertical stem in 2 by 2.  If you get it, your assignment is to stay outside in a deep third and to let the inside defenders take the in-breaking route.

Free Safety


  1. The Frank has the best vantage point from which to read the whole offense, and that’s aligning straight-up on the Center, thirteen yards off the line of scrimmage.  He is literally assigned to read everything that every other player in front of him is reading, to the maximum extent possible.  He has to be the smartest player and the best communicator on the field.


  1. The FS is reading the QB first and foremost.  He’s watching the eyes and the feet, and flowing to the play-side as it declares itself.  It’s important to remember that the FS doesn’t have sideline-to-sideline responsibility – he’s just focused between the numbers.  He has to own that area, though.
  1. The FS is secondarily watching for in-breaking routes, first, from the inside receivers, and second, from the outside receivers.  In a situation of extreme spacing between outside and inside receivers in 2 by 2, the Frank may sometimes assume over-the-top responsibility of an inside receiver, freeing that side’s Inside DB to play tighter underneath the outside WR.  In this case, communication is paramount.
  1. In the run game, the Frank is most concerned with depth and direction.  He’s assigned to stay a minimum of thirteen yards deep, but to align himself vertically to be able to back up tacklers, while staying out of the wash.

That’s all I have for today, friends.  Check back on Friday for Part 4, where we’ll discuss specific run-game concepts.  By then, I very well may have spent four more nights on the floor, in which case, I’m sure I’ll be extra ornery.  Sounds like fun, right?

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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