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Locus of Control: Defense

Locus of Control is a psychological term referring to whether a person believes that, in a given situation, they control the outcome (internal locus of control), or if they are being forced into a given outcome by the circumstances (external locus of control). Here, it is applied to college football defensive coordinators.

Defensively, belief in an internal locus of control would lead a coordinator to create a system and scheme wherein the defense attacks the offense, and forces them into making adjustments to the defenders. Belief in an external locus of control would consist of soft zone teams, and schemes that are primarily based upon a read-and-react ideology. Of course, offenses go into every given play with either a run or pass called, so the defense does not have quite the autonomy that an offensive team might have.

Defensive coordinators who believe in a scheme that places faith in an external locus of control are those who run almost all zones, and believe that their superior execution can prevent opponents from moving the ball down the field and scoring. In defensive fronts and linebackers, former Michigan defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann's "read and react" ideology is the perfect example of external locus of control. By definition, you think the offense controls the play, and you hope to stop what they are doing after it begins its progress.

At the other end of the spectrum is the internal locus of control. Defensive coordinators that utilize heavy blitzing are certainly believers in this. The blitzes are designed to force the offense into changing what it wants to do. For running, that would be cause the running back to say "oh shit, I'm screwed," and for passing, it would be either sacking the quarterback or forcing him to make a bad throw (or one that doesn't get his team a first down). Along the front, internal locus of control coordinators would like their defensive linemen to play downhill and get after the quarterback or running back.

So which type of defensive philosophy is better? It really all depends. If a team has superior athletes, it can easily sit back in a zone and play bend-not-break principles. On the other hand, it can also play aggressively, and rack up a lot of negative plays for the opposing offense - but likely give up a big play or two the other way. With inferior talent, it will be hard for defensive linemen or blitzers to get through blockers (without sending so many men as to risk giving up an easy big play to the other team), so they are more likely to play soft, and hope they can not break, or come up with some stops. Like pretty much everything in football strategy, a mix of the two ideals is preferable.

In 2006 and 2007, Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English played with a balanced defensive system. From some games, it is apparent that he preferred to attack, believing in an internal locus of control. However, over the course of both seasons, it seems as though he wasn't always allowed to run the defense the way he wanted, and the overall coaching philosophy of the program was to play it a little more safely.

In 2008, new Michigan defensive coordinator Scott Shafer will run a defensive scheme that believes wholeheartedly in an internal locus of control. His teams will blitz heavily, and place an emphasis on getting into the backfield to take down the running back or quarterback. This aggressive philosophy (especially with Michigan's veteran defensive front) will allow Michigan to rack up many tackles for loss, but could also result in big plays given up to the opposition. However, as he told me earlier this year, the scheme will also react to what the offense is doing (though I believe he meant that as more of a formational adjustment, not an adjustment to the plays the offense is running).

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“Locus of Control: Defense”