Understanding And Coaching The 4-2-5 Defense

Teams win football matches with solid defenses.

If you can’t disrupt plays and force turnovers, how do you expect to recover the ball and score touchdowns?

As teams across collegiate and the National Football League have started to throw the ball around more in recent years, defenses have become stretched and unable to cope with the onslaught of attackers running at them.

Traditionally, defensive coaches love to opt to play three linebackers in their formation, but perhaps this is now outdated.

With football becoming a faster game, teams must think carefully and deploy defensive formations to control high-tempo passing attacks.

One such formation is the 4-2-5 defense and formation that every coach should have in their defense playbook and deploy to trouble offenses.

I’ll be walking you through a 4-2-5 defense strengths and how you can deploy this tactic to help your team.

Let’s take a look firstly at what the 4-2-5 formation is and when to use it.

What is the 4-2-5 defense?

Typically, a 4-2-5 defense involves four different kinds of players:

  • defensive linemen;
  • Inside linebackers;
  • outside linebackers (otherwise known as cornerbacks); and
  • defensive backs.

 

As seen in the diagram below, the defense usually lines up with four defensive linemen at the scrimmage who will block crash balls coming through the center of the pitch and open up holes for linebackers, standing behind them to attack the quarterback. 

Next, our cornerbacks and nickel backs will line up on the scrimmage outside and try to press the quarterback. Typically, two defensive backs will cover wide receivers coming through to receive passes from the quarterbacks.

Lastly, safety will sit deep from the scrimmage and act as the last defense line to take out any runners who have broken through.

This is perhaps one of the most dynamic and free-flowing defensive formations in a coach’s playbook and requires players to adjust quickly and make changes to their pressure to combat an offense’s formation.

So when should the 4-2-5 be used?

The formation was initially developed and used in the 80s and 90s in college football.

It was developed by coaches to respond to how prolific running offenses were spreading defenses wide across the breadth of the pitch, taking advantage of minimal coverage out wide.

Typically defensive coordinators used to play formations with three linebackers, sacrificing coverage out wide to disrupt the scrimmage.

This tactic does have its benefits, but not when offenses line up with 4 or 5 wide receivers. Spreading their attack wide across the pitch, college defensive coordinators like University of New Mexico’s Gary Patterson saw that teams could not cope with the blits of 5 attackers coming at them thick and fast.

His idea was to get rid of a linebacker from the defensive line and play a second cornerback, or what’s now known as a nickel back, to act as a kind of hybrid running linebacker to cover wide receivers but also attack the quarterback.

The idea was to provide flexibility to cover more space behind the scrimmage line where attackers were coming through and help defensive backs cope with multiple wide receivers.

Therefore, the 4-2-5 defensive scheme is most effective against offenses lining up with five wide receivers and are looking to spread wide across the pitch.

Formations and players in the 4-2-5

Now, depending on what sort of team you’re coaching, you’ll have to pick the right players for the right positions.

In a 4-2-5 formation, there is a lot of fluidity with multiple players having to work like a swiss army knife and cover numerous roles on the pitch.

My top coaching tip is to use slightly smaller, faster defenders. This formation is all about pace and acceleration to either hit the quarterback or cover wide receivers in the backfield. Big bulky defenders aren’t great responders to this kind of play, so opt for pace over strength in this play.

Although, at its core, we still need the big guys at the coalface to do their jobs, so let’s start by talking about the defensive linemen.

Defensive tackles

An essential responsibility at any defensive play is to stop offenses running through the middle of the scrimmage. Defensive tackles line up ahead of the snap and close running lines that could be exploited by running backs.

Their role is vital to stop teams from gaining devastating rushing yards that could cost you a vital field position.

For that reason, you need to pick aggressive big guys who can hold up the play and use their footballing intelligence to open up holes for your linebackers to sack the quarterback.

Take a look at Green Bay’s nose tackle Kenny Clarke if you’re looking for an example of a defensive tackle who is just sheer aggression and power.

Defensive ends

Your ends line up on the outside of the line of scrimmage. Like a defensive tackle, these guys need to be strong to push the offensive linemen but for the 4-2-5 formation, but they need to be quick to get around their opposition to press the quarterback.

Agility is key here. Their primary role is to force a misthrow or sack the quarterback, so pick players who have good acceleration and good awareness to know when to break and drive on the quarterback.

Linebackers

This is perhaps the most crucial position in most defensive formations.

Linebackers are the defense’s muscle; they see the play coming, call the shots, and cause the turnover.

Also known as the “do-everything guys,” a good linebacker will plug holes in the scrimmage, make big tackles to stop ball carriers, and sack the quarterback.

The Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner is an excellent example of a well-rounded linebacker. Wagner picked up a whopping 159 tackles in the 2019/2020 season, but it’s the work he does off the ball to cover receivers, obstruct running channels, and take out players, making him one of the best in the NFL.

In the 4-2-5 defense, defensive coordinators typically look to deploy two different linebackers; one to block up holes in the line of scrimmage and a second to hold back and assist with receiver coverage.

Typically the latter is the more agile and quicker of the two, with the blocking line backer’s size essential to meet collisions with hard-hitting rushing players.

Your linebacker will often be the primary defensive coordinator as their central position on the field allows them to see where the offense are lining up. This means you should look to play linebackers who have a good understanding of the game and can communicate with their defense to adjust quickly to cover attackers.

Cornerbacks

Cornerbacks cover the opposition’s wide receivers. They’ll line up by marking their opponent on the outskirts of the scrimmage.

Ultimately their role is to either intercept or spoil passes coming through onto wide receivers. These guys need to be quick to prevent their opposition players from escaping them.

Aggression and fearless tackling skills are a must as these guys are a crucial line of defense in the 4-2-5 formation. Acceleration is also key as defenders cannot give their opponents too much space to break free from them.

One of the best cornerbacks in the NFL is the 49ers’, Richard Sherman. Coming back from an ACL rupture, Sherman had an outstanding 2019/2020 season holding out to allow just 373 yards and spoil 55% of passes that were sent his way. He’s the ideal type of defensive back to play in the 4-2-5 formation.

But the cornerback role is where teams have innovated in the last 20 years to invent the nickelback position.

The nickelback

These guys are the rockstars of the 4-2-5 formation (excuse the pun).

The role represents the evolution of football defenses, reacting to ever faster and more unpredictable offenses.

It is a very flexible position and requires a player who understands football and has excellent awareness of when to blitz, rush the scrimmage or drop to cover wide receivers.

A good nickelback doesn’t just cover their wide receivers; they cover their outside linebacker from rushing attacks, cover mismatches on the blind side of the pitch, making it perhaps the most challenging position to play in the 4-2-5 formation.

Players like the Bengal’s Leon Hall are excellent examples of a player who has used his athleticism and tearing pace to own this position. Hall’s finest accolade is his footballing intelligence to assess situations and react to smother attackers moving out wide or coming in close to the scrimmage.

The safety

This is the final line of defense in your 4-2-5 formation. Sitting in the full-back position, deep behind the scrimmage, the safety helps to cover receivers and pick up players advancing onto the end-zone.

Sometimes though, because of their central position on the pitch, they can be called upon to help linebackers stop ball carriers coming through the center of the pitch.

Defensive coaches for the 4-2-5 will usually play a free safety role, who will act as a rover at the back of the pitch to help pick off the extra wide receivers in open space. In tighter defensive formations, you might choose to pick a more physical ‘strong safety’ to help tight ends protect the scrimmage center.

But for the 4-2-5, you need your safety to be a good decision-maker. They have to know when to move and who to pick up on the field to spoil long passes and tackle defenders.

The best roving safeties are confident in the tackle and have superior speed to make up ground between them and their opposition attacker.

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Running the 4-2-5

Now you have an idea of the different positions in a 4-2-5 scheme; you’ll want to know how to deploy it to disrupt offenses.

The key thing for any coach to remember is to keep things simple.
No matter what level of players you’re coaching, footballers will get easily confused in the heat of battle if you have too many instructions for them.

Keep your instructions clear and straightforward. But above all, instruct your players to play at pace.

But depending on what offense you’re lining up against, you might want to rethink your strategy on how to defend their play.

Blitz play’s

You can optimize a variety of different blitz plays depending on what sort of opposition you’re coming up against.

For example, if an opposition offensive end is a little weak, you might want to overload one side of the scrimmage and press your outside linebacker around the flank to hit the quarterback.

Another great blitz play is the twist. Where usually, it might be easier for a linebacker to run straight, a defensive end and tackle squeeze in and create a small gap on the outside of the scrimmage that the linebacker can pass through to get a clean shot at the quarterback.

Alignment

Teams can opt to stretch, suppress or overload opposition players on the pitch to cater to mismatches or force the opposition to play in specific channels.

In the 4-2-5 formation, coaches often spread their defenses’ breadth across the whole field. Other times they might compact the play and try to coax their opposition to play more narrow.

Coaches will also overload either the right or left side, but this usually depends on where the opposition’s wide receivers are stationed regarding the scrimmage.

Covering the backfield

Coverage is perhaps one of the most critical parts of the 4-2-5 formation as the formation is used to counter teams looking to chuck the ball around.

I’d always recommend looking at the opposition quarterbacks throwing abilities before you plan out your coverage. How the quarterback throws, his favored receivers, and his speed all come into play when deciding if you want to zonal mark or go with man-to-man coverage.

I always tell my defenders to take the man and not mark a specific zone per se. The more pressure you put on the receiver, the more likely he’ll fluff his catch or that the quarterback won’t pass to him.
But don’t disregard zonal marking, particularly for your safety and your linebackers. It does have some benefits and can allow you to cover larger areas of the field, even use two defenders to pick off one ball carrier.

Strengths and weaknesses of the 4-2-5 formation

Strengths

Six at the back
The formation allows you to defend teams playing multiple wide receivers. Playing five defenders at the back gives you adequate coverage over the backfield and the confidence that your defenders will shut down fast-moving attackers.

Flexibility
The formation allows you to incorporate multiple players who can roam around the pitch and take up numerous roles to cover attackers. That ability to change roles and switch things up keeps offenses on their toes. That’s the great thing about playing a nickelback; no one knows what they’re going to do next!

Reactions
Similarly, players are able in this formation to react to the play that’s running against them. They are not bound by their positions to advance forwards or sit back. Players can respond on the snap and use their instincts to defend against their advancing attackers.

4-2-5 covers both running and passing plays
Using a solid nose tackle and one strong linebacker, the 4-2-5 formation protects defenses well from rushing offenses looking to run the ball up the central channel.

Meanwhile, if the quarterback decides to launch the football, defensive coordinators know they will have at least three players back to cover and spoil the play.

Weaknesses

Flexibility
Flexibility is also a bad thing as the more player roam from their standard positions on the pitch, the more they’ll expose gaps in the field that a good quarterback can exploit. The way to combat this is to drill your players rigorously to cover each other if one player has to make a tracking run or wants to advance on the quarterback. 

Lack of linebackers
Swapping a linebacker for a nickelback leaves you a little more exposed in the center of the pitch. Obviously, you’ll have safety at the back to come up and help cover this channel. But in the instance a team decides to rush your defense, not having the added coverage of a third linebacker means defenses will lack added physicality and a blocking presence in midfield, preview, which can sometimes be very costly.

Physicality
As a formation that looks to stop fast running attacks, the 4-2-5 typically forces coaches to opt to play a squad lacking strength and brute force. Players need to be agile and quick to play in this formation, and that could create mismatches, with larger offenses being able to out power and push past their defensive opposition. The best coaches are those who can find a balance between speed and strength. 

Parting advice

As a coach, your primary responsibility is to ensure your players know what they’re doing on the field.

The 4-2-5 formation is one of the most challenging setups to implement as it gives players the freedom to roam from their traditional positions, which can be problematic, as we’ve discussed.

To help players spoil the attack, you need to give them clear instructions on how to play. For example, tell your linebackers to use their instinct to attack the quarterback if they see a chance. Or advise your cornerbacks to mark zones instead of taking the man.

Speed is a coaches’ best weapon in the 4-2-5, so make sure your parting advice to your players is to do the simple things right at a high tempo.

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Jonathan Roussel
Jonathan Roussel
Jonathan Roussel is a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and Indigo League champion. He now chases the dream to become a part-time Jedi Master like Gandalf. He means to reach his goals by sleeping 14 hours a day and eating pineapple pizzas.