Copyright 1999 John T. Reed

The shotgun is a real pain. I played against it a little when I was 25 in the Army. I coached against it a little in youth and high school tackle football. And I coached against it almost exclusively in youth flag football. It really is a whole different approach to offense and requires a whole different defensive approach.

I frequently run the single wing on offense. The public address announcers at the games called it the shotgun. It's not, but running the single wing gave me some familiarity with the benefits of snapping the ball back four or five yards.

In general, the most dangerous play in youth football is the pitch sweep. I recommend defenses first organize to stop that play. I box the defensive ends when I can get away with it, and slide them along the line of scrimmage if the offense takes advantage of our boxing by running off tackle. But the shotgun does not have a pitch sweep. It can get outside with Statue of Liberty-type plays, single-wing-style sweeps, or quarterback keepers, but those take longer to develop.

The second most dangerous play in youth football is the blast or isolation play. With some teams that lack speed to run the sweep, the blast is the most dangerous play. But you cannot run the blast out of a shotgun. The closest play would be a draw. But that is very different from a quick-hitting blast.

The main threat from the shotgun is the pass. How do you stop the pass?

  1. Pressure on the passer. But that's hard to do when he is in a shotgun. When we had to face a shotgun team in youth football one season, both I and my head coach called college coach friends and asked for advice. We both got the same advice. Bring high-speed pressure off the corners. That is, unblocked guys who run right at the passer at full speed. They do not contain rush. They force the passer to throw as soon as possible or to scramble.
    You still need contain, but it is of secondary importance against the shotgun. So we had our defensive tackles move out, line up on air, and run straight at the passer. The ends, who were used to containment responsibilities, then looped out belatedly to contain. A defensive guard would defend the draw.
  2. Plug the receivers. As with a non-shotgun, we would have the man defenders align on the inside shoulder of their receiver and block him from releasing inside or quickly. By delaying the receivers and hurrying the passer, we hope to narrow or wipe out the window during which the passer can throw to an open receiver.
  3. Cover the receivers. Once the receiver escapes, the man defender must stay with him. You can minimize athletic mismatches by going to a spy system where you assign your best athletes to the best receivers by jersey numbers. Then, instead of playing a particular defensive position, your best defensive backs and linebackers align in whatever position they need to to cover the star receiver to whom they are assigned.

It's tough to get pressure on a shotgun passer. It is tough to plug receivers for very long, so a passer who has more time, like a shotgun passer, has a chance to throw after the receiver escapes the plug. And it's tough to cover athletic receivers if the passer has more than a second or two. However, look at it from the opponent's perspective as well.

It's tough to train a shotgun snapper. Miscommunication between the snapper and passer can result in a snap coming back when the passer is not expecting it. Shotgun formations are typically not maximum-protection (one blocker for each rusher) pass-blocking schemes. They generally have four or five wide receivers. That leaves just five interior line blockers. In the absence of enough blockers to take all rushers, the offense must incorporate hot routes into their scheme. That is pretty advanced stuff for youth players. Hot routes are also harder from a shotgun snap because the ball is not immediately seated in the passer's hand in the passing grip.

Any passing game requires an accurate passer who is a good decision maker. It also requires receivers who can get open and catch the ball. The typical youth team only has two or three good athletes. If one is passing, that leaves only one or two to catch and no good athletes to block. If the offense only has one or two good receivers, their five-wide formation is not really the threat. You can probably double-cover a top receiver and put your best db on a second-best receiver. Failures in the shotgun tend to be catastrophic: deep sacks or interceptions. For a gap-air-mirror defensive coordinator, who is used to success on every snap, the shotgun is frustrating in its ability to succeed at times. The defensive coordinator needs to remember that his successes against the shotgun will be fewer, but will generally be big plays.

The shotgun is a big-play formation—for both the offense and the defense.

I am not as confident about my shotgun defense as I am about other formations. So I would not present this article as the be-all and end-all on the subject. Rather I would urge you to keep adjusting your defense until you find what works best.

Good luck,

John T. Reed