Understanding the 4-2-5 Defense

4.2.5 Defensive strategy as any defensive scheme is to prevent the opposing offense from gaining yards and scoring points, either by preventing the offense from advancing the ball beyond the line of scrimmage or by the defense taking the ball away from the offense (referred to as a turnover) and scoring points themselves.

With the 4..2.5 defense, there are four types of players: defensive linemen, inside linebackers, outside linebackers and defensive backs (also called secondary players). These players’ specific positions on the field and duties during the game vary depending on the type of defense and adjustments being used as well as the kind of offense the defense is facing.

The defensive linemen line up in front of the offensive line responsibility is to prevent the offensive line from opening up running lanes for the running back or to sack the quarterback, depending on whether the play is a passing or running play. Most of the time, defensive linemen attack the offensive line but in some plays they drop back in pass coverage to confuse the opposite team and this is called a zone blitz.

Defensive tackle: The defensive tackle (“DT”) lines up against the guard or center on the offensive line. Defensive tackles are generally the biggest and most powerful players on defense; many of them are of the same size as the offensive line or depending upon the defensive philosophy small, aggressive and fast. They tend to be more the “run-stopping” type rather than being good at rushing the quarterback themselves.

The 4.2.5 features two defensive ends who in most cases will line up just outside of the offensive tackle or tight end if the offense uses one. Defensive ends need to be strong enough to be able to not be pushed back by the offensive line, yet fast enough to run around the offensive tackle. There are different types of defensive ends; some are about as strong as DTs and are considered more adept at stopping the run, while others are fast and agile, and are much better at rushing the quarterback than stopping the run.

The 4.2.5 features two inside linebackers (Mike & Will) who align behind the defensive linemen or set themselves up on the line of scrimmage. Depending on the type of defensive strategy being used, a linebacker’s responsibilities can include helping to stop the run, rushing the quarterback, or dropping back in pass protection. Mike linebacker is known as the plugger or the bigger linebaker of the two. The Will linebacker is the smaller and usually the fastest because of his ability to drop into coverage.

Outside linebackers: The outside linebackers (Sam, Rover) set up on the outside portion of the line of scrimmage. They are often used to rush the quarterback. OLBs tend to be the fastest and most agile linebackers on the defense and must be able to be active in pass drops when defending the pass.

Defensive backs align behind the linebackers. Their primary responsibility is pass coverage, although they can also be involved in stopping the run or rushing the quarterback.

Cornerback: The cornerback (“CB”) lines up opposite the opposing offense’s wide receiver(s). Their main job is to cover wide receivers and prevent them from catching passes, or tackle them if they do.

Safety: A defense’s safeties (“S”) are usually the farthest away from the line of scrimmage when the play starts. Their job is to help the cornerbacks cover receivers and, if necessary, help the defensive line and linebackers protect against the run. Because of this “do everything” role, most safeties are the best all-around athletes on the defense. Safeties are designated as strong safeties (“SS or Rover”) or free safeties (“FS”).  The strong safety typically plays closer to the line, matches up against tight ends, and is more involved in the run, while the free safety typically is farther from the line and plays more of a “last line of defense” role in both the pass and run game.

Defensive Formations

The most common way to describe a basic defensive formation is by stating the number of linemen involved followed by the number of linebackers. The number of defensive backs is usually not mentioned, though if it is, (such as in the “4-2-5”), the number typically appears after the number of linebackers, thus the formula would go (# of linemen)-(# of linebackers)-(# of defensive backs [if stated]) in these situations. This naming rule does
not always apply when the personnel for a certain formation are lined up in a way that changes the function of the players in the defense. A good example to help explain this would be the “3-5-3,” which actually uses the 3-3-5 personnel, but has the five defensive backs arranged with “3 deep”, thus grouping the other two defensive backs with the linebacker group.

By far the most common alignments are four down linemen and three linebackers (a “4-3” defense), or three down linemen and four linebackers (“3-4”), but other formations such as five linemen and two linebackers (“5-2”), or three linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs (“3-3-5”) are also used by a number of teams.

On plays where the defense expects the offense to pass, naming emphasis is often placed on the number of defensive backs. In a basic 4-3 or 3-4 defense, there are four defensive backs on the field ( 2 cornerbacks], 1 strong safety, and 1 free safety ). When one of the linemen or linebackers is removed and an additional defensive back is added, common alignments of these five defensive back packages are the “nickel” package, which includes 3 Corners, 1 Strong Safety, and 1 Free Safety, and the “3-3-5,” which is a nickel package variant that includes either 2 Corners, 2 Strong Safties, and 1 Free Safety, or 3 Corners, 1 Strong Safety, and 1 Free safety like the standard nickel package. When a sixth defensive back is inserted, it is known as a “dime” package (4 Corners, 1 Strong Safety, 1 Free Safety). In rare instances when a seventh defensive back is inserted, it is known as a “quarter” package (5 Corners, 1 Strong Safety, 1 Free Safety or 4 Corners, 2 Strong Safties, 1 Free safety).

As with offensive formations, there are many combinations that can be used to set up a defense. Unusual defensive alignments are constantly used in an effort to neutralize a given offense’s strengths. Some of the more familiar defensive formations include:

46 defense
Quarter or Prevent
“Eight in the box”

The 4.2.5 was made popular starting in the early to mid 80’s when the passing game started to expand using multiple spread offenses. The 4.2.5 used to be known as the 6.2.3 which was more of a run stopping defense. The evoultion of the 4.2.5 allowed for defensive ends in the 6.2.3 to become outside linebackers which are also known as hybrids or over hang players. In the 4.2.5 the basic pass responsibilty is the outside flat area
because offenses especially spread offenses were throw the short outs and option routes.

Huddle Procedures

As soon as the previous play is blown dead the “Mike” linebacker should look to signal caller on the sideline as soon as possible to get to the next defensive call. If the “Mike” linebacker fails to get his call from the sideline, he can tap his hand on the top of his helmet to alert the coach for the call to be repeated. Your “Mike” linebacker must keep his composure at all times.

When calling your defense using the following principles the defensive call will consist of two to five parts; the call from the side line should be made in the following order.

1. Front
2. Variation
3. Stunt, Dog or Blitz
4. Coverage

Once the call from the sideline has been received “Mike” will step into the huddle and give an “Up” call. When the defensive hears the “Up” call, all eye’s and attention should be focused on the signal caller. Under no circumstances will there be any talking beyond this point. The signal caller must have complete concentration and cooperation from everyone. If anyone in the huddle doesn’t get the call, they can yell “Check” and the call we be repeated. If the “Mike” LBer doesn’t get the call or understand the call from the sideline he can tap the top of his helmet and the call will be give from the sideline again.

Huddle Break:

After making the huddle call, the “Mike” linebacker will give a verbal command of “Ready”. Once the rest of the defense hears the command “Ready” from the “Mike” linebacker they will yell “Break”. Upon breaking from the huddle the defense should get into their post huddle alignment and keep their eyes on the offense. The secondary personnel should be looking for their receivers leaving the offensive huddle and the linebackers looking for the Tight End. The first call or alert from the linebackers would be the strength call or alignment call of “Right” or “Left”.

Again, as the offense breaks the huddle the “Mike” and “Will” linebackers will make a directional “Right” or “Left” call to set the defensive front according to the Tight End or strength. The “Right” or “Left” call must be made as quickly as possible once the offense breaks the huddle.

The “Right” or “Left” call made by the linebackers is dependent upon the Tight End, if no Tight End then the call will be made to the two receiver side. Versus a balanced formation and no Tight End then the linebackers will make their call to the defenses left side or the offenses right side.

How The Defense Is Called:

Base Defense:

Give defense a number alert

1. First number tells the call side tackle where to align
2. Second number tells backside tackle where to align
3. Third gives Blitz, Dog, or Stunt alert if needed
4. Fourth response is Coverage call

Base Defense is 31 cover 3

This means based upon a four man front as our base defense;

Linebacker gives Right or Left call according to the strength or Tight End

Must Be Able to Start the 4.2.5 With a Base Scheme.

The base defense illustrated above is known as a 31 or an Over front which provides an automatic 6i technique towards the Tight End and an automatic 5 technique to the backside of the “Right” or “Left” call made in the huddle. The above illustrated defense will be the base call
for the 4.2.5.

The 4.2.5 as illustrated above is a gap oriented defensive scheme.

Defensive Personnel Alignment Terminology

The following illustration will provide you information needed when discussing defender alignments vs offensive schemes. Anytime a defender aligns head-up against an offensive lineman he will be known as an even numbered defender.  Whenever we talk about a shaded defender he will be identified by using an odd number.

When discussing shaded defenders the base alignment will be the inside foot of the defender splitting the midline of his offensive alignment. Whenever talking about a wide alignmet it will be the inside foot to outside foot of the offensive personnel. When we talk about a ghost alignment it will be a defender outside on air, usually to an open side.

What Makes a Defense a 4-2-5


The following information will describe gap responsiblities for the 4.2.5 and how you name the area between each offensive blocker. Whenever a defender takes up a shade on an offensive blocker he has for the most part taken up a gap responsibility. An example of this would be a 3 technique aligned on the outside shade of a guard becomes a “B” gap defender. Any defender aligned on the outside shade of the tight end or is aligned as a ghost nine technique has what we call outside responsibility, this normally is contain responsibility. The following illustrations will explain a defenders area of responsibility according to his defensive alignment.

Whenever a defender is aligned head-up on an offensive blocker he is considered in a read alignment which may give him either gap to the side the play is going.

About the Author of this post:

Jerry Campbell has over 30 years of high school and college coaching experience. He has experience as a head coach, offensive coordinator, and various position coaches. He has written numerous football coaching articles in various publications, is the author of over 30 books on coaching football, and has produced 12 coaching video series. Additionally, he is a nationally sought after speaker on the coaching clinic circuit.

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