Don Brown: Coaching Primer

Don Brown - Michigan Defensive Coordinator

It was said that Jim Harbaugh wanted to go more towards a 3-4 Defense, and what he got was a guy that runs a similar 4-3/3-4 look that his former defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin incorporated (update: he leaned more 3-4 early in his BC tenure, before making the transition to more 4-3 later; he ultimately became almost exclusively 4-3 early at Michigan before mixing it with a 3-3 style defense about 40% of snaps later in his tenure at UM). If that's what he wanted, he got his man. He also got a man that began his coaching in the Ivy league at Dartmouth and even was the head coach (posting a 26-10 record) as the Yale Baseball coach, where he was also the defensive coordinator. Yes, he sounds like a Jim Harbaugh guy.

Since then, he's been the defensive coordinator at Brown, UMass, Maryland, UConn, and Boston College. He's also held head coaching positions at Plymouth State, Northeastern, and UMass. But that's enough of his wikipedia page, let's take a closer look at that sweet, sweet mustache and what he brings to the table football-wise.

Don Brown is a multiple front coach, but his philosophy is an attacking one-gap system. He wants to
  1. Attack the LOS and disrupt blocking schemes
  2. Get off the ball and stay on the edge of a blocker
  3. Stop the run on the way to the QB
  4. Rush the passer on run downs
Those are the essentials of his defense. The rest is details, which is what I hope to get to.

In studying Wisconsin Defensive Coordinator Dave Aranda, I have been lucky enough to come across Don Brown's defense and study and watch it quite a bit over the last few years. Don Brown is a 3-4 guy update: multiple front] at heart, but his one-gap philosophy extends across formations, and he'll put his WILL (formerly known as Buck or WDE) with his hand in the dirt and run 4-3 Under, 4-3 Over, and Bear fronts as well.

I've previously discussed a one-gap 3-4 defense in more detail before, and that's the essence of what Brown is trying to do. He'll run an Okie front

He'll run a 3-4 Over (4-3 Under) front that he calls Eagle (typically a 2-high safety defense) to stop primarily Iso, Power, or Option teams with the WILL (Jack in the diagram below) almost always coming off the edge.

He'll pull out what looks like a 4-3 Over that he calls a "Hawk" defense, which sees the "Dog Safety" (DS, aka strong safety) have support responsibility on the edge is what is mostly a Cover 3 defense.

He has a "Spark" defense which is actually the Eagle defense, with a DL over the Nose and one outside shade on both OGs. He can then call "Spin" and put the DS in the deep middle of the field and play man free. He tends to like this defense against 12 personnel and 20 personnel teams.

And of course, he also has the Bear defense, which is similar to the Eagle front but walks the MIKE down right over the inside shoulder of the TE and puts the DS at the LB level. This typically utilizes man free coverage behind it as well.

They will also run a true 4-3 Over and 4-3 Under defense.

Here's what it looks like all put together

In the end, he prefers a single high safety look, and prefers to primarily play man-free (update: it's a coverage he calls "City" in which the deep safety may be determined by the release of a specific receiver). However, even his zones rely much more heavily on man principles than most zone defenses. His cover 3 is a tight cover 3 (rarely run at Michiga), similar to what Durkin ran at Michigan. His two-high safety look is mostly a Cover 2 trap philosophy, mixed with a cover 4 [bracket scheme that often ends similar to Cover 4, depending on the route distribution] (he also runs a lot of man-under in 3rd down situations) that can mix press man and zone responsibilities.

Moving Parts
The thing that most immediately comes to mind with Brown's defense are all the moving parts. This is not a static "get lined up" defense. This defense has constant moving parts. And with those moving parts comes a wide variety of blitzes from any defender on the field. If you watched the previous video, you say CB blitzes from both the field and the boundary. You saw DS blitzes, LB blitzes, twists, stunts, and everything else that could be thrown at the offense. Brown uses moving pieces and entropy to confuse blocking schemes and get free hitters at the point of attack. By giving assignments, such as blitz assignments, he asks his guys to play faster. Be first to the point of attack and you'll win more often than not (the problem comes when you can't get to the point of attack first or when you flat out get beat, leaving others in tougher spots defensively).

At the height of this, on passing downs, is the zone blitz, in which Brown will use almost every chance he gets.

Pass Rush
When I talked about all the moving pieces and attacking defense, I also hinted at the weakness of the defense. The pass rush must work as a smart, cohesive unit in order to succeed. The outside guys can't get deeper than the deepest (or else a huge lane will open between them and the inside guys); the inside guys must push the pocket. The bubble must be protected; a rush lane through the bubble (pocket) and the defense quickly pops.

Defending the Spread
After Michigan got gashed by Indiana, fans worried they would struggle defending the spread. After the game against the Buckeyes, Wolverine fans were certain they could not. Brown has realized this concern even before he was ever a candidate for the Michigan DC job.

In order to defend the spread, Brown tends to move away from his one-high safety looks and move to more of a two-high look out of cover 2 trap and bracket type coverages. He does this so that he can rotate safeties into run support, either to defend the crease (outside the Tackle/TE, inside #2) or the alley (outside #2, inside #1). He will occasionally use a single-high look and give crease/alley responsibility to the deep safety. His deep safety isn't nearly as deep as Durkin's; this puts even heavier responsibility on the CBs to succeed, as many times the receivers can get over top of the defense without great support over the top. The box is primarily responsible for the run (along with the safeties), while the CBs and in some cases the safeties look almost completely to the pass before helping out in support.

Linebacker Coaching

While Brown came up as a DB coach, and BC he was a LB coach as well. I won't go too much into depth here, but here's video of BC working on drills and fundamentals under his watch.

Ian Boyd at Football Study Hall looking at how he was successful at BC vs FSU


  1. Would've loved to see Jake Ryan suit up for Coach Brown.

  2. In that first video of BC defense 1 Gap principles it was interesting to me how many cuts showed the weakside corner blitzing and the secondary rotating to a sort of 2-hi zone coverage. Neat package for sure.

    1. Fire Zone blitz video calls is Kamikazee

    2. Yeah, I really like bringing that pressure off the edge. Can cover up the back end with a safe coverage but bring pressure from the outside to throw the blocking scheme off. Good at adding an additional defender to the run game and for pressure against the pass.

  3. Coach B. devised this out of genius. I used it - something similar - at the h.s. level to cover up our weakest link, me as HC. I was promoted prematurely because the former HC took an offer he could not refuse from a power house. I thought long and hard and concluded I had to come up with something that would keep us in games until I could get a grasp on the overall game instead of concentrating working with the backs, primarily qbs. I wondered, as a qb or OLman what would most bother me, and the answer, just as with offensive philosophy is outnumbering the opposition at point of attack. I didn't have to be nearly as careful as Brown because I was not faced with all the weapons he is at this level. I knew blocking schemes and I knew what the offense would do if I moved my man in a certain way. Knowing this, enabled me to create vacancies on the field by an offensive man being pulled to where he didn't necessarily belong and soon we were getting defenders in the backfield based simply on the offense doing what they were coached to do. There were times they would line up in a formation that prevented original call, but we could still send defenders, always moving forward, making offensive react instead of us, with the main goal, always, every frickin down making life miserable on their qb. No late hits, nothing dirty, simply causing him to hurry throws, hand offs, making pitches too quickly etc., and so many times just arriving too many, too fast, most h.s. teams could not handle it. And when it was third and 15 to 20 for them, staying in our base 52, qb would often make us look better than we were and hurry the pass because it wears on one. Even after I became comfortable in my job and switched back and forth from a 52, that I always liked and was introducing a 45 that is now popular, I never stopped playing defense with an offensive mindset. What started as an attempt to keep games close became our most powerful weapon. Interested in watching a man who was able to devise this defense as a choice and not as a life preserver. And with the speed he has not only at the second and third levels, but with his DEs, could be absolutely wonderful to watch.

    1. Very good insight. Blitzing defenses need to be sound on the back end in college or they get burned, but if you can get the guys to be that sound, then you can dictate terms up front. All the best defenses in the country roll with a similar philosophy (though some, such as Bama last year, don't need to add much blitzing to the mix).


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