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The 4-2-5 Defense: An In-Depth Guide

Posted by Throw Deep Publishing Staff on

The 4-2-5 gets its roots from the 4-3 defense, with a hat tip to the 3-3-5 defense. The two merged and made the 4-2-5 defense. The 5 defensive backs are derived from the 3-3-5 defense, and the 6 man box gets its roots from the 4-3 defense.

The 4-2-5 depends on pressure and athletic players all over the field to be successful. 

Keep reading to learn more about one of the most popular defenses in football today, and what makes it work.

What is the 4-2-5 Defense?

The 4-2-5 defense is a defense with 4 down linemen, 2 linebackers, and 5 defensive backs. In a 4-3 defense there are 3 linebackers. The 4-2-5 defense allows a defense to keep for the majority of the time 6 in the box. This helps to defend against the run, but with the 5 defensive backs you can also be sound against the pass.

4-2-5 Defense Diagram

A strong 6 man box, and 5 defensive backs allows this defense to compete against today’s modern spread while still being tough against an aggressive run attack. 

What Personnel do you Need to Run the 4-2-5 Defense?

Your Sam linebacker needs to be a hybrid type, with the body of a big safety or very athletic linebacker. This position is one of your most important players in 4-2-5 defense.

The main difference between a traditional 4-3 defense and a 4-2-5 defense is the “Sam” or “Rover” position.  Your “Sam” needs to be able to cover in man, take on a pulling guard, and rush the passer against a much bigger offensive tackle

Most defensive coordinators running the 4-2-5 like more athletic players similar to the 3-3-5 defense. Using big linebackers and dropping them down to the defensive line, and using bigger defensive backs and making them linebackers is commonplace. This allows defensive coordinators to apply mass amounts of pressure. 

What are the Strengths of the 4-2-5 Defense?

The strength of the 4-2-5 defense is that it is a more versatile version of the 4-3 defense that can defend against the run and the pass. 

Even in the modern day spread formation, where 2 wide receivers are on both sides of the formation, the 4-2-5 allows those players to be covered, while still keeping 6 players in the box. Conversely, with a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense, a 2x2 formation would only leave 5 in the box. In terms of coverage, the 4-2-5 can be very versatile with 5 DB’s.

4-2-5 Defense Diagram vs Trips Formation

There is no coverage the 4-2-5 cannot play from the base alignment. This can cause confusion for offenses looking to get a read out of your 4-2-5.

Additionally, the 4-2-5 generally is a high pressure defense. The ability to bring 4 on every down is a great start, but with the addition of an athletic “Sam” linebacker, the blitz packages open up vastly. 

What are the Weaknesses of the 4-2-5 Defense?

The weakness of the 4-2-5 defense starts with the fact that it is not a “mirror” or balanced defense.

A mirror defense, something like the 3-3-5, or a 3-4 means that the defense looks the same to the left of the ball and to the right of the ball. THe same amount of players are on either side. The 4-2-5 uses the “Sam” linebacker as an overhang which means that there is no overhang to the opposite side of the Sam.

This makes it easy for an offensive coordinator to get numbers away from the strength. Your weak side safety, the one playing away from the “Sam” has to be a great ball player, as the safety will have to fill that alley created by the fact that there is no overhang. This is also problematic due to the fact that sometimes that weak safety needs to cover as well.

The other weakness of the 4-2-5 is the general smaller personnel associated with this defensive alignment. The defense allows for high pressure, but a big offensive line and bigger backs will be a struggle for 4-2-5 personnel. 

How Do Offenses Like to Attack the 4-2-5 Defense?

The most common way an offense will attack a 4-2-5 defense is to attack the side away from the Sam linebacker/Rover.

The 4-2-5 is not a mirror defense, so simply attacking the defense on the side with less players is the easy first answer. If the offense is on the hash, this is usually the side closest to the sideline (what coaches call the boundary).

4-2-5 Defense Weaknesses

The weak safety, has to fill the alley or the D gap. If you can get a blocker on him quickly and your wide receiver blocks the corner and your tackle hooks the end, there's a lot of room for a big run play.

A buck sweep, or an outside zone could become very problematic to the weak side of a 4-2-5. 

Common Blitzes from the 4-2-5 Defense

Now let's take a look at some of the most common ways defensive coordinators use the 4-2-5 defense to bring the blitz.

6 Man Cover 0 Blitz

Sending 6 is always a great way to get pressure.

In this blitz, your inside 1 & 3 will slant, and your two inside linebackers will blitz behind them. This covers all 6 gaps. When running this blitz, you can play cover 0 with it. This is a blitz in the true spirit of the 4-2-5, high risk, high reward. When you bring 6, and run cover 0 behind it, you are “selling out” with pressure. Adding a 7th rusher is easy too.

4-2-5 Defense 6 Man Cover 0 Blitz

When one of your defenders, the Rover for example, has the back in coverage, and the back blocks, adding him as a rusher makes it almost impossible for the 5 offensive linemen to block the 7 rushers. Your two safeties would cover the two inside receivers then and you’re creating a numbers mismatch for the offense. 

6 Man Cover Zero Field Blitz

A second, slightly more creative blitz from the first one shown is a blitz with your strong inside linebacker and your Rover. 

4-2-5 Defense - 6 Man Cover 0 Field Pressure

Up front, your 3 tech away from the blitz and the 5 technique defensive end will rush their normal path. On the blitz side, the nose will slant across the center’s face to the opposite A gap. Your end to the blitz is going to long stick to the strong A. A long stick is a technique used by a defensive lineman to slant two gaps away from his starting technique.

In this case, the lineman would slant from a 5 technique to a 1 technique. After the long stick, the inside linebacker will blitz the B gap while the “Sam” comes off the edge. This is another 6 man pressure with the potential to become a 7 man pressure. This is another blitz to put 0 coverage behind.  

Common Coverages from the 4-2-5 Defense

Two of the most common coverages you'll see from the 4-2-5 Defense are Cover 4 and Cover 3 Sky. Let's talk about them in more detail.

Cover 4

Cover 4 is a great coverage out of the 4-2-5 because with a 2 high safety shell the 4-2-5 can get everyone in the secondary into the right spot without any major changes to their base alignments before the snap.

4-2-5 Defense Cover 4

The two corners would take the outside deep quarters with both safeties taking the inside quarters. The Sam linebacker covers the flat to the strength. Your strong side inside linebacker covers the strong hook to curl. The weak side inside linebacker is somewhat stressed, he needs to be a curl player and rally late to the weak side flat.

This coverage is great for keeping everything in front of the defense and to defend against deep routes in the 4-2-5. 

Cover 3 Sky

Cover 3 sky is another coverage from the same 2 high shell in the 4-2-5.

On the outside, both corners will play a deep third. Depending on whether or not you want to run Sky Strong or Sky Weak, will determine which safety will rotate down to the flat.

4-2-5 Defense Sky Weak

In the diagram, Sky weak is drawn up. The weak side safety rolls down to the weak side flat. The free safety will take the middle third and play center field. The two inside linebackers are hook to curl players.

The cover 3 sky coverage allows you to show a 2 high 4-2-5 shell, but allows you to play a cover 3. This can be a great coverage as a change of pace, as you are showing 1 coverage, 1 shell, and playing another. 

What Coaches/Teams Use the 4-2-5 Defense?

Gary Patterson is the most well known 4-2-5 coach. TCU’s defense under Patterson was second to none. Not even Alabama and Nick Saban with annual top 5 recruiting classes could rival TCU’s defensive prowess.

TCU’s best recruiting class under Patterson was only #20 nationally according to rivals, but Patterson still managed to consistently have one of the best defenses in college football running the 4-2-5. While at Texas Christian University, Patterson’s defenses led the nation in defense 3 straight years and 5 times overall.

Gary Patterson 4-2-5 Defense

TCU is only the 3rd team all time to “3 peat” defensively. Staying with the Alabama comparison, the Crimson Tide have done it 6 times in the history of the program. TCU did it 5 times in 20 years under Gary Patterson. Using players that may be smaller, and not of the same class as Alabama, Texas, or USC, the Horned Frogs managed to use speed and the 4-2-5 to put up historical numbers defensively.

Patterson is currently a special assistant at the University of Texas after his career at TCU where he became the program's all time winningest coach. 

Another longtime college coach, Greg Etter recently completed his 15th season as head football coach at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin. At division 3 Concodia, Etter was named NACC Coach of the Year in 2013.

Prior to his time with the Falcons, Etter was the defensive coordinator at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. While at Carthage, another division 3 school, Etter ran the 4-2-5, bringing pressure from all over the field. As the defensive coordinator at Carthage College, Etter’s 2004 unit led the nation in interceptions. The Redmen (Since changed to Firebirds) defense consistently ranked nationally in turnovers, scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, and pass efficiency defense.

Prior to Carthage and Concordia, he was the defensive coordinator at South Dakota State University where his defense set the school record for interceptions.

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