Does “Prevent Defense” Just Prevent You From Winning?

You’ve heard your friends say it.  Their team had the lead going into the fourth quarter.  But their team’s coach decides it’s time to stop blitzing and play “prevent defense.”  And then comes that comment, filled with derision and disappointment (which is actually a famous quote from John Madden).

“The only thing prevent defense does is prevent you from winning.’” 

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John Madden...and his eyebrows

Are head coaches and defensive coordinators in college and professional football misguided?  Is playing prevent defense a legitimate late-game strategy?

Dan Fleming defends the prevent defense in ESPN noting that if a field goal cannot beat a team, prevent defense proves to be a worthy choice.  He also notes that big plays are more a result of defensive mistakes than offensive execution.

Psychology influences our opinions on this issue.  We remember the losses more than the wins.  When prevent defense works, we do not give it credit as we believe that the team is supposed to win.

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Notre Dame blitzes Florida State in the first half of the Champs Sports Bowl, and Florida St. is sacked four times, gets only five first downs, and scores zero points. Notre Dame is up 14-0. In the fourth quarter the prevent defense takes over, and John Madden's prophecy comes to fruition.

But when the prevent defense fails your team – when you feel that your team has really blown it – you hear John Madden’s quibble running through your head, you’re ready to call for the removal of the defensive coordinator and potentially the head coach.  And you’ve lost what little faith you may have had in the prevent defense.

Does Fleming have it right?  I don’t know, but chances are you will hear a lot more groaning from me and everybody else about the prevent defense.

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