American football strategy

American football strategy


American football strategy concerns the
deployment of offensive, defensive, and special teams players and the execution
of plays in American football. In American football, there are a huge
number of positions, formations, strategies, plays and types of
play-calling systems that are utilized. Offensive strategy
The goal of the offense is, most commonly, to score points. In order to
accomplish this goal, coaches and players plan and execute plays – based
on a variety of factors: The players involved, the opponent’s defensive
strategy, the amount of time remaining before halftime or the end of the game,
and the number of points needed to win the game. Strategically, the offense can
prolong their possession of the ball to prevent the opponent from scoring.
=Offensive players=On offense, there are three types of
players: linemen, backs, and receivers. These players’ positions and duties on
the field vary from one offensive scheme to another.
The position names vary from one team’s playbook to another, but what follow are
among the most commonly used: Linemen
(This is understood to be players on the line other than at the ends; also
referred to as “interior linemen”. The ends—i.e., the players at the ends of
the line—are discussed below under “Receivers”.)
Center: The Center is the player who snaps the ball to the quarterback. Like
the other four linemen, his job consists of both run blocking and pass blocking.
The center is also usually responsible for calling the blocking schemes on the
line, telling the other linemen which defenders to block.
Guard: Guards line up on both sides of the center. The guards are generally
bigger than the center and are typically better run blockers than pass blockers.
Tackle: Tackles are the “bookends” of the offensive line. They are usually the
biggest offensive linemen, and as tall as 6’9″), but also must have great hand
and foot coordination to successfully protect against pass rushes. If a team
has a right-handed quarterback, the left tackle is usually the best pass blocker
on the line since they are responsible for preventing a “blindside” pass rush
the quarterback might not see. Right tackles have the same responsibilities
with left-handed quarterbacks. Backs
Backs are so named because they line up behind the line of scrimmage at the
start of the play. Quarterback: The Quarterback lines up
directly behind the center, where he takes the ball and puts it into play.
The quarterback’s primary duty is either passing the ball or handing the ball to
a running back who carries the ball downfield. In some cases the quarterback
is called upon to run the ball downfield himself, either because the play is
designed that way or the quarterback has no other options available. A
quarterback can even act as a receiver, catching a pass thrown by another player
during a “trick play.” In most cases, the quarterback also communicates to the
other players the play they are going to run, both in the huddle before the team
lines up to execute the play and immediately before the ball snap.
Quarterbacks must be able to throw the ball accurately, read defenses, and make
quick, correct decisions. As the leader of the offense, the Quarterback is
considered by many to be the most important player on the offensive field.
Fullback: The Fullback lines up behind the quarterback and is involved in
running, blocking, and catching passes. In many offensive schemes the fullback
is considered to be a running back, but this player is usually bigger and more
physical than other running backs on the team and is more involved in blocking
than in running or receiving. Halfback: The Halfback, also referred to
as a “tailback” or more generically as a running back, lines up behind the
quarterback and in many cases behind the fullback. A halfback’s responsibilities
include running the ball, catching passes, blocking, and sometimes even
throwing the ball on trick plays. Receivers
(Eligible receivers are the ends and the backs, other than an NFL quarterback
lined up “under center”. Not all backs fall into the wide-receiver category
below.) Wide receiver: Depending on the
formation, an offense may have anywhere from zero to five wide receivers. Most
basic formations feature either two or three WRs, who either line up on the
line of scrimmage or behind the line of scrimmage. WRs are among the fastest and
most agile players on the team and their main job is to catch passes and run
after the catch. Well-rounded receivers are also effective blockers and, in some
cases, can act as running backs on trick plays.
Tight end: The Tight End was traditionally a blocking position but is
now considered a combination wide receiver/lineman. TEs normally line up
on the line of scrimmage next to the tackles. They are among the most
well-rounded athletes on the field as they must be strong enough to run block
and pass block as well as agile enough to run pass routes and catch the
football.=Offensive formations=
Before the ball is snapped the offensive team lines up in a formation. The type
of formation used is determined by the game situation. Teams often have
“special formations” that they only use in obvious passing situations, short
yardage, goal line situations, or formations they have developed for that
particular game just to confuse the defense. There are a nearly unlimited
number of possible formations – a few of the more common ones are:
Pro set Shotgun formation
Wishbone formation I formation
Single wing formation Goal Line formation
Single set back Wildcat formation
Pistol formation Victory formation
=Offensive plays=When the team is in formation and the
quarterback gives a signal, either by calling out instructions or giving a
non-verbal cue, the center snaps the ball to the quarterback and a play
begins. Running plays
A running play occurs when the quarterback hands the ball to another
player, who then attempts to carry the ball past the line of scrimmage and gain
yards, or the quarterback keeps the ball himself and runs beyond the line of
scrimmage. In both cases, the offensive line’s main job is to run block,
preventing the defensive players from tackling the ball carrier.
The choice of running play depends on the strengths of an offensive team, the
weaknesses of the defense they are opposing, and the distance needed to
score a touchdown or gain a first down. There are many kinds of running plays,
including: Plunge/Dive
Sweep Reverse
Off Tackle Student Body Right
Draw Counter Trey
Quarterback sneak QB sweep
Bootleg Option
Counter Power
Zone Trap run
Passing plays When a passing play occurs, the backs
and receivers run specific patterns, or routes, and the quarterback throws the
ball to one of the players. On these plays, the offensive line’s main job is
to prevent defensive players from tackling the quarterback before he
throws the ball or disrupting the quarterback in any other way during the
play. When successful, passing plays tend to
cover more ground than running plays, so they are often used when the offensive
teams needs to gain a large amount of yards.
Different kinds of pass plays include: Fly route
Slant route Out route
Screen pass Button hook
Corner Route Hail Mary
Seam route=Eligible Receivers=
One general rule teams must take into account when creating their passing
strategy is that only certain players are allowed to catch forward passes. If
a player who is not an eligible receiver receives a thrown pass, the team could
be penalized. However, if prior to a play the team reports to the referee
that a normally ineligible receiver will act as an eligible receiver for one
play, that player is allowed to catch passes. Teams will use this strategy
from time to time to confuse the defense or force them to devote more attention
to possible pass-catchers.=Specific offensive strategies=
Using a combination of passing plays and running plays, the offense tries to gain
the yards needed for a first down, touchdown, or field goal. Over the years
several football coaches and offensive coordinators have developed some
well-known and widely used offensive strategies:
Option offense Run and Gun Offense
Smashmouth offense Air Coryell offense
Spread offense West Coast offense
Pistol offense Marty Ball
=Play calling systems=Distinct from the offensive strategies
or philosophies, which govern how a team moves the ball down the field, whether a
team relies on downfield passes, short passes, inside runs, etc. are the ways
in which plays are called. These play calling systems often developed
alongside certain offensive strategies, though the systems themselves can work
with any strategy. The differences between the systems focus on the
specific language used to communicate plays to players. In the NFL, three
basic systems predominate: The West Coast system, which developed
alongside the West Coast offense, uses specific words to describe formations,
blocking schemes, and the routes that runners or pass receivers run. A typical
play name would read “FB West Right Slot 372 Y Stick”: FB West Right Slot
describes the formation, 372 describes the blocking scheme, while Y Stick
describes the route run by the primary receiver.
The Coryell system, which developed alongside the Air Coryell offense, is
based on a numerical code known as a “route tree”. Play calling uses a three
digit number, for example 896, where each digit tells a specific receiver
which route to run: The leftmost receiver runs an “8” or post route, the
middle receiver runs a “9” or go route, and the rightmost receiver runs a “6” or
in route. The Erhardt-Perkins system, developed in
the 1970s by two assistant coaches with the New England Patriots, is based on
single word concepts rather than assigning each player a role in the
play. One word, say “ghost”, tells each receiver what to do; the concept is
divorced from the formation, so regardless of the formation, each
player, based on where he is lined up, runs the proper pattern determined by
the “ghost” concept. This places a heavy emphasis on memorization, but also
allows for more efficient communication and allows for a greater flexibility by
allowing every play to be run from every possible formation.
Defensive strategy The goal of defensive strategy 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 and scoring points
themselves.=Defensive players=
On defense, there are three types of players: linemen, linebackers, and
defensive backs. These players’ specific positions on the field and duties during
the game vary depending on the type of defense being used as well as the kind
of offense the defense is facing. Defensive line
The defensive lines up in front of the offensive line. The defensive lineman’s
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. Defensive nose guard: The nose guard,
also known as a nose tackle, lines up across from the center. Nose guards are
among the biggest players on the field and mainly are used to push back the
center or the guard to stop a running play or to move the offensive linemen to
where the linebackers can rush the quarterback.
Defensive tackle: The defensive tackle 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. They tend to be more the “run-stopping” type rather than being
good at rushing the quarterback themselves.
Defensive end: Defensive ends line up just outside of the offensive tackle.
Defensive ends need to be strong 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.
Linebackers Linebackers stand 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. Outside linebackers: The outside
linebackers 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. Inside linebackers: Inside linebackers,
sometimes also referred to as middle linebackers set up on the inside portion
of the line of scrimmage. ILBs tend to be the biggest and strongest linebackers
on the defense. Defensive backs
Defensive backs stand 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 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 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 or free safeties. 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,, the number typically appears after the number of
linebackers, thus the formula would go-(# 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,
or three down linemen and four linebackers, but other formations such
as five linemen and two linebackers, or three linemen, three linebackers, and
five defensive backs 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. 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 CB, 1 SS, and 1 FS, and the “3-3-5,” which is a nickel package
variant that includes either 2 CB, 2 SS, and 1 FS, or 3 CB, 1 SS, and 1 FS like
the standard nickel package. When a sixth defensive back is inserted, it is
known as a “dime” package. In rare instances when a seventh defensive back
is inserted, it is known as a “quarter” package.
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. In winning Super Bowl XXV,
the New York Giants played with two down linemen, four linebackers and five
defensive backs, a strategy that prevented their opponents, the Buffalo
Bills, a team with a strong passing game, from completing long passes. In a
2004 game, the New England Patriots used no down linemen and seven linebackers
for two plays against the Miami Dolphins.
Some of the more familiar defensive formations include:
4-3 3-4
5-2 4-4
3-3-5 46 defense
Nickel Dime
Quarter or Prevent “Eight in the box”
=Defensive plays=The defense must wait until the ball is
snapped by the opposing center before they can move across the line of
scrimmage or otherwise engage any of the offensive players. Once an opposing
offense has broken their huddle and lined up in their formation, defensive
players often call out instructions to each other to make last-second
adjustments to the defense. Run defense
To prevent the opposing offense from gaining yards on the ground, a defense
might put more emphasis on their run defense. This generally involves placing
more players close to the line of scrimmage to get to the ball carrier
more quickly. This strategy is often used when the opposing offense only
needs to gain a few yards to make a first down or score a touchdown.
Pass defense When the defense believes the opposing
offense will pass the ball, they go into pass defense. There are two general
schemes for defending against the pass: Man-to-man, where each eligible receiver
is covered by a defensive back or a linebacker.
Zone, where certain players are assigned an area on the field that they are to
cover. Blitz
There are times when a defense believes that the best way to stop the offense is
to rush the quarterback, which involves sending several players charging at the
line of scrimmage in an attempt to tackle the quarterback before he can
throw the ball or hand it to another player. Any player on the defense is
allowed to rush the quarterback, and many schemes have been developed over 50
years that involve complicated or unusual blitz “packages.”
=Specific defensive strategies=Defensive strategies differ somewhat
from offensive strategies in that, unlike offenses that have very specific,
detailed plans and assignments for each player, defenses are more reactive, with
each player’s general goal being to “stop the offense” by tackling the ball
carrier, breaking up passing plays, taking the ball away from the offense,
or sacking the quarterback. Whereas precision and timing are among the most
important parts of offensive strategy, defensive strategies often emphasize
aggressiveness and the ability to react to plays as they develop.
Nevertheless, there are many defensive strategies that have been developed over
the years that coaches use as a framework for their general defense,
making specific adjustments depending on the capabilities of their players and
the opponent they are facing. Some of the most commonly known and used
defensive strategies include: Man-to-man
Coverage shells Zone blitz
Tampa 2 “46” defense
5-5-1 Two-level defense Special teams strategy
A special team is the group of players who take the field during kickoffs, free
kicks, punts, and field goal attempts. Most football teams’ special teams
include one or more kickers, a long snapper, kick returners who catch and
carry the ball after it is kicked by the opposing team, and blockers who defend
during kicks and returns. Most special teams are made up of
players who act as backups or substitutes on the team’s offensive and
defensive units. Because of the risk of injury, it is uncommon for a starting
offensive or defensive player to also play on a special teams unit.
A variety of strategic plays can be attempted during kickoffs, punts, and
field goals—to surprise the opposition and score points, gain yardage or first
downs, or recover possession of the kicked ball.
=Kickoffs=A kickoff occurs at the beginning of
each half, overtime period, and following each touchdown, successful
field goal, or safety. Strategically, the coach of the other team may choose
to have his players kick the ball in one of several ways:
Standard kickoff: The kicker attempts a high kick meant to travel the greatest
possible distance upfield. The kicking team’s primary goal is to stop the
opposing team’s returner as close as possible to the end zone, thus forcing
that team to advance the ball a longer distance to score.
Onside kick: This is a very short kick with the goal of the kicking team
recovering the ball, usually attempted in the closing minutes of play when a
team needs to score again quickly to have a chance of winning.
“Squib kick” or “pooch kick”: The squib kick is a low kick that may hit the
ground and bounce in a random fashion, making it less predictable. A squib kick
is generally used when trying to avoid a run-back, although this outcome is not
guaranteed. A pooch kick is used for a similar purpose, except is a short, high
kick that the Kick-Off team can get to before there is a return. Because the
kick does not travel nearly as far as a standard kickoff, this strategy gives
the opposing team better average field position, but the advantage is that a
long kick return is less likely. Kickoff out-of-bounds: If a kickoff
travels over the sidelines either in the air, or bounces in the field of play,
then rolls out-of-bounds without being touched by a player on the receiving
team, the play results in an illegal procedure penalty. The ball is then
spotted 30 yards from the spot of the kick or at the out-of-bounds, resulting
in a first down for the receiving team. Sometimes, although very rarely, the
kicking team purposely kicks the ball out of bounds if they’re facing an
excellent kick returner.=Punts=
Standard punts: punts on fourth down when the chances of gaining enough yards
for a first down are slim and when the ball is too far from the goalpost to
allow a field goal try. Generally, a member of the opposing team moves into
position to catch the ball. He may try to gain yards by running the ball
downfield, or he may signal a fair catch by waving one arm above his head, thus
signaling that he won’t try to return the ball downfield. A player who has
signaled a fair catch may not be tackled after catching the ball, or the player
who tackled him is penalized for kick-catching interference.
Pooch punts: Occasionally, a coach lines his team up in a shotgun formation and
has the quarterback “quick kick,” or “pooch punt,” to use the element of
surprise to cause the defense not to have a receiver ready. Some teams even
do this from a field goal formation, having the ball snapped directly to the
placekicker who punts the ball downfield instead of trying a field goal that has
a low chance for success. In leagues where “onside punting” is legal, the
pooch punt can be recovered by the kicking team, which has led to its
occasional use as a surprise strategy. Fake punts: In much the same way as a
fake field goal, a fake punt is an effort to trick the opposition and
either score or gain enough yards for a first down. Fake punts are risky for the
same reasons as fake field goals and are thus rarely attempted.
Punts out-of-bounds: Skilled punters may try to punt a ball past the return team
so that the ball touches the playing field in bounds, then rolls out of
bounds close to the opposing team’s end zone. The drawback to such a punt is
that the ball may roll into the end zone, giving the receiving team normal
starting position. Or, if the kick is angled too sharply, it goes out of
bounds too early and results in an unusually short, or botched, punt. The
best punters are highly regarded for their ability to put the ball out of
bounds within five yards of the goal line. These punts are also known as a
“coffin corner punt” due to their ability to pin an opposing offense
inside its own five-yard line, thus increasing the chances for the opposing
defense to score a safety or a defensive touchdown.
The “no punting” strategy is one that forsakes the practice of punting and
instead attempts to make fourth down conversions on as many plays as
possible. It has been implemented at Pulaski Academy, a top-ranked prep
school, and has been advocated by Gregg Easterbrook in his Tuesday Morning
Quarterback column and by author L. Jon Wertheim. Fourth down decisions to punt
have been analyzed mathematically by David Romer.
=Field goals=Field goals are worth one point after a
scored touchdown, or three points in the event that a team does not score a
touchdown but feels it is positioned close enough for the kicker to make the
attempt. Standard field goals: The strategy for a
field goal is fairly straightforward. The team on offense forms a protective
semicircle behind the line of scrimmage on either side of the center, who snaps
the ball to the holder. The holder positions the ball so that the kicker –
moving from a short distance away – can quickly get into position and accurately
kick the ball through the goalposts. The remaining players block the opposing
team, whose members try to break through the protective circle to block the kick
or bat it aside for a chance to intercept the ball. If a team misses the
field goal, the opposing team takes possession of the ball from the spot
where the ball was kicked, as opposed to the line of scrimmage. Several factors,
including distance, weather, crowd noise, and a kicker’s leg strength and
experience determine the success or failure of a field goal attempt.
Fake field goals: In some situations, a coach may choose to have his team fake a
field goal attempt. The players line up as normal, but instead of holding the
ball for a kick, the player receiving the snap may run with the ball, hand it
off to another player, or attempt to throw it downfield.
Field goal returns: It is possible for the defensive team to return a missed
field goal. If a field goal attempt is short of the goal posts a player may
return the ball just as on a punt. Teams usually try a return only when a very
long field goal is attempted at the end of the first half, since in all other
cases it is more advantageous for the defense to just let the ball fall short.
In college football games, if a team is able to run the ball back into their end
zone it counts for only 3 points.=Kick and punt returns=
Standard returns: The biggest choice facing a kick returner is whether to
attempt to run the ball back. Generally, a returner who catches a kickoff or punt
in the “red zone” between the receiving team’s own end zone and 20-yard line
attempts some sort of return, if only to gain a few yards. If the receiving
team’s players can get into position quickly, they may be able to allow the
returner to gain further yardage, or break away from the pack entirely and
score a touchdown. Laterals: In extreme cases—generally
during kickoff returns in the closing seconds of play—the returner may attempt
a lateral pass to avoid the ball being downed in a tackle. The return team may
throw as many lateral passes as they choose, and this is normally done in a
desperate attempt to keep the ball alive. This notably occurred on January
8, 2000, during a wild-card game between the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills,
in a play known as the Music City Miracle. In the game’s final seconds,
Lorenzo Neal, Frank Wycheck and Kevin Dyson combined on a 75-yard kickoff
return touchdown to give the Titans a 21-16 lead, allowing Tennessee to
advance to the second round of the playoffs. Another well-known occurrence
is an occasion during an NCAA game regarded as “The Play” in which the
University of California return team utilized 5 lateral passes for a
successful return and a come-from-behind victory.
Fair catches: A kick returner may signal a fair catch if the ball will be caught
with good field position, or if the kicking team’s members are advancing so
quickly that a return is impossible. However, he is penalized if he attempts
a return after signaling a fair catch; likewise, players who tackle a returner
who has signaled a fair catch are penalized. If a player waves for a fair
catch and then fails to touch the ball, it may be downed as normal by the
kicking team, but if recovered by the receiving team, may not be advanced.
However, if any member of the receiving team catches a ball and then drops it,
it becomes a live ball and may be recovered by either side.
“Live balls” and “Dead balls”: If a punted ball is touched after passing the
line of scrimmage, even inadvertently, by a member of the receiving team it
becomes a live ball and may be recovered as if a fumble by the kicking team.
Conversely if the receiving team doesn’t touch the ball and a member of the
kicking team touches it, the ball is ruled down where it is touched and play
is dead. All place-kicked balls—kick-offs, field goal attempts,
and the like—are live balls, which may be played in one way or another by
either team. Downing the ball
If, for whatever reason, the receiving team does not catch the ball, the
kicking team may move into position and try to down it as close as possible to
the opposing team’s end zone. This is achieved by surrounding the ball and
allowing it to roll or bounce, without touching it, as close as possible to the
end zone. If the ball appears to be rolling or bouncing into the end zone, a
player may run in front of the goal line and attempt to bat it down or catch it.
If a member of the kicking team touches or catches the ball before a member of
the receiving team does so, the ball is blown dead by the official when he has
judged that the returner is not going to pick up the ball and return it, or the
kicking team picks the ball up and hands it to the official. Once the whistle is
blown the play is over and the receiving team takes possession at the spot the
ball was spotted by the official. Thus it is strategically important for
kicking teams to get as close to the ball as possible after a punt, so that
they may quickly tackle a returner, down the ball as close to the opposing team’s
end zone as possible, and recover the ball after a fumble and regain
possession of the ball. See also
Advanced NFL Stats American football
Bump and run coverage American football glossary
Formation New England Patriots strategy
Strategy References
External links NFL The official website of the National
Football League – the primary professional American football league.
American Football Coaches Association Association of American Football
coaches. Most of the major coaches, especially at the college level, belong
to this organization. 1988 Washington Redskins 3-4 Defense
1989 Monte Kiffin 4-3 Defense 1992 Dallas Cowboys 4-3 Defense
1992 San Francisco 49ers 3-4 Defense 1994 Arizona Cardinals 4-3 Defense
1997 Carolina Panthers 3-4 Defense 1997 New York Jets Bill Belichick
Defense 2005 Baltimore Ravens 3-4 Defense
Cover 2 Tony Dungy Install

About the Author: Garret Beatty

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