Fundamentals : Plays

(If you missed the post about schemes and the post about formations, you might want to go back and read those first. Then come back and join us for today’s post about offensive play calling: the key to finally understand what the quarterback is shouting about at the start of the play! See you soon!)

Have you always wondered what the quarterback is doing when he gets behind the center and starts shouting, “BLUE 42! BLUE 42! HUT HUT!” It sounds like Red Rover, the Remix.

While it might sound like the QB has gone off his rocker, what he’s actually doing is giving the offense the play at the line of scrimmage – delivering specific instructions to let each man know what he’s responsible for at the snap of the ball. We might not be able to crack that exact code of “Blue 42” – each team has specific lingo for the terms in their own playbook – but we can start to understand plays a little bit better by breaking down some of the larger concepts. Today we’re going to focus solely on learning more about play calls for passing plays. Here are 4 keys to breaking down the call:

1. Know the Routes

The number and name of the routes can change depending on the team and the system, but in general, you’ll find that these routes are commonly run by receivers in the NFL:

  1. Quick Out (Flat): a short route in which the receiver runs upfield momentarily and then cuts out to the sideline
  2. Slant: a short route in which the receiver runs upfield at a 45 degree angle before slanting to the sideline
  3. Out: the gold standard in NFL routes, run exactly like the quick out but 10-15 yards further upfield
  4. In (Dig): an out route, run to the inside – so instead of running 10-15 yards upfield and breaking to the sideline, the receiver runs upfield and breaks to the inside
  5. Curl In: the receiver runs upfield and then comes back downfield toward the inside of the field
  6. Curl Out (Comeback, Hitch): the receiver runs upfield then comes back downfield toward the sideline
  7. Corner (Flag): the receiver runs all the way upfield at a 45 degree angle toward the corner of the end zone
  8. Post: the receiver runs all the way upfield toward the outside goal post
  9. Fly (Go, Fade): the receiver runs straight upfield as fast as possible

2. Know the Route Tree

This is more than a little subjective, because route trees are dependent on the number system and route names that a team is using in their own system. But this image is a great starting place to see how the route changes depending on which side the receiver is on:

football, fundamentals, basicsphoto source

(We didn’t talk about the screen pass above – but it’s a pass used when the QB is under constant pressure. He drops back as if he’s going to throw a bomb downfield, the offensive line allows rushers to blitz, and the QB throws a screen pass to an open receiver who has cut behind the offensive line.)

3. Know the 1, 2, 3 and the X, Y, Z

Each member of the backfield has his own number when it comes to play calling – and it’s not the number on his jersey.

1 = Quarterback

2 = Tailback (the running back who will most likely carry the ball)

3 = Fullback (the running back who will most likely block for the tailback)

Each of the receivers also has an identifier – but it’s a letter, not a number:

X = Split End (the receiver who is on the opposite side of the tight end)

Y = Tight End (or the slot receiver if the tight end isn’t in the play)

Z = Flanker (the receiver who is on the same side as the tight end)

Confused? This should help:

Route Cropped

We know from our formations fundamentals that this is an I formation – the backs are all aligned in a straight line behind the center. The fullback, 3, is in front of the tailback, 2, because he’ll be blocking for the tailback. The X receiver is split out to the side of the formation that the tight end isn’t on, the Y receiver is the tight end, and the Z receiver is aligned a few yards behind the tight end so that there are only 7 men on the line of scrimmage (any more than that is an illegal formation).

4. Know how to translate the play call

Ok, so now that we know the pieces, how do we put it all together into a play?

We start by knowing this: the first half of the play call refers to alignment, the second half refers to routes. 

Let’s say the play call is “I Right 459 Tailback Slant.” We’ll break it down piece by piece:

I = I formation. This tells the backs where to line up.

Right = Tight end on the right side

Now that the alignment is set, the routes are declared. The numbers go in order of X, Y, and Z and tell the receiver which route to run. So in this example, assuming that we’re using the route tree in the picture above, 459 equals:

4 = the X receiver runs an In route

5 = the Y receiver runs a Hitch route

9 = the Z receiver runs a Go route

The numbers always refer to receivers. If a running back is going to be added into the passing play, his route will be spelled out afterward. In this play, the tailback is going to run a Slant route.

If you think that’s a mouthful, try learning the verbiage of a west coast offense. They usually spell everything out, so that play would be “I Right X In Y Hitch Z Go Tailback Slant.”

So where do the colors come in? Usually, that’s a whole other barrel of monkeys called a “hot sheet” or a list of audibles (play changes at the line of scrimmage) that get coded with numbers and corresponding colors. That’s where “Blue 42!” from above would fit in. I’m going to spare your brain, and mine, and save that lesson for another day.

Gang, how do we feel? Does this all make sense? Do you feel ready to coach and call the plays?

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