Surviving the Super Bowl : The Basics of Offense

football, basics, offenseLast week, we learned about how teams make it into the playoffs. But for the next few weeks we’ll be addressing what they do once they get there. Specifically, what happens on offense, defense, and special teams.

Today we’ll dive into a no-frills, quick and easy explanation of the offense. This is by no means a be-all and end-all breakdown of understanding the offense. We’ll get into that in the off-season. For now, I just want you to be able to know the basics of what’s going on when the offense is on the field so you can enjoy the games this weekend.

Really, you can! Here we go:

The Basics of Offense in 4 Simple Points That Won’t Make You Pull Your Hair Out

1. The offense is the team in possession of the football. 

When you’re watching the game, you’ll recognize the offense as the team that has the football and is trying to move it down the field to score. You’ll see the quarterback take the snap from the center (the exchange of the football at the beginning of the play) and either run or pass the ball. That team is the offensive team on that particular drive (a drive = the total collection of plays for the team on offense during their current possession of the football). (Don’t you feel wiser already? And it only gets better from here!)

2. The offense has 6 players that never change, and 5 who change frequently (but always, ALWAYS, 11 players on the field at all times).

There are six consistent players for the offense: the quarterback, who leads the offense by throwing or handing off the football, and the offensive line, which consists of five players who protect the quarterback so he has time to do something with the football. The other five players are a combination of skill position players: running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers. Running backs are the guys who get the ball handed off to them and try to barrel down the field while holding onto the football. Tight ends can either run or catch; they’re the most versatile of the skill players. Wide receivers are the ones who run down the field and make spectacular catches. These five players are sent out in different combinations based on the type of play the offense wants to run. (To learn more about these combinations, check out these two posts on personnel groups.)

3. In general, you can identify offensive players by where they are lined up on the field.

Here’s a basic offensive formation:

football, advanced, personnel

The offensive line is the line of 5 squares. From left to right, you’ll find the left tackle, left guard, center, right guard, and right tackle. Directly behind the center is the quarterback, who will take the snap from the center (the center is the one who has his hand on the football at the beginning of the play and transfers it to the quarterback – an action known as “snapping” the ball). The yellow triangles are the skill position players. The running backs (RB) generally line up in the backfield near the quarterback. The tight ends (TE) usually line up close to the offensive linemen. Wide receivers (WR) line up on the outsides of the formation, near the line of scrimmage (the imaginary line where the play starts from).

4. The offense has four chances, called “downs,” to advance the ball ten yards. If they do, they receive a new set of downs and the opportunity to continue trying to reach the end zone to score.

Don’t give up on this part before we start! Even if the whole first down thing has confused you in the past, you’ll be able to learn it quickly and easily today. This is the hardest part, but if you can add and subtract at a 1st grade level, you can learn this, no sweat.

You are already familiar with the terminology. You’ve heard TV commentators talk about “3 and outs” and “1st and 10” and “4th and long.” Here’s what all of that means:

Once the offense starts their drive, they have four chances, called “downs,” to move the ball 10 yards from where they started (this place is called “the line of scrimmage”). Each play is then calculated by what chance (down) the offense is on and how many yards they have left until they reach 10 yards total. Once they reach or exceed the 10 yards in one set of downs, they get a new set – four more chances to move the ball 10 more yards.

Stay with me! Here’s an example!

Let’s say the offense is starting their drive on their own 20 yard line (a very common occurrence). (Just a note – the 50 yards of field from the offense’s end zone = their “own” side of the field. The 50 yards of field on the defense’s side of the end zone = the defense’s territory.) The ball will be placed on the 20 yard line, and the imaginary line extending from the ball to both sidelines is the line of scrimmage. The offense needs to reach or exceed the 30 yard line, which means they’ve gained at least 10 yards total from where they began (at the 20 yard line), over the course of the next 4 downs to receive a new set of downs and therefore another opportunity to score. You will know how far the offense needs to go to gain a new set of downs thanks to the magic of technology: they need to reach or exceed the bright yellow electronic line on the field, which indicates how far the offense has to go to get a first down.

The first play is called “1st and 10,” because it’s the offense’s first down (chance) and they still have 10 yards to go to get a new set of downs. Let’s say they hand the ball off to a running back and gain 3 yards. The next play would be called “2nd and 7,” because it’s their second chance and the running back gained 3 of the 10 yards needed for a new set of downs, so the offense still has 7 yards left to go before they earn a new set of downs. 10 – 3 = 7. See! 1st grade math! You can do this!!!

Ok, so it’s now 2nd and 7. Since the offense started at the 20 yard line, we know that they are now at the 23 yard line because they gained 3 yards on the last play. Let’s say the quarterback throws a quick pass out to a wide receiver who catches it and gets tackled at the 25 yard line. It’s a 2 yard gain. So what’s the new down and distance?

It you answered 3rd and 5, you’re right! It’s now the offense’s 3rd chance, and they’ve gained 5 total yards (3 on 1st down, 2 on 2nd down), so 10 – 5 = 5 yards left to go.

So it’s 3rd and 5. The quarterback drops back to pass, but he doesn’t find anyone open. He sees a small hole in the defense and keeps the ball himself, trying to run through the hole to gain at least 5 yards. But he’s tackled at the 29 yard line. He only gained 4 yards.

The new down and distance? 4th and 1.

Are you still with me? Because we’re going to make things a little more complicated now that we’ve reached 4th down. Re-read that last section again and then meet me at the next paragraph.

Ready? Let’s move on to 4th down!

When a team reaches 4th down, it’s not as simple as trying one last time to get a first down. If the offense tries and fails on 4th down, they surrender possession of the football right where they are – no kicking or punting – to the other team. So in this situation, if the offense were to go for it on 4th and 1 at their own 29 yard line and the quarterback throws an incomplete pass for no gain, that means the other team would take over at the offense’s 29 yard line, giving them excellent field position to score. They’d already be within field goal range and aren’t even 30 yards away from the end zone. Unless a team is desperate, you’d rarely see an offense “go for it” on 4th down when they are so deep in their own territory.

What you’d normally see in this situation is the offense punting the ball – kicking the ball to the other team – to start the other team’s new possession. This is what we call a “3 and out.” The offense tried to advance the ball 3 times, failed to get a first down, and then had to punt the ball away.

Let’s switch things up for a moment and pretend that the offense isn’t on their own 29 yard line, they’re on the other teams 29 yard line. In that situation, the offense has two options on a 4th and 1 play: they can try for a field goal, which would be kicked from the 46 yard line (because you have to add 17 yards to the line of scrimmage to account for the length of the end zone and where the players line up), a fairly standard field goal attempt. But the offense might also try to go for it on 4th down to try and gain the one yard they need for a new set of downs. This makes sense for 2 reasons: 1. If they make it, they’re in great field position to try and score on the next set of downs. 2. If they don’t, the other team gets the ball right where they are, on the offense’s 29 yard line, which isn’t giving them too much of an advantage in terms of field position.

Let’s review. When 4th down comes to call, a team has these options:

1. PUNT. This happens most often when a team is on their own side of the field (the 50 yards connected to their own end zone) or fairly close to it.

2. KICK A FIELD GOAL. This happens most often when a team is within field goal range (30-50 yards is typical length for NFL kicks) and doesn’t want to give the other team the ball where they currently are. (Although it should be noted that if the offense misses the field goal, the other team gets the ball at the spot of the kick (not at the 4th down line of scrimmage), unless the kick is from the 20 yard line or closer, in which case the other team would get the ball at the 20 yard line.)

3. GO FOR IT. This happens most often when the yardage is short (4th and 1 or 4th and inches) and the team believes they can either convert (get the 1st down) or hand the ball over on downs without sacrificing too much field position.

5. Enjoy the game!

You now know the basics of offense. You know who’s on the field, what they’re trying to do, and what all of the numbers mean. You know that the yellow line isn’t just for esthetic appeal, and know how important it is to the progression of the offense. But when in doubt? Just enjoy the athleticism and competitive greatness on the field. In my opinion, there’s nothing better.

Questions? Comments? Victories? Confusions? Leave ’em in the comments below and we’ll take care of one and all!

Go have fun practicing your newfound knowledge this weekend!!!

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13 Responses to “Surviving the Super Bowl : The Basics of Offense”

  1. Erin January 16, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

    This may be the best way I have ever heard offense explained!

    • Beka January 16, 2013 at 7:41 pm #

      Thank you, Erin!!! I’m thrilled to hear that. Hope you find lots of other helpful information here! Have a great night!

    • Roman February 3, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

      Agree. At last, I feel like I can enjoy the Super Bowl beyond the commercials. Thank you Beka!

      • Beka February 3, 2013 at 11:53 pm #

        I’m so glad it was helpful, Roman! Hope you enjoyed the game tonight, thanks for stopping by!


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