Best of Fundamentals: Holes and Gaps

Originally posted here on April 16, 2013

To prevent both offensive and defensive play calling from turning into “Hey, I’m going over there and you go over there!” football has a system of naming spaces in the offensive line.

But I would like to be in the huddle of a play that didn’t have a naming system, just for fun.

Since that’s not the case, here’s how the real system works:


Offensive players identify spaces with numbers called holes.

Defensive players identify space with letters called gaps.


Let’s start with the offensive numbering system.


football, basics, holes

The number of the hole tells the running back where to go. Even numbers are always on the right, odd numbers are always on the left, and both increase as they move from inside to outside. Identifying the hole in the play call lets all of the other offensive players know where the play is going and therefore the area they are responsible for blocking.

So does the running back jump in the huddle and call dibs on 2?

Again, I’d really like to be in a huddle where the backs play Rock, Paper, Scissors for the hole they want, but unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.

Just as each hole has a number, so does each back (and it’s different than the number on the back of his jersey). Traditionally:

Where’s running back on that list? And where are the tailbacks and fullbacks in this picture, you ask? Good question! Tailbacks (usually the ball-carrier) and fullbacks (usually the blocker) are types of running backs. Pictured above is a 3-wide formation that features a tight end on the line and a running back in the I formation. Since there’s only one running back, he’s the main back, so he’d be number 2.

Running plays are called by naming the number of the back first, the number of the hole second, and the type of run third.

Let’s say the play is “23 Dive.” That would mean the running back (2) is going through the 3 hole and running a dive play (running straight ahead as fast as possible).

Make sense? As long as you know the numbers of the backs and the numbers of the holes in the offensive line, you should be just fine. If you want to challenge yourself and learn a few types of running plays, too (you do!), check out this article.

Moving on to defense.


football, basics, gaps

Whereas the offense uses numbers to identify holes from the backfield, the defense uses letters. The gap between the center and the guards is always the A gap, the gap between the guards and the tackles is always the B gap, the gap between the tackles and the outside edge (or the tight end, if present) is always the C gap, and the gap between the tight end (if present) and the outside edge is always the D gap – or just the edge.

We talked a little bit about gap responsibility in last week’s post about defensive techniques. In the photo above, the defensive tackle (who is also called the nose tackle since he’s the only DT in the 3-4 alignment) is playing 0-technique, so he’s responsible for blocking both A gaps. The ends are playing 5-technique, so they’re responsible for the B and C gaps (they’ll also likely get help from the linebackers depending on the play call).

As for defensive play calling, you’ll often hear that a certain defensive player is going to “shoot the gap.” Let’s say one of the middle linebackers is going to shoot the A gap. That means he’s going to charge through one of the A gaps, likely in an attempt to blitz the quarterback.

So: offensive spaces get numbers, defensive spaces get letters, and the football world continues to spin on it’s axis.

Until I talk someone into calling, “Whoever wins Rock, Paper, Scissors through that hole over there. GO!”

Best of Fundamentals: Plays

Originally posted here on April 1, 2013

(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 thecenter 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, theoffensive 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?

Best of Fundamentals: The Snap

Originally posted here on March 4, 2013

The snap is not found on a winter jacket. Nor is it a dance move inspired by Legally Blond. In football, the snap is one of the most important exchanges that happens in game.

If you’re not watching closely, it might seem as if the quarterback has the ball in his hands from the start of the play and just does with it as he pleases. But this is not true. Thecenter – literally the guy in the center of the offensive line – has the ball at the beginning of the play. He sets it on the ground and puts his hand on it like so:

photo source

(Team choice completely unbiased.)

Once he gets set, he’ll tilt the ball at a bit of an angle so that he can get a good grip. If at any point the center’s head is lined up ahead of the football, that’s an encroachment penalty, which would back the offense up 5 yards.

Types of Snaps

The action of a snap never changes: one player is going to “hike” the ball between his legs to another player, which essentially means that the ball is going to go from in front of him to behind him. How that happens depends on the play at hand. Generally, there are two snaps that happen in classic offensive formations:

1. Under Center

If the QB takes the snap under center, he’s literally standing right behind the center, with his hands in a personal location under the center’s rear end. Here’s Joe Flacco and Matt Birk getting to know each other a little better:

photo source

2. From the Shotgun

In the shotgun formation, the bonding session between quarterback and center is eliminated. The QB is lined up a few yards behind the center, and the center hikes the ball back to him from the line of scrimmage. Here’s Tom Brady and Dan Koppen embracing their personal space:

photo source

Just to be confusing, there’s also a few other forms of snaps to add to the list:

3. Direct Snap

Sometimes, teams run a special formation called the Wildcat formation in which a player other than the quarterback (usually a running back) receives the snap. When this happens, it’s called a direct snap.

4. Indirect Snap

Or, the sneaky version of the direct snap. In this snap attempt, the quarterback is standing next to or near a running back and from all appearances it looks like the QB is going to be the one receiving the snap. But what actually happens is the center snaps the ball to the running back while the quarterback fakes that the snap either went over his head or was fumbled. This happens most frequently in punting situations when the offense wants to try to convert the down rather than continue with the punt.

5. Long Snap

Centers don’t get to have all of the fun. The Special Teams unit – the unit responsible for kicking plays – employs a specific player just for snapping the ball called the longsnapper. It’s his job to make those long snaps effectively every time. (He can usually also be a backup offensive lineman if need be.)

Bad Things That Can Happen

In every snap’s life, a little rain must fall. Snaps can be fumbled – when the football gets mishandled and leads to a failed secure exchange between QB and center. There can also be illegal motion, encroachment, or false starts at the time of the snap – when players are not set, lined up correctly, or moving too soon when the ball is being snapped. If the ball isn’t snapped before the play clock expires, that’s a delay of game penalty and will cost the offense 5 yards. There are a litany of other rules regarding what happens surrounding a snap, but those are three situations you’ll see more than most.

Snap Counts

If the center snapped the ball on the same signal on every play, the defense would catch on quickly and be able to anticipate the snap, therefore getting the fastest possible start. To keep the defense from gaining any advantages, quarterbacks use a snap count, or a designated signal (either verbal or nonverbal) on which he wants the ball to be snapped. Teams often try to confuse a savvy defense by using a hard count – a fake snap count designed to draw the other team offsides.

Questions, comments, concerns, something I left out? You know where to find me!

Best of Fundamentals: 53-man Roster

Originally posted here on February 18, 2013

We’re going to start with the one thing you need to play a football game, other than a football:

A team.

There are 53 men on each NFL team. Clearly, they don’t all play at the same time. Here’s the breakdown:

football, basics, roster


So each week, 46 men dress to take the field. Those are the “active” players. The 7 players on the practice squad (also called the scout team) are “inactive” players – they are still on the roster, but they aren’t allowed to enter the game.

We know that even though a team might have 3 tight ends, 4 running backs, and 5 wide receivers on their active roster that not all of them are going to be on the field at the same time. Not only would that be a massacre waiting to happen (the offensive line does more than just protect the quarterback), it would also be illegal: each team can only have 11 men on the field at one time. Is the offense on the field? There can only be 11 guys out there. Defense? Same story. Special teams? Nothing special here: there are still only 11 men allowed on the field

from each team at one time.

So why are there so many men on the roster? If each unit only fields 11 players (and the special teams unit doesn’t even have it’s own specific set of players other than the 3 shown on the diagram), why are there 46 guys on the active roster?

Reason #1: Injuries. If one guy gets injured (and over the course of the season, pretty much every guy is getting injured), he’ll need a replacement. One of the second or third or fourth string guys will take the field to replace him.

Reason #2: Formations. Remember when we talked about personnel groups? And whenwe talked about defense before the Super Bowl? Teams utilize different players in different formations depending on the game plan they have in place. Maybe the offense sees that the other team’s defense is showing a weakness in the secondary so they want to try a passing play. They might field 10 personnel – 1 running back, 0 tight ends, and 4 wide receivers – to give the offense the best chance possible of gaining yardage on a long pass. Or maybe the defense, seeing that the other team’s offense is successfully converting on passing plays, wants to substitute in more defensive backs in either a nickel (5 DB’s) or a dime (6 DB’s) package to defend against the pass. Using different formations is an essential way that a team keeps the other team on it’s toes, guessing what they’re going to do.

If 53 men on the roster seems like a lot, remember that teams are allowed to bring 90 players into training camp. 90 players! So nearly half of those players get cut and keep training for their next opportunity. Being the coach who makes those cuts is a tough gig.

SO: 53 guys on a team. 46 active. 7 on the practice squad, or inactive. 11 on the field at one time.

Got it?

For more about who’s on the field, check out these posts:

The Basics : The Players

The Basics of Offense

The Basics of Defense

The Basics of Special Teams

Best of What Just Happened : Catch?

Originally posted here on January 21, 2013

Late in the Niners at Falcons game last night, Falcons receiver Harry Douglas kept the Falcons Super Bowl hopes alive with a big catch late in the game.

Or was it?

It’s one of those plays that is virtually impossible to call, especially since what defines a “catch” has changed in recent years. In days gone by, a catch wasn’t a catch unless the ball was completely controlled by the receiver. If there was any movement and it looked like the ball hit the ground, it was probably going to be ruled incomplete. But recently, it seems like the calls tend to favor the receivers.

Be that as it may, here’s what happened:

Douglas appears to have control of the ball all the way to the ground. Once he goes to the ground…it’s unclear. While the ball does move around a bit, his left hand seems to cover the ball at all times, indicating that he never lost control of the ball. Consequently, the refs called it a catch.

Jim Harbaugh subsequently flipped out, which is so out of character for him. He then threw the challenge flag.

One thing to note about challenged calls – there has to be indisputable evidence that the call was wrong to be overturned. In the face of mediocre (aka: inconclusive) evidence, the call is going to stand every time.

Since there wasn’t clear evidence that the ball came out and hit the ground while outside of the receiver’s control, the call stood.

Luckily, Jim Harbaugh didn’t lose his cool.

It ended up not giving the Falcons an advantage anyway though, since the Niners got a huge fourth-down stop and the Falcons turned the ball over on downs.

What do you guys think? Catch or not a catch?

Best of What Just Happened : Fumble Recovery

Originally posted here on January 7, 2013

Another week, another chat about flaws in the Coach’s Challenge system.

Early in yesterday’s Colts at Ravens playoff game, Ravens running back Ray Rice fumbled the ball, the Colts recovered it, and then a Ravens player emerged from the pile with the football.

So, sequence: Ravens fumble, Colts recover, Colts lose possession, Ravens dig it out and re-recover it.

The official call: Colts football.

Now at first glance, this is a weird call. If a player emerges from the bottom of a pile with the football, you’d assume he had the final possession of the football. But more often than not things get ugly at the bottom of the pile and players scrap for the ball even after the play is dead (when the whistle has been blown) to try and get possession. So in that light, it would make sense that the official (Mike Carey) who called Colts ball saw more than we did on TV and knew that the Colts had possession of the ball when the play was over, not the Ravens.

However, on second glance, it looks like the original sequence was right on: Ray Rice fumbled, the Colts recovered but lost the ball, and the Ravens re-recovered the ball at the bottom of the pile. It seemed like pretty solid evidence that if reviewed, the ball would be given to the Ravens.

But Ravens head coach John Harbaugh couldn’t do anything about the bad call. Remember what we learned about the Coach’s Challenge system? There are a bunch of plays that coaches can’t challenge, including fumbles. So even though it was clearly a bad call, the Ravens just had to get over it and keep playing (which they did, to the tune of a turnover of their own later that drive).

Next week, we’ll talk about something other than the issues with the Challenge system. Promise.