American football strategy

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Strategy forms a major part of American football. Both teams plan many aspects of their plays (offense) and response to plays (defense), such as what formations they take, who they put on the field, and the roles and instructions each player are given. Throughout a game, each team adapts to the other's apparent strengths and weaknesses, trying various approaches to outmaneuver or overpower their opponent in order to win the game.


Offensive strategy

The goal of the offense is, most generally, to score points. [1] 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 scoring chances, or drives, end when they cannot move the ball 10 yards or the ball is turned over via fumble or interception.

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 (as well as the abbreviations recognized by coaches, players, and fans) vary from one team's playbook to another, but what follow are among the most commonly used:


(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 ("C") is the player who snaps the ball to the quarterback. Like the other four linemen, his job consists of both run blocking (pushing the defenders away from the ball carrier on a running play) and pass blocking (stopping the defenders from disrupting or tackling the quarterback). The center is also usually responsible for calling the blocking schemes on the line, telling the other linemen which defenders to block.
  • Guard: Guards ("G") 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 ("T") are the "bookends" of the offensive line. They are usually the biggest offensive linemen (at the NFL level they are typically at least 300 pounds (140 kg), and can be as tall as 6 feet 9 inches (206 cm)), 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 are so named because they line up behind (in back of) the line of scrimmage at the start of the play.

  • Quarterback: The Quarterback ("QB") lines up directly behind the center, where he takes the ball (in an action called the 'snap') and puts it into play. The quarterback's primary duty is either passing (throwing) the ball or handing the ball to a running back ("RB") 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 correctly, both in the huddle before the team lines up to execute the play and immediately before the ball snap. Quarterbacks must be quick to defenses accurately and 2.precisely throw the ball. 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 ("FB") lines up behind the quarterback and is involved in running, blocking, and (in some cases) 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 ("HB"), also referred to as a "tailback" ("TB") or more generically as a running back, lines up behind the quarterback and in many cases behind the fullback, or rarely behind center to receive the snap (see Wildcat formation). A halfback's responsibilities include running the ball, catching passes, blocking, and sometimes even throwing the ball on trick plays.


(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 (WR). Most basic formations feature either two or three WRs, who either line up on the line of scrimmage (a WR in this position is sometimes referred to as split end) or behind the line of scrimmage (where they are referred to as flankers, wingbacks or slotbacks). 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 (TE) 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:

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 (a so-called "silent count"), 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:

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 (a "sack") or disrupting the quarterback in any other way during the play. [2]

When successful, passing plays tend to cover more ground than running plays, so they are often used when the offensive team needs to gain a large number of yards. Even if they do not need to gain a large number of yards, it would be foolish to keep doing run plays because the defense could predict it. However, run plays are used to tire the defensive linemen in between passing plays in order to protect the QB from sacks. Run plays can also be used to set up pass plays called play action. This is where the quarterback and running back will fake a run play while receivers run a route. The goal is for the defense to think it is a run play so the receivers will be open and be an easier completion for the quarterback. This will also keep the defense off balance if a team is successfully able to run the ball, the defense will be preparing for the run but when the offense runs a play action, it will be a big play if the pass is completed.

These are curl routes. Curl Hook route.png
These are curl routes.
These are corner routes. Corner route.png
These are corner routes.

Different kinds of pass plays include:

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:

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: [3]

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 (referred to as a turnover) and scoring points themselves. [4]

Defensive players

On defense, there are three types of players: linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs (also called secondary players). 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 line 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 ("NG"), also known as a nose tackle ("NT"), 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 ("DT") 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 ("DE") line up just outside 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 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 ("OLB") 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 ("ILB"), sometimes also referred to as middle linebackers ("MLB") 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 ("CB") 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 ("S") 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 ("SS") or free safeties ("FS"). 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. [5]

Defensive formations

In special situations, extra defensive backs enter in "nickel" (pictured) or "dime" packages to cover additional receivers. NickelbackFB.svg
In special situations, extra defensive backs enter in "nickel" (pictured) or "dime" packages to cover additional receivers.

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, (such as in the "3–3–5"), the number typically appears after the number of linebackers, thus the formula would go (# of linemen)–(# 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 (a "4–3" defense), or three down linemen and four linebackers ("3–4"), but other formations such as five linemen and two linebackers ("5–2"), or three linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs ("3–3–5") 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 (2 cornerbacks [CB], 1 strong safety [SS], and 1 free safety [FS]). 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. [6] [7] [8] When a sixth defensive back is inserted, it is known as a "dime" package (4CB, 1SS, 1FS). In rare instances when a seventh defensive back is inserted, it is known as a "quarter" package (5CB, 1SS, 1FS or 4CB, 2SS, 1FS). [9]

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:

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 (usually defensive backs or linebackers, though occasionally linemen as well) are assigned an area on the field that they are to cover.


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:

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 (who specializes in accurate snaps over long distances), 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.


A kickoff occurs at the beginning of each half, overtime period (not in college), 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:


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, [10] and has been advocated by Gregg Easterbrook in his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column and by author Jon Wertheim. Fourth down decisions to punt have been analyzed mathematically by David Romer. [11]

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.

Kick and punt returns

Downing the ball

If, 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 either catching the ball (generally when close to the end zone so as to prevent a touchback), or 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 catches the ball before a member of the receiving team does so, the play is blown dead by the official, 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 (if possible) recover the ball after a fumble and regain possession of the ball.

See also

Related Research Articles

Running back Position in American and Canadian football

A running back (RB) is a member of the offensive backfield in gridiron football. The primary roles of a running back are to receive handoffs from the quarterback to rush the ball, to line up as a receiver to catch the ball, and block. There are usually one or two running backs on the field for a given play, depending on the offensive formation. A running back may be a halfback, a wingback or a fullback. A running back will sometimes be called a "feature back" if he is the team's starting running back.

Lineman (gridiron football) American football player who specializes in play at the line of scrimmage

In gridiron football, a lineman is a player who specializes in play at the line of scrimmage. The linemen of the team currently in possession of the ball are the offensive line, while linemen on the opposing team are the defensive line. A number of NFL rules specifically address restrictions and requirements for the offensive line, whose job is to help protect the quarterback from getting sacked for a loss, or worse, fumbling. The defensive line is covered by the same rules that apply to all defensive players. Linemen are usually the largest players on the field in both height and weight, since their positions usually require less running and more strength than skill positions.

Linebacker Defensive position in American football

A linebacker is a playing position in gridiron football. Linebackers are members of the defensive team, and line up approximately three to five yards behind the line of scrimmage and behind the defensive linemen. They represent the "middle ground" of defenders, playing closer to the line of scrimmage than do the defensive backs, but farther back than do the defensive linemen.

In gridiron football, blitzing is a tactic used by the defense to disrupt pass attempts by the offense. During a blitz, a higher than usual number of defensive players will rush the opposing quarterback, in an attempt either to tackle him or force him to hurry his pass attempt.

This is a glossary of terms used in Canadian football. The Glossary of American football article also covers many terms that are also used in the Canadian version of the game.

  1. Legally positioned at the kick-off or the snap. On kick-offs, members of the kicking team must be behind the kick-off line; members of the receiving team must be at least 10 yards from the kick-off line. On scrimmages, at the snap the offence must be behind the line of scrimmage; the defence must be at least one yard beyond the line of scrimmage.
  2. A player of the kicking team who can legally recover the kick. The kicker and any teammates behind the ball at the time of the kick are onside. Thus on kick-offs all players of the kicking team are onside, but on other kicks usually only the kicker is. The holder on a place kick is not considered onside.
  1. A defensive position on scrimmages, also called free safety. Typical formations include a single safety, whose main duty is to cover wide receivers. See also defensive back.
  2. A two-point score. The defence scores a safety when the offence carries or passes the ball into its own goal area and then fails to run, pass, or kick the ball back into the field of play; when this term is used in this sense, it is also referred to as a safety touch.
American football rules Rules for American football

Gameplay in American football consists of a series of downs, individual plays of short duration, outside of which the ball is dead or not in play. These can be plays from scrimmage – passes, runs, punts, or field goal attempts – or free kicks such as kickoffs and fair catch kicks. Substitutions can be made between downs, which allows for a great deal of specialization as coaches choose the players best suited for each particular situation. During a play, each team should have no more than 11 players on the field, and each of them has specific tasks assigned for that specific play.

46 defense American football defensive formation

The 46 defense is an American football defensive formation, an eight men in the box defense, with six players along the line of scrimmage. There are two players at linebacker depth playing linebacker technique, and then three defensive backs. The 46 defense was originally developed and popularized with the Chicago Bears by their defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who later became head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals.

A formation in football refers to the position players line up in before the start of a down. There are both offensive and defensive formations and there are many formations in both categories. Sometimes, formations are referred to as packages.

Starting lineup Official list of players set to participate upon the beginning of a sporting event

In sports, a starting lineup is an official list of the set of players who will participate in the event when the game begins. The players in the starting lineup are commonly referred to as starters, whereas the others are substitutes or bench players.

Center (gridiron football) Position in American and Canadian football

Center (C) is a position in gridiron football. The center is the innermost lineman of the offensive line on a football team's offense. The center is also the player who passes the ball between his legs to the quarterback at the start of each play.

A trick play, also known as a gadget play, gimmick play or trickeration, is a play in gridiron football that uses deception and unorthodox tactics to fool the opposing team. A trick play is often risky, offering the potential for a large gain or a touchdown if it is successful, but with the chance of a significant loss of yards or a turnover if not. Trick plays are rarely used not only because of the riskiness, but also to maintain the element of surprise for when they are used.

Halfback (American football) Offensive position in American football

A halfback (HB) is an offensive position in American football, whose duties involve lining up in the backfield and carrying the ball on most rushing plays, i.e. a running back. When the principal ball carrier lines up deep in the backfield, and especially when that player is placed behind another player, as in the I formation, that player is instead referred to as a tailback.

American football positions Specific roles that players take in American football

In American football, the specific role that a player takes on the field is referred to as their "position." Under the modern rules of American football, both teams are allowed 11 players on the field at one time and have "unlimited free substitutions," meaning that they may change any number of players during any "dead ball" situation. This has resulted in the development of three task-specific "platoons" of players within any single team: the offense, the defense, and the so-called 'special teams'. Within these three separate "platoons", various positions exist depending on the jobs that the players are doing.

In American football, a play is a close-to-the-ground plan of action or strategy used to move the ball down the field. A play begins at either the snap from the center or at kickoff. Most commonly, plays occur at the snap during a down. These plays range from basic to very intricate. Football players keep a record of these plays in a playbook.

The New England Patriots generally run a modified Erhardt-Perkins offensive system and a Fairbanks-Bullough 3–4 defensive system, though they have also used a 4–3 defense and increased their use of the nickel defense.

The A-11 offense is an offensive scheme that has been used in some levels of amateur American football. In this offense, a loophole in the rules governing kicking formations is used to disguise which offensive players would be eligible to receive a pass for any given play. It was designed by Kurt Bryan and Steve Humphries of Piedmont High School in California.

The following terms are used in American football, both conventional and indoor. Some of these terms are also in use in Canadian football; for a list of terms unique to that code, see Glossary of Canadian football.

In American football, an eight-in-the-box defense is a defensive alignment in which 8 of the 11 defensive players are close to the line of scrimmage.


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