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 vast array of positions, formations, strategies, plays and types of play calling systems that are utilized. If a strategy is for a particular game, it is known as a "game plan".[1]

Offensive strategy

The goal of the offense is, most commonly, to score points.[2] 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 (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".)


Backs are so named because they line up behind (in back of) the line of scrimmage at the start of the play.


(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.)

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.[3]

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:

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

Main article: Play calling system

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:[4]

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.[5]

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 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.


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.

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.

Defensive formations

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.[7][8][9] 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).[10]

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:


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 goalsto 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,[11] 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.[12]

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, 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 (if possible) recover the ball after a fumble and regain possession of the ball.

See also


  3. Streelman, Erick (Feb 2015). "A Crash Course on Pass Protection". Win With The Pass. Retrieved 22 January 2016.
  4. Brown, Chris. "Speak My Language". Archived from the original on June 16, 2013. Retrieved January 17, 2013.
  6. Error Page Archived August 29, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  7. "American Football Monthly - The Magazine For Football Coaches". July 6, 2012. Archived from the original on December 5, 2010. Retrieved February 11, 2014.
  8. "Stack 3-3 Zone Blitzes |". Archived from the original on March 14, 2008. Retrieved February 11, 2014.
  9. "3-3-5 Defense: Entertainment and Football Definition". Archived from the original on January 20, 2013. Retrieved February 11, 2014.
  10. Mark Lawrence (August 20, 2005). "Football 101: Nickle, Dime and Quarter Packages". Archived from the original on October 4, 2013. Retrieved February 11, 2014.
  11. Jon Wertheim (September 15, 2011). "Pulaski Academy scores 29 points before opponent touches football - Scorecasting -". Archived from the original on November 4, 2012. Retrieved February 11, 2014.
  12. David Romer (February 2003). "It's Fourth Down And What Does The Bellman Equation Say? A Dynamic-Programming Analysis Of Football Strategy" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-06-04.

External links

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