Football 101: Definitions and Terms
last updated 12 April 2004
This document presents the definitions of terms used in the Football-101 section
website (see left navigation bar). This list of definitions is a work in progress
that will be updated and expanded on a regular basis.
Reference Figure 1, below, for the nomenclature used in the defensive alignments
discussed within the terms and definitions.
Confused by the following
football terminology, I enlightened myself by doing some googling and studying. I
hope this document will be an enlightenment; however, be forewarned that I've never played football,
other than the sandlot variety.
Triple option – The
triple option, a three pronged attack, involves four players: the fullback, the
play-side guard, the quarterback and a trailing back.
After the play is underway and the quarterback takes the
snap, the quarterback looks for the play-side guard who may or not be visible.
If the quarterback can’t see the guard, he gives the ball to the fullback to
follow the guard up field. If the guard remains in the blocking pattern, the quarterback
veers along the line of scrimmage reading the DE’s shoulders—in this case, the DE
has been left unblocked. If the DE’s shoulders are not square to the
quarterback, the quarterback keeps the ball and cuts inside of the DE. If the
DE’s shoulders are square to the quarterback, the QB pitches the ball to the
trailing back who has maintained a five-yard separation with the QB.
Variations of the
triple option include, the inside veer option, outside veer option, and midline
option. Then there are the double option plays, plays run off triple
option action, with variations such as the speed option (with no fake hand-off
to the fullback).
The quarterback lines
up four yards behind the center, which is much closer than the seven-yard
setback in a traditional shotgun formation. The running back then lines up three
yards directly behind the quarterback, which is in contrast to the shotgun,
where they are beside each other. (See
the following link)
The Werewolf formation
figuratively sucks the life's blood out of an opposing defense, while the
Wildcat formation can add life to an offense. Seriously, in
the Wildcat formation, the quarterback is replaced with a running back --
think single wing. The ball is snapped directly to the running back, with no
time wasted handing the ball off; also, there is an extra blocker. The running
back has the option to pass, making the formation even more difficult to
defend. (See the following link).
If the pitch key (e.g., the DE above) takes the
quarterback, the QB pitches the ball to the pitch back. If the pitch key takes
the pitch back, the QB keeps the ball, plants his back foot and cuts
vertically up field. If the the pitch key attacks the quarterback quickly, then
the quarterback does not have to attack the pitch key, just pitches the
ball. A benefit of the option attack is that it leaves one player unblocked, a
Unlike a normal
screen, in which a running back receives a short pass with offensive linemen
blocking in front of him, the bubble screen uses a wide receiver receiving a
pass behind a wall of offensive players lined up wide, often being other
receivers and, perhaps, a tight end. (See the following link).
As its name implies, the spread offense spreads a defense
horizontally with the threat of an option game (double and triple options) and
vertically because of the threat of 3 or 4 quick wide receivers. The spread
formation features five basic runs (the zone dive; the trap; the trap option,
the triple option; and the speed option). The passing game consists of play
action and sprint out passes. The quarterback must be able to run and pass.
an opposing defense is unable to stack the line of scrimmage with eight men due
to the four and five wide receiver sets, the quarterback has a smorgasbord of
options with the running game alone. You will see the quarterback run the ball
himself on draw plays, traps where the offense guard will pull and be a lead
blocker, and even an occasional quarterback sweep." [Smith].
The threat of
the passing game forces a defense into nickel and dime packages, making it
easier to run against. The offense allows teams with weaker personnel to move
the ball against superior players because all of them need not be blocked.
Cover-2 – The Cover-2 defense, a response to
the West Coast Offense and its short passing game, requires the two safeties to
defend the deepest portion of the field, which is split in half, each
safety defending half of the field, the "2" part of the defense. The three line backers and two cornerbacks
“cover” the middle portion of the field, which has been divided into zones.
It’s paramount that the four defensive linemen put a strong rush on the
Tampa Bay Defense - It all begins with a front four
that penetrates quickly, forcing the offense to secure the line of scrimmage.
Paying extra attention to the quick penetration allows the linebackers, who are
all gifted, to roam free and make plays; the secondary lines up in a cover 2.
It’s all about speed, and speed kills.
This defense allows the offensive coordinator to be
conservative in his quest to win the field-position battle, a battle aimed at
controlling the middle of the field between the thirty-fives. Once mid-field is
secured, the noose is tightened, until the opposing team is helplessly driven
back towards its own goal line. After that, a multiplicity of bad things can happen to it, ranging from block punts to interceptions, leading ultimately to
Same in ice hockey, good teams control center ice with
Same in chess; a good chess player controls the middle of
the board, i.e., the d4, e4, d5, and e5 squares.
The open spaces between players on the line of scrimmage.
For example, the gap between the center and guard is called the "A" gap. See
Figure 1 below.
X, Y, Z Receivers
The x receiver, or the split end, aligns on the weak side
of the formation. The z receiver, or the flanker, aligns on the strong side of
the formation, maybe a couple of steps off the line of scrimmage in the slot.
The tight end functions as the y receiver, but often on passing plays functions
as another wide receiver.
The basic offensive formation
has the tackle and tight end closely positioned and receivers positioned wide
near the sidelines. That leaves a gap -- a slot -- between each receiver and the
line. When a receiver lines up in that gap, he is called the slot receiver.
Pulling an opponent
down by the back of his shoulder pads and riding him to the ground. Horse
collaring an opponent will draw a flag in both college and pro football.
The linebackers and defensive backs keep their hands off the ground, although a
hand may need a “wipe” during the game (see USA’s “Monk” TV series for the
definition of obsessive-compulsive behavior).
When a linebacker(s) and/or defensive back(s) joins the defensive linemen in
rushing the quarterback, it is called a blitz. One, two, three, or four of them
may blitz the quarterback, overwhelming the offensive linemen. Cagey
quarterbacks look for blitzes, anticipating vacant areas to throw to, maybe to a
"hot receiver," such as the tight end.
In a standard zone blitz, a linebacker rushes the
quarterback while a defensive lineman -- usually on the other side of the field
-- drops back into pass coverage. Defensively, it can overwhelm an offense on
one side of the ball and leave it with no one to block on the other side.
Traditional blitzes leave a defense short handed, forcing
it to play man-to-man. Since a defensive lineman has dropped back into coverage
in the zone blitz, the defense can play zone coverage.
Problems result when the defensive lineman isn’t as quick as the receiver he
might cover or when the pass rush is not as effective because of his absence.
offensive play in which the quarterback fakes a handoff to a running back, then
sprints out in the opposite direction, looking to run or pass.
In play action,
a quarterback fakes a handoff to running back while he's dropping back to pass.
The quarterback hopes to slow down the defensive rush and force the defensive
backs to make a wrong decision, hoping for them to come up to help stop the run.
Wiley Post was a skinny Post, but he's not involved in this
play. Any pass-receiving route that is directed towards the goal
posts is called a “post pattern.” For example, a receiver may run down a
sideline before angling towards the middle of the field, which in the case of a
post pattern is defined by a vertical swath (the width of the goal posts)
running from the line of scrimmage to the attacking goal posts. In a skinny
post, or a “glance,” the route is shorter in length and quicker than a deep
post, which may cover 30 or 40 yards. A color announcer may refer to the skinny
post as a "glance in" or a "bang eight." (See
Wikipedia for diagram)
Computing a hypothetical per
game offensive line efficiency rating
the offensive line is arguably the most important positional unit on a team, a
way of measuring its performance efficiency is needed.
Otherwise, as they say, the
quarterback gets too much credit for winning and too much blame for losing.
Our hypothetical measure is a function of a
team's passing efficiency rating, its rushing yards per carry and its offensive line's penalty yards. That is,
OLE = PEO + YPC * X - OLPY
Where PEO = pass-efficiency offense; YPC = yards per carry; x = normalizing number;
OLPY = offensive line penalty yards
For example, in Washington's game against UCLA
in 2013, the Bruins dominated the offensive line of scrimmage,
336.77 to 232.55, i.e.,
UW Offensive line efficiency
= 146.55 + 2.8*50 - 54 = 232.55
UCLA Offensive line efficiency = 156.77 + 4.2*50 - 30 =
(*) The normalizing number X=50 was chosen so that 2.0 yards per carry would be
equivalent to a Passing Efficiency Rating of 100. To guard against a meaningless
rating resulting from a limited number of carries, the normalizing number x
needs to be restricted. For one, if the number of carries
is less than y then set x=1, with the value of y yet to be determined. Alternatively, the
value of the factor ypc * x could be controlled in a similar way to the limits placed on the
NFL's passer rating computation.
Note that "sacks-allowed" has
already been figured into the number for yards-per-carry since sack yardage is
subtracted from the total rushing yards (college football). Also, yards-per-pass is part of the
calculation for passing efficiency.
This defense involves a defensive back who covers a
receiver individually (one on one), with no one to help him out if he gets beat,
usually a cornerback in that case.
Off Tackle Running Play
used to run this play in the school yard. Gil Dobie, Washington's unbeaten
coach (59-0-3; 1908-1916), worked on off-tackle plays in practices until the cows came home and ate
all the grass off Denny Field, leaving it a field of rocks and mud. Basically,
the tailback runs to the strong side, where the tight end lines up. A hole is
created by the tight end, the tackle and the fullback, who leads the play. The
fullback's job is to take out the outside linebacker, giving the tailback room
alignment, whereby the defensive player aligns outside-eye to outside-shoulder
of the tackle. (See Figure 1 below).
Like a 5-yard
offside penalty. However, defensive contact is made with the offensive player
before the snap.
Pass Efficiency Rating
A measure of the quarterback's
effectiveness in the passing game. To determine pass-efficiency ratings points,
multiply a passer's yards per attempt by 8.4; add the number obtained by
dividing pass completions by pass attempts, multiplied by 100; add the number
obtained by dividing touchdowns by pass attempts, multiplied by 330; and
subtract the number obtained by dividing interceptions by pass attempts,
multiplied by 200. A passer rating of 100 or better is considered terrific in
the NFL. A rating of 158.3 is considered perfect in the NFL. However, certain
percentages in the NFL are capped, although the same measures are used. The NCAA
formula is shown below.
ER = TY/PA*8.4 + PC/PA*100 + TD/PA*330 -
where TY=total yards; PC=pass completions; PA=pass attempts; TD=touchdowns;
I=Interceptions, and ER=Efficiency Rating
Example: Cody Pickett’s stats as of 20 October 2003.
57.8 pass completion percentage
Pass efficiency rating is 127.2
Note: Each bracketed value below is capped at 0.0 (min) to 2.375 (max);
Total = [((100 * PC/PA) – 30.0) * .05] + [((TY/PA) – 3.0) * .25] + [20 * TD/PA]
+ [2.375 – (25 * I/PA)]
ER = Total / 6.0 * 100
Nickel and Dime Packages
A convicted criminal may receive a sentence ranging from a nickel to a dime
(5 to 10 years). In football, nickel and dime packages refer to the number of
defensive backs employed in an obvious passing situation, when the offense
spreads the defense with receivers. The nickel package adds a fifth defensive
back (called the nickel back), usually a cornerback. Six defensive backs comprise a
This sounds like a form of birth control, but it is not. A defensive player who
lines up deepest in the secondary. He defends the deep middle of the field and
seldom has man-to-man responsibilities.
This sounds like...forget the joke. Like the free safety, the strong safety also
plays deep, but he usually lines up on the same side as the tight end and has
more responsibility in the run defense. A strong safety usually is bigger and
more physical than a free safety.
Cut and Chop Blocks
A cut block involves
a block below the knees, most often used by offensive linemen against defensive
linemen and linebackers. Two players double-teaming a defensive player, one
blocking high and one blocking low is called a chop block, which is illegal
because it can lead to injury.
As its name implies,
a defensive player is baited and then trapped. He is allowed through the
offensive line only to be blocked by another player behind the line, usually a
tight end, who is often put in motion on a trap block so that he gets to the
area behind the line of scrimmage where the defensive player is coming through
the line. On a "trap play," the running back attacks the hole left by the
In zone blocking schemes, the
offensive linemen team up to protect an area of the field, particularly against
teams that stunt or slant to a defensive gap on the snap of the ball. Because of
the myriad of defenses an offense is likely to face, it is necessary to reduce
blocking to its simplest elements rather than have a blocking scheme for every
defense that an offense might face. Hence, the introduction of blocking rules
and the concept of team blocking. For example, a tackle and guard may team up to
block a linebacker and defensive tackle, the blocking scheme for each offensive
player depending on whether the linebacker and tackle play straight up or the
linebacker stunts inside. Zone blocking depends on the concept of team blocking,
and its principles are built by getting movement off the line of scrimmage,
blocking all gaps and seams, and securing an area to the play-side of the hole.
A defensive scheme
in which one or more linebackers drop back into pass coverage, but the safeties
remain positioned behind them. If a defense is playing underneath coverage, the
quarterback's passing lanes may be filled and he will have to dump the ball off
to a running back.
Weak-side and Strong-side
Weak-side refers to the side of
the line of scrimmage opposite the alignment of the tight end, while strong-side
refers to the side of the line of scrimmage whereby the tight end is positioned.
The right side of the formation in Figure 1 below would be called the strong
side, providing the player "LE" was aligned to create a marked "C" gap between
himself and the left tackle (LT).
The area on the
playing field between the opponent's 20-yard line and the opponent's goal line,
an area where the offense is expected to score a touchdown or at the least, a
field goal. Statistical percentages involving red-zone offense and red-zone
defense provide analysts with a strong measure for rating the quality of a
See recursive formation. (Just a
dumb joke for Geeks who like football, the Geek/liking of which may be an
Tenets of the West Coast Offense
-- According to Bill Walsh, in the ideal setup, the wide
receivers would catch 15 passes a game, the running backs would catch 10 and the
tight ends would catch 5. A team is looking for 25 first downs a game. These
quantities are referred to as "Walsh's numbers."
Short-to-medium-range passing attack. Receivers are expected to "Run After
Players must have more discipline; they have little opportunity for freelancing.
Use the pass to set up the run. The most successful WCO teams run the ball well.
If a team gains 7-8 yards per run, it can run as little as one out of four
plays; otherwise, the WCO calls for an equal number of running and passing
The quarterback must be mobile, be able to throw a touch pass with accuracy, and
be intelligent. He must throw on rhythm and timing. As Steve Young says, "In
contrast, the West Coast offense as it originated with Bill Walsh is any play or
set of plays that tie the quarterback's feet to the receiver's route so there is
a sense of timing."
In the 2-WR, 2-RB, 1-TE base set, any of these five players can be the primary
receiver at any given time.
Defenses are given a variety of looks, with an offense attacking a defense with
more receivers than it can cover. Mismatches and confusion are created on
defense by using 2 TE sets, 4 WR sets, and 3 WR sets, etc.
Using motion forces a defense to cover players with inappropriate players for
coverage, i.e., it creates mismatches.
Throw the football on any down or distance.
To maintain ball control, short passes to the tight end and swing passes to
running backs are key. Use tight ends who can catch better than block if there
is a question of personnel. Tight ends are key to a red zone attack.
The quarterback must be able to release the ball quickly and accurately on
timing after a 3-step drop. Receivers run precision routes. The offense is
designed to keep the quarterback healthy.
After the QB drops 3-steps back, one of the receivers should be open to catch a
pass if necessary. Ron Jenkins calls him the HOT receiver.
Power running behind zone blocking to minimize negative yardage plays. This is a
departure from the 49ers version of the WCO that used man-blocking and cut
blocks and misdirection.
Figure 1. The defensive nomenclature used in this document.
(This figure is patterned after Diagram 3-1, Chapter 3, "Coaching Football's
Spread Offense," Tim Sowers, Barry Butzer).
[Smith]. Smith, Brian, "Defining Utah's Spread Offense," September 15, 2003.
Richard Linde (a.k.a., Malamute) can be reached at