Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Football Schemes For Dummies

When it comes to offensive and defensive schemes, there are many misconceptions about what they mean to a team and the players playing within them. For all you football dummies out there, or football fans looking for more of a coach's insight, here are the most common.

Offensive misconceptions
Many people overlook the fact that quarterbacks of any kind are typically a "system quarterback".

Many coaches bring their system with them wherever they go and look for quarterbacks that fit the mold of their system. For instance, you wouldn't catch Peyton Manning running a June Jones Run 'N' Gun scheme where he could be exposed as an immobile statue while waiting for the deep routes to develop. But you will--and do--catch him in a more classic offensive scheme utilizing 2 short routes, a deep route and a first down route. This maximizes the usefulness of his quick release and keeps him from getting abused in the pocket.

As a head coach or offensive coordinator, you either find the right quarterback for your system, adjust your system, or create a new one for a quarterback who you confident in scheming around. If you think calling a quarterback a system quarterback is a knock on their abilities, you have a lot to learn about football.

West Coast offenses are not always heavily lopsided on the pass end of the run-pass ratio.

This is a huge misconception. Many people associate West Coast offenses with a scheme like Andy Reid's in Philadelphia, where the passing routes are very diverse and the variations of routes are the main aspect of the offense. However, West Coast offenses have many variations. There have been several which were very run oriented. Denver's version under Shannahan is the most prominent of the run-oriented West Coast offenses. There are two key factors that make an offense a West Coast offense.

First and foremost, scripted plays are a major part of the offense. In other words, passing plays which are intended to get the ball to a specific target at a specific time regardless of coverage. These are passes usually attack the shallow areas of the field, allowing the receiver to gain yards after catch. Many screens, short crossing patterns, digs, flares and wheel routes are perfect examples of routes and plays which highlight a West Coast offense. A good West Coast offense can successfully predetermine their first 10 to 15 plays of the game without having to adjust the game plan.

The other main factor is the widened use of option routes. These routes are designed to go one of two or sometimes three receivers based on the defensive coverage.

And always remember: there are many variations of this system. In reality, the term "West Coast offense" is overused as a description. No two teams use the same form of it anymore.

There is a two tight end offense

This is completely false. There are two tight end sets, but not offensive schemes. However, there are many variations of two tight end sets, the most common of which is the Single back formation. As you might have guessed the Single back formation utilizes just one running back. The trend was hot for a year or two but has died out some with the lack of success many running backs have without a lead blocker. Now, most teams motion one of the tight ends to the backfield to block, thus nearly entirely defeating the purpose of a Single back formation.

Spread offenses use 4 wide receivers in their base offensive set.

The misconception of the spread offense was caused by Madden video games and is not entirely true. A spread offense is a scheme which relies on using more than the basic two wide receivers sets more often than using the two wide receivers sets in an effort to spread the defense out and maximize running lane potential. This enables the quarterback to have an easier time pointing out blitzers, recognizing coverages, and getting a better feel for the defense. Usually, it's done with three wides--just enough to pull a linebacker out of the box or to draw more nickel defenses. (Against the nickel defense, the creation of a large running lane may be more valiable than forcing a linebacker into coverage).

This does not mean using 4 wide receivers on every play. In fact, doing so would be a nice way to get your quarterback injured. It would also prevent you from running effectively with any consistency. Fewer blockers means it's harder to find lanes, resulting in more runs to the outside.

Defensive misconceptions
There's the 3-4 and the 4-3. That's it.

If your speaking about front 7 alignments, then yeah, nowadays, that's about all there is. But simply being a 3-4 or a 4-3 base front doesn't explain what kind of scheme you run. Each front has many, many variations on how they are run, called, designed and played.

The main differences are in aggressiveness and coverages. Some 4-3 schemes, like the now infamous "Tampa 2", rely on tough man stopping power up front, passive zone coverages, occasional aggressive blitzing from the linebackers, and strong from safeties over the top in a cover 2 assignment. While an offense--like say, the New York Giants, who also run a 4-3--are much more aggressive. They rely on pass rushing and push from the linemen and emphasize tenacity and speed from the linebackers to stop the run. They keep a safety closer to the line to help support those linebackers.

The 3-4 scheme is more aggressive.

Generally, the 3-4 was designed with the intention of disguising where the fourth rusher is coming from. The 4-3 has four down linemen, so you'll usually see 4 men rushing unless there is a blitz, in which case, there would be five rushers. In the 3-4, with 3 down linemen, the fourth rusher is not considered a blitzer. So when an offense knows there will be a fourth rusher, because there almost always is, it has to figure out which one of the four linebackers will rush. This causes confusion on every down. It's not so much extra aggressive as much as it is more complex for the offensive line and quarterback to work against.

The fifth rusher would be considered a blitzer. There are 4-3 schemes which send fifth rushers more often than you'll see some 3-4 schemes do. A perfect example of this is the Patriots. They run a 3-4, so many are quick to comment on the aggressive nature of their defense. Completely wrong. They run a more relaxed 3-4, which is actually quite similar to a"Cover 2"/"Tampa 2" defense with a 3-4 front. Thus all those "bend but don't break mentality" comments from analysts during New England's last SB run (prior to losing to NY). Relax, stay put in your area of the field, make a play when you can. No chasing, leaving your post and being the cause for a huge cutback run. Give them only what they can get; nothing more. Bend but don't break.

Whereas Wade Phillips' version of the 3-4 front utilizes a fifth rusher almost every other down. They use a 3-4 formation in Dallas, and he asks his players to aggressively swarm the ball and leave their post in an effort to make an earlier tackle at the price of risking, as I said above, a huge cutback lane for a touchdown.

Aggressive is not necessarily better or more effective. Aggressive is a preference by some coaches. Same with passiveness. It is not anymore effective than an aggressive defense. It's simply just a preference.

3-4 needs huge guys up front.

Not entirely true; what you need is muscle mass. Defensive ends must be quick enough to stay in an offensive tackle's face and strong enough to keep them off the outside linebacker. You do not need to be huge to do that. You just need to be strong enough, mentally as well as physically, to do it. Defensive tackles (nose tackles in a 3-4) must be powerful enough to neutralize the center and delay a guard from reaching the linebacker's level and blocking him.

Again, you don't need to be huge. In fact, you want those guys to be pretty nimble, not just powerful. Speed rush ends and push generating defensive tackles fail in the 3-4 because their athleticism doesn't stretch to their pure strength, not there size. There is no such thing as an undersized defensive lineman, just a defensive lineman not strong enough to do the job needed of them in a 3-4 front.

A combination of size and quickness is ideal for the 3-4.

Cover 2 is a scheme the Bucs and Colts run.

Wrong. Very wrong. Cover 2 is a type of defensive play call that has existed for decades now, which utilizes two deep safeties in zone coverage. There are many ways of using it, with all sorts of zone assignments or man coverages in front of the safeties. But bottom line: a Cover 2 is a play, not a scheme.

What the Buccaneers and Colts run (among some other teams) is referred to as the "Tampa 2", as opposed to the cover 2. That is referred to as a scheme and not a play, because the entire scheme of the defense is to utilize many different variations of Cover 2 play calling (man to man on one side with zones on the other, zones across the board, man across the board, etc.) while always maintaining their two deep safeties in Cover 2.

That's pretty much all the average guy needs to know about offensive and defensive schemes. If you've read this and learned something, excellent. If you've read this and knew it all already, even better. But if I've been able to prevent ignorance like "Player A is too undersized for the 3-4" or "Player B is just a system QB and not really a good QB", then this was well worth typing.


About the Undrafted Free Agent

Ron Crimson was the only player on the high school roster to not get in a game. He couldn't argue with the decision, because he sucked. Needless to say, yet stated anyway, when he entered the NBA draft following his sophomore season in college, he went undrafted. Now, Ron Crimson is the Undrafted Free Agent.

Contact the Undrafted Free Agent

Interested in informing the Undrafted Free Agent of his mistakes, advertisement opportunities, or a scoop on the latest sports scandal? (You can guess which is more likely.) Well, email him at undraftedfreeagent [at]

Look at This!

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