Friday, March 26, 2010

46 Defense- Cover 7

The 46 Defense designed by Buddy Ryan and evolved further through the work of current Jets Head Coach Rex contains many concepts that could be incorporated into different schemes. I know many coaches still operate for the most part out of a 1-High Middle of the Field Coverage look. In this shell the main coverages are 3-deep zone and man free. There are some things you can do, like roll the secondary into 2-deep coverage, but most people in “1-high looks” prefer to play 1-high coverage.

Buddy Ryan utilized multiple coverages in his 46 package. In addition to basic cover 3 and man-free, he integrated a number of rotation coverages each with multiple variations. The coverage I will be discussing today is “Cover-7” which is a (man-under halves) weak-side rotation coverage.

Base Rules

Coverage on the Wide-outs

The WS rolls to the weak ½ while the strong-side corner plays “thumbs” technique that involves him opening to the other ½. The other part of the thumbs is the jack backer getting underneath #1 and playing an inside-trail technique on the receiver. His job is to cover the inside cuts (and provide solid support on outside cuts) forcing the ball deep and outside to the deep corner.

Weak Corner and WS can play different games on the #1 WR. The options for them are:

  1. Fist
  2. Slice
  3. Fist/Slice

Fist is basic inside trail bracket coverage. The Corner lets the receiver get ahead while he trails him 1 yard behind and 1 yard inside. His key here is the WR’s hips (or feet). He is responsible for underneath coverage of the WR. The WS plays over the top and is responsible for deep to deep-outside routes.

Slice is outside bracket. In Coach Ryan’s playbook slice technique is described: “The corner drives through any outside break, and the Safety drives through any inside break.” It is used as an automatic inside the 20 yard line.

Fist/Slice is an interesting adjustment. Is a unique bracket that works well against a slot WR (but good on a single WR). The corner forces the WR outside (same as fist) then crosses over him to a point 3 yards outside and even with the WR. This is a difficult read for the offense because the corner appears to be denying the inside breaks while inviting the outside breaks. However, after the initial jam, the corner works to take away any outside breaks. This is a great adjustment to teams whom like to run the “choice” route to the open side. The big question in this technique is how to properly defend inside cuts. Here the WS has inside cuts by #1. He should be aware of deep routes, but must play the inside breaks aggressively. The only problem with the aggressive play of the WS versus the inside breaks is the threat of the double move (i.e. Slant-go). The corner must help out with these situations. In Fist/Slice the corner must get over the top of #1 anytime he breaks inside to the WS. This is why the corner must play the WR outside and even, so he is in a position to get over the top of inside cuts. This technique allows the WS to play inside breaks very aggressively.

Coverage of the Middle 3

I have covered the bracket techniques used on the WR’s to each side. The remaining three eligible receivers require a coverage system. The Strong Safety, Mike, and Charlie have this responsibility. Their options are:

  1. Frank
  2. Zebra
  3. 3-Way

These coverages are varied techniques that alert the player for lock-man, 2-man combo, or 3-man combo responsibilities. Frank is very basic; the player has his assigned person in straight lock-man. There is no exchanging; you follow the receiver to the stands if he goes there. In the diagram below the SS has the slot man to man. There are times you can put the corner in Frank technique and allow the SS to play the brackets with the WS, but I will not discuss the variations here.

Zebra is a combo (banjo) coverage, this is common to most teams that run man coverage. In the above diagram the Charlie and Mike banjo the TE and back. Zebra is basically an alert for a possible 2/3 switch.

3-Way coverage is an alert for a 3-man exchange and more importantly a play action strong. On play-action the Charlie would have 1st man out, the SS would have the first crosser (the Mike would pass him off ), and the Mike would play the man in between the two.

Anytime the backers are not in 3-way, they must be aware of which of one is in Frank. Usually, if a player is in a frank technique, the other two are in zebra.


Like any coverage, there are going to be prepared adjustments for certain formations. Formations like wing-trips (12 personnel) create conflicts with the linebacker.

The Charlie and Mike are not in position to cover the 3 receivers. If the wing releases flat and the TE runs a corner, there are going to be problems. First, the Charlie would be responsible for the #2 WR (wing) but could easily get walled by the TE because of alignment. Second, the Mike will have difficulty getting underneath the TE. Besides checking to a different coverage, there needs to be more effective way of handling this Set.

The “I’m Out” Call

This call involves the Jack and Mike swapping responsibilities. The Jack now plays man with the Charlie and Strong Safety. He will now be in either frank, zebra, or 3-way. The Mike is now the player in “thumbs” playing inside-trail on the #1 WR. The full adjustment looks like this:

The drawback here is the positioning of the Mike in respect to the #1 WR. He has more distance to cover to get in proper trail relationship on #1. However, the defense is in a better position to leverage the routes of the middle three wide receivers. Even versus some problematic formations, this coverage can involve simple adjustments and remain sound.

Situations to Check out of Cover-7

Cover-7 is used to aggressively attack and take away underneath routes. It is most effective against 1 receiver to each side and a combination of the other 3 players in running-back or TE alignments. As a basic rule of thumb, cover 7 can be run whenever 3 eligible receivers are aligned in close proximity to the core of the formation and there is a wide receiver to each side. There is more to it than that, and spread formations/tight end trips/twins variations will take the 46 defense out of cover 7. The purpose of this coverage is to provide aggressive underneath coverage versus sets with a wide-out to each side.


Cover-7 is nothing new to football. Coach Ryan ran this coverage in the 1980’s. This era was dominated by running formations. Despite the fact that spread formations were not as big an issue, Ryan found a way to get his defense into a 2-High coverage from a 1-High shell. In addition to just getting into the coverage, he crafted a simple and effective way to change up the way he did his rotation coverage. This illustrates a timeless principal. For every coverage concept you have, it helps to have simple and alternative ways of running it. If you are a cover 3 person, it helps to change up which players have flats, Curls, and middle thirds. The 4-spoke, 3 deep rotation coverage are examples of this.

No matter the types of formations you see, you will always have to disguise and confuse the offense. Cover-7 is a great change up coverage that can be easily run out of a run-stopping front like the 46.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Pattern Reading vs Spot Dropping

This is a debate I deal with on a regular basis. What type of zone coverage is more effective for high school athletes. Most (if not all) colleges employ some form of pattern-match coverage. However, many high school coaches believe that this type of coverage is difficult for high school athletes to preform. In this post I will explore the pro's and con's of each.

Spot Dropping Defined

Spot dropping is just what it sounds like. On a pass read, pass defenders begin to drop back toward landmarks on the field. Terms like "Top of the numbers" "hash" , and "middle of the field" are used as horizontal markers. Then a depth is usually assigned. For example, a hook to curl linebacker could have a landmark 12-14 yards deep.

While on their landmark and in the process of dropping there, players have their head on a "swivel" reading the QB's eyes while they get to their landmark. In this scheme coaches emphasize two main things:

1. Break on the Ball
2. Gain depth

  • Simple to teach
  • Simple to execute
  • More eyes are on the ball
  • Better pursuit
  • Poor throws can easily be intercepted
  • Defenders can be stuck covering grass
  • There are many windows in the defense
  • Requires a better than average pass rush
  • A proficient passing team can slice you apart
  • Very susceptible to Intermediate routes.

Pattern Matching Defined

Rather than take your drop to a spot and wait for receivers to arrive, pattern-match coverage involves taking coverage to the most dangerous threat a defender recognizes in his zone. In this coverage defenders are taught to key certain receivers when they read pass. Usually, it is the #2 WR to their side. From the receivers action, they can diagnose whom the most likely threat to their zone is.

After a certain point, pattern-match coverage turns into man coverage. The aim of this coverage is to get the best of both worlds. Zone offers defenders the advantage of having their eyes in the backfield playing the run before the have to commit to the pass. On the other hand, man coverage puts defenders in the dark as far as the run goes, they are dialed in on the WR that they have in coverage. Pattern-reading uses zone principals early, and man principals late.

  • Fewer windows
  • Fewer completions
  • Ability to play run and cover intermediate routes
  • Defender aren't stuck covering grass
  • confusing for the quarterback
  • QB scrambles could hurt
  • Takes more time to teach initially
  • Fewer interceptions
  • more susceptible to the big play
  • more potential mismatches.

Are the Two Coverages Mutually Exclusive?

Is there a team that is purely a spot drop team or purely a pattern match team? I don't think so. In today's game of spread out offenses, no team will survive with traditional spot dropping. Conversely, in pattern matching the defenders know the general area that their coverage will be in.

In spot-dropping the underneath defenders are taught to see the QB as well as the WR's that could cross their zones. There are times the defenders are told to collision or re-route receivers. This is a principals at the heart of pattern matching.

My Position

These modern offense requires defenses to adjust. The same old style of defense is not gonna work the same way. As one side evolves the other side must as well. I am a firm believer in pattern reading. It just make sense in today's game.

The main argument against pattern-matching is difficulty. Many coaches argue that it is too difficult and that typical high school athletes cannot handle it. They reason along these lines. "Spot dropping is easier than pattern-matching. Our players are making mistakes spot dropping. So how can they begin to understand pattern reading?" The other line of reasoning involves the capability of high school athletes. Many critics question a players ability to see all these routes. I agree that at time it may appear like a lot, but like anything in football, it can be taught if you perfect the way you are going to teach it.

Training the Eyes

When making any type of "reads" in football, it all boils down to the eyes. There needs to be methodology to where a players eyes are supposed to be looking and how they respond to what they see. The more clear we can be with the progression of a players eyes, their ability to diagnose a situation, and trigger the appropriate response; the better we can all be at coaching defense. In the analysis below, the focus will be on underneath droppers, not the deep defenders.

Eyes in Spot Dropping

First, eyes begin on the run/pass key. The most common keys are linemen and running back. Regardless of the key, the player should be able to diagnose run/pass and then move on to the next action. If the defender reads pass, the player should open to his landmark and begin dropping. The eyes should go to the QB second to diagnose the drop type. (On sprint out flow rules usually trigger) On straight drop back plays the linebacker continues towards his landmark reading the QB back to his landmark on the "swivel". This is the basic way of spot dropping. Most coaches have tried to incorporate reads into their drops. However, this is where problems have occurred. The problem is usually a rules conflict.

This conflict stems from two primary goals of spot dropping. First, is the ability to see the QB so the defender can break on the ball. Second, is to gain depth. This is done to prevent an intermediate route from getting wide open. The philosophy is that if the player can accomplish goal #1 and goal#2 then the only open passes should be shallow routes. Shallow routes are not a big concern, because the underneath defenders will be able to see the QB release the ball. This allows the players to break forward and keep the play to a minimal gain. However it usually does not work this way.

Intermediate routes become open anyway. The defenders are so busy focusing their eyes on the landmark and QB that they don't know where the intermediate receiver is going to be. By the time they "break on the ball" they are usually out of position to make a play on it. Coaches begin adjusting their drop rules and involve pattern read concepts. They try to train their players to see these routes developing. Many times these players learn how to do this. However, the rules conflict rears its ugly head. When you begin to involve reads two things usually happen. First, the defenders do not see the QB as well and the "break on the ball" is not as good. Second, depth suffers because droppers will stop and delay more when reading routes.

This angers the traditional spot-drop coaches, because they have always emphasized breaking on the ball and gaining depth. They have the habit of emphasizing these top two goals. The main problem is there is no clear process of where a players eyes go. In traditional spot-dropping the eyes are simple: swivel from the QB to the landmark. If you begin to involve reads into this system and emphasize these two goals the same way, then conflicts will be present. Spot-dropping will become more difficult and frustrating then before. I am not saying all spot-dropping coaches go through this. I am noting this because it is a trap that is easy to fall into.

Whenever you begin integrating route-read concepts into a spot drop philosophy, players will not drop to depth as consistently nor break on the ball as quickly.

Eyes in Pattern Reading

Similarly to spot dropping, eyes begin on run/pass keys. Once reading pass, the eyes go to a completely different place than their spot-drop counter parts. The body begins dropping in a predetermined direction, but the eyes flash to a particular receiver. Depending on what that receiver does the eyes could move somewhere else and/or the direction of the drop can alter quite a bit. Players are usually given a 3/2 drop or 2/1 drop. These are forms of "Hook to Curl" and "Curl to Flat". Here is an example

A 3/2 drop is usually an inside linebacker. On pass he opens at 45* and reads #3 (usually the RB) if he releases vertical he has him man to man. This is simple, on pass look at #3 if he goes deep you run with him. If #2 blocks or releases outside, the backer expands his eyes to #2. If #2 is running vertical, the backer walls him off and gets his eyes on #1. In this step he is anticipating #1 to make an inside cut (curl or dig route). If #1 continues vertical past 15 yards his final read is the QB, his technique to break down and rob the QB's eyes. This is not an exhaustive list, just a simple example of eye progression in pattern-matching. To Recap the linebackers eyes:

3/2 Pattern-Drop Eye Progression

1. Run/Pass Key
2. #3
3. #2
5. Rob the quarterback's eyes

This is an example of cover 3 rules. In Cover 3, it is difficult for the inside linebacker to get underneath curl routes in a spot-drop scheme. But, in pattern reading the reads take the backer to the curl, to the point that he is anticipating the route. It is easier to get coverage on the route because the backer will have his eyes on the receiver.

At first this may seem like a lot to someone unfamiliar with this type of coverage. With enough time and understanding it becomes easy to coach. The key is emphasizing the progression of the players eyes and the recognition of what to do. This only requires simple terminology and efficient drills.

In this philosophy, you don't have to talk about routes in the general sense. Terms like slant, hitch, dig, and arrow can confuse the process. You only need to talk about receivers and their movements. If a player makes a mistake on his reads, the process is simple to correct. Questions are the key. Using the example of the 3/2 drop discussed above: if a player failed to cover #1 on a curl, what was the problem. He probably never got his eyes on #1. Ask him, "what did #1 do?" He won't know. Players will gain confidence in this system, because through repetition, reading a route progression will become second nature.

One major drawback to pattern-matching is that there will be fewer interceptions. Turnovers are a big key on defense. You have to weigh it with the benefits. The increased coverage will lower receptions and scoring. As a coach you have to decide what best fits you.


As the game changes so must we. High school teams have become more effective at passing the balls. If you try to play the same old keep the ball in front of you and break on the philosophy, you are going to get exploited. Spot dropping has its merits, but when you play in a league with proficient passing teams, you are gonna have trouble. Offensive coaches have done a great job.

Pattern-matching can make a tremondous difference for your team, if you commit to installing it. High School athletes can handle it. I once worked with 8th graders in the offseason, and showed them how to read routes. After a week it became easy for them. They would play 7on7 and have the routes covered. They even would talk to eachother with the proper terminology. The 2/1 dropper would yell at the 3/2 guy and say "Why did he catch the ball? #3 released out and #2 came in at you."

If spot dropping works for you and you are having success with, then by all means commit to it. A scheme is as good as its effectiveness. As coaches it helps to understand the different things teams are trying to do. Down the road coverage will probably take another evolution, because offenses will begin adjusting to pattern matching even more at the high school level.

Game Dynamics and Football Part III

The ideas I will discuss were inspired by a Poker Book, No-Limit Hold'em: Theory and Practice by David Sklansky and Ed Miller. I am in no way as astute at math and game theory as they are, but I was intrigued a couple years ago by a couple chapters from this book. I thought about how these principals could apply to two things I coached at the time: football and debate. After some thought I came to see these principals as integral parts of both the games of Football and Debate. The first one I will discuss is the Dynamic of Mistakes and second I will discuss the importance of multi-level thinking.

Dynamic IV: Winning the Battle of Mistakes

It has been said for many years, football games are won by the teams that make fewer mistakes than their opponents. Many games are decided by mistakes. If mistakes were not made, no one could ever win. Think about the lowest form of a game Tic-Tac-Toe (Questionably a game). If you know the perfect strategy you will never lose. However, if your opponent knows it too, neither of you will win. The game will always end in a "cat" game (tie). The only way to win is for one of the players to make a mistake. It could be an obvious mistake, where one person does not see that the other has two and a row and leaves the third spot unprotected. Or a not so obvious mistake where the mistake takes to more turns to come to fruition (some of you know the "trick" that gets the unaware people).

Whenever you win at a game, one of two things happens:

1. Your opponent makes a mistake by some oversight or similar error.

2. You cause your opponent to make a mistake.

Some times we because of the 1st type of mistake, when we really learn a game we begin to win because of the 2nd type. Football is no different. Some football games are won by an opponent oversight. For example, LSU lost a game recently because of poor time management. As coaches we work hard to avoid these types of mistakes. These kinds of mistakes get a coach fired quick.

So if the object of a game is to win the battle of mistakes, then a football game can be through two methods.

1. Try their best to limit the number of mistakes they make.
2. Force their opponent to make a lot of mistakes.

Some coaches have a philosophy that involves one more than the other. In my opinion, this is the dividing point between the conservative and the aggressive coaches. I am not saying one method is better than the other, just that these coaches have a different philosophy about winning the battle of mistakes.

The conservative method tries to win by playing simple mistake free football. They patiently grind out a game hoping for their opponent to make a mistake. When two of these types of teams face each other, most of the time the game comes down to 5 plays or less. These 5 plays can decide the outcome of the game. The drawback is, if your plan backfires you might not be able to catch-up if you fall behind.

The aggressive method tries to win by forcing their opponents to make more mistakes then they do. They don't care if they make 100 mistakes in a game as long as their opponent makes 101. When you think in this mentality, you become more aggressive, and more relaxed when mistakes occur. The drawback is, when your plan backfires you have a good chance of getting pounded.

Whichever style is more fitting to you is probably best, but both can be used to win the battle of mistakes. I really, used this concept in debate. My debate philosophy became much more aggressive, the students I worked with were more concerned with attacking their opponents and less concerned with making an error. The biggest overall benefit for debaters was the increased willingness to make decisions.

Dynamic V: Multi-Level Thinking

Multi-Level thinking requires two people. The levels (depth) proceed as the people involved proceed. In football multi-level thinking can happen in many different circumstances. The first being in the scheme and scout process. Consider an offense vs defense battle. The offense runs the spread and adheres to the 5 in the box/ 6 in the box rules. If there are 5 in the box, run, and if there are 6, pass. An astute DC can think beyond this OC by giving the appearance of 5 in box, but triggering a 6th man quickly on run plays (Squat/halves, cloud force coverage). Many DC's have done recently, the "tweener" linebackers that split the difference between the EMOL and Slot WR have caused offenses problems.

When I first saw the technique, I was amazed at how fast they could fall in and support the run and at the same time get in good pass coverage. It causes fits for the offense. The offense has to find a way to combat it. The way to begin this process is to figure out the techniques and assignments of these players. First, most of the time backers in this alignment are keying linemen. If they see forward movement or pulling they trigger on the run immediately. If the linemen pass block they know to get their eyes on the pass keys. With this information the offense can begin to think a level deeper and use their scheme against them.

What if you were to pull the linemen and throw a bubble screen away from the pull? The blocking WR would be on the corner and the other WR would have the ball with nothing but late safety support to worry about. The backer would not be readily available to help, because he triggered into the box on run support. How would the defense respond to this? Option 1, is to slow down the run support, which is great for the offense. Option 2, play the safety more aggressively on the bubble. The adjustment to this is common, pump the bubble and hit the other WR deep behind the overly-aggressive safety.

Suppose the defense is aware of what the offense is doing to them, how should they adjust. Whenever an opponent thinks at a level deeper than you, you must find a way to think a level deeper than them. The defense would need to utilize a different coverage and run fit package. Preferably Quarters type coverage robber, blue, and man combinations that change who the run force players are. These coverages employ a different combination of players who trigger into the box on running plays. The FS would now be the main person triggering into the box and run fits. A different type of play pass that uses the linemen pulling as false keys would be desired. (Faking a run, then throwing the ball to the Slot (#2 WR) deep behind the area vacated by the safety.) If the DC begins to mix quarters with the squat halves coverage, he can begin to put the OC off balance again. If he was unaware of the OC's plan to attack his squat/halves coverage and "tweener" backer, he would be getting exploited all day. But thinking a level deeper he can find a way to get the upper hand.


This brings an end to the discussion over game dynamics and football. I am not sure how much interest there out there for this subject. As a person whom enjoys games in general and has made a commitment to learning the game of football, I have enjoyed applying various game dynamics to the sport. Football is game with base rules and variables like talent, decision making, game theory, and multi-level thinking at its core. There are many other dynamics like preparation, team unity, and human attitude that play a roll. For the discussion, I believe that these dynamics are sufficient to illustrate the relationship between football and game dynamics.

I am planning to write some blogs on more 4-2-5 defense stuff, I am just trying to get an idea of what people are interested in reading. If anyone has ideas let me know. I have considered more trips coverages, linebacker run fits, man coverage combination, front/ stunt calls, and utilizing the system through efficient play calling.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Game Dynamics and Football Part II: Scouting and Play-Calling

In the sport of football coaches are always trying to get an edge, this will never change. One of the biggest things for defensive coaches is scouting offenses in the hopes of being able to call the right defenses at the right time come game day. There are varied views on the use of scouting programs and the reliability of tendencies, however, I think all can agree that we get some positive help from the process. In this article I will explore the game dynamics behind the calls coaches make, the statistical analysis behind them, and finally some ideas and principals that can be used (theoretically) to optimize their play calling.

Dynamic III- Game Theory and Optimization

General Football Strategy

No matter what team you are facing, tendencies will be present, period. Why is this the case? The reason is that coaches understand that certain situations call have particular optimal plays to call. For Example, consider this situation and assume that these teams are evenly matched opponents. You run a power-I offense, it is 3rd and inches on the -20. What type of call makes sense? Some type of inside run or QB sneak seems best, and most would agree with that. Will this play call succeed 100% of the time? No. It will succeed an overwhelming majority of the time, but it is in no way a lock. It is a high percentage play. Do all coaches in this situation run this play type 100% of the time? No. Why not if it appears to be clearly the best choice?

The defense is aware of the optimal play for the offense to run as well. Defense's load up the box and try to stuff the short run, if he could, a standard defensive coordinator would load all 11 of his players to stop the run. Few defenses ever commit all 11 players to stopping the run first, even in a 3rd and short situation. The reason they don't do this, is because the offense could easily exploit them. The offense could fake a base run and then throw a long pass to an uncovered receiver or fake the run and have the QB keep the ball on a naked bootleg. These types of plays force the defense to slow down some of their players on run support. Because of this Offensive coaches throw in little wrinkles here and there to keep the defense honest.

So will a play caller run the inside run/ sneak combo 100% of the time, No, but he will most of the time. Does the small % of time the offense runs something different affect the strategy of the defense? It certainly does. This is the game dynamics that are studied under the field of Game Theory (a branch of Economics and Mathematics). Game Theory applies to the sciences of decision making and competition games in general. Using game theory we can discover optimal choices to make, given certain circumstances.

Analyzing Football Tendencies and Statistics

When we scout, generally there are 4 main tendency areas we analyze:

1. Situation (including Down and Distance)
2. Formation
3. Personnel
4. Field Position

Beginning with situational analysis, we try to group different situations together and see if there is any statistical relationships. 1st and 10, 2nd and long, and 3rd and short are all situations we look at. Most coaches go the extent to break down 2 pt plays. With this data we get a snapshot of what the team is trying to do. For the most part, as coaches we discover obvious things like "they pass more on 3rd and long", "The run inside on 3rd and short", and "They do a bunch of different things on 2nd and medium". Every now and then, we stumble into a very clear down and distance tendency that goes beyond general football strategy. But this is rare, for the most part we discover basic things.

When we begin to break down formations, we get another set of tendencies. Consider this data.

Pro-I Rt formation

70% Run 30% Pass
Runs Right 72% Left 28%


Iso-Rt 30%
Power Rt 13%
Toss Rt 9%
Counter Lt 18%
Belly Rt 10%
Trap Lt 5%
Iso Lt 5%

When you look at this formation data, you find out that they like to run the right(strong side) twice as much as the left. Does this mean the defense should overload to the strong side when they see this information? No! Why not?

The data shows a tendency to the right side of the formation, however there are enough plays (by number and type) to the left that forces the defenses to respect those plays. If you overplay the right-side of this team, they are going to attack the left side quick. This is a major part of putting together a scheme. A classical example of this is the toss pass. If a team is killing you with the toss, sooner or later your corner (assuming he plays pass first deep 1/3 or 1/4) is gonna come off and play the toss aggressively. When a play caller sees that corner make a tackle close to the LOS. You can bet that the toss pass is coming up real soon. Because of the threat of the toss pass, the corner cannot come up on the toss aggressively. A team might never even have to run a toss pass, the threat of it is enough to keep the defense honest.

From Personnel and field position we can gather similar sets of information, but for the most part we will be in the same situation the first two areas, seeing a tendency, but limited in how aggressive it can be attacked.

Why do we scout then?

If you begin to combine the various things together a more accruate and clear picture can become present. You might find that 3rd and 8 Pro-I right formation is 60% pass with 80% of the passes being bootlegs. Given the game situation you might beleive that the opposing play caller will favor the pass. The other passes he has shown in this situation thus far are 5 step drop back passes. Given this play calling range, sending a backer/safety off the edge to the Boot Leg side seems optimal (as long as you get a body on the full back leaking out). Also, if it happens to be a running play, you don't lose much bringing an edge rusher. By combining different areas of statistics we can find more reliable albeit more particular tendencies. With the limited time we have to scout, we can only analyze so many situations. However the situations we do analyze can become very helpful come game-day. What can the offense do to combat this? Simple, balance his Play-call range.

Balancing Range Example-Poker

I don't know how many of you are poker players, but games like No-Limit Texas Hold-em involve similar dynamics to the football situation discussed above. Consider this situation (not realistic, but simplified for the example, you are playing someone heads up (2 players total), and you know this player will raise Pre-flop with any pair, and any combination of aces and face cards, and a few others. Further more, you know that if you re-raise him after he raises, that he will only call with Pocket Aces, Kings, and Queens. Given this situation, you (ideally) should re-raise every time he raises. You would exploit this player because he would allow you to bluff him too much because of his limited calling range.

How can this player keep himself from being exploited? First off he should call with more hands, and begin pushing all-in with some of his hands too, because you will be raising him with weak hands at times. If he adjust this way, you are put into a guessing game. This forces you to play your hands in a more standard way. How did this opponent keep you from exploiting him? He balanced the way he played his hand to keep you from exploiting him.

This applies to football too.

Back to Football.....

Assume that you are an offensive play caller. On 3rd down and long out of a 2x2 Gun formation you have the following tendencies

5 Step pass 80%

Sprint out Pass 10%

Run 10%

Given this distribution, a defensive coordinator is gonna be excited about this situation. The optimal call here is to blitz, because these passes take time to develop. To prevent this the offense coordinator should make calls to balance the situation and deter the defense from stunting. The calls used to balance the range are plays that hurt heavy blitzing. A more balanced range would like this:

5 Step Pass 65%

Sprint out Pass 10%

Screen 15%

Draw 10%

This presence of 25% screens/draws slows the DC's willingness to blitz. He must respect your ability to screen and run draws. If he stunts into one of these plays he could be in bad situation. This distribution changes the optimal call for the play caller. The optimal call is now to play a more basic defense that is focused on defending the pass. By balancing the play calling range the offensive coordinator can protect his QB from seeing constant blitzes. Balancing the call range does not guarantee no blitzes, just that he won't try to blitz every play. If he did happen to blitz every time in this situation, you could call screens and draws liberally to punish his aggressiveness. The best thing for the defensive play-caller to do, is mix up his own calls to include some blitzes and base calls. If I took the time, game theory models could provide the optimal balance.

A Wrench in the Works

" The Intuitive Play Caller"

Some coaches claim to be "feel" guys. They don't need a lot of statistical scouting information or planning for that manner, they believe that they can feel the game out and know what to call. I am not saying that these people don't exist, but how do you deal with these play callers? Let's assume that some of these people are so good that they can know what you are gonna call before you do at times? I am sure some of you reading this have had this experience before, when you just knew what a person was going to call. How do you combat this person, if they in fact are able to know what plays you are going to call? Simple, be unpredictable, to the extent that you have some randomness in the range of your play-calls. Here is an example to illustrate:

Lets say you are playing a person in Rock, Paper, Scissors. This person is astute at knowing what you are going to select, to the point he can beat you 2/3rds of the time. There is nothing you really can do to get an edge on this person, but you can reduce the edge he has and even the game. How do you do this, be unpredictable. If you look at your watch and the seconds hand is on a #1-3 you pick Rock, #4-6 you pick Paper, and #7-9 you pick Scissors. If your opponent has no idea that you are doing this, there is no way he can guess what you are going to throw. The game will return to its basic design, a guessing game based on chance, similar to flipping a coin, or rolling dice.

In football, if you are faced with a guy that knows how you are going to call plays, you could attempt something similar. Perhaps not to this extreme of an extent, but something to keep your opponent guessing. For Example, assume you want your opponent to respect your punt fakes, and you want to fake 10% of the time. Before you punt look at the score board if the game clock ends in 7 you run a fake. If it ends in any other # you punt the ball. If you keep this to yourself, no one will know when you will run a fake, they will be forced into a guessing game, with no idea of how to know when you will do what.


Game Theory plays a role in any game that involves decision making. The decision making process is at the heart of coaching on game-day. People like Bill Walsh were masters of planning and to an extent his ideas were consistent with Game Theory Optimal ideas. Just like in poker, keeping your opponent guessing makes life easier for you and your team.

The examples and ideas in this article were grounded in the "Ideal/Theoretical" domain. However, most of the time decisions on the field transcend this domain. These examples existed in a vacuum and involved small tidbits of information. This article was aimed at showing how optimal strategies and calls do exist given the information that you have. In the next article, I will go to the dynamics beyond game theory, and involve the importance of understanding the thinking of your opponent. That much of optimal scouting goes beyond the situation and formation tendencies, but extends into understanding the overall philosophy and though process of your opponent. In games of decision making, this psychological and logical dynamic is often the one that separates the good from the great.