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Summer School 2020: Offensive terminology explained

Your guide to offensive jargon

NFL: Washington Redskins at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

One of the beautiful things about the sport of football is how it can be both dirt-simple and endlessly complex at the same time. On the surface, football is a sport in which two groups of very large and athletic men run at each other, and the team that moves an oblong ball the length of the field the most times wins.

But just HOW they do that can be broken down into layers and layers of technique, strategy, and philosophy.

As with scouting, when it comes to talking about any aspect of football — be it collegiate, professional, or high school — it is easy to get mired in jargon. Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of our annual Summer School series, we thought it would be a good idea to create a glossary of terms for easy reference.

Offensive Scheme - A collection of plays designed to advance the ball and score points. Playbooks are generally assembled in accordance to the offensive coordinator’s or head coach’s general philosophy with regards to the best way to play football, as well as the talent available.

Vertical Offense - An offensive philosophy which attempts to attack down the field, stretching and stressing the defense along the field. A vertical offense looks to create favorable receiving match-ups down the field and pick up chunk yardage on deeper passes. Vertical offenses also seek to force defenses to take defenders away from the line of scrimmage and away from run defense.

Spread Offense - An offense designed to use speed and spacing to manipulate defenses. These offenses tend to use wider alignments to force defenses to cover more of the field and put individual defenders into poor match-ups. They tend to stretch and stress defenses horizontally, across the field, but can also include vertical elements.

Quarterback Drop - The number of steps a quarterback takes away from the line of scrimmage receiving the ball from the center. Typically corresponds to the length of the play, with longer developing plays generally requiring deeper drops. Drops are used to get the quarterback away from the pass rush as well as time the play.

Hitch Step - Quarterback Drops can also include a “hitch” at the top to fine tune the timing between between quarterback and receiver and allow the quarterback to set his feet before throwing. A hitch step is a quick bounce forward of a step or two following the final step of a drop and are typically used on longer drops of 5 to 7 steps.

Timing - The use of a quarterback’s drop and wide receiver’s route to create a precise series of events. A “timing offense” will ask the quarterback to take a precise number of steps away from the line of scrimmage while also asking the receivers to run precise and consistent routes. The goal is to release the football on a “schedule” such that the ball and receiver arrive in the same place at the same time.

Air Coryell Offense - An offensive scheme originally created by Don Coryell of the Los Angeles Chargers (then San Diego). The Air Coryell is based on vertical passing concepts using big, athletic wide receivers to stretch the defense down the field, balanced with a power running game. This offense tends to be slower and longer-developing and accepting of lower completion percentages and also requires decisive quarterback play with great timing between quarterbacks and receivers. This is the offense run by Jason Garrett, Norv Turner, and Mike Martz. The Air Coryell offense can be known for complex play calls mixing numbers and code words to tell each player exactly what to do.

(See Also - Summer School: The Air Coryell Offense)

West Coast Offense - The West Coast Offense (or WCO) was created by Bill Walsh as the offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1970s and perfected by Walsh as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s. This scheme uses spacing to stretch defenses horizontally, with quick passes to ensure a high completion percentage, get the ball in receivers’ hands for run-after-catch opportunities, and to advance the offense safely. The WCO is also known for long, detailed play-calls.

(See Also - Summer School: The West Coast Offense)

Erhardt-Perkins System - Also called the “EPS,” it is an offensive scheme designed by Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins of the New England Patriots in the 1970s. This offense is referred to as a “System” because it focuses on grouping concepts to make offense as player-friendly as possible. The EPS names plays using simple one or two word designations for plays and allows offenses to run the same play from multiple alignments and personnel groupings. This is the offensive system used by the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick.

(See Also - Summer School: The Erhardt-Perkins System)

Personnel Package - The offensive skill position players (wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends) on the field and are described by counting the number running backs and tight ends. For instance, “11-Personnel” is the standard offensive personnel grouping in the NFL and consists of one (1) running back, one (1) tight end, and three wide receivers. Other groupings can be “12-Personnel”, with one (1) running back, two (2) tight ends, and two receivers, “21-Personnel” with two (2) running backs, (1) tight end, and two receivers, or “10-Personnel” which is one (1) running back, no (0) tight ends, and four wide receivers.

(Further reading - “Rhett Ellison and the 12-personnel package”)

Gap - The space between offensive linemen. Gaps are designated from the center outward, using letters. The gap between the center and the left or right guards are the “A” gaps. The “B-Gaps” are between the guards and tackles, the “C-gaps” are between the tackles and tight ends (or where a tight end would be), and the “D-gaps” are outside of the typical tight end alignment. There are also “E-gaps” which exist if two tight ends are in-line on the same side. The E-gap is the outside shoulder of the second tight tight end.

Man-gap Blocking - A blocking scheme in which linemen or a lineman are responsible for a specific defender, and coaches and analysts will typically use the phrase “hat on a hat” to describe the scheme. Typically requires larger, more powerful linemen to stand up to defensive lineman going downhill.

Zone Blocking - A blocking scheme in which offensive linemen are assigned areas to block instead of specific defenders. Zone schemes can be identified by a “zone step” in which an offensive lineman initially moves laterally before engaging a defender. The zone blocking scheme (ZBS) is more forgiving for lineman traits and can be run effectively with smaller, more athletic lineman.

Combo Block - Any block in which two offensive players work together to block a single defender.

  • ACE Block - A combination block in which the center and a guard work together to block an interior defensive lineman. More typically found in man-gap or power blocking schemes.
  • Deuce Block - A combination block in which a tackle and guard work together to block a defensive player, usually the back-side linebacker on a running play. More typically found in man-gap or power blocking schemes.

Chip Block - When a running back, fullback, H-back, or tight end briefly block a defensive player before releasing into a route. Typically called to assist offensive tackle against particularly tough match-ups, such as elite pass rushers or very wide EDGE alignments.

Reach Block - A block by an offensive lineman into the play-side gap to delay, or prevent, penetration by a defender. The lineman seeks to get an advantageous position on the defender to keep the defender from putting his hips in the gap. Ideally, a reach block will end with the blocker square with the defender and able to work upfield.

Pulling Lineman - When a lineman vacates his position after the snap of the ball to move across the offensive line and block a defender in another gap. For instance, the left guard can pull from his starting position to block a defender attacking the right B-gap. Pulls are typically used in power runs, though they can also be featured in zone plays.

Trap Block - A block in which a defender is intentionally left unblocked while most of the offensive line flows in one direction. One lineman pulls against the direction of the flow, meeting the unblocked defender and taking him out of the play. Trap blocks are designed to create a numbers advantage for the offense where the defense doesn’t expect them.

Second-level block - When an offensive lineman, tight end, or fullback blocks a defender (typically a linebacker or safety) at the second level of the defense, behind the defensive line.

Gap Run - A run based on man-gap blocking principles. These runs are designed to attack a particular gap and often feature pulling linemen to create a hole in the assigned gap for the running back to run through. These runs can be schemed to use a fullback or H-back as a lead blocker to improve the offense’s numbers advantage on the play side. Gap runs are not designed for players to cut back in order to find another gap, and doing so can disrupt the integrity of the play.

Outside Zone Run - A run to the outside of the offensive formation based on zone blocking principles. These are designed to stress and stretch the defensive line horizontally and play to the strengths of a more athletic offense. Zone runs give a runningback multiple gaps to attack and it is up to the back to pick the best one. They are designed to allow for cutback lanes and give the running back more freedom. Zone runs are typically run out of one-back sets, though they can be run out of multiple personnel packages. Zone runs are typically described with the phrase “run to daylight”.

(See Also - “Pin And Pull Guards On Outside Running Plays

Inside Zone Run - A “downhill” run between the tackles which uses zone principles of blocking an area instead of a man, as well as double-teams to create a numbers advantage. Because inside zone runs blend outside zone and gap principles, they can be easily adapted to a variety of offenses and personnel.

(See Also - “Almost Every Team Runs Inside Zone”)

Route Tree - The collection of routes run by a receiver from a particular position. Depending on the offense, a tree can be as simple as two or three routes in some college offenses or have more than 10 routes with options based on post-snap reads. Individual routes can be named, such as “Post” or “Slant”, or referred to by a number. The Air Coryell offense has traditionally used the number system.

Iso Route - A route in which a receiver is matched up on a single defender in a one-on-one situation.

Route Concept - Two or more routes run in concert with each other to achieve a desired effect. Route concepts are typically run to influence the defense, creating assignment conflicts for defensive backs, to create separation and maximize throwing windows, or to create a numbers advantage on one side of the field for the offense. Route Concepts can generally be broken down into “Man” or “Zone” coverage “beaters,” depending on which type of coverage they are designed to attack.

Progression Read - The order in which the quarterback goes through his reads for a given play. These can be full-field or half-field reads, and involve anywhere from one to five receiving options. Reads are numbered based on the desired progression by the coaches, and may not necessarily be the same order as the depth chart. In some cases the “number 1” receiver could be the second or third read behind a tight end or fullback, as required by the play design.

(See Also - “Jon Gruden teaches the Spider 2 Y Banana” )

Mesh Point - The point in a run-action play in which both the quarterback and running back have the football.

Play Action - Also called a “run-action fake”, play-action sees the quaterback fake a hand-off to the running back, only to keep the ball for a pass. Well-executed play-action forces the defense to play downhill to defend the run and can result in easy yardage for the receiver.

(Further Reading - “The Secret To Effective Play Action Passing”)

Read-Option - A play design which has the potential for the quarterback or running back to run the ball, or for the quarterback to pass. The play sees the quarterback begin to hand the ball off to the running back, but pauses to read the defense at the “mesh point”. The quarterback will complete the hand-off or pull the ball back to run the ball himself (or throw it) based on how a key defender responds to the hand-off. The quarterback will take whatever action the defender (usually a defensive end or outside linebacker) doesn’t defend. Typically, if the EDGE defends the running back, the quarterback will keep the ball and run, if the EDGE defends the quarterback, the quarterback will give the ball to the running back.

(Further Reading - “Friday Film Room: Defending The Read-Option”)

Run-Pass Option - An evolution of the Read-Option play, the run-pass option (RPO) sees the offense call both a running play and passing play at the same time with intention of putting one key defender in conflict between responsibilities. The purpose of an RPO is to speed up the offense and simplify the defense down to reading one player. The quarterback reads a key defender and executes whichever play he doesn’t defend. For instance, if a safety drops into zone coverage the quarterback hands off the ball for the running play. If the safety defends the run, the quarterback will attack his vacated zone with a pass. Basic RPO plays work best against zone coverages, but can be thwarted by the more rigid responsibilities of man coverage. More advanced RPOs attack different levels of the defense and can include man or zone coverage beating concepts, making them much more difficult to defend.

(Further Reading - Defending The RPO)

Packaged Play - Similar to the RPO (and the two can easily be confused), packaged plays feature a series of options for the offense based on the actions of the defense. A “Packaged Play” can include a running play, a screen pass, and a deeper pass, which the quarterback decides on based on how the defense responds. Packaged Plays are essentially a series of options with the quarterback eliminating options that won’t be effective based on post-snap reads. For instance, a team can begin with the option to run or pass the ball. If the defense defends the run when the quarterback and running back are at the mesh point, the quarterback will keep the ball and move on to the next option, which could be a quick pass or a deeper pass, depending on what the defense is worse-equipped to defend. If the defense drops — for some reason — drops back to defend the pass at the mesh point, the quarterback will simply hand off and the offense will run the ball.

Scripted Plays - A series of plays which are scripted by the offensive coordinator or head coach. The opening drive of a game is typically scripted during the week of practice and involves plays that the offense both executes well and are chosen to see what the defense’s response will be. The coaching staff uses the defense’s response to adjust their play calls as the game goes on.

(Note: As with our other glossaries, this is intended to be a “living” list which will be expanded upon as necessary as we go through our Summer School topics.)