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Recent posts by Eli Kaberon
Part One of a three-part series
For a game with such a simple premise — put the ball across the opposing team's goal line — football has a great amount of complexity. The game's evolution in the century-plus since it was first played has added to the confusion, bringing on new positions, on-field movements and strategy. With those adjustments have come new terms to describe it all, creating a dictionary almost as long as the 110-yard field, the length the sport was played on until 1911.
Pro Football Weekly has decided to compile some of these complex terms and break them down, providing a meaning to the words that announcers and writers sprinkle into their analysis but aren't universally known. This isn't Football 101; if you don't know how many points a safety is worth or what a handoff is, this may be out of your comfort zone. This is for the people who spend their Sundays watching games, and the other six days of the week thinking about them, but don't understand everything they hear or read.
First up is the offense, including a breakdown of common routes run by receivers and what it means when a team is lined up in the "Wildcat."
A change of the play at the line of scrimmage, usually done by the quarterback. This can be due to the personnel on the field — perhaps the QB thinks a run will work better than a pass because a backup linebacker is playing — or because the defense is showing a formation that can be taken advantage of. For example, Peyton Manning will often hurry up to the line with plenty of time on the play clock, then see what the defense is playing before deciding to call the original play or audible to a different one.
A combination pass-and-run play where, following the snap, the QB immediately throws the ball to a wide receiver behind the line of scrimmage. This is done to utilize the open-field abilities of skilled wideouts, as well as capitalize on defensive backs who play far off the line of scrimmage, leaving room to run on screen passes.
An area of the field between the hash mark and sideline, usually within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Quarterbacks will generally look to throw to the flat as one of their final options if none of their downfield receivers is open, because the short throw is typically a safer one to make. The term has nothing to do with the surface of the field.
A combination fullback and tight end, responsible for run and pass blocking, as well as running short receiving routes. The H-back will often line up in the backfield, disguising to the defense whether the play will be a run or a pass. An example of an H-back is Chris Cooley of the Redskins.
When expecting a blitz, offenses often will use as many blockers as possible to ensure their quarterback has time to throw. Instead of using four or five players as eligible receivers, backs and tight ends will stay in to block, leaving usually only two receivers out on routes. By giving their QB a chance to throw, the offense hopes that a receiver can find some open space in the defense.
A series of nine downfield routes that every offense in football runs. Former Redskins and Texans GM Charley Casserly explained that the tree is a way for quarterbacks and wideouts to be using the same terms when calling a play.
"All the routes have numbers, and in practice they go through the passing tree, working on all the routes," said Casserly, who now works as an analyst for CBS Sports and NFL Network.
The routes are:
Quick out (1): Receiver runs about five yards and then cuts to the sideline to catch the ball.
Slant (2): Receiver takes a 45-degree angle across the middle of the field.
Out (3): Similar to a quick out, but deeper. Receiver usually cuts to sideline 15 yards downfield.
In (4): Same length as the out, but receiver cuts across the middle of the field.
Flag (5): Receiver runs 10 yards, then cuts back toward the sideline and line of scrimmage to make the catch.
Curl (6): A shorter version of the flag, the receiver runs eight yards, then turns around for the ball.
Post corner (7): A deep route, with the receiver running straight down the field for 15 yards, then cutting at a 45-degree angle toward the sideline.
Post (8): Same as the post corner, but instead of angling toward the sideline, the receiver cuts through the middle of the field.
Fly (9): Receiver runs straight, using speed to get behind the defensive backs and catch the ball.
A passing play that is initially disguised as a run. Instead of dropping back immediately and looking for an open receiver, the quarterback will fake as if he is handing the ball off to a running back but instead hold on to the ball and then throw. This is done to keep defenses on their toes when they are expecting a run and are surprised by the fake. The opposite of this is a "draw," where the QB drops back, pretending as if he were to throw, and the back who appears to be blocking takes the handoff and runs.
Instead of having the quarterback under center, the shotgun formation moves the QB five to seven yards behind the offensive line. This allows quick-thinking signalcallers like Drew Brees more time to avoid the pass rush and throw the ball downfield. Some teams opt to avoid the shotgun; they believe it is too difficult to run out of the formation and thus choose for a more traditional set that allows for a more balanced offense.
An extremely short throw, usually to a running back, that the offense hopes will produce a lot of yards after the catch. Shovel passes are often thrown sidearm, and the goal is that the back can catch it while running to continue his momentum.
Popularized in the college game, the spread offense has a goal of putting fast receivers in one-on-one, open-field matchups vs. slower linebackers and safeties. Greg Cosell, an executive producer for NFL Films, says that defenses have begun to counter the spread with blitzing, since blockers are often replaced by receivers in the offensive lineup. So, while the benefits of the spread come from the skill-position players on the outside, its success is predicated on the linemen inside.
"Spread offense in the NFL ultimately becomes a function of your ability to protect the quarterback," Cosell said. "When you have three wide receivers and you have either two backs or a back and a tight end, that allows you to have seven-man protection, which means you can handle, from a numbers standpoint, any pressure package.
"The way teams think about it is this: If you have seven to protect, you can handle any pressure. Once you start with six or fewer to protect, then you can be beaten by pressure."
A trick formation, often referred to as a "package," that moves the quarterback from under center to out wide, and in his place, a skill-position player (usually a running back or wide receiver) takes the snap. Teams that utilize the Wildcat will typically run the ball out of it to take advantage of the added speed on the field, but occasionally they will pass to confuse the defense.
X, Y, Z receivers
This is play-calling terminology for the pass-catching players on the field. Most wide receivers are X receivers, also known as split ends. They line up outside, on the line of scrimmage, and are usually matched up against cornerbacks. The Y receiver is usually the tight end, who will line up alongside the offensive line and can be covered by a linebacker or defensive back. The Z receiver, also called the flanker or slot receiver, will line up a yard or two behind the line of scrimmage, usually between the X receiver and the offensive line.
If there's a term we've forgotten or one you just can't understand, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and we may include it in an updated version.
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