American Football Strategies from the coach to the Quarterback

Matt, our Vegas-based writer offers betting tips on all American Sports each week. He has also provided this basic guide to American Football, in the form of a series. So that non-Americans can get an understanding of the game, its strategy and key teams. This is part three of the basic guide to American football. Part one covers the basics of American Football. Part two details all of the positions and their roles on the field. This article explains all of the American Football strategies and the most common tactics.

American Football: Strategies and Tactics of American Football

American Football strategies are extremely complex and evolving game blending game planning, execution and physical prowess. The largest difference between American Football and every other field team sport is the stop-and-go nature of the game. This is what makes strategy and individual play design so important. Other field sports may have offensive concepts that are reactionary to the game. The American Football strategies account for making during the game, at specific occurrences, play comes to a full stop and a precise and strategic play is called and executed. Intricate plays involving 11 synchronized players, blocking schemes, passing routes designed to deceive, screen plays, read options, pick routes, etc etc. Offense, Defense, and Special Teams all have unique strategies with the best teams being able to adjust during the game.

As complex as the game is, there are some easy fundamentals.

What is the objective of American Football Strategies?

The basic point is to score more points than your opponent.

How do you score points in American Football?

Possessing, by catch or carry, the ball in the endzone for a touchdown (7 points) or kicking the ball through goalposts for a field goal (3 points).

Where is an endzone?

It is at the end of a 100 x 52-yard field. There are 2 opposing endzones, both with goalposts.

How do I get to an endzone?

Generally, Offenses start ball possession on one side of the field, close to an endzone they are defending. They attempt to move the ball in a series of designed and isolated plays towards the opposing endzone for a score. They will oppose a Defensive squad with the responsibility to stop them. Offensive and Defensive squads play solely their Offensive and Defensive roles, something fairly unique to American football positions. Upon changes of possessions, there are full changes of squads at play stoppage.

You can’t understand game management without understanding another uniqueness of American Football, the set of downs. A team can go down the field and score in one play, but it doesn’t have to. It can acquire a new set of downs and move incrementally down the field. Starting with a set of 4 downs, or plays. A play starts with hiking the ball and comes to a full stop on completion, then a reset. The first play would be ”1st and 10” meaning this is the 1st down and 10 yards to go until a new set of downs. If that is not achieved the next play will be 2nd down, and 3rd, and 4th. If you make it past the original ten-yard marker you go back to 1st down and repeat the process down the field into the endzone for a touchdown. Achieving a first down or a new set of downs is the vital game within the game of American Football. If you ask why an Offense is celebrating in the middle of the field like they just scored a touchdown, they probably achieved a new set of downs in a crucial part of the game. One of the appeals of American Football is the amount of big plays. A long game-winning drive could have 5-8 crucial plays, and teams average 12 offensive drives in a NFL game. If the Offense does not move possession beyond the original 10-yard marker, or score, within the 4 downs it loses possession to the opposing team who would attempt to move the ball in the opposing direction in their effort to score.

Field Position is a large part of football strategy. A basic concept is to make your opponent start from the furthest point. If a new 1st down seems unobtainable a 4th down option is to punt/kick the ball down the field making your opponent start from the furthest point from your endzone.

We know the objective of the offense is to score points, and we know how they use a set of downs to drive down the field and we know they end drives with a score or a change of ball possession.

How does an American Football Strategy work on Offense?

  • Formations and packages are the start. There will be 5 Linemen and a Quarterback but the other 5 positions can be mixed. Wide Receivers, Tight Ends and Running Backs can line up in the backfield or wide out. Extra Lineman can be used in powerful jumbo formations. While a blend of those positions for any play is optimal for disguise, all receivers for a pass play or 3 Running Backs and extra Linemen for a short running play can be utilised.
  • Running the football and establishing a running game is essential for a winning football club. Generally, the Quarterback will receive the ball and hand-off to a Running Back who will follow blockers until he is tackled or scores. Running Quarterbacks are also prevalent. These Quarterbacks can do designed runs or option plays where quick defensive reads dictate if they run, pass or give to a Running Back.
  • Passing the football is a way to take up large chunks of yardage and score quickly, although it has the risk of a turnover by interception if the Defense can catch the ball. Receivers have designed routes or patterns down or across the field and the Quarterback will throw the ball to them at designated spots or when they are open. The intricate routes are specifically designed to go against defensive schemes and personnel. The best Quarterbacks and Receivers are not only the most athletic but have the highest game IQ for reading and dissecting the Defense.
  • The play can be a predetermined run or pass play or be an option play. There are several kinds, but the Quarterback has myriad options depending on the defensive schemes. There are Halfback options, receiving route options, running options etc.
  • Blocking is the essential base of Offense. The enormous linemen who battle every play in the trenches are the heart and soul of football. Blocking schemes are as elaborate as passing routes with Linemen pulling outside of the line in wide-sweeping run plays. Receivers who started running an option route that turned into a run play now have to block the defensive backs downfield. If a Quarterback makes a long throw down the field for a touchdown it’s because the blockers did their job. If a Running Back runs 80 yards down the field it will be with a convoy of blockers giving him blocks well past the line of scrimmage.

What are some basic offensive American Football strategies? How do they choose play calls in American Football?

  • A balanced attack is the best overall approach, but what is a balanced attack? It is an Offense that is equally threatening to run or pass. NFL Defenses are too good to be predictably one-sided against. The moment of indecision in a Defense is the biggest edge an Offense will ever have. From your initial personnel set a Defense can tell if you are more apt to pass with more Receivers, or to run with bigger Blockers. Having Receivers wide, pulls Defenders with them to defend against the passing threat, making it easier for the Runners to advance. Being able to fake a play to cause further hesitation from the Defense is another common tactic that draws from having a balanced attack.
  • Down and Distance dictate much play calling. On 3rd and inches, piling the line of scrimmage with your largest Blockers and Runners to push and micro-move the ball over the 1st down marker is an appealing call. On 2nd and inches a team can take a risky throw downfield for a big play knowing it has a high percentage 3rd down attempt upcoming if the play fails. Generally on 1st down a high percentage play of ball advancement is optimal to obtain a favorable 2nd down. We’ve discussed the power of options in favorable down and distance as opposed to a 2nd and 20 where an offense is forced to use long yardage plays and loses its power of foreknowledge and surprise. 2nd and short yardage is the most advantageous for the Offense due to the amount of plays at its disposal. During 3rd downs, the Offense loses its edge by having a transparent strategy. By having a definite line to reach, giving the Defense a line to defend. In 3rd and long-yardage situations a Defense can stack the marker line, guarding it heavily to force a 4th down. Generally on 4th down kicking a field goal or punting are primary options. Teams can also “go for it” and try to achieve a first down. If they fail, the opposing Offense would gain offensive possession close to their own scoring endzone as opposed to a punt. They would have good field positions.
  • Field Position also dictates offensive play calling. If an Offense is backed up to its endzone it will play safe football to minimize chances of a fatal mistake. In the middle of the field, trying a trick play or big play when danger is minimized is a safer strategy. Going for a 4th down or touchdown when inches away is a common field position-based decision while punting is used when 80 yards away.
  • Score affects playcalling as well. In defensive, low scoring, games a team will call low-risk run plays to minimize mistakes. If a team is behind several scores it will run long pass plays to catch up. A team with a big lead will play slow methodical football to keep the clock running and end the game, denying an opponent offensive opportunities.
  • Personnel and players have certain advantages that must be exploited. If you have a top Receiver matched up against a rookie Defender in a wide formation without help, you would throw to that Receiver consistently. If you are on the 1-yard line and need a score to win the Superbowl and have the biggest strongest short-yardage Running Back in the game, you would simply hand the ball off to him until he scores. Not going against elite defenders also weighs into strategy.
  • Deception is also a widely used strategy in the game of wits that is American Football. Exploiting the Defense’s lack of foreknowledge, a team could use a passing formation in a running situation. A draw play would start resembling a pass play and then run the ball while the Defense is spread out. On short yardage play the Quarterback play action fakes the handoff to the Running Back and bootlegs to the outside where an unassuming Lineman is waiting to catch the ball downfield beyond a confused defense. Defenses have to react, deception and options are how you take advantage.

Those are the basics of offensive strategy, game planning and play calling. We now know the Offense’s objective is to score points, which they do so by running plays and moving towards the endzone, making first downs in the process. We know a little about running and passing plays they call and the strategies used to decide on which play to call and how to implement them. Now we can go over their opposition, the Defense and American Football defensive strategies and tactics. Formations are the start of the Defense.

  • 3-4 Defense consists of 3 Linemen, 4 Linebackers and 4 Defensive Backs.
  • Dime Defense is a 3-4 Defense, using 6 Defensive Backs and 2 Linebackers. It is specialized for passing situations.
  • 4-3 Defense consists of 4 Linemen, 3 Linebackers and 4 Defensive Backs.
  • Nickel Defense is a 4-3 Defense, but using 5 Defensive Backs and 2 Linebackers and is used for passing situations.

There is a lot of flexibility in defensive formations. Having your best players in the game regardless of the official position title is a tactic. A goal line or heavy formation can be used in short-yardage situations. All Defensive backs can be used, Offensive players have been used in extremely long yardage, “Hail Mary Pass” situations.

Schemes are the designs of defensive assignments. Schemes dictate where a player starts the play and their post-snap responsibilities.

  • Man-to-man Defenses match up a Defensive player to an Offensive player to cover and prevent from receiving or tackling a ball carrier.
  • Zone Defenses assign specific areas of the field for Defenders to cover.
  • Blitzes entail Defenders attacking into the backfield to sack the Quarterback or tackle the Running Back for a loss.

What is the objective of American Football Strategies on Defense?

The objective is to stop the offense from scoring points, or making first downs. Tackling a ball carrier, stopping a pass from being completed or creating a turnover are the ways a Defense ends plays, and ultimately ends drives.

Analyzing the play type and design and keeping the Offense from progressing the ball, completing a pass or scoring. The Defense has all the information that the Offense has to analyse. Field position, down and distance, etc to guess what the Offense will do. Although the Offense has the element of surprise with the exact play, it must present the personnel package and formation to the Defense first as it lines up. In doing so the defense can start to decipher the play call options and narrow them down presnap. 5 Receivers and no Running Backs would lend to a passing play, a formation might tip off a play from previous drives, etc. Play calls and assignments must be given and adjusted as the chess match that is American Football begins.

What is the most important job of an American Football Defense?

  • Stopping the play. The play has been analysed and the ball has been snapped. The average Quarterback throws the ball in 2.5 seconds and it takes less for a Running Back to get the ball. The post-snap analysis and reactions must be lightning-fast. The play is stopped when the ball carrier is tackled or out of bounds, or a pass goes incomplete. Every player on Defense has a player or positional responsibility. Any misread, missed tackle or miscue could result in a score. Play is also stopped with a score or a turnover.
  • Create turnovers. Turnovers are a sudden change of possession caused by the Defense taking physical possession of the ball. This can happen by forcing an Offensive player to fumble the ball and retrieving it, or intercepting a pass. Turnovers are a powerful tool for the Defense. A Defense with more turnovers has a statistical advantage to win the game.

Can a Defense in American Football score?

Yes, a Defense can take or make a turnover into the endzone for a touchdown, both a fumble or an interception. A 2-point safety can also be awarded to a Defense in a few ways. If they can tackle an Offensive player in their endzone, an Offensive player commits a penalty in their endzone or a loose ball goes out of bounds through the endzone. 2 points are awarded to the defensive team and that team will also receive a free kick, similar to a kickoff and have their Offense take possession.

Special Teams strategies and tactics.

A minor part of the game but one that can easily decide a game with a return for a touchdown or a punt that pins an opponent in a bad field position.

  • Kickoffs start either half and after a score. The ball is placed on a tee and is kicked from one end to the other. The receiving team has a returner who can either return the ball, dictating where the Offense starts or take a touchback and the Offense automatically starts at the 25-yard line in the NFL.
  • Punts start the change of possession if a team cannot continue its drive by scoring or attaining a new set of downs. A punt returner has the same returning options as well as calling a fair catch and gives up his option to return. This is used when Defenders are close and catching the ball is risky. A punt that can pin down an Offense can change a game.
  • Field goals are kicked through upright goalposts and are worth 3 points. When faced with the end of a drive this is a scoring option.
  • Extra points are essentially short field goals and add 1 point to a touchdown. A team can also run a 2-yard offensive play into the endzone for an extra 2 points to a touchdown.

We now know the objectives of the Offense and Defense. We also know how and what plays are called and how the ball moves down the field. We know the game situations that affect the play calling and we know how the Defense can use that same information to react and defend. We know when a drive succeeds with a score or why and how it is stopped. These are basics to help you learn and enjoy a complex and strategic game of physicality and wits. The more you understand, the more you will see and enjoy. The big hits and big plays may grab you, but the strategy and nuances will hook you.