The Smart Football Glossary

Football is bathed in jargon. Other sports have their wonky terms but anyone who even casually watches a football game is bombarded with a cascade of code words, while even experienced fans usually can’t make heads or tails of what coaches and players say to each other on the sidelines. Some of this is inherent in a game made up of a few seconds of action interrupted by breaks for communication. And the phenomenon of platooning — where offensive players don’t play defense and vice versa — creates additional opportunities for coaches and players to communicate, and, like any other pressure filled profession, from the armed forces to medicine, communication in these circumstances is condensed so that the most information is conveyed in the fewest syllables.

wordcloud1All too often, however, discussing even the most rudimentary and fundamental football concepts is needlessly offputting, something exacerbated as too many announcers and analysts use streams of buzzwords to sound intelligent without actually conveying any information (something I try very hard to not do, though undoubtedly with inconsistent success). Unless you’re sitting on an NFL sideline trying to tell your position coach what the defense is doing, you are better off using as little jargon as possible and instead trying to explain what you see in English.

But in football, terminology is often destiny, and some terms have become so ingrained that being familiar with them is critical for any intelligent fan; on the other hand, others have become so misused that using them actually deters rather than enhances understanding. The goal of this football glossary is simply to unpack a limited set of football buzzwords in a way that will make watching games on Saturday and Sunday more enjoyable. The important thing, however, is not to focus on the terms but instead on the explanations: if we’re all on the same page with those, the names we given the underlying ideas — whether you call it Smash, China or Shakes — what we end up calling it is simply detail, not substance. I’m sure your high school coach had his own name for each of these below.

Arm Talent: A notorious bit of scout-speak that is either a pseudo-scientific way to describe something obvious (“That quarterback has a strong, accurate arm”) or an extremely clumsy way to describe something better served with colloqiual english (“He has the ability to throw the ball from different angles to avoid oncoming rushers and still find an open throwing lane through which he can deliver the football”).

Bang 8 Post: A particular version of the “skinny post” or “glance” routes, the “Bang 8” or “Bang 8 Post” was developed by former San Diego Chargers head coach Don Coryell and calls for the receiver to run seven-steps straight downfield before breaking inside at an angle. The particular angle the receiver takes, however, depends on the leverage of the defender covering him: the receiver’s job is to take whatever angle is necessary to ensure he is between the quarterback and the nearest defender. (“8” is the number for a post in the Coryell route tree, see “Route Tree” below.) “Bang” indicates that the route is not thrown as a deep bomb but instead is a rhythm throw thrown by the quarterback on rhythm as soon as he hit the fifth step in his dropback. Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin of the Cowboys ran the Bang 8 better than anyone in NFL history:

Banjo Coverage: An adjustment to man-to-man pass coverage where the defensive backs pick up the closest receiver if the receivers criss-cross at the snap. Think of it as a “switch” in basketball.

Blitz: A tactic where the defense rushes the quarterback with five or more defenders. At one time there were different words for different sorts of blitzes — “red dog” meant the linebackers rushed up the middle, while “blitz” usually referred to a rush from a defensive back — but now blitz is the catch-all term. “Blitz” is limited to where a defense rushes five or more defenders to differentiate it from a “stunt,” where a defense only rushes four or fewer but adjusts where those players will come from and at which angles.

Bunch Formation: Any formation where receivers are aligned closely together, often just a yard or so apart. (Also known as “Cluster” formations.) The idea is to pack receivers in closely to make it difficult for defenses to match up with them man-to-man as not only do the receivers typically line up close together they frequently criss-cross after the snap, before scattering in various directions. One defensive response is to resort to “Banjo Coverage” (describe above), but often defenses will simply check to a zone defense when faced with bunch formations. This in turn frequently lets offenses call zone beating pass concepts from bunch sets, confident in the look they will get. The image below shows a “trips bunch” set, but any formation with multiple receivers to a side can be bunched, and in some circumstances even runningbacks and tight-ends can form part of a bunch set.


Bubble Screen: A bubble screen is a screen pass thrown behind the line of scrimmage to a receiver who runs an “arc” or “bubble” path towards the sideline while one or more other receivers block for him. Bubble screens are constraint plays and thus should only be thrown if the offense has a numerical advantage — three receivers versus two defenders, for example. The bubble screen is not, however, every every quick receiver screen. If the receiver doesn’t “bubble” his route, it’s a different play — a “now” or “fast” screen — but it’s not a bubble screen.


Check Release: A pass protection assignment whereby a tight-end or runningback first checks the defender(s) he is responsible for in pass protection and, if they do not rush the quarterback, then releases into the pass pattern. It allows an offense to get five receivers into a pass pattern if the defense does not blitz but keeps him in to protect if the defense blitzes.

Cloud: A defensive call made to indicate that a cornerback is responsible for the flat versus a pass and is the primary outside force defender against the run, and that the near safety is the deep defender.

Constraint Play: An offensive play whose primary purpose is to take advantage of a defender “cheating” out of position, as opposed to a “base play” which works best on the assumption that the defense plays its assignments as drawn up; a constraint play helps base plays work by forcing defenders to play honestly or else they give up easy yards, but they are not plays you would want to use against a sound defense playing a base defense. Examples of constraint plays include bubble screens, draws and bootleg passes — they work best when a particular defender cheats for the run, overpursues one way or sells out to drop back to pass too early.

Field/Boundary: Synonyms for the wide and short side of the field when the ball is aligned on one hashmark or the other. In college football, where the hashmarks are wider than they are in the NFL, many defenses set the strength of their defensive fronts and personnel to the field side, rather than to the actual strength of the offense’s formation.

Fire Zone: The most common type of zone coverage played in connection with a Zone Blitz, in which the defense plays with three deep and three underneath zone defenders.


Gap: The space between the offensive linemen and tight-ends in the offense’s formation, which defenses focus on as potential running lanes and pass rush lanes. Note that an offense can “create” a gap by pulling linemen from one side to the other or inserting a lead blocking into an existing gap. Almost all NFL and college teams categorize these by letter:


Gap Control (one-gap and two-gap defenses): Defenses must control an offense’s running game, and they do so by having a coordinated method of controlling the gaps the offense creates by its formation and blocking scheme, known as Gap Control or also their “Run Fit”. Most modern defenses are either primarily one-gap or two-gap defenses. In a one-gap control defense, defenders attack a specific gap and try to penetrate into the backfield and disrupt. In a two-gap defense defenders are (initially) responsible for controlling both gaps on either side of a blocker, something they accomplish by controlling the blocker to clog the running lanes free up the linebackers to find the ballcarrier. In short, one-gap defenders attack gaps while two-gap defenders attack people.


There are advantages and disadvantages to each. Two-gap defenses are better against the run, but the technique reduces the aggressiveness of a defense’s pass rush. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has explained that he prefers a one-gap approach because “we don’t want to sit and read the play like you often have to with ‘two-gap’ principles.” In his one-gap defense, his defenses “attack into the gap at the snap, get off the ball to play on their side of the field and get after the quarterback.” One-gap defenses don’t have much margin for error, however. According to Carroll, “the big problem with any ‘one-gap’ approach however is that it allows a ball carrier to get into the secondary if one guy makes a mistake.” Of course, even a two-gapping defensive lineman will eventually choose a gap based on how the offense is trying to block him and where the ball goes. He will eventually pick one gap or the other, and try to eliminate the gap he didn’t choose by depositing the offensive linemen in it to clog it up.

Gap Exchange: A gap (or scrape) exchange is a defensive tactic in which two defensive players exchange the gaps they are responsible for in a gap control defense — usually the C and D gaps — to confuse a quarterback’s option read. This tactic has been around since at least the 1960s when option football rose to prominence. (The fact that it has been around for 50 years means we will shortly be told that this tactic was invented by NFL coaches in 2013 specifically to stop the read-option.)


Invert (or Sky): A defensive call which indicates that a safety has aligned or moved to a position close to the line and is responsible for support or contain versus the run, while the nearest cornerback is responsible for deep coverage.

Inverted Veer: A read-option play where the runningback and quarterback “invert” typical veer option assignments by having the quarterback a sweep path to the outside. The quarterback reads the playside defensive end to decide whether to hand off to the runner on the sweep or keep it himself. Typically, the play is blocked using “power” blocking with a backside pulling guard. The first team I saw using it was TCU against Clemson in September of 2009.

Cam Newton made the play famous at Auburn in 2010, and in 2012 the 49ers, Panthers and others made good use of it in the NFL; 49ers runningback LaMichael James scored a touchdown on the inverted veer in the NFC Championship game against the Falcons. This play is also sometimes known as a “Dash Read.”

Man Clue: A defensive coverage term where a defender is responsible for playing a receiver man-to-man if he runs vertically at least some threshold number of yards, usually between seven-to-nine. If he instead runs a route shorter than that the defensive back drops into a zone or picks up a different receiver.

Middle of the Field Closed (MOFC): This is a general term for all single defensive coverages which feature a single deep safety in the middle of the field. It’s a useful term for offenses because it’s not always clear whether it’s zone (Cover 3) or man (Cover 1), or some other hybrid coverage, but the fact that there’s a deep middle safety still tells you a lot about the defense, both the number of defenders in potential run support (i.e., a potential eight man front) as well as the number of potential blitzers.


Many pass progressions and even the routes themselves are keyed to whether or not the defense is in MOFC or MOFO (see the definition immediately below). If it’s MOFC then maybe the quarterback works the pass progression to his left which is designed for both Cover 1 and Cover 3, while if it’s MOFO he works to his right where the routes are designed for Cover 2 or Cover 4. Also, MOFO versus MOFC is useful for receivers because it can be extremely hard for them — from their limited vantage point while running up the field — to tell the difference between coverages, but they can determine if the defense has a deep middle safety (so maybe he breaks his route off or stays up the hash) or the middle of the field is open (so he takes his route deep down the middle). Below is an example of a defense that starts with two safeties but shifts post snap to one middle safety.


Middle of the Field Open (MOFO): The flip side of middle of the field closed, this refers to any defense where the middle of the field is open. Technically this also applies when a defense is in Cover 0 with no deep safety (and straight man-to-man blitz), typically teams think of defenses with two split safeties.


When offenses see teams in MOFO structured defenses they typically know they have a lighter box to run the ball against and the outside receivers are being jammed at the line with safety help over the top. However, many defenses show MOFO structures but the safeties are in fact read or even robber players who can fit close to the line against the run, and the famous Tampa Two defense features the middle linebacker running deep down the middle to take away many schemes designed for middle of the field open defenses. As always, it’s a cat and mouse, but it’s still a very useful way to group coverages, particularly for young quarterbacks and for receivers adjusting their routes.

Over (Front): The more “traditional” 4-3 formation with four defensive linemen and three linebackers, the 4-3 Over was used most famously by Jimmy Johnson, first at the University of Miami, where it was crucial to shutting down the wishbone (and hence why many coaches still refer to it as the “Miami 4-3 Over”), and later with the Dallas Cowboys, where it proved just as adept at stopping pro-style offenses. Below is an image from current Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s playbook from his time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1990s:


And below you can see an example from Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks defense. Note how each defensive lineman and linebacker is aligned over a specific gap. Subject to specific defensive calls, blitzes or stunts, each will be responsible for controlling that gap. See “Gap Control” above.

SEA-4-3 over

Packaged Play: An offensive play where two or more concepts — such as runs, screens or even downfield passes — are combined into the same offensive play by having different players execute different tasks, while the quarterback determines whether to hand off, keep it himself, throw a screen or throw downfield as the play requires. Defensive coaches frequently complain that offensive linemen often get too far downfield on these plays as they are often executing a run block even when the ball is thrown downfield (in college football linemen may be three yards downfield when the ball is thrown; in the NFL they have one yard).

Pattern Match Coverage: A type of pass coverage where defenders read the releases of particular receivers and, depending on who guys where, then become man-to-man defenders. Clear? Here’s how Nick Saban explained a few years ago:

You can play coverages in three ways. You can play zone, man, or pattern-match man. Pattern-match man is a coverage that plays the pattern after the pattern distribution. That means you pick up in man coverage after the receivers make their initial breaks and cuts. We number receivers from the outside going inside. If the number-one receiver crosses with the number-two receiver, we do not pick up the man coverage until they define where they are going.

There are lots of variations of pattern match coverages, with Quarters being the most famous but Nick Saban’s “Rip/Liz” match being another, to say nothing of other varieties with names like Bronco and 2-Read. The theory is to avoid the obvious issues with straight man-to-man coverage without leaving your defense exposed to the open throwing lanes that plague traditional zone coverage.

Personnel Groupings: Most teams use a two-digit system for categorizing an offense’s personnel. The first digit refers to the number of runningbacks and the second the number of tight-ends — the number of wide receivers is implied and the existence of a quarterback is assumed. The most common personnel grouping in the modern NFL is 11 personnel.


Pistol Formation: A variation of the shotgun alignment where the quarterback shortens his depth to four or four and 1/2 yards while the runningback aligns directly behind the quarterback. Unless the runningback is directly behind the quarterback, it’s not a Pistol formation, it’s just a shotgun with an offset back (even if the runningback aligns deeper than the quarterback).


Pistol Offense: A fully developed offensive system which uses a variety of complementary plays from the Pistol Alignment — in other words, no one actually uses the Pistol Offense except for Nevada under Chris Ault. By contrast, most NFL teams that use the Pistol, like the Redskins and 49ers, simply sometimes run certain read-option plays from a Pistol formation. [Footnote: Chip Kelly, at the Fiesta Bowl press conference last January: “[I] don’t run the Pistol Offense. That’s not what we do. Chris Ault at Nevada invented the pistol offense. Just retired. Great football coach out there. There’s a lot of ways to play football. Pistol, don’t know that very well. We’re more of a spread-run team.”]

Read Option: A redundant but nevertheless increasingly standard name used to describe an offensive tactic where (1) a quarterback is aligned in the shotgun (including but not always a Pistol Formation) and (2) the quarterback extends the ball to a potential runner (a “mesh point”) and reads (hence the name) a defender to determine whether to hand the ball off or keep it himself (at which point he may have further options). Although on a Read Option the quarterback will often read a defensive end, he may read any defender the offense chooses not to block. A “Zone Read” is a type of Read Option which uses zone blocking. (A play where a quarterback does not decide whether to hand off or keep it himself but instead whether to keep it himself or pitch — such as a Speed Option — is an “option” but is not a Read Option.) There is no Read Option “formation”, and not every play from the pistol or shotgun is a Read Option.

read option

Robber Defender: A pass defender, typically a safety or linebacker, who sits at an intermediate level and reads the quarterback’s eyes to “rob” any pass routes over the middle, such as curls and crossing routes. This concept can be used with single-safety man-to-man defenses (“Cover 1 Robber”) or defenses with two-deep concepts, so the specific techniques may therefore vary, but the key is for the robber defender to read run, screen or pass and to let the quarterback’s eyes take him to the receiver. Also known as a “Rat,” “floater” or sometimes (though rarely) a “lurk” defender.

Route Tree: Typically, a route tree is a system of organizing a receiver’s potential pass routes by placing them over top of each other and giving each potential break a different number, rather than a name. Offenses run by coaches in the “Coryell” family, named after San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell — think Norv Turner and Mike Martz — had a good reason for this as they called their passing plays using a three digit route tree system: “894” might tell the split end to run a post, the tight-end to run a seam or “9” route and the flanker to run a curl. Most teams, however, have gone back to calling their plays through one or two word calls that tell each receiver what to do, but the idea of a route tree lives on because — in football where everything must be renamed — a curl route cannot simply be a Curl, it must be a 4, and a corner route must be a 7 and a Go route must be a 9. In most route trees, in-breaking routes are even numbers while outbreaking routes are odd numbers. Of course, if you have more than 10 routes you have to go back to using names. Below is an example of a route tree from from one of Mike Martz’s St. Louis Rams playbooks from the Greatest Show on Turf era:


Sam, Mike, Will: The strongside, middle and weakside linebackers are rarely referred to by their full names. Instead coaches and players — both offensive and defensive — refer to them by single-syllabic mnemonics such as “Sam” (strongside linebacker), “Mike” or sometimes “Mac” (middle linebacker) and “Will” (weakside linebacker). These designations are almost entirely standard in modern football, though when Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry pioneered the 4-3 defense with the New York Giants in the 1950s, he referred to his linebackers as “Sarah,” “Meg,” and “Wanda.”

For 3-4 teams that use four linebackers, the term for the fourth linebacker is far less standard — “Jack,” “Ted,” and “Buck” are among the names teams use.

Spill: A technique in which a defensive player attacks the blockers — and hence the ballcarrier — from the inside out to force the ballcarrier to run laterally, thereby “spilling” the play into the waiting arms of the linebackers and secondary run support defenders.

Spread Offense: A term rendered almost completely meaningless. It made some sense in the early 2000s, as there was often a stark contrast between teams that based out of two-back formations and teams that used three or four receivers on most plays, but now even so-called “traditional” or pro-style offenses use formations and personnel groups once considered “spread”: 11 personnel (one tight-end and three wide-receivers) is the most popular set in the NFL, and in college even Alabama is primarily a one-back offensive team, though they frequently use two tight-ends. Further, some so-called “spread offenses” primarily run the ball while using a variety of read-option plays, while others throw the ball 50 times a game and use no designed quarterback runs. And, ironically, many of the NFL teams now using the read-option are doing so from very non-spread formations with extra tight-ends and fullbacks, yet many try to apply to them the “spread offense” label. It’s simply too vague to be useful.

Tampa Two: The actual definition of Tampa Two is that it is a hybrid pass coverage popularized by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where the defense aligns as if to play a traditional two-deep or “Cover 2” Zone but in fact drops the middle linebacker deep down the middle to a depth of 18-22 yards, thus transforming the defense into a type of three-deep zone. The definition you will hear more commonly, however, is that every defense coached by Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith or Monte Kiffin is Tampa Two.


Tape: As in, “I watched the tape.” At one time, football games — like everything else recorded — were recorded onto tapes. Nowadays, unless you’re elderly, essentially no one watches football games — or anything else, for that matter — on “tapes.” Tape is usually the word chosen because it makes the speaker sound more knowledgable than had they said, “I re-watched the game on YouTube/NFL Game Rewind.”

Technique (Defensive Alignment): In football, “technique” typically refers to two different things. One is the everyday meaning of the term, i.e. the manner in which a task is performed. The second meaning, however, is exceptionally important for understanding and categorizing football defenses, as it refers not to what defenders do but rather where they line up. Like many other things we take for granted in football, the popularity of terms like “three-technique” and “five-technique” can be traced by to former Alabama coach Bear Bryant. As Bryant explained in his 1960 book, Building a Championship Football Team, he sought for years upon a system for numbering defensive alignments to easily and quickly communicate the “many different defenses” he wanted to use (circa 1950-1960!). He got the system which is now standard at every level of football from a “Texas high school coach” — O.A. “Bum” Phillips, who would eventually become head coach for the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints. Below is a diagram from a playbook of Wade Phillips, Houston Texans defensive coordinator — and Bum Phillips’s son:

DLine techniques

Note that certain teams and coaches will have slightly different approaches, but most follow Phillips’ model: even numbers refer to alignments which are “head up” on the offensive linemen or tight-ends — i.e., directly across from them — while odd numbers are “shade” techniques where the lineman will be offset to a lineman’s outside or inside shoulder. Linebackers use the same system, except they will add the number “0” to the end to signify that they are off the line slightly. For example, a linebacker lined up on the offensive guard’s outside shoulder is in a “30 technique.”


  • Noun — The fastest form of a hurry-up no-huddle, e.g.: Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury: “When we say ‘tempo offense’ we’re trying to get the ball snapped as many times as we can in a game.
  • Verb — The act of strategically using the no-huddle to put pressure on the defense, e.g.: West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen: “When we tempo’d and started going faster we limited what they did.”

Throwing a Receiver Open: A technique where a quarterback is taught to throw the ball to a spot away from coverage to draw the receiver to the open area. A common example comes on corner routes where a receiver will make his break at 45 degrees but it’s up to the quarterback to “throw the receiver open” by, for example, throwing it between the corner and the safety versus Cover 2, flattening out the receiver’s route against soft coverage or throwing it high and upfield against press man.

Trap Play: One of the most underutilized schemes in football, a trap involves a running play where the offense deliberately doesn’t block a defender at the point of attack — thus allowing the playside linemen to get double teams or head to the second level to block the linebackers — while a linemen from the opposite side pulls and blocks the (often unsuspecting) defender from the inside out. (Contrast this with a “Wham” play which works the exact same way except the block is coming from the outside in.) Great versus aggressive, penetrating (one-gap) defensive linemen. (Hat tip to Field Gulls for the great gif below.)


Under (Front): Probably the most popular front in the NFL and college football, the “Under” can be thought of as either an “undershifted” 4-3 front (hence the name) or as a “reduction” 3-4 front, where the weakside defensive end and linebacker reduce their alignments towards the playside. The Under was most famously used by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1990s under Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin and, at the college level, the great Southern Cal teams coached by Pete Carroll, a Kiffin disciple. Below is an image from Kiffin’s Tampa Bay playbook describing the Under:


The front’s popularity is simple: it’s great against most runs because it, with the strongside linebacker lined up on the line, presents basically a five-man front, and, according to Carroll, is “the best overall front to use to rush the passer” — a powerful combination. It has become increasingly popular as teams have moved to more hybrid defenses that uses elements of both 4-3 and 3-4 personnel. As Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees explained before the Super Bowl, “we are 3-4 personnel but a lot of the times the front that we play is a 4-3 front” — the 4-3 Under.

Ravens 3-4 Under

In the Ravens scheme, linebacker Terrell Suggs played the “LEO” or “Elephant” hybrid defensive end/linebacker. But no matter the personnel, it’s still a 4-3 Under look.

Zone Blitz: A tactic where the defense rushes the quarterback with five or more defenders and plays zone coverage, as opposed to man coverage, behind it. That is all it is. Dropping a defensive linemen into a zone does not mean it is a zone blitz if the defense is only rushing three or four defenders.

Zone Run Blocking: A full explanation requires much more space than is available here, but at core zone run blocking is a set of run blocking principles which should allow the offensive line to (a) account for the defenders in the box, regardless of where they are lined up and (b) maximize the number of double teams at the point of attack. The misconception about zone blocking is that the line simply blocks the defender in their area, a misconception partially created because “zone” is in the name. In almost all zone blocking systems, if an offensive lineman is covered — meaning there is a defender across from him — his primary job is to block that defender. The zone aspect comes in from “uncovered” linemen without a defender directly across from them. They will create the double team on the defensive linemen, until one of the two offensive linemen can slide up to the linebacker. Below is video of former Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach Alex Gibbs describing the outside zone as run by Terrell Davis:

The other advantage of zone blocking — and a big reason why it is the most popular blocking scheme in both the NFL and college — is that it can be used from a variety of formations and sets, whether they are traditional two-back tight-end formations or from one-back spread formations.