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Football 101: Definitions and Terms
By Malamute, last updated 12 April 2004

This document presents the definitions of terms used in the Football-101 section of this website (see left navigation bar). This list of definitions is a work in progress that will be updated and expanded on a regular basis.

Reference Figure 1, below, for the nomenclature used in the defensive alignments discussed within the terms and definitions.

Confused by the following football terminology, I enlightened myself by doing some googling and studying. I hope this document will be an enlightenment; however, be forewarned that I've never played football, other than the sandlot variety.

Triple option – The triple option, a three pronged attack, involves four players: the fullback, the play-side guard, the quarterback and a trailing back.

After the play is underway and the quarterback takes the snap, the quarterback looks for the play-side guard who may or not be visible. If the quarterback can’t see the guard, he gives the ball to the fullback to follow the guard up field. If the guard remains in the blocking pattern, the quarterback veers along the line of scrimmage reading the DE’s shoulders—in this case, the DE has been left unblocked. If the DE’s shoulders are not square to the quarterback, the quarterback keeps the ball and cuts inside of the DE. If the DE’s shoulders are square to the quarterback, the QB pitches the ball to the trailing back who has maintained a five-yard separation with the QB. 

Variations of the triple option include, the inside veer option, outside veer option, and midline option. Then there are the double option plays, plays run off triple option action, with variations such as the speed option (with no fake hand-off to the fullback).

Pistol Formation

The quarterback lines up four yards behind the center, which is much closer than the seven-yard setback in a traditional shotgun formation. The running back then lines up three yards directly behind the quarterback, which is in contrast to the shotgun, where they are beside each other.  (See the following link)

Wildcat formation

The Werewolf formation figuratively sucks the life's blood out of an opposing defense, while the Wildcat formation can add life to an offense. Seriously, in the Wildcat formation, the quarterback is replaced with a running back --  think single wing. The ball is snapped directly to the running back, with no time wasted handing the ball off; also, there is an extra blocker. The running back has the option to pass, making the formation even more difficult to defend. (See the following link).

Speed Option

If the pitch key (e.g., the DE above) takes the quarterback, the QB pitches the ball to the pitch back. If the pitch key takes the pitch back, the QB keeps the ball, plants his back foot and cuts vertically up field. If the the pitch key attacks the quarterback quickly, then the quarterback does not have to attack the pitch key, just pitches the ball. A benefit of the option attack is that it leaves one player unblocked, a simplifying factor.

Bubble Screen

Unlike a normal screen, in which a running back receives a short pass with offensive linemen blocking in front of him, the bubble screen uses a wide receiver receiving a pass behind a wall of offensive players lined up wide, often being other receivers and, perhaps, a tight end. (See the following link).

Spread Offense

As its name implies, the spread offense spreads a defense horizontally with the threat of an option game (double and triple options) and vertically because of the threat of 3 or 4 quick wide receivers. The spread formation features five basic runs (the zone dive; the trap; the trap option, the triple option; and the speed option). The passing game consists of play action and sprint out passes. The quarterback must be able to run and pass.

"Because an opposing defense is unable to stack the line of scrimmage with eight men due to the four and five wide receiver sets, the quarterback has a smorgasbord of options with the running game alone. You will see the quarterback run the ball himself on draw plays, traps where the offense guard will pull and be a lead blocker, and even an occasional quarterback sweep." [Smith].

The threat of the passing game forces a defense into nickel and dime packages, making it easier to run against. The offense allows teams with weaker personnel to move the ball against superior players because all of them need not be blocked.

Cover-2 – The Cover-2 defense, a response to the West Coast Offense and its short passing game, requires the two safeties to defend the deepest portion of the field, which is split in half, each safety defending half of the field, the "2" part of the defense. The three line backers and two cornerbacks “cover” the middle portion of the field, which has been divided into zones.  It’s paramount that the four defensive linemen put a strong rush on the quarterback.

Tampa Bay Defense - It all begins with a front four that penetrates quickly, forcing the offense to secure the line of scrimmage. Paying extra attention to the quick penetration allows the linebackers, who are all gifted, to roam free and make plays; the secondary lines up in a cover 2.  It’s all about speed, and speed kills. 

This defense allows the offensive coordinator to be conservative in his quest to win the field-position battle, a battle aimed at controlling the middle of the field between the thirty-fives. Once mid-field is secured, the noose is tightened, until the opposing team is helplessly driven back towards its own goal line. After that, a multiplicity of bad things can happen to it, ranging from block punts to interceptions, leading ultimately to certain defeat. 

Same in ice hockey, good teams control center ice with strong fore-checking.

Same in chess; a good chess player controls the middle of the board, i.e., the d4, e4, d5, and e5 squares.


The open spaces between players on the line of scrimmage. For example, the gap between the center and guard is called the "A" gap. See Figure 1 below.

X, Y, Z Receivers

The x receiver, or the split end, aligns on the weak side of the formation. The z receiver, or the flanker, aligns on the strong side of the formation, maybe a couple of steps off the line of scrimmage in the slot. The tight end functions as the y receiver, but often on passing plays functions as another wide receiver.

Slot Receiver

The basic offensive formation has the tackle and tight end closely positioned and receivers positioned wide near the sidelines. That leaves a gap -- a slot -- between each receiver and the line. When a receiver lines up in that gap, he is called the slot receiver.

Horse Collaring

Pulling an opponent down by the back of his shoulder pads and riding him to the ground. Horse collaring an opponent will draw a flag in both college and pro football.


The linebackers and defensive backs keep their hands off the ground, although a hand may need a “wipe” during the game (see USA’s “Monk” TV series for the definition of obsessive-compulsive behavior).

When a linebacker(s) and/or defensive back(s) joins the defensive linemen in rushing the quarterback, it is called a blitz.  One, two, three, or four of them may blitz the quarterback, overwhelming the offensive linemen. Cagey quarterbacks look for blitzes, anticipating vacant areas to throw to, maybe to a "hot receiver," such as the tight end.

Zone Blitz

In a standard zone blitz, a linebacker rushes the quarterback while a defensive lineman -- usually on the other side of the field -- drops back into pass coverage. Defensively, it can overwhelm an offense on one side of the ball and leave it with no one to block on the other side.

Traditional blitzes leave a defense short handed, forcing it to play man-to-man. Since a defensive lineman has dropped back into coverage in the zone blitz, the defense can play zone coverage.

Problems result when the defensive lineman isn’t as quick as the receiver he might cover or when the pass rush is not as effective because of his absence.


An offensive play in which the quarterback fakes a handoff to a running back, then sprints out in the opposite direction, looking to run or pass.

Play-action Pass

In play action, a quarterback fakes a handoff to running back while he's dropping back to pass. The quarterback hopes to slow down the defensive rush and force the defensive backs to make a wrong decision, hoping for them to come up to help stop the run.

Skinny Post

Wiley Post was a skinny Post, but he's not involved in this play. Any pass-receiving route that is directed towards the goal posts is called a “post pattern.” For example, a receiver may run down a sideline before angling towards the middle of the field, which in the case of a post pattern is defined by a vertical swath (the width of the goal posts) running from the line of scrimmage to the attacking goal posts. In a skinny post, or a “glance,” the route is shorter in length and quicker than a deep post, which may cover 30 or 40 yards. A color announcer may refer to the skinny post as a "glance in" or a "bang eight." (See Wikipedia for diagram)

Computing a hypothetical per game offensive line efficiency rating

Since the offensive line is arguably the most important positional unit on a team, a way of measuring its performance efficiency is needed.

Otherwise, as they say, the quarterback gets too much credit for winning and too much blame for losing.

Our hypothetical measure is a function of a team's passing efficiency rating, its rushing yards per carry, its rushing touchdowns, its offensive line's penalty yards and its sacks allowed. That is,

OLE = PEO + YPC * X + RT * Y - OLPY - 5 * SA

Where PEO = pass-efficiency offense; YPC = yards per carry; x and y = normalizing numbers; RT = rushing touchdowns; OLPY = offensive line penalty yards; SA = Sacks Allowed

UW Offensive line efficiency = 189.08 + 2.9*20.57 + 0*5.09 - 25 - 10 = 213.733

Cal Offensive line efficiency = 118.7 + 1.9*20.57 + 1*5.09 - 25 - 20 = 117.873

(*) The normalizing numbers X=20.57 and Y=5.09 were chosen so that YPC plus RT would be equivalent to a Passing Efficiency Rating of 100. X and Y are the averages for the Pac-12 stats involving YPC (X = 90/4.375) and RT (Y = 10/1.96) for the 2013 season. The numbers 90 and 10 were chosen so that YPC would have more weight in the computation than RT; the numbers 4.375 and 1.96 are the Pac-12 averages for YPC and RT. To guard against a meaningless rating resulting from a limited number of carries, the normalizing number x needs to be restricted. For one, if the number of carries is less than z then set x=1, with the value of z yet to be determined. Alternatively, the value of the factor ypc * x could be controlled in a similar way to the limits placed on the NFL's passer rating computation.

More specifically, the equation for OLE is a function of 10 metrics:

Pass attempts (PA)

Pass completions (PC)

Yards passing (TY)

Number of passing touchdowns (TD)

Number of interceptions (I)

Yards per carry (YPC; sack yardage figures into the calculation)

Rushing touchdowns (RT)

Offensive line penalty yards. (OLPY)

Sacks Allowed (SA)

The values for x and y (Pac-12 averages for the 2013 season)

The complete equation is as follows:

OLE = (TY*8.4+PC*100+TD*330-I*200)/PA + YPC * X + RT * Y - OLPY - 5 * SA


Man-to-man Coverage

This defense involves a defensive back who covers a receiver individually (one on one), with no one to help him out if he gets beat, usually a cornerback in that case.

Off Tackle Running Play

We used to run this play in the school yard. Gil Dobie, Washington's unbeaten coach (59-0-3; 1908-1916), worked on off-tackle plays in practices until the cows came home and ate all the grass off Denny Field, leaving it a field of rocks and mud. Basically, the tailback runs to the strong side, where the tight end lines up. A hole is created by the tight end, the tackle and the fullback, who leads the play. The fullback's job is to take out the outside linebacker, giving the tailback room to run.


A defensive alignment, whereby the defensive player aligns outside-eye to outside-shoulder of the tackle. (See Figure 1 below).


Like a 5-yard offside penalty. However, defensive contact is made with the offensive player before the snap.

Pass Efficiency Rating

A measure of the quarterback's effectiveness in the passing game. To determine pass-efficiency ratings points, multiply a passer's yards per attempt by 8.4; add the number obtained by dividing pass completions by pass attempts, multiplied by 100; add the number obtained by dividing touchdowns by pass attempts, multiplied by 330; and subtract the number obtained by dividing interceptions by pass attempts, multiplied by 200. A passer rating of 100 or better is considered terrific in the NFL. A rating of 158.3 is considered perfect in the NFL. However, certain percentages in the NFL are capped, although the same measures are used. The NCAA formula is shown below.

ER = TY/PA*8.4 + PC/PA*100 + TD/PA*330 - I/PA*200,
where TY=total yards; PC=pass completions; PA=pass attempts; TD=touchdowns; I=Interceptions, and ER=Efficiency Rating


Example: Cody Pickett’s stats as of 20 October 2003.

256 attempts
148 completions
8 interceptions
57.8 pass completion percentage
1913 yards
10 TD


Pass efficiency rating is 127.2 

NFL Formula:

Note: Each bracketed value below is capped at 0.0 (min) to 2.375 (max);

Total = [((100 * PC/PA) – 30.0) * .05] + [((TY/PA) – 3.0) * .25] + [20 * TD/PA] + [2.375 – (25 * I/PA)]

ER = Total / 6.0 * 100

Nickel and Dime Packages

A convicted criminal may receive a sentence ranging from a nickel to a dime (5 to 10 years). In football, nickel and dime packages refer to the number of defensive backs employed in an obvious passing situation, when the offense spreads the defense with receivers. The nickel package adds a fifth defensive back (called the nickel back), usually a cornerback. Six defensive backs comprise a dime package.

Free Safety

This sounds like a form of birth control, but it is not. A defensive player who lines up deepest in the secondary. He defends the deep middle of the field and seldom has man-to-man responsibilities.

Strong Safety

This sounds like...forget the joke. Like the free safety, the strong safety also plays deep, but he usually lines up on the same side as the tight end and has more responsibility in the run defense. A strong safety usually is bigger and more physical than a free safety.

Cut and Chop Blocks

A cut block involves a block below the knees, most often used by offensive linemen against defensive linemen and linebackers. Two players double-teaming a defensive player, one blocking high and one blocking low is called a chop block, which is illegal because it can lead to injury.

Trap Block

As its name implies, a defensive player is baited and then trapped. He is allowed through the offensive line only to be blocked by another player behind the line, usually a tight end, who is often put in motion on a trap block so that he gets to the area behind the line of scrimmage where the defensive player is coming through the line. On a "trap play," the running back attacks the hole left by the vacated lineman.

Zone Blocking

In zone blocking schemes, the offensive linemen team up to protect an area of the field, particularly against teams that stunt or slant to a defensive gap on the snap of the ball. Because of the myriad of defenses an offense is likely to face, it is necessary to reduce blocking to its simplest elements rather than have a blocking scheme for every defense that an offense might face. Hence, the introduction of blocking rules and the concept of team blocking. For example, a tackle and guard may team up to block a linebacker and defensive tackle, the blocking scheme for each offensive player depending on whether the linebacker and tackle play straight up or the linebacker stunts inside. Zone blocking depends on the concept of team blocking, and its principles are built by getting movement off the line of scrimmage, blocking all gaps and seams, and securing an area to the play-side of the hole.

Underneath Coverage

A defensive scheme in which one or more linebackers drop back into pass coverage, but the safeties remain positioned behind them. If a defense is playing underneath coverage, the quarterback's passing lanes may be filled and he will have to dump the ball off to a running back.

Weak-side and Strong-side

Weak-side refers to the side of the line of scrimmage opposite the alignment of the tight end, while strong-side refers to the side of the line of scrimmage whereby the tight end is positioned. The right side of the formation in Figure 1 below would be called the strong side, providing the player "LE" was aligned to create a marked "C" gap between himself and the left tackle (LT).

Red Zone

The area on the playing field between the opponent's 20-yard line and the opponent's goal line, an area where the offense is expected to score a touchdown or at the least, a field goal. Statistical percentages involving red-zone offense and red-zone defense provide analysts with a strong measure for rating the quality of a football team.

Recursive Formation

See recursive formation. (Just a dumb joke for Geeks who like football, the Geek/liking of which may be an oxymoron).

Tenets of the West Coast Offense

-- According to Bill Walsh, in the ideal setup, the wide receivers would catch 15 passes a game, the running backs would catch 10 and the tight ends would catch 5. A team is looking for 25 first downs a game. These quantities are referred to as "Walsh's numbers."

-- Short-to-medium-range passing attack. Receivers are expected to "Run After Catch."

-- Players must have more discipline; they have little opportunity for freelancing.

-- Use the pass to set up the run. The most successful WCO teams run the ball well.

-- If a team gains 7-8 yards per run, it can run as little as one out of four plays; otherwise, the WCO calls for an equal number of running and passing plays.

-- The quarterback must be mobile, be able to throw a touch pass with accuracy, and be intelligent. He must throw on rhythm and timing. As Steve Young says, "In contrast, the West Coast offense as it originated with Bill Walsh is any play or set of plays that tie the quarterback's feet to the receiver's route so there is a sense of timing."

-- In the 2-WR, 2-RB, 1-TE base set, any of these five players can be the primary receiver at any given time.

-- Defenses are given a variety of looks, with an offense attacking a defense with more receivers than it can cover. Mismatches and confusion are created on defense by using 2 TE sets, 4 WR sets, and 3 WR sets, etc.

-- Using motion forces a defense to cover players with inappropriate players for coverage, i.e., it creates mismatches.

-- Throw the football on any down or distance.

-- To maintain ball control, short passes to the tight end and swing passes to running backs are key. Use tight ends who can catch better than block if there is a question of personnel. Tight ends are key to a red zone attack.

-- The quarterback must be able to release the ball quickly and accurately on timing after a 3-step drop. Receivers run precision routes. The offense is designed to keep the quarterback healthy.

-- After the QB drops 3-steps back, one of the receivers should be open to catch a pass if necessary. Ron Jenkins calls him the HOT receiver.

-- Power running behind zone blocking to minimize negative yardage plays. This is a departure from the 49ers version of the WCO that used man-blocking and cut blocks and misdirection.

Figure 1. The defensive nomenclature used in this document. (This figure is patterned after Diagram 3-1, Chapter 3, "Coaching Football's Spread Offense," Tim Sowers, Barry  Butzer).



[Smith]. Smith, Brian, "Defining Utah's Spread Offense," September 15, 2003.

Richard Linde (a.k.a., Malamute) can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com