The Battles Along the Line of Scrimmage

8 Feb

OL - neutral zone (Matt Pasant)

Football is conflict. This conflict is no more evident — or violent — than in the battles along the line of scrimmage where strength and positioning — what coaches call “leverage” — often determines the winner.  Here among the down linemen – the guys in a three-point stance — there are no Davids; there are only Goliaths.

That which separates the combatants is a no man’s land.  It is a swath of turf called the neutral zone.  No one, except the offensive center, can intrude upon this sacred ground and him only because he must handle the ball to snap it.

In terms of dimensions, it is as wide as a football is long: about 11 inches.  Each tip of the football is a coordinate in separate lines of scrimmage that stretch from sideline to sideline: one for the defense, and one for the offense.

neutral zone (wacko)
(Neutral Zone)

“Moving the sticks” — that is to say, to make first downs and move the ball towards an opponent’s end zone —   involves three forms of attack: running the ball, the play-action pass which is a pass play that starts out looking like a run, and passing the ball.   Of the three strategies, the run is universally considered the most important.  It sets up everything else.  And, when successful, it is the best way to demoralize an opponent.

For starters, if an offense can run the ball, defensive linemen can’t tee off and attack – or “rush” — the passer.  They must anticipate or “play” the run first.  Secondly, the defense must play closer to the line and load the box — that is, position more players closer to the offensive line to stop the run which, in turn, opens the back end of the field to an attack from the pass.

box (flickr.com-svobodat)

The Box is jargon for the defensive front and refers to the defenders — usually the defensive linemen and linebackers   — who are positioned close to the offensive line.  In the picture above there are six   defenders in the box.  When a defense “loads the box”, it is putting seven to nine players in the   defensive front.   

The key to running the ball is “push”.  The offensive line must move or “drive” the defensive line backward, off the line of scrimmage.  If they can do that consistently, they will dominate the line of scrimmage and the offense can then run the ball, leading to a balanced attack between all three forms of attack.

But if they can’t get any push, the offense will have difficulty integrating the play-action pass into its attack.  As a result, it will be forced to rely almost exclusively on the pass which will make it one-dimensional and easy to defend.  Even the pass happy offenses of the no-huddle variety must run the ball once in a while.

Defenses, meanwhile, are trained to stop the run.  For the defensive lineman, the key to winning his individual battle is to get off the block of the offensive lineman.  The faster he can throw his hands into his counterpart, the more force he will generate and, for him, force translates into control.

neutral zone (wacko)

The key to running the ball is “push”.  The offensive line must move or “drive” the defensive line backward, off the line of scrimmage.  If they can do that consistently, they will dominate the line of scrimmage and the offense can then run the ball, leading to a balanced attack between all three forms of attack.

But if they can’t get any push, the offense will have difficulty integrating the play-action pass into its attack.  As a result, it will be forced to rely almost exclusively on the pass which will make it one-dimensional and easy to defend.  Even the pass happy offenses of the no-huddle variety must run the ball once in a while.

Defenses, meanwhile, are trained to stop the run.  For the defensive lineman, the key to winning his individual battle is to get off the block of the offensive lineman.  The faster he can throw his hands into his counterpart, the more force he will generate and, for him, force translates into control.

Action_Pass Pro2 (TNrick)

The defensive lineman wins in a stalemate   situation because he has not been moved off the line and is still in a position   to make a play on the ball.

The offensive line will engage the defense or “fire out” on the snapcount.  That is the signal the quarterback calls for the ball to be snapped and put into play.  To move defenders or prevent their penetration into the backfield, the offensive line will use a variety of blocking techniques and schemes.

In a running play, the types of blocks most often used are the drive block which is a one-on-one, man-on-man block; the double team where two offensive linemen work together to crush a defender; or the zone block in which  offensive linemen work in tandem to block whoever shows up in their area of responsibility.

Blocking (benostrander)

In the run play picture above, you can   see the three types of blocks mentioned in the previous paragraph:1 – Double team
2 – Drive Block
3 – Zone (or Combo) Block

Pass blocking, however, is entirely different from run blocking.  Instead of attacking a defender and moving him, the offensive lineman is basically catching and channeling him away from the quarterback who is setting up in the backfield, looking to throw the ball.

Because of the angles it creates, much of pass blocking depends upon the depth at which the quarterback sets up to throw the ball.  In this situation, the key for any offensive lineman is not to allow a defender to penetrate through an inside gap as it is the shortest distance to the quarterback.

gaps (flickr.com-MECU)

Gaps are the spaces between offensive   linemen. In relation to an offensive lineman’s position, the inside gap is   the one closest to where the ball is on the ground, before it is snapped.  Line   splits refers to the distance between the offensive linemen. 

Often, pass protection when performed as designed will look like a semi-circle or cup — what is routinely called a pass pocket.

Action_OL pass pocket (Atlanta_Falcons)
(Pass Pocket or Cup Protection)

A defensive lineman, meanwhile, attacks on the movement of the ball.  He doesn’t — or shouldn’t be — listening to the quarterback call his signals or he can, and often does, jump offsides because of it.

Prior to the snap, he is focusing on some part of the offensive lineman opposite him — probably the helmet — so that, at the snap, he can quickly analyze if the play is a pass or run.  If the offensive lineman’s helmet or “hat” stays low at the snap and he fires out, the play is most likely a run.  If it rises and he retreats, then it is generally a pass play.

OL - high hat (MustangMarkF)

The defensive linemen (dark jerseys) are   attacking the offensive linemen who have risen up from their stance —   “high hat” — and are preparing to pass block.

To shut down the run, defenses assign a defender to each gap created by an offensive formation.  Each defender is then responsible for protecting his assigned area from attack by the offense.   This is called “gap integrity” or “gap control”.  To maintain gap discipline, defensive linemen will either “read-and-react” or “read-on-the-run”.

“Read” means analyze.  In the one scheme, a defensive lineman analyzes the play while engaging an offensive lineman.  He then reacts to it by shedding the blocker and pursuing the ball.  In the other, he analyzes the play while he’s attacking a gap.  His goal is to penetrate the offensive backfield and put immediate pressure on the offense.  The differences between these two philosophies will usually determine where a defensive lineman lines up and how he plays his position.  (See Is it a One-Gap or Two-Gap Defense?)

In a read-and-react scheme, the defensive linemen are generally lined up on an offensive lineman or “head up”.  This is because they are routinely responsible for the gaps on either side of the lineman over which they are aligned.  Whereas, in a read-on-the-run scheme, the DL linemen will be off-set like in the picture below in what is called a “shade” alignment.  This allows them to attack and penetrate their assigned gap with a minimum of resistance.

shade (aggieyell-northgate forum)
(Shade)

The tactics a defensive line can use to attack an offense will often include stunting.  A stunt or “game” as some coaches call it generally involves two or more defenders who line up in one position then, at the snap of the ball, attack some place else.  Essentially what the defenders involved in a stunt do is trade assignments so as to confuse the offensive line and disrupt its
blocking scheme. While these tactics are expected and countermeasures are developed and practiced, they nonetheless add to the great difficulty of playing offensive line.

OL battle (hectorir)

The action in the area between the offensive tackles and threes yards on either side of the ball is called close line play because everything is up close and personal. Even the heinous crime of clipping — that is blocking from behind — is legal except not below the knees.

Close Line Play

Though the battles along the line of scrimmage are routinely described as war and its participants as combatants, we rarely watch the action between the O- and D-lines.  For on a stage 100 yards long and 53 yards wide, it is the more visible and more glamorous running backs and receivers who are elevated to star status.

But coaches and players alike both know that the true heroes, the real warriors, are found in the length of a football, in the 11 inches of turf that separate the offensive line from the defensive line.

It is there, in what has been called the “trenches” where the most violent struggles occur; where the strongest and the swiftest prevail.  In those duels between titans, it is the player who has leverage — who is in a better position to move his opponent — who usually wins.   And it is the team whose linemen win most of the battles that determines the outcome of a game.

For if any constant emerges from football’s elegant geometry and simple physics, from the blur of bodies in motion, it is that the team that controls the line of scrimmage is the team that usually wins the game.

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