NFL Offensive Strategies Explained

There are a ton of offensive strategies in the NFL, so why not study up on our terminology to get a better grasp of the formations and strategies used by NFL teams. New football fans have their work cut out for them, but even longtime diehards can use some sharpening up with the NFL back in town. This will cover some basic and common offensive strategies used in the NFL. Some might be obvious, while others you might recognize but still be a bit confused about what it literally means.

Empty Backfield – The empty backfield is an offensive formation used by NFL teams when they want to spread the defense thin and pass the ball. There are no running backs or extra men in the backfield behind the quarterback. There can be up to 5 wide receivers in the empty backfield formation. With so many men spread around the field, the defense is forced to spread out as well, which either leaves playmakers in one-on-one coverage they can exploit or in a zone coverage where they might not be picked up at all.


The Shotgun – Shotgun is an offensive formation that’s actually more common in college football than in the NFL, however has been used a great deal in recent years by many teams, including the New England Patriots. In shotgun, the quarterback is not directly behind the center but rather is about 5 yards behind him. Typically, a running back will be at approximately the same depth as the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. The shotgun formation has several advantages, including giving the quarterback a better view of the defense and allowing him more time and space to escape from pressure. A downside to the shotgun formation is that it can be difficult to effectively run the ball.


The Hail Mary – The Hail Mary is an offensive play used when a team needs a prayer. Typically only done at the end of a game or the end of a half with no other options, the Hail Mary usually starts out of shotgun and sends multiple receivers all the way down the length of the field, to the farthest distance the quarterback can throw. Commonly there will be three or four receivers bunched up on one side and one receiver on the opposite side, freeing him up to be left in single coverage. If thrown to the busy side, the offense basically hopes for some tips and reflections that allow a receiver to luckily escape with the ball. The offense also hopes for a defensive pass interference penalty that moves them up the field, for even with no time on the clock, the NFL allows one further play following a defensive penalty, giving the offense a scoring chance. Defensive players are taught to keep their hands off the players and to not attempt to intercept the ball, but just knock the ball to the ground. The term was first coined not in the NFL but in the college football game, following Doug Flutie’s miracle play while at Boston College in 1984.


The Draw Play – The draw play is the rare type of running play that is most commonly used out of the shotgun formation. The offense initially shows that they are passing the ball, by not handing the ball off right away, running pass routes and pass blocking. After this setup, the ball is then handed off to a running back that now hopefully has more room to run against a defense that reacted to a pass play. The offense hopes it has drawn the defense down the field to open up the designed run.


Quarterback Draw – A quarterback draw is a variation of the draw play where the quarterback will run the ball himself. This is used in short yardage situations and goal line situations and is used more often by NFL teams who possess a duel threat quarterback, such as Vince Young.


Play Action PassThe play action pass is the offensive strategy opposite of the draw play. The draw play hopes to fool the defense into reacting to a pass, opening up space to run. The play action pass hopes to lure the defense into charging up to stop the run, leaving room downfield for open passing lanes. At the snap, the quarterback drops back and tries to sell a handoff to a running back, who then begins running as he would normally with the ball. If successful, a few extra yards of space will open in the middle of the field where the linebackers should have been, leaving room for a successful passing opportunity. The master of the play action pass, which largely depends on getting the defense to believe in what you’re doing, has been Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts.


Screen Pass – The concept of a screen pass can be thought of as taking cues from both the draw play and the play action pass. Like the draw play, you want the defense to be expecting a down the field passing situation. At the same time though, like the play action pass, you want the defense to charge in, leaving space to pass the ball. In essence, the screen pass is a short pass, thrown just to about the line of scrimmage, to a speedy and maneuverable player. The offensive line, instead of staying in pass protection, releases to the side of the field the pass will be thrown to. This gives a full line of blockers in front of the receiver, or a screen, promising a potentially huge play if done properly. Many things can go wrong, including penalties for the offensive line being too far downfield too quickly. The riskiest aspect of the screen pass however is that the offensive line leaves the quarterback unprotected, meaning he has to be able to get rid of the ball before the defense collapses on him completely. Many NFL teams use the screen pass to various degrees of the success, with the best teams having refined the play to have perfect timing and blocking.


The Dump Off – A dump off is an offensive strategy used at every level of football, including the NFL. The dump off is a quarterback’s safety valve on a passing play. Specifically, a running back will stay towards one side of the field, either at or behind the line of scrimmage. The quarterback may have checked all of his other receivers and found they were covered, or he may be under heavy pressure from the defense, forcing him to get rid of the ball sooner than he wanted. Either way, he dumps the ball off to his waiting man as a means of cutting his losses and trying to make something positive out of the play. If forgotten about and left uncovered, the player may have a huge amount of open space ahead of him to advance the ball. This play is alternatively called a check down.


North-South – The term North-South is used in NFL football to describe a style of running. North-South means that a running play is designed to go straight down the field, as opposed to going to either side of the field. It also means the play won’t have any cutbacks or changes of direction. The play heads straight down the field vertically, and so it is referred to as North-South. Teams in the NFL like the Denver Broncos commonly deploy only North-South running plays to great success, relying on the offensive line to make one hole and the running back to surge forward through it quickly.


Between the Tackles – A North-South running play will also be a running play between the tackles. This literally means the play takes place in the space on the field between the left tackle and right tackle of the offensive line. Between the tackles running can be more difficult, with more defenders (and bigger ones) crowded between the lines. So this type of offensive play is used with larger, sturdier running backs that can barrel through the mess of players. Jerome Bettis was a prototypical between the tackles runner, while nobody would mistake Reggie Bush for being one.


Man in Motion – A man in motion describes the offensive strategy used whereby before the snap of the ball, a player changes his position on the field. This is done for several reasons, including confusing the defense, forcing the defense to reveal its coverage and changing blocking and protection schemes. A wide receiver for example may be signaled by his quarterback, typically with a lift of his leg during the snap count, to run to the other side of the field. If a defensive man follows him, the defense has shown itself to be in man-to-man coverage. If nobody follows him, the defense is in zone. Alternatively, a defense may be showing a heavy blitz to one side of the formation. The quarterback might then send a tight end or running back over from the opposite side to aid in blocking. Other uses for the man in motion include giving a wide receiver a head of steam prior to the snap, allowing him to quickly advance with the ball or get downfield into an opening.


The End Around – The end around is a type of offensive play based upon the speed and quickness of a wide receiver. Often times, an NFL team will use a special teams or defensive player with great speed in this situation. In an end around, a wide receiver runs behind the line of scrimmage to take a handoff from the quarterback, proceeding across to the opposite side of the field. By the time he hits the line of scrimmage he should hopefully be at full speed and be a bit ahead of the defense. An end around play often starts with a man in motion.


The Reverse – A reverse is similar to an end around, however in a reverse play, the quarterback first hands the ball off to a running back as normal. The running back then hands off to the wide receiver going in the opposite direction, hence reversing the momentum of the play and hoping to catch the defense overcommitted to the other side of the field.


The Double Reverse – Offensive strategy in the NFL is a constant game of trying to outthink the opposition. In doing so, more and more teams turn to the double reverse for an occasional trick play and attempt to catch the defense unprepared. The play begins with a reverse, and then has the addition of a second wide receiver running the opposite direction as the first. The first wide receiver hands off to the second, again reversing the direction of the play, this time back to the original side of the field. However, these plays have become more predictable and easy to sniff out in the NFL and many result in losses or small gains from well schooled defenses.


The Rollout – The rollout is an offensive play used where the quarterback will leave the pocket of his pass protection and head towards a side of the field rather than dropping back and waiting. This is done most often in the NFL with quarterbacks who are fast and athletic, such as Steve Young and John Elway in their primes. While running to one side of the field, the pass routes will be designed to the same side of the field, so the quarterback does not have to throw across his body and across the length of the field. If nobody is open, the quarterback can turn the rollout into a running play and head downfield himself for a gain. The goal is to make the defense choose between covering the receivers or stopping the quarterback’s run. A confused or indecisive defender will get stuck in no man’s land, neither covering the receiver nor stopping the run, leaving room for a big play.


The Bootleg – The bootleg is often confused with the rollout and with good reason, there is really only one difference between the two offensive strategies. A bootleg first has the quarterback fake a handoff to a running back going in the opposite direction. He then heads to the side of the field and again can choose between run and pass, forcing the defense to make a decision about how to cover the play.