How A Quarterback Reads The Defense

Cody Royle
Feb 10, 2014 · 8 min read

In the movies, they make it look easy. But a quarterback does so much more than just call a play and throw the ball. Of all the things they’re required to do, the most important is reading the defense. Here’s how they do it.

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Peyton Manning recently put Omaha, Nebraska on the map by using the city’s name as a pre-snap call 44 times during a nationally televised playoff game. He used it so much it was trending on Twitter.

But what does it all mean? Asked to explain, Manning responded with :

“I know a lot of people ask what Omaha means…Omaha is a run play, but it could be a pass play or a play-action pass, depending on a couple things: which way we’re going, the quarter, and the jerseys that we’re wearing. It varies, really, from play to play. So, there’s your answer to that one.”

— Peyton Manning

Every team is different and will approach play calling differently with unique terminology and plays depending on a myriad of possibilities. What Manning is getting at in his light-hearted response, is that ‘Omaha’ doesn’t mean what it meant yesterday. This article will generalize, but it will give you an appreciation for why quarterbacks receive so much praise in the sports world. It’s part knowledge, part trickery.

The Play Call

An NFL play book contains pages and pages of drawn up plays that can be added or removed from the weekly game plan. A majority of the weekly planning revolves around scouting the opponent’s defense, scouring over game film looking for tendencies, formations, weaknesses. On top of match-up analysis, every other possible impact must be taken into consideration: are we playing at home or away (will crowd noise be an issue?) Is the opposition’s defense missing an All-Star? Are we missing one of our starters? What are our other players capable of? Are we playing on the sunny west coast, or the snowy north-east?

By the time most of the team reports back for duty on the Wednesday after a game, the quarterback has been working with the coaches for two days and has fine tuned next week’s game plan. Plays are decided upon based on exploiting perceived weaknesses, exploiting the strongest offensive plays and which players we think will be available this week. These plays are contained on those laminated cards that you see coaches holding, usually over their mouths on the sideline. It looks something like this:

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In game, the Offensive Coordinator is usually responsible to relay each play to the quarterback through his in-helmet ear-piece. The team gets 40 seconds between plays which includes the time allocated to select a play, interchange players, call the play and get set up. Players with a green dot on the back of their helmets have an earpiece in their helmet that allows them to hear the call. The quarterback then calls the play to the rest of the huddle along with the snap count.The verbiage of a play call is designed to inform the offensive players of where to line up, and their task for that play as well as when the center is going to snap the ball.

Football For Dummies breaks down a play call:

Everything the quarterback says in the huddle refers specifically to the assignments of his receivers, running backs, offensive linemen, and center. For example, the quarterback may say “686 Pump F-Stop on two.” Here’s how that breaks down:

  • 686: The first three numbers are the passing routes that the receivers — known as X, Y, and Z — should take. Every team numbers its pass routes and patterns, giving receivers an immediate signal of what routes to run. On this play, the X receiver runs a 6 route, the Y receiver an 8 route, and the Z receiver another 6 route.
  • F-Stop: Refers to the fullback’s pass route.
  • Two: Refers to the count on which the quarterback wants the ball snapped to him. In other words, the center will snap the ball on the second sound.

Most teams snap the ball on the first, second, or third count unless they’re purposely attempting to draw the opposition offside by using an extra-long count. For example, if the quarterback has been asking for the ball on the count of two throughout the game, he may ask for the ball on the count of three, hoping that someone on the defense will move prematurely.

The Pre-Snap Read

After calling the play in the huddle, the quarterback walks to the line of scrimmage in assessment mode. He’s analyzing the play that’s been called vs. how the defense lines up — is the theory of the play acceptable when compared to the anticipated defense? The film study throughout the week helps him understand the defense’s tendencies, but he’s also synthesizing real-time information available to him on the sideline via photographic print outs. Remember, the opposition defense has spent all week preparing for the offense too, so they are trying to exploit certain things about the offense and may be implementing something not visible in the game film the quarterback watched.

For a much more in-depth, higher level checklist that the quarterback will go through, smartfootball.com break is down here.

Step One: Once everyone is lined up in position, the quarterback scans the defense for immediately available information. Which defenders are lined up on my receivers? Where are their weaknesses? Is our stud receiver lined up against a rookie defender? Who is the first receiver I’m going to try to pass to? Are they in a zone defense or man-to-man coverage? Have they guessed our play correctly?

Often, you will see the quarterback point and say something like “54 is the Mike” which means that number 54 is the middle linebacker. That helps the offense understand who is responsible for blocking who.

Step Two: survey the safeties, of which there are generally two lined up at the very back of the defense, in the middle of the field. The safety positions are just that, a ‘safety blanket’ as the last line of defense. For a quarterback, they are also the best clue to what type of defense the opposition has on the field.

If the safeties are close to the line, the defense is more likely to be anticipating the offense to run the ball. If the safeties are back further, they’re anticipating a throw and they don’t want to be beaten deep. To complicate matters the quarterback needs to consider that the safeties are disguising what they’re actually planning to do.

Safeties act as a ‘safety blanket’ for a defense.

Step Three: Do I run the called play, or audible to another play?

If the defense looks to have guessed correctly what the offense is doing, the quarterback can ‘audible’ or completely change the play to another pre-determined play. If the defense is anticipating a run, the quarterback may either re-direct the run to the other side of the field or change to a pass play. There can be slight adjustments made as well, such as changing the quarterbacks drop-back from 3 steps to 5 steps, or changing the way the offensive linemen block. Sometimes, it’s all just smoke and mirrors and nothing actually changes at all.

As Pat Kirwan notes in his book Take Your Eye Off The Ball:

“Teams have a hot sheet of audibles (with the ‘hot’ colour changing each quarter to prevent the opposition from knowing what is real and what is fake), and when the quarterback barks out the hot colour at the line, he’s changing the play to something on that numbered menu. For example, if it’s the third quarter, blue might be the hot colour. You might hear something like this: “Red-22. Red-22. Check. Check. White-30. White-30”. In that case, nothing is changing. It’s all just subterfuge because the quarterback never called the hot colour.

But if the players hear, “Red-22. Red-22. Check. Check. Blue-23. Blue-23,” the rest of the offense knows an audible is on. The first number might be a dummy signal or it could communicate the snap count. Hearing “Blue-23” tells the offense that the play is changing, that the snap count will be on 2, and the new play will be number 3 from the audible hot sheet.”

Another way to find clues about the defense is to move one of your receivers, referred to as ‘motion’. This could be pre-determined as part of the play, or spur of the moment depending on how the defense is lined up — or whether the quarterback judges that he needs additional blocking support. By sending a receiver in motion, the quarterback can identify whether a defender is attached to that receiver, which also helps identify blocking schemes.

Step Four: Who is coming at me?

After all of this information has been gathered, the quarterback lastly tries to uncover which defenders are going to be trying to tackle him, or ‘pass rush’. He needs to make sure his blockers know who he thinks might be coming and make sure he has enough protection to adequately block what could end up being seven or eight defenders.

All the while, the play clock is viciously counting down from 40 seconds.

The Reality

Once the center passes the ball through his legs to the quarterback, it’s game on! There are endless possibilities of how each play could pan out and the quarterback still has to carry out the physical parts of the game. Both teams may have guessed completely wrong, or created enough of a diversion that they’ve successfully tricked the other side into believing something that’s not going to happen. The reality is that the hours of preparation only help to a certain point, the rest needs to play out on the field.

A quarterback receives all the plaudits when the team wins and all the negativity when they lose. They get paid the highest salaries but also endure the most scrutiny and spend days off watching film. It is the most mentally demanding position in all of sports and we haven’t even discussed the actual play, all we’ve done here is what happens before the ball is live.

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Originally published at codyroyle.com on February 10, 2014.

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