We’ve seen too many stories about men like Murdock, about death and lost hope. About the end of a life that can’t help but be seen in the context of player safety or the looming machine that is the NFL and all it represents, or as another sobering reminder of why the league launched a new health and wellness program just days earlier. If his role as a football player had some part in him taking his life, I hope we recongize it and this recognition expedites our ability to prevent future tragedies.
And if his passing is unrelated to sport and there was something self-destructive in him that evaded recognition and led him to bring his life full-circle at the same school where he was once a star, I hope still that this will lead to at least a modicum of good. Losses like this can’t be undone, but they can be softened when remembered for the benefit of others.
Let’s wrap up Line Lingo with an offensive focus. If you’ve watched a recent New England Patriots game, you probably noticed Tom Brady going to the line of scrimmage screaming “Number XX is the Mike!” In this situation, Brady is likely pointing out the central defensive player for his blockers. Identifying the “Mike” or “zero man” is the first step in figuring out exactly who is blocking who.
Depending on how a defense lines up, different offensive linemen can be responsible for blocking different players. Most offenses, from K-12 to the pros, use numbering systems to figure this out. Most of the systems are pretty similar. Some coaches prefer angled blocks, others prefer double-teams, and others prefer head-to-head fights on the line of scrimmage. Despite these preferences, offensive lineman usually have to block players fairly close to them, so the blocking schemes have many common points . If you’ve ever played line, there’s a good chance you could crack just about any playbook and recognize the basics pretty quickly.
Figuring out blocking assignments usually starts with the center. Since this position is in the middle of the offensive line, the center has the best view of the defense. Also, the other linemen can all quickly (and with balance) make their calls after the center. The center’s target is generally a player lined up in front of him or slightly to one side. It also depends on the type of play and where the ball is going; a pulling center, for example, would block someone further down the line.
The identification is made by pointing and shouting “zero man” or “Number XX is the Mike.” The picture below shows a typical area of responsibility for a center where any defender in or touching the shaded box is a likely candidate for being blocked. Having depth to the box is important because even in the 3-4 example below, the center may briefly hit or completely bypass the defensive tackle in front of him in order to pursue a second-level linebacker that’s the primary target.
When the guards hear this, they’ll know who’s left for them to block; they can point to their guys and call “one” or something else marking their target, if needed. Then the tackles can call their man, and the tight ends call theirs. Slide the shaded box in front of any lineman and you’ll get a normal area of responsibility for many plays and many schemes. For a straightforward run play against an odd front, the numbers might look something like this:
The angles aren’t always perfect, so offensive linemen will cooperate and assist each other in blocking defenders. During a combination block, two linemen will get the same defender; the primary blocker will stay on this man, while the second blocker will slide off to find his own target. There are many kinds of combination blocks; in fact, the zone/doo-dad schemes I discussed before relies on combination blocks. Linemen also have to change their assignments based on who the backs might be responsible blocking. If a play has the fullback blocking the Jack linebacker, the defensive end or Will ‘backer might be the left guard’s assignment.
As a defender, knowing who’s trying to block you can be an advantage, though not much. The center could be responsible for a middle linebacker on anything from a QB sneak to a Hail Mary. Offenses will also use fake identifications and plays that run against tendencies to make the defense honest. Identifying just how you’ll block somebody is a little easier to use against you, so you’ll see linemen take more caution in this regard, e.g., a fold block (where one blocker loops behind another to get a better angle) works much better if the defense doesn’t see it coming.
But what about Tom Brady? Why does he identify the Mike? The clue here is that he usually makes this call while in shotgun. When making a shotgun snap the center has to look away from the defense. When the center is looking away, the defense will often shift men around to confuse the offenses blocking schemes. The Giants do this a lot. Their movement forced Brady to help the center with his calls during the game. The Giants also recognized weaknesses in the Patriots’ blocking schemes as plays unfolded; this, coupled with their ability to confuse New England, helped them contain the normally high-powered Pats offense in two Super Bowls.
A “front” is traditionally defined as all of a defense’s players who are positioned close to the line of scrimmage. This definition of “front” is used interchangeably with “defense” in both general discussions and coaching circles, and occasionally will be used to mean only the down linemen. For our purposes here, I’ll be flexible with how I use the word.
The classic “eight-man front” would have eight defenders in the box. A front’s name can also delineate the number of linemen and linebackers: a “3-4” front/defense would have three linemen and four linebackers in the box. A defense that’s in an “over” or “under” front is telling you how the linebackers and defensive linemen position themselves relative to each other and the strength of an offense. An “odd” or “even” front is a front that has either an odd or even number of defensively linemen.
The odd/even distinction is a pretty basic reference you’ll hear on broadcasts and press conferences, though there’s some subtleties that might not be apparent at first. When I say that odd fronts use an odd number of defensive linemen, the most common arrangement is three down defenders. The defense you’re most likely to see use an odd front is the 3-4, though 3-3 defenses are used in college with regularity (and occasionally in the pros), and 5-2 and 5-3 defenses are still pretty common on high school teams.
The 4-3 is easily the most common defense to use an even front, though high schools still run pure 4-4 defenses, and many teams use six-man lines during short-yardage situations. Even fronts almost never have a lineman over the center, and when they do, it’s usually done as part of shifting around to throw off an offense’s blocking scheme.
Like most things on defense, linemen are instructed to arrange themselves according to how the offense first sets up. A defensively lineman can align directly in front (or “head-up”) of an offensive lineman or in the middle of a particular gap. They can also align with more specificity; they’re often instructed to set up so that, for instance, they’re looking at the guard’s inside shoulder, or they’re halfway in front of a lineman and halfway in a gap.
In keeping with our lingo theme, defensive coaches have come up with shortcuts for communicating these alignments. A particular alignment is called a “technique.” Saying “technique” instead of just “alignment” never quite made sense to me, since it leads to pseudo-tautologies like “Do you know what your technique (i.e., way of playing) is when you’re playing this technique (i.e., alignment)?” The more specific alignments that are made relative to an offensive player’s shoulders or legs are often called “shades.” “Inside” shades position the defender closer to the ball, while “outside” shades position the defender away from the ball.
The most common way of defining techniques is a numbering system Bum Phillips (defensive guru and father of current NFL defensive coordinator Wade Phillips) developed, which was later popularized by Bear Bryant. In the Phillips techniques, the interior defenders can align themselves either in the middle of a gap or directly in front of an offensive player. It works a lot like the gap system in that the areas a defender can align to are duplicated from the center outwards:
In the diagram above, a “zero-technique” nose tackle will play head-up over the center, a 1-technique will settle in the center/guard gap, etc. In the odd front example at the start of this article, the defensive tackle (or “nose tackle”) is in a zero-technique, and the defensive ends are in 4-techniques.
Even a zero-technique can shade the center, though that’s usually called relative to whichever arm the center snaps with (which is the center’s weakest side), or as a very mild alteration to help set-up a blitz or line stunt. Other teams will modify the basic technique numbers to refer to shades, e.g., a 1-technique might require that the defender always align on the guard’s inside shoulder, as opposed to setting-up directly in the center of the A-gap. Some teams will have several ways you can shade a player.
The evolution of the game has been for two-gap defenses that spend a lot of time lined-up directly across from an offensive lineman to favor terminology reflective of the Phillips playbook. Single-gap defenses, though, have moved mostly to a system where everything but a zero-technique is a shade of some sort; even in Bear Bryant’s system in the 1950’s, all the techniques past “4” were shades.
To accommodate all these variations, the technique numbers were changed and appended. Odd numbered techniques are outside shades, while even numbers are either head-up, or have a designation like the letter “i” to note an inside shade.
The more complicated systems have more designations, meaning that a single technique that might be described as “just barely inside the left tackle” might be described as a “4i-loose” technique. I think this complicated scheme is fairly rare these days because of the diminishing returns such subtle shifts provide in comparison to the extra coaching and attention on the field they require.
Why are shades so important in the first place? Two-gap defenders put themselves at a disadvantage in controlling one gap or the other if they line up in a shade. Single-gap defenders, though, need to balance their ability to control or blow-up a gap while protecting themselves from being double-teamed. A shaded technique makes it easier to beat the lineman nearest the defender, while still maximizing the ground a second offensive lineman would have to cover to make a successful double-team. Playing shades also means linebackers in the second level have a better awareness of which blockers can reach them easiest. Finally, when defensive linemen slant or loop around each other, or loop/slant to open a path for blitzing linebackers, the few inches of extra space afforded by shades can be the difference between success and failure.
Teresa Sullivan was reappointed to her post as President of the University of Virginia. If there’s anything to gather from this, it’s that she’s more empowered in all aspects then ever before. With the national championship, bowl affiliations, and conferences seemingly settled for the time being, though, the development doesn’t have the importance to football that it might’ve had otherwise.
The More Things Change…
Speaking of bowl affiliations and the likely coining of a new “NCS,” doesn’t it seem like the Big East just can’t catch a break?
With the off-season doldrums at their peak, it’s a good time to review the vocabulary that’s fundamental to understanding how football plays work.
Coaches need special lingo to save time. Short forms of terminology not only mean less talking on the coach’s part, but when the lingo is understood by the player, all sorts of symbolic associations are made that can load even more information into a simple word or phrase. The most basic example of this in football is how the spaces between offensive players are named.
For all that’s changed in football, line of scrimmage and receiver eligibility rules are pretty constant (and when they are challenged, such as by the A-11 offense, the rules catch-up and supersede any rebellious innovations.) This means that for decades, the concept of an offensive line has been as much a staple of football as blocking and tackling. Because it’s been around so long, the terminology for defining the space occupied by the linemen—the “tackle box”—is nearly as old.
The small patches of open ground between offensive linemen are the most critical spots on the field. An offense that controls these spaces can run the ball at will or keep its quarterback upright and free of grass stains. A defense that can control them, on the other hand, can stuff the run and harass an opposing passer. These spaces are so important and so frequently used that it was an early innovation in the sport to give them specialized terminology. To understand why, let’s picture a running back in the pistol formation who is carrying the ball to the right of his center:
If you were to describe this without compressed terminology, you might say something like “the halfback hits the right-side space between the guard and tackle.” It’s a mouthful, especially in a time-constrained huddle. To get around this, offensive coaches began assigning unique, fixed numbers to each of these spaces, and then referred to the spaces themselves generally as “holes.” Using the hole-system, the running back can now be told to “hit the 4-hole.” It’s short and immediately understandable.
With exception for the space in front of the center (a “zero-hole” for quarterback sneaks), the numbers correspond to spaces between or beside linemen. Even numbers are on the right side of the center and odd numbers are on the left; this means that no matter how complicated the play call is, blockers and runners will know exactly where the ball is supposed to go.
This isn’t the only numbering scheme out there, but most look almost exactly like this. The two biggest differences you’ll see are the odd/even numbers being flipped to different sides, or the “zero-hole” being left out completely or used to denote one of the spaces between center and guard (which then bumps the following odd numbers down a space.)
A very different set of terms evolved for defenders. Every defensive scheme in existence requires that some of its players be responsible for defending particular spaces between defenders. The coaches called the spaces “gaps,” and probably did so to help the defenders learn and meet their assignments. Calling them gaps meant that players who were on both offense and defense weren’t confused by conflicting terminology. To make them stand out even more, gaps were identified by letters of the alphabet. Nearly every high school, college, and professional team uses some variation of the gap system shown below:
So, if a linebacker were responsible for defending the B-gap of our hypothetical running play to the 4-hole, then that defender would be responsible for defeating the play, preferably by tackling the running back for a loss.
There does seem to be a hitch with the system since, unlike hole-numbering, the gaps are duplicated on either side of the center. This is intentional, though. Defenses react to the offensive formations presented to them, and generally do so by lining-up based on where the offense has the most players (i.e., the “strength” of the formation.) Therefore, each gap is either a “strong-side” gap or a “weak-side” gap. If the play above is being run to the strength of the offensive formation, from the defense’s perspective it would hit the “strong-side B-gap.” In college, it’s common for defenses to align according to where the ball is placed, so terminology for that can be used in conjunction with formation strengths.
You may have heard of “one-gap” and “two-gap” defenses. In one-gap defenses, each gap has a single player (usually a defensive lineman or a linebacker) assigned to defend it. In two-gap defenses, several defensive players are responsible for each defending two of the interior gaps; an example would be a nose tackle who is responsible for both of the A-gaps. Each defense has its pros and cons. The trend today on all levels is for greater and greater hybridization of schemes, where you’ll see mixes of both defensive styles on subsequent plays, or even in a single play itself, so the distinctions between the two are getting blurrier all the time.
A final item to remember is that coaches will sometimes completely do away with hole/gap references when it comes to identifying the gaps outside of the six linemen, and substitute more general terms like “off-tackle” or “alley.”
Sneaking into football venues is an American tradition. John Madden’s account of infiltrating 49ers’ games is an historical tableau unto itself: hitchhiking and street car rides, his attending buddy John Robinson (who himself would coach the LA Rams and Southern Cal), spying the beat security and running the gates three hours before kickoff to watch grizzled men with raw hands and fake teeth pummel each other. I can’t say my sneak-story holds a candle to Madden’s, especially since the game I surreptitiously entered was a free exhibition, and for an accomplice I had a legal guardian. But then again, I think my tale holds a few points of distinction.
I’ll tell you right now that it was either the ’97 or ’98 vintage of Virginia Tech’s Maroon-White spring game we attended, but even after reading write-ups for both I can’t be certain as to which it actually was. Memory’s a fickle thing. I wasn’t much of a college football fan then, much less a Virginia Tech fan. Living about 30 miles away from the campus I’d felt suffocated by the school’s relentless representation in southwest Virginia. So my dad’s idea of heading to Blacksburg for the annual intrasquad scrimmage was an afternoon diversion and a chance to watch some live football, but not much else. I don’t even think I knew my dad rooted for Tech—I’d considered him an agnostic in terms of fandom, though it turns out I had misinterpreted his low-key style when it came to enjoying frivolous things.
The Lane Stadium you see today is a bit different from the late 90’s model, as the team then was on the verge of becoming a nationally-known power. Most pertinent to my story is the fact that where today the stadium’s a closed ring of towering seats that create a concrete echo-bowl, fourteen or so years ago the south endzone was just a concave patch of grass with piddly bleachers, a few trees, and some chainlink fence that was more for defining boundaries than it was keeping people out. I saw some people moving towards the main gates at the north end of the stadium, though we veered towards this less-developed patch.
“I think the entrance is over that way,” I said.
“Let’s go on around this side.”
Then we were inside the stadium—literally inside it, because we were walking the edge of the endzone. I didn’t know the names then, but we’d crossed the plane from Lane Stadium to Worsham Field. We were on the sideline with the Virginia Tech Hokies. The Maroon and White squads were already clamoring around the endzone to either complete or confound a scoring drive. It was pretty safe to say the few thousand people in the stands didn’t have a view as interesting as ours.
“What if they kick us out?” I asked after we’d edged closer to the ten yard line, and then the twenty.
“We’ll just say you’re a recruit here visiting.”
To the theory’s benefit, I recall that I was proudly wearing the year’s latest round of football shirts from my alma mater. To the theory’s detraction, my alma mater was single-A Glenvar High, and I was somewhat unimposing even for a student from such a small school—let’s say 5’11” and a buck-fifty when well-fed, hydrated, and in cleats and helmet, and so lacking in natural athleticism that I played line despite my stature.
“I’ll have to tell them I’m a kicker,” I said, not realizing I’d probably be the smallest kicker ever recruited by VT, and also one who’d have a hard time kicking the broad side of a barn, much less kicking a ball into it.
Beyond the thrill of walking through the endzone and our pieces of conversation, I can’t say I remember anything too specific about the scrimmage. Memory’s a fickle thing. I remember being a bit scared the whole time, figuring a sheriff’s deputy or state trooper was inbound to escort us out. I remember a blur of jerseys with numbers that didn’t mean a thing to me, and a few sentences trying to figure out who was who. Talking about those two players with the weird names that began with a ‘P’ (Pegues and Prioleau—and I’m not 100% sure if it actually happened then, since we’ve had the same conversation a few times over the years.) I don’t remember much speaking because we’re both quiet during games. For us, a calm place with a good all-22 view and leg room is where it’s at. Nosebleeds and a patch of empty seats? Priceless.
I wish I’d written about it right after I got home, especially since we didn’t have any pictures. Until now, the only narrative I’d produced regarding that day was actually made on the Lane Stadium sidelines: I came up with a convoluted alter ego should I have needed to bluff my way into resembling an expert on the art of the field goal. It was a perfect afternoon and I should’ve known my memory couldn’t begin to do it justice. In retrospect, the perfection was probably why I didn’t put the afternoon to paper. I dwelled too much on the disappointments of life. Probably still do.
I talked with my dad this past Father’s Day about his recollections. We usually chat about the game every time a new season rolls around, but it’s pretty much limited to one of us saying to the other “Remember that spring game?” and then laughing. He reminded me that we’d arrived late and the game was already underway. Our turn towards the south endzone was a “what the heck” moment on his part, decided on the fly. He seemed to remember walking through an open, vehicle-sized gate in the fence, and reminded me that when we got inside the squads were piling into each other at the near endzone. We didn’t move closer until they were back at midfield; Frank Beamer and another coach had glanced at us a few times when we started making our way downfield, but that was it.
He also remembered Nick Sorensen (who became a journeyman special teamer in the NFL) playing safety. I vaguely remember him a little at QB—he stuck out in my mind for having long hair—but that could just be other games or years intruding. The weather was overcast, but he didn’t remember rain. He remembered Prioleau running the ball, but going by position it was more likely to be Pegues (imagine that.) Neither of us recall the score or who scored, which would be a help since the ’97 game was one-sided, and the ’98 game a mutual offensive struggle.
What we did remember was easily enough to cement it as our best shared gameday at VT. That said, it only competes with a sour loss to BC in 2003 that was made worse by an annoying bit of school color seated behind us, and a blowout over a Duke a few years later where we got to the stadium way too early and spent the morning eating our way through town from the Farmer’s Market to Joe’s Diner. From that game I remember recognizing a gap exchange problem during the game, a student in front of us insisted on repeatedly calling a single-high defense “Cover 2,” and a Duke fan predicting a heckler would eat his words come basketball season, and not much else.
Despite not knowing exactly when it happened, I rank that game with two other days: a weekend jaunt to the Virginia Highlands Festival with my mom, and the day I proposed to my wife by the Cascades’ frozen falls. I’d say all three are just about perfect memories. I still have an uncashed check I won for a writing contest from the festival, so I can peg that event perfectly in space and time. I’m also 1-for-1 in nuptial attempts, so the proposal bit has a timestamp, too.
But then, maybe vagueness enhances the Maroon-White game. The only things clearly affixed in our skulls are the important aspects and emotions. If I’m lucky enough to live so long, all the details of things I’ve held dear will fade. That game will likely be one of the last to dim because it is already distilled down to its essentials—were it a “Wild Turkey” memory (as would befit the Hokies), it’d come from a well-aged, single-barrel batch of limited size—an American Spirit, perhaps. I’ll even argue that the memory is well-aged from time, and drew flavor from other memories of family and fandom. If there hadn’t been a Michael Vick or if I’d spent my undergrad years at a liberal arts college in the snowbelt, the game wouldn’t seem so special. The same would be the case if my dad didn’t routinely make weekend treks to my house to watch the Hokies and eat barbecued chicken until we both look bloated.
Regardless of why or to what degree, that game was a fixture moment for me. I suppose I’ve hedged by finally putting my thoughts on it to paper, and by finally searching for supporting details. Whatever this transcription means, it’s trivial. What’s important was a special day spent with my dad. I hope anyone reading this has had a few similar days of their own.