This concise guide outlines in simple terms how to understand football plays and read the NFL playbook to enhance your enjoyment of the games.
Reading a football playbook is extremely difficult, and it’s pretty hard to imagine everyone playing on the pro level being able to memorize plays. As they would tell you, it’s more about the comprehension of the concepts as opposed to being able to store every single play in memory.
How to understand football plays
It’s actually a lot harder for pros in the NFL given the likelihood of one changing teams. Organizations also change head coaches and various coordinators pretty often. Words in plays will take on different meanings based on the coaching staff in charge. A player is less likely to go through such changes on the college level but programs do make changes, though there’s more consistency than in the pros.
Be that as it may, it’s way easier for someone who’s constantly around the game to read and understand football plays and playbooks than one who isn’t. Of course, we don’t doubt that a fan could learn just as quickly — although it’s hardly as simple as sports and odds — and it’s why we’ve put together this short guide.
Football plays aren’t drawn up in a way that makes them easy to read. If you can read them while watching on as a fan, then the defense will be able to read them too. Offenses rely on their players’ ability to not give any cues to their plays as they will find it very hard to make up yardage otherwise. The job of the offensive coordinator would be on the line in such a case as well.
The best quarterbacks are able to read defenses and change plays via what’s called an audible prior to the snap to make it even harder for defenses to read their plays. However, there are certain things you could look out for that would signal what an offense is trying to do. Also read: How should you kick a soccer ball?
Football plays: watch the linemen
If you keep an eye on the five offensive linemen, a unit composed of a center, two tackles and two guards, when the ball is snapped, you will get some clues into how to understand football plays you’re about to see. If they are standing upright at the snap, the QB is going to make a passing play — that is, according to Mark Oristano’s A Sportscaster’s Guide to Watching Football, per Sportsrec.com. If the offensive line moves forward across the line of scrimmage, a rushing play should be expected.
This is pretty simple to explain as the offense will accrue a penalty for having an ineligible player if an offensive lineman moves across the line of scrimmage on a passing play.
Football plays: keep an eye on the guards
To go a bit deeper into football plays, keep track of the guards flanking the center if the linemen push off past the line of scrimmage. In addition to the play being a rushing one, the movement will give away the point of attack and you will know where the running back is going before he makes an attempt. The defense, of course, will know too.
Football plays: watch for a ‘spread’
Look out for a spread formation with three or more receivers lined up wide – they could also be to the side – in what’s referred to as a “trips right” or “trips left” formation. This would mean that a passing play is what’s coming up. A tighter formation with more blockers around the ball usually means a quarterback sneak or a running attempt for a few yards by the fullback.
Football plays: feigning a blitz
If you see linebackers moving to the line of scrimmage, they’re most probably feigning a blitz and will drop back to their coverage areas. Instead, keep an eye on the safety who moves up from deep to around six yards off of the line of scrimmage. He might begin a full-tilt blitz right before the snap that’s drawn up to cross the line right after the center throws to the QB.
Football plays: watch the RB’s eyes
If the camera catches the RB’s eyes on screen, pay attention to them to predict football plays. He will scan the defense from left to right and then right to left. If he stares at the spot of the planned attack, the middle linebacker could pick up on it and let his teammates know where it should be.
Footballs plays: look for the QB’s reaction
Look out for the quarterback’s reaction to a blitz by linebackers or safeties by trying to get off a quick pass to a receiver who slips into the area left open by the blitzer in order to avoid getting sacked.
Practice during replays to better understand football plays
If you want to get better at reading football plays, apply the above to video replays and try to guess where the ball is going at the snap based on the stance and movement. You could rewatch the football plays in slow motion to get even more of a feel and pick out the patterns the analysts know to look for.
Don’t follow the ball
Analysts advise against following the ball to predict football plays as it doesn’t actually tell you what’s going on. Oftentimes, you might not even be able to tell where the ball actually is after the snap. The movements made by the receivers, running backs, and quarterback before the snap won’t give anything away either.
Common NFL football terms and phrases
What is a fumble? Why is interception so unpopular? And what does a fair catch mean? The most important football terms are briefly explained here.
Backfield: In the backfield of the attacking team are the players who are positioned a little further back, including the quarterback. In the defending teams, these are the cornerbacks and safetys.
Blind Side: Is the side that the quarterback does not see. If he throws with his right arm, it is usually the left side. The quarterback can be attacked well by the opponent (“blind side hit”). However, it is also specially protected.
Blitz: Fast football plays by the defending team in which more players than normal rush towards the quarterback to knock him down or prevent a pass.
(Two Point) Conversion: The ability to score two more points after a touchdown. The end zone has to be reached again – from a distance of two yards. There is only one point for an extra point kicked
Down: The team in possession of the ball has four attempts (“downs”) to move ten yards forward. If that succeeds, there are four new attempts.
Drive: This is understood to mean all the moves that a team executes one after the other until the opponent gets the ball.
End zone: The teams try to carry the ball into the opponent’s end zone or to catch it there. There are six points for such a touchdown.
Extra point: After a touchdown, the attacking team can score another point with a kick through the goal posts. A conversion even brings two points.
Fair Catch: A player catches a punt (shot) but must not be attacked because he has previously indicated that he will not run forward.
False Start: When an attacking player moves forward too early in football plays.
Flag: If the referees recognize a violation of the rules in football plays, they throw a flag onto the field.
Fumble: When the ball carrier drops the ball in football plays – because it slips out of the hand or is hit. After that, the opponent usually gets the ball.
Field Goal: Kick through the goal posts. There are three points for this.
Hail Mary: A long and risky pass.
Handoff: handing over the ball, not a throw.
Holding: When a player who does not have the ball is held.
Incomplete Pass: A pass that hits the ground before being caught and controlled. The attacking team keeps the ball.
Interception: Very bad for the attacking team: the opponent intercepts the ball and in turn receives the right to attack.
Interference: Prohibited obstruction of a pass recipient or the kick returner in football plays. The game continues at the place of the infraction.
Kickoff: The start of the game with the first kick is the kick-off.
Kick Return: The attacking team carries the trapped ball forward after the kickoff.
Line of Scrimmage: Imaginary line on which the ball lies after an interruption and where play continues.
Out of Bounds: Out.
Pick Six: Touchdown after an interception.
Pocket: Imagined space in which the quarterback stands and is protected by his teammates against attacks from the opponent for as long as possible.
Punt: Kick out of hand, mostly in the fourth down, because four new attempts are unlikely. After that, the right of attack usually changes.
Quarterback: playmaker who gets the ball from the center in football plays. He hands it over to the running back or throws it to a receiver. The quarterback can also run himself.
Running Back: player who comes from behind and carries the ball as far forward as possible.
Sack: The quarterback is brought down by the opponent before a throw.
Safety: 1) Rearmost position of the defending team; 2) A player in possession of the ball is brought to the ground in his own end zone. The opponent gets two points.
Screen Pass: The quarterback fakes a long pass in football plays but actually throws a short one.
Slide: The player with the ball slides his feet first in football plays. Often done by quarterbacks because the risk of injury is low.
Snap: Transfer of the ball from the center through the legs to the quarterback.
Tackle: Is only allowed against the ball carrier who is being held or brought to the ground by the defending team.
Tight end: attacking player, usually larger and stronger than the wide receiver. Can be used as a passport recipient or as a blocker.
Time out: Each team has three time outs per half.
Touchdown: Is worth six points. The attacking team carries or catches the ball in the end zone.
Turnover: Loss of the ball and loss of the right to attack. There are different types: interception, fumble or turnover on downs. In the case of a punt, the attacking team voluntarily surrenders the ball.
Wide receiver: Fast players who catch thrown balls and carry them as far forward as possible in football plays.