SI Vault
Alfred Wright
September 21, 1959
A few basic pointers on where to direct your eyes so that you can follow the fine points of the game
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September 21, 1959

How To Watch Football

A few basic pointers on where to direct your eyes so that you can follow the fine points of the game

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For all its maze of rules and intricate patterns of maneuver, the game of football can be followed intelligently by anyone who knows what to look for. When the players have just picked themselves off the ground after the previous play, take a look at the man on the defensive team shown on the left in the act of making hand signals. He is standing with his back to the line of scrimmage so that the offensive players will not see the signs he is flashing to his teammates which will direct their next defensive alignment. Spectators who watch the huddle itself (as the TV camera so often does) learn nothing. If they study how the defense is aligned, they may get an inkling of what the next play might be and better understand why the play did or did not work.

The four-three, or six-one, defense
The signal shown above sends the defensive team into the 4-3 defense (also referred to as the 6-1) shown in the diagram at left. The offense shown is the wing T, better known to the trade as the Delaware (or Iowa) offense. The hand signal, like all those on this page, is hypothetical. Basically, all defenses are built around four linemen—two ends (E) and two tackles (T). In the 4-3 defense, the outside linebackers (LB) join the line, head-up on the offensive ends, as in the diagram.

The four-four defense
Here, with the offense set in the straight T in the diagram, the defensive hand signal indicates a 4-4 alignment. Now only the four basic linemen (E, T, T, E) are on the line of scrimmage, and there are four linebackers (LB) rather than the customary three, leaving only three deep backs (B) instead of the usual four. Watch for "stunting" with this setup—i.e., the linebackers dancing in and out of the line, to confuse the blocking.

The Oklahoma defense
This thumbs-up signal might be used to set up the Oklahoma, or 5-4, defense. In addition to the four basic linemen (E, T, T, E), there is a permanent middle guard (or defensive center) A head-up on the offensive center. Two linebackers (LB) are loosely stationed across from the middle part of the offensive line, while the deep backs (B) are in a loose umbrella formation. This defense has been used effectively against all formations, especially the split-T.

The Eagle defense
This could be the signal for the well-known Eagle defense, so named because it was introduced by the Philadelphia Eagles in their heyday under Coach Greasy Neale. Like the 5-4, it stations the middle guard (A) in the line but also puts two linebackers (LB) on the line head-up against the offensive ends and inside their own ends. The deep backs (B) are arranged in the umbrella defense so popular with the pros.

At the moment the ball is snapped
By the time the offensive team has left the huddle and taken its position at the scrimmage line (see above) the alert spectator will have the defensive alignment fixed in his mind. "An Oklahoma" or "5-4," he will say to himself if he sees the one shown above and diagrammed at left. Then he will take a fast look at the offense, and if he sees the alignment assumed by the men in white jerseys (above) he'll tell himself, "Aha, a wing T with the left end (1) split." Now, of course, the spectator knows several other things: the score, the location of the ball on the field, what down it is, how many yards for a first down and something of the personnel of the team with the ball—all factors which would help him decide what to expect next. If a pass is likely, he should watch this split end (1) to see how he is being guarded. If a running play seems more likely, he should watch the offensive guards (2 and 3) to see how it begins to develop.

The flow of the play
Once the ball is in play the spectator should already have briefed himself on the defensive and offensive formations and the possibilities as well as the probabilities that are likely to take place. Now he momentarily forgets about the ball itself and looks for a general pattern in the movements of the offensive team. One of the best ways for him to do this is to watch the guard (1). If he seems to be teaming up with one of the backs (2), the play will almost surely be a slant through the side of the line toward which the guard is moving and the offensive flow is directed.

When both guards pull out
On every T formation play except the sneak over center, the quarterback (1) takes the ball from center and either hands off to one of the other backs (2), fakes and pitches out or fades back and passes. On those occasions when both guards (3 and 4) and one of the backs (5) on the offensive team start out in the same lateral direction behind the line, you can be sure the quarterback is setting up a running play—and almost invariably it will be a sweep outside the end toward which these blockers are proceeding. Any feints or distracting moves by offensive players in the defense's secondary can be disregarded as diversionary tactics unless the back who is carrying the ball happens to be one of those rare fish who can pass while he is on the dead run.

Forming the pocket
If, when the ball is snapped, the guards (1 and 2) and sometimes the center (3) begin to drift backward rather than running laterally behind the scrimmage line, a forward pass is almost sure to come. Actually, the guards are starting to form a semicircular "pocket" to protect the passer (4), frequently with added help from one or more backs if the defense is rushing the passer hard. At this point the wise spectator will quickly watch the ends and halfbacks maneuver in the defensive secondary, trying to get free to receive. But one should also always be on the alert for a screen pass, in which one of the protecting backs slips out of the pocket and takes a short lob over the onrushing defenders.

The ride, or drive, series
When a team contains the kind of top blocking and power running that makes it possible to plow through the opposition, it frequently employs the so-called ride, or drive, series. There is a minimum of lateral movement here, as the drawing shows; the power is straight ahead and the holes should open quickly. The fundamental play has the quarterback (1) moving diagonally to the rear and jamming the ball into the belly of the onrushing fullback (2) and then pretending to withdraw it and pitch it out to the halfback (3) who is sweeping wide around the same side of the line. A variation on the play has the quarterback actually making the pitchout to the halfback (3). In the drive plays watch the blocking. If the defense is being driven inward, look for the pitchout; if outward, then look for the line plunge.

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