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Do You See What I See? How To Break Down A Play

We will be looking key plays and formations across the Big 12 this season in the film room, so let’s look at the process of breaking down a play and what all goes into it!



Getty Images - Thearon W Henderson

In the film room, we attempt to provide content for the diehard football fan that explains (or attempts to explain) plays, schemes, individual plays, or key events in games. Throughout the season we will be breaking down interesting plays, highlights from the week, and x and o explanations for a team’s success or failure within the Big 12.

As we approach the beginning of the 2017 season, I thought it would be neat to provide a background for how I watch and analyze a play.

The thing that makes football great is that on any one play there are almost an infinite number of aspects to analyze. Alignment, formation, reads, the steps of each of the 22 position players, throws, runs, vision, strategy, down and distance, game moments, technique, etc…

Below, I have broken down a single successful offensive play as an example of how I analyze a play.  I won’t hit every point that I might look at, but hopefully I will expose the larger points. We will look at the play from both an offensive and defensive perspective. At the end, perhaps you will find something that enhances your viewing experience.


The play I have chosen is a touchdown play for Iowa State against Kansas State. Yes, I am a Cyclone alum, but I chose the play because of its interesting set up and value as a teaching tool.  I was recently asked by someone to show them how I watch and study film, and this play was the one I focused on.

Below, we have the initial offensive and defensive alignment on this play.


The first thing I look at is the offensive set.  Here, ISU has a trips open set with 10 personnel. That means there are three receivers to one side, one running back and zero players in a tight end position. Iowa State uses this alignment often. The tight end is in a split position and often motions to a fullback position.

Next, I look at the safeties and the defensive alignment. I want to see what the quarterback is seeing. This pre-snap look gives the quarterback his cues for where the ball is likely to be delivered.

If you look at the safeties in this play, you see that they are in a two-deep alignment. This is a nickel package and the second linebacker is a defensive back who we see walking up on the line. This look indicates that there will be an extra rusher, five across, with the nickel back bringing pressure off the edge. The running back will have to be aware of this extra rusher in pass protection and the offensive line will have to account for him in their pass protection or run blocking scheme.

The edge pressure also indicates, that though it looks like a two deep safety configuration, it is likely a single high safety with the other safety playing down to cover the uncovered zone. But, that is undetermined in this pre-snap look.

The quarterback will also take note that the single receiver is receiving press coverage to the top of the formation. With a safety in two deep coverage and press on the single receiver, he will be bracketed in coverage and likely a poor option for a pass.

To the trips side, there is loose coverage on the outside receiver, tight zone on the middle receiver, and the deep safety shadowing the inside slot. I know by looking here that there is a hole in the defense behind the edge pressure player and in front of the trips side safety. It is also tipped off that the slot corner, playing tight to the second receiver, will have coverage in the short hook and curl zone and the outside corner will have deep out responsibility.

In summary, the pre-snap shows me a two-deep zone from Kansas State with an extra pressure player and a hole in the five to eight yard range where the pressure player is vacating. If my play has a route that hits that zone, I will be looking there first. Also, if my quarterback has check authority, he could make a “hot” call to the inside trip receiver and order up a quick seam to the vacated zone.

Defensively, I know that I have to wall off the two inside receivers to the trips side to prevent them from getting to the uncovered zone. I have enough men in the box to play a run and I have the single receiver bracketed. I want a play that is executed short and in front of me that I can stop for a short gain, or hold off long enough for the pressure to get there.

Pre-Snap Adjustment

Now, the deception kicks in, and this play becomes very interesting. Often, the initial pre-snap read will be all that needs to be made. The play will be run and winners and losers will dictate the success level of the play. But, as we see here, both the offense and defense will try to make a pre-snap adjustment via a shift or motion in order to attempt to gain an advantage for the particular play.


The offense brings the middle receiver in the trips formation in motion. This balances out the formation and creates a doubles formation with two receivers to either side. There is a wide gap between the wide side receivers and a lot of ground for the defense to cover. The motion receiver is now in a tight slot to the short side and finds himself matched up with a linebacker. This motion creates a desired match-up advantage for the offense.

The defensive shift is even more interesting and provides a challenge for the quarterback. It becomes apparent how a young or inexperienced quarterback can get confused and struggle with his decision making.

First, the linebacker slides out to cover the motion receiver. The nickel back showing pressure slides with the motion back in to a true middle linebacker position. Both the offensive line and the quarterback have to account for this new position.

Second, there is a new pressure player as the slot corner slides in to take the pressure position on the edge vacated by the nickel. There is still a pressure look, but it is coming from a different player. With that move, the two-deep safety rotates up to cover the vacated zone by the pressure player and the other deep safety rotates to a single high position.

In a few short seconds the complexion of the play has changed entirely. Now, the quarterback has to adjust his mindset to attack a single high safety. The single receiver to the boundary side has become a viable target as the single high safety look has alleviated the bracket coverage. The short zones across the field are covered and he will have to look to the deep out zone for a free player open against the flow of the free safety movement. The running back and offensive line has to account for the middle linebacker and a pressure player on the edge.

The defense has to pay attention to the match-up problem with the motion receiver and the single high safety has to read any pass route combination to help his corners over the top.

In the pre-snap action we have moved from a base 4-3 with two deep zone coverage and a blitzer, to a tight under zone with a single high safety. They have closed an initial target area and substituted a match-up disadvantage. The strategy here is to have a free tackler for a run play and a pressure player to force a quick throw in to the teeth of the coverage.

The offense has moved to a balanced formation and created a match-up advantage for one of their receivers. Based on the route combination called, they have put pressure on the boundary side and moved the focus of the play from the wide, trips side, to the boundary side. Note that Lazard and Jones, Iowa State’s two best receiving options are the players that are placed on the boundary side.

Play Execution

I have already stated that this play results in a touchdown. So, it is safe to assume that the offense has gained a pre-snap advantage that will be executed in the running of the play. The defense is not in a bad position, but they have a match-up issue that could prove costly.


The play, which I have no way of knowing before the snap, turns out to be a vertical seam attack with the outside receivers running comeback routes. This route combination targets a single high safety and puts him in to conflict. He has to keep depth and balance between the seam receivers and break on the ball when it is thrown. He has two men to cover because his teammates are playing a tight, under zone.

Going through it sequentially, I look first at the protection. I am looking initially at the pressure player. The running back accounts for him, and attacks the pressure player. He doesn’t get a good block, but he widens the path which creates time for the routes to develop. The offensive line sets a pocket and funnels a defensive line slant.

Note here that the defensive line is slanting away from the pressure player. This is a design to draw the tackle down and leave a free rush for the pressure player. A very good design on the front, but it is stymied because the running back attacks the pressure player and forces him wide. This is good execution up front by the offensive line and the running back.

All the receivers release vertically. The outside corners lock on to the outside receivers and the inside cover men drop to their second level zone responsibility. Everything is clicking on both sides of the ball at this point.

Now, the dilemma. The single high safety fades to the middle of the field and towards the wide side seam. This would appear to be a mistake, but it isn’t. Where is the largest hole on the field? To the wide side behind the short zone defenders. That is the right move.

The problem is that there are two seam receivers. DeShaunte Jones clears the mis-matched linebacker early. Park keeps his eyes downfield and sees that the safety has faded to the wide side seam. This creates enough space for him to use his arm talent to fit a tight throw in to the motion receiver who is running free. The safety cannot recover and it results in an easy touchdown.

The defense could have played tighter at the line and gotten a better jam on the releasing receivers. That might have given enough time for the pressure to get to the quarterback. It would have given the safety time to read the routes and get in to a better position. If that would have happened, then Park would have looked to the comeback route on the outside to Lazard. The play may have been a first down, but it would have prevented a touchdown.

The offense won the alignment game here, but more importantly, the quarterback read the pre-snap adjustment and showed solid vision and preparation in taking advantage of the advantage gained.

From that analysis, there is a basis for analyzing any play. Pre-snap alignment, reading the safeties, recognizing pressure, and positional discipline once the play begins. In the film room at each Big 12 institution, the players and coaches are analyzing these alignments and plays in the same sequence. Positionally, they are looking at their keys and have a baseline of knowledge about what plays are run from the various formations and alignments.

For instance, the running back was coached to attack that pressure back. If it was new to him, he would have waited and the player would have gotten in the face of the quarterback. He had seen that look on film and reacted according to his coached knowledge.

Likewise, the pressure rusher was coached to take a straight line if offered to him, or to rush wide in order to contain the quarterback if he is attacked. With the line slanting, he was the only defender with contain responsibility to that side of the field. If he goes inside then the quarterback steps around and has a wide open path to run or throw and conflicts the entire coverage scheme.

This was well played on both sides with all players executing their responsibilities as they were coached. The success of the play was a result of a scheme advantage gained by the Iowa State play call and a quarterback with the vision, knowledge, and arm talent to execute at a high level. I know that is an oxymoron when talking about an Iowa State play, but on this occasion, it was a well run play.

I draw from this play a general knowledge about how important experienced and disciplined players are in key positions. The Big 12 boasts three quarterbacks, Mayfield, Rudolph, and Ertz, who have seen it all and beaten it all. Disguised pressure and late adjustments are being proliferated among Big 12 defensive coordinators and that makes that experience the most critical element in any teams success.

Texas, West Virginia, Kansas State, Iowa State, TCU, and Baylor will employ some form of disguised, high pressure defensive scheme this year. It isn’t that the other teams don’t, just that they don’t as frequently as the ones mentioned. It will be fun to see what pops up in the film room and how the schemes and play execution mesh throughout the season.

I, for one, cannot wait for kickoff!!!!!!!!!!!!!