The Battles Along the Line of Scrimmage

13 Jul


OL battle (hectorir)

Football is conflict.  This conflict is no more evident — or violent — than in the battle along the line of scrimmage where strength and positioning — what coaches call “leverage” — often determines the winner.  Here there are no Davids here; there are only Goliaths.

That which separates the combatants is essentially a DMZ.  It is a swath of turf called the neutral zone.  No one, except the offensive center, can intrude upon this sacred ground and him only because he must handle the ball to snap it.  In terms of dimensions, it is as wide as the ball is long.  Each tip of the ball is a coordinate in a separate line of scrimmage that stretches from sideline to sideline: one for the defense, and one for the offense.

neutral zone (wacko)

Moving the ball and scoring involves three components: the run, the play-action pass, and the pass.   The play-action pass is a pass play coming off a run fake.  What the run fake does is draw the linebackers up to stop what they read as a running play which exposes the field behind them to attack from the pass.

Of the three strategies, the run is generally considered the most important.  It sets up everything else.  It is also the best way to demoralize an opponent.  If an offense can run the ball, the defensive linemen can’t tee off and rush the passer; they must play the run first.  The defense itself must play closer to the line and load the box — that is, put more players in the defensive front — to stop the run which opens the field to an attack from the pass.

loading the box ( the box = the defense inserting additional defenders into the defensive front to shutdown the offense.)

The key to running the ball is “push”.  The offensive line must drive or push the defensive line backward.  If they can do that consistently, they will dominate the line of scrimmage and win the battles there.  The offense can then run the ball, leading to a balanced attack between all three components.  If they can’t, then they won’t, and the offense will have difficulty integrating the second component — the play-action pass — into its attack.  As a result, it will be forced to rely on the pass which will make it one-dimensional and easy to defend.  Even the pass happy offenses of the no-huddle variety must be able to run the ball.

bubble - attacking with lead blocker (

Most defenses, on the other hand, are geared to stop the run first.  For the defensive lineman, the key to winning his individual battle is his hands.  The faster he can throw them into his counterpart, the more force he will generate.   Force translates into control.  While an offensive lineman wants to engage and drive a defender “off the ball”, a defensive lineman wants to “shed” the blocker, protect his area of responsibility, and pursue the ball.   He doesn’t want to be moved and in his initial charge, he will either attempt to escape the offensive lineman’s attempt to block him or he will “stalemate” him.  That is to say, neutralize him so that there is no movement off the line of scrimmage.

Action_Pass Pro2 (TNrick)

The offensive line will engage the defense on the snapcount.  It will use a variety of blocking techniques and schemes to move defenders or prevent their penetration into the backfield.  In a running play, the most common techniques are the drive block which is a one-on-one block, the double team where two offensive linemen look to crush a defensive linemen and the zone block in which an offensive lineman blocks whoever shows up in his area of responsibility.

double team (

Pass blocking, however, is entirely different from run blocking.  Instead of attacking a defender and moving him, the offensive lineman is basically catching and channeling him away from the quarterback who is setting up in the backfield, looking to throw the ball.  While much of pass blocking depends upon the depth the quarterback will set up because of the angles his drop creates, the key for any offensive lineman is not to be beaten inside as it is the shortest route to the quarterback.  Often, pass protection when performed as designed will look like a semi-circle or cup — what is routinely called a pass pocket.

Action_OL pass pro (kyle tsui)

A defensive lineman, meanwhile, attacks on the movement of the ball.  He doesn’t — or shouldn’t be listening to the quarterback call his signals.   Prior to the snap, he is reading some part of the offensive lineman opposite him — probably the helmet — to determine if the play is a pass or run.  If the offensive lineman’s helmet or “hat” stays low at the snap, then the play is most likely a run.  If it rises, however, what coaches call a “high hat” then it is generally a pass play and the defensive linemen attacks accordingly.

rip move (

Generally defenses will fall into two categories: they’re either “read and react” or they “read-on-the-run”. The two expressions represent different defensive philosophies which determine where the defensive linemen will routinely line up on the offensive line.   In a “read then react” scheme, the defensive linemen will generally align opposite an offensive lineman in what is called a “heads-up” alignment and are responsible for the gaps — the spaces between offensive linemen — on either side of him.   They try to “stalemate” offensive linemen and keep them off the linebackers so that the latter are free to pursue the ball and make the tackles.    But if the ball is attacking one of their gaps of responsibility or if they read pass, they can shed the blocker and attack the ball.

2-gap defense (

In a “read-on-the-run” scheme, however, a defensive lineman wants to penetrate the backfield and disrupt the play, if not simply make the tackle, so he is always attacking.  To reduce his blocking surface, that is, the amount of body area the offensive lineman can engage with both of his hands and to increase his speed, a defensive lineman will usually line up in what is called a “shade” technique.  In this alignment, he is partially aligned on an offensive lineman and partially in the gap for which he is responsible.  His job is to attack that gap and analyze — “read” — the play as he does so.   (See 1-Gap vs. 2-Gap)

1-gap defense (

Rarely do we watch the action along the line for, on a stage 100 yards long and 53 yards wide, it is the running backs and the receivers who are the celebrated stars of most games.  But the true heroes are found in the length of a football, the 11 inches of turf that represent the line of scrimmage and separate the offensive line from the defensive line.  It is there, in what has been called the “trenches” where the greatest struggles occur; where the strongest and the swiftest prevail.  In the individual battles along the line, it is routinely the player who has his hands inside those of his opponent and is lower than his opponent who wins.   And it is the team whose linemen win most of the battles there, in the trenches, that determines the outcome of a game.  For in the unique physics of the game, in its wondrous geometry, it is the team that controls the line of scrimmage that wins.

oline (


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