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BRB University: The ABCs Of Offensive Line Play

A glimpse into the absurd and unknown that is the Offensive Line. If you ever had any questions about terminology or concepts, check out this post on Battle Red Blog.

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The offensive line consists of a group of five guys who nobody ever talks about, loves, or understands. They are like the older dog at the pound who keeps being passed over by people wanting puppies that can run around in circles rapidly and love to spend their day bringing back ball after ball. Offensive line play is only discussed when they play poorly and a quarterback gets his ribs smashed like atoms in the Hadron Collider or when a commentator busts out the telestrator to sound smart.

This is understandable since everything they do does not directly involve where the ball goes, yet it is important since it is the underlying central component of every play. It's like how (spoiler alert) Krang, the alien inside Shredder, is actually the Turtles' main nemesis, not a Japanese samurai. When watching sports, most people watch the ball like a dog or cat chasing a red dot around the house. From this, you get to see what and who scores, but not how and why. You see goals, dunks, points, jukes, spins, headers, tackles, checks, dekes, stiff arms, throws, crossovers, and other brain-shattering, mind-altering displays of athleticism, but you miss the intricacies of the game. You see the painting as a whole, but you don't understand the texture, brush strokes, and the use of the color wheel that makes one hold back tears when one bathes in its beauty.

Everyone has thrown, caught, ran, or kicked, so they can understand the rest of game with a combination of first-hand knowledge, material read on the Internet, and by listening to the Jabronis yammering during the game. Not many people ever get the chance to push around colossal human beings in their daily life, and 95% of the game that is discussed does not include the menacing giants on the offensive line. Instead most people's opinions of offensive line play is derived from some ranking from Pro Football Focus or Football Outsiders' advanced stats, without having a clue about what goes into them or how the position is played. As a result, people do not understand the way an offense works at its fundamental roots and lack knowledge of the awe and wonder of offensive line for what it really is. Today, we will attempt to enter the void and shine a light like an angler fish into the unknown Mariana Trench known as the Offensive Line.

To start off, I will just go over basic terminology and cliches associated with the position and get the ball rolling on the 'why' and 'how' of the game of football.

General Terms/Lingo

Center - Player that snaps the ball. One of the most difficult positions in the game because he has to make most of the calls on the line and has to snap and step at the same time. It may not sound too difficult, but when success is greatly determined by who makes contact first and having to move a 315-pound man across from you, it makes things complicated.

Guard - About the same stature as a Center, but usually a little bigger. The OG needs to be stronger than an Offensive Tackle because of the larger weight of the Defensive Tackle he has knock backwards. Guards must be extremely quick in short-yard increments because they pull more than any other position. They are usually shorter and stouter - typically about 6'3" and weighing around 315 pounds.

Tackle - They are taller and quicker than Guards because of the speed they have to deal with when attempting to shut down the pass rush. Tackles, on average, are around 6'6" tall and 300 pounds. A taller height is warranted because height correlates to longer arms, which is desperately needed to keep the Defensive End's hands off the OT during pass rush situations. Whichever tackle is protecting the QB's blindside is generally more athletic to keep off the defense's best pass-rusher.

Leverage - Simply means being lower than the other player. "The low man always wins" is an age-old adage like "Thou shalt not steal" or "... With certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Mean Streak - This term was tossed around on draft day, like M80s on the 4th of July, when experts were trying to find faults with Luke Joeckel's play. How much effort the lineman puts into knocking guys flat on their back, hitting as hard as they can, eating their children, and how violent he is in general. Remember, in football the goal is not to intentionally hurt the other player when blocking, but playing with as much effort and tenacity as you can. Most people like to mistakenly lump hard hits and taking a player out of the game together. This is simply not true, as hard hits are made because it is their job and part of the game. An O-lineman destroys linebackers when pulling to open holes up for the running back, not to break his leg.

Move the Line of Scrimmage - Getting a push on the defensive line and moving them a couple of yards back. A cliche term every football coach from 7th grade to the NFL loves to make. If the O-line does this successfully, the running back can get three to four yards without being touched.

Keep Your Head Up - When blocking you want to keep your head up before the snap because you must see the defense at all times. The game is not stagnant. The D is constantly moving. You have to adjust with what they bring and change the calls at the line as needed to counter their counters. Your head must also be up while blocking in order to not lose sight of where any linebackers are, not to mention any blitzers that may be coming late. If your head is down when engaged with a defender, more often than not, you are exhibiting poor technique and/or lunging at your blocking assignment, both of which are the quickest way to get beat in this league. When this is done, all balance is lost and your center of gravity is thrown forward, making it incredibly easy for the defender to simply toss you aside. This type of mistake is what J.J. Watt was addicted to last season when he made his vicious swim moves. As soon as blockers lost their balance for even half a second, Watt was past them. Most importantly, an offensive lineman should never, ever have his head down when hitting a defender or trying to make a tackle on a turnover. That could result in striking someone with the crown of the helmet which, as we know by now, is the ultimate 'no-no' in football. Crown shots are how people, including the offensive lineman himself, can become seriously hurt, concussed, and even paralyzed.

Quick Feet - Once your feet die, you lose. Short choppy steps are the best way to start and continue movement against the defense. The term also tries to explain how fast a lineman's first two steps are.

Until the Whistle Blows - Blocking until the play is over. As the game wears on, an entire offensive line playing to the whistle really breaks down the will of the defense and wears them out physically.

Pancake - Everyone who has played Madden knows this as the only stat for an offensive lineman. It's the ultimate personal victory for an offensive lineman. It is essentially blocking someone until he is laying on his back like a six-month-old baby.

Roller Skates- What occurs when you stop moving your feet and push. Leads to an OL sliding backwards until he is in the backfield. It will occasionally occur at the NFL level on a sloppy field.

Cut - A block where the OL dives to take out the legs of a defender. The best technique is to wait until the last second and throw your body into the outside leg of the defender. When done correctly, and within the boundaries of the game's rules, nothing is more annoying to a bruising LB. However, when cutting a defender from behind catastrophic injuries can occur (cough, cough, Brian Cushing). This type of block is used during quick pass situations, to block linebackers, the screen game, and backside double teams.

Chop Block - Illegal block where one player blocks high and the other blocks low. The culprit most of the time is the running back, who throws himself into the legs of a defender that is already engaged.

Hip Bender - Get up and out of your desk, off the toilet, out of bed, or whatever you are doing, and stand up. Place your feet shoulder-width apart and bend your knees. Look how far you drop and feel how stable you are. Now bend your knees again, but this time drop your butt and hips as well. When you drop your knees and hips you actually have strength, balance and control. Hypothetically, an offensive lineman is trying to play with his hamstrings almost parallel with the field.

Hand Placement - An offensive lineman can hold the defender's chest, but not outside around the shoulders. The target is the left hand on the left number and the right hand on the right number while punching the defender. This is critical when separating legal holding from illegal holding.


First here is an image of gap assignments.

A Gap - Gap between the Center and Guard

B Gap - Gap between the Guard and Center

C Gap - Gap between the Guard and Tackle

D Gap - Gap between the Tackle and TE

The numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, etc. represent the shade the defensive lineman is playing on the offensive lineman. For example, a 1-technique is when the DT lines up on the outside shoulder of the Center. A 4-technique is lined up face up with a tackle, and so on.

Splits - How far apart or how close the offensive linemen line up next to each other. Tight splits are used so linemen can work together easier and get hip-to-hip on double teams. Wide splits are used to spread the pocket out in pass protection or create wider running lanes. The key to splits is consistency. If a team changes its splits from play-to-play or from playside-to-backside, defenses will quickly see this and be able to read what the offense is about to do before the play occurs.

Three-Point Stance - When an offensive lineman lines up with his hand on the ground. This stance is the traditional one used in the I, Single Back, and Goal Line formations. It is great for run blocking because the OL starts low and can get leverage against the defender. The difference between the G/T and the C in a three-point stance is that the G/T are staggered. By "staggered," I mean that their playside (right side, right foot) foot's toes are as far up the field as the mid-sole of the opposite foot. This is done because you take your first step with this foot, can quickly reach the DL, and it allows you to make contact by the second step. Since the center has to snap, and usually plays against someone head up, they do not stagger because their first step results in contact.

Two-Point Stance - The O-lineman lines up without his hand on the ground. Instead, he lines up with his feet staggered like a three-point stance, knees bent, back arched a little forward like a skateboard ramp, and hands ready to go in a loaded position. This stance is used mostly for pass blocking/screens/draws, since it allows the lineman to not have to waste time getting up and out of his stance. In pass protection, these milliseconds are vital in stopping a speed rush. By using the same stance throughout, it allows your draws to look more like pass plays and trick the defense.

Calls - All plays will vary some depending on the defense. The fundamental rules stay the same. The entire offensive line must communicate what they are doing in order to not miss their assignments. They must "vote" on the same party as a unit. Before the play, most schemes first have the center call out the Mike to establish the strong side of the defense. Then the covered OL calls the shade or technique, and the uncovered OL calls the double team in the run game.

In the passing game, the same holds true except, instead of double teams being called, the center will call shifts if the pass protection scheme calls for it. There are a wide variety of pass protections used that I will discuss in the future. Along with being titanic and powerful, an O-lineman must be intelligent enough to read the defense and communicate what he sees.

Snap Count - The number of huts, gos, blue 52s, center taps, or whatever the offense uses to measure the time until the ball is snapped. It is the central advantage the offense has over the defense.

Formations - Does not change what the offensive line does, except if the tackle has a tight end next to him or not. What is more important is if the OL is playing playside or backside and if the play is being run strong side or weak side.

Run Block

Technique - Offensive line play is athleticism in a closet Steps are short and choppy. All movement and plays take part in a limited amount of space. The key to run blocking is the first two steps before contact is made. The one who hits first is the key to being successful and knowing the snap count gives him an advantage over the defense in this regard. When the ball is snapped, one of the steps listed below is made while making sure the steps are no more than six inches, feet shoulder-width apart, hips and knees low, with hands in a position to punch.

The offensive lineman must stay lower than the defensive lineman to maintain leverage. When the punch is made, the offensive lineman is able to get underneath the opposition's pads. When punching, the offensive lineman should aim for numbers with each hand, with the goal of covering the numbers. After the punch, the offensive lineman should explode with his hips into the defensive lineman and continue to drive with short choppy steps until the whistle blows. Head placement changes depending on the block that is being made. For example, if a one-on-one block is being made, your head is aiming for the sternum.

The key to blocking linebackers, when leaving a double team or 'showing-and-going' on a counter, is to stay under control. It is easy for an OL to rush and try to chase and hurry after an LB, but it will take them out of position. By taking perfect angles to the next level, the offensive lineman diminishes the speed advantage the LB has over him. Thus, the OL must take short choppy steps and explode when he reaches the LB; he must try to get his hands in correct placement to legally hold the LB. Most of the time when the OL gets his hands correctly on the LB it is lights out because of the extra strength he has over the defender.

Power or Drive Step - A short six-inch step forward to take on the DL. The target is the sternum of the Defensive Lineman. It is used mostly in the one-on-one blocking situations that the TE and C usually have to deal with. One of the most difficult blocks an offensive lineman has to make because of the lack of help and the free range of movement the defensive lineman has.

Zone Step - Short lateral step followed with a power step.

Bucket Step or Read Step - The idea is to lose ground to gain ground. Take a short 45 degree step backwards to get around to the inside/outside shoulder of the defensive lineman. Used mostly for backside double teams and reach blocks.

Pivot Step - Used when pulling where your first step turns your up foot horizontal and allows you to change direction.

Slide Step - Two lateral steps used to cover up the defensive lineman when he is shaded outside.

*Most of these steps can go by a variety different names, but the step is still the same.

First Level - Defensive Line

Second Level - Linebackers

Ace - A Double Team between a Center and Guard

Deuce - A Double Team between a Guard and Tackle

Trey - A Double Team between a Tackle and Tight End

Double Team - The central key to run blocking is getting movement on the first level through double teams. On the snap, the offensive linemen take their first steps to reach hip-to-hip, turn into one player, and drive the DL back by taking on 1/2 of the player at once. Man, it is a beautiful thing when it does happen. The lineman who peels off to the linebacker depends on where the LB reads the play and which route he takes to the hole. This is where the shade has such a large effect on double teams.

For example: A Tackle and Guard are running a deuce block and the DL is lined up as a 3 -technique (outside shoulder of the Guard). By taking two zone steps, the Tackle and Guard are able to get hip-to-hip easier since the DL is playing in the B gap. However, if the deuce block is being run against a 4 (inside shoulder of Tackle), the Tackle can expect nothing more than a hand of help because of how much farther away he is from the Guard and the Guard has to get up to the linebacker. The end goal of all double teams is to cover up two players while trying to get as much movement as possible on the first level.

Scoop Block - A backside double team. The goal here is to be as quick as possible since upfield movement is not the key; covering the defense is. In a zone blocking scheme (like what the Texans run), if a guard and tackle are backside, scooping a 3-technique is what will occur. The Guard will take a zone step and aim for the outside shoulder, but he will be only giving a punch and trying to turn the DT's shoulders. The Tackle will take a bucket step, reach the DT and take over the block from the Guard. When the Guard feels the Tackle take over, he will move to the Will (weakside outside linebacker). The goal is to seal off the backside of the defense from flooding into the play side. It is like trying to get the purple or black out of the yellow's domain when painting with water colors.

Pull - When an Offensive Lineman moves from one side of the line to the other. Used for trap, counter, draw, and sometimes rollout plays.

Trap - Let a DL go unblocked and trick him to run up field while a G pulls and takes him out when he is not expecting it.

Counter - Run blocking play where the backside G and T pull playside. The Guard kicks out the DE, and the Tackle runs up through the hole, taking on the first man he sees, which is usually the Sam (the strongside outside linebacker).

Zone Block - I won't go into much detail today, but it is simply run blocking where the entire offensive line blocks towards one side and takes on any DL in their gap. It leads to multiple double teams and cutback lanes for the running back.

Reach Block - A block done by the last guy on the line. Usually done by OT or TE on outside zones, rollouts, and tosses. The goal is to reach the outside shoulder of the defender by taking a read step, punching the shoulder, and getting your head placed on the outside number. You then turn the defender's body, vertically to the line of scrimmage, and push him to the inside away from where the play is going. One of the most difficult blocks to make, but it is essential to almost every outside running play.

Horn - This is used mostly in draw situations. It is when an offensive lineman drops back and pulls up behind and up around his fellow partner in crime. This type of blocking technique allows offensive linemen to switch blocking assignments and screw with the LB's ability to read the play. An example would be instead of using a traditional ACE block on between a C and G on a 1 technique, the Guard would block down on the 1 and the C would pull around to block the MLB.

Pass Block

Technique - When the ball is snapped, the offense linemen must snap their heads back like a cobra and get their hands into punching position while kick sliding back. The OL will mirror the DL and continue to kick slide until they are equal with each other and contact ensues. With his butt down and back straight, the offensive lineman punches, latches his hands around the numbers, and tries to bench the defender to create separation. After this, the key is to use your strength to force him in place. Don't let him escape your grasp while using your feet to stay in front of him. Watch the link and see what the OL is succeeding at or doing wrong.

Most holding penalties in pass protection come from offensive linemen having poor feet and continuing to try to hold on after the DL has escaped away from their zone. The difference in pass blocking technique between positions is footwork; the OG and C will engage quicker than the OT who will deal with faster players that will rush from farther outside. Pass blocking can be described as playing basketball defense while trying to wrestle an alligator. Everyone who actually plays defense in basketball has some idea how pass pro works, but does not understand the violence involved.

Kick Slide - Footwork used during pass blocking. It allows an OL to take longer strides to keep up with a quicker DL. Done at a 45-degree angle and consists of one foot dropping back (post foot) and the other sliding to catch up.

Piggy Back - During most pass pro schemes, an offensive lineman is uncovered and will either help out by doubling or kick slide backwards to pick up any outside blitzers that the tackle was not able to block or act as a last line of defense if an OL gets beat. This type of help is called Pigg- Backing and is usually done by the Guard.

Pocket - As the offensive line works together, they will create a pocket, or wall, for the QB to stand behind and deliver the football.

Quick Game - Usually a three-step drop where the QB is trying to get the ball out quickly. Most offenses run a pass pro that consists of sliding towards the strong side of the defense, with the backside blocking a man. At the snap, the OL goes to cut down the DL to get their hands down to stop passes being knocked out of the air.

Five-Step Drop Backs - Longer pass plays that lead to the one-on-one battles between OT and DE that everyone loves to watch. This is the type of pass protection that the technique discussed above deals with. The key to pass pro as a unit is to work together in order to create double teams and pick up stunts, blitzes, and not fall for the defense's tricks. Every player has a job, and when each one does it right, the QB will have all the time in the world.

Let me know any questions regarding the terms, anything you have been wondering about that I might have missed, or any clarifications you might need.