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ATVS Presents: A 2019 Football Glossary

A handy guide to some of the terms you’re going to hear a lot of over the next few months.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Texas A&M at LSU Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Football season isn’t quite here yet, but football practice is. In the process of previewing the 2019 LSU team, plus the various opponents, we’re going to be using a lot of X&O football jargon. And yeah, a lot of it has been explained in the past, but quite frankly, after 10 years of writing here at ATVS, its hard to avoid self-plagiarization. Especially with schemes and opponents that have been so static over this time, like Gus Malzahn, Dan Mullen and Nick Saban (and his various cronies).

So with that in mind, I thought a glossary of some of the more common football terms that you’ll see around here in the coming months might come in handy.



Coverages are the backbone of modern defense in the era of spread and hurry-up styles of offense.

  • Cover Zero: man-to-man coverage across the board, with no safety help. Most likely accompanied by a blitz
  • Cover One: also known as “man free.” Man-to-man coverage with a single safety maintaining deep leverage. Can blitz a 5th rusher or use that player as a clean up player (called a rat) in the middle of the field
  • Cover Two: two safeties split the field in half for deep leverage.
  • Cover Three: secondary divides the field into thirds down the field, down the middle and to each sideline. Generally the 2 cornerbacks and 1 safety
  • Cover Four: also known as “Quarters.” Deep coverage is split into fourths down the field.

The odd-numbered coverages are sometimes referred to as “single high” looks because one safety will usually align to the middle of the field (which can allow the other safety closer to the line of scrimmage for run support). The even numbers are sometimes called “two high” looks because both safeties will be aligned deeper.

Another popular term in the modern game is pattern matching. This is a style of zone coverage where, instead of just guarding a static area of the field, defenders read a receiver’s release and base their coverage area off of that. For example, a cornerback may switch from the outside receiver he’s lined up on to an inside slot receiver based on which player releases deep.

Defensive Line Techniques

Terms like “three-technique” or “shade” all refer to where a defensive lineman positions himself in relation to the offensive front. The terms are base on this numbered chart (with an example of LSU’s base defense):

  • Zero Technique: the typical nose tackle position, heads-up on the center.
  • One Technique: either shoulder of the center.
  • 2i Technique: the inside shoulder of the guard, closest to the center.
  • Two Technique: heads-up on the guard.
  • Three Technique: the outside shoulder of the guard.
  • 4i Technique: inside shoulder of the tackle.
  • Four Technique: heads-up on the tackle.
  • Five Technique: outside shoulder of the tackle.
  • Seven Technique: inside shoulder of the tight end.
  • Six Technique: heads-up on the tight end.
  • Nine Technique: outside shoulder of the tight end. Sometimes called a “wide nine.”

Linemen may “shade” a technique one way or another — shift their alignment slightly — to gain an advantage in a particular situation. For example, a zero-tech nose tackle may shade slightly off the nose of the center in order to create a shorter path into one of the A-gaps but still have direct leverage on the blocker.

One Gap or Two?

Another frequent discussion is the idea of linemen playing one gap versus two. A player defending one gap is doing just that — he is attacking a single gap between two linemen and usually trying to get directly up the field. Think Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams. A player defending two gaps, such as nose tackles are often asked to do in a 3-4 defense, will typically attack the offensive linemen directly. His goal is to control the blocker himself, so that the gaps to either side of him are open. Linemen who are especially good at playing two gaps will typically draw double teams.

Front Alignment

Most of you have a basic understanding of three-man or four-man fronts, but here are a few more useful terms:

  • Over: defensive line and linebackers are aligned towards the tight end (or the side of the field where the offense has an extra man.
  • Under: defensive line and linebackers are shifted away from the tight end.
  • Tite: a zero-tech nose tackle with two linemen in three or 4i tech positions. Our man Seth Galina has a great explanation of the advantages here.
  • Bear: three linemen directly over the center and two guards at the zero and two-tech positions.

Linebacker Positions

  • Sam: the outside linebacker to the “strong” side of the offense, or where it has a blocking advantage. Typically, to the tight end.
  • Mike: the middle linebacker.
  • Will: the outside linebacker to the weak side of the offense — opposite the Sam.

In LSU’s case, the linebacker positions are F and Bench on the outside and Mack and Rover on the inside. The F and Bench linebackers align based on the wide and short sides of the field.


Personnel Groupings

An easy shorthand for keeping track of the offensive personnel on the field is a simple two-digit system that starts with the number of backs in the formation followed by tight ends. The remainder are receivers.

  • 21: two backs, one tight end (two receivers)
  • 22: two backs, two tight ends (one receiver)
  • 20: two backs, no tight ends (three receivers)
  • 11: one back, one tight end (three receivers)
  • 12: one back, two tight ends (two receivers)
  • 10: one back, no tight ends (four receivers)
  • Zero: an empty set with five receivers
  • GL: a typical goal-line grouping with two backs, three tight ends and no receivers

Zone Blocking

A style of run-blocking that focuses on the offensive line, as a unit, working towards a certain area of the field and moving the defense with them. Blockers aim for a specific area of the field and work in tandem along specific paths, as opposed to targeting specific players. It is defined by three specific plays at the college level:

  • Wide Zone, aka Stretch or Outside Zone
  • Tight Zone, or Inside Zone
  • Split Zone, characterized by a cross-formation block to the back side of the play by tight end/H-back or fullback.

(images via Breakdownsports)

  • Counter/Power

Running plays designed to create an overload to one side of the formation. Blockers from the backside of the formation will pull to the front side to create extra gaps on that side of the field.

Counter features action towards one side of the play before a cut to the back side.

The Air Raid

It’s become a ubiquitous phrase in modern football — slang for any team that leans pass-heavy out of spread formations. But the offense that we actually know as the Air Raid was developed in the 1990s by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach across stints at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State, and the University of Kentucky. It was, essentially, a distillation of Mumme and Leach’s favorite plays from the BYU offense of Lavell Edwards and Norm Chow.

It’s an offense that has been taken in multiple directions in ensuing years by Leach and other coaches like Dana Holgorsen, Tony Franklin, Kliff Kingsbury and Neal Brown — but the origin goes back to the BYU offense that produced star quarterbacks like Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Ty Detmer through the 80s and early 90s.

Chris Brown wrote a personal favorite history of the offense here. This passage, in my opinion, drives the central idea of the offense home:

The wishbone and the Wing-T were playbooks, Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense a meticulous method of gameplanning, but the Air Raid is something more akin to an idea, or at least several related ones: that to get an advantage in modern football you need to be particularly good at something, and to be good at something you have to commit to that something, and if you’re going to commit to something it might as well be different.

Passing Concepts

The general idea of structuring certain routes together to affect, or create a specific reaction from the defense. Most pass concepts revolve around either creating mismatches for the offense to beat man-to-man coverage, or to attack zone defenses by either stretching defenders to create space, or by putting more receivers than defenders in some area of the field.

Some of the more popular concepts across the game are as follows:

  • Four Verticals

Also known as “Open 6” or “All Go,” four verticals features four down-field routes designed to either attack man-to-man, or stretch a zone defense to create space in the intermediate areas of the field. Most receivers will have options to break off routes based on the coverage or the open areas of the zone.

LSU showed this variation in the spring game, a New Orleans Saints staple:

  • Stick

This concept revolves around stretching the defense horizontally to create space for an inside receiver running a “stick” route — a seven-yard option route in which the receiver will break away from the nearest defender and either turn to face his QB or continue to run to an open area.

  • Three-Level

The offense uses three receivers at different vertical levels — a deep route, an intermediate in- or out-breaking route and a flat route — to stretch the defense and isolate a single receiver on a single defender. Effectively, turn zone coverage into man-to-man. The above examples illustrate three-level routes outside the hash marks and in the middle of the field.

  • Mesh

Mesh is a popular concept characterized by a pair of interlocking shallow crossing routes that will either create a “rub” or a pick on man-to-man coverage, or stretch zone coverage horizontally.

  • Smash
Smash Concept Basic

A two-route concept that generally consists of a short hitch with a corner route breaking over the top. This concept puts the outside corner in a high-low bind.

  • Weakside Option

Not the most popular of concepts but one Joe Brady has already stolen from Sean Payton and brought to Baton Rouge. Seth has broken the play down here and here. The goal is to isolate an inside receiver on the backside of an empty formation (or trips with the running back releasing early) against a linebacker and have him run inside or outside based on the leverage.

Consider this post a reference point for future breakdowns, and we’ll try to expand on the listing as things develop down the line.