Football is a great game. Great not in a “Football Is Life” t-shirt kind of way but in a numbers kind of way.
Most people understand the numbers game as it relates to statistics. How many yards did he run for? What is my team’s first down efficiency rate on 3rd and 8 plays? How many tackles did my boy have? Touchdowns? Catches?
What most people don’t realize about football is behind the curtain, the sport is all about a different kind of numbers game. The numbers of advantage. This is the side game that has always appealed to me. The coaching side of the game. On the coaching side, it’s all about the numbers and gaining a numbers advantage.
At its very basic level, offensive football is about gaining a numbers advantage in your favor where you want to run or pass the ball. Think about some of the different offenses out in the game today. Spread or air raid passing offense spreads out your defense and then reads how you align. If the defense leaves 5 or fewer in the box (at the LOS), the read is usually a run read because you have a blocking advantage. If the defense puts six defenders in the box, the offense will read where in the secondary the advantage of numbers or matchups occurs and then attack that.
In the zone read, option, veer, RPO, or other read-based offenses, at least one defender is left unblocked. The QB reads what those unblocked defenders do and reacts accordingly. Away from the unblocked defenders, the offense uses its numbers advantage to block or attack the defense.
As a former offensive line coach, one of the things I tried to do with blocking schemes was to use numbers and angles to give us the advantage and put one defender “on an island”. We were almost always undersized but athletic with our offensive lineman so gaining an advantage in our schemes was necessary. We used double teams, combo blocks, pulls, and fold blocks to give us different angles and favorable numbers to help our smaller players block larger defenders. We had more successes than failures because we understood the value of the numbers game.
Defensively, the numbers game is equally important. We have to neutralize the offense’s attempt to gain their own numbers advantage at the point of attack and then pursue relentlessly to regain the numbers advantage at the ball or spot.
Two of our biggest challenges came against a team that ran the double wing another team that ran the double tight wishbone offense. Both teams ran their offenses to near perfection. The toss play in the double-wing offense and the belly play with the wishbone offense.
I still remember how Coach Paul Lane would tell kids about the double wing team’s toss play. He walked down the scout team’s double-wing formation and point to a spot between the tackle and the tight end and say, “They’re going to line up tight and then bring 600 pounds of humanity over to THIS point!” After walking over the two backside pulling linemen and the lead blocking fullback, he showed how vital it was for our defenders to neutralize and form a wall at the line of scrimmage and then pursue to the run alley to make the play. Against both offenses, if we were to have success, we had to neutralize their number advantage attack and establish our own numbers advantage.
The numbers game. It’s the cat and mouse, nuts and bolts of football.
As a coach, if you don’t understand the numbers game concept, then all the pretty diagrammed plays, graphs, and charts in your playbook are useless. Lifeless and worthless to the success of your team.
Below is an example of the importance of understanding the numbers game from a recent high school game I watched.
Play One – The offense lined up in a TE left, wing left with twins to the opposite side. They pull the backside guard and hand it off to the RB on a power lead play. The defense lined up pretty well on this play with the corner aligned with outside leverage on the #1 receiver and the safety over the #2 TE. Although the ILB is probably a step too far outside for my liking with this formation, the alignment look is rather neutral on the numbers game. The defense allowed about 10 yards on the run because the pulling guard and the playside blockers don’t get neutralized well enough at the point of attack and the pursuit fills a bit slow. Nevertheless, the defense did a good job establishing numbers on their alignment. The problem was in the execution and fundamentals, two things that can be fixed.
Play Two – The very next play the offense flipped the formation and ran the same play. This time the defense does not align properly, The ILB, corner, and safety are all outside the frame of the offense, subtracting 3 players from the numbers game. Even before the snap, the defense was in bad shape. In this play, the pulling guard and blocking scheme gave the offense at least a +3 number in the run alley. The play went for a long touchdown. Numbers matter.