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Football Terminology for Dummies

football-dummies-book outblush

Earlier this week, Matt was confused about a Tweet from Lonny Demaree.  Thar’s usually the case with Lonny’s tweets, but this one actually did make sense, asking the question of whether JUCO linebacker Ryan Flannigan would play either the Mike or Will position.  When Matt had no idea what a Mike or Will was, I had no idea that it wasn’t common knowledge.

In order to help you become more learned about the game of football, I’ve compiled a list of basic terms used on a daily basis on the football field.  Knowing the position slang is one thing, but the most important thing I’d like to teach is that before every play, on both sides of the line of scrimmage, there are alignments, assignments and adjustments.  Getting lined up is most important, but it is much more difficult than you think because most times you must react via adjustments (you’ve seen QBs look to the sidelines hundreds of times for audibles).  From there, it’s all about executing the play (assignments!).

I don’t expect you to become a coach after reading this, but hopefully you have a better perspective on just how much strategic work the players and coaches must do in order to be successful.


X, Z, H, Y: These letters are your shorthand for the wide receivers.  The X is usually your big, primary receiver, with the Z  flanking on the opposite side of the field.  The H is the slot WR, a la Ryan Timmons, and the Y is the tight end.  If you want to break them down further based on skill set, a possession receiver is a big guy that can always be counted on to make the catch, whereas a deep threat/open-field receiver is known for making plays after the catch.


Mesh:  The read option play has become a staple of college football over the last ten years.  In the shotgun, the quarterback has a delayed handoff motion with the running back.  The QB decides whther to keep it or hand it off, based on what the actions of the weakside defensive lineman.  This delayed exchange in the backfield is referred to as a mesh.

Bubble:  The Bubble screen is used at UK more often then some would like.  The quick pass to the outside was best used by Randall Cobb.

UK Athletics

UK Athletics

The “Timmons Toss”:  This is what I call UK’s shovel pass.  With Timmons in motion, the ball is snapped and pitched forward.  The forward pitch is technically a pass, even though it looks like an outside run play.

Seam:  The wide receiver runs down the middle of the field, in between the safeties.

Square-  The WR goes 10-yards, before cutting straight across the field in this route.

Post/Flag-  These deep routes both start with cuts 10-yards down the field, but the post is angled to the middle (the goalpost) and the flag is angled towards the outside (the flag refers to the pylon on the corner of the goal line).

Curl, Hitch-  These routes are comeback routes, except the hitch occurs only five yards down the field, where the curl happens at 8-10 yards.

Wheel:  A wheel route is a dangerous, deep passing play.  With two receivers on one side, the slot WR runs an outside deep route, behind the outside WR who is running a post.  Where the two receivers meet can create a basketball-like pick, leaving one person wide open.

Pull:  Instead of using a fullback as the running back’s lead blocker, a weakside guard or tackle is used.  When the guard pulls down the line, it’s a “trap”; when the tackle pulls it’s a “counter.”  They could also pull both guard and tackle, often called a “CAT,” short for counter trap.

Play action:  This pass play starts with a fake handoff.

Draw:  The quarterback drops back to pass, before giving a sneaky handoff to the running back.

The Option:  The most college football play ever perfected by the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 90s,  As you’ll see in the video below, it’s often sink or swim, leading to a big play or a fumble (in this case, it’s both).


I:  With the quarterback under center, the fullback and halfback lineup directly behind him to create an I.

The Maryland and Power-I:  Instead of two backs behind the QB, three are used for a power-running attack in the Maryland-I.  The Power-I also uses three, except one back is offset behind the offensive guard.

The Shotgun and Pistol:  I hope I don’t need to explain the shotgun.  The QB isn’t under center, alleviating pressure from the defense.  The pistol adds more space by putting the running back five-yards behind the quarterback instead of directly next to him.

Doubles, Trips and Quads:  This is pretty self-explanatory too: doubles means two WRs are lined up on one side, trips is three and quads is four.

There’s a lot more, but I don’t want to beat a dead horse.


Pancake:  When a lineman buries an opponent in the ground, it’s time to eat pancakes.

Hot Route:  This could mean anything for any team, but in Wedding Crashers it’s used to motion Owen Wilson.



Nose, Tackle and End:  Jimmy Brumbaugh’s DLine moves around a lot, but you can always count on two ends lined up across from offensive tackles.  If they only want three down linemen, there will be a noseguard across from the center, instead of two tackles in the inside.

Mike, Will and Sam:  Now you know, but just in case, the Mike is in the middle, the Sam is strongside and the Will is weakside.  The Will is more pass-guarding savvy, whereas the other two tend to be aggressive run stoppers.  The primary reason they have these names is to make playcalling simpler.  If you wanted to bring the Sam and Will, it’s easier to call a “SAW” blitz instead of a strong/weak blitz.

Free and Strong:  Saying safety takes too long, so we’ll just call ’em Free and Strong.  The Free is ALWAYS the deep man on the defense, whereas the Strong can be all over the field depending on the coverage.

Monster:  Remember when Winston Guy made a tackle about every other play?  He played the Monster position, a spot that is similar to the strong safety, except they are given much more linebacker-type responsibilities and only used by certain defensive coaches.


Lucky/Ringo:  No, we’re not talking about the Beatles’ drummer going through a hot streak.  In order to get everyone lined up properly, you must know which side of the field the offense has more players (the strong side).  Linebackers will call out “LUCKY” if the left side is the strong side and “RINGO” if it is the right side.  Echoed throughout the defense, these words are used because they are unique.  By simply saying “RIGHT”, it could be confused with “TIGHT.”

Gaps and Techniques

techniques baltimore beatdown

Any smart person can figure out that the best defense is one that accounts for every player on the field.  Once the Lucky/Ringo call is made, each person is becomes responsible for a gap (A,B,C).  The DLine will then assume their correct numerical spot that is reflective of the offensive line.

The picture above shows the Baltimore Ravens 3-4 defense, a look we’ll see on many 3rd downs this year.  Za’Darius Smith would line up in a 5-technique across from the left tackle, making him responsible for the C Gap.  His job is to not let the QB get outside into the C Gap by whatever means necessary.  Coach Brumbaugh uses the phrase “2 Gapper” as a point of praise, because if you can blow up two gaps on the line of scrimmage, the chances of the offense crossing the line of scrimmage are slim.

The Box:  This area of the defense is located between the offensive tackles, and extends 8-yards vertically down the field.  When you hear the phrase, “they’re loading the box,” it means the defense is adding players to the area to slow down the run game.

4-3 and 3-4:  Four defensive linemen and three linebackers (you can do the vice versa); pretty simple right?

Nickel:  Primarily used in passing situations, a linebacker is subbed out for a defensive back.  Blake McClain absolutely killed it last year in the Nickel role.  Without a ton of linebackers in the crew, the Nickel is the primary defense on the depth chart this year.

Dime:  The Dime takes it a step further than the Nickel, using six DBs instead of five.

Wide Tackle 6:   I don’t think anyone in the country runs it anymore, but in the 80s this 4-4 look was very popular.

Bear:  A run-stopping attack that looks like goal line defense, the DLine moves to the weakside and linebackers moves closer to the line on the strongside.  The namesake comes from Buddy Ryan’s Bears in the 80s.


A Cover 3 zone defense in a 4-3 scheme, as depicted by Madden.

A Cover 3 zone defense in a 4-3 scheme, as depicted by Madden.

Cover 4, Cover 3, Cover 2, Cover 1:  You’re familiar with these zone defenses if you’e played Madden.  The number indicates how many players will be in the deepest zone as the last line of defense.  Naturally, the more likely it is to be a pass, the more likely the defense will play Cover 3 or 4.

Man, Bump and Run:  Man defenses speak for themselves and are usually used when blitzing.  Usually cornerbacks give receivers a 4-7 yard cushion, except when they’re right in the receivers face in Bump and Run coverage.

Spy:  Running quarterbacks like Cam Newton are notorious for shredding through UK defenses.  In order to make sure the QB doesn’t make a ridiculous running play, a linebacker becomes a “spy,” charged with containing the quarterback inside the offensive tackles.

Zone Blitz:  In order to create confusion, when a linebacker blitzes in this package, a defensive lineman drops back to replace him in pass coverage.

Stunts/Twists:  Offensive linemen can become complacent when they see the same person every play.  The defense will criss-cross the tackles and ends to reek havoc on man-blocking schemes.

Feel free to let me know what I forgot in the comment section. 

Article written by Nick Roush

"Look upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole." @RoushKSR

16 Comments for Football Terminology for Dummies

  1. Tommy Tows
    5:18 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    Win-When your team scores more points than the other team.

  2. manlySmell
    5:29 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    I must be crazy.. cause that option/ fumble video did not look crazy to me. Yet it is labeled as crazy.. and the sign to being crazy is not knowing what crazy is. I’m gonna line my walls with rubber tonight… with crazy glue… which I do not find to be crazier than any other glue… except for glue sticks for hot glue guns… those things crack me up.

  3. Nice Job!
    6:34 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    Great job Nick. Very informative!!

  4. Amanda
    6:44 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    I loved this article. It’s a great overview for people like myself who enjoy watching football but don’t know all of the terminology associated with the game.

  5. Footbaw
    6:47 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    Good overview. Only thing I’d add is that, when the X receiver is on the opposite side of the line from the tight end, he’s referred to as a “split end,” and always lines up on the line of scrimmage. Term isn’t used as much any more because of the shift toward 4- and 5-receiver sets (so no TE), but still in use frequently enough that casual observers should be familiar with it.

    Meanwhile, Matt renewing his traditional role of not knowing a football term known by most casual fans reminds us all that FOOTBALL IS ALMOST HERE.

  6. Brandon
    7:08 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    I can’t stand watching games with people who don’t understand these terms among others. Jon Gruden.. Confusing one Monday night football warrior at a time..

  7. jeff j
    7:08 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    dont confuse me with facts. is this chess in motion or what ? just snap the ball & knock somebody down, see what happens…………………

  8. Chambi
    7:21 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    Great overview, but that’s not a wheel route.

  9. Boo this man
    7:34 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    Your “analysis” of the option play is simultaneously woefully lacking in historical terms and completey uninformative. And I’m pretty sure that the key aspect to a “counter” play is the misdirection in the backfield that is intended to throw off the reads of second and third level defenders. I dont expect you know any better because its clear that when you “researched” this article, you did so on “Madden”.

  10. 8andcounting
    7:44 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    Pretty solid, but “mesh” is not the read option, which you described. Mesh is a single passing play across the middle in which the two inside receivers (can be receiver and tight end) cross; if man defense, they keep running, if zone defense, they find a hole in the zone and sit in it. There are variations on what the outside receiver(s) does.

    • wildcats62
      8:11 am August 8, 2014 Permalink

      I scrolled down to say the same thing

  11. Wow...
    7:47 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    While I think this is a good idea, there are quite a few errors in this….That is no where close to a wheel route….at all lol KSR needs to stick with basketball

  12. Jc
    8:54 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    Virginia tech still runs a variation of the wide tackle 6 at times. Gotta have unreal secondary to run it.

  13. clancyhat
    10:00 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    Well, I thought I was very informative and very good/helpful article. There were a lot of mistakes – but maybe that was mostly semantics. I assume it wasn’t written to help football experts but for the novice.
    So there was some simplifying going on.
    And yes, Matt is an idiot when it comes to football.

  14. Josh
    10:12 pm August 7, 2014 Permalink

    This post was so bad I thought it was written by tyler thompson. Not your best work.

  15. theWilkman
    10:41 am August 8, 2014 Permalink

    If you’re trying to educate the football novice, probably a good idea to fact-check. As a a former OL I can’t speak to the accuracy of the WR routes, but that description of the counter and counter-trap is incorrect. A counter is when the RB takes his first step in the opposite direction of the play to misdirect the defense, then cuts back for the handoff. It is a counter-trap when it’s accompanied by a pulling weak-side G or . A counter doesn’t have to have a pulling OL and often doesn’t, as the RB usually hits the A gap to take advantage of the misdirection.