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How do you Scout your Opponents Offensive Lineby: Matt Fulks
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It always seems to work this way, things filtering down from the colleges to the high schools. As technology with digital editing has advanced and pro teams have become more intricate in their scouting, so, too, have colleges and high schools. One place that’s as prevalent as any other is picking apart your opponents’ offensive linemen.
Anton Stewart, the defensive coordinator at Pittsburg State (KS), is among the growing number of coaches who closely scouts his opponents’ linemen each week, trying to find any advantage that might be there. Coaches look for anything from mismatches they can exploit to mismatches their opponent might try to use, to tips that individual linemen might give off through nuances or tendencies.
“The biggest thing I look for is the type of athletic ability that the offensive linemen have,” said Stewart. “Nowadays, for the most part, they’re all going to be big in size, so the key is how well they move, their run-blocking technique, pass-blocking technique, and how good of body balance they have.”
“I watch first to see what kind of tips they’re going to give off by looking at their stance,” said Peter McCarty, the defensive line coach at the University of Central Florida. “Then I’ll go to splits and levels, and see if they exploit what they’re going to do. For instance, when is a lineman going to line tight on the line of scrimmage and when is he going to back up?”
Mike Van Diest, the head coach at Carroll College in Montana, takes it a step further. “We try to break each player down individually and see who their best players are and if there’s possibly a weak link in terms of skill level,” he said. “Also, we try to look at their tendencies before the snap. … There are a lot of things we try to do with film.”
BREAKING DOWN OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
As with everything else in football, there is no right or wrong way to break down tape of offensive linemen. For most defensive coaches, the initial review remains the opponent’s overall offensive scheme. What are the team’s top running and passing plays? Do they do anything differently than past opponents?
That review of the offensive linemen as they relate to the team’s top plays helps you work with your defensive linemen to show them what types of blocks they can expect based on those plays, and how you’d like to counter those blocks.
“We might see from the breakdown that they’re running a power play off-tackle,” said McCarty, “so we want to look at their point of attack and see what they like to do, such as tighten the tight end tackle gap.”
At Carroll College, which has won the NAIA national championship the past four years, Van Diest’s coaches have different roles when breaking down the opponent’s linemen. For instance, Van Diest and the defensive backs coach will break down plays in terms of down and distance, placement on the field and the team’s formation. The defensive line coach breaks down the offensive linemen along with the tight end.
“Then, we’ll take all of that information and put together a scouting report of their personnel,” he said, “as well as tendencies of the offense.”
FINDING AN EDGE
One of Van Diest’s coaching stops before becoming the head man at Carroll, was the University of Wyoming. The center of one of the Cowboys’ opponents had both hands on the football whenever his team was going to run, and then he had his non-snapping hand on his hip whenever his team was going to pass. Presumably, his hand was on his hip to help give him an advantage of getting into pass protection quicker. Little did he know that, through scouting the linemen, he was tipping off the Cowboys.
Although offensive line coaches have done a better job at eliminating those signals, it remains a game of cat and mouse. “Each week, we look at the film and see if we can find one offensive player that maybe tips a run or pass based on his stance or depth of his stance from the line of scrimmage,” said Van Diest. “There’s always something and we work hard at finding it from one or two guys.”
Even with better self-scouting by offensive coaches and the less obvious telegraphing by their linemen, defensive coaches say there are little subtleties.
“Are they heavy with their heads down toward the ground? If they have a lot more weight on their hands, or their backs are a lot flatter, there’s a good chance they’re wanting to come off the football harder for a running-type play,” said Stewart, who’s developed one of the nation’s top NCAA Division-II defenses over the past 11 years.
The same holds true for pulling guard plays. “If they’re pulling, you a lot of times can see that there’s not quite as much weight on their fingers when they’re down in their stance,” Stewart said. “Or, they might be leaning a little to the left or right, showing that they’re getting ready to pull that direction. It’s amazing nowadays, though, that there aren’t a lot of teams that pull the guards; at least not with the teams we’re playing. They’ll have power running plays or play-action where they might pull the guard.”
If your opponent is a team that pulls the guard, keying on the stance of the linemen might be the best indicator of when those plays are coming. Otherwise, both down and distance and play tendencies help determine when to expect them to run those plays. “We base it more on play tendencies,” said Peter McCarty, who completed his second season at Central Florida, after two years as Stanford’s defensive line coach. “Down and distance isn’t as significant as far as our guys are concerned.”
“We base it quite a bit more on down and distance,” Mike Van Diest said. “That’s the biggest key, which helps us in terms of our calls. It depends, though, on what personnel the offense has out there based on what we’ve seen on tape.”
When down and distance will play a role is in your opponent’s overall offensive scheme. In much the same way that individual linemen might telegraph an upcoming play, offensive coaches can become creatures of habit when it comes to play calling. When it’s third-and-short, the quarterback might oftentimes try a quick count or a hard count to draw the defense off, for example.
"You definitely need to see if they run a certain play on a certain down and distance, and have your defensive line ready for it,” McCarty said. “But offenses are more aware of what they’re doing. The days of showing up and saying they’re going to run this play 28 times, or they’re going to run this play on first down and this play on second and long, or whatever, are gone.”
“Watching for tendencies, we usually base it on down and distance, formation and where they are on the field,” said Van Diest. “We have the field broken down into zones and we see what plays they run in certain situations in those zones. And we can see from that if there are certain linemen that they’re likely running behind on certain plays.”
A SPOT FOR EVERYONE
The digital editing age has given coaches a great tool because so much more can be done than with the traditional VHS tape. With the offensive line, for instance, you can look at the unit as one, or key on each individual player. Of course, that means that there can be too much information. “It’s somewhat general as far as how much we watch individual linemen,” McCarty said. “We’re more specific about the play and what our guys are going to see on the play. It’s possible to get too specific, and take too much extra time.”
“We will look to see if one of the players on the offensive line is a weak spot, but I mainly look at them as a whole offensive line,” says Stewart. Even if the individual offensive linemen aren’t broken down, one player to keep in mind is the tight end. “The tight end is probably the one guy most teams don’t pay attention to,” said Stewart. “A lot of teams don’t throw to him much; they just use him as a blocker. The key is looking at their offensive scheme and see how they use him. Of course, the stats also help tell what the tight end does.”
“We try to see what mismatches they like to get with the tight end,” Van Diest says. “Do they try to get him isolated on the linebacker? Some teams may have certain play-calling tendencies when the tight end’s in the game, so we want to scout him in their scheme.”
Once your opponent’s offensive line film is broken down however you feel is best, you need to determine which players need to watch it. The most common practice is to have the defensive tackles watch film of the center and guards. After that, it’s up in the air. “Our two interior guys will look at all five offensive linemen,” said McCarty. “The outside guys really only need to know the tackles, tight ends and the backs.”
“Obviously our defensive linemen will study the tape very hard as well as our linebackers,” Van Diest said. “Occasionally we’ll have our secondary watch the film to maybe have a run-pass key off an uncovered lineman. Especially if we’re in zone, we want to see if we can tell if it’s going to be run or pass based on the uncovered lineman.”
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Since line coaches will argue that games are determined in the trenches, once a defensive coach analyzes the offensive line and your opponent’s tendencies, it’s time to decide how you want to attack their blocking schemes, pass protection and blitz them. “Blocking schemes for the run are pretty universal,” said Pittsburg State’s Stewart. “You can run every sort of offense imaginable, but you’re really only going to have about four different blocking schemes at the offensive line. That’s why we don’t prepare our guys to see seven or eight plays that our opponent might run. We just prepare them for the main two or three that they’ll see the most, and then the kids will react and make adjustments for the other plays.”
Central Florida’s McCarty agrees that your players will react. Of course, part of that falls on the coaches. “From day one in preseason, you’re working on block protection all the time,” he said. “You may go against a blocking scheme one week and then not see it again for seven weeks. So your kids need to have a good understanding of how the schemes work and that for every action there’s a reaction.”
For Van Diest at Carroll College, it goes back to that game of cat and mouse. “We’ll draw up four or five of their favorite run plays against two or three of our favorite run fronts,” he said, “and then we’ll see how they might like to block it. Then, we like to look at their pass protection and see who they’re putting the back on. That helps us with our blitz package. That’s not to say that we’ll get somebody free because we have a great blitz package drawn up, but I want to see where we think we might be able to get some mismatches.”
For all intents and purposes, pass protection and blitzes from a defensive standpoint go hand in hand. “The key in all of this,” Stewart says, “is getting your kids to recognize what set they’re getting and the factors that determine what the offense will try to do.”
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