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Line Lingo Pt. 3: Calling the Blocks

Let’s wrap up Line Lingo with an offensive focus.  If you’ve watched a recent New England Patriots game, you probably noticed Tom Brady going to the line of scrimmage screaming “Number XX is the Mike!”  In this situation, Brady is likely pointing out the central defensive player for his blockers.  Identifying the “Mike” or “zero man” is the first step in figuring out exactly who is blocking who.

Tom Brady in the shotgun; photo by Beth Pariseau, Cursedtofirst.com

Depending on how a defense lines up, different offensive linemen can be responsible for blocking different players.  Most offenses, from K-12 to the pros, use numbering systems to figure this out.  Most of the systems are pretty similar.  Some coaches prefer angled blocks, others prefer double-teams, and others prefer head-to-head fights on the line of scrimmage.  Despite these preferences, offensive lineman usually have to block players fairly close to them, so the blocking schemes have many common points .  If you’ve ever played line, there’s a good chance you could crack just about any playbook and recognize the basics pretty quickly.

Figuring out blocking assignments usually starts with the center.  Since this position is in the middle of the offensive line, the center has the best view of the defense.  Also, the other linemen can all quickly (and with balance) make their calls after the center.  The center’s target is generally a player lined up in front of him or slightly to one side.  It also depends on the type of play and where the ball is going; a pulling center, for example, would block someone further down the line.

The identification is made by pointing and shouting “zero man” or “Number XX is the Mike.”  The picture below shows a typical area of responsibility for a center where any defender in or touching the shaded box is a likely candidate for being blocked.  Having depth to the box is important because even in the 3-4 example below, the center may briefly hit or completely bypass the defensive tackle in front of him in order to pursue a second-level linebacker that’s the primary target.

Typical area where a center looks for defenders to imediately block.

When the guards hear this, they’ll know who’s left for them to block; they can point to their guys and call “one” or something else marking their target, if needed.  Then the tackles can call their man, and the tight ends call theirs.  Slide the shaded box in front of any lineman and you’ll get a normal area of responsibility for many plays and many schemes.  For a straightforward run play against an odd front, the numbers might look something like this:

Basic numbering vs. a 3-4 front; the weakside “three man” isn’t show due to a lack of a tight end on that side.

The angles aren’t always perfect, so offensive linemen will cooperate and assist each other in blocking defenders.  During a combination block, two linemen will get the same defender; the primary blocker will stay on this man, while the second blocker will slide off to find his own target.  There are many kinds of combination blocks; in fact, the zone/doo-dad schemes I discussed before relies on combination blocks.  Linemen also have to change their assignments based on who the backs might be responsible blocking.  If a play has the fullback blocking the Jack linebacker,  the defensive end or Will ‘backer might be the left guard’s assignment.

As a defender, knowing who’s trying to block you can be an advantage, though not much.  The center could be responsible for a middle linebacker on anything from a QB sneak to a Hail Mary. Offenses will also use fake identifications and plays that run against tendencies to make the defense honest.  Identifying just how you’ll block somebody is a little easier to use against you, so you’ll see linemen take more caution in this regard, e.g., a fold block (where one blocker loops behind another to get a better angle) works much better if the defense doesn’t see it coming.

But what about Tom Brady?  Why does he identify the Mike?  The clue here is that he usually makes this call while in shotgun.  When making a shotgun snap the center has to look away from the defense.  When the center is looking away, the defense will often shift men around to confuse the offenses blocking schemes.  The Giants do this a lot.  Their movement forced Brady to help the center with his calls during the game.  The Giants also recognized weaknesses in the Patriots’ blocking schemes as plays unfolded; this, coupled with their ability to confuse New England, helped them contain the normally high-powered Pats offense in two Super Bowls.

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3 Responses to "Line Lingo Pt. 3: Calling the Blocks"

  1. Jon says:

    The NFL and college football use way more complex blocking schemes than the one you describe as most use zone blocking where instead of blocking a person the linemen block an area. If the o-line pointed to who they were blocking it would basically tell the defense where the ball is coming, that doesn’t happen in college or the pros, high school and below probably. What Brady and other quarterbacks are calling out are blitzes, coverage etc. The center on the other hand is identifying the front, their alignment, and calling a blocking scheme based on the alignment and the play called, rather that be slide protection, gap etc. If football were as easy as what you described then even the average fan would be a great coordinator, football and the plays are way more complex than “center blocking ng, LG blocking mike, RG blocking backer, LT blocking stud, and RT blocking end and TE blocking will” tha’ts pee wee football.

    • Well, Jon, you seem to miss the point that I’m intentionally simplifying here (as stressed repeatedly by words like “simple” and “basic”), and then to top it off, you say some stuff that shows a fairly poor understanding of football.

      This series identifies specific, extremely common words heard in press conferences, interviews, and on the field at most levels of play, then grounds them in very basic terms. Going into the details of individual schemes would miss the point. Nowhere do I state or suggest that this is an ultimate analysis, and you’ve had to intentionally misread the piece to think that I’m trying to do that, or to think that blathering about “pro schemes” makes sense in this context. If readers see a gap team calling numbers, they’ll know what they’re doing. If they see a zone squad designating the Mike, they’ll know what what’s going on.

      Fine, you aren’t the first person ever to skim an article and impose your needs on it. That’s not as bad as you spreading lousy info on the game itself. To cite complexity, you bring up zone schemes. This makes no sense. Not only are zone schemes some of the simplest blocking schemes in the country, they’re based on the same Mike-call rules I describe. Alex Gibbs (the guy credited with designing the modern zone scheme) says his center has to know the Mike, and the rest of the linemen just need to know strong or weak-side rules. This isn’t just a glib press quote, either: it’s from a multi-hour private session he gave to the coaching staff at the University of Florida.

      Heck, while I was writing the article I referenced my diagrams against a clinic presentation on mixed gap/zone schemes from Steve Addazio, the guy who arranged that session with Gibbs. I was thinking about showing some variations. But why would I? It’s an article on the basics, and line calls aren’t as universal as gaps, holes, and techniques, nor do they come up as often. But just for your benefit, I glanced through a 2004 playbook for the New Orleans Saints, and whaddya know, they use a mix of Mike and number calls that are pretty easy to figure out if you know the basics of numbering. And just about every play has a written note saying it all starts with “Center – Declare Mike.” Shoot, they even verbally designate situational blocks like fold blocks.

      That’s not surprising, because the same communication rules are used in almost every pro/college/high school offense these days. If you know everything flows from the Mike/Zero, then you know why the center’s the most talkative guy on the line and you’ll usually know exactly what he’s doing. And if you’re at a high school game where you hear kids talking, you’ll know what’s going on (the point of this article, if you recall, being to gain insight on what players and coaches are talking about.) Unless your entire offense consists of two running plays, identifying your man just doesn’t give away much, and calling the middle of the defense gives away even less.

      As for your pee-wee football comment, base positional rules are probably more common than defined schemes; my sincerest apologies if anyone felt it was necessary for me to cover those as well—in retrospect, that was a hole in this article. I should also note per my discussion on guards/tackles/TEs identifying their men, I included a little phrase in there—“if needed”—to denote that it’s not a universal act. And finally, how do you think the Pats are going to make all those blitz pick-ups if they don’t declare a Mike? That’s the actual “front” designation—it shows the center of the defense. And who’s going to make the Mike call it if the defense happens to stem or shift when the center’s looking away, i.e., in the specific circumstance I describe? You can probably guess.

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