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.
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.
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:
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.