03. Performance

Identifying a Play Before It Even Happens

August 8, 2019

You’re probably thinking: “Identifying a play before it happens? Impossible.” But if you study enough and know which cues to look for, yes, you just may be able to figure out what the offense is doing before they even snap the ball.

The Scenario

There are 10 minutes left in the 4th quarter. The opposing team is losing 10-7 and is currently on offense, about to face 3rd-and-8 from their own 25-yard line. The offense lines up in a Shotgun Doubles formation (2 wide receivers spread out to either side of the quarterback with a running back flanked next to the quarterback). You’re the linebacker. What are the steps you take in identifying the play coming your way in just a few seconds?

Shotgun Doubles Offensive Formation


Step 1: Reading the Situation

  • Down and Distance: It’s 3rd-and-8 for the offense. On any given play, the offense has two options, run or pass. Defensively, you’re trying to analyze the situation and narrow down which option is more likely. The probability of gaining 8 yards on a run player is lower than on a pass play. You also want to take into consideration that it’s 3rd down, which means that if the opposing team fails to gain the 8 yards, they will have to consider punting.
  • Score and Time: Although the offense is losing in the 4th quarter, there is still plenty of time remaining on the clock. It makes sense for the offense to punt on 4th down if they fail to convert on 3rd down.

Step 2: Analyzing the Formation

  • Running Back: The depth of the running back can be an important clue. If the RB is deeper in the formation than the Quarterback, he might be preparing for a hand-off. Otherwise, he’s most likely to be utilized as a blocker in case of a blitz.
  • Wide Receivers: Who is on the field and who isn’t? Wide receivers vary a lot but they usually fall into either the small and quick players category or the bigger, blocking type receivers. When smaller and quicker receivers are on the field it tends to mean a passing play is about to happen.

Step 3: Experience

  • Body language: Intensively studying film can help in gaining knowledge of certain players. This is obviously easier to do at the professional level but this is where a person’s cognitive ability to pay attention and interpret visual cues becomes important. For example, minor details such as nervous body ticks can be a crucial indication. In the 2015 AFC Championship Game, the Broncos discovered that the Patriots’ center moves his head in a certain way immediately before every snap. This helped the defense time the snap perfectly – leading to a total of 4 sacks and 17 hits against Tom Brady.
  • Statistics: Most of the time scouting reports and analytics can provide you with an additional edge. No matter who the coach or what the situation is, human beings tend to call plays that they’ve already had success with over a long-period of time. By simply using numbers, you can make an educated guess, with a good probability, of a play going one way or another. But it’s important not to over-rely on statistics.

Train Your Brain...Elevate Your Game

Good players have the physical attributes to compete and contribute to the team. Great players differentiate themselves by their hard work, dedication, and mental training. They spend hours studying film to pick up on the smallest cues that could give them an edge over their opponent. They are also able to mentally process a wealth of information in just fractions of a second so that they can make quick decisions under immense pressure.

Great players then take their game to the next level by doing cognitive training to achieve superior on-field awareness and mental stamina to make the 'clutch' play, when the other players have exhausted their mental capabilities.

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