How to Watch Football: Understanding “Base” Concepts on Offense

by Sam Martin

This is the first of what I hope will be many posts to help you, the reader with a spotty knowledge of America’s favorite sport, better enjoy gridiron action this fall. Welcome to football season!

Football is a game where two opponents, for the most part, attempt to impose their will on one another. Everyone loves a good trick play every now and then, but very few teams (among them the brilliantly coached Boise State) consistently win games by deceiving the opponent. Football teams, both on offense and defense, rely on a small set of plays and concepts–their “base” stuff–that they like to run, and then work their countermoves off of that. If you understand what your team’s base concepts are, you will sound very smart on weekends this fall when watching games with buddies.

I am a highly devoted Michigan State fan. Because they’re the team that I understand best, I’m going to focus on them in this post. We’ll talk a lot about other teams in future posts (some of my favorites are Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, and Oregon), but for now, let’s look at what Sparty likes to do on offense.

“Power Football”

You don’t have to be a big football fan to have heard about “power” offenses, “west coast” offenses, and “spread” offenses. “Power,” “west coast,” and “spread” are just three examples of the myriad styles of offensive football out there. Those terms can be more or less descriptive of how the team plays, but they give you an idea of the formations and base plays the team runs.

Most teams establish an “identity” on offense by running a core set of plays very well. The team will work to establish those core plays and force the defense to adjust, then work the counters and constraint plays in response to those adjustments. The team in question today, Michigan State, builds its identity around a few running plays: “inside zone,” “stretch,” and of course, “power.”

Breaking tackles will help any blocking scheme.

“Power” is a classic football play that relies on a simple concept: getting more blockers into an area than the defense has defenders, then using those blockers to pulverize the outnumbered defense. Michigan State does this with a big, physical offensive line clearing the way for their bruising tailback, Le’Veon Bell. Former Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger described the experience of  trying to defend MSU’s “power” game like this: “When they all come off at one time they look like a herd of water buffalo stampeding at you, and there’s a gazelle somewhere behind them.”

It’s hard to describe in text the moving parts on a football field, so I made a video. I’ll work on being more entertaining/engaging/better looking in future weeks, but this one gets the job done.

All right, that’s enough for this week. If you want to read more on “power,” this piece over at Smart Football can’t be beat. Please post any questions in the comments! I’m going to try to get facebook commenting installed on here soon, but for now you can just use your name to comment below.