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. Take the following 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 playing linebacker. What’s the first step you take in identifying the play that might be coming your way in just a few seconds?


  1. Situation:
    • Down and Distance: It’s 3rd-and-8 for the offense. On any given play, the offense only has two options: run or pass. Defensively, you’re trying to analyze the situation and narrow down which option is more likely. It would not be impossible to gain 8 yards on a run play, but the probability of gaining 8 yards on a pass play is far greater. When you also consider that it is 3rd-down, the offense will probably only take one attempt at getting the 1st-down before punting. But how do we know that they will punt the ball if they fall short of the 1st-down?
    • Score and Time: Although the offense is losing in the 4th Quarter, there is still a lot of time left to score–and they are only down by 3 points. It makes more sense for the offense to punt on 4th-down in this scenario and alter the field position, rather than give the opposition the ball back just outside of the red zone.
  2. Formation:
    • Running Back: Check the depth of the running back in relation to the quarterback–if he is a few yards deeper than the quarterback, the threat of a hand-off/run play is still imminent. In this scenario, it appears the running back is a few yards in front of the quarterback. There is no threat of a hand-off, as the running back will most likely be utilized as an extra blocker to help with blitz pick-up.
    • Wide Receivers: What is the personnel? In this situation, the wide receivers on the field are smaller, quicker players. The bigger, slower ‘blocking’ receivers are on the sideline. The smaller receivers are likely on the field to run routes, furthering our premonition that they will be passing the ball.
  3. Watch the Guard:

    Focus on the guard. 99% of the time he will take you to the play–the offense will try to confuse you with various gimmicks (e.g. backfield motion and shifts); ignore them. Keying the guard will make your read a lot easier and lead you to success.

    • Spacing and Depth: The offensive line can unknowingly tip off the defense in several ways. Depending on the play, a lineman may change up his spacing (e.g. tight to the man next to him so that he can help on a double team) or his depth (e.g. lining up slightly further back off the line of scrimmage to get an early start on a pass drop or pull). You notice that the guard is in a 2-point stance, slightly further back off the line than usual, and leaning back on his heels. This is yet another clue that a pass play is likely coming.
    • Weight Distribution: Another important clue to look for is a lineman’s hand, specifically the knuckle, when in a 3-point stance. If his knuckles are turning white, that means he is leaning forward and putting a lot of weight on his hands–suggesting that he is likely getting ready to fire out in preparation for a run block.
  4. Film Study:
    • Other Clues: Any clue that you can get from the offense to help hint at what the play might be is crucial. It is vital to watch film and pick-up on any tendencies that the opposing players may do. For example, in the 2015 AFC Championship Game, it was discovered that the Patriot’s center was bobbing his head immediately before every snap. This helped the defense time the snap perfectly–making the offensive line’s job extremely difficult. Any nuance or subtle clue to enhance performance can drastically alter the outcome of a game: Denver’s defense ended up sacking Tom Brady 4 times and hitting him 17 times in the Bronco’s victory.
    • Tendencies: By studying film of your opponent’s past games and reading scouting reports, you will be able to understand what the opposing team likes to do in certain situations. You can learn tendencies for any situation, for example:
  • Do they usually pass or run on 1st down? 2nd? 3rd? 4th?
  • What plays do they run in the red zone?
  • When the ball is on the left hashmark, do they usually run into the boundary or field? Right hashmark?
  • Does the quarterback like throwing to his right more than his left? Can he throw deep?
  • What route combinations do they usually run out of empty backfield formations?


Good players have the physical attributes to compete and contribute to the team; they do just enough to get by. Great players never miss a repetition in the weight room and train mentally. Great players spend hours studying film to pick up on the smallest cues that could give them an edge over their opponent on game day. Great players are able to process a wealth of information in just a few seconds. Great players are able to make quick decisions while under immense pressure. Great players have superior on-field awareness and mental stamina that helps them make plays late in games. Great players take their game to the next level!

Train Your Brain. Elevate Your Game.

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