Master the Football Pre-Snap Read to Identify a Play Before it Happens

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.

As a football player on defense, you are at a significant disadvantage against the offense. The main reason being that they have an entire playbook of plays and formations they practice extensively on a daily basis, and you have no idea which one they will run at any given time. But, there is a checklist that every defensive player should go through before each play that will ultimately give him a leg up on the opposition.

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You're probably thinking: "Identifying a play before it happens? Impossible." But, if you study enough and know which cues to look for, you may be able to figure out what the offense is planning to do before they even snap the ball. Consider the following scenario:

Ten 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 its 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 a linebacker. What's the first step you should take toward identifying the play that might be coming your way in a few seconds?


Down and Distance: It's 3rd and 8. On any given play, the offense only has two options: run or pass. Defensively, you're trying to analyze the situation and determine 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 have only one chance to get the 1st down before punting. But how do you know they will punt if they fall short of the 1st down?

Score and Time: Although the offense is losing in the 4th quarter, with ten minutes left, there is still plenty of time to get the ball back and score–and they are only down by 3 points. In that scenario, it makes more sense for the offense to punt on 4th down and alter their field position, rather than give your team the ball back just outside the red zone.

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Running Back: Check the depth of the running back in relation to the quarterback—if he is a few yards deeper, the threat of a run play is still imminent. In this scenario, it appears the running back is a few yards in front of the quarterback. There is little threat of a handoff, since the running back will most likely be used as an extra blocker to help with blitz pick-up.

Wide Receivers: Who are the personnel? In this situation, the wide receivers are smaller, quicker players. The bigger, slower "blocking" receivers are on the sideline. The smaller receivers are likely there to run routes, furthering the likelihood of a pass play.

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 on the guard will make your read a lot easier and lead you to success.

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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 (tight to the man next to him so that he can help on a double team) or his depth (lining up slightly further back from 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 coming.

Weight Distribution: Another important clue to look for is a lineman's hand, specifically the knuckle, when he's 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.

Film Study:

Other Clues: Any clue that you can get from the offense that hints 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 have. For example, in the 2015 AFC Championship Game, it was discovered that the Patriots center was bobbing his head immediately before every snap. This helped the Denver 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 Patriots QB Tom Brady four times and hitting him 17 times in the Broncos' victory.

Tendencies: Studying film of your opponent's past games and reading scouting reports will help you 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 toward the sideline or to the wide side of the field? What about from the 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 their 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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