Offensive Football Plays

Plays for Football Offenses

Offensive football plays have evolved over the years. Originally, offenses could only move the ball downfield with running plays. The flying wedge was highly effective, yet highly dangerous play used first by Harvard University.

It was banned from college football by 1895, due to the high injury rates. Opponents would literally be trampled (sometimes to death) by the V-shaped formation.

In 1906, the forward pass was made legal, to make American football safer. Since that time, the college and pro games have integrated a greater variety of passing formations into their offenses. In today’s NFL, passing numbers are at an all-time high. Meanwhile, the most successful youth football teams still rely on the running play as their bread and butter.  Here are the most common running and passing plays in football.

Running Plays

Running the football originally was the only way to advance the ball. Traditionally, a good running game is considered the safer, more reliable way to move an offense. While passing the ball is more exciting, a team which can consistently run the ball on an opponent has a decided advantage in a game.

Running plays tends to wear down the opposing defense, while also running time off the clock. This shortens the game and keeps the team’s defense off the field, which is considered a boon for the defense. “Running the ball and playing defense” has traditionally been considered the key to winning championships.

Dive Play

Offense Plays - Offensive Plays - Offensive Football PlaysThe Dive Play is the most basic running play in football. The dive requires a running back to take the handoff and “dive” into the center of the line. A dive can take place between a center and guard or between a guard and a tackle.

A fullback dive requires the fullback to become a battering ram, taking the direct path and bulling through the line. A halfback dive has the fullback go into the “hole” as a lead blocker, clearing out the linebacker or double-teaming a particularly troublesome blocker.

The dive is used for short yardage plays and goal line plays. It can be used anywhere on the field, though, trying to hit the defense with a quick run inside while it’s defenders are concentrating on other threats. The dive is sometimes used as a set-up for a play action pass, which requires a fake handoff on a dive and a quick throw downfield once the linebackers and safeties are “froze” by the play action.

The dive is sometimes known as a plunge.

Off Tackle Runs

Off Tackle plays means the running back runs off the outside hip of the tackle. The off-tackle run is probably the most-used play in football.

This play tries to get the runner on the edge of the defense in the quickest way possible. The tackle and the tight end try to “seal” the defense by blocking inside, though the tight end might also try to “kick out” the linebacker; that is, he might try to block the linebacker to the outside, creating a hole for the ball carrier.

A fullback often leads the ball carrier through the hole. The fullback might seal off on a middle linebacker trailing the play down the line, or he might block a safety coming into the hole to make the tackle.

An Off Tackle play gives the running back more room to maneuver than a dive play, and the runner has the chance to pick his hole along the line, either cutting upfield to get into the defensive backfield quickest and get quick yards, or cutting outside where there should be more room to run and a potentially bigger play.

Quarterback Sneak

While this sounds like a trick pay, it actually isn’t. The quarterback sneak calls on the quarterback to take the ball from center and then run his own dive play between the guard and center. The quarterback sneak often is less of a dive forward and more of a fall forward, as these plays happen most often in short yardage situations.

In the NFL, quarterback sneaks usually happen once or twice in a game, because NFL teams do not want to expose their franchise quarterback to the punishment and possible injuries that might occur running up into the middle of the defense.


Offensive Football Plays - Running PlaysA sweep play calls on the running back to run outside the hashmarks, getting to the outside (or corner) of the defense. Runners with good speed and maneuverability are best at running sweeps.

The running back often has a screen of blockers on sweep plays, usually fullbacks and pulling guards. (“Pulling guards” are guards who run outside the tackles to block defenders. This is the main reason that offensive guards are smaller than offensive tackles, to give them the mobility for sweeps, screens and trap plays.)

Trap Plays

The trap play is where a guard from one side of the line runs parallel to the line of scrimmage and blocks on the other end of the line. The pulling guard is likely to blindside the end or outside linebacker he is blocking, creating a hole in the defense.

The danger of trap plays is it tends to leave two defenders momentarily uncovered: the defensive lineman whom the guard usually blocks and the defensive end/linebacker the guard is trapping. The fullback often “seals” the play by blocking the defensive linemen the guard leaves uncovered.

Counter Plays

Counter plays requires more teamwork than even trap plays. Once again, the guard is pulling down the line to block a defender unexpectedly. Meanwhile, the intended ball carrier takes a step or two in one direction, then cuts in the other direction to take the ball and hit the hole.

The idea of the counter play is to freeze defenders or to get them to move a few steps in pursuit. A well-executed counter play can get numerous defenders out of place for where the runner eventually intends to run. The danger is this takes slightly longer to develop than other plays, and one blocker is out of place.

Option Plays

The option offense is seldom used in the NFL any longer, though some college football teams still employ this scheme. Traditionally, option plays give the quarterback three options: run with the ball, hand off to the fullback or pitch to the halfback.

When the option play begins, the fullback runs a dive play. The quarterback can choose to either hand the ball to the fullback and complete the dive play, or continue running with the ball himself. If this happens, then the quarterback runs parallel to the line of scrimmage towards one of the sidelines, all the way to the end of the offensive/defensive line.

At this point, the quarterback has two more options. He can choose to continue running the ball, generally cutting upfield and trying to get as much yardage as possible. Or, if he is about to be tackled, the quarterback can pitch the ball to a trailing tailback, who should be further outside the defense at this point.

In the past, whole offensive schemes were built around this certain play. The option offense puts a lot of decision-making on the quarterback, who must also have quickness and good ball-handling skills, since the pitch to the tailback is often in traffic.

From the perspective of the defense, the option play forces the defensive ends to make quick decisions. It also forces the defense to maintain disciplined assignments.

The defensive end is supposed to keep containment on the quarterback, forcing the quarterback to pitch the ball. Then the defensive backs and linebackers must be able to pursue the tailback and stop him on the outside. This is made more difficult (in the case of linebackers) by the threat posed by the diving fullback or the quarterback, who might choose to turn upfield instead of pitching the ball.

I have seen option plays where the quarterback does not pitch the ball to the tailback until five or ten yards down the field. This is legal, so long as the pitch is a lateral and not a pass.

Draw Plays

Draw plays are delayed runs, where the offense is trying to draw the defensive linemen upfield in an attempt to rush the passer. Draw plays most often happen when a team is in a passing situation, so it is easier to fool the defense. The intended ball carrier will set up in the pocket as if he is going to pass block. Meanwhile, the offensive linemen will also get into pass blocking stances.

Hopefully, the pass rusher will rush upfield, creating running lanes for the running back. Also, the linebackers will drop back into pass coverage, creating even more space for the running back.

Draw plays have two purposes. One, in long yardage passing downs, the draw play is a safe way to gain a few yards, either to get out of a third-and-long situation, or to create better field position for a punt. Two, the draw play offers a chance to get the team’s best runner in an open-field situation, where the runner might be able to break a longer run.

Bootleg Plays

The bootleg is where the quarterback fakes a handoff to a running back and then sprints around the end in the opposite direction. This is a misdirection play, meant to trick defenders into running one direction, then allowing the quarterback and a few blockers to sweep around the other side of the field.

A naked bootleg is a riskier play, because the quarterback is running his sweep with no blockers to help him. This play works entirely on the basis of deception. With no blockers pulling, defenders are less likely to expect the bootleg. This leaves the quarterback undefended, though.

End Around Plays

This is where the quarterback hands the ball off to a wide receiver or h-back instead of a running back. The End Around once again calls on misdirection. This play is covered on our Trick Football Plays page.

Reverse Plays

The reverse play is built off of the End Around. One receiver takes the ball on an end around play, while a second receiver runs an end around from the other side of the field. when the two intersect, the ball carrier hands the ball to the other receiver, hoping to create a misdirection situation.

Reverse plays are also covered on our
Trick Football Plays page.

Passing Plays

Offense Football Plays - Passing PlaysPass plays have a bigger role in today’s football than at any time in football history.

New rules instituted in the 2005 NFL offseason penalized defenders for touching an offensive player more than 5 yards down the field.

Before, players could have incidental contact and hand-check beyond five yards, but the new rules call for a flag if any contact is made. Since the new rules have been instituted, the NFL single-season touchdown record has been broken in two of the three subsequent seasons.

There is some question as to whether these new rules haven’t changed the dynamics of championship football on the NFL level. The Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots have flourished the most in the new system, building offenses around seemingly unstoppable passing attacks.

Flag Pattern

The flag pattern requires a receiver to run what appears to be a 10 to 15 yard Go pattern, then change direction and run towards the corner of the field. Before the invention of pylons in the endzones, flags were placed on the four corners of each endzone. Because the receiver is running towards these pylons/flags, this route is called a flag pattern.

Corner or Post Routes

The corner route is similar to the flag pattern, with one twist. Like the flag pattern, the corner or post route requires the player to run straight upfield 10 to 15 yards, and eventually run towards the corner of the field. But there’s an intermediate step in the Corner Route.

In the corner route, after running straight upfield 10-15 yards, the player begins to run a post pattern; that is, the receiver runs towards the center of the field or the goal post. After a few steps in this direction, the receiver turns around and begins to run to the corner of the field.

Flat Route

The flat is the part of the field between the hashmarks outside the line of scrimmage and the sidelines itself. Also, the flats area is between the line of scrimmage and about 5 yards upfield, but no more. Therefore, there are two “flats” on any given play: to the right and the left.

On most passing downs, the wideouts run up the field significantly more than 5 yards. A second receiver, often a running back or tight end, will angle from the center of the field into the flats, that is, the vacated portions of the field near the sideline and no more than five yards downfield. The purpose of flats patterns are to get a receiver in a one-on-one situation with a tackler, allowing a running back (especially) to break one tackle and bust a longer play.

Screen Pass

Offensive Pass Plays - Football PlaysThe Screen Pass is so-called because the offense sets up a screen of blockers in front of the receiver. To do this, the pass is thrown behind the line of scrimmage.

A running back screen has the runner run a swing pattern while linemen pull out to form a screen of blockers in front of the runner. The flanker on that side also acts as a blocker, while the tight end, h-back or full back might also pull out to help block.

The danger of the screen pass is it requires blockers to release from protection of the quarterback to block for the eventual ball carrier. In fact, the design of the screen pass generally calls on pass rushers to be tricked into rushing the passer, when instead they should be following the ball carrier. This places the passer in danger of being hit or taking a sack.

The wide receiver screen is a quick-hitting play. This might involve a screen of fellow wide receivers, or also call for pulling linemen.

Swing Pattern

A swing pattern is another form of flat route. The swing patter is when a halfback or fullback runs parallel to the line of scrimmage, then turns downfield when he begins to near the sideline. In the swing pattern, the running back reaches the flats while building up a head of steam running up-field. If the quarterback hits him in stride, the back has momentum running in an open field situation.

Go Pattern

The go pattern is one of the simplest of all passing routes. This simply requires the receiver to run straight downfield, hoping to run by his defenders. The Go Pattern often requires a move or two at the line of scrimmage to break.

Hook Pattern

A hook pattern requires the receiver to run 7 to 10 yards downfield and then cut in towards the center of the field This cut is called a hook. If the timing is right, the quarterback will be hit the receiver just after he comes out of the hook.

The Hook is the prerequisite for the Trick Play called the Hook & Ladder or Hook & Lateral.

In Route or Drag Pattern

Often today, an in route is called a drag pattern. This play requires the receiver to run a couple of steps downfield, then turn and run parallel to the line of scrimmage towards the center of the field.

The drag pattern is used in the West Coast Offense a lot, allowing receivers to catch the ball safely and then run after the catch. Speedy receivers who don’t mind running through linebacker territory also run in-routes. Also, this tactic is used to set up illegal “pick patterns”, where one receiver shields the defender of a second defender.

Out Pattern

The Out Pattern the opposite of the In Pattern. Instead of turning towards the middle of the field, a player turns a 90 degree angle and runs towards the sideline. Out Patterns can be 7-yard outs, 10-yard outs or 15-yard outs.

The longer out patterns are rarer, because they generally require a quarterback with a strong arm, or else defenders can break on the ball and intercept it.

Play Action Pass

The play action pass involves a fake handoff to a running back and a throw to a receiver downfield. The play action fake typically looks like a dive into the line of scrimmage by the running back. Successful running plays or a dangerous running attack are needed to make the play action pass work. Often, teams will run dives early in the game to set up play action passes later in the game.

Play action plays take longer to develop and therefore place the quarterback in danger of being sacked. Their intention is to draw linebackers and safeties towards the line of scrimmage, allowing receivers to slip into coverage behind these defenders. Many offenses are known as play-action offenses, because they prefer to set up the pass with the running game in this way.

Post Pattern

The post pattern is a deep ball, where the receiver run ten or fifteen yards downfield and then veers towards the center of the endzone. It’s called a post pattern because the wideout is angling towards the goal post.

In the early days of football when the goal posts were at the goal line, the receiver would run at the post, hoping to run the defender into the obstruction.

Skinny Post

Pass Route - Skinny Post - Offensive Passing GameThe skinny post or Bang Eight pattern is similar to the post pattern, except the receiver does not run as deep of a route. This play usually goes for around thirty to forty yards.

The main advantage of the skinny post is that it takes less time to run the route, so the quarterback is in less danger of being sacked. Still, the skinny post is a deep pass.

Slant Route

The slant route is meant to get the receiver in the space behind the line of scrimmage and between the linebackers and the safeties. Therefore, a receiver running a slant pattern takes a couple of steps then runs towards the center of the field. When run right, the slant route is one of the harder plays to defend, because the quarterback has a quick throw underneath most of the coverage. There are two disadvantages, though.

One, the slant route requires the receiver to catch the ball while running amidst linebackers and safeties. Therefore, the wide receiver can expect to get hit hard by the defense’s best tacklers.

Two, if the defense suspects a slant pattern, an underneath defender can “jump” the route and be in a position near the line to run the interception back for a touchdown.

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