Breaking Down an Opponent

Using specific data fields to find tendencies in your opponent.

My main responsibility at Baylor was to be in charge of our opponent scouting. To anyone that knows me, I am a breakdown nerd and am content sitting in a dark room all day inputting data. To me, there is nothing more exciting than objectively looking at an opponent and inputting data to mine for tendencies. There is an art to breaking down an opponent, and everyone has a different way of doing it. The objective for this article is to explain my process and to hopefully help a few coaches along the way. Not everyone enjoys the breakdown process like I do or even knows what to do with all the analytical data. I’ll try and show you a process that has worked for me and highlights tendencies within an offense. Like anything, to truly understand something you must know the “why” behind it. My goal is to explain the process in a way that makes sense to a novice.

Use the breakdown data to create a visual representation of an offense like the one in the hit chart above.

The key to a great opponent scouting system is to approach it like a science and keep it concise. In order to get the most out of your breakdowns, you have to find a true medium between too little information and too much information. To find that perfect medium you have to understand the limitations of your staff and define what you need to know, so when you sit down to create a hit chart and cut-ups the information is easy to use. If you approach a breakdown like you are looking for a needle in a haystack (Ex. – creating a data column for every single data point possible), you can bog your staff down and get lost in data. During my three years at Baylor, I felt confident we developed that perfect medium for what our defensive coordinator, Phil Bennett, needed in order to be successful on the field. After being back the high school ranks for three years, I feel even more confident that I have found a way to break down opponents concisely while not losing myself in data points.

Getting Started

It’s important to get started off right. The ODK, opponent, and down and distance are usually the first things input once films are received. These fields are crucial to the breakdown and allow defensive staffs to separate the data. The first three data fields in my breakdown (outside of Play # and ODK) goes as follows:

  1. Opponent Team – This is an important piece to the breakdown puzzle. In order to understand what a team is truly trying to do on offense, you must first understand how opponents are attacking them. For instance, many teams in Texas are running a 3-4 Two-Read scheme, as a four-down team, I have to objectively look at the data and understand that some of the plays I am breaking down we will not face. It is understood that most coaches know the schemes within their districts/conferences and being able to quickly pull up those particular plays of like opponents are key to wading through the data. In my case at Baylor, TCU and Kansas St. were go-to opponents when creating cut-ups and looking at how an opponent would attack us.
  2. Yard Line – This is an obvious data point, but it is important for coaches to understand field zones and how they affect an offensive coordinator’s choice of plays. I discussed in my Down and Distance piece how important field zones are. Offenses change as they move along the field. Many times, offenses will get more aggressive once they pass the 50-yard line. Paying attention to the field is key to understanding what play choice an OC will select. Staffs can also use this data to separate what offenses are doing in the Red Zone. As stated earlier, field zones are important for determining how offenses morph as they get closer to the end zone, and most coaches will know the Red Zone is different for both side. Offenses use their go-to’s and defenses pull up their boot straps.
  3. Down and Distance (D&D) – Football is a situational game, and the main objective for an offense is to get first downs (and obviously score). D&D data allows the defensive coaches a glimpse at what offenses like to do on certain downs. Taking the data at face value, a coach can see run/pass tendencies. To truly grasp an opponent’s tendency on each down, the D&D data needs to be grouped into down (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th) and distance (7+, 4-6, and 1-3). By labeling distance, a staff can also quickly decipher what teams like to do in short yardage and long yardage situations. More on the D&D data HERE (link will open in a new window).

Formational Data

The three data points addressed above are a given when it comes to breakdown data points. Formational data is where defensive staffs make or break their tendency reports. To begin, a staff must have clear concise rules on how formations are labeled. It makes no sense to me to label a 10 personnel 2×2 set (let’s call it Doubles) differently in the middle of the field (MOF) if the back is on the defense’s right or left side. It is the same formation. The only way I label the formation anything but Gun Near Double is if the back is set into the boundary. Then, the formation is truly different (I’ll cover formation into the boundary, FIB, sets later). Doubles is doubles, no matter where the back is. Labeling Double by right and left is redundant and muddies up the data. In order to truly understand what an offense is doing the defensive staff needs to know how they approach each formation independently. Why have two Doubles formations in your hit chart (unless of course, it is FIB)?

The point of formational data is to break up the offense into personnel groupings to allow the defensive staff a deeper understanding of what the offense is trying to do. Gary Patterson, Head Coach of TCU, in a Nike COY clinic once stated the offense can only give you so many sets (2×2, 3×1, 2×1, etc.). Using that knowledge it makes no sense to put a direction to the formation. Offenses will run Trips pass concepts regardless if the formation is right or left. It is the job of the defensive staff to understand if the offense is a right and left personnel team (receivers stay on one side of the field – many spread teams do this to help with tempo), or if their players move around. In the case of a right/left offense, identify the best WR and see if the offense targets his position. For instance, in a Trips set, does the offense like to throw to the single WR? If so, it is easy to check the offenses strength data and identify if the offense has a tendency to throw to their #1 WR if they are set in a certain direction. In order to consolidate the information, a staff must address the formation first and then branch off from there. Opponent breakdowns must work like a pyramid. Establishing basic information allows the defensive staff to identify tendencies and pinpoint questions, then move deeper into the offensive scheme. Here is how I establish my formational data:

  1. Personnel – In college this is easy. Did the offense bring in a tight-end? Is that a fullback in the backfield, or did they leave a running back in? Offenses use different positions to run different sets and formations. College and NFL offenses use multiple personnel groupings, even going as far as having certain players on the field for certain plays. In the high school game, with limited individuals and depth, many offenses leave the same players on the field and just line up in different formations. Regardless of who is on the field, it is important to establish the personnel group the offense is trying to use. Even if no one leaves the field, a defense needs to understand how formations change the offense. In order to do that, the defensive staff must decide how to label personnel groupings. In my experience with HS, I have labeled the personnel as it is set on the field regardless of what players are on it. This keeps the data clean, and if there is a true TE or FB that the offense uses, you can always go back in and easily fix it.
  2. Set – The set is the amount of WRs to a side. This data is critical in deciphering f the offense uses certain passing concepts out of certain sets, or if teams run the same plays of certain sets. As stated above, Coach Patterson hits the nail on the head, offenses can only give you so many different looks. 3×1 is 3×1 no matter what personnel is on the field. This helps the defense understand what coverage schemes need to be carried into the week, or if different personnel groupings mean different concepts. One undervalued data point in the set category is keeping track of single-width (SW) and unbalanced sets (UN). How a defense plays a nub-TE or unbalanced set will directly affect what the offense runs against them. Creating a data point that puts these sets in an easily accessible column is crucial to building a gameplan.
  3. Back Field – This is going to sound obvious, but where the backs line up in the backfield is a direct indication of what plays will be run by an offense. It is important to track the backfields and not connect them directly to the formation because offenses use backfields to set up plays. 20 and 21 personnel groupings are by far the most multiple and need to be tracked. The backfield is only limited by how creative an offensive coordinator is. It is important for the defense to have a label for each backfield set. For instance in 10 pers. I use “Gun Near” (GN) or “Gun Far” (GF – used only in Trips/Unbal. formations). In 2×2 if the back is into the boundary I will label it GNB because the back is always “near” (GN) in 2×2 and he is into the boundary (“B”). The key is to make the labels short and abbrieviated to limit the space. Labeling formations are like creating a code. Each piece is abbreviated, but when put together spells out a certain formation.
  4. Formation – This data point is directly correlated with the set. In order to truly gain value from this, a staff must label every specific formation. Like any breakdown, it is a science and must be treated as such. Whatever your staff decides to call something must carry over into. At Baylor, we built a whole playbook of formations that I had to label, even down to whether the formation was clustered, close, or bunched. If the #2 WR in Trips was on the line and not the normal #1, it had to be labeled differently. This is where you can add another column. If you want your staff to label all 3×1 1o pers. sets Trips, but want to identify if a WR is on the ball different than #1, you need to add a formation concept column. This is where staffs can make or break a tendency. If the formation is labeled wrong, the data is useless. Once a staff has created a set of rules, they build off each other and anyone can label a formation (even a funky unbalanced one).
  5. FIB – This data point allows coaches to see why offenses are putting the formation into the boundary. You can label it simply as Y/N, or you can label the different types (Trips, Speed, Formation, or Back). No OC is going to put their best athletes into space without a good reason. That fact alone is why you have to keep track of the FIB data point, and will show any tendencies an offense might have (Ex. – Alert Jet Motion with speed into in 20p.). More on FIB HERE.
  6. Motion/Shift – At the rudimentary level I have seen staffs just label Y/N for this data point. To me, it is important to decipher if it is a motion (man doesn’t stop) or a shift (gets set after moving). Each one is different. This data point also allows you to see if the offense uses “change of strength motion” and where the motion man is coming from. For instance, if the offense lines up in 10 pers. 2×2 with the back into the boundary and motions the #2 WR to the field to create Gun Far Trips Open, that is change of strength motion. DC’s want to know if the strength changes and how the structure of the defense will change with a given motion. I like to label the player who goes in motion, in our example from above it is #2 strong (or 2S). He motions across to the #3 WR to the field to create a Trips set but doesn’t get set (so I consider it motion). I would label the motion as, “2S Across 3.” Now, the DC can look at the data and see the formation is “GN Trips Op,” but the offense got there by change of strength motion (2S Across 3). To create a shift all you would need to do is use an abbreviation like “AC” for “Across” or label a TE shift “Y-Trade.” As long as the staff can clearly read what the offense is doing, then the label has done its job.
  7. Offensive Strength – This label is created to help DC’s understand if the offense has a tendency to run or pass to its strength. A simple L/R will do and should be put in as if the formation was in the MOF.

Inputting the Play

Call a play what you want, but just as there is a science to creating formational data, creating play type data is a science in its own right. There are several ways to approach the analytics of calling the of offense’s play structure. In order to get the most bang for your buck, a defense needs to label as much as the concept as they can (and leave the gap numbers behind). Here is how I label my Play Type data:

  1. Play Type – Very simple, is it run or pass?
  2. Play Tree – For runs, is it a gap scheme, draw, zone, option, etc. For the pass data, I label play-action, drop-back, quick game, boot/waggle, and sprint out. I like to label gadget plays (GAD) so they are different and I can pull them up later on their own.
  3. Offensive Play – This is where I label the play name, for example, the offense runs power to the strong side, I will label it “PWR (S)” so I can then go back and sort it by play type and if it was strong or weak. I do not concern myself with gap number because most offenses will run their schemes a little differently or aim for a different gap. This keeps the information short and to the point without losing ist integrity. For the pass data, I label the concept (Ex. – STP/CNR).
  4. Backside Concept (B/S Concept) – This allows me to keep track if a team runs a split field pass structure or what the “X” WR is doing in a single WR set (3×1/2×1). I can also label if there was a wheel or a special route so it is easy to find. Remember, data entry should allow for easy access to information.
  5. Deep Shot (DS) – I like to label the shots offenses take. This is not for a Hail Mary or the QB scramble and throws up a prayer. This label is a simple “Y” tag. If the offense attempts a throw 20+ yards down the field I consider that a shot and I label it for future analysis. Using D&D data, personnel, and anything else I can use, hopefully, I can determine when and where the OC will try and take his shots.
  6. Target – This is where you keep track of the who is getting the ball or who the QB is attempting to throw to. If the QB scrambles or gets sacked I always label the QB as the ball carrier. I never label a scramble as a run, because it’s not.


Here are a few extra data points you might want to use when doing your breakdown:

  1. Gain/Loss – This is an indicator of how many yards a team got on a certain play. I like to see this as I go along to gauge how successful certain groupings are. I also create an explosion tape (10+ yard runs/15+ yard passes) to view as I gameplan.
  2. Result – Quickly tells the coaches what happened on the play, particularly in the pass (incomplete/complete and interceptions/TDs).


A great scouting system covers everything you need without creating an ocean of data to wade through. Define exactly what you need in order to be successful and then create those data points. Add and subtract as you see fit until you and your staff create the perfect medium of information. It is important to clearly define what each formation and play will be called, and create a way to input that data. All this information should be used to create cut-ups and a hit chart to create a visual view of what the offense is trying to do. Always keep in mind how an offense reacts to a defense similar to yours.

Writers Note ::
I have to thank Casey Horny and Coach Phil Bennett for pushing me to be detail oriented and allow me to use my creativity to grow and develop anyway of breaking down opponents. They both always pushed me and were never satisfied unless it was perfect. That kind of accountability is what honed in a unique attention for detail. These two men are some of the best breakdown and tendency coaches I’ve ever met. Casey never missed anything, and Bennett never forgot. I loved my time at Baylor and both know how much I appreciate them. 

If you are looking for Hit Chart ideas click HERE.

As always, follow me on Twitter (@The_Coach_A) and do not hesitate to email me with questions through the site’s CONTACT page.


11 thoughts on “Breaking Down an Opponent”

  1. Coach, can you explain the Gun Near and Gun Far? Why do you call it that way and when do you use it? Also can you explain what you put in for set, do you just put doubles/trips/spread etc? Lastly, what do yo put on personnell, 21, 10, 11?

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