Teaching Situational Football Part One: Pre-Season Models

Aug 28, 2023 | Practice Organization, Program Development

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Researcher/Co-Founder
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikekKuchar



It’s never too late to work on situational football, which is why many coaches use pre-season camp as a general introduction. The time lends itself to a more comprehensive teaching of situations and for most programs at the collegiate level, the head coach serves as the instructor. At Wake Forest University, head coach Dave Clawson guides a situational football discussion each night at the end of practices. He calls it his thing since he can’t coach offense and defense anymore). It’s a 5-10 minute meeting every night in the pre-season and is provided to educate both sides of the ball on the importance of every possible situation, an awareness that may get lost on this generation of players.

The following situations are taught and then re-enacted the next day in practice in the form of a competition.

Each of these situations is a lesson in-and-of itself. He provides several samples of what he discusses in each. For the Day 1 install (1st and 10), he will break down how often it occurs (45% at Wake Forest last season) and will devote the equivalent amount of practice time to preparing for it. He’ll talk about how different clock and field positions can affect play calling. “We tell them the play call is different if you are at your one-yard line than at your own 25-yard line,” he said. “It’s different from 1st and 10 on your 45 when you’re down by 7 points with a minute left in the game. Often times it’s a momentum down. Something just good happened for the offensive team such as making a first down, forcing a punt, or attaining a penalty. The only time it is not as if you just returned a kick. For us, we talk about the magic number being four downs to win the down.”

Essentially, situational football is broken down into three distinct elements:

  • Down and Distance Situations
  • Field Zone Situations
  • Clock Situations


In this study, we are going to present the various ways in which coaches are teaching these scenarios to their players so that they have a better understand of the importance of these situations. Case one will focus purely on what coaches are doing in pre-season camp to teach the value of situational football. We’ll start with our Down and Distance Situational Analysis. This will provide some clarity on the importance of these situations and the goals both offenses have defenses have to win the situation.


Below is an analysis of how coaches breakdown each down and distance and the objectives in winning the down:


Possession (P) and 10

Possession and ten is the first play of each possession. It’s a situation of utmost importance for most of our coaches and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Success on these early possessions are directly tied to success on the scoreboard. “When we win P and 10 on 70% of downs, we win the football game,” said Bridgewater University (VA) defensive coordinator Mike Giancola. “It’s that simple. Winning that down is huge for us.”


1st and 10

First and ten is treated differently than P and 10. It’s a transitional down within a drive after an offense achieves a first down. From an offensive standpoint the goal is simple- achieve four yards or more. From a defensive standpoint, the intent is to surrender four yards or less. But for South River High School (MD) defensive coordinator Steve Erxleben, the standard is lower. “A BIG weekly goal for us defensively is to give up 2 yards or less on 1st down,” he said. “We really want to get teams behind the sticks and we feel 2nd and long is a really hard down and distance to call an offense from.”


2nd and Long (8+)

For an offense this is an off-schedule down, meaning it did not achieve success on first down. From a defensive standpoint, it’s the opposite. Getting an offense in second and long is a win. But most offensive coaches will talk about this down being a “non-consequential down,” meaning the same menu on first down for an offensive will hold up on second and long. But the goal is to attain half the yardage needed for a first down. So for example, on a 2nd and 8 the goal is to acquire at least four yards offensively, making the third down manageable. That keeps an offense on schedule. Conversely from a defensive stand point, the goal is to keep the offense in third and long by giving up less than four yards.


2nd and Medium (3-7)

From an offensive standpoint, this means they are on schedule. The entire play book is still open and the intent here is to again, at least acquire half of the yardage needed to convert a first down. From a defensive standpoint the goal is to give up less than half the yardage needed for an offensive first down.