Our favorite sport in America is football. By far. Some prefer college, others prefer the NFL, and people like me consume it all. Even though both games look quite similar, there are actually many ways in which college football and the NFL are totally unlike.
Let’s start with the ball itself. The college ball is a tad fatter, easier to throw, and painted differently. Multiple companies make acceptable footballs for college use. An NFL ball is longer and more narrow, tougher to throw, and only made by Wilson.
The clock rules aren’t the same, either. In college, the game clock stops after a first down and there’s no two-minute warning. The NFL is opposite. Then, as we know, overtime is wildly different in the two sports.
The list goes on and on, but I’d like to highlight one major difference that often gets overlooked: the hash marks.
Hash marks are those small lines, spaced a yard apart, that run in two rows down the middle of the field. They are hard to miss, and they are aligned differently on a college field than on a pro one.
In the NFL, the hash marks are 70 feet and 9 inches away from the nearest sideline. The distance between the two rows of hash marks is 18 feet and 6 inches. They are closer on a college football field, where the hash marks are located 60 feet away from the nearest sideline and the distance between the two rows is 40 feet.
Hash marks are vital to the structure of the game
First, they determine where the ball is placed after the ball carrier is tackled. If the runner is down outside of the hash marks, including running out of bounds, the ball is spotted for the next play on the nearest hash mark. If a ball carrier is down inside of the hash marks, the ball is placed at the spot of the runner being down.
Because of the placement of the ball on the hashes, it drastically changes a formation since the field is “wider” in college compared to the NFL.
For example, if the ball is placed on the left hash mark on a college field, there’s 100 feet between the ball and the right sideline. On an NFL field, there’d be 89.25 feet between the ball on the left hash and the right sidelines. I know, that’s only a difference of a little over 10 feet, but that can have a big effect on the game.
On the other hand, there’s less field into the boundary (short side of the field) in college and more in the NFL. This field structure means defenses must cheat their alignment to certain formations.
I was watching the Arizona Cardinals’ second preseason game against the Oakland Raiders. We know the Cardinals have a new head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, who had spent his entire coaching career (10 seasons) in college, where the hash marks are wider. His offense is being guided by rookie quarterback Kyler Murray. The Cardinals had issues in this game with pressure, and ESPN commentator Booger McFarland mentioned how the basic look of pressure packages in the NFL differ from college football because of the hash marks.
Let me explain.
Why it’s “easier” for defenses to cover the field in the NFL
As discussed above, when the ball is placed on either hash, there’s more field to cover to the “wide” side. Because there’s more field to cover, coupled with the spread-out formations in college football, defenses often have to cheat their alignment in pressure packages to cover the field. Seeing pressure in college becomes “easy” once you’ve figured out the keys, especially in a 3x1 formation (that’s one WR into the boundary and three others into the field).
Keep in mind, this is as basic as it gets, but it’s going to give you an illustration of the differences in just a simple pressure and the alignment of the defense. I’ve drawn up a cover 3 buzz defense that starts with the safeties in a two-high look.
Here is what that offensive and defensive structure would roughly look like in the college game. I want you to notice the alignments of the safeties and linebackers. The safeties are “S” and the linebackers are “M” (Mike) and “W” (Will).
They are cheated slightly to the right of the offense, toward the field, because there’s more field to cover from the left hash to the right sideline. There’s no need to have so many bodies into the short side of the field, as there’s less field to cover.
This is how the defense would rotate from a cover 2 shell, two high safeties, down into a cover 3 buzz. Simple stuff.
Using the NFL field dimensions, we can see a more balanced defensive alignment as the defense rotates down into coverage. The field is “easier” to cover with a more balanced distances from either hash mark.
From these alignments, defenses can bring pressures. When a defense brings pressure, it has to account for the missing spaces on the field by running defenders into those zones. If it’s man coverage, or a zero pressure, that’s not the case since those defenders are matched up one-on-one.
Why it’s harder to disguise pressure in college football
Here’s a diagram of a simple “field pressure” in college out of the same offensive and defensively alignment as above.
First notice the red lines. They indicate those defenders pressuring the offense. This is a basic field pressure you’d see in college football — a day one install. When those defenders leave those areas on the field, another defender must fill that zone. You’re going to be a man short on defense when you pressure, because you’re rushing five defenders instead of four.
In order for the defense to fill the zones vacated by the nickel (N) and the Mike (M), the defenders in college have to cheat their pre-snap alignment to reach those zones on the field before the quarterback can make them pay. That’s what the blue dashes mark. The two players who are the best visual keys for the offense are the backside Will (W) linebacker and the backside safety.
In a normal alignment, the Will linebacker would need to cover the left B gap; otherwise, the offense has a huge numbers advantage if it wants to run the ball in that direction. But, if the defense has called a field pressure, the Will must cheat his alignment so he can make the long run to fill the vacated zone. In a field pressure, the Will aligns either head up or to the front side of the formation. It’s a dead giveaway. Pair that with both safeties cheating over toward the field, and you have clear pre-snap visual evidence of a field pressure coming.
I was fortunate to have a college offensive line coach who took the time to teach us these keys. We’d be in our stances and able to call out pressures based on defensive alignment. It frustrated the defense to no end. I remember once I called out a pressure in practice and our defensive end punched the ground and asked, “how do y’all always know?” LOL.
Here’s a video of a field pressure from college. Notice how the defenders, especially at linebacker, nickel, and safety have cheated. Some have pre-aligned in their spots:
Let’s take a look at a diagram of the same pressure in the NFL.
As you can see, there’s less cheating by the defensive players to get to their zones. The Nickel (N) must cheat a tad to get home in time, but otherwise, the defense can cover the vacated zones much easier because there’s less room to go, and the athletes in the NFL are better and shouldn’t need to cheat as often.
Here’s an example of this pressure in the pro game. Now, this formation starts at a 3x1 and moves to a 2x2, so the backside defenders have a little less movement to make, but you can see how the NFL defenders don’t “show” this pressure is coming at all.
One last thing to consider when discussing the difference between college and NFL pressures is the communication system and how plays are called.
In college, teams often run up to the line of scrimmage, get set in their formations, and then call a “dummy” play. As they go through the cadence, the defense will tip its hand. Coaches upstairs, and on the field, can see these pressures and change the playcall for the offense. It happens frequently in this manner, and it takes the pressure off the quarterback to notice pressures (even though they do) and then get into a better play.
In the NFL, coaches radio in a play to the quarterback. That communication cuts off with 15 seconds left on the play clock and the quarterback needs to figure it out on his own. This is something that both Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray will need to work through together as they make the transition from the college game to the NFL.