The Art of Calling Defense

You have heard me say it more than once and I am not the only one that believes it,  APBA football is the best face to face game available, anywhere.  I think that is in no small part because of the excitement there is in calling defense.  Winning and losing can come down to dice rolls but there are small victories in the game, those moments when you “got him” and you know it and he knows it.  I especially like when the offensive coach is looking at me and I get it right and he gets a look on his face, crestfallen, defeated, annoyed, maybe all those things.  That’s part of the fun of calling defense in APBA Football.

So let’s start from the start.  You’re choices for defensive calls are: Standard Light Line, Standard Middle Line, Standard Max Line, Goal Line, Middle, Goal Line Max, Nickel Light, Nickel Middle, Dime Light, Dime Middle, Blitz, Nickel Blitz and Dime Blitz.  That’s 12 choices that do a variety of things to the offense.  You can move teams offensive index, either up or down, or their result lines up or down 2 or in some cases 4 lines.  You can turn a great play into a dud or a dud into a great play.  It’s a lot to consider.  What you want to try and understand is not just line movement but also Offensive Index (Column) movement.  It’s not just up and down, it’s also left and right.

So let’s start by simplifying what you want to do.  It’s my belief that in APBA the key to stopping a team is stopping their Quarterback.  This is true in the NFL in this day and age but I think it’s always been true in APBA.  So many of the results sit on the QB card so it’s that card that you need to focus your attention around.  So the rudimentary questions to ask yourself are:  Does the QB have a 1 or 2 (or more than 1) in their P column?  How many 26 and 27 results are in his P column?  What are his interception numbers (20-25) in his P column?  Does he have 15, 16, 17 in the R column or is he a 3, 5,7?  Armed with this information you can begin to formulate what I’ll call your “base defense”.  By “base” I mean the defense you are going to spin your game plan around.  You want to be grounded in 1 or 2 formations so that you can be surgical about how to call a game.  If you don’t determine a starting point you might wind up spinning around out of control and just guessing on every play.

So let’s look at answers to the questions.  The issue on 1 and 2 versus 3 is simply this, it’s going to be hard for your opponent to score when he only has a 3 on 66.  This means you don’t need to be anywhere near as aggressive on defense, the card does some of the work for you.  Scramble numbers are important because they can really hurt you when you are in a light line or, especially in a blitz.  This is even worse with a QB that has a lot of 3’s and 5’s.  The additional yard against nickel and dime is also underrated and important.  Finally the interception number comes into play if you are looking to turn the ball over.  A 22 is a tough one to get an interception on so you need to be cognizant of it.  Really it’s only on medium passes and only then half the game.  If the QB has a 23 or 24 there’s a greater chance of an INT and a 25 is an INT basically against any and all defenses.

So let’s assume I am now defending Marcus Mariota.  To refresh Marcus has 1 “2”, on 66, he has a 22 for an INT number, he also has 2 “20’s” but I am not too worried about those.  He has 2 “26’s” and a “27” so he can scramble, his R column is loaded with 3 “K’s”, 4 “3’s” and 6 “5’s”, so more than 33% of his R column is going to be very beneficial if I am aggressive against the pass.  On-the-other-hand, I can’t get a pick if I am not aggressive.  This is why I think the Titans will do well in a replay, they’re tough to defend.  Given that Murray and Henry have good cards I am going to default far more to two defensive calls, Dime Middle and Nickel Light.  In shorter yardage situations I may use Standard or even Goal line middle even against a pro-set.  I know that moves Mariota up two lines but his card won’t necessarily get more completions from that as he doesn’t have a lot of numbers in the teens.  Basically I am willing to over commit against the run to put the Titans in passing downs where I think I can get some stops.

So let’s assume I am defending and my opponent comes out with a play calling sheet like I outlined in the offensive play calling discussion.  Because of my belief in being a little aggressive early my first call will be Nickel, Light line… Double Walker.  So Mariota will throw the ball in B Light to Sharpe.   What I like to do when “keying” is pretty simple. I will double only A receivers, if my opponent has an A* he’ll get 75-80% of my attention because I can’t move him to B so I need to drop his lines.  I will sort of rotate around the A’s but I will try and determine who my opponent is likely to “go to” in a big spot.  My guess is that a coach of the Titans will come back to Walker in a big spot but by halftime I’ll know if I guessed right.  Whoever I think is his “Go to” I won’t key until I think it’s a play he has to have.  Basically just lying in wait for a moment that will hurt most.  If I think he has to have a play, chances are he thinks the same thing.  There’s a lot of mind play in the calling of defense.

Let’s assume Mariota’s pass went incomplete.  He’s out pro set on second and 10.  Assuming pass I’ll again go nickel, light and double Murray.  My guess is off as he called an outside run.  A, light plus a yard let’s give Murray a first down.  Offense comes out 3w on first and 10 and since I have gone nickel two plays in a row I’m going to go Dime/ Middle and double Sharpe.  At this point I’ve doubled three different guys, so no pattern and I’ve called two defenses.  I’ve also been aggressive against the pass by going with an extra back in all three calls.  I may want to be conservative but I won’t worry about it too much until I’m 8-10 calls in.  On the fifth play Tennessee is going 2-TE and I will call a Standard Defense and Key Murray.  The call is a short pass to Walker so it’s A-S down 2 lines.  I like that.  More on this later.

I want to establish a couple of things early.  One is that the offensive coach isn’t going to know who I am double covering, the exception being if he has an A*, I don’t care if he knows I’m doubling him, maybe he thinks twice about throwing to him all the time.  The second thing is I want to establish that I may go to any defense despite the offensive formation.  Solitaire players almost all automatically go to Dime against a 3-Wide offense.  They almost always go to a Standard D against a pro set and they almost always go Goal Line against a 2-TE.  I like to make sure my opponent knows, I am not necessarily going to do that.  By calling Nickel twice early he is now not sure if he can pass out of a pro set.  I guarantee that early in the game when the Titans go three wide I’ll call a standard defense and perhaps even key Murray or Henry.  I recognize A up two lines can be a killer but if my opponent is passing there’s a chance he’ll roll a 26, 27 or 29 and that will take the wind right out of his sails.GL Stand

I am basically going to call a Nickel Light or Dime Middle 65% of the time in this game.  That’s my fallback/ go to defense.  So basically the Titans will be passing in Light up two or Middle even all in B column.  I think I can do OK keeping him there.  He’s going to get a lot of +1 yard on the run but ultimately I think I can overcome that.  Everything else, all of which I will probably call at some point, comes from that base.

I like the Blitz when I am playing some QB’s.  I don’t think I’d blitz here very much against Marcus because I’d risk too much on runs and screens.  If I were playing against the Patriots, for example, I’d blitz a lot.  I know there are people who are deathly afraid of the screen and draw plays.  My attitude is a little different.  If you roll a good number those plays are great.  There’s also a lot of results that are just not that great.  Basically I’d rather have Brady/ Big Ben/ et al. rolling a good number on a screen pass than a Medium Pass.  The one tenant of this whole thing is, you have to accept that sometimes an offense is going to break a big play.  It’s hard to completely shutout a good team in APBA.  As it should be.

One thing about how I play defense that may be different and will on occasion cost me a game is this, I want turnovers.  I think I am heavily influenced by my first F-T-F league experience.  I was in a league on the North Shore of Boston and my team was terrible.  I also didn’t really know what I was doing.  The end result was 0-10 for the season.  Now the offense was led by the two Superbowl Quarterbacks, 1985 Jim McMahon and Steve Grogan.  They were both putrid.  It was the defense, however, that killed me.  In ten games I had zero interceptions and only a handful of fumble recoveries.   What I learned was, if you never get a turnover you’re going to give up too many points.  Ever since than I have aggressively pursued interceptions.  The quandary/ challenge that Mariota provides is that if I try and get a pick I open up myself to his running successfully.  While I don’t necessarily recommend playing D, I think in the second and third quarters when the 22 is a pick in the Medium/ Light line area I would play more D.  Especially if I think a Medium pass is the call.  My experience is that interceptions are huge game changers.  Offensive coaches tend to get a little gun shy after throwing one which is another advantage.  As an aside after my QB throws a pick I like to toss one medium on his next throw, just to try and get balance in the universe.  Also, if I sense that Short Pass is going to be the call well more often than I should I’ll worry a little less about it.  It’s hard to win a game only throwing short passes.

A word on defending the double Tight-End.  Don’t automatically go to Goal line.  If the Titans come out with the 2-TE set I would more often than not go Middle line and key Murray.  I am not worried about Henry, let him get some yards, but I am keeping Murray even and I am dropping Mariota two lines on all passes, that’s a killer to the offense.  I may go Max Line and Key Murray but I won’t be going Goal line so that the passing is even-up in A column, that’s too powerful.  If I feel like my opponent is going to go Goal Line and I am operating the Titans, I will pass like crazy from that formation.

Finally there is an element of calling defense that we can’t ignore, that of getting in your opponent’s head.  Take full advantage of getting a call right, make sure he knows you’re all over him.  You want to set your opponent back on his heels some, that’s an advantage to you.  If he crosses you up, acknowledge it.  I bet I say “good call” to my opponent 4-5 times a game.  Always before dice roll.  A call is good whether the dice work out or not.

It takes about 8-10 games to really get a handle on Offense and Defense, specifically around line/ index changes.  Once you do, there’s nothing better.  If you can get a friend to go through the learning curve, you’ll have a lot of fun on the other side.

Calling Defense is an art, not a science.  Find the things that you like and then build from there.  It’s the most fun a person can have sitting at a table playing a game.

8 thoughts on “The Art of Calling Defense

  1. Hey Greg – I’ve been playing APBA for over 30 years but recently (thank goodness) I found this site and I’m getting all this great info to prep for my next replay. I’ll admit it’s a lot to take in but incredible info and resources nonetheless. My question; is there a chart you use for the defensive lines/calls/formations and results?

    • I use a chart similar to the one Greg calls out here. I also commend to anyone playing the FB game with regularity, buy the APBA Journal on CD, usually on Ebay. The articles there, while 30 years old, are still pertinent to the game today. The chart I use I took right out of the AJ.

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