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Insurgent Warfare And Football’s Modern Passing Game – ADAPT OR DIE…

Insurgent Warfare and Football’s Modern Passing Game – ADAPT OR DIE…

If your coaching and quarterbacking process is solely based on a pre-snap scan of static defenders, then you are dead.  Football is a game of two sides pitted against each other. It is rife with strategy and planning, and on the fly innovation. It is a model of war, and from studying war, we can gain a new perspective.  The defense is evolving…

Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, was the location of the heaviest urban combat the Marines have faced since 1968 in Hue, Vietnam. Operation Phantom Fury’s goal was to take back the city of Fallujah that had been taken control of by an estimated 3,000 Al Qaeda (AQI) insurgents. 3,000 insurgents against the strongest military in the world didn’t seem fair. The results, however, were surprising. AQI was winning, and they were doing it by fighting in unorthodox ways that the modern military could not match.

In Sun Tzu’s Art of War, he writes:

The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided.

Fallujah was a modern day walled city. The problem, however, is that it could not be avoided. The insurgency was growing and gaining recruiting momentum. Civilians and U.S. military were dying at a rapid rate.

The terrain in Fallujah was unlike any city that the Marines had trained for. It was random without boundary Zones for business, residential and industrial. The streets were narrow and lined with walls that easily pin soldiers in the line of fire. Houses connected with each other allowing insurgents to easily escape encounters. The houses were also made of thick brick that prevented fragmentation from grenades to penetrate through it. In other words, this city was a deathtrap for Marines.

The other factor in the insurgent’s favor was that they knew the militaries rules of engagement and tactics. With the internet, the information of rules and strategies was more accessible to the enemy. The enemy would also observe how the military reacted to attacks and studied their tactics. The result was using the militaries rules and tactics to flip the strategy script in their favor.

Social media technology also played into the insurgent’s hands. The used it to create propaganda to recruit more insurgents and fight for the cause. The insurgent’s ability to blend in with the civilians prevented airstrikes. To get them out the U.S. military was going to have to go in and root them out room by room, building by building. This was a new kind of war that we were not fully prepared to fight.

These factors required military operations in urbanized terrain. This is known as (MOUT). Engaging with insurgents in these confined spaces is tactically known as close-quarters battle (CQB). CQB is not just reserved for the military. It is also used with S.W.A.T. and police forces in the world. CQB requires tactics executed by the operators to neutralize the opposing force (OPFOR) that is controlling the room. When the OPFOR is willing to die, the operator’s tactics must be specialized.

Defenses Are Evolving Faster Than Before

The same challenges that the United States Military faced in 2004 and beyond are present in the game of modern football today. Since the existence of the game, the offensive side of football seemed to always be one innovative step ahead of the defense.

Defensive football up to the early 2000s consisted of more static coverages and fronts. You would see base Cover-2 or -3 the entire game with limited front movements. If the defense wanted to attack it was usually with an all-out feast or famine Blitz. These Cover-0 and -1 Blitzes required perfect execution or big plays and points resulted for the offense.

But around the same time as the U.S. military was engaging in a new war against an unconventional insurgency, so was offensive football seeing an unusual shift in defensive strategy on the playing field.

Defenses were morphing from static coverage schemes into shapeshifting split field, blended and post-snap pattern matching coverages. These coverages are now combined with multiple fronts, stunts with mixtures of Zone and double-A gap Blitzes.

These advancements in football are not just seen in college and professional football on Saturday and Sunday. They will also be seen in high school games on Friday nights. How? Technology… Information that was once available only to the inner circles at the highest levels of football is now easily accessed on the screen of a novice’s own phone. Ideas once reserved for elite can now be shared through social media and websites that accelerate advancements in scheme like never before.

So, what does that mean for you as a coach? Like the Marines, being exploited by a ragtag insurgency in 2004, you must be willing to change.

The Way We Have Always Done It

This is what the Marines discovered when fighting a war on the enemy’s turf with rules and tactics that were known by all. Before 9/11 United States CQB operator strategies of clearing a room controlled by an (OPFOR) were basic. One of the most common CQB strategies taught in the military as well as police forces were dynamic immediate entries that used surprise, speed, and force to defeat the OPFOR. (FIG. 1)

One of the most common tactics was a standard 4-man wall Flood. This tactic usually begins with stacking 4 operators along the wall ahead of the door. The #1 Man throws a flashbang into the room to disorient the opposing force. He then breaks the stack and runs into the room to occupy the hard-left corner. The #2 Man runs into the room to the right to occupy the hard-right corner. The #3 Man enters left to occupy the center and deep-left corner. The #4 Man enters right to occupy the center and deep-right corner.

These basic 4-man stacks with dynamic entry into a room worked in the environments for military and law enforcement at the time. However, in the Post 9/11 information age with an enemy that knew your strategy, these tactics were failing.

When Concept Passing Was King

A similar development was occurring in the offensive passing attacks of football. The West Coast offense of the 1980s and the Air Raid offense of the 90s and early 2000s ignited passing records across the country. These offenses attacked with a Rhythm, speed, and force like the Marines. The flashbang and 4-man Flood strategy of CQB was a mirror of the West Coast and Air Raid 4- and 5-man route progression tactics. (FIG. 2)

These methods destroyed the static coverages defenses employed at the time. Defenses were disoriented by the full field attack and timing these offenses executed. Like the OPFORs in the pre 9/11 CQB age, the defense could not keep up.

Nothing Stays The Same

However, in 2004, the landscape on which the Marines and U.S. Military were fighting ad changed.

  1. The AQI insurgents were prepared for the Marine assault strategies like the 4-man wall Flood. This neutralized the element of surprise.
  2. AQI was fighting using structures that allowed them to retreat, hide and slow the Marines down. This neutralized the Marines speed of attack.
  3. AQI also had a different mindset. They were shooting to kill and not afraid to die in the process. This neutralized the Marine’s ability to intimidate with force.

This evolution of the enemy. along with the environment the battle was fought in gave an outmanned insurgency the competitive advantage. (FIG. 3)

The problem with most of the CQB tactics taught in the U.S. prior to 9/11 was that it never dealt with immediate threats in the room. The operator in #1 man’s job was to bypass an immediate threat in the room and cover the hard corner no matter what. The #2 Man was to do the same thing to the right. By that time, the #3 and #4 Man were dead men, walking through the fatal funnel of the door. These tactics did not mesh with the current environment and were getting soldiers killed.

Defenses in football made changes similar to the AQI insurgent’s goal to defeat the air assault offensive tactics of the 80s and 90s.

  1. Defenses were better informed on the alert and hot routes, as well as the quarterback progressions used in the pass-dominant offenses. This neutralized the element of surprise.
  2. Defenses were using split-field coverage structures, post-snap movement, and pattern-matching to confuse and disrupt progression reads. This neutralized the speed of decision-making for the quarterback.
  3. Defenses had a different mindset. They were using Zone Blitzes instead of Man Blitzes to create pressure. This neutralized the offense’s threat of big-play potential that was likely against the Cover-0 and -1 all-out Blitzes.

These defensive evolutions reduced time necessary for the QB to go through his pocket progressions, as well as disguising the space available to throw into. (FIG. 4)

The problem with most of the route progressions taught prior to these defensive changes was they never allowed the QB to read the Alert Route post-snap. QBs were taught to pre-snap the Alert Route in the West Coast offense or Peek Deep in the Air Raid. This worked, to an extent, with static coverage, but failed against pattern-matching and post-snap coverage movements. Without the ability for the QB to read vertical routes post-snap, explosive play opportunities decreased and incompletions and sacks increased. Zone Blitzes were used to bait a QB to throw the “hot” route only to find that the defense was one step ahead of them by Dropping a lineman into that area for an interception.

The Hurry Up No Huddle Solution

The offense’s answer to combat these drastic defensive changes was to go faster. Speed, Surprise, and Force are three non-negotiables of CQB in modern war. The same is true in football. The hurry up, no-huddle strategy became the craze in football in the mid-2000s and is still present today. The strategy was to use speed to get the defense tired, out of position, and force them back into being static with their coverages. This caught many defenses off-guard, but like AQI observing the Marine’s response to an attack so did defense’s respond to operating at a no-huddle tempo.

To run an effective no-huddle today, against a defense that is prepared for it, requires an offense that has not only speed but superior firepower (force) over the opponent. In Iraq, this wasn’t the case. AQI was prepared to die. This gave them one-up in the firepower (force) department. This motivated the Marines to look for different CQB strategies.

Thinking Outside The Box

Sometimes the first step to a better way is to admit that you don’t know it all. This can be hard to do when you are the most dominant military in the world. However, there is always something to get better at. The nation of Israel has been at war for thousands of years. They live daily in the environment in which the Marines were at war. The result has fostered a different method of fighting called Israeli CQB tactical entry. (FIG. 5)


Israeli CQB was a counter-terrorism strategy developed in Israel to assault terrorists like the Marines were up against in Fallujah. Israeli CQB was different than U.S. strategy and designed on three principles:

  1. First attack the immediate threats in the room.
  2. Attack from the cover of exterior walls. There is no immediate entry. Limited entry occurs only when exposure-threat to OPFOR is at a minimum.
  3. Increased accuracy is achieved through less movement.

Israeli CQB was centered around using the thick wall structures that is present in the Middle East buildings to provide better cover in fighting.

The Creation of RPOs

A similar evolution to the Israeli CQB tactic of room clearing was the RPO. RPO (Run-Pass Option) is a run play that is combined with a pass play. RPOs countered the defensive coverage and Zone Blitz adjustments that evolved to destroy the intermediate passing game. (FIG. 6)

They were built on three principles like Israeli CQB:

  1. Isolate a single defender that has both run and route responsibilities and attack him immediately with a run and quick game route.
  2. Attack with a pass under the guise of a run. Limited high percentage throws are only made when defenders ability to cover is at a minimum.
  3. Increased passing accuracy because of less time in the pocket and quick game movement.

Just as Israeli CQB was centered to fight around the thick wall structure of the environment, so was the RPO concept developed around the thick run blocking structure of the play. These similar tactics have changed the CQB in counter-terrorism and offensive landscape of football today. But they are no silver bullet.

While Israeli CQB tactics provide better cover for the operator to fight from, the need to clear the room of the OPFOR is necessary. When the element of surprise, speed, and force is equal, then it’s a 50/50 battle. These are not odds a soldier looks for.

Conversely, when a defense decides to remove the run/pass conflict of dual-read defenders with Man Coverage, the element of surprise, speed, and force is equally neutralized in the RPO scheme. This is the current state of many offensive teams that have sold out to RPOs in football today. Like the Marines found out in the bloodiest battle since Vietnam, being efficient at one method is no longer the best solution. Adaptability is more important than efficiency in modern warfare and football.

 The Evolution Solution

The next evolution in the modern passing game is not in scheme, but in the quarterback decision-making process that drives a scheme. R4 generates a contextual process to what the military learned in CQB training.  A unit cannot wait to create alternate strategies in the middle of war.  Adjustment strategies must be preplanned and submit to the boundaries of space, time and talent that schemes operated within.  The answer is not more plays.  The solution is a better decision-making process that drives versatility within a singular play.

Adapt or Die is a coach, quarterback and receiver manual that explains these advancements.

This latest book in the R4 series offers a toolbox of quarterback drop and receiver techniques that can manipulate space and time variations that defensive actions create.  These physical tools combined with mental progression platforms generate new navigation techniques within the same passing concept.  The result is adaptability through a simple sequential process of Rhythm, Read, Rush and Release.

Adapt or Die…

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