The new Alliance of American Football has some major differences in the way the game is structured compared to the NFL. Of course, there are no kickoffs, no extra points, and hits on the quarterback that are illegal in the NFL are not illegal in the AAF.
Some of the other major differences are not quite as obvious that affect the defensive side of the football. Whereas in the NFL, there are no restrictions on blitzing or formation alignments (not including punts or field goals), there are some major rules on what teams are allowed to do with their personnel on defense.
Defensive formations can only have five, six, or seven defenders on the line of scrimmage. Within a defensive front, there must be a minimum of three lineman on the line of scrimmage. Defenders who walk up to cover the tight end on the line can drop back into coverage but are considered a pass rusher if on the line of scrimmage.
On heavy formations where the offense has zero or one receiver, the defense can only have a maximum of five defenders on the line.
On formations with two receivers, the defense can have no more than six defenders on the line.
Formations of three or more receivers, the defense can have no more than seven on the line.
In the situations listed above, there may only be five-man pressures. Any five of the five to seven defenders on the line of scrimmage can rush the passer. However, on a blitz or regular pass rush, the rushers can only come from a spot within the “pressure box.”
The pressure box is a designated area that is two yards outside the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMLOS) and 5 yards deep in the defensive backfield. Both feet of the defender must be inside that pressure box if they are going to rush the passer.
Two brief examples of the 5-man pressure are below from the San Diego at San Antonio game in week one.
On this blitz by the San Diego Fleet defender, there is a standard five-man on the LOS across the formation. The defense’s fifth rusher is the nickel defender coming off the left edge of the defense. There is no rule that the defense cannot stunt or twist so the nickel defender engages in a stunt to the B-gap while the defensive end rushes the outside C-gap. The result of the pressure is an interception for San Diego.
This is a good example of a defense shifting their allowed rushers around presnap to try an generate a little bit confusion for the offense. Initially, the Commanders’ strong side “SAM” linebacker lines up as a designated rusher to the offensive right. Late presnap movement by the defense reveals that the WILL linebacker moves into a position along the line of scrimmage inside the defensive end as the defense’s fifth rusher along with the outside JACK linebacker to the weak side. The SAM opposite him has to back out of his alignment and drops into man coverage on the tight end.
There are exceptions to the rule however, as the defense can pressure with more than five on play action passes, run-pass options (RPOs), and quarterbacks outside the tackle box. The idea behind these exceptions is that on play action and RPOs, the defensive players have defensive scheme rules they have to follow where they have to play the run action first and this has the inevitable tendency to draw defenders up already toward the ball carrier.
During game play, corners and safeties are not allowed to blitz or pressure.
What does it all mean?
The idea behind these rules to limit the defense is driven by what AAF CEO Charlie Ebersol says is the “entertainment factor and the safety of the players.” Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and current AAF head of football development Hines Ward added that
You’ve got to think, most of the offensive linemen in our league, they haven’t seen complex schemes before. We want to be able to evaluate our guys and protect our quarterbacks, while also maintaining the integrity of the game. We didn’t want to overload blitz where we have a corner or a safety coming off the back side where an offensive lineman may just totally miss and they’ve got a free run at our quarterbacks. Maybe year 2, year 3 we can make some changes down the road. But in year 1, let’s just see if they can play and block man-on-man, one-on-one.
While much of the current criticism of the NFL centers around the idea of the rules favoring the offense, the same can really be said about the AAF. Rushing a maximum of five guys gives the offense advantages they don’t normally have in the NFL against a five or more rush. Defenses cannot disguise their rushers from just anywhere due to being only allowed to rush from inside the pressure box. No corner blitzes, no safety blitzes, no blitzes off the edge if the defender is not in the box.
In this example, the defense all but declares their intent to rush off the edge. The play call is a Mike Martz original: Bunch right dart access draw. The quarterback tagged a “dart” route to a draw play, a common form of RPO known as a the “pre-snap read” RPO. In the in-game sound, you can hear the quarterback tell his receiver that he’ll have to get the ball past the WILL linebacker (who rushes off the edge).
With the box stacked due to the bunch formation and the corner to the single receiver side in off-man coverage, the play call is easy to determine. The quarterback throws the “dart.”
It’s easier for an offense to call a protection for a five man rush as teams become more predictable in their fifth man blitz. A cursory glance through some of the recent games shows that defenses might twist and stunt a little bit more than they would in the NFL because of this limited rush and the need to generate pressure in any way possible.
For now the defensive rules are not overly complicated. This is designed to allow the players a chance to adapt to 10 game schedule and get them accustomed to new schemes and concepts as most of these players haven’t played competitively in probably over a year or more. It’s conceivable that the rules are very narrowly tailored to adjust to the experience level of the league. As a result, allowing more rushers from all over the field jeopardizes the player safety and integrity of the young league. With the current emphasis on player safety above all, it’s more likely that the rules change slowly over time rather than wholesale going into next season.
It remains unclear if the league will gain enough traction to be successful in the long term but if opening weekend and the online social media hype are any indication, the league should do just fine and is off to a great start.