Fight to the finish

It's goal-to-go with your team's season on the line. Is it crowded in here or what?

Updated: January 14, 2010, 8:23 AM ET
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN The Magazine
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireBell's end zone acrobatics may be risky, but the goal line is no place to hold back.

This column appears in the Jan. 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

As the once-undefeated Giants and Broncos proved by missing the playoffs this season, there are no sure things in the NFL. Except for maybe one: the goal-line stand. As the postseason hurtles toward the championship round, there will be at least one moment when the game of football -- a game usually dictated by schemes, gimmicks and endless hours of preparation -- is reduced to its simplest form. The offense tries to create space, to maneuver, to inch forward, to score. The defense tries to take away that oh-so-precious space while backed up against (and sometimes standing in) its own house.

So what happens when oversize, freakishly athletic men lock horns with little room to spare? A whole lot more than meets the eye. We break it down for you here, with the help of players and coaches on both sides of the ball.

It's goal-to-go at the 5, so what's a coach to do? Well, if his defense is trying to stand its ground, the answer is pretty simple: not much. Unless faced with a multiple-receiver formation favored by pass-happy squads like the Patriots and Colts, most teams typically rely on only two fronts -- either a six-man line with two linebackers or a five-man line with three linebackers. Coverages are just as basic, with man-to-man or an eight-man zone. A defensive coordinator who's feeling particularly creative might call a soft Cover-2 that turns into man coverage once the receivers break into their routes. And if a pass seems likely, watch out for a big-time blitz. But the truth is, the defense really can't do a whole lot until the offense makes its move at the snap. "It is a little bit of a chess game when you're in goal-line," says Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "We have only a couple of plays we call down there. Frankly, you are just trying to anticipate what the offense is going to do."

Then again, the offense has fewer weapons too when it's spitting distance from the goal line (five yards or closer). In fact, coordinators who have been known to draw from playbooks at least 800 pages long generally run only 20 or so plays on goal-to-go inside the 10-yard line, and even fewer inside the 5. As on any other drive, the offense tries to run a play based on its field position (however confined), personnel and the aggressiveness of the defense it's facing. At least, that's the plan before first and second downs. "Beyond those downs, the defense has an advantage," says Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "They expect you to throw, so they drop eight men into coverage, which makes it tough to pass."