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In 2007, Piedmont High School introduced the A-11 offense to the world. A-11 stands for the fact that all 11 players were wearing eligible jersey numbers and therefore eligible to receive a forward pass if they aligned on the end of the line or other than on the line.

After their 2007 an 2008 seasons, with the A-11 having gotten a ton of national publicity, one aspect of it—having eleven guys with eligible jersey numbers—was outlawed by the National Federation of High School Associations starting with the 2009 season. NFHSA sets the rules for high schools in 48 states. Massachusetts and Texas high schools use NCAA rules, which were not changed to restrict the NCAA version of the A-11. Indeed, Boise State used an A-11 play in their first game of the 2009 season.

When they first hear about it, most people assume the A-11 is just a gimmick, a sort of trick play series. Wrong. It’s a lot more than that.

There are many unexpected benefits to the A-11 including the modified version of it now being used by Piedmont and other schools.

It’s not a spread. It’s an accordion, or both.

I initially regarded the A-11 as a form of spread option. It’s not a spread. It’s an accordion.

Sometimes it’s spread. Sometimes it’s collapsed into a tight, inside power-running formation. Sometimes it’s both: one side is collapsed tight and the other is spread.

Wide receivers who actually know how to block and do

A-11, as I said, stands for all 11 eligible to catch a pass. (All 11 can still catch a backward pass and in the modified Piedmont A-11, they actually do. In a typical Piedmont A-11 game, nine guys touch the ball at 8 different positions.) But guess what else all 11 do at Piedmont?

Block. True, all 11 are supposed to block in all offenses, including the wide receivers and quarterbacks, but try catching one do it competently on video. At Piedmont, all 11 do block. And not just some minimal technique like stalk blocking. The split ends and flankers and slot backs at Piedmont zone block.

Zone plays

In the NFL and NCAA zone plays and zone play blocking has become the norm, and it's now being seen at many high schools too. But zillions of men with little football knowledge or experience think they know what zone blocking is. “Oh, yeah. Zone blocking. That means you have to block in your assigned area like on a PAT team.”

No, I’m sorry that’s incorrect, but thank you for playing.

In a zone play, it looks like the entire offensive line is running to one side or the other. Upon closer examination, you will see that they are generally double-team blocking the defender to their outside. If you examine real closely, you will also note that one of the two guys doing the double team block fairly quickly comes off that block and blocks a linebacker. That is sometimes called a tandem block. The remaining guy on the double-team changes position to single block the guy he was previously double-team blocking. It’s not ultra complex, but it is somewhat complex. The two offensive linemen must learn to work together and they must learn to read the linebackers so they can figure out which one of them is to take the backer.

Most college and pro interior linemen know how to zone block these days. But at Piedmont, the split ends, flankers and slot backs also know how to zone block. Why? Because you cannot have an accordion line that spreads and tightens unless the wideouts who come in tight know how to zone block. At Piedmont, all the non-backs know how to zone block and do in games.

Zone play advantages

In the zone play, the running back with the ball does not run to a designated hole as he did back in the 32 dive, 26 power days. Rather, he heads for a “landmark,” like the outside foot of the tight end, but keeps his eyes open looking for a running lane to open up. In other words, the “hole” will be decided by the running back as the play unfolds. It’s actually decided by the defenders and the offensive blockers who are zone blocking them. The backer can choose to go outside or inside the double-team block. That, in turn, decides which blocker takes him and where the running lane will be. The zone play is a more sophisticated version of the old Lombardi Green Bay sweep with it’s admonitions to take the defender “whichever way he wants to go” and “run to daylight.”

Running backs in the zone play are taught to be “slow to the hole but fast through the hole.” They also run more east-west as they are waiting for the linebackers to commit then they explode north full speed through the running lane that appears.

In the A-11, the holes are bigger and easier for the running back to see because of the usually spread nature of the formation.

Open-field blocking

Open field blocking is almost a lost art. Not at Piedmont. Their often spread out alignment forces them to do a lot of open-field blocking. the more open field blocking you have to do, by the more different positions, the better you get at it. What you emphasize you achieve. Open field blocking has become a sort of specialty of Piedmont’s—by necessity.

Fewer injuries

Adopting the A-11 gave small school Piedmont (800 students coed ) an unexpected important benefit: far fewer injuries. Football was almost outlawed in the U.S. during the Roosevelt administration—the Teddy Roosevelt administration. College players were literally getting killed every year by the flying wedge and other collisions. Teddy, who graduated from one of the top football powers of the era, Harvard, held a meeting and said reduce the injuries or I will outlaw the sport.

They complied by allowing forward passes in rules changes adopted from 1906 to 1913. That was purported to reduce injuries by spreading the game out. It worked! But the game was never as spread out as it could be until Piedmont’s A-11. And as in the early 20th century, the injury rate dropped even further.

Piedmont has not had a major injury on offense in 23 games (2007, 2008 and to date in 2009) of running the A-11, in spite of being admittedly undersized vs. most of the teams they play.

Not just pawns

Many have said football is like chess. True, but almost all coaches have made the chess mistake of concluding that offensive linemen are like the pawns in a chess match. All they can do is block.

No, I'm sorry that’s incorrect, but thank you for playing.

When you play Piedmont’s A-11, you assume their ineligible interior offensive linemen are pawns at your peril. In the first game of the 2009 season, one such ineligible jersey numbered player—77—ran the statue-of-liberty play for a nice gain, and another such player, # 52, took a handoff in the backfield 78-yards for a touchdown!

At a non-A-11 game, the offensive linemen probably will be mere pawns. But A-11 teams use their offensive linemen as the rule book allows, not as the chess-pawn mentality dictates. By rule, ineligible interior linemen:

• can receive backward passes and pitches including being the pitch back on any type of option play
• can throw forward or backward passes
• can receive backward handoffs
• can receive a forward or inside handoff provided they step back at least one yard from the line of scrimmage, turn so they face away from the line of scrimmage and move both feet in the process
• can run pass patterns down field on forward pass plays where the pass does not cross the line of scrimmage or on fake pass running plays like quarterback draw

See my book The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense for the chapter on ineligible receivers.


You may think the defenders will know they do not have to cover the “receivers” in question because of their ineligible jersey numbers. Technically, that’s true, but you try ignoring a guy who’s running a post pattern right past you during the chaos of a game night play. In a Piedmont or any other A-11 game, you have to be ready to stop interior linemen from doing any or all of the things the rule books actually allows them to do.

The A-11 is a paranoia-inducing offense. Remember the NFL blooper film where one coach says, “Watch the screen! Another yells, “Watch the draw!” then the head coach yells, “Watch everything!”

Paranoia is defined as thinking everyone is out to get you. When you are playing Piedmont, “All 11 players” on the offense ARE out to get you. Be afraid. Be very very afraid of the slightly plump but surprisingly athletic linemen on an A-11 team. They may be carrying the ball, or throwing a pass or catching a backward pass way out wide.

Protecting the QB

A-11 quarterbacks hardly ever get sacked. How can that be when the line is all spread out?

Did you think sumo wrestler type linemen were the only way to protect a passer?

No. Space also protects the passer, as in the space between the line of scrimmage and the shotgun snap receiving quarterback. Sideways space also protects the pass when he feels pressure and sprint out to either side to get away from it. He also has help out there in the form of those ineligible but versatile interior linemen who align out wide—covered up, but wide. when the defender chases the QB out of the “pocket” against an A-11, he’d better look out of a near blind side collision with a wide tackle. Call it paranoid pass rushing.

Space has some advantages in pass pro. It never gets tired. It never uses incorrect technique. It never gets injured. It never fails to protect, just like the famous defense friend, Sideline Sammy, who never misses a tackle if the ball carrier steps in his territory (out of bounds).

Short quarterbacks

You say you have a short quarterback—and you’re concerned about his seeing over the line? Is that what’s bothering you?

So get rid of the line and do your pass pro with space instead. Piedmont’s starting, never-injured quarterback in 2007 and 2008 was a relatively short guy. A relatively short, slight of build, all-league quarterback guy as it turned out. Could he see over the line? No. But he could see over space. Indeed, he could even see through space. Not even 6'5" quarterbacks can see through the line.

Space pass pro means your quarterback almost never gets hit and he can see everything, which is great for finding open receivers and avoiding throwing the ball to the wrong team.

Not every snap is out of the shotgun. About 5% of the time, Piedmont puts the quarterback under center. They have a separate guy to do long snapping for field goals.

Scatbacks up the middle

In all three of their seasons, Piedmont’s A-11 has had scatbacks who ran up the middle for big gains. In 2007 and 2008, the scatback was also their quarterback. In 2009, the scatback is their tailback type guy. How can a skinny little guy like that run up the middle? By spreading the defense out. Try running a scatback type runner up the middle, other than inside trap, in a traditional offense and you will to have your stretcher ready, not to mention your punter.

Game attendance

Game attendance at Piedmont went from an average of about 800 to an average of about 2,000 after they adopted the A-11. Who were the additional spectators? Students from the school, local fans curious to see the A-11, media from all over the U.S. (because the A-11 is more interesting than most offenses), and distant relatives who would not normally travel by air to see a nephew play in a high school football game, but will to see the A-11.

Piedmont High School, whose previous claim to international fame was their annual bird calling contest, became even more famous for the A-11 offense.

More than doubling attendance more than doubles sales of home game tickets, snack bar food, and Piedmont apparel and symbols. They probably increased those sales at away games, too. Maybe they should have bargained for a cut of the incremental sales in non-league games.

A-11 is like a box of chocolates...

In their 23 A-11 games thus far, Piedmont has seen 19 different defenses—although only two types of pass rush gimmicks: middle blitzes and corner-type blitzes. This has forced A-11 personnel to be able to adjust their approach to blocking more than most teams. They also adjust on the run via the above-described zone blocking scheme.

Not knowing what defensive alignment you will face is the only logical objection I have ever heard to contrarian offensive approaches. But logic is not enough. I don’t buy that objection. NO offensive coordinator or offensive lineman can be sure in advance what defensive alignments he will see in the game. I have been forced to run conventional fashionable offenses when I was a high school coach and not the varsity head coach. Very frequently, we found that the defense was not in the same alignment as in our scout film.

So all offenses must know how to adjust to unexpected defensive alignments on game day. Only, at an A-11 team, unexpected defensive alignments are expected. So they must learn how to figure out the blocking during the game, and they do.

But fewer defenses and games/stunts per game

When I first coached at the high school level, I was defensive coordinator of the JV at Miramonte High School in Orinda, CA. The JV head coach told me whenever we saw a double-tight-end formation, we were to automatically shift into our Oklahoma defense. We did. Our kids would audible to it on their own when they saw double tight. We had a dozen or more defenses for other offensive formations. One of my main jobs during the game was signaling in “nose gap” or “Okie lightning” or some other defense or stunt. But if you showed us double tight, you got nothing but Oklahoma all night. It was our only trick against double tight.

So how many different defenses and games-stunts do you think Piedmont sees per game? About one or two. Same deal as Miramonte presented to opponents if they had double tight. Defenses have lots of defense variations for the traditional opponents. But they cannot justify the time it would take to teach a whole bunch of defenses they might only use once a season. So although Piedmont has to adjust at each game when they see how the opponent is going to defend them, they typically do not have to do that repeatedly throughout the game.

Piedmont co-head coach Steve Humphries said,

It’s hard for them to blitz us when our offense is blitzing them. It helps balance things out for the offense.

Play calling

Everyone knows the age-old offensive admonition to “take what they give you.” But like a lot of age-old advice, it’s easier said than done.

With the A-11 however, it is easier, if not easy, to “take what they give you” than with conventional offenses. That’s because you can see what the defense is giving you more easily when they are all spread out and the A-11 lets you attack more parts of the short and intermediate depth parts of the field. Four reasons you can attack more parts of the field are that the A-11 has more formations than the vast majority of teams and because of their zone blocking schemes, open field blocking, and the programmed versatility of their wide outs and interior linemen

All competent offensive coordinators eventually see what the defense is giving them as the game progresses. But A-11 coaches can identify what the defense is giving them sooner in the game than offensive coordinators of traditional offenses.

Unpleasant surprises

I asked head coach Kurt Bryan what unpleasant surprise he encountered with the A-11. He recited Murphy’s first two laws:

1. Everything is harder than you think.
2. Everything takes longer than you think.

Murphy’s Third Law is the most famous: If anything can go wrong, it will and at the worst possible time.

‘Fan base’ unhappiness

Another unpleasant surprise, which dissipated over time, was some vocal unhappiness with the A-11 on the part of:

• some players and their supporters who did like the new role they A-11 gave them
• fans who believed the A-11 was a dumb offense that was doomed to failure

Basically, time and victories took care of both problems. During the first year, Piedmont deliberately ran traditional offense some of the time so that traditional big linemen who had been working toward their varsity participation for years were not abandoned. Piedmont still has a “Big Nasty” package, but the school has made the transition to the athletic lineman type and the student athletes moving up to the varsity understand the relative lack of playing time for traditional large offensive linemen. Piedmont also moved many of them to defensive line thereby upgrading the talent level at those positions.

Run-pass balance

You would think a spread type offense would pass most of the time. You’d be wrong. Piedmont has run the ball 51% of the time since they adopted the A-11. I would add that their running plays look more like draw plays a lot of the time than traditional running plays. There is no line to run through so everything seems to be in open space. Ideal for the broken-field runner.


Initially, Piedmont was going to use the option. In the event, they used it much less than they originally planned. I will simply comment that my son and I were unable to figure out how to defend the A-11 combined with the option. We were unable to figure out how to defend it on paper. Anyone can stop the other guy on paper. We were unable to do so. So our inability to do so was saying something.


In one word, the A-11, both original and modified, are more.

More kids at your school coming out for football. (Piedmont varsity was 28 in 2006 before A-11, 30 and 31 in 2007 and 2008, the first two A-11 years, and 37 in 2009)

More fans in your stands

More press & college recruiting recognition for your players.

More ways for more players to contribute in each game.

More versatility by your players as a result of the necessity generated by the nature of the offense.

More players touching the ball in each game.

More formations that give you more ways to attack the opponent.

More knowledge of what each defense will do against you because they cannot afford the time to put in much just for the A-11.

More ways to make use of less-than-BCS-Division athletes.

The key to success in everything, including football coaching, is to match your strengths and weaknesses to the competition. I wrote about that extensively in my book Succeeding. What the A-11 gives teams is more ways to take advantage of your team’s strengths and minimize the importance of your team’s weaknesses.

The A-11 has given football players, coaches, and fans a whole lot more.