Senior Bowl practices got going Tuesday afternoon, leading up to the North and South squaring off Saturday at the Senior Bowl. Last year, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff worked with the South Squad. This year, they won’t be anywhere near that as they are going to Miami for Super Bowl LIV. The 49ers will still be present, as sending scouts to watch the talent is a foregone conclusion and they will still be drafting no matter what happens next week.
The thing to keep in mind is this isn’t a typical football game. It’s a scrimmage first and foremost, intended for scouts and coaches to get an extended look at some of the NFL prospects for the 2020 NFL Draft. For that reason, several rules have been altered or removed to help with evaluating.
There are a host of changes, and I thought it’d be best if we looked at the rules list from the official Senior Bowl page and go through them. Yes, we’re about to restate the obvious that’s listed, but it’s to give a better idea of what to expect (like why possession changed at the end of a quarter).
The Cliff’s Notes version of all of this is the Senior Bowl is meant to be kept rather vanilla. Both offense and defense can’t disguise their plans near as much as you would see at the NFL or even the college level. That means things like trick plays, intricate blitzes, and fake kicks are all but non-existent in the Senior Bowl.
Another thing to remember is these are the rules for the actual game. From what it looks like, there’s nothing stopping the coaches from running other formations or looks during practice. There could be practice rules in place for specifically this, but the rules here are for game day.
Here are the rules in their entirety and some restating of the obvious sprinkled in
Offensive personnel packages will be limited to three (3):
(2) Running Backs, (1) Tight End, (2) Wide Receivers
(1) Running Back, (2) Tight Ends, (2) Wide Receivers
(1) Running Back, (1) Tight End, (3) Wide Receivers
Other sub-packages, i.e., short yardage or goal line, are not permitted.
a. Must break the huddle and align in final formation. Motion or shifts by eligible receivers is not permitted.
b. Open formations must be balanced. Three eligible receivers aligned on the same side (Trips) is not permitted.
c. Running backs are permitted to break the formation and align in a flex position provided the formation remains balanced.
d. There will be no intentional grounding called. It is permissible for the passer to throw the ball away in an effort to save loss of yardage.
All blocks below the waist are prohibited.
What this means: Like we said, pretty vanilla. Teams are going to be set with basic packages and formations. Things like jumbo packages or goal line formations are not going to be deployed. Now, the teams can make substitutions and change their formations, but they need to be some form of the above. The reason for this is so the defense can make easy substitutions as well (more on that below).
Also, blocking is basic. If a running back initiates a cut-block, that won’t go over well. Blockers need to be upright like linemen and push back.
Pass rush games are prohibited at all times. Only four rushers allowed, no 5-man pressures or blitzes from secondary permitted.
a. Substitution packages, i.e., dime, short-yardage or goal line packages, are not permitted at any time. However, teams are permitted to play three cornerbacks in a four-man secondary.
b. A nickel package may be used when the offense has three wide receivers on the field. In this case, the defense may use a four-man front with five defensive backs
a. In Base, only an Under front will be permitted in both 4-3/3-4 schemes.
1. 4-3 UNDER, traditional lineup with strong-side linebacker over TE and remaining two linebackers in “box” and off-the-line of scrimmage.
2. 3-4 UNDER, strong-side linebacker (Sam) aligns over TE, with two “box” linebackers off-the-line and weak-side linebacker reduced as the 4th rusher (not allowed to drop into pass coverage).
b. Linebackers and defensive ends are not permitted to switch positions.
c. In Sub, only an EVEN front with four-down defensive linemen and the Center left uncovered will be permitted.
What this means: Defenses are going to stay vanilla as well relying on their base packages. As it says above, no blitzes of any kind are allowed. So no safety or cornerback blitzes and definitely no casino blitzing. That said, the secondary could in theory help out in run plays. Where they are allowed to cross is not listed, but I don’t see how some trickery can’t be dialed up. They just can’t pressure an O-line and go for a quarterback. Also (listed below), corners have to play man coverage so it would have to depend on the personnel of the offense. They can’t just bail and go after the run.
Also, if a linebacker lines up as a defensive end, they can’t flip to linebacker mid-flight via shifting around. So if an outside linebacker lines up on the edge at the line, he can’t turn around and go to linebacker. It’s one or the other.
1. Two-deep or Three-deep zone coverage only.
2. Safety rotation to curl/flat only. In Base, Under/Cover-6 will be a zone call that allows the free safety to rotate to the weak-side of the offensive formation. In Sub, Even/Cover-3 will be a zone call that allows the strong safety to rotate to the strong-side of the offensive formation. No safeties are allowed to insert or switch coverage responsibility with the linebacker assigned to his side (no “buzz” rotation allowed).
3. The deep middle safety must be aligned between the hash-marks when the ball is snapped.
1. Man coverage with a free safety only. Press technique is permitted.
2. Safety rotation will mirror movement in zone coverages. In Base, Under/Cover-1 Weak will be a man call that allows the free safety to rotate to the open-side of the formation with the strong safety in the middle-of-the-field. In Sub, Even/Cover-1 Strong will be a man call that allows the strong safety to rotate to the closed-side of the formation with the free safety in the middle-of-the-field.
3. The deep middle safety must be aligned between the hash-marks when the ball is snapped.
4. The safety that is not playing the middle one-third must have a specific man-to-man coverage assignment. He is only permitted to “free-up” if his man blocks.
What this means: Pretty self-explanatory. Basically, secondaries can’t disguise coverages or have intricate ‘if-scenarios’ in choosing their man. Safeties in zone outside of the middle third need to have a guy they are designated to cover and not be on the field waiting for circumstances to happen unless it’s to switch off/relieve a cornerback in pursuit.
Also, safeties can’t switch players they are covering with linebackers. Meaning if a linebacker drops into coverage against, say, a tight end, they can’t let a safety take over after a certain distance—they have to stay with their guy. If it’s a cornerback, a switch is possible.
III. SPECIAL TEAMS
a. Kick-off/Kick-off Return
Kickoffs will only occur at the beginning of the first and third quarters and each team will kick off once. All other drives will start on the 25-yard line.
b. Punt/Punt Return
1. No Restrictions on the Punting team.
2. Fake punt attempts are not permitted.
3. Punt return:
i. No more than six (6) players may rush on punts and only three (3) to each side.
ii. Single press outside on the gunner/forcer is allowed. Double press is not allowed. The second defender who is assigned to the gunner/forcer must align at least five (5) yards off the line of scrimmage.
c. P.A.T./Field Goal
i. No restrictions on the kicking team.
ii. Defensive team may rush no more than seven (7) players. The rush is limited to one (1) man on the center and three (3) on either side of the ball.
iii. Snaps for P.A.T.
• Extra points: 15-yard line
• 2-point conversions: 2-yard line
iv. Fake field goal and extra point attempts are not permitted.
v. Teams must attempt a two-point conversion following any touchdowns scored during the second quarter.
What this means: Only two kickoffs this entire game. Make them count. All other scoring possession plays are taken as if it were a touchback.
Fake kicks or anything that isn’t a field goal or a punt is not allowed. So no run-arounds. Also, in the second quarter, there are no XP tries. All teams must do two-point conversions.
a. A two-minute warning will occur at the end of each quarter, and NFL 2-minute timing rules will be in effect.
b. Teams will get two timeouts per quarter with no carryovers.
c. Play clock will be 40/25
d. Halftime will be 15 minutes in length
Possession to start each quarter will follow the format below:
• 1st quarter: A (receive kickoff)
• 2nd quarter: B (25 yard line)
• 3rd quarter: B (receive kickoff)
• 4th quarter: A (25 yard line)
Following a team score that is trailing by 20+ points, that team will maintain possession of the ball.
There will be no instant replay reviews.
What this means: Simple football rules here. First thing to note is that possession will change at the quarter. So each quarter is like starting a new half.
There is an exception and that’s if a team is up by 20 points. If say, the North has a 20+ point lead over the South going into the second quarter, the South will maintain possession at the start of the quarter like normal.
Another thing is teams get two timeouts, but those are refilled every quarter. So there’s eight time outs total. And since there is no review in the Senior Bowl, those can’t be used to get a call reversed. The timeouts also can’t be held until the end of the game either. So if the coaching staff doesn’t use both their timeouts in a quarter, they are gone.
Like we said, the Senior Bowl is less of a game and more of a glorified scrimmage. These rules are so everyone can get extended looks of both sides of the ball. Another thing to keep in mind is that while teams can’t do the above during the game, the coaches may be able to slip some of this in during a practice. Perhaps they want to run a dime package where a safety and linebacker switch men in a drill-like setting or during a 7-on-7. It’d be a bit complicated given the lack of time, but by going off this rules sheet there’s nothing saying how they have to practice.
They may not run anything like that to prevent confusion, but it’s definitely possible. It’s going to be interesting seeing how Shanahan runs an offense with NFL prospects given how complicated his NFL offense is.