Dak Prescott, the Dallas Cowboys and Third Level RPO/Packaged Play Reads

Dallas Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott had about as good of a preseason debut as any rookie could ask for: Prescott finished the game 10 of 12 for 139 yards and two touchdowns, including a perfect strike to receiver Terrance Williams down the sideline. But as impressive as that throw was, Prescott’s most impressive trait was his calm and poise: In an opening weekend when higher profile rookie QBs like Jared Goff and Carson Wentz looked at times shaky and off-kilter, Prescott looked like a vet. So while there’s no need to get the hype train rolling too fast — it was one preseason game, and Prescott was facing almost entirely backups and guys who likely won’t make the roster — it was a great start.

But, even if Prescott plays great, all he can do is solidify his spot as the backup QB behind Tony Romo, which is why the most interesting play to me was one that told me something about what the Cowboys will do even when Prescott’s not in there. Specifically, on Prescott’s first touchdown pass, a ten-yarder to Dez Bryant, Dallas head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called a “third level” packaged play, also known as a run-pass option or RPO. Third level packaged plays are the newest (although not that new) step in the evolution of shotgun spread “read” concepts: When the shotgun spread first became popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the defining plays were the zone read and read-option plays, in which the QB read a “first level” defender, i.e., a defensive lineman. The big innovation by the end of the 2000s and early 2010s were, first, built in screens, and later the earliest packaged plays/RPOs in which receivers ran slants, hitches and sticks and the QB would read a “second level” defender (i.e., a linebacker or nickel defensive back playing like a linebacker) to determine whether to hand off or throw.

In recent years a few teams — most notably Baylor, although there are others — began using packaged plays where the quarterback read a safety to determine whether to hand off or throw. This had two primary effects: (1) it is an excellent response to Quarters coverage, in which the safeties read the offense to determine whether to play the pass or the run, often outnumbering offenses in the run game as they are so difficult to account for; and (2) it transforms a read concept that was originally designed to move the chains by having the QB either hand off or throw a screen into a handoff or a touchdown.

Corey Coleman

Which brings me back to Dak Prescott’s play against the Rams. There was nothing that sophisticated about the concept: The Cowboys called an inside zone run play, in which they blocked all of the Rams’ frontal defenders, including the backside defensive end (i.e., no read option element), and tasked Prescott with reading the safety to the side of the single receiver, who just happened to be Dez Bryant. Now, I’m not sure if Bryant was only allowed to run a fade or had some sort of choice in what route he’d run (either choosing on the fly or via a pre-snap signal between receiver and QB), but teams often adjust the route by the single receiver to find the way to best attack the safety.

In any case, given that it was Dez Bryant singled up, all Prescott really needed to confirm was that the safety wouldn’t be able to help, something he was able to do quite quickly and likely even pre-snap. (A savvier safety might have aligned inside and then hurried back outside; Prescott did stare down Bryant a bit.) And with an extra safety stepping up for the run and a freak of nature 1-on-1 near the goal line, Prescott’s choice was simple:


So while Prescott’s performance should give Cowboys’ fans hope for what they might see in the future, this play should give them some insight into what they might see this season: A cutting edge concept that, in the end, reduces to a winning formula: Run the ball behind that great offensive line with extra numbers, or throw it to #88. That makes sense to me.

Alabama’s Lane Kiffin: Master Copycat

The hallmark of Joe Gibbs’s Washington teams of the 1980s and 1990s was the Counter Trey or Counter Gap play, which featured the backside guard and backside tackle (two members of the Hogs) pulling to lead the way for John Riggins and Washington’s other powerful backs. The play became synonymous with Gibbs and Washington, and many credit his success with it as the reason why it is so ubiquitous in football today.


You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song

But Gibbs didn’t think of the play on his own. “We stole it,” Gibbs told Sports Illustrated. “We saw some film on Nebraska, and Tom Osborne was doing some really innovative things with his line up front. We were watching it and thought, God, that’s good stuff. So we stole it.”

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this: You can’t patent a football play, and once it’s on film it’s there for the world to see — and for other coaches to copy. And arguably no coach over the last two seasons has been better at strategically “stealing” plays than Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Kiffin has a history of being flexible with offense, as while an assistant at Southern Cal under Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow, Kiffin spent a lot of time at Tampa Bay’s facilities where his father was the defensive coordinator and Jon Gruden was the head coach, where he picked Gruden’s brain and studied hours of film on Gruden’s West Coast Offense. Many of those concepts eventually made their way into USC’s attack. And one of the reasons Nick Saban hired Kiffin was because he wanted someone who could bring a true pro-style approach to Alabama’s offense while also modernizing it, as Saban had seen first hand how quickly offensive football was changing. Kiffin has largely succeeded on both fronts.

But Alabama’s win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl was one of Kiffin’s best games, as he first loosened up Michigan State’s excellent defense with short passes, packaged plays and screens, before surgically dismantling it (while Alabama’s defense completely suffocated MSU’s offense). And several of the key plays for Alabama were ones Kiffin had borrowed from film study. From The Wall Street Journal:

[H]ere’s the most notable thing about those two Alabama plays: They weren’t actually Alabama’s.


That’s how you block the second level

Tulane’s graduate assistant offensive line coach Matt Jones posted some great clips of NFL offensive linemen doing their thing recently, with this one maybe being my favorite:

These weren’t too bad either, though:

Downfield passes as the “pitch phase” of the read-option, as run by Russell Wilson, Gus Malzahn and many, many, others

Since the invention of the zone read from the shotgun, coaches have dabbled with creative ways to add a third option for the quarterback. Early on, teams added a second runningback or receiver looping around for a traditional pitch, while others have added bubble screens where the receiver can either get the ball right at the snap as a pre-snap read or as a late option after the quarterback has kept it.

And for at least the last six or so years — but probably more like ten — teams have given their quarterback the ability to throw downfield as part of the pitch phase. I don’t know who was first, as some say it was Rich Rodriguez, others point to the Todd Graham era at Tulsa when he had offensive coordinators Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris, but I first saw the play back in 2007 and it seemed to gain some momentum in 2011 as Graham at Pittsburgh and a flurry of high school teams scored touchdowns with it. But there’s no doubt the play hit the national consciousness when Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team scored their penultimate touchdown against Alabama in the Iron Bowl with the play.


When Auburn ran the play they ran it with as many as four options for the QB, though my understanding is they also sometimes just called it as a called keep for the quarterback where he could either run it outside or throw it downfield. The purpose of this wrinkle isn’t really to just hit an easy touchdown pass when the defense falls asleep — though it does that too, just ask Alabama — it’s to create real run/pass conflict for a cornerback who is a run “force” defender to the backside.


Against teams that use the QB as a run threat, like Auburn, defenses need to get secondary players involved in run support. Sometimes that means safeties but other teams a corner will be the “force” defender whose job it is to set the edge and funnel runs inside, as with Cover 2. The traditional bubble or pitch concedes the edge of the defense to the force player, while these concepts put him in what is essentially a high/low bind: either he stays with his man and gives up easy yards to the quarterback or he comes up and gives up big yards behind him. In Cover 2 it’s the safety’s job to get over to the receiver, but that’s why the WR doesn’t fly upfield on a streak route. Instead it’s a “hole” throw, just behind the corner and before the safety can get over.

This isn’t the basis for an entire offense and doesn’t represent any kind of football revolution, but it is a sound concept, which is why I’m not surprised the NFL has taken notice. Last night Seattle QB Russell Wilson threw a TD pass against the Packers on this very concept (h/t SBNation):


After the game, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll copped to getting the play from Malzahn and Auburn:


Vanderbilt’s complete offensive line shift (including the center) to unbalanced

Ole Miss defeated Vanderbilt 39-35 in a wild game last night, as the Rebels came back twice in the second half and, in coach Hugh Freeze’s words, “stole one.” In the final minutes of the game, after Ole Miss had taken a 32-28 lead, Vanderbilt converted a fourth and 18 to Jordan Matthews, only for Ole Miss runningback Jeff Scott to hit a 75 yard run:

The interesting thing about Ole Miss’s final touchdown was it was a hand-off on the Inverted Veer, a play which is one of Ole Miss’s staple run plays under Freeze. But the most unique wrinkle in a very entertaining and hard fought game came from Vanderbilt’s brain trust of head coach James Franklin, offensive coordinator Jon Donovan and offensive line coach Herb Hand: Before one play, Vandy shifted its entire offensive line, including the center so that its left tackle ended up snapping the ball. See the gif below (courtesy of SBNation):


New Grantland: The Cowboys’ Jason Witten: Master of the Option Route

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Despite its backyard beginnings, there are specific coaching points on an option route. The first thing Witten must do is identify the defender over him and attack that defender’s leverage on his release from the line, typically by running directly at him. By running right at that defender — which is usually a linebacker or safety — Witten forces the defense to reveal how it is playing him. There are basically two things that can happen: The defense will either play zone or man-to-man. This does not always mean that what Witten identifies is literally what the defense has called, particularly in an NFL with increasingly complicated coverages, but by classifying them this way Witten is able to cut through the confusion and defeat whatever technique he faces.

Read the whole thing.

Paragraph of the Day: Cal Bears/Packaged Plays Edition

The highlight of [Cal’s] practice for me was during the team periods I was standing about 5 yards away from Tony Franklin. I was right next to him so I could hear each play call. What was slightly shocking to me was how often they attach quick game concepts on the backside of runs. Nearly every single run play there is a quick game or screen component tied on to the backside, and sometimes routes are tagged frontside as well. They call quick concept backside so often that they actually have to call/signal for the backside to BLOCK when they just want a designed run play. The hot new thing is combo [a.k.a “packaged”] plays … 2 in 1 or even 3 in 1 plays… EVERY PLAY is a 2 in 1.

Read the whole thing here.

New Grantland: How the Ravens Will Try to Contain Colin Kaepernick and the Diversity of the 49ers’ Offense

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Making whichever choice this unblocked defender makes the wrong one is read option 101. It’s an idea that’s been around for more than a decade. When fully realized, San Francisco’s read option goes far beyond those basics, to places college teams haven’t even been. “We’ve gone down our own road and we do what we do, not just traditional things other teams have done,” remarked Roman this week. “We’ve taken it and are going down our own path.”

Most significantly, on many of the 49ers’ read plays, it’s not just the quarterback who is reading the defender. A lead blocker is often doing the same.


Fullback Bruce Miller isn’t given every option on every play, but generally, there are three possibilities as the lead blocker on these plays: (1) If the end crashes down for the running back, Miller’s job is to feign blocking him and arc around to seal any linebacker scraping for the quarterback; (2) if the end stays home but slides inside, Miller can block him, opening a crease for Gore to slip through; or (3) if the end goes for the quarterback, then Miller slips inside of him and blocks the nearest linebacker.

Read the whole thing. Also, as a bonus, I had originally intended to describe the 49ers’ use of the Inverted Veer in the NFC Championship game but didn’t end up having a chance. Below the jump are some bonus diagrams.


New Grantland: How Joe Flacco’s Big Arm Can Exploit the 49ers’ Secondary

It’s now up at Grantland:

The key to the 49ers’ success in that game, as well as for much of the past two years, is rooted in a common misconception about their defense. It’s often noted that the 49ers play almost entirely with two safeties deep, splitting the field into halves while the remaining defenders play man-to-man coverage. This tactic, which also relies heavily on the front seven to stop the run, is known as “Cover 2 Man” defense. The notion that the 49ers use this coverage almost exclusively is, like most misconceptions, rooted in some fact. The 49ers do use this coverage a great deal, but if they used it on every down, San Francisco’s defense would be much easier to attack than it actually is.

What Fangio and the 49ers actually do is mix and match their two-deep, Cover 2 Man coverage with a variety of “pattern match” zones — zone defenses that transform into a kind of man coverage after the snap. The 49ers use a variety of these pattern-match schemes (each of which is differentiated by a subtle change in a defender’s rules), but one I’ve seen them use with success all season is known to many coaches as “Two Read.


Read the whole thing.

Studying the Raw Materials of Chip Kelly’s Up-Tempo Offense

With Chip Kelly going to the Eagles, there’s been much hand wringing about whether Chip Kelly’s offense will work in the NFL, whether he’ll bring it to Philly verbatim, and so on. I honestly don’t know the definitive answer  — I am not sure Chip does — but I’m certainly looking forward to watching. Nevertheless, I expect Kelly to evolve his offense and, more importantly, tailor it to the personnel he has in Philadelphia. But whether it will work will probably be as much a function of things unrelated to the offense, like the mastery of the roster, drafting and salary caps, his ability to coach, train and teach professional versus college players, and how he generally adapts to a pro game that is in many ways just different. But, knowing how bright Chip is, I have a difficult time believing that it will be schemes — and certainly not from too much fidelity to a certain scheme — that does him in.


I guess I need a new visor

Unfortunately, much of the analysis around these questions is exceedingly weak, because there is such little knowledge of what Kelly actually does. I wrote a lengthy piece this fall centering on Kelly’s actual philosophy and approach, and I think that perspective is the right one to start from, as his individual schemes have always evolved at Oregon and undoubtedly will even more so in Philadelphia. But if you want to really know how his offense works, there is no substitute for study, and in football study begins with the film. That’s what his opponents have had to do, and they almost universally come away impressed. That includes Monte Kiffin, the former Southern Cal foil and now defensive coordinator for in-division rival Dallas Cowboys:

Monte Kiffin, NFL defensive coaching legend, was standing at the top of the ramp outside the Coliseum late Saturday, about an hour after his USC Trojans fell to the visiting Oregon Ducks 53-32; in the process, Kiffin’s crew had given up 599 yards to Chip Kelly.

Kiffin was trying to assess the mind-boggling precision of the Ducks’ offense that he had witnessed first-hand and was in midsentence praising how “innovative” Kelly is when the Oregon coach happened to walk up behind him to shake his hand as he made his way to the Ducks’ bus.

Kiffin, caught off guard, smiled, and told Kelly “good job” and came right back to talking about how impressed he was by what these Ducks can do. It’s hard not to think that Kelly must seem like he’s in a lot of defensive coaches’ heads.

“That guy is such a good coach,” the 70-year-old Kiffin went on to say as he watched Kelly exit the Coliseum. “I respect him so much just from watching their tape. It’s the discipline they have. The offensive line does a great job. The receivers do a great job of downfield blocking. They don’t beat themselves very often.”

“I mean, you’re hanging in there, but then they just get you. You get a lot of guys up to stop the run and then, they play-fake. You can’t get beat like that. Arizona State played them like that and they get four or five big plays. I don’t think it’s so much the tempo, it’s really just that they execute so well.”

The first place I’d recommend going to learn more about the offense, particularly for those with a comfort in independent film study, is this page at Brophy’s site. He has all-22 game film cut-ups, organized by play and pass concept, from a few years ago for almost all of Chip’s offense.  It’s an excellent resource. (I would pay particular attention to the passing game, as if there’s anywhere that I think Chip will need to develop his offense it is there.) On the flipside, Coach Hoover has an excellent series on defending Oregon’s offense, particularly from a 4-3, a subject that also will be much discussed all offseason.

From there, I highly recommend much of the analysis at FishDuck, an Oregon site which has spent the past several years doing film breakdowns of Chip’s offense. Some of the information is slightly outdated — Chip began adjusting the alignment of his backs more often so as to not give away the play, though as stated in the article he usually built up keys and tendencies in order to set up defenses for later and break open a big play — but there’s probably no better introduction to the nuts and bolts of Chip’s attack than the following. Happy studying.