Snag, stick, and the importance of triangles (yes, triangles) in the passing game

When Sid Gillman revolutionized and all but invented the modern passing game, he did it through a “conceptual” approach to pass plays based on three “pass concepts”. Because football is governed by its immutable twins of strategy — arithmetic and geometry — these remain the foundation for all effective pass plays:

Simple stuff

  1. Vertical stretches — These place two or three receivers at different levels vertically up the field to “stretch” the defense. Examples include the smash concept and the frontside flood concept (see here for a diagram and here for  a video). Another name for these are high/low or hi/lo reads.
  2. Horizontal stretches — These place two, three, four, or five receivers horizontally across the field or a portion of it to “stretch” defenders from left to right or right to left (or inside to out or outside to in). Examples include all-curl.
  3. Man or “object receiver” reads — These are not necessarily distinct from the above horizontal and vertical stretches, but the focus is on having a route or combination of routes that will defeat man-to-man coverage. Examples include the mesh concept from the Airraid, bunch passes and option-routes.

These three categories essentially made up the full panoply of choices for the passing game for, well, for a really long time. But at some point — most notably with Bill Walsh’s 49ers — a “new” concept began emerging, though it wasn’t actually new at all but was instead a very clever twist on what Gillman had synthesized. Walsh realized that you could combine the horizontal and the vertical stretch to create a kind of “new” stretch, though one made up of both of Gillman’s first two categories. Moreover, Walsh often combined the two zone beaters — the horizontal and vertical stretch — with the third category, the man beating concept, into a single “triangle” read that also was designed to defeat man coverage. If the perfect pass play was the Holy Grail of modern football, then the triangle is its best personification to date and Walsh its Galahad.

But let’s take a step back to understand why the triangle stretch works, along with its negatives. The best vertical or horizontal stretches use more than two receivers, with three or more receivers being used in various “zone flood” routes. If you caught the defense in the right look it was mathematically impossible for them to defend you: If you ran the three-level flood route against Cover 2, they had two guys (a corner and a safety) to defend three receivers; and if you caught a Cover 3/4-under defense with your all-curl concept, it was easy pick’ins:

All this has been detailed before, and if you can identify what coverage you are facing it is still better to run a true three-level vertical stretch or five-receiver horizontal stretch against the right coverage — if you get that right, there’s very little the defense can do. But, of course, it’s not so easy to figure out what coverage the defense is in before the play; indeed, with the advent of combo coverages and pre- and post-snap shifts, it’s often is difficult to even determine what the coverage was even after the play.

Enter the triangle stretch. The insight behind the triangle is that the horizontal and the vertical stretch are combined to create a single straightforward read for the quarterback that provides answers no matter what the defense presents.

All of the major “new” (in relative terms) passing concepts are based on a triangle read. The weakness of the triangle stretch is that it’s typically only possible to only get a two-man horizontal or vertical stretch, whereas with a true “flood” you can place three (or more) receivers across the field on a given plane to truly defeat a defense. This limitation means that a triangle can be throttled by certain coverages that rotate to the triangle side.


Tim Brown was a true technician at wide receiver

Watch this video and marvel at what an amazing job he does defeating the technique of each defender on him. He uses specific techniques against man and zone. By NFL standards he wasn’t an unbelievable athlete, but he didn’t need to. This is how you put up over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns at age 35 (and over 900 yards at age 36).

(H/t Waldman.)

Follow-pivot pass concept

Good stuff from Coach Hoover’s site:

I first learned this play while studying the Meyer/Mullen Florida Gator Offense. I remember sitting at their first Spring Clinic, listening to Dan Mullen talk. Mullen explained that their offense mainly used five passing concepts: All-Go [Ed.: See also this article.], Smash, Houston (maybe another article in the future), H-Option, and Follow-Pivot.

[Ed. Note: Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen got this play (among others) from Joe Tiller at Purdue. Check out pages 131 to 133 (in PDF page numbers, not playbook page numbers, of the 1999 (Drew Brees) Purdue playbook.]

After studying the Follow-Pivot concept, I realized that it was very similar to the NCAA pass (Post-Dig-Drag). However, because of the distribution of routes, this concept is better suited to beat Quarters coverage. . . .

Conceptually, the play creates a High-Low on the Free Safety, as well as [a] Middle-Triangle [read] off the two weak-side Linebackers (or weak-side and middle LBs). I always put the Post to the boundary, and have the Follow route coming from the field. I do this because teams will almost always rotate their coverage to the field (which would disrupt my Triangle) or because we see a lot of Quarters with the Strong Safety inside my #2 receiver to the field (which makes it difficult for that receiver to run the Post). I must create a situation where I can isolate the Free Safety for my High-Low read, and my Post and Follow routes can win.


The two receivers closest to the ball will run Pivot routes if displaced or Check-down/Breakout routes from the backfield. Their purpose is to attract the two LBs closest to the Post, or replace those LBs if they disappear in coverage or become pass rushers. Those two LBs are also the players that we are trying to occupy get the Follow route open. A coaching point that we teach to the Pivot & Check-down routes is to have them sit and replace the LB they are aiming for if he rushes the QB or drops into coverage. They will only work outside if they are covered, as this will open up a huge throwing lane over the middle for the Follow route. Finally, the outside receiver to the field runs a Curl, and is there should the QB have to scramble that way.

Check out the video cutup and read the whole thing. This is a good complement to the shallow cross concept I recently described.

Bobby Petrino’s shallow cross concept – concepts, routes, and protection

The shallow cross is, quite possibly, the best pass play in football: Almost any quarterback can complete it; almost any receiver can run it (though there is more nuance than maybe one might initially realize to a good shallow route); it is a way to get “speed in space” without requiring a big arm; it works against most all coverages; and throwing a few of these tends to open up big plays downfield as defenders creep up.

Score... heh heh heh...score...

I’ve discussed lots of variants of the shallow, but one of my favorites remains Bobby Petrino’s. I see Petrino’s version as essentially the meshing of a pro style approach with a college sensibility; the reads are simple but there are nuances built in so that it works against almost any coverage. Petrino moves his guys around a bit, but, the key feature is that unlike the Airraid guys, he has his runningback and his shallow going to the same side: the back runs a wheel route to pull the underneath coverage to the sideline and up the sideline, while the other two receivers run a post and a square-in, and on the backside the receiver runs a comeback. The base play looks like this:



The post and the wheel are “alert” routes, in that they aren’t part of the basic reads but the quarterback can look at them first if the defense gives it. The most famous example of hitting the wheel was the second play of the game last season against Alabama. Alabama came out in a quarters or split safety look, but there was some coverage bust (it’s hard to say exactly but it was probably the cornerback chasing the post route all the way inside, as shown in the video below).

More typically, the goal is to hit the shallow, as the read is shallow to square-in to comeback on the backside. (Note that some people have said all routes should be read high to low, including the shallow. Although I think that’s a good rule of thumb, that’s all it is: the shallow needs to be the read before the square-in.) Below is a diagram and clip of the same concept, except Petrino now has the square-in/dig and the shallow coming from the same side.


Here, Arkansas runs the shallow and the wheel to the short and tight side (short side of the field and where there is only a tight-end). The corner and safety drop deep, and the advantage of running the shallow to this side is the tight alignment brings the linebackers in, and the shallow ends up able to outflank those guys.

The read is the same though: Alert (post/wheel), shallow to square-in to comeback. I’ve covered all of this previously, but it’s worth mentioning again because don’t take my word for it: Ryan Mallett explained it all to Jon Gruden recently. Jump to the 2:05 mark. (My favorite part of this is when Mallett begins discussing the hot reads and Gruden’s eyes light up.)

Packaging three-step and five-step passing concepts into the same play

Modern defenses are very, very good. Too good, in fact, for successful offenses to expect to be able to simply call some traditional play in the huddle — ye olde 24 Blast or 42 Boot Pass — and be able to simply line up and run it with any hope of sustained success. Not only are defenses sound, defensive coordinators and talented defenders have become masters of deception, and the game has increasingly become a mental as well as physical struggle.

I would've liked this concept

Fortunately, defenses aren’t yet — due to the immutable laws of arithmetic and geometry which apply with equal force on a football field — magical, meaning that all defenses always have weaknesses. The trick is to find them and, as Spurrier says, to put your kids in position to win. The goal is to try to tilt the advantage back to offenses. There are essentially three strategies:

  1. Line up in a formation and let a coach or a quarterback change the play. You see this whenever Peyton Manning or some other NFL guy audibles at the line (though his options have usually been narrowed to two or three before the snap), or when a no-huddle team lines up and looks to the sideline for guidance. The idea is that, while it is still pre-snap and the defense can still move, it has given away certian clues, including personnel and general structure.
  2. Use multiple formations and motions to confuse the defense or gain an advantage in numbers or leverage. This approach tries to turn the defense against itself by never giving the defense a chance to get settled or to identify what the offense may do. Moreover, sometimes the defense simply fails to adjust, and the offense gains some new advantage. The downside of this approach is it leaves little time and fewer clues for the offense to make adjustments, but the idea is that “motion causes emotion” (to use the old adage) and the offense has an advantage in that it knows where it is going. This is the method employed by Boise State.
  3. Give your players options on their assignments for after the snap. Just as it sounds, this is the principal governing all “option”-esque attacks. The macro idea here, pioneered by Tiger Ellison, is that backyard football is not played in a static, overly orchestrated way, and instead the natural inclination of kids to run around and make decisions on the fly — and so should it be in real football. This can manifest itself in different ways, from the triple option to the spread option to the passing game. Each play provides a superstructure but freedom within it. The idea is you don’t need much else, except for the players to begin adapting and making the rights reads. As said in Remember the Titans, “I run six plays. Split veer. It’s like Novocain. Give it time. It always works.”

A few years ago, it was possible to achieve unheard of success by designing a new play, or sometimes simply by joining the bandwagon and going spread, especially if you had better athletes. Now, the innovations are ones of communication and organization; much of the talk this season centered around Oregon’s fast-paced no-huddle, particularly its fascinating playcalling system. For now, most of the biggest schematic ideas have been hashed out and the question now is how to make it all work together. Packaging pass concepts together — i.e. putting different pass concepts, each designed to beat particular pass coverages or families of pass coverages, to each side of the play — is not new. But it is limited in its own way (more on those limits in a moment), and there are ways to incorporate more of the above ideas into a single concept. Moreover, when done correctly, it’s possible to continue to be multifariously (and deceptively) simple, by using the same handful of pass concepts in new ways.

Problems with the traditional approach of packaging pass concepts. Almost any coach trying to call a pass play, face buried in the Denny’s menu of the playcall sheet, is forced to answer that age old question: Will it be Cover 3 or Cover 2? (Or Cover 4 or man or a blitz, and so on.) The problem is that, no matter how good your pass it is, due to the particular horizontal or vertical stretch it uses, each pass play is better against certain coverages than others. At most, a play might be good against two defensive concepts, and certain plays — like snag — are handy utility plays to get completions against most coverages but that doesn’t mean that they literally work against everything. One potential solution is to “package” different concepts to each side, again with the traditional way being to put a “Cover 3 beater” to one side and a “Cover 2 beater” to the other. (If you want a refresher on basic pass coverages, check out this piece.)

Three problems, however, quickly present themselves with this simplistic answer:

  1. The quarterback only reads half the field, determined based solely on the alignment and movement of a couple of defenders. If the quarterback is either wrong or the receivers fail to get open, the play is essentially a bust.
  2. The side the quarterback throws to is usually determined based on the safeties (or sometimes the middle linebacker). It does not take into account blitzes. It’s possible to include anti-blitz solutions too, but this becomes yet a third read — that might be inconclusive.
  3. Typically, the pass concepts put to each side are effective against those defensive concepts, but they typically do a poor job of dealing with interior or floating defenders, who can turn a quarterback’s good read into an interception. Relatedly, the pass concept may not work at all against combination coverages or roll coverages, which can give false keys.

The third point is worth elaborating on briefly. Shown below is a typical “packaged” five-step drop combination: the curl/flat combination to one side with the smash or corner/flat combination to the other.

This play should work, as the quarterback ought to see that the defense only has one single safety and he thus looks to the left side, with the curl/flat combination. But the packaged pass concepts don’t do anything to control those interior players. The same would be the case if the defense lined up with two deep safeties and he worked the smash side, to his right. There are ways to solve this problem, but there’s an approach that solves (or at least greatly improves upon) all three issues raised above.

Three-step and five-step, together. The idea for this solution came from two sources: the old run and shoot “Read” play and the book, Concept Passing,” where Dan Gonzalez describes something similar. The broad idea is to achieve multiple things in one play-call, but to sequence it so that it all can actually be done by a high school or college kid. The run and shoot “read route” put a “quick” or three-step-esque (remember that the run and shoot used half-rollouts) to one side, while putting the old favorite, the “switch” to the backside. See below:

Against any kind of blitz or tight-man, the quarterback would deliver the ball to one of the outside receivers (typically the slot running to the flat) off his third-step. If the defense covered that, he would finish his drop, step up, and read the two backside receivers running the old switch, which was just a form of the “seam read” from four verticals but where the two receivers criss-crossed at the snap. In his book, Gonzalez describes a more pro-style application; here is my take on it.


Running and throwing the fade route against press coverage

This past weekend saw that old classic, the fade route, used to win a couple huge games in the SEC: The game winner in the LSU-Florida game was a fade (the second try), and South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffrey caught several big time fade passes against formerly #1 Alabama.

As simple as it seems — “Run out there and I’ll throw it up” — it’s a surprisingly subtle play, and is often taught improperly. Steve Spurrier, of course, is one of the masters of the fade, and this is not the first time LSU has won a big game on a well-thrown fade.

The first problem is the name, “fade.” This conjures up the idea that the receiver’s job is to release off the ball and immediately start “fading” to the sideline, where the quarterback has to throw it to an increasingly vanishing spot between the defender and the sideline. This is wrong.

1. The route, at least from the receiver’s perspective, should be thought of as an almost totally vertical route. Against press man coverage, he should get the defender’s feet moving; the goal is not to get “around” the defender but to get through him, by making the defender move and then having the receiver run on a path immediately past him. This isn’t always possible, and the fade is an outside release play, but that should be the goal every time it is called. Too often young receivers want to outside release, get jammed, and can barely get off the line of scrimmage or get run basically out of bounds.

2. Second, the receiver must leave at least six to seven yards between him and the sidelines. Some teach five yards but I prefer seven, because it leaves more margin for error. A simple way to think about it is to tell the receiver to get no wider than a yard outside the numbers (i.e. the big numbers on the field between the hashmarks and the sideline).

3. Third, consistent with the above two points, the receiver should actually try to lean into the defender as he bursts upfield. As I’ve said previously:


How do you beat Cover 2 with trips? Let me count the ways

Brian Cook of mgoblog put up some photos from last week’s game between Michigan and Indiana, where Michigan pulled out the victory but Indiana’s Ben Chappell threw for 480 yards and three TDs, by completing over 70% of his passes. Most of these yards came from underneath throws, but Chappell hit a few big plays, including a big gainer on third and 16. Brian put up the photo below, followed by much hand-wringing:

Indiana uses the snag route concept to break a man wide open (shown below), and the question arises as to who to blame and if players were out of position. The above photo, however, shows most of what you need to see: you’re probably in trouble. It’s a wide trips bunch (trips but detached from the formation), the corner isn’t in position to get a jam, and you’re outnumbered. Being third and 16 it’s not a given that Indiana could convert, but this defense is not well equipped for the formation. To illustrate, let me flip the question around: If you were IU’s quarterback or offensive coordinator (or if you were Michigan and IU lined up like this against you), what would you call? The answer, most coaches would agree, is most anything you like, especially with the techniques Michigan used.

Counting game. As anyone who reads this site knows, all football begins as arithmetic. Were it not third and 16, the automatic adjustment you’d see against this defensive look is the bubble screen.

This works because of numbers: there are three receivers against two short defenders; the deep safety is not in position to tackle the bubble for a short gain. (And if he is, you use the fake-bubble and go play.) But it was third and 16 so you need to find a way to get the ball down field, or at least give yourself a chance to do so. Indiana called the “snag” concept. The purpose here is to form a triangle read, which is formed by combining a two-man “vertical stretch, i.e. one guy high and one guy low, and a two-man “horizontal stretch,” i.e. one guy outside and one guy inside. As shown in the image, the corner route and the flat route form the high/low portion of the read, while the flat also forms part of the horizontal or out/in stretch, with the slant-sit or snag route forming the other part.

On the actual play, the corner sat on the flat route and the corner route — one on one with the safety who had no help to either the inside or outside, and thus had little chance to make a play — was wide open.


This worked for the same reason the bubble screen worked: the cornerback (one guy) can’t guard two guys (the corner route and the flat route). But let’s say IU wanted to be more aggressive and wanted to attack more than just the corner; let’s say they wanted to put pressure — and get a numbers advantage — against both the cornerback and the safeties. How would they do that? With the trusty smash concept with the divide route.

We all know why Cover Two is called Cover Two: It’s because there are two deep safeties. Thus if you want to break someone downfield, you need to send three guys deep. The great thing about the smash is that you can outnumber the secondary both horizontally across the field (three guys running deep and stretching two deep safeties) but also vertically (high/low of the cornerback).

From bunch, the outside receiver widens on his hitch route to get the corner to widen and then simply breaks down. The backside safety is occupied by the backside split end going deep, and, as a result, the trips side safety has to make a very unfortunate choice between one receiver breaking for the post and another breaking for the corner. (Tampa Two refers to a variation of Cover Two where the middle linebacker drops back to cover the middle of the field; if they use this your speedy receiver might still beat him down the middle, but if not you have the runningback on a checkdown over the middle.) I’d say that if you play Cover Two against trips (which can definitely be done — more on that later), the first thing an opposing coach will try you with is the smash with a divide or seam/post right down the middle.

Now let’s say you are confident that you won’t get much pressure on your passer, and you want to hit a downfield pass, high/low reads be damned. In that case you pick the most aggressive horizontal stretch of them all, four verticals.


Wisdom on how to (try to) defend four verticals with Cover 3

Question: How would you defend the four verticals pass play with Cover 3? Answer from mgoblog contributor (and defensive coach) Steve Sharik:

Four verticals against Cover 3 [is] really a 2-on-1 against the free safety.

The QB is coached to look off the Free Safety and throw to the #2 receiver away from him. Well-coached safeties are instructed to not come out of the exact middle of the field until the ball is in the air. Four verticals against Cover 3 is not designed for the home run. The QB should deliver the ball on a relative line (a la Denard [Robinson] to [Roy] Roundtree in the spring game) at 15-20 yards downfield; i.e., behind the LBs and in front of the Free Safety.

Right where you want them

A properly coached Cover 3 defense will use its LBs to re-route and not give up easy seam throws. For a 3-3-5 defense, the alignment of the #2 reciever changes who is responsible for this. If #2 is a TE or Wing, then one of the Stack Backers (Sam, Will, whatever) is responsible for seam elimination (as we like to call it). If #2 is a wide slot, then either the Spur or Bandit is responsible.

The objectives are threefold:

1. Take away the quick seam throw by jamming and running with #2.
2. Widen the seam route to the Corner’s zone, or outside 1/3. Do not let #2 cross your face.
3. Get your eyes to #1.

Once the jam and re-route is accomplished, the LB will key #1. If #1 continues vertically up the field, the LB will continue to run with #2. If #1 throttles down, the LB will come off #2 and get to his zone. The Stack Backer will hunt a crossing route by #1 while the Spur/Bandit will hunt inside-out; i.e., curl to deep out to quick out. This is an easy read but hard to get to quickly. The Spur/Bandit must be a superior athlete. (This is one of my reservations about Kovacs. I don’t believe he can take away a seam and be able to get to a curl against quality QB/WR combos.) (more…)

Running the “6-3 deep post”

If you want to throw a deep post, particularly when there is an inside route designed to draw the safety away from the outside receiver, I suggest using a technique called the “6-3 post.”

The numbers refer to the number of steps the receiver takes: six vertically, attacking the defender’s outside hip, then three quick ones at 45 degrees to the sideline (sometimes with a head turn but not necessarily), with the break to the post made at full speed on the ninth step, or the third of the “6-3.” The idea is that you will take away the safeties either through play action or some kind of inside route — like in the Mills or double-post concepts — while the 6-3 technique will enable the outside receiver to get plenty of leverage as he bursts inside.

See the video linked here for a great example of Kez McCorvey from FSU (remember him?) running the route near-perfectly. (For some reason embedding is disabled, so you’ll just have to click the link.)

Tressel’s new calling: Ball control . . . passing?

Buckeye Football Analysis recently broke down Ohio State’s tactics in their Rose Bowl win over Oregon. The verdict? The Tresseller rose above his reputation as football dinosaur and outschemed famed schemer, Chip Kelly. Specifically, Tressel channeled his inner Bill Walsh by having Pryor use a lot of ball control passes, including one play Buckeye Football Analysis highlighted in particular, namely a packaged combination of “snag” to one side and “double-slants” to the other.

Packaged concepts” refers to the fact that Tressel has put different route combinations to either side: To the left he has put the double-slant combination, while to the right he has the snag combo. As BFA points out: “First, it was part of the quick passing game so it allowed Pryor to throw before the blitz came. Second, putting these routes to each side actually provided three coverage beaters.”

One of these was a simple man-blitz beater in the slants: If Oregon blitzed and played man, Pryor could immediately throw the slant. Indeed, he could do this against regular man coverage too, as he did in the clip below.

Against zones, Pryor had a few options. One was to simply hit the slants again if that’s what the defense gave him by its alignment. He does this effectively below:

Another would be to work the “snag” combo. The snag is a variant of the smash, where one point is to get a high-low with the corner route and the flat route (except now the flat is controlled by the runningback), with the added dimension of an outside receiver running the “snag” route — a one-step slant where he settles inside at 5-6 yards. This gives you a “triangle” stretch, where you have both a high/low read (corner to RB in the flat) and a horizontal read from inside to outside (snag route to the RB in the flat).

And the best part for Pryor is that these are all quick, immediate routes that (a) give him options against the blitz, and (b) provide controlled passes against zones too as the receivers settle in the voids. I don’t have any video of OSU throwing the snag side, but here is an example of the Steelers using the play to win the Super Bowl, and some Airraid/Mike Leach based cut-ups of their snag play, Y-corner (which is actually basically the same, with snag to one side and a form of double-slants to the other).

So the final question is, how does Pryor read this and know where to go? I don’t know what keys Tressel is giving Pryor, so I can only say how I would teach it. Note that both the snag combo and the double slants are both designed to attack either (a) man coverage or (b) two-deep zones, so the main key you’d give your quarterback — go one way if there is one deep safety or another if there are two — is out. This doesn’t mean it’s poorly designed, it’s just a different goal. (This is how most pro teams package snag as well.) Instead you probably give the quarterback a pre-snap key along the lines of: “go to the snag side unless…,” where the unless includes (1) a man-blitz or other man coverage where you have a good matchup (see the first video), or where the defense is just giving you the slant by alignment (the second video). From there the QB can make a judgment on whether he likes the snag or the slants based on the alignment of the linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties. Another possibility, though one I probably wouldn’t use, would be to read the middle linebacker and choose whether to go to the snag side or the double slant side based on where he went. That would give you a good key on those two routes, but I wouldn’t use it because it doesn’t tell you much about the corner/flat combo or the outside slant to the other side.

Two final thoughts. One, unless it is a blitz and the quarterback can’t get it out (hence the slants), the snag is the more versatile combo as, even if the defense is in a three-deep type coverage, the “snag” receiver can usually find an open spot and get you five to six yards as an outlet. And, finally, there is a final advanced technique you could use that I plan on expanding on in the future. It is the packaged three-step and five-step combination. Basically, you put a three step drop combo to one side with a five-step to the other. The QB can look to the three step side first — which should be open versus a particular coverage as well as a blitz, as sort of an automatic hot route — then, if that’s not there, the quarterback would reset his feet for depth and swing his eyes to look for the five-step combo; here, the snag (though whether snag is three-step or five-step depends on what depth you run the receivers’ routes at). In the future I will talk about how to package this and even let the quarterback pick the three-step combination at the line.

But that is all for a later post. For now, viva la Tresselball.