Packaged plays are among the most deadly tools in the modern offense’s arsenal. These plays, sometimes also referred to as run-pass options, combine different types of plays into one while giving the QB the option to choose; they are a type of read-option that don’t require the QB to run the ball at all. They started years ago with combining inside runs with a built-in bubble screen, but they have grown and expanded over recent years and now frequently feature running plays — complete with the offensive line blocking for the run — with downfield passing routes designed to be open if the defense plays the run, which in turn keeps them honest and thus opens up the run.
This is why just about every team in college football now uses these plays, with teams as diverse as Baylor and Alabama alike profiting from them, and in the NFL the Steelers, Patriots, Eagles, Packers and many others have been using packaged plays repeatedly. And when they work, they are awful pretty.
Yet, like anything else new, defenses are getting better at defending packaged plays. Their purpose is to isolate a defender who is responsible for both the run and the pass, such as a safety or a linebacker, to put him in conflict, and to make him wrong. But if the defense simplifies itself and defines who is doing what — in other words, playing man-to-man coverage in the secondary while committing everyone else to the run — then there is no conflict and hence no read, and the defense should have numbers to defend the run. This is a sound response, and the rise of packaged plays is one reason defenses are playing more and more man coverage.
The problem with straight man coverage, however, is that it is, well, straight man coverage: if the offense has anyone you can’t match up with then the offense won’t fiddle around with packaged plays and will instead run a regular pass play (or screen, or certain run plays) and hurt you with more straightforward plays.
As a result, defenses have increasingly been employing different tools to defend packaged plays, the most effective of which has been to shift and disguise their coverage so the offense can’t get a bead on which defender to read. For example, in week one Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans shredded Tampa Bay whenever they lined up in two high coverage by reading the inside linebackers to decide whether to hand off or throw.
Doing this with Mariota made sense, as he was comfortable with packaged plays and the quick decisions they require from his time at Oregon — and it lets him use his arm and his brain rather than his legs — but now-deposed Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt failed to evolve his use of packaged plays and other teams caught up.
Maybe the most egregious example of this came in week 5 as the Dolphins repeatedly outfoxed Whisenhunt (yes, the interim-coach led Dolphins outfoxing your coach is a kind of death knell) on these concepts by confusing the QB’s reads. In the below clip, Mariota is reading the backside inside linebacker — who is unblocked as the backside tackle is blocking out on the defensive end — to decide whether to hand off on an inside run or throw a slant into what should be a vacated area.
Yet even though the linebacker steps up for the run — and thus Mariota’s read takes him to the slant — the nickel defensive back had been reading Mariota’s eyes the entire time and he simply steps in front of the slant for a too-easy pick-six.
Does this mean defenses have figured these plays out? Not even close; one of the many reasons Whisenhunt got fired was because he had only superficially begun integrating these plays into his offense, rather than truly understanding how they fit together. But I’ve seen other examples of plays like this so far this year, and it’s evidence that defenses are catching up. That, of course, shouldn’t be a surprise. In football, nothing stays easy for long.
Baylor’s Lazy Offense
Undefeated Baylor takes on Oklahoma this weekend, and even though the Bears had to turn to a freshman quarterback and Oklahoma suddenly looks like a juggernaut, does anyone not expect Baylor to continue to put up a crazy amount of points? Part of that is the great talent they have on offense, including a sturdy, veteran offensive line, as well as lethal receivers like KD Cannon and Corey Coleman. (On SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt on Monday night, Art Briles described Corey Coleman as “a bad dude. He will pull your heart out and watch it stop beating. He’s a bad hombre.”)
And of course it’s also how well designed it is, as I talked about at length in The Art of Smart Football. For example, look at all the space the bunch trips formation into the boundary creates for Coleman:
But the most remarkable thing to me is how lazy Baylor’s offense is. What do I mean? I mean that if you watch Baylor closely, you will frequently see something you almost never see: receivers jogging or even just standing around while their teammates run their routes full speed.
And here’s the weirdest part: It’s by design. Briles actually coaches his receivers to save their legs when the play isn’t going to them, and their tempo, maximum receiver splits, and packaged plays mean that those receivers often affect the defense just based on how they line up rather than what they do after the snap.
Indeed, when Briles and Baylor find a matchup they like they often simply call a one man route where one receiver is given a “win” route — get open deep — and the others just kind of sit it down. The QB’s job is to hit the receiver deep or throw it away.
It’s amazing to me any team can get away with this, let alone arguably the best offense in the country at any level.
– Need 401k advice? Ask Marshawn Lynch.
– College Romance That Led to Murder: Fascinating, enthralling New Yorker meditation on a bizarre set of murders.
– Brophy on matching up defensively with run-pass option/packaged play offenses and coverage examples.
– Nifty Wildcat Buck Sweep with a fake end around from Gus Malzahn at Auburn:
– An, uh, interesting trick play.
– Lin-Manuel Miranda versus Black Thought in a freestyle battle.
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Oh, and to go back to something I said recently: Yes, some people still think undefeated teams are automatically better than one-loss teams
— Bran-DOOM SCARE-abee (@TeamSpeedKills) November 4, 2015
There’s nothing wrong with this opinion; indeed, it’s probably even in some circumstances correct: some people do think that a team being undefeated means it’s good enough to beat any team that isn’t. But that’s probably a minority view, and if someone is ranking the undefeated team over the one or two loss team it’s probably not because they necessarily think the undefeated team would beat the other team it’s that, being undefeated, they deserve being in the playoff more than a team with a loss.
Most people don’t always express their arguments in these terms — “best team” versus “most deserving” — but that’s essentially all it comes down to. This tension is why the playoff, despite being an improvement over the BCS, is not a panacea, either. I wrote about all of this for Grantland right after the end of the BCS era, and, two years into the College Footbal Playoff experiment, I continue to stand by every word:
The larger issue is figuring out how we should determine a sport’s “champion.” The wildly unpopular BCS was one method, while the new College Football Playoff will be another, but I’m referring to something more fundamental: What criteria should we use to determine who gets the title?
One answer is that the champion should be the season’s “best team,” possibly defined as the best overall team or the team we think would be favored to beat every other team on a neutral field. Another answer is the “most deserving team,” loosely defined as the team that produced the best overall season. These two things are not always the same. It’s perfectly possible for the best team — i.e., the most formidable — to lose a close game or even two on a bad kick or a fluke play, while another team runs the table by winning close games.
In theory, the now obsolete BCS was designed to create a championship game by blending these two approaches: The coaches’ poll would reward the teams that had put together the best seasons, while the computers would crunch numbers to objectively measure the strongest teams. In practice, however, the BCS was incoherent and flawed. If the computers spit out data the voters didn’t like, the computers were changed, and the coaches’ poll has long been riddled with inexplicable results.
And so, the BCS is dead. In the last few years, many fans and pundits allowed the word “playoff” to take on something of a talismanic quality. Replacing the BCS with a playoff system would surely cure the evils of the BCS, they thought, and quite possibly “save the sport” by “settling things on the field.”
Here’s the problem: A playoff does not even attempt to crown either the best or most deserving team. The very purpose of a playoff or tournament is the exact opposite: No matter a team’s talent or apparent destiny, everything can be undone on a single day by a single bounce of the ball. (Admittedly, that’s actually the allure of a playoff, hence why they call it March Madness.) Yet we’ve become so accustomed to playoffs that it’s difficult for us to think of any other way of selecting a champion. (Playoff-think is such a dominant paradigm that Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight proposed mitigating some of the arbitrary tendencies of the NFL playoffs by giving points to teams that had better seasons than their opponents before the games even start.)
The primary advantage of a playoff is certainty, and after years of endless BCS debate — which followed decades of debate under the earlier bowl systems — certainty has real allure. But in most sports that have playoffs, like the NFL or the NBA, the criteria for getting to the playoffs is basically objective. Most playoff spots are decided based on win/loss records, with certain mechanical tiebreakers in place and known in advance. It’s not that the playoff crowns the best or most deserving team — just ask the 10-6 New York Giants that knocked off the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. It’s that the loser has nothing to complain about: Everyone knows the rules.
Yet the new College Football Playoff lacks the very thing that makes playoffs in other sports so palatable, namely a semblance of objective certainty. While the defective BCS formula should have been interred long ago, it has been replaced by a Council of Platonic Guardians. The College Football Playoff selection committee will meet confidentially, then announce the identities of the playoff participants by edict. That’s not exactly what I’d call “settling it on the field.”
Most fans realize the new system is flawed, but figure it’ll be an improvement over the BCS since we’ll be talking about no. 4 versus no. 5 rather than no. 2 versus no. 3. Maybe so. But that logic works even better for no. 8 versus no. 9, and better still for no. 16 versus no. 17. And while an eight- or 16-team college football tournament sounds genuinely amazing, it’s naive to think that wouldn’t have a real effect on how the regular season actually works. It also makes me wonder what happened to trying to crown the best or most deserving team as champion, rather than the team that happened to win a single-elimination tournament.
I’m not at all sad to see the BCS go, but I’m not sure any playoff, let alone this particular playoff, will solve much in a world of conference realignment and more than 100 FBS teams scattered across the country.]]>
While many think the term “power football” describes an attitude or perhaps even a formation, coaches actually use it to refer to something more technical: the Power-O and Counter Trey run plays, which most coaches simply call Power and Counter, and which are foundational running plays in the NFL and college football.
Power and Counter are so effective because their very designs are forged from aggression. They’re deliberate melees built on double-team blocks, kick-out blocks, lead blocks, and down blocks, and preferably finished off by a running back who drops his shoulder and levels a defender or two before going down. And as this GIF shows, they can be things of beauty:
While football increasingly seems to revolve around quarterbacks who post gaudy passing stats in spread attacks, the inside running game remains the sport’s core no matter what offense a team runs. Let’s take a closer look at how Power and Counter were developed, why they work, and how teams are putting some new spins on some old plays.
Read the whole thing.]]>
But Saban also likes winning, and after troubling losses to Texas A&M in 2012, Auburn in 2013, and Ohio State in 2014 — plus limited sympathy for his public complaints — it appears that he’s settled on an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach. Alabama’s offensive transformation began two years ago and took a big step forward last season under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, with the Crimson Tide setting school records in numerous categories. But the Tide’s Week 1 win over Wisconsin was the best evidence yet that Saban is a spread offense convert in practice, if not entirely in spirit.
Henry and the quietly efficient Coker starred for Alabama on Saturday, but the offense’s tempo and design helped them both. One particular play caught my eye: a third-quarter design in which Coker had four options all built into the same play — a quick hitch pass to his left, a bubble screen to his right, a handoff up the middle, or a seam pass to his tight end.
That’s modern spread offense stuff all the way (right down to the center arguably being illegally downfield when the ball was thrown).
Washington State was supposed to be Leach’s reclamation project — both for the program and for himself following an ugly divorce from Texas Tech. When WSU hired Leach in the fall of 2011, I was thrilled: Yes, Leach is a fan (and media) favorite, and yes, his teams throw a lot, butlearning the intricacies of his Air Raid offense was in many ways my graduate school in football strategy. Many of his ideas regarding scheme and how to organize and practice offense have shaped the thinking of an enormous number of coaches at every level of football, and I was excited to see his offense back on the field.
But rebuilding Wazzu was never going to be easy, and some warning signs appeared early in Leach’s regime: Upon arriving in Pullman, Leach seemed more hell-bent than ever on throwing the ball nonstop, and despite all of his Air Raid protégés refocusing on running as well as throwing, the Cougars have finished dead last nationally in rushing for each of the past three seasons. Leach’s staff has also seemed to be in constant upheaval, with a revolving door of assistant coaches. Perhaps most alarmingly of all, Leach has seemed less an idiosyncratic football coach and more the character of “Mike Leach” — a caricature of the coach portrayed on 60 Minutes, in the New York Times, and in countless breathless profiles. Leach’s scattershot interests are part of his charm, and the early expectations for his WSU success may have been unrealistic, but regardless: Something has seemingly been missing since the start of his Cougars tenure.
That feeling was amplified considerably this weekend when Washington State, a 31-point favorite, dropped its season opener 24-17 to a Portland State team that finished 11th in the Big Sky Conference last season and still has an interim head coach. Now, Leach’s reclamation project seems less likely to succeed than ever. He probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, as firing him at the end of this season would cost WSU almost $5 million, but unless something changes fast, Washington State will be someone else’s rebuilding project before long.
Read the whole thing (plus all the great contributions from the rest of the crew).]]>
Patterson’s 4-2-5, however, was designed with those challenges in mind. By playing five defensive backs, Patterson almost never needs to substitute to match up with the offense. But the system’s genius runs even deeper: Patterson has cleaved the very structure of his defense into pieces, simultaneously making everything simpler for his players and more complicated for opponents.
“We divide our defense into attack groups,” Patterson explained at a coaching clinic in 2011. Those attack groups are: (1) the four defensive linemen and two linebackers, referred to as the front, (2) one cornerback, the free safety, and the strong safety, and (3) the weak safety and other corner. For most teams, the calls for the front and secondary only work if appropriately paired, but that’s not the case for TCU. “Our fronts and coverages have nothing to do with each other,” Patterson said at the clinic. “The coverage part is separate from the front.”
Read the whole thing.]]>
My old book, The Essential Smart Football, is also only 99 cents right now. Note that you can read Kindle books on non-Kindle devices by downloading the free Kindle app for your computer or for iOS or Android.]]>
All too often, however, discussing even the most rudimentary and fundamental football concepts is needlessly offputting, something exacerbated as too many announcers and analysts use streams of buzzwords to sound intelligent without actually conveying any information (something I try very hard to not do, though undoubtedly with inconsistent success). Unless you’re sitting on an NFL sideline trying to tell your position coach what the defense is doing, you are better off using as little jargon as possible and instead trying to explain what you see in English.
But in football, terminology is often destiny, and some terms have become so ingrained that being familiar with them is critical for any intelligent fan; on the other hand, others have become so misused that using them actually deters rather than enhances understanding. The goal of this football glossary is simply to unpack a limited set of football buzzwords in a way that will make watching games on Saturday and Sunday more enjoyable. The important thing, however, is not to focus on the terms but instead on the explanations: if we’re all on the same page with those, the names we given the underlying ideas — whether you call it Smash, China or Shakes — what we end up calling it is simply detail, not substance. I’m sure your high school coach had his own name for each of these below.
Arm Talent: A notorious bit of scout-speak that is either a pseudo-scientific way to describe something obvious (“That quarterback has a strong, accurate arm”) or an extremely clumsy way to describe something better served with colloqiual english (“He has the ability to throw the ball from different angles to avoid oncoming rushers and still find an open throwing lane through which he can deliver the football”).
Bang 8 Post: A particular version of the “skinny post” or “glance” routes, the “Bang 8” or “Bang 8 Post” was developed by former San Diego Chargers head coach Don Coryell and calls for the receiver to run seven-steps straight downfield before breaking inside at an angle. The particular angle the receiver takes, however, depends on the leverage of the defender covering him: the receiver’s job is to take whatever angle is necessary to ensure he is between the quarterback and the nearest defender. (“8” is the number for a post in the Coryell route tree, see “Route Tree” below.) “Bang” indicates that the route is not thrown as a deep bomb but instead is a rhythm throw thrown by the quarterback on rhythm as soon as he hit the fifth step in his dropback. Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin of the Cowboys ran the Bang 8 better than anyone in NFL history:
Banjo Coverage: An adjustment to man-to-man pass coverage where the defensive backs pick up the closest receiver if the receivers criss-cross at the snap. Think of it as a “switch” in basketball.
Blitz: A tactic where the defense rushes the quarterback with five or more defenders. At one time there were different words for different sorts of blitzes — “red dog” meant the linebackers rushed up the middle, while “blitz” usually referred to a rush from a defensive back — but now blitz is the catch-all term. “Blitz” is limited to where a defense rushes five or more defenders to differentiate it from a “stunt,” where a defense only rushes four or fewer but adjusts where those players will come from and at which angles.
Bunch Formation: Any formation where receivers are aligned closely together, often just a yard or so apart. (Also known as “Cluster” formations.) The idea is to pack receivers in closely to make it difficult for defenses to match up with them man-to-man as not only do the receivers typically line up close together they frequently criss-cross after the snap, before scattering in various directions. One defensive response is to resort to “Banjo Coverage” (describe above), but often defenses will simply check to a zone defense when faced with bunch formations. This in turn frequently lets offenses call zone beating pass concepts from bunch sets, confident in the look they will get. The image below shows a “trips bunch” set, but any formation with multiple receivers to a side can be bunched, and in some circumstances even runningbacks and tight-ends can form part of a bunch set.
Bubble Screen: A bubble screen is a screen pass thrown behind the line of scrimmage to a receiver who runs an “arc” or “bubble” path towards the sideline while one or more other receivers block for him. Bubble screens are constraint plays and thus should only be thrown if the offense has a numerical advantage — three receivers versus two defenders, for example. The bubble screen is not, however, every every quick receiver screen. If the receiver doesn’t “bubble” his route, it’s a different play — a “now” or “fast” screen — but it’s not a bubble screen.
Check Release: A pass protection assignment whereby a tight-end or runningback first checks the defender(s) he is responsible for in pass protection and, if they do not rush the quarterback, then releases into the pass pattern. It allows an offense to get five receivers into a pass pattern if the defense does not blitz but keeps him in to protect if the defense blitzes.
Cloud: A defensive call made to indicate that a cornerback is responsible for the flat versus a pass and is the primary outside force defender against the run, and that the near safety is the deep defender.
Constraint Play: An offensive play whose primary purpose is to take advantage of a defender “cheating” out of position, as opposed to a “base play” which works best on the assumption that the defense plays its assignments as drawn up; a constraint play helps base plays work by forcing defenders to play honestly or else they give up easy yards, but they are not plays you would want to use against a sound defense playing a base defense. Examples of constraint plays include bubble screens, draws and bootleg passes — they work best when a particular defender cheats for the run, overpursues one way or sells out to drop back to pass too early.
Field/Boundary: Synonyms for the wide and short side of the field when the ball is aligned on one hashmark or the other. In college football, where the hashmarks are wider than they are in the NFL, many defenses set the strength of their defensive fronts and personnel to the field side, rather than to the actual strength of the offense’s formation.
Fire Zone: The most common type of zone coverage played in connection with a Zone Blitz, in which the defense plays with three deep and three underneath zone defenders.
Gap: The space between the offensive linemen and tight-ends in the offense’s formation, which defenses focus on as potential running lanes and pass rush lanes. Note that an offense can “create” a gap by pulling linemen from one side to the other or inserting a lead blocking into an existing gap. Almost all NFL and college teams categorize these by letter:
Gap Control (one-gap and two-gap defenses): Defenses must control an offense’s running game, and they do so by having a coordinated method of controlling the gaps the offense creates by its formation and blocking scheme, known as Gap Control or also their “Run Fit”. Most modern defenses are either primarily one-gap or two-gap defenses. In a one-gap control defense, defenders attack a specific gap and try to penetrate into the backfield and disrupt. In a two-gap defense defenders are (initially) responsible for controlling both gaps on either side of a blocker, something they accomplish by controlling the blocker to clog the running lanes free up the linebackers to find the ballcarrier. In short, one-gap defenders attack gaps while two-gap defenders attack people.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each. Two-gap defenses are better against the run, but the technique reduces the aggressiveness of a defense’s pass rush. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has explained that he prefers a one-gap approach because “we don’t want to sit and read the play like you often have to with ‘two-gap’ principles.” In his one-gap defense, his defenses “attack into the gap at the snap, get off the ball to play on their side of the field and get after the quarterback.” One-gap defenses don’t have much margin for error, however. According to Carroll, “the big problem with any ‘one-gap’ approach however is that it allows a ball carrier to get into the secondary if one guy makes a mistake.” Of course, even a two-gapping defensive lineman will eventually choose a gap based on how the offense is trying to block him and where the ball goes. He will eventually pick one gap or the other, and try to eliminate the gap he didn’t choose by depositing the offensive linemen in it to clog it up.
Gap Exchange: A gap (or scrape) exchange is a defensive tactic in which two defensive players exchange the gaps they are responsible for in a gap control defense — usually the C and D gaps — to confuse a quarterback’s option read. This tactic has been around since at least the 1960s when option football rose to prominence. (The fact that it has been around for 50 years means we will shortly be told that this tactic was invented by NFL coaches in 2013 specifically to stop the read-option.)
Invert (or Sky): A defensive call which indicates that a safety has aligned or moved to a position close to the line and is responsible for support or contain versus the run, while the nearest cornerback is responsible for deep coverage.
Inverted Veer: A read-option play where the runningback and quarterback “invert” typical veer option assignments by having the quarterback a sweep path to the outside. The quarterback reads the playside defensive end to decide whether to hand off to the runner on the sweep or keep it himself. Typically, the play is blocked using “power” blocking with a backside pulling guard. The first team I saw using it was TCU against Clemson in September of 2009.
Cam Newton made the play famous at Auburn in 2010, and in 2012 the 49ers, Panthers and others made good use of it in the NFL; 49ers runningback LaMichael James scored a touchdown on the inverted veer in the NFC Championship game against the Falcons. This play is also sometimes known as a “Dash Read.”
Man Clue: A defensive coverage term where a defender is responsible for playing a receiver man-to-man if he runs vertically at least some threshold number of yards, usually between seven-to-nine. If he instead runs a route shorter than that the defensive back drops into a zone or picks up a different receiver.
Middle of the Field Closed (MOFC): This is a general term for all single defensive coverages which feature a single deep safety in the middle of the field. It’s a useful term for offenses because it’s not always clear whether it’s zone (Cover 3) or man (Cover 1), or some other hybrid coverage, but the fact that there’s a deep middle safety still tells you a lot about the defense, both the number of defenders in potential run support (i.e., a potential eight man front) as well as the number of potential blitzers.
Many pass progressions and even the routes themselves are keyed to whether or not the defense is in MOFC or MOFO (see the definition immediately below). If it’s MOFC then maybe the quarterback works the pass progression to his left which is designed for both Cover 1 and Cover 3, while if it’s MOFO he works to his right where the routes are designed for Cover 2 or Cover 4. Also, MOFO versus MOFC is useful for receivers because it can be extremely hard for them — from their limited vantage point while running up the field — to tell the difference between coverages, but they can determine if the defense has a deep middle safety (so maybe he breaks his route off or stays up the hash) or the middle of the field is open (so he takes his route deep down the middle). Below is an example of a defense that starts with two safeties but shifts post snap to one middle safety.
Middle of the Field Open (MOFO): The flip side of middle of the field closed, this refers to any defense where the middle of the field is open. Technically this also applies when a defense is in Cover 0 with no deep safety (and straight man-to-man blitz), typically teams think of defenses with two split safeties.
When offenses see teams in MOFO structured defenses they typically know they have a lighter box to run the ball against and the outside receivers are being jammed at the line with safety help over the top. However, many defenses show MOFO structures but the safeties are in fact read or even robber players who can fit close to the line against the run, and the famous Tampa Two defense features the middle linebacker running deep down the middle to take away many schemes designed for middle of the field open defenses. As always, it’s a cat and mouse, but it’s still a very useful way to group coverages, particularly for young quarterbacks and for receivers adjusting their routes.
Over (Front): The more “traditional” 4-3 formation with four defensive linemen and three linebackers, the 4-3 Over was used most famously by Jimmy Johnson, first at the University of Miami, where it was crucial to shutting down the wishbone (and hence why many coaches still refer to it as the “Miami 4-3 Over”), and later with the Dallas Cowboys, where it proved just as adept at stopping pro-style offenses. Below is an image from current Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s playbook from his time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1990s:
And below you can see an example from Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks defense. Note how each defensive lineman and linebacker is aligned over a specific gap. Subject to specific defensive calls, blitzes or stunts, each will be responsible for controlling that gap. See “Gap Control” above.
Packaged Play: An offensive play where two or more concepts — such as runs, screens or even downfield passes — are combined into the same offensive play by having different players execute different tasks, while the quarterback determines whether to hand off, keep it himself, throw a screen or throw downfield as the play requires. Defensive coaches frequently complain that offensive linemen often get too far downfield on these plays as they are often executing a run block even when the ball is thrown downfield (in college football linemen may be three yards downfield when the ball is thrown; in the NFL they have one yard).
Pattern Match Coverage: A type of pass coverage where defenders read the releases of particular receivers and, depending on who guys where, then become man-to-man defenders. Clear? Here’s how Nick Saban explained a few years ago:
You can play coverages in three ways. You can play zone, man, or pattern-match man. Pattern-match man is a coverage that plays the pattern after the pattern distribution. That means you pick up in man coverage after the receivers make their initial breaks and cuts. We number receivers from the outside going inside. If the number-one receiver crosses with the number-two receiver, we do not pick up the man coverage until they define where they are going.
There are lots of variations of pattern match coverages, with Quarters being the most famous but Nick Saban’s “Rip/Liz” match being another, to say nothing of other varieties with names like Bronco and 2-Read. The theory is to avoid the obvious issues with straight man-to-man coverage without leaving your defense exposed to the open throwing lanes that plague traditional zone coverage.
Personnel Groupings: Most teams use a two-digit system for categorizing an offense’s personnel. The first digit refers to the number of runningbacks and the second the number of tight-ends — the number of wide receivers is implied and the existence of a quarterback is assumed. The most common personnel grouping in the modern NFL is 11 personnel.
Pistol Formation: A variation of the shotgun alignment where the quarterback shortens his depth to four or four and 1/2 yards while the runningback aligns directly behind the quarterback. Unless the runningback is directly behind the quarterback, it’s not a Pistol formation, it’s just a shotgun with an offset back (even if the runningback aligns deeper than the quarterback).
Pistol Offense: A fully developed offensive system which uses a variety of complementary plays from the Pistol Alignment — in other words, no one actually uses the Pistol Offense except for Nevada under Chris Ault. By contrast, most NFL teams that use the Pistol, like the Redskins and 49ers, simply sometimes run certain read-option plays from a Pistol formation. [Footnote: Chip Kelly, at the Fiesta Bowl press conference last January: “[I] don’t run the Pistol Offense. That’s not what we do. Chris Ault at Nevada invented the pistol offense. Just retired. Great football coach out there. There’s a lot of ways to play football. Pistol, don’t know that very well. We’re more of a spread-run team.”]
Read Option: A redundant but nevertheless increasingly standard name used to describe an offensive tactic where (1) a quarterback is aligned in the shotgun (including but not always a Pistol Formation) and (2) the quarterback extends the ball to a potential runner (a “mesh point”) and reads (hence the name) a defender to determine whether to hand the ball off or keep it himself (at which point he may have further options). Although on a Read Option the quarterback will often read a defensive end, he may read any defender the offense chooses not to block. A “Zone Read” is a type of Read Option which uses zone blocking. (A play where a quarterback does not decide whether to hand off or keep it himself but instead whether to keep it himself or pitch — such as a Speed Option — is an “option” but is not a Read Option.) There is no Read Option “formation”, and not every play from the pistol or shotgun is a Read Option.
Robber Defender: A pass defender, typically a safety or linebacker, who sits at an intermediate level and reads the quarterback’s eyes to “rob” any pass routes over the middle, such as curls and crossing routes. This concept can be used with single-safety man-to-man defenses (“Cover 1 Robber”) or defenses with two-deep concepts, so the specific techniques may therefore vary, but the key is for the robber defender to read run, screen or pass and to let the quarterback’s eyes take him to the receiver. Also known as a “Rat,” “floater” or sometimes (though rarely) a “lurk” defender.
Route Tree: Typically, a route tree is a system of organizing a receiver’s potential pass routes by placing them over top of each other and giving each potential break a different number, rather than a name. Offenses run by coaches in the “Coryell” family, named after San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell — think Norv Turner and Mike Martz — had a good reason for this as they called their passing plays using a three digit route tree system: “894” might tell the split end to run a post, the tight-end to run a seam or “9” route and the flanker to run a curl. Most teams, however, have gone back to calling their plays through one or two word calls that tell each receiver what to do, but the idea of a route tree lives on because — in football where everything must be renamed — a curl route cannot simply be a Curl, it must be a 4, and a corner route must be a 7 and a Go route must be a 9. In most route trees, in-breaking routes are even numbers while outbreaking routes are odd numbers. Of course, if you have more than 10 routes you have to go back to using names. Below is an example of a route tree from from one of Mike Martz’s St. Louis Rams playbooks from the Greatest Show on Turf era:
Sam, Mike, Will: The strongside, middle and weakside linebackers are rarely referred to by their full names. Instead coaches and players — both offensive and defensive — refer to them by single-syllabic mnemonics such as “Sam” (strongside linebacker), “Mike” or sometimes “Mac” (middle linebacker) and “Will” (weakside linebacker). These designations are almost entirely standard in modern football, though when Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry pioneered the 4-3 defense with the New York Giants in the 1950s, he referred to his linebackers as “Sarah,” “Meg,” and “Wanda.”
For 3-4 teams that use four linebackers, the term for the fourth linebacker is far less standard — “Jack,” “Ted,” and “Buck” are among the names teams use.
Spill: A technique in which a defensive player attacks the blockers — and hence the ballcarrier — from the inside out to force the ballcarrier to run laterally, thereby “spilling” the play into the waiting arms of the linebackers and secondary run support defenders.
Spread Offense: A term rendered almost completely meaningless. It made some sense in the early 2000s, as there was often a stark contrast between teams that based out of two-back formations and teams that used three or four receivers on most plays, but now even so-called “traditional” or pro-style offenses use formations and personnel groups once considered “spread”: 11 personnel (one tight-end and three wide-receivers) is the most popular set in the NFL, and in college even Alabama is primarily a one-back offensive team, though they frequently use two tight-ends. Further, some so-called “spread offenses” primarily run the ball while using a variety of read-option plays, while others throw the ball 50 times a game and use no designed quarterback runs. And, ironically, many of the NFL teams now using the read-option are doing so from very non-spread formations with extra tight-ends and fullbacks, yet many try to apply to them the “spread offense” label. It’s simply too vague to be useful.
Tampa Two: The actual definition of Tampa Two is that it is a hybrid pass coverage popularized by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where the defense aligns as if to play a traditional two-deep or “Cover 2” Zone but in fact drops the middle linebacker deep down the middle to a depth of 18-22 yards, thus transforming the defense into a type of three-deep zone. The definition you will hear more commonly, however, is that every defense coached by Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith or Monte Kiffin is Tampa Two.
Tape: As in, “I watched the tape.” At one time, football games — like everything else recorded — were recorded onto tapes. Nowadays, unless you’re elderly, essentially no one watches football games — or anything else, for that matter — on “tapes.” Tape is usually the word chosen because it makes the speaker sound more knowledgable than had they said, “I re-watched the game on YouTube/NFL Game Rewind.”
Technique (Defensive Alignment): In football, “technique” typically refers to two different things. One is the everyday meaning of the term, i.e. the manner in which a task is performed. The second meaning, however, is exceptionally important for understanding and categorizing football defenses, as it refers not to what defenders do but rather where they line up. Like many other things we take for granted in football, the popularity of terms like “three-technique” and “five-technique” can be traced by to former Alabama coach Bear Bryant. As Bryant explained in his 1960 book, Building a Championship Football Team, he sought for years upon a system for numbering defensive alignments to easily and quickly communicate the “many different defenses” he wanted to use (circa 1950-1960!). He got the system which is now standard at every level of football from a “Texas high school coach” — O.A. “Bum” Phillips, who would eventually become head coach for the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints. Below is a diagram from a playbook of Wade Phillips, Houston Texans defensive coordinator — and Bum Phillips’s son:
Note that certain teams and coaches will have slightly different approaches, but most follow Phillips’ model: even numbers refer to alignments which are “head up” on the offensive linemen or tight-ends — i.e., directly across from them — while odd numbers are “shade” techniques where the lineman will be offset to a lineman’s outside or inside shoulder. Linebackers use the same system, except they will add the number “0” to the end to signify that they are off the line slightly. For example, a linebacker lined up on the offensive guard’s outside shoulder is in a “30 technique.”
Throwing a Receiver Open: A technique where a quarterback is taught to throw the ball to a spot away from coverage to draw the receiver to the open area. A common example comes on corner routes where a receiver will make his break at 45 degrees but it’s up to the quarterback to “throw the receiver open” by, for example, throwing it between the corner and the safety versus Cover 2, flattening out the receiver’s route against soft coverage or throwing it high and upfield against press man.
Trap Play: One of the most underutilized schemes in football, a trap involves a running play where the offense deliberately doesn’t block a defender at the point of attack — thus allowing the playside linemen to get double teams or head to the second level to block the linebackers — while a linemen from the opposite side pulls and blocks the (often unsuspecting) defender from the inside out. (Contrast this with a “Wham” play which works the exact same way except the block is coming from the outside in.) Great versus aggressive, penetrating (one-gap) defensive linemen. (Hat tip to Field Gulls for the great gif below.)
Under (Front): Probably the most popular front in the NFL and college football, the “Under” can be thought of as either an “undershifted” 4-3 front (hence the name) or as a “reduction” 3-4 front, where the weakside defensive end and linebacker reduce their alignments towards the playside. The Under was most famously used by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1990s under Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin and, at the college level, the great Southern Cal teams coached by Pete Carroll, a Kiffin disciple. Below is an image from Kiffin’s Tampa Bay playbook describing the Under:
The front’s popularity is simple: it’s great against most runs because it, with the strongside linebacker lined up on the line, presents basically a five-man front, and, according to Carroll, is “the best overall front to use to rush the passer” — a powerful combination. It has become increasingly popular as teams have moved to more hybrid defenses that uses elements of both 4-3 and 3-4 personnel. As Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees explained before the Super Bowl, “we are 3-4 personnel but a lot of the times the front that we play is a 4-3 front” — the 4-3 Under.
In the Ravens scheme, linebacker Terrell Suggs played the “LEO” or “Elephant” hybrid defensive end/linebacker. But no matter the personnel, it’s still a 4-3 Under look.
Zone Blitz: A tactic where the defense rushes the quarterback with five or more defenders and plays zone coverage, as opposed to man coverage, behind it. That is all it is. Dropping a defensive linemen into a zone does not mean it is a zone blitz if the defense is only rushing three or four defenders.
Zone Run Blocking: A full explanation requires much more space than is available here, but at core zone run blocking is a set of run blocking principles which should allow the offensive line to (a) account for the defenders in the box, regardless of where they are lined up and (b) maximize the number of double teams at the point of attack. The misconception about zone blocking is that the line simply blocks the defender in their area, a misconception partially created because “zone” is in the name. In almost all zone blocking systems, if an offensive lineman is covered — meaning there is a defender across from him — his primary job is to block that defender. The zone aspect comes in from “uncovered” linemen without a defender directly across from them. They will create the double team on the defensive linemen, until one of the two offensive linemen can slide up to the linebacker. Below is video of former Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach Alex Gibbs describing the outside zone as run by Terrell Davis:
The other advantage of zone blocking — and a big reason why it is the most popular blocking scheme in both the NFL and college — is that it can be used from a variety of formations and sets, whether they are traditional two-back tight-end formations or from one-back spread formations.]]>
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You can read more about the book here, and you can also check it out in paperback. And if you get the book and enjoy it, I’d truly appreciate it if you wouldn’t mind spending a brief minute to write a review on Amazon. It would be much appreciated.]]>