Combining quick passes, run plays and screens in the same play

Given that humans lack clairvoyance, there is no such thing as the perfect play-caller and thus much of the development in football strategy has centered on how to get into (or out of) a given play because the defense is well suited to defend the one that was called. Indeed, quarterbacks have called audibles at the line of scrimmage for decades, and a few years ago the hot idea was calling multiple plays in the huddle.

Let's not make this too complicated

Most famously, Peyton Manning was supposedly given three plays to choose from on every down, though this was likely a bit of hyperbole. Calling two plays in the huddle remains very common, however. The method for this is simple: Two plays are called in the huddle, and then at the line the quarterback either confirms the first play (usually by saying a color) or “killing” the first play which indicates that the second will be run (by saying “kill” at the line). For example, the quarterback might call “Red Right [formation] 24 Wham [run to the right] and 70 curl [pass play].” At the line he’ll either say the confirming word (i.e. “Black! Black!”) or will kill that play so they can run the pass play (i.e. “Kill! Kill!”).

That’s all well and good, but is still cumbersome and, most importantly, the defense can still make the offense wrong after the quarterback has made his decision at the line. Moreover, with the rise of no-huddle offenses, there aren’t as many opportunities to call multiple plays at the line and have the quarterback check into one or another. The name of the game for defenses is confusion and movement, and even at the lower levels you never know how a kid might react. Increasingly, the answer to this has been to package concepts together, such that the quarterback has different options depending on what the defense does after the snap. I previously discussed packaging quick passes with five-step or dropback passes together. This is a great concept, but is quarterback intensive: the quarterback has to look for the quick pass and then reset his feet with depth and then go through another progression — not something every quarterback can do.

The answer has been to combine plays but to simplify the reads for the quarterback. There are three main forms this concept can take: (1) a base run play with a simple pre-snap backside pass concept built in; (2) quick passes combined with a draw play; and (3) quick passes combined with a screen pass. I’ll discuss each in turn.

1. Run plays combined with a backside pass concept

This concept is the simplest and most readily integrated. Indeed, this is all the vaunted “bubble screen”” is: a run play where the quarterback can flip it to a receiver if the defense fails to cover them with numbers. The bubble or fast screen is run when there are multiple receivers to a side.

But also common and useful is the “smoke” concept or “look” pass. This is a one-step hitch by the receiver where he simply turns his numbers back to the quarterback. For everyone else, the play is a run, but if the defense gives that receiver an excessive cushion — and the flat defender is located inside the box looking for the run — the quarterback simply throws it to wide receiver. Below are some cutups of the bubble and the look pass.

From the shotgun, the only wrinkle is that the timing on “smoke” or “look” is a bit different. In that case a one-step slant by the outside receiver or even a full five-yard hitch work very well. In any event, it’s key to help control the backside of the play and as Bobby Bowden used to say: inside, you gotta beat ten guys to score; on the outside, you just have to beat one.

But this isn’t just limited to soft coverage. Particularly on the goal line, teams increasingly isolate their outside receiver and give the quarterback the option of whether to hand the ball off on the called run play (which everyone else on offense is executing) or to throw the fade against press. The reason to do this is to avoid the cat and mouse game that is all too common: You call the run play thinking the defense will be backed out, and instead everyone is at the line and you have single coverage on the outside. Then, having gotten stuffed on the run, you call the fade, and now they have a corner and a safety over there to defend that receiver so the corner can better play the fade. This way, it’s not an issue. For an excellent example of this, see the video below where the Detroit Lions’ Matt Stafford chose the fade to Calvin Johnson (a good choice) on a called run play where the defense showed press.

2. Quick passes combined with a draw play

This is a great concept that has quickly become more and more popular. I saw saw this concept used by Oklahoma State while coached by Dana Holgorsen, but I’ve since seen it at other levels, both in high school and up to the pros. The idea is to put a quick passing game concept that attacks the linebackers to one side and to direct the quarterback to look at that route: if he’s open, throw it; if not, that means the near side linebacker has slid out, thus opening up the draw. So it’s: #1, throw the stick; if not there, #2 hand it off on the draw. The draw can be blocked however you want; the diagram below uses the Leach/Holgorsen method with a pass set count and a “fold” block on the one technique.

The key is that the quarterback can’t really go through his full progression; he only really has time to look at one receiver before handing it off on the draw. And not that the sequence alleviates concerns with linemen getting downfield: If the ball is thrown on the quick pass, the linemen should not have gotten downfield yet; but by the time the ball is handed to the runner they will be sprinting up to take on the linebackers.

In any event, the key is that the purpose of combining these two plays is to affect the player that can either ruin the draw or the stick play: the inside linebacker. Reading him should make him wrong no matter what he does. This is also why it really works best from a trips formation: doing it from this look helps isolate the player. As a result, however, if one of the other defenders ends up trying to take away the stick, the coach should call the normal stick play so the quarterback can go through his progression. See the below clips which show the stick/draw concept, along with some of the other “packaged play” concepts described elsewhere in this article.

If you use stick and draw in your offense, I highly recommend this concept.

3. Quick passes and screens

The final frontier for combining quick passes is to put a screen play to the other side. Note that this uses the same idea as the stick/draw concept: you control a box player to the side of the quick pass, and if he slides out for the quick pass the quarterback simply takes a few additional steps back and drops the ball off on the screen pass. The simplest way to do this is to use the same trips look as above and to use a runningback screen, as shown below.

Of course you don’t have to limit this to slow screens to the wide receiver. Receiver screens (“tunnel” or “rocket” screens) work off of similar timing, and give a few more options for formation variety. By sending the runningback on a swing route or running it from empty, you can combine the stick and the tunnel screen, as shown below. First, doubles:

And empty:

Again, the read for the quarterback is the same: read the stick, and if he’s not open then retreat and deliver the screen to the receiver. The stick should draw the backside pursuit, so that the blockers to the screen side should be fully matched up for a potential big play.

Finally, one advantage of combining the screen is that you don’t have to just use the stick pass. Another fantastic pass play to combine with the stick is “spacing” or the “mini-curl” pass play. On this pass concept, one receiver angles to the near inside linebacker and runs a “sit” while another runs a hitch or mini-curl to a five yard depth, while a third runs a flat. The quarterback reads from the inside to out.

When combined with a screen, the quarterback can’t go through the full progression but should instead look for the mini-curl while dragging his eyes across the sit. If the sit breaks wide open (i.e. a blitz where the linebackers have vacated) the quarterback can deliver the ball to the sit; otherwise he looks for the mini-curl route. If that is not there he uses the same methodology as above: he retreats and drops the ball off on a runningback or receiver screen.

There are many other possibilities here, but the beauty is that you don’t need all of them. Instead, one or two of these concepts, particularly the stick/draw variation,  can be called repeatedly and the defense will always be wrong. Moreover, this is a chain mover concept and so makes a great first and ten or second and long type call, where the goal is just to take what the defense gives and to stay on schedule. As always, keep it simple, make the defense wrong, and get the ball to playmakers in space.

  • Anonymous

    great write-up and something Holgorsen really embraced at Houston. Running 5 step concepts like mesh and shallow, but then adding play-action to it…..then running RB screens. Nothing changes for the receivers (just running the concept) and the RB and Oline run a solid screen. No real investment needed by the offense because these are plays they already run to begin with.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, one I didn’t talk about that they used at OKST a lot is running a screen with all-curl. Not sure how they teach the reads but I saw them hit the Y and the screen on that action several times. There’s clips of the O against Texas A&M online and you can see the concept there.

    Overall he’s a good job of building off of the base Airraid stuff with new wrinkles but keeping it otherwise very much the same for the kids.

  • Load

    Great article, thanks. I can see this being of more use at the lower levels, where they don’t have time to install 6 different ways of running C2, and disguising who has what responsibility. The fade/smoke vs run I’ve seen run a bunch in the pros, but it’ll be interesting to see if the other plays filter up.

    Brophy- I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the important aspect in this: cheap install for a new play that makes it tough on the D to diagnose.

  • Mr.Murder

    The middle players get controlled with a draw fake. Pull the guard and replace him with the back. Backfield running action keeps the inside defenders. A lot of teams fake the draw then throw the screen to that back.

    Boise’s screens are pre-snap reads, right? The screen type changes on leverage, read the near safety or the near low man. Thinkt hey basically have three read screens as well, one to each side and some kind of later or earlier developing middle look for what they see. Early screen for presnap, late screen if the play strings out.

    You could tunnel one side, kickscreen or lead screen the other way, then replace a screen to the outside from the formation or from the outside to the formation like a curl/flat read. Tunnel/swing one way,  kickscreen the other with a slip screen trailing it.

    We are trying to run some diamond stuff(Rice/Totten) and have a play like spacing. It is not called spacing,(we just number plays to formation right now) but that is essentially what it does. Kind of weird how the curl/flat read on it is kind of inverted. Runs slants to clear inside and has a couple of players settle in pass windows on either side of it.

    Din’t think we can protect it though. Looks like a Run & Shoot fire drill where we have to roll away from the extra defenders for the front fit expected. Might be one of those days. It will still be fun, but it could still be one of those days. We have two run checks to use but unless the lineman gets it just right one of those is likely to blow up as well. Have to check the run if they use an overhang defender on the diamond side for half the play calls.

    Coffee time!

  • LonghornScott

    Harsin has been running a lot of paired screen concepts so far at Texas.  Here’s a little flavor with dual screens and a shuttle pass up the middle:

  • Anonymous

    Good stuff. I think on this one it was a called screen up the middle but you never know. Harsin/Boise definitely do a lot of true double-screen stuff, like what I described here:

    I really see this stuff being useful for any offense, particularly for the reason Brophy cited — the ease of install as it is just combining stuff already in the offense. Even if they don’t combine runs and quick passes, double screens are a similar concept and are definitely worth installing.

  • LonghornScott

    You’re right, this wasn’t a post snap read.  I actually think most of what he runs is a pre-snap read when he double screens: but I think that may also be a matter of the youth at QB he is dealing with.  I think if you watch what he does with the Freshman QB David Ash over the course of the next year you will see some true pass options packaged with the power read, zone read, and load option concepts we have been playing with.

  • Coachk15

    As Brohpy said the brilliance in packaging the concepts together is that you still constraint the defense, but are essentially teaching one play. This allows you to do things vital to any OC’s success: reduce uncertainty of proper execution and uncertainty of what the defense will do.

    Another great version of this is : “Shop”. Shovel option much as Chris outlined a ways back for Urban Meyer and again with the Quad Option piece. Our team’s base run is Power, so it was easy to block it that way, read the contain defender rather than block him…our little curveball was to add second read. If QB gets keep read, get eyes to alley defender and run a stick concept to that side…if he comes up throw it over his head if not run for yards.

  • Anonymous

    Very interesting coach. Do you have any clips or a diagram of that concept? I actually really like combining the shovel option with some kind of pass concept. That seems actually a bit easier on the quarterback than the quadruple option stuff I highlighted the other day.

  • Coachk15

    Coach, thanks. Sadly no video I am just a Freshman OC and our film guy hasn’t done the past few games.  We are basically a pro-style team, but my own style is much like Holgorsen’s thanks to your site. I came up with these while designing my HS offense and finally talked the HC into letting me try them.

    The top version (Shop-Stick) has been good on convert & long (4/6) and works as I stated the Q’s first read is the weakside End. If he falls for “here kitty-kitty,” boot steps from Q we shovel inside to A-back (2 first downs avg 12.3 yds). If the End squeezes, Q gets eyes to Will backer. If Will sits on the stick concept we would run (hasn’t happened yet), if Will comes up we drop it over him we’ve completed 2 of three attempts for avg of 13.4 yds.

    The bottom version (Shop-Pop) we have only run once; last week. I prefer it from 2×2. We keep the read similar only difference is that 2nd read becomes the safety and both WR and QB need to be on same page if End squeezes…we teach the WR to run right at the outside shoulder of the $ at 3/4 speed as if to block. If the $ comes down for the run WR is turn on the jets and blow by…if the $ remains capped on WR he simply turns into a stalk block. Q makes same read on the $, if he caps WR the Q should run for yards, if the $ comes up float deep ball to WR. We ran it from their 45 after an INT and hit the pass for a TD and 24-0 lead.

    Hate to be so long winded, but I have a question for you. In designing my offense I have Stretch/boot combo play I stole from Oregon, worried about timing…a “Now” play I adjusted from Noel Mazzone that looks similar to the Notre Dame clips, the Shop play I just discussed, and a lead draw/pin combo also worried about timing, and a double screens and a quick/screen. I don’t get to experiment with much of these right now. My question is: if my offense also includes some Dart plays and Six, and Mesh, and Snag with some sight adjusted routes am I putting too much on my QB?

  • Bmalbasa

    Two years ago at the Oregon Spring Game (2010), they consistently ran shovel / spacing.  I do not know if any clips exist, but if they do, that would be a great place to check the concept out.  It was great because the play side was also the pass side, so there was incredible stress on the frontside of the D.

  • Bmalbasa
  •  Coach, based on your drawings, I am wondering why you would not just throw the X screen in the top drawing (based on how much cushion you’re getting) and same thing on the bottom drawing.

  • David Kilpatrick-White

     Coach excellent question. Two things first the drawing are generic fronts HC likes me to draw as a baseline. Secondly, primarily due to terrible planning our QBs weren’t very proficient at completing quick screen.

  • Mr.Murder

    Old drive burnt up but some old clinic notes that were posted here featured a slow screen(think it was BYU) based on Dallas Cowboys Landry days. They keyed the Will’s drop since NFL zones/matchup had become so predominant. the Tight End did a cross route over backer depth going opposite the screen side so if anyone tried to rally it was through him(worked like a rub/pick play on matchup zone).

  • Mr.Murder

    Tom Landry Dallas Cowboys used a screen read when coverage dropped too deep, in particular the Will. Ran Dig route by the tight end over it so if they slide along the screen side he could hit a solid crossing route at depth past the ‘backers. Goes back to BYU clinic notes, they got it from pros.

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