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

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

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


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


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

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


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

That’s the boss right there,” Bevell said in a hallway outside the Seahawks’ locker room. “That’s a Pete idea.”

We’ll go anywhere to find a play,” the Seattle coach said afterward. “And that one—uh, Muschamp at Florida, no … Auburn. They ran it. Give Gus Malzahn credit. That’s a great play. I kept telling them [the offensive staff and players] this summer, ‘It’ll work, it’ll work.’”

As good as this concept is, its critics have a fair concern: Unlike some other packaged plays where the ball is thrown extremely quickly, it seems there’s almost always an offensive lineman illegally downfield when the pitch phase is a downfield throw. Some of this is not understanding how the rules work, as in college linemen get three yards to be downfield and in the NFL they get a yard, so it’s not illegal if a lineman is simply “past the line of scrimmage,” but it’s true that referees frequently miss these calls. And I’ve been told the referees have little interest in cracking down, either because of the limited number of things they can look at during a play or simply because the powers that be aren’t complaining about more offense. And while I like these concepts, I would like to see the rules enforced as written; the plays work just fine even when linemen aren’t six or seven yards yards downfield, and the more lax the referees are the more egregious will be the violations.

There are plenty of ways for offenses to execute this play without breaking the rules. The simplest is to tag the pass concept to the playcall so the linemen know they shouldn’t get more than a yard downfield. The other is to marry it to more lateral or slower developing run schemes, like outside zone or a sweep scheme going the other way. And many coaches teach inside zone where the linemen should let the linebackers come to them, on the theory that it’s better to finish off the combination blocks and they don’t want their linemen chasing the linebackers aren’t.

But I think we’ll have to see a lot more of these plays — wand ineligible man downfield violations will have to be obvious and flagrant — before we see either college football or the NFL crack down. Yet either way, these plays aren’t going away, in college or the NFL, and why should they? They’ve already been around a long time.

  • stanbrown

    The worst example of refs missing obvious linemen downfield calls is on middle screens to a back where a defender gets in the way and slows the timing such that the back ends up across the line of scrimmage for the pass. No way a ref should ever miss this one with offensive linemen getting way downfield.

  • Eric

    Refs admit that they don’t look for linemen downfield on packaged plays.

  • Eric

    Nevermind I read that wrong lol. Thought you were talking about this play.

  • Mr.Murder

    Sprint Option could release the lead blocker(fullback) Bill Walsh often used lighter quicker fullbacks to gain a mismatch vs. base sets. Landry tried to counter going Nickel on base downs, something all D’s do now.

  • Mr.Murder

    Also, the slide protection generally keeps you along the scrimmage line for blocking so OZ and play action slide are complimentary.

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