The Science of the Post: Going Deep with “Mills”

When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherf—r in the room, accept no substitutes. – Ordell Robbie

I have an admission to make: while I love a well executed power sweep or double-A gap blitz, and I’m a sucker for a well timed shallow cross or screen pass, and while I even get a little tingly when I see a run fit that stuffs a runner or when triple option quarterback fakes the pitch before cutting upfield, there is absolutely nothing — nothing — in football that I love more than a perfectly thrown deep post that hits a streaking receiver in stride for a touchdown. If there is one play — one image — that is totally unique to the sport, this is it: the play that would be illegal if not for the game’s early rule changes to permit the forward pass; the play that would be unfathomable without the game’s early innovators; the play that looks at the scrum at the line of scrimmage — the part of the game most tied to football’s past — and essentially says, screw it, we’ll just throw the ball over the top of all that. It is, in short, the play that makes the sport what it is.

“Let’s see if we can pitch and catch a post”

But like everything in football there’s a science to chucking it deep, and it’s only in the rarest of circumstances that the instruction from the sideline is simply to throw the ball deep, regardless of the consequences. The trick to throwing the ball deep down the middle past all eleven defenders is (a) find a way to bring up the defense’s deepest defenders so you can throw the post behind them and (b) if those defenders stay deep, don’t throw the post. The way to accomplish both of those goals is to construct a sound concept around the deep post that can provide answers versus a variety of coverages — and strike like lightning whenever the opportunity is right. And for my money, there’s no better way of accomplishing those goals than the Mills concept.

In 1990, Steve Spurrier took over at Florida, vowing to not only turn around the Gators but also to bring an entirely new brand of football to the Southeastern Conference, namely an aggressive, pass-first system that had its roots in the offenses Spurrier ran as an NFL quarterback, as updated and refined during his years as a head coach in the USFL and at Duke. Before hs first game against Oklahoma State, Spurrier elevated a young QB named Shane Matthews from fifth on the depth chart to starter. Just before the game, Spurrier approached Matthews:

“Coach Spurrier always liked to come around and talk to guys in the locker room while they were getting ready,” Matthews said. “He finally comes to me and asks, ‘Shane, what play do you want to start with?’”

“I’d never started a college game before. A lot of people were giving him grief already for naming me the starter. So, I said: ‘Maybe a screen or a draw?’ “

And Spurrier responded: “Shoot, they didn’t hire me to come down here and run the football. We’re going to throw it.”

That first play was a 28 yard completion from Matthews to receiver Ernie Mills, who had run a post route behind a ten-to-twelve yard square-in, or dig, route. Florida scored a touchdown four plays later en route to a 50-7 victory. The rest was, well, history, as Spurrier’s run at Florida would be one of the most successful — and influential — tenures of any coach in football history.

But it was also the start of something special for Mills, who is currently the receivers coach at Florida A&M University, and, eventually, offensive football itself. “His [Mills’s] senior year he caught [ten] touchdowns from me,” Matthews later recalled. “And I would say about eight of them came on that same deep post play. So after he graduated, Spurrier called that play, ‘The Mills Play.'” The Mills Play would arguably became the defining play not only of the Spurrier era at Florida but also of the offensive revolution that has, over the past twenty-five years, rippled throughout the Southeastern Conference and ultimately football more broadly.

Spurrier didn’t invent The Mills Play, which would eventually come to be known simply as “Mills,” but he called it so often and so aggressively — and was so successful with it — that you’ll see the same set of pass routes labeled as “Mills” (or “Florida” or “Gator”) in playbooks of coaches who never coached under or played for the Ol’ Ball Coach.

The basics of the play are straightforward:

  • the outside receiver runs a post route, breaking towards the near goalpost (hence the name “post”) somewhere between 12 and 15 yards;
  • the inside receiver runs to a depth of 10 to 12 yards and either breaks inside (known as a “dig” or “square-in”) or runs a hook or curl back to the quarterback;
  • the backside receiver runs some sort of route to draw away the coverage, such a corner route, a fade or “go” route or a hook; and
  • the remaining eligible receivers (runningbacks, tight-ends or slot receivers) run underneath routes to be checkdown options if the defense covers everyone else.

Together, the play is typically run with play-action to further pull up the linebackers and safeties. And, as the Fun ‘n Gun heyday era clips below show, Mills could be as beautiful as it was devastating.

But while Spurrier didn’t invent Mills, his Florida teams embodied the new ethos behind the play: strike for the jugular. Indeed, the West Coast Offense teams had been teaching and coaching their version of the play, known as “Fox 2 X/Y Hook,” since at least the mid-1980s. Below is the diagram of the West Coast version from Jon Gruden’s Oakland Raiders playbook:

As taught by the West Coast coaches — from Bill Walsh to Mike Holmgren and on through Jon Gruden and others — Fox 2 X/Y Hook was first and foremost a ball control play: Fox 2 was a core West Coast run play, and this play was the perfect, conservative complement, designed to hit the tight-end right over the middle when the linebackers came up for the run.

The post route was labeled a mere “Alert,” something to think about only in certain circumstances, most notably in the red zone. The below video excerpt is from Steve Mariucci’s offensive installation video from his time coaching the Cal Bears, one year removed from coaching under Holmgren with the Green Bay Packers (on a staff that included Andy Reid and Jon Gruden), and in the clip Mariucci repeats the West Coast philosophy behind Fox 2 X/Y Hook: hit the tight-end for a quick ten yards, and if he’s not open hit the backside split end (the “X”) on a hook, and otherwise check the ball down — only think about the post if it’s wide open. Mariucci even goes so far as to instruct his quarterbacks to “forget the post” versus certain coverages. (By the way, as great as the quality of the information is in this video, somebody really needed to get Mooch a lozenge.)

This is not to say Fox 2 X/Y Hook was not an excellent play — or that West Coast teams never threw the post — but it was, by design, an afterthought, a route to only get to after both the run and the underneath throws had been established.

There was, however, one prominent West Coast Offense pupil who, let’s just say, wasn’t a big fan of when coaches would tell him to “forget about” a route that could be an instant touchdown. This particular pupil looked at the design of a play like Fox 2 X/Y Hook and didn’t see a safe, conservative, ball control pass, but instead an opportunity to blow a game wide open. And, in his own unique way, this pupil was not wrong. I am of course talking about noted offensive guru Brett Favre.

As Favre would explain to Jon Gruden in their excellent Gruden Camp special, when Mike Holmgren (or Jon Gruden) would draw up Fox 2 X/Y Hook and paeans to the hooks and checkdowns, Favre’s attention was instead drawn to the possibilities presented by that deep post route.

While the basic concept behind Mills and its cousin, Fox 2 X/Y Hook, have been around for decades, it was Spurrier’s and Favre’s mindset — along with some evolutions in how defenses are played — that has brought us to the present.

All good passing concepts are built of the same raw materials: (1) horizontal stretches, i.e., two or more receivers aligned on the same horizontal plane (left to right or right to left) that puts zone defenders in a bind as they try to cover each of them; (2) vertical stretches, i.e., two or more received aligned on the same vertical plane (deep to short) that similarly puts zone defenders in conflict; and (3) man beaters, i.e., individual routes or route combinations that are difficult to defend in man coverage, such as a route where the receiver cuts and breaks away (like a slant or crossing route) or some sort of combination that results in a rub (or pick). Defenses have become more sophisticated in terms of mixing and matching zone and man principles into pattern match coverages, but the best and most time tested pass concepts typically feature two or more of these elements.

The most common pass concepts fit this mold. “Flood” routes tend to be three-level vertical stretches, with one receiver deep, another on an intermediate out or corner (often known as a “Sail” route), and another short in the flat, while many so-called ball control pass concepts like curl/flat are horizontal stretches, as they array receivers horizontally across the field to stretch the defense’s underneath coverage. And both work against man-to-man coverages as well because they feature routes that are difficult to cover in man coverage,. In other words, the best pass concepts create horizontal or vertical stretches through routes that are good at getting open against man coverage.

Further, so-called “triangle” stretches are built when a two-man vertical stretch is combined with a two-man horizontal stretch, against through routes that can beat man-to-man coverage.

Mills is, at core, a vertical stretch, but it’s a vertical stretch in a part of the field not always attacked: directly up the seam, or hashmark area of the field. Most vertical stretches like Flood or Smash try to stretch the corner on the sideline, or sometimes there are multi-level vertical stretches in the middle of the field, such as with the Texas concept. By contrast, Mills builds the vertical stretch of the post over top of the dig or hook route directly up the seam, which makes it particularly suited to attacking today’s defenses.

Mills also goes a step farther by building a three-level vertical stretch (deep: post; middle: dig; short: shallow cross or runningback checkdown) and combining it with a triangle stretch between the post/hook and the checkdowns. As a result, while the primary purpose of the play — the Spurrier/Favre aspect — is the deep vertical stretch, if the post is taken away Mills morphs into its West Coast heritage by becoming a horizontal stretch of the underneath coverage.

But the other reason that Mills has come into its own as a vertical “shot play” is that it is uniquely designed to attack the most popular coverage family in both the NFL and college football: Quarters or Cover 4, and its many, many variations. Indeed, Mariucci referenced this in the installation video above when he said to look for the post against what he called “Cover 8,” which was his terminology for Quarters.

Specifically, college, high school and even the NFL has become increasingly dominated by variations of “Quarters” coverage, by which I mean the family of related pattern match coverages that typically put three defenders over two receivers and adjust who “matches” and who helps depending on the release of the #2, or inside, receiver. The coverage was made famous by the Jimmy Johnson’s “Miami 4-3” defenses — first with the Miami Hurricanes and then the Dallas Cowboys — where the basic rule was that the cornerbacks would essentially play man-to-man on the outside receivers while the safeties would align closer to the line than they would with Cover 2 (around seven to ten yards for Quarters versus twelve yards or deeper for Cover 2) and read the release of the tight-end or slot receiver, known as #2. If #2 released vertically, the safety matched him, thus taking away the popular four verticals play; but if he ran a short route to the inside or outside, the safety was freed to double team the outside receiver or otherwise become a free “robber” player who could read the QB’s eyes. (Many coaches refer to this version of Quarters as “Robber” coverage.”)

Quarters has been popular for some time; Gruden’s Raiders playbook from the late 1990s notes that Cover 8 (his term for Quarters) was “the most popular coverage in the NFL today!” But with the rise of the one-back and spread offenses over the last ten or so years, Quarters and its cousins have become even more popular. A big reason for this is the way it can morph and handle different route combinations without providing easy throwing lanes for increasingly sophisticated passing offenses. But another major reason is that as offenses have used zone reads, read-options and run-pass options to equare numbers and superharge the running game, Quarters offers the promise of getting extra defenders near the line for the run. The key, again, are the safeties: in addition to reading the routes run by the #2 receiver, they also read to see whether it’s a run or pass play, and by lining up relatively near the line of scrimmage and shuffling in place at the snap rather than dropping back (known as a “flat foot read”), they can fill gaps and make tackles at or near the line of scrimmage. “Why Cover 4? We get nine men in the box,” Pittsburgh head coach (and Quarters aficionado) Pat Narduzzi has explained. “People talk about, ‘Man, we’re in an eight-man front.’ Well, we’re in a nine-man front.”

But the final key to the explosion of Quarters is that it’s really no longer a single coverage run by all eleven defenders and has become far more mutable. For example, Gary Patterson of TCU uses a split-safety system to call different coverage concepts to each side of the field, say Quarters/Robber to one side and traditional Cover 2 to the other.

And many coaches have taken this a step further and transformed Quarters coverage into something even more flexible, into that elusive defensive concept, a “call.” Bill Belichick calls these “triangle” coverage concepts, but the basic idea is that anywhere there are two or three receivers — whether from a traditional Pro Set, four wide receiver spread, trips, double tight-end, and so on — the defense can put three or sometimes four defenders over them in a pattern matching Quarters principle that vary in subtle ways depending on what the #2 receiver does, with other coverage principles (typically man-to-man but also sometimes traditional zones) played elsewhere. These coverage concepts go by a myriad of names — Robber, 2-Read, Palms, Clip, Blue, Bronco, Key, Trap, Sight, Cover 7 and Red 7, Seahawk, Stubbie, Special, Solo, and on and on and on — but much of modern defense involves mixing and matching these principles with different fronts, coverages and blitzes. It’s fascinating, fun, often subtle stuff. (Or, if you’re Andy Benoit of the MMQB you refer to every single one of these concepts as “2-Man,” but I digress….) To illustrate, below are some examples of Nick Saban’s “Clamp” coverage, which is a form of 2-Read or Palms coverage which looks like traditional Cover 2 if the #2 receiver goes to the flat and becomes more like traditional Quarters (or even man coverage) if the #2 receiver runs vertical.

But if there’s one thread that runs through all of these coverages it’s this: with only a few exceptions, if both the #1 and #2 receiver run vertical (defined as straight upfield for somewhere between eight-to-ten yards) before making their break, then the cornerback locks onto #1 and the safety locks onto #2. And if the safety locks onto #2, then he can’t help on #1, and because the cornerback is often expecting help to the inside he typically plays with outside leverage, which means…

… Mills can be devastating. Especially when coupled with play-action, Mills is uniquely designed to stress all of these related coverages without the offense needing to know precisely which one the defense is in: since both #2 and #1 run vertical before making their breaks they essentially turn into the same coverage, and that coverage is liable to leave a cornerback with outside leverage on an outside receiver running a post route. In short, Mills takes the most sophisticated coverages in football and reduces almost all of them to a matchup between a team’s best receiver running the best route in the game against a cornerback with poor leverage who has essentially no safety help. This is why essentially every coach and QB now thinks about Mills the same was as Brett Favre did: “home run.”

peyton

As a result, teams have been increasingly building the Mills concept directly into existing pass concepts. The most prominent example of this might be how the so-called Air Raid Offenses — the pass-first attack developed by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach that has seemingly taken over college and much of high school football — have adapted one of their staple concepts, the shallow cross, to incorporate Mills. Specifically, the traditional Air Raid shallow featured a shallow cross (to whichever receiver was tagged on the play) and a square-in/dig (known as a “Hunt” route) that came from the opposite side. Those primary routes were complemented by some sort of check-down route by the runningback while both outside receivers simply ran vertical “take off” routes to stretch the defense.

Over time, Air Raid teams began “tagging” one receiver with a post route, as they noticed that safeties would often get nosey and begin trying to take away the square-in. It was an effective adjustment, but it required the coach or QB to call the adjustment at the right time. Many Air Raid teams now have adjusted their version of Shallow to build the post route directly into the play, i.e., there is always a post run behind the dig route. For example, Oklahoma State under Coach Mike Gundy has eviscerated teams with this over the last several years, with the primary beneficiary being receiver James Washington, with a staggering number of his more than 4,000 receiving yards and 35 receiving touchdowns (at an incredible 20 (!) yards per catch) coming on post routes on Oklahoma State’s version of Shallow.

The coaching points for Mills are not particularly tricky, though, as with anything, different coaches teach it slightly differently. For me it starts with the post route, which I like as a seven step route (i.e., seven steps by the receiver, who starts with his outside foot back in his stance). When his seventh step hits (which will be his outside foot), he will nod his head to the outside and explode to the near goal post, with an aiming point no farther inside than the near hashmark. (His seventh step should be within his frame; I’d rather maintain speed than exaggerate the juke at the top of the route.) Once the receiver turns his head he must locate the ball and attack it; the trajectory of the throw will vary depending on the coverage.

As shown above, the inside receiver can run a variety of routes, from a true square-in (in Spurrier’s Mills) to a ten-yard hook (as is the case with Fox 2 X/ Hook), an option route breaking at ten yards or something else. My preferred version is what the New England Patriots refer to as “Middle,” which is a ten-yard square-in where the receiver is given the option to (1) keep running across the field, (2) settle in a zone, or (3) if he’s blocked (“walled off”) he can pivot and return back towards the sideline. This doesn’t take long to teach and ensures that, should the defense take away the deep post, that the inside receiver is a viable option.

The underneath routes will be dictated by the formation and overall concept: if the offense is in a four wide spread, then something like what Oklahoma State does with shallow cross routes makes sense; if the offense is in an I-formation, then the checkdown routes will be runningbacks checking for blitz and then releasing to open spots.

For the quarterback, I like to keep the timing of this brisk consistent with what was shown above with Peyton Manning and Oklahoma State, meaning that I want the QB to throw the post off of a 5-step drop timing with no hitch (3-steps from gun, with the same timing if there is a quick play-action fake). If the post isn’t there, the QB will then hitch up in the pocket looking for the middle or dig route second, and if that is covered as well he will reset his feet and look for the checkdowns. I do not want the QB to drop back seven steps or five steps with multiple hitches waiting for the post route to get farther and farther out of range. If there is no lid on the coverage the QB simply puts more air underneath it, and if there are any kinds of windows the post has to be thrown on a tight rhythm. (Some coaches are OK if, instead of five steps with no hitch, the QB takes a very quick five steps and a quick hitch to gather momentum. I don’t think this is necessary but it works for many.) The other advantage of coaching it this way is the post becomes a legitimate part of the progression — and thus an option on every play — without being an “Alert” that is only looked at sometimes.

Yet while I’m with Favre that the post should be a viable option every time Mills is called, I’m also with Gruden and Mariucci that most of the completions on this play are going to go to the dig/hook or the checkdowns. But it’s those completions that will eventually lead to the touchdown throw that blows the game open.

Although Mills is the touchdown maker, I have to note that it has a somewhat more conservative sibling: the Dagger concept. Dagger is exactly the same as Mills, except the tight-end or slot runs a vertical seam route to draw the deep safety, while the outside receiver breaks underneath on square-in/dig route into the open space. The conceptual stretch on the defense, and particularly the safety, is exactly the same: one receiver deep behind him and another in front of him on a dig. But by inverting the two routes the emphasis changes, and while Mills is designed to hit the post for a touchdown, Dagger is designed to hit the dig route underneath.

The Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis Rams had a lot of favorite plays –F-Post, shallow cross and Y-Sail come immediately to mind — but Dagger was the closest thing those great Rams offenses of 1999-2001 had to a base play. They ran it from every conceivable formation and alignment, and they loved to switch or wrap the releases of their receivers to ensure a free release up the field. And more than any other team, they didn’t mind hitting the deep seam route if it was there.

Rams

And its popularity has not waned in recent years, particularly in the NFL where it is one of the common pass concepts in the league. Philadelphia, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Washington and others use it multiple times every game.

For purposes of this article, the beauty of Dagger is how little teaching it takes if you are already running Mills: as mentioned above, essentially everything is the same except where the stretch is most likely to occur.

Before leaving Mills behind, I want to touch on a couple of interesting variations. The first is how to run the play from a trips formation that aligns three receivers to one side. The simplest way is to keep everything more or less the same: the outside receiver runs the post, the second or third receiver runs the dig/hook and the other slot runs some sort of underneath route, like a whip/pivot or shallow cross. Below is a diagram (courtesy of the excellent Syed Schemes site):

pivot

But, as is the case against two receivers, there are a multitude of variations of Quarters designed specifically for Trips formations. The most common (and simplest) is known Solo, and it essentially pushes the base Quarters coverage towards the three receiver side
(see this excellent post about Solo coverage for more details). But one of the weaknesses of Solo is that, as the name implies, the backside cornerback is often left one-on-one with the single backside receiver. The common adjustment is to run a coverage commonly called “Special,” that combines three things: (1) the ability of the safety help the to cornerback with the backside single receiver; (2) the trips side cornerback locks on man-to-man on the outside receiver; and (3) the nickel/Sam, field safety and linebacker play three-over-two (triangle) Quarters on the #2 and #3 receivers. The upshot is that most offenses in trips want to throw the ball to the slot receivers or the backside single receiver, and this coverage allows help on both. Below is a diagram from Nick Saban’s Alabama playbook of “Stubbie,” which is his term for Special coverage.

But if the defense can move their Quarters concept over by one receiver — instead of the triangle being over the offense’s #1 and #2, it’s over #2 and #3 — the offense can move Mills over too. And the advantage of this often goes to the offense, because the matchups are better, featuring slot receivers against nickelbacks, safeties and linebackers who aren’t as athletic and also have different jobs than they have on traditional Quarters involving the cornerback.

The result is that one of the best plays in football over the last few years has been a variation of Mills where the #2 receiver runs the post, the #3 receiver runs the dig/hook and the outside or #1 receiver simply runs a comeback or sideline hook route.

The last Mills variation I’ll mention is one that Baylor successfully used under its previous coaching staff. The basic building blocks were the same — vertical route behind a dig/sit — but the approach was more fluid. Specifically, the #2 receiver was taught to simply run at the safety and more or less stop in front of him or bring him in with a dig, while the #1 receiver ran a “vertical option.” His job was to burst off the line, break the corner’s cushion, and then run either a fade or a post depending on the cornerback’s leverage — whichever one would allow him to get vertical the fastest. He was given the option to make one move, but typically it just looked like a footrace.

baylor

This is the same technique used by the slot receiver in the trips example shown above, and Baylor famously ran its version of Dagger where the slot receiver had the vertical option: always vertical (i.e., no option to settle or hook up) but he had the hashmark to numbers area to work, while the outside receiver would simply run to a spot ten yards downfield between the sideline and the numbers and sit down. (For some reason Baylor’s staff called its slot vertical play “New Anthony.”) The QB’s job was to make a play-action fake and either throw a touchdown or a checkdown, where the checkdown was the other receiver who had run to 10 yards and settled to draw the deep coverage.

The beauty of all this — well, aside from those pretty post throws — is how the popularity and efficacy of this play is so closely related not just to offensive innovation or even mindsets, but also in response to specific defensive evolutions. As good as the play is, Mills is not the go-to concept against Cover 3 with a safety playing centerfield; it can work, but there are other options most coaches would prefer. But as defenses have gone to multifarious split safety coverages to slow down one-back and spread formations and the dizzying arraying of run-pass and run-run options that seem to multiply by the day, sometimes the best answer is an old one: go deep.