How to Use “Backside Tags” to Attack the Entire Field in the Passing Game

This article is by my friend Dan Gonzalez, who, in addition to being an expert on offense and the passing game, has written a book about both called Concept Passing: Teaching the Modern Passing Game. Dan also previously collaborated with me on an article about the four verticals pass concept. I am honored to host his excellent article on Smart Football.

“Pick a side.” This common coaching directive, in which the quarterback is given the autonomy to choose his starting point on a pass play, has always bothered me. It’s an abdication of a coach’s responsibility: It’s the coach’s job to orchestrate the assault on a defense –- why isn’t the quarterback given a specific starting point and a full complement of options? Even as a college player, I would sit in meetings or pick up a game plan handout and roll my eyes when I saw these words attached to a pass play. My coaches were no slouches – there was an NFL pedigree throughout the staff, and they were fresh from coaching the first pick in the NFL draft when they came to my school. We were taught sound mechanics and fundamentals and our system was a complex pro-style system. Still, there was an abundance of mirrored pass patterns (see Diagram 1 below) in our system, where receivers on both sides of the formation ran the same routes. While these plays were sold as attacking the full field, I often thought to myself, “If everyone comes open at the same time, aren’t we really wasting half the field, and sometimes more than half of the eligible receivers?”

Diagram 1. Example of a “mirrored” pass pattern

I have always considered myself a sort of “free thinker” when it came to football. My talent would never have allowed for me to dream of playing after college (I considered myself blessed to be there), and I always knew I would go into coaching. When I studied our game tapes (I was in charge of the passing game quality control as a senior) and opponent scouting tapes, I was not only living in the “now” — I was also searching for the methodology that I would use when I finally got to run my own offense. Even then, there were two things I knew I wanted: (1) My system would establish itself with the dropback pass and (2) I was going to give the quarterback as many options as possible on a given pass play.

In the passing system I have coached myself (and have since installed for my clients on a consultant basis), pass plays have “frontside” and “backside” component. They fit together through a system of pattern variations, or “tags,” which I’ve created to give the quarterback a well defined method of attacking the full width and depth of pass defenses. There are three types of backside tags, each encompassing a specific way to affect the backside of a pass defense:

  • Provide outlets if the primary combination is covered.
  • Control safety rotation or displacement.
  • Prevent “matching” of the undercoverage.

For this article, I’m going to share a little of the thinking that goes into the first category of backside tags that we teach –- in our vernacular, these combinations are called “Scan Reads.”

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Smart Links – 12/20/2011

Resources on the 4-2-5, TCU’s vaunted defense.

How the “Cowboy” (corner blitz) killed the wildcat. It’s because the “Wildcat QB” was not a passing threat. It’s a good read on what the wildcat did and does well (covering similar territory as I covered here).

Sean Payton, circa 1992, on quarterbacking.

Inside the mind of a college freshman quarterback.

Breakout players of the 2011 college football season. What Watkins and De’Anthony Thomas have been able to do as true freshman is just incredibly impressive, especially given how many roles each play for their teams. I could watch highlights of both guys all day.

Defending trips: Disguising schemes and staying disciplined. Very good link.

How pedestrians behave.

Ian McEwan and Christopher Buckley on Hitchens.

Grantland Blog: Evaluating Alabama’s defense

It’s up over at the Grantland Blog:

… Whether pro-style, Air raid, or spread-to-run, we’re living in offense-dominated times.

That is, except in the game that (rightly or wrongly) crowns the champion: LSU-Alabama. Indeed, that game features the country’s most dynamic and exciting defensive player in Tyrann Mathieu (who might end up no better than the third- or fourth-best NFL prospect in LSU’s secondary) and one of the most statistically dominating defenses of the past decade in Alabama.

There will be plenty to say about this matchup in the coming weeks. (Especially since the teams have already played — or hadn’t you heard?) But for now, despite all of the above evidence of offenses’ increasing dominance, because those offenses were in turn dominated by LSU’s and Alabama’s defenses there is no choice but to declare this season the year that, channeling William F. Buckley, those two teams stood athwart the march of history yelling, “Stop!” It was the year of defense.

Read the whole thing.

Paragraph of the day, red zone playcalling edition

Red Zone Play-Calling

On a first down Red Zone play, teams are more likely to score if it’s a run than a pass if they are at the 8 yard line or closer. Anything between the 9 and the 20 favors a pass on first down. That doesn’t mean that 100% pass is the optimal strategy, just that the play calling should favor the pass (or run inside the 9). For goal to go situations after first down, second down is the ultimate OC’s choice. From anywhere 10 and in on second and goal running and passing have nearly identical touchdown percents. On third and goal, the run still holds up strongly. A called run is more likely to score a TD on anything from the 6 and in than a pass, which owns 7 and up. Again, not saying the strategy should be 100%, but there is real value to favoring the run inside the 7.

There is more data driven situational analysis here.

Recommended reading, 2011 edition

I am frequently asked to recommend books for coaches or just people interested in learning more about the game. There really is no single one source — and I’m not sure there could be — but here are some suggestions of books I’ve enjoyed that tackle the strategic side of football.

Finding the Winning Edge, by Bill Walsh. The bible.

The Bunch Attack, by Andrew Coverdale and Dan Robinson. Probably my favorite passing game book of all time; don’t be scared off by the reference to the “bunch” only. Although that’s the theme, the book is really a comprehensive look at the passing game as a system, understanding defenses and coverages, protections, and how to build variations off of the passing game to make it all go. Coverdale and Robinson’s books on the quick pass game are essential as well.

2011 Offensive Line Coaches Handbook, edited by Earl Browning. all of the fancy stuff about the passing game and building a “pro-style” gameplan go out the window if you can’t block on some fundamental run plays and on pass plays, and the COOL Clinic lectures remain one of the best sources of information. I enjoyed this year’s edition, though you can find valuable information in almost all of them.

Coaching the Under Front Defense, by Jerry Gordon. There are lots of good books on defense — including the all-time classic, Coaching Team Defense by Packers legend Fritz Shurmur — but I think Gordon’s book is a great overview and introduction not only to the 4-3 Under but the concept of team defenses generally. I also found it very helpful as a reference work, as out of the various other books and materials I have I kept pulling this off the shelf to see about defending runs pulling guards, certain pass concepts, and so on.

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Smart Links – 12/14/2011

Indiana’s buzzer-beater to beat Kentucky set to the theme from Hoosiers:

Craig James runs for Senative.

What happened to the Triangle Offense? And the last frontier of the Triangle, in Manila.

Coach Hoover on Tebow.

Amazon rewarding people who report on higher prices in stores.

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Mike Leach: Pistol offense maven?

Mike Leach, now head coach at Washington State, has gone out and hired someone with a little pistol offense pedigree:

One interesting note from the hiring and firing that occupies college football fans for the better part of the holiday season is the hiring of former Nevada and UCLA assistant Jim Mastro by Washington State. Mastro is schooled in the pistol offense, a run-first attack known for cranking out 1,000 yard rushers with regularity. It seems incompatible with Leach’s pass-friendly Air Raid scheme, but it may not be as inharmonious a match as you might think.

Leach protege Dana Holgorsen has worked with integrating the pistol formation and other variants of the scheme into his sets at West Virginia and Oklahoma State. In order to keep his attack fresh and unpredictable in his return to coaching, Leach may be looking to do the same thing by going straight to one of the attack’s sources. It’s a fun tweak, but don’t worry, Cougar fans: Leach will still throw the daylights out of the ball, and then probably pass some more even after he’s all out of daylights, so to speak.

I think this is right: Don’t expect Leach to junk his Airraid anytime soon, though you may see more pistol. What’s interesting is that Leach has talked about the importance of the pistol, contrasting it with, say, the wildcat, which he didn’t think is a lasting change. Instead the pistol, says Leach, will have staying power as it “changes the angles” in the running game. You can see this in the clip below:

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New Grantland Blog: Draw It Up: Army-Navy and the Flexbone Offense

It’s up over at the Triangle Blog:

Niumatalolo and others at the academies, however, have evolved the offense by not just lining up in the same flexbone set and running the veer triple and the midline option 40 times a game. (Although they’re happy to do that, too, if you don’t defend it well.) Instead, they will also mix in formation variations, motion, shifts, and so on to get the matchup that they want. In other words, the service academies are running a pro-style, multiple-formation, heavily game-planned, option offense. Sounds like heresy, but look at Navy’s touchdown in the second quarter on Saturday.

Read the whole thing.

The interplay of recruiting, eliteness and pro-style versus spread schemes

Blutarsky and B&B discuss some interesting points. Explicitly or implicitly, the discussion turns on the role of schemes and top-flight recruits, coupled with scheme transitions. In short, are there advantages to recruiting to pro-style offenses versus the spread, and is it wrong (or at least misguided) to hire coaches who will transition their team from one to the other? And what’s the better plan for the long-run? I don’t think there even could be an answer to these questions, but below are some non-systematic thoughts.

1. For the truly elite-level recruiting teams, I think the agnosticism of pro-style treats them well because they basically recruit incredible players and then figure out the system and scheme later. Moreover, spread offenses, option offenses, and really any pass-first offense (including West Coast attacks of which I’d put Georgia in the category) require very good quarterback play. Alabama and LSU are basically designed to win in spite of their quarterbacks; Nick Saban does not want to return an all world defense with a bunch of five-star playmakers and lose because his QB was a junior and had some “growing pains”, which absolutely happens at every level. In other words, if you get be a top 5 recruiting team every year, it’s not that you want to be pro-style it’s that you want to be “system neutral.” They can get superior talent and can fit plays around those incredible guys. Note that this isn’t the same as “fitting your scheme to your players,” because we’re talking about first round draft choice guys not guys with certain strengths and certain weaknesses. I leave aside whether pro-style is truly more attractive to recruits or not.

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Refreshing the site’s look

I have been mulling about a few things I would like to do to the site:

  • Develop iPad/iPhone/Android Mobile versions of Smart Football.
  • Polish up the sidebar — what would be most useful to have on it?
  • Clean up the header, title, etc.
  • Add Google Plus to the social share at bottom — any other sharing tools people wish they had?
  • Embed advertising in RSS feeds.

I’m also open to any other suggestions or ideas. If you or someone you know has design and/or programming capabilities feel free to reach out to me at chris [at] smartfootball.com. Much appreciated.