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.”

A “Scan Read” consists of an outlet combination that breaks into the quarterback’s vision in the event that he must abandon the primary portion or reads of the pattern. In Figure 2 below, the two backside receivers (to the quarterback’s left) are serving as outlets, should the primary combination run by Y and Z (the two frontside receivers running the smash concept) be covered.

[Ed. Note: Throughout we’ve used diagrams laid on top of still shots, purely for representative purposes. These aren’t necessarily specific pass concepts that the teams shown in the photos use, though they do use similar concepts.]

Diagram 2. Backside receivers serving as outlets.


The coach will call this play in anticipation of some opportunity to throw the “flag” route to “Y” (the tight end to the right). If the cornerback over the “Z” (the outside receiver to the right) sinks into that area, the quarterback will deliver the ball to “Z” for a five yard gain. Most offenses operate under this method. However, for most offenses, this is where the teaching stops, as most coaches will simply mirror both sides (Figure 3 below).

Diagram 3. Mirrored version of our smash pattern.

While on the surface, this seems like an efficient, simple way to go, it is ultimately inefficient because it gives half of the pass defense a free play off — they will never be threatened, as both combinations will come open at the same time. Furthermore, if the combination is covered, the quarterback is left to fend for himself, exposing him to not only unnecessary hits, but the increased likelihood of a turnover as well.

Our version of the pattern, with the backside Scan Read, not only allows us to attack the anticipated coverage, it also gives our players an adjustment in the event that the primary pattern being covered. In addition, the ball will be distributed to the thinnest part of the coverage at all times, keeping more skill players involved. Finally, because of our attention to the cognitive aspects of what “covered” means for the quarterback, the full field can be attacked on every down without holding the ball for inordinate amounts of time.

There are three keys to this idea. First, coach must clearly define for the quarterback what actions by the defense “covers” the primary receiver or receivers. In this example, a sinking corner combined with a wide flat defender would tell the passer to go elsewhere with the ball (Diagram 4).

Diagram 4. What covers the famous “Smash” combination?

Second, the outlets must be timed so that they break open as the quarterback turns his eyes to them. In this system of passing, the quarterback will “keep time” with his feet; if the receivers aren’t open as he readies to throw, he will “hitch step” and move his eyes to the next receiver in the progression. Referring back to Figure 2 above, it will be the “A” receiver (the inside slot on the backside running the deep in-route), followed by the “X” receiver (the outside receiver on the backside who is running the five-yard in route). Of note are the depths and techniques of these inside breaking routes; at 14 yards with a square cut rather than a speed cut at the top of the stem, the “A” or slot receiver’s route will not be exposed to the defense before the passer has a chance to survey his availability. Likewise, the “X” uses a delay technique, coming slowly off the line, and thus comes uncovered late.

Third, and most importantly, the coach must keep giving the quarterback the same mental pictures over and over again. This point cannot be stressed enough: these mental images are instantaneous and last a lifetime. Using outlets must be a focal point not only in individual drills but also in the group and team portions of practice as well. Our teams have gone as far as drawing the primary routes on the scout teams cards, ensuring that the quarterback will get quick “covered” triggers, and hitch up to go backside. Also, as formations and personnel groupings change, the relationships from the passer’s vantage point should not. Let two examples suffice (Figures 5 and 6 below):

Diagram 5. The same combination from a “Trips” formation.

Diagram 6. Example of the same pattern with two wide receivers aligned tight and two H-backs/tight-ends and with “switched” assignments.


Many coaches miss the fact that the ability to find the last man in the progression is a matter of focus and teaching – not of a quarterback’s ability. When I study football, one thing is obvious: players do what they are asked — no, drilled — to do. When I watch a quarterback drop back into the pocket, progress past covered pass option, and hit outlet receivers, it’s most likely because he does it every day in practice, not because he was born with that skill. Likewise, when I see a player look for one receive and have no plan of action if that receiver is covered, it is, again most likely a byproduct of his coaching. Proper installation of “Backside Tags” give the offense the opportunity to hold the entire pass defense accountable for their areas of responsibility, and allow the offense to always attack the thinnest part of the coverage.

This is how you get first downs and get big plays: By using frontside and backside concepts to hit the defense where they’re weakest. And, of course, it’s pretty fun, too.

  • harry herm

    I loved this piece. I’ve been working on these ideas all offseason and this is really helpful. Thanks

  • coach t

    Good article Dan. What other backside tags do you use and how do you call them? Do you just say like, “X-Spot” (or whatever) to tell the two backside guys what concept to run? Do you like certain tags with certain frontside concepts? 

    I’d also be interested in hearing about the other two backside concepts you use that you mention, controlling safety rotation and preventing match coverage.

  • Margaretg202

    Is this the type of passing game Green Bay uses?

  • Thehoodie

    I think the other obvious backside concept would be to add screens on the backside, eg. Mazzone and his Sally and Harley screens. Another would be to package your hot routes into the backside instead of implementing the more complex sight adjustments.

    Vs match coverage, the best way to get teams to check out of is to motion to trips. Yes, that usually means safety rotation, but then you have 1-on-1 on the backside or overload to the trips.

  • Dan Gonzalez

    Thank you.

    We have several backside tags that fit the function(s) discussed.

    We would call for example 79 Y Dodge X Spot…Dodge is a frontside tag, and Spot is the backside tag.  Spot is an example of a Mike read — in a 2-2 set, we would key Mike’s drop and throw opposite him, thus controlling his drop.

  • Dan Gonzalez

    We don’t tag screens to our dropback game, though we do in our run game.  Our “hots” are built in, and so sight adjusting is not needed.

    We do, however have the ability to throw downfield on our SLOW SCREEN…I played in a decendant of Tom Landry’s system, and there was always a speed dig vs man coverage, eliminating a man to man LB clamping on a screen back.

    That isn’t really the type of Match coverage we were talking about — was more talking from our end — controlling the Mike backers drop…

  • Mr.Murder

    You really need a strong armed passer to do mirrored routes as well. Some routes work in ways that a passer has to bring his momentum to where he intends throwing. So in essence a lot of passers are really only effective working half the field at a time.

    Coach Brown put a link here showing the backside combo to compliment the snag/stick concept to the front. It was dual slants, but when you looked at every diagram about two thirds of the field were all that was in use.

    How much ground do combos have to cover to go past a half field read? Is it considered from the starting point of the receivers?

    Mirrored concepts also seem to be more of a matchup item, which would go with the “choose a side” instruction. The better advice from passing systems linked here in prior posts(Edwards notes, Walsh notes) was to attack coverage first, and you should find a flaw there that works regardless.

    Must read more of what Gonzales terms “matching by the undercoverage” and the overall tactic of controlling safety rotation. That is where the aspect of working reads, that place stress to the back side, from how they cover your front concepts, could open up new chapters in anticipating where voids and creases emerge late into plays.

  • Mr.Murder

    So he rolled a speed cut around seven or eight yards to reach ten yards and clear the screen side? Think it works like an end clearing on the draw. They see him release and get to their landmarks on drops, thinking pass if the end leaves the scrimmage line.

    Many teams now screen or outlet to the run fake. They usually don’t do much on the initial fake though. It’s like they want you to see it isn’t a fake, so you go through deep drops against backfield actions and they work the ball under that.

  • Mr.Murder

    The article on Harbaugh’s built in hots accompanied a slide in Niners output(seems like they had protection issues) but their Steelers game had another feature vs. the Steelers specialty look defenses, another thread topic here of late.

    He had Gore move to slot from motion in order to isolate him on an interior defender, but stem his flat route on the initial steps upfield on a quick out. The back missed his flat route catch on timing, a blitz rushed the passer and the bay area fans made noise that hurt him hearing the cadence for motioning out.

    The emphasis was in putting enough of a stem into the two defenders’ route that they were able to better isolate both routes to a side of the field and accelerate quicks or reads. The Steelers safeties buzz the flat so well that you need to work the route into them from the start and their backers have great straight line speed so you must not allow them to commit on a straight line to run down the ball on a pass attempt.

    Harbaugh’s overall design seemed intent on challenging technique of indiviuals matched with the aim of attacking the perimeter. At times the best way to work both perimeters is to use mirrored routes. This a better look at that might find similar ways to read each side independently with the primary side changing depending on the position of the box safety or the top of the cover set from the snap.

    If the strong safety comes down over, or the free safety is low under, etc. probably tells you a lot about how the backers and high safety will rotate. Coach Brown highlighted a Walsh priority for slants in another article here. Had to deal with the initial read avoiding the strong safety unless you used backfield flow to weak side, as a way of anticipating rotation. In some way those same principles must apply to these specialty look fronts we see from the zone blitz teams today. Think Harbaugh’s team evolved this season in where they placed natural hots and a potential progression to develop if the defense finds a way to smother quicks or blur quarterback reads when they spur a read defender to a new position.

  • Budoop14

    Great concept I agree that mirroring the same pattern is wasting valuable personnel and not taking advantage of the weaknesses in coverage away from the primary looks.

  • Mr.Murder

    Coach Gonzalez has a peer who is now going to UCLA. People talked of the Mazzone screens at Smartfootball. A spread guru is going to a major program and most of its staff is stocked with experienced former NFL players. Interesting to see how the combination of pro and college concepts will work(think one of those position coaches is actually a run&shoot back from the NFL) so it should be a real interesting dynamic for the Bruins.

  • Mr.Murder

    Both routes attack at or near the same depth? Sounds like an option by the tight end(dodge the man under defender as he closes, work away) and spot(traditional use of the term, outside player option/choices down to the conversion depth).

    So the other player to a balanced side runs a concept route to compliment the tag?

  • I’ve read and re-read Dan’s book countless times and had a chance to put some of the concepts on the field.  There are two main themes that I came away with: timing and consistency.  The timing from the front-side combo across the field to the back-side tags and outlet is a thing of beauty to see in practice.  We had to tweak route and cut speed to make it work out, but soon the kids have the clock in their head.  This also ties into the consistency of giving the QB the same picture.  No matter the formation or where the receiver starts, he needs to get to his piece of grass on time.  So, if a receiver needs to be in the flat and starts wide – he runs a hitch.  If he starts tight to the field, he runs an arrow.  If he starts tight to the boundary, he runs a whip.  Etc.

  • BigAl23

    Sounds like Homer Smith stuff

  • BigAl23

    Sounds like Homer Smith Stuff

  • Tyler Holmes Chamberlain

    I’ve never played football and only know what I’ve read on this site, so sorry if this is a dumb question, but can someone explain what this means : ” as formations and personnel groupings change, the relationships from the passer’s vantage point should not.”  Thanks in advance. 

  • Have waited a while to come back on this, but coach G’s system is what you need to break ‘pattern read’ coverages like we see from Saban’s team. You can end up stemming routes in ways that stress pattern read help everywhere on the field. This also allows you to time depth routes with packaged concepts, and you can note how the most common adjustment is the ‘Switch’ to whatever concept it is you want to work. Think Victor Cruz just did another touchdown dance when he heard that news.

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