Packaging three-step and five-step passing concepts into the same play

Modern defenses are very, very good. Too good, in fact, for successful offenses to expect to be able to simply call some traditional play in the huddle — ye olde 24 Blast or 42 Boot Pass — and be able to simply line up and run it with any hope of sustained success. Not only are defenses sound, defensive coordinators and talented defenders have become masters of deception, and the game has increasingly become a mental as well as physical struggle.

I would've liked this concept

Fortunately, defenses aren’t yet — due to the immutable laws of arithmetic and geometry which apply with equal force on a football field — magical, meaning that all defenses always have weaknesses. The trick is to find them and, as Spurrier says, to put your kids in position to win. The goal is to try to tilt the advantage back to offenses. There are essentially three strategies:

  1. Line up in a formation and let a coach or a quarterback change the play. You see this whenever Peyton Manning or some other NFL guy audibles at the line (though his options have usually been narrowed to two or three before the snap), or when a no-huddle team lines up and looks to the sideline for guidance. The idea is that, while it is still pre-snap and the defense can still move, it has given away certian clues, including personnel and general structure.
  2. Use multiple formations and motions to confuse the defense or gain an advantage in numbers or leverage. This approach tries to turn the defense against itself by never giving the defense a chance to get settled or to identify what the offense may do. Moreover, sometimes the defense simply fails to adjust, and the offense gains some new advantage. The downside of this approach is it leaves little time and fewer clues for the offense to make adjustments, but the idea is that “motion causes emotion” (to use the old adage) and the offense has an advantage in that it knows where it is going. This is the method employed by Boise State.
  3. Give your players options on their assignments for after the snap. Just as it sounds, this is the principal governing all “option”-esque attacks. The macro idea here, pioneered by Tiger Ellison, is that backyard football is not played in a static, overly orchestrated way, and instead the natural inclination of kids to run around and make decisions on the fly — and so should it be in real football. This can manifest itself in different ways, from the triple option to the spread option to the passing game. Each play provides a superstructure but freedom within it. The idea is you don’t need much else, except for the players to begin adapting and making the rights reads. As said in Remember the Titans, “I run six plays. Split veer. It’s like Novocain. Give it time. It always works.”

A few years ago, it was possible to achieve unheard of success by designing a new play, or sometimes simply by joining the bandwagon and going spread, especially if you had better athletes. Now, the innovations are ones of communication and organization; much of the talk this season centered around Oregon’s fast-paced no-huddle, particularly its fascinating playcalling system. For now, most of the biggest schematic ideas have been hashed out and the question now is how to make it all work together. Packaging pass concepts together — i.e. putting different pass concepts, each designed to beat particular pass coverages or families of pass coverages, to each side of the play — is not new. But it is limited in its own way (more on those limits in a moment), and there are ways to incorporate more of the above ideas into a single concept. Moreover, when done correctly, it’s possible to continue to be multifariously (and deceptively) simple, by using the same handful of pass concepts in new ways.

Problems with the traditional approach of packaging pass concepts. Almost any coach trying to call a pass play, face buried in the Denny’s menu of the playcall sheet, is forced to answer that age old question: Will it be Cover 3 or Cover 2? (Or Cover 4 or man or a blitz, and so on.) The problem is that, no matter how good your pass it is, due to the particular horizontal or vertical stretch it uses, each pass play is better against certain coverages than others. At most, a play might be good against two defensive concepts, and certain plays — like snag — are handy utility plays to get completions against most coverages but that doesn’t mean that they literally work against everything. One potential solution is to “package” different concepts to each side, again with the traditional way being to put a “Cover 3 beater” to one side and a “Cover 2 beater” to the other. (If you want a refresher on basic pass coverages, check out this piece.)

Three problems, however, quickly present themselves with this simplistic answer:

  1. The quarterback only reads half the field, determined based solely on the alignment and movement of a couple of defenders. If the quarterback is either wrong or the receivers fail to get open, the play is essentially a bust.
  2. The side the quarterback throws to is usually determined based on the safeties (or sometimes the middle linebacker). It does not take into account blitzes. It’s possible to include anti-blitz solutions too, but this becomes yet a third read — that might be inconclusive.
  3. Typically, the pass concepts put to each side are effective against those defensive concepts, but they typically do a poor job of dealing with interior or floating defenders, who can turn a quarterback’s good read into an interception. Relatedly, the pass concept may not work at all against combination coverages or roll coverages, which can give false keys.

The third point is worth elaborating on briefly. Shown below is a typical “packaged” five-step drop combination: the curl/flat combination to one side with the smash or corner/flat combination to the other.

This play should work, as the quarterback ought to see that the defense only has one single safety and he thus looks to the left side, with the curl/flat combination. But the packaged pass concepts don’t do anything to control those interior players. The same would be the case if the defense lined up with two deep safeties and he worked the smash side, to his right. There are ways to solve this problem, but there’s an approach that solves (or at least greatly improves upon) all three issues raised above.

Three-step and five-step, together. The idea for this solution came from two sources: the old run and shoot “Read” play and the book, Concept Passing,” where Dan Gonzalez describes something similar. The broad idea is to achieve multiple things in one play-call, but to sequence it so that it all can actually be done by a high school or college kid. The run and shoot “read route” put a “quick” or three-step-esque (remember that the run and shoot used half-rollouts) to one side, while putting the old favorite, the “switch” to the backside. See below:

Against any kind of blitz or tight-man, the quarterback would deliver the ball to one of the outside receivers (typically the slot running to the flat) off his third-step. If the defense covered that, he would finish his drop, step up, and read the two backside receivers running the old switch, which was just a form of the “seam read” from four verticals but where the two receivers criss-crossed at the snap. In his book, Gonzalez describes a more pro-style application; here is my take on it.

The basic concept. The idea is simple: you put a three-step or “quick” pass combination to one side and a five-step combination to the other. (As an overview, quick passes are thrown from a three-step drop (in shotgun, either no steps or just a short balance step) while intermediate routes are thrown from five-steps (three big steps and two quick, or gathering steps, where the ball is thrown either instantly once the back foot hits on “rhythm” or “timing” routes while a “hitch up” or gathering step is used on the second and third reads; from shotgun the quarterback only takes three steps back and skips the first two). As always, Bill Walsh has provided a good primer.)

The five-step combination is called by the coach. Typically, that passing concept should have a few elements to it: first, there needs to be a receiver controlling the middle, like a seam or middle read or something more underneath; second, the pass concept should incorporate the runningback, as he will be assigned to “check-release” to that side; and third, the pass concept must be an effective “zone stretch” or possibly a “flood route,” as against man coverage the throw will most likely go to the three-step side.

A short but appetizing menu

The three-step combination, on the other hand, is called by the quarterback at the line. For this he should be given simple keys; three-step passes are not “all purpose” plays, but are instead designed to defeat specific, identifiable structural weaknesses in the defense. Moreover, each of the plays shown in the menu are good against man-to-man blitzes, which is the primary purpose of building in the quicks. Think of them as “hot routes.”

For example, if the defense has a single high safety, the quarterback will likely signal either the first diagram shown, the hitch, if the coverage is soft, or, if the coverage is tight, he would call the slant/flat combination. Slant/flat is good against both man coverage (you get a nice rub with the two receivers, and both routes are good one-on-one) and against Cover 3 zone, as if the flat defender widens the quarterback can throw the slant behind him. Similarly, if the defense lines up with two deep safeties, he’ll call likely either double slants or the fade/out combination shown in the last diagram, depending on what he’s comfortable with and the defensive leverage.

Letting the quarterback choose the route concept achieves multiple goals. He is forced to read the defense and the number of safeties, and thus gets better at doing it. He is choosing route concepts he is comfortable with, and thus should feel confident in completing them. And the quarterback has the best seat in the house for making this call, and he is not overwhelmed with options. Indeed, if he makes a mistake or the defense does something unexpected, all is not lost: he moves on to the five-step approach.

Putting it together. The easiest introduction to this concept is to ignore the full menu shown above, and to think about a simple trips “choice” concept. Here, the coach would call a pass play to the three receiver side, while the single receiver and the quarterback could communicate a simple three-step route. Many teams already do this, the only difference would be that, here, the quarterback would actively look at both sides, rather than choosing pre-snap where to go.

So it would be with our more advanced, balanced set up. The offense lines up with two receivers to each side (can be any combination of wide receivers, tight-ends, and even runningbacks), and the quarterback signals what three-step combination he wants, either through hand signals or code words. At the snap, if it is a blitz — especially off the weak side, as he has a runningback helping him to the other side — he will throw hot to his “built-in” hot routes, his three-step receivers. If not, he has whatever read he would normally have on the three-step pass. All is perfectly traditional.

But what if no one is open to the quicks side? Then the quarterback needs to refocus on the five-step side — and remember, since the quicks were just quicks, the timing should still work. The quarterback is told to “reset forth depth,” i.e. take a shuffle step back, as if finishing the five-step drop again with two quick steps towards the five-step side. As he does that his eyes refocus on his primary target, and he simply works through his progression as if the three-step portion wasn’t there.

Indeed, it’s perfectly fine to build in read-on-the-run routes for the five-step side, in addition to the routes called-at-the-line for the quicks side. See the below concept, which is from the shakes or three-verticals play.

And the concept even works from five-wides, where it might even be the most preferable way to use a no-back formation due to the inherent protection problems. Here it is shown below, with the levels concept to the three receiver side.

If the quarterback were to call the fade/out combination to the two-receiver side, the play would look exactly like this:

Protection. As mentioned above, one of the biggest benefits to this concept comes with protection. All single-back, six-man pass protection schemes have major issues, including against overload blitzes to either side. This is one of the weakest points of the so-called spread offense. This packaged concept alleviates some (though not all of it) by building in hot routes. By hot routes I don’t mean “sight adjust” routes, where the receiver has to completely run a new route. Instead I refer to the kind of route that already exists in a play but can be thrown off of three steps or five-steps with no hitch or gathering step, before the blitz can arrive. I much prefer this way of dealing with the blitz (along with a health dose of seven man protections), as asking players to consistently make such sight adjustments — while dealing with sophisticated zone blitz concepts — is more than most kids, or even professionals, can handle.

Thus combining three-step and five-step passing is the ultimate in dealing with the blitz. If a defender to the weak side, away from the runningback, blitzes there are receivers running quick routes who should come open quickly. If it is a man-to-man blitz, you have the perfect situation with a quick concept, as shown below.

And, if the defense ends up faking a blitz and backing out, or they only rush a few guys and you can protect it, the quarterback is not stuck with an anti-blitz call that has ruined his overall play. Instead he can “reset for depth” and look to the five-step side and find an open receiver.

Ultimately, this last factor is the most important one. No pass play can succeed without sound protection, and one of the most important ways to make protection sound is to give the quarterback someplace to go with the ball, quickly. This builds in these quick concepts into every play, and also takes advantage of obvious, structural weaknesses in a defense with the quick routes. And then, if those are taken away, your quarterback has his well designed three-receiver concept to work. Yes, it’s the constraint theory in action again: Force the defense to play sound by exploiting their weaknesses and cheating, and then use something very sound from there.

Lastly, don’t look at the above as an exhaustive list of things one can do with this. It’s really just a framework, the options are endless, and it can work with any offense or primary set, be it traditional or spread. There’s no limitation. Indeed, the best argument I can make for using this concept is this: as the saying goes, it’s more fun to score.

  • Coach Kilpatrick

    Thank Coach, this post comes at the perfect time. I switched to shoutgun fly sweep/qb power run offense this season. It worked very well, but I have been trying to polish the passing game the last few weeks since the season ended. Trying to match the beauty & simplicity of the Airraid with what I do without creating too many plays for the kids to learn. Best Xmas present I could’ve gotten, I love this website.

  • CoachK15

    Sorry, got pushed off my co-worker. The question I had within all of this was: is possible to run mesh or shallow cross with these ideas…obviously not with AllGo…seems like most of the AirRaid concepts require 5 options covering the whole field.

  • Jim Urban

    I disagree with your first paragraph, to an extent. Yes, it would be ridiculous to call nothing but “24 Blast” and “42 Boot Pass” play after play, and expect to have sustained success, but no more ridiculous than to call nothing but four verts and draw play after play either. Your first paragraph implies that defenses are so sophisticated that it is impossible to successfully utilize an under-center, run-based offense (or at least, that’s how I interpreted it). While it is true that defensive schemes have advanced, I don’t think that the minds of 16-18 year-old linebackers have kept up with that advance. Correct me if you disagree, but I do not think it is any easier for a linebacker to correctly take on a lead block today than it was twenty years ago. It’s just a matter of how you mess with his head. Where a spread, pass-first team might do it by trying to get him to drift to the flat, a wing-t team might do it by faking a run play to one side or the other and then coming directly at him. Neither one is necessarily better or worse than the other.

  • Blitzology

    Great article Chris! (As always an interesting read)
    I did not interpret the first paragraph as a criticism of running the football or traditional under center concepts. My interpretation was simply that defenses have 8 & 9 man fronts to load the box, an arsenal of stunts (slants, twists, and blitzes), and complimentary fronts/personnel packages that make “Call It and Run It” offensive football difficult. Teams now need a way to check the play when the defense has done something unexpected schematically that makes running 24 blast less than an optimal call. The same concept applies to offenses that go spread and the defense uses a nickel or dime personnel to create a coverage advantage on the route concept the offense is try to throw. The offense is either going to call it and run it or go with a check or adjustment to try and get into what they feel is a better call. As I defensive coach I prefer the old “24 Blast” days to the new spread formation-check the sideline- hard count- check the sideline- run the play- no huddle get lined up-repeat business that is going on right now.

  • Blitzology

    Wow, I really need to work on my proof reading.

  • Jimmy Garvin

    Blitzology, I miss you. When we gonna get a blog update?

  • Michael

    Awesome article. Thanks for posting again. I was having withdrawal pains during the wait. One question: how do you decide which is the 3-step drop side and which is the 5-step drop. Do you stay with the same side? Left/right? Boundary/field? QBBackside/QBFrontside? or do you continually mix it up?
    Personally, I would think that the best way would be to put the 3-step to the QB Frontside so it is easier to make the quick read and throw.

  • Blitzology hit the nail on the head; that’s all I was going for. The trick is that going “multiple” or having checks or read-on-the-fly plays presents its own set of problems, particularly in terms of teaching time. This post (along with others on the site) is an effort to try to provide a framework for this stuff so that it can actually be taught and executed.

    Michael: Determining which side it goes to depends on how you call your offense. If you are using a six-man protection, you’d want to call the three-step concept to the side away from where the back (i.e. the protection help) is going. If you name your plays it can be as simple as saying both names, and saying them right to left (Slant / flood, etc).

    As far as the “QB’s backside,” I actually think it’s easier to throw three step to the left for right-handers, once you’ve worked drop fundamentals. To throw a quick pass to the right the QB has to torque his body a bit and really step through the throw — it’s really something like a two-step process. To the left, it’s easier for the QB to just step with his front (left) foot and then follow through with his right. Your point about vision is well taken though — the QB must work on his peripheral vision and getting his head around.

    It’s one reason I like this from under center as well as from gun.

  • Mr.Murder

    For initial levels it was all frontside, send protection that way from one back(or most other) sets, roll that way, read hot that way, flood that way from two back to the point it sells the bootleg with the same backfield action as a sweep.

    All of the routes had things in place for the initial read on the premise of a quick. The receiver sees the coverage and plays opposite its leverage most of the time.

    Stem the release inside so it can convert to a slant. If you don’t see the slant opening by step three you plant and drive vertically reading on the upward climb with an option to corner or post(cop) atop the route, depending on directional call.

    That still leaves room for the interior player to do a variety of things, but for install purposes one call tells the interior player his route as well. The man over two is your main read defender(usually assigned to the flat or seam).

    The passer reads front side and if they come over he is throwing quick, otherwise he keeps the play going directionally. Much easier to read to one side of the field, most young passers cannot make that backside throw to the point of installing it with the same urgency of defeating teams at the point of attack.

    By step three you see if you are going quick, if not you keep going and the route climbs to a five step progression.

    Read to a side, stay there. Hard to protect long enough to read back to another side. Choose your side and go there. Sets up some really wicked double moves on the back side, in time, and the front side sluggo that converts hot is essentially a double move as well if they stay in certain looks.

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