The slant concept: Iowa’s game winner

Iowa, a team that seems to thrive on dramatic finishes, pulled off one of the biggest of Kirk Ferentz’s tenure last weekend against Michigan State, as Ricky Stanzi threw a touchdown pass as time expired for the Hawkeye victory. The play itself was as simple as it gets: The old slant/shoot combination, which dates back at least as far back as Paul Brown’s teams. Bill Walsh of course made it even more famous, as his receivers frequently caught slant passes and took them for long touchdowns.

As you can see, it worked very well, as Michigan State played man coverage and went with an all-out blitz. Stanzi was able to deliver the ball before Michigan State’s unblocked defender (who came from Stanzi’s right) could get there. The slant’s quickness is one of its advantages.

In the play, Stanzi went to his single receiver — i.e. his split end — who had single, man coverage. But on the other side Iowa ran the same slant concept except with three receivers: The outermost guy ran a slant, the inside slot ran a slant as well, and the H-back, the innermost receiver, ran to the flat.


This leads to the other aspect of the play, the wrinkle that helped it succeed: The motion by the H-back/tight-end before the snap. He began on the left side of the formation and motioned across. Why was this relevant? Watch the clip above again. What did Michigan State do? A single defender followed the H-back across — a clear indicator that the defense was in man coverage. Knowing this, Stanzi knew that his backside receiver was one-on-one, and he went to him.

But what if they hadn’t reacted this way? Had Michigan State, rather than having a man follow the H-back instead “bumped across” so that a defender on the offense’s left merely repositioned slightly to account for the new receiver, this would have indicated that the play was zone. And unless the zone was very unbalanced to the single receiver, Stanzi would have no doubt looked to the three receiver side as a kind of flood for the zone. His read would have been the flat defender: if he widened for the tight-end in the flat, the slant should be open; if he hangs back then the tight-end ought to be open in the flat.

So Iowa won the game using one of the most basic plays in football, but they didn’t do it without a bit of knowledge about what they were getting into. Now, it bears noting that modern defenses can disguise their man or zone reactions to motion, but it remains a useful tool. It certainly was that for Iowa.

(H/t Brophy for the video.)

  • Aboojum

    Stanzi actually had three guys open. All the slants were available. It was such a sell out by Michigan State that all the wide outs were in position to get juke MSUs DBs and get open. None of them were able to get an initial hit on the receivers to force them off thier patterns.

    The key to this play is a) good initial line blocking, so the middle of the line does not collapse forcing Stanzi to double clutch or leave the pocket; b) getting the D-line to open a throwing lane so the ball is not knocked down at the line; c) the RB does just enough to force the blitzing outside LB off his route to the QB.

    Ultimately MSU opened the door to the hot route success by selling out. If, however, MSU had faked the blitz and pulled the LBs back, Stanzi would still have had to commit to one of the slanting receivers after more thinking (he made this decision as it was at the line once the LB ran with the motioning TE). It would have forced him to make a very quick scan, and then make a great throw. Possible, but more taxing. The sellout made it much easier.

  • Co-ach

    Trips Rt 92 China H-Flat

    That’s day one stuff…

  • in MSU’s defense of their defense, the gap 8 cover 0 approach probably held the most probability of success for them. With only 2 seconds left in the game, anyway, forcing Stanzi to read/be pressured offered the greater likelihood that he couldn’t make the winning throw.

    Sending 1 more than they could block ensured the best possible pressure to take Stanzi out of rhythm, get him out of his hitch, and/or throw it away.

    The error lays in poor leveraging of the receiver.

    If Stanzi has to throw the ball outside to the shoot (or outside and deep with a fade to the short-side receiver, Brown), the defense still has leverage on the receiver (inside the ball) and creates a further / more difficult throw to the sideline.

    The fact that the DB is high shouldering and outside of WR Brown, with such little distance from the goal line (and with no inside support), makes this a perfect example of what you DON’T want to have happen to you (because you are allowing the very thing you really can’t have an answer for). With man coverage, especially, you need to pick your poision and leverage yourself to take away the thing you don’t want to have happen (short, inside throws) and open up things you can live with / allow to happen (deep / outside throws) when you play without a safety.

    In any event, I would welcome seeing the Hawkeyes advancing into a BCS bowl and believe they would offer a much better opponent to their eventual SEC challenger.

  • Linus

    Great point, brophy, I was thinking of that myself. If you’re going to go with the sellout, with 2 seconds left, knowing you’ll send more than they can block, why are you playing the same coverage set up as though it’s 1st and 10 in the 2nd quarter? It’s a little weird when you think about it.

  • Well, for one, it isn’t the same coverage.

    Cover 0 was used because it facilitated the blitz/front. Its all related. C0 is par for the course for defenses inside the red zone

  • Jake

    I just found this site a week ago: it’s awesome. Thanks for all the technical analysis.
    Can you elaborate on how modern defenses disguise whether they are in man or zone coverage in response to motion in the backfield?

  • Joe

    Being that I only coach 8-10 year-olds,
    I feel slightly (more than slightly,)
    out of my league here; but it appears
    to me that not only is the defensive
    play call a dubious gamble, but both
    CB’s gaurding the split end and the inside
    slot made mistakes as well. In other
    words, not only was it questionable
    to leave the middle of the field so
    obviously open, (without, say, blitzing
    LB’s from 3-4 yards back, as opposed to
    all 7 on the line) but both corners
    gave up the inside as opposed to the

    In essence, if both corners knew, as I
    assume they would, that the LB’s would
    be vacating the middle, why on earth
    would they give up the middle? Is it not
    only a bad play call, but also a bad play
    by the DB’s? This may have been addressed
    in an earlier comment; bear with me, I did
    not play high school ball, and as I have
    already admitted am thus at a disadvantage
    to you all here.

    P.s. 1st-time visitor, LOVE the site;
    I’ve been a football strategy geek for
    the entirety of my short 19 years.
    Thanks so much for making it.

  • MTK

    That the defender crossed with H-back/TE indicates (most likely) that HE is playing man. But it is not always true that when a defender mirrors a man in motion that the secondary coverage across the board is man-to-man. I hear folks all the time watch the mirroring defender and scream “man coverage” only to watch the rest of the secondary drop into cover 3 or 2.

    In this case, since every defender was on the LOS, it clearly was man coverage, and Stanzi chose wisely. I do love the simplicity of the call.

  • rockyh

    According to the receiver that caught the play, MSU was playing outside technique the entire stand, expecting fade. This was a good defensive call because Iowa has consistently gone to the fade to its tall receivers throughout the year inside the red zone. However the offense noted this and convinced the offensive coordinator to switch the final play call to the slant.

  • I would of used Cover 7 (Pattern Read Zone Coverage used from 5 yards on in) in this situation. Basically it it 7 defenders in pass coverage with 4 rushers Corners outside leverage #1(Flat) safeties inside Leverage #1 (Curl)Outside Linebackers inside leverage #2(Hook) and Mike Linebacker Inside Leverage #3 (Short Middle) Weak Linebacker (Aligns in the Box and has the Weak Curl) and the Free Safety aligns inside leverage #1 on single receiver side and has Weak Curl. This Coverage robs the slant shoot concept…

  • For additional thoughts on throwing the quick game, including slant/shoot;

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