Adapting the Rocket Toss Sweep to Spread and Pro-style Offenses

The top four rushing teams in college football this past season — Navy, Air Force, Army, and Georgia Tech — each ran the flexbone offense or some variation of it. “Well,” you say, “those offenses run the ball a lot, so that inflates the yardage.”

Rocket: Just get it to the fast guy

To a point, yes, but even if you simply look at them on a yards per rushing attempt basis they were each in the top 10, with Navy last at 5.40 yards per attempt at 10th and Air Force and Georgia Tech tied for 3rd at 5.75 yards per attempt. And maybe the most impressive (or at least surprising) statistics of the season is that FCS power Georgia Southern hung over 300 yards rushing at over 7.7 yards per carryversus Nick Saban’s vaunted Alabama defense, a solid 230 yards more than the average for ‘Bama’s opponents. (It should be noted that the game was not close.) So it pays to study what plays and principles give them so much success.**

Obviously these flexbone teams use a lot of option principles, which may or may not be adaptable to what a given team currently does. This is especially so for spread-to-pass or pro-style teams that simply don’t have the time to work on a complex set of quarterback reads for option; it’s great stuff, it’s just a different offense and would require certain trade-offs. I am a big believer that many teams simply try to do too much and end up bad at a lot of things instead of very good at a couple of them.

But one play — really a series, rather than a play — that is criminally underutilized is the “Rocket Toss Sweep” or simply the “Rocket” series. See below for an example of the base rocket play.

The rocket similar in concept to a jet sweep, but with some notable differences. Specifically, because the sweeper takes a deeper path:

  • the play actually happens faster than the jet, because the pitch can occurs outside of the box rather than via a jet which usually takes place where the quarterback is standing;
  • this depth actually allows the offense to get additional lead blockers in front of the rocket sweeper — it’s the ultimate “numbers to the perimeter” play; and
  • because so much action is flowing to the playside, counters are even better off of the rocket action than they are from the jet sweep, as shown in the video clip below.

This last point is the real reason why I think the rocket sweep is a must include for any spread or even multiple pro-style offense, especially if they don’t use the quarterback in the run game. The difficult part in designing and executing any run game is controlling for two defenders: the counterpart for the quarterback and the runningback. In the traditional pro-style defense against a run play, it is the runningback’s defensive counterpart that causes problems: when a quarterback hands off and watches the play, a deep safety stays back to watch out for play-action, but some unblocked linebacker or defensive end can cause problems by taking away the cutback or simply causing confusion in running assignments. By using the quarterback in the run game with reads and options you can control that defender, but for many pass-first teams that’s not necessarily an option. You’re either Oregon or you’re not.

But the rocket series gives you some of that — it is a series — without necessarily requiring that you spend all the additional time required to use your quarterback in the run game. As one coach recently put it:

[A] lot of coaches see [the rocket] as a nice little play add, but in reality it’s an offense all to itself. With that said, I think this would be a good add on to any offense. . . . As a coach [you must] have an idea of who is cheating on the play as well and make them pay.

Example: If the safety is rolling hard down when the motion starts, what is your plan? If the defensive end flies out, what’s the plan? Inside linebackers are scraping hard, what’s the plan? You get the idea.

The greatest thing about the rocket is that someone has to “cheat” to stop it. Your job is to find it and kill it. This has been my experience in 10 years of running the play.

Blocking the rocket. Most flexbone and wing-T teams that block the rocket use a “run and reach” scheme:

reach

Most teams block the rocket . . . with the line and slot basically running and reaching, in essence blocking the 1st thing that shows or crosses their face on their way through the alley.

There are other ways to block the play, but if you’re not a flexbone team and you’d like to incorporate the rocket I’d recommend simply using outside zone blocking with an aggressive reach technique. If you need variation in blocking techniques, my recommendation is simply to crack with the receivers or not, and, if you’re cracking with the receivers, whether or not you’re leaving the corner unblocked or not. You can see all of this described here.

So what goes on up front is largely the same whether you’re wing-t, flexbone, or spread. But how would it look from a spread set, including the counters? I’ll draw up the play from a spread look (using a screen cap of Baylor from this season, though Baylor did not actually use this series). Also note that it’s drawn up into the boundary, but I’d obviously recommend running it more often to the field than to the boundary, depending on the defense’s look. Lastly, throughout the discussion below that the purpose of the rocket is to get the ball to a playmaker in space. It all flows from that and the defense’s desire to stop that playmaker.

Base rocket toss. The simplest way to run it is from either some kind of one-back, three wide receiver set, with the extra guy being either a runningback or H-back depending on who you have, but in either case a guy who can block the force. You can also run this from a true four-wide 2×2 set (or even beginning in trips if you think the defense will overload and you can outnumber them with the rocket), but you might lose the power blocking at the point of attack (though you gain better play-action).

As mentioned above, the base way to teach it is with outside zone blocking and the runningback and wing/H-back blocking force. The outside receiver’s job is to block the corner unless the safety comes up quickly to be force, in which case he can crack down. At this point one of the lead blockers can either kick out the corner or — if he is like many corners and can’t tackle — you simply don’t block him. The rocket runner’s job is to be patient but explode between blockers up the field. Once he goes, it’s time to fly. Sometimes good athletes, especially slot receiver guys, want to reverse field, but that is absolutely the wrong response here. If there’s only four yards, get four yards and we’ll kill them with the counter next time. The rocket should really be a chain mover play with all of the blockers and numbers; no need to treat it like a boom or bust reverse.

As can be seen from the video clips below, the pitch from the quarterback from shotgun should not be that different than under center, though almost any technique your quarterback is comfortable with is fine. It can be an option style pitch, a two-hand underhanded pitch, or can be just some kind of shovel to the runner. I always say it’s the quarterback’s job to get it to the rocket player but it’s the rocket runner’s job to secure the ball no matter how it gets to them. If run correctly, it’s a true bread and butter play that requires a lot of defensive responses to stop.

Inside counter: inside zone or some other “gut” play. Now we get to where the rocket really shines: as smoke and mirrors on top of your existing run game. The diagram below shows the the basic inside zone from the same rocket look as above. I show the inside zone because most spread teams use it and the zone blocking should take advantage of any bubbles created by defenders overly concerned with the rocket toss.

Rocket counter. This is my favorite. If the defense is fast flowing to the rocket, some kind of counter should be wide open. There are various ways to do it, but handing it to the wing or fullback coming the opposite way is, in my opinion, the best way to hit the counter fast but with maximum misdirection. You can use true counter or counter trey blocking if you like, as shown in the clip below from Georgia Tech:

But if your team doesn’t use much in the way of true counter blocking I don’t see anything wrong with just using outside zone blocking going back the other way. The big advantage to the rocket counter is it should prevent the kind of penetration that can kill the outside zone.

The key block is the tackle on the defensive end away from the rocket motion. If he can reach him, that’s great; but if he can’t he should just drive him to the sideline and a huge avenue should open up as the linebackers are unlikely to be in position.

Play-action off of the rocket. At some point in all this the defense, in order to be able to defend the rocket toss and the various inside and outside counters, is going to start committing safeties. And that’s when play-action comes into play. If you’re attacking the playside safety or safeties who are overcommitting to the run, it’s all about the post-wheel combination.

If it’s the backside safety or a middle safety who cheats too far to the playside, the post to the backside receiver is lethal as well.

If you keep three receivers on the line, including the extra playside blocker as an H-back, the Y-Cross type concept is great here as well. And of course bootlegs are excellent choices and should be easily adaptable from a team’s existing bootleg plays. And, as a spread or pro-style team, your quarterback should be far more capable of throwing these passes than some of the notably flexbone quarterbacks, as he will be working on his throwing while those guys have to drill the true option stuff. The old runningback in the flat never looked so good.

There are other ways to do this, and certainly other blocking schemes — pin and pull line concepts are an obvious choice for the rocket if your team uses them — but you don’t need those variations to use the rocket, and its counters, to great effect. And, as always, it’s about having a simple set of plays that work together, and that get the ball to your playmakers in space.

Additional viewing can be found below:

Check out these excellent cut-ups of the rocket and associated misdirection from Coach Hubbard here.

**I think these teams’ rushing performance is even more impressive when taking into account the performance of their passing games. This was exemplified by Georgia Tech, who, against conference opponents, still ran the ball for over 280 yards a game and over 5.10 yards per rushing attempt, which was a drop-off from the non-conference schedule but was not a far one. Their passing game, however, dramatically fell apart against conference opponents, as their team passer rating fell from an astronomical 235.84 rating against non-conference foes to a poor 111.75 rating against conference ones. Again, I think this makes the rushing side of the equation more, not less, impressive.

  • Barry Hoover

    Awesome job, Chris.  I love the Rocket.

  • Giordi

    This is just an awesome post. Really informative. I’ll be mulling over this all offseason.

  • Daniel Andrews

    I don’t like outside zone blocking at all, in fact, I dislike zone-blocking in general for reasons which don’t relate to this post so I will put those biases aside.  The reach block is extremely difficult to execute and create a seam when a defense defends it properly either from a DE/EMOL making a mess allowing flow to get to the ball or by the playside defense maintaining gap integrity.   I really like to run G scheme  with some of our own added rules depending on the tech of the EMOL and furtherest player at LB depth to playside, because it complements our Belly dive play.    The goal of an outside run play is to seal the inside pursuit we make game week adjustments and in game adjustments on fullback, kick-out/seal responsibilities.

    Chris:  I think you are misleading a little bit about the Alabama-Ga. Southern game.   Ga. Southern was able to run the ball well before the game was in doubt which didn’t happen till the late 3rd quarter and after Ga. Southern had 5 sustained drives in that game.

  • Anonymous

    300 yards rushing on Alabama is very impressive. I didn’t mean to be flippant, just that Alabama did win, but I don’t think I was diminishing the fact that they racked up a ton of yards and some points on the best rushing defense in the country.

    For the outside zone, I know teams that use it with the rocket and it is fine. The line has to understand the concept of the play and that it is not about stretching the defense out like a typical “stretch” play. When I said outside zone I meant more for purposes of what rules to use so you don’t have to teach an all new blocking scheme. If your guys can’t reach you can fix some of that with some crack type blocks. It also depends if you already use some pin and pull type schemes. Again, the point of this was to just talk about how to integrate the play into what you already do.

  • Daniel Andrews

    I didn’t think you were flippant at all about Bama-Ga. Southern.  IMO  Ga. Southern had the best offensive game of any team against Alabama this year.

    Certainly some teams can execute the zone reach really well, but I have seen almost every double wing team using it struggle at times, especially against linebackers playing at a deeper depth to read midline/veer series better in even front or in a  50 front.   Not as well schooled on Pin and Pull, but we started out as a reach team with rocket and changing the blocking added about 2-3 yards per carry.   Pin and Pull looks a lot like a combination of G scheme, Trap, and Power “O”, Buck Sweep blocking.   

  • Robc

    It may be a minor thing, but one thing I dont like about the shotgun version of the inside zone handoff and the counter is that the toss fake comes after the handoff.  The flexbone versions, the initial quarterback motion is exactly the same as on the rocket toss so the counter is hidden for a fraction longer.

  • Daniel Andrews

    I am actually glad you brought this topic up.   Our team sees a lot of Jet motion and I think if some of the shotgun teams started using Rocket Motion w/ their Jet they would be harder to defend.  Shotgun Jet and Rocket are hard to distinguish pre-snap.  Basically what we see involving the player in Jet motion are Jet Sweep, Jet Option (usually an unblocked 3) and not inverted veer but we will likely start seeing this, and a screen to the Jet.  If a team starts incorporating Rocket motion  they can run inside zone triple, a true outside veer, and of course Rocket Toss.  A team can use either motion as window dressing for after-snap reaction, unbalance or balance a formation, make a defense shift to an alignment advantageous to what the offense wishes to do with one of their base plays.

  • http://twitter.com/mccook2002 mccook guy

    Do you think this series can legitimately be run from a 3×1 set? I’m very interested in how the trips formation sets up the midline option, but I’m looking for input on how effective Rocket Toss can be run either to the trips side or away from it- any suggestions?

  • Andrew Calara

    Great post.  I’ve seen the Raiders (who run as many toss sweeps and end arounds as anyone in the NFL) do similar with the counter in a pro style, usually with Marcel Reece (as athletic a FB in the league) in the offset I.  They’ll fake a toss to the back or wideout on an end around, and then hand it off to the FB with the guard pulling around to the weakside.   I wish I could find video of an example, it’s worked out well for them a few times this year.

  • CC

    One thing about Rocket that we did not like this year (high school)
    1) Negative yards – if you can’t turn the corner it often loses 5+ yards
    2) Can’t cut in high school outside the box!  You will notice GT does a lot of that and I think that really helps the Rocket toss – so how would you compensate for that???

  • A fan

    Does a flexbone team adjust its line splits for the rocket? Most flexbone teams have at least 3 ft. splits between linemen, but sweeps usually work better with small line splits so the ball carrier can get outside sooner. Do you narrow the splits, and risk the defense anticipating what’s coming, or keep the 3 ft. flexbone splits, and assume your A-back is fast enough to get the DE who’s now a couple yards wider?

  • Oskie

    An equalizer when running Rocket is to run it out of empty.  Read where the defense is weak and run to that side.  Somebody cheats play action pass or boot.  LBers overpursue run misdirection.  It is a nice package and if you throw in your 3 step package it  can cause a huge headache for defenses

  • Anonymous

    CC- 

    1.  Negative yards…this happens but very rarely in our experiences.  If it does it can be attributed to a blown blocking assignment or an over committed defensive player/scheme.  Obviously with a blown blocking assignment it is crucial to make sure there are sound blocking schemes and the players understanding their role in the blocking scheme.  Any time you have a play where your ball carrier is receiving the ball at depth there can be a risk of a loss (basic I-toss sweep, triple-option pitch, speed-option pitch).  If it’s an over-committed defensive player or defensive scheme then it comes back to seeing what they are giving up in being over-committed.  They can’t do two jobs and if they are selling out to stop the rocket, they are weakening themselves somewhere else and it becomes our job as coaches to attack those areas that are weakened.  That is why this isn’t just a play.  To be effective, it has to be built in the structure of a series with the ability to attack off-tackle, inside, backside and over the top.   

    2.  You are correct…partly, about not being able to cut on the edge!  I agree that cutting on the edge would really make this play devastating!!  But with the speed of the rocket sweep you only need your players to essentially “get in the way”  of the defender.  We don’t ask our kids to “move people” on the edge, we teach them to engage and stay engaged.  It’s the backs responsibility to find that lane on the edge.  Sometimes it’s wide, up the sideline.  Other times it becomes a cut up because the defender is pushing to the outside to force it back inside.  When this happens the back needs to cut inside that block, BUT, he has to work back outside after cutting up to avoid late pursuit catching up to him.  Here is the “partly” part…With our playside wings, we do teach them a legally executed cut block according to Federation rules.  You can cut a player if your initial contact happens above the waist.  If our wings feel like they are losing the battle on the edge and getting pushed back we teach them to roll into the defender while maintaining contact with the defender.  It is very effective.  Those are the ways we compensate for not being able to cut.  My o-line coach and myself often wonder what this offense would be like running it in Texas where you can cut…WOW!!!

  • Michael

    The Broncos under Mike Shannahan used to run a rocket toss to Rod Smith, often out of a 5 wide or ‘Tiger’ formation. I personally like it better than a jet sweep, because you can’t get a handoff on the jet sweep as clean as possible every time and the runner still has lineman to clear before getting to the edge.. If the player runs through the ball on a rocket toss, then he is at full speed on the edge quicker. The whole key to the rocket toss however is the blocking of the outside receiver to the play side.