New Grantland Blog: Manning to Manningham – NFC Championship edition

It’s now up over at the Grantland blog:

Yet while Cruz was the most important receiver on the field for the Giants, Manning’s best throw of the day went to a guy who had but a single catch on the game: Mario Manningham, whose 17-yard touchdown reception tied the score at 17. The play — which came, dramatically enough on third-and-15 — was an old, old pass concept known as “anchor” or “Mills.” (“Anchor” refers to the concept more directly, with an underneath receiver hopefully “anchoring” a defender so the post route can get behind him; “Mills” is a name common in many coaching circles, as Steve Spurrier destroyed people with this concept back at Florida in the 1990s and he called it “Mills” after the receiver who ran it the best, Ernie Mills.

Read the whole thing.

Shredding Cover Two with a “Delayed Slant” from the Smash Concept

The old “smash” concept — with an inside receiver on a corner route behind a quick hitch by an outside receiver — remains one of the most versatile pass plays in football. It’s simple enough that any team, whether they are a run-first team or a passing team, an NFL team or a junior varsity team, can get great use out of it.


Base concept

It is, of course, best against Cover Two: The purpose is to get a “high/low” vertical stretch on the cornerback.

I’ve also discussed ways to make the concept more useful: One is to use a backside “seam-read” or “divide” routeto threaten the deep safeties.

The other way to get more juice out of the concept is to have the outside receiver run something more like an option route than simply a quick hitch.

Against any coverage, his job is to push to five yards (against soft coverage, it’s a five step route — three big and two quick jab steps to throttle down) and turn his numbers back to the quarterback. And against zones, he just wants to find an open window in the zone coverage, whether it is outside the linebackers towards the sideline or just inside the first zone defender.


Finding the open window

Finally, against man coverage some teams like to have the outside receiver run a “whip” or “pivot” route, where they angle inside for five yards and then “whip” back to the sideline. If you are sprinting out to the concept, I like that, but the receiver has to make that read early and as a result he may give away the intention to the corner. And in any event, it’s not an easy throw from a straight dropback. But most of all, to me, the whole point of the smash is to hit the outside unless the defense overplays it, in which case you want to then work back inside. That’s why my favorite adjustment for the outside receiver in smash against man coverage is for him to simply turn it into a delayed slant route.


New Grantland Blog: Drawing Up the National Championship and A.J. McCarron’s Smash Concept

It’s up over at the Grantland blog:

Many of those downfield completions came on the “smash” concept, which involves an inside receiver running a 10- to 12-yard corner route and an outside receiver simply stopping at five yards. It’s a high/low concept: One wide receiver is deep while another is underneath, so the quarterback can read that defensive back. If he comes up for the five-yard hitch on the outside, the quarterback throws it to the corner route; if the defensive back hangs back, he drops it off short to the outside wide receiver. It’s a very basic concept, but still a great one. Indeed, even Southern Cal quarterback Matt Barkley pointed this out on Twitter, noting that Alabama’s success came on “smash routes all day.”


Read the whole thing.

The double smash pass concept with the runningback deep down the middle

One of the great all-time pass concepts is the “smash” concept, which I’ve previously discussed at length. In the concept, the outside receiver hitches up at five yards while an inside receiver runs a ten-to-twelve yard corner route over the top. This creates a “vertical stretch” on the corner, which is particularly potent against a two-deep Cover Two defense.

The smash is probably best installed with some kind of routes on the backside that attack the middle of the field, that way to keep the safety from overplaying the corner route. Many teams, however, teach the smash to both sides as a “mirrored” concept. This is good, but the problem can come when both safeties overplay the corner route.

But there is a counter. If a team’s safeties overplay the corner route on the smash, you hit them inside. You can have the outside receiver run a delay route back underneath and then upfield underneath the safety, but even better is simply to send someone unexpected into the vacated area: the runningback.

In the example, you can see Oklahoma State call this against a two-deep shell run by Texas A&M. They had overplayed the corner routes, so the variation was simple: throw it deep down the middle to the back in the vacated area. Were Texas A&M to have shown a blitz the quarterback would have checked out of the play (as there were only five protectors), but so long as they got a base two-deep look, the play was there. You can see the result in the video below, after the jump.


What impact will (or should) Tom Moore have on the New York Jets offense?

Jets coach Rex Ryan, more comfortable with a more experienced Mark Sanchez, has promised to open up the Jets offense to throw the ball more this season. And there was some (meager) evidence of this in the Jets first preseason game, as George Bretherton writes over at the NYT Fifth Down:

Even if you took Rex Ryan at his word when he said the ground-and-pound Jets were going to throw the ball more this season, there were plenty of reasons to believe it wasn’t going to start with last night’s preseason opener against Houston . . .

[But t]he most notable outcome from the Jets’ 20-16 loss to the Texans was the quick pace set by Sanchez (6 of 7, 43 yards), who came out firing in his one-quarter cameo.

The move to throwing the ball more is one possible change for the Jets. The other is shrouded in a bit more mystery: In the offseason, the Jets hired longtime Colts assistant and Peyton Manning mentor, Tom Moore. Everyone involved insists it was not a vote of no confidence for current Jets offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer. Moore is 72 and will often not travel with the team this season, and Schottenheimer is a good coordinator who has done good things with both the Jets offense as a whole but also Sanchez in particular.

I've seen your playbook, and it's too big.

But there is lots of room for improvement, and Moore could be a key to that. Although Schottenheimer is a good young offensive coordinator, he suffers to some extent from good young offensive coordinator disease, which is a specific strain of a larger disease that affects large portions of the NFL: his offense often suffers from needless complexity. As I’ve previously explained, NFL offenses are typically cut from the same cloth and seek to do essentially the same things: the inside and outside zone runs, along with the power play and some counters, while the passing gameinvolves the quick game, some dropback concepts, plenty of play-action and a sprinkling of screens.

All that is fine, and there is a necessary layer of “micro” complexity where coaches must tinker with pass protections, route structures, and personnel and formations to get both the “matchup” they want (an overused term, as what you really want is not a particular one-on-one matchup but a numbers advantage of three on two or two on one, whether it is blocking or a pass route combination). Contrast this with college systems where more of the focus is on “macro” complexity in that you might face a pro-style team one week, a spread offense the next and then a triple option team after that. But the problem for pro coaches is that they often fall into the trap of complexity for its own sake, thinking that they must give a new look to the defense while forgetting that every time you add something new you make it just as hard on your own players as you do on your opponents. This is a trap I often see with Brian Schottenheimer’s offense, which, while generally very effective, often results in too many mistakes and breakdowns — all blamed on the players not getting it — when all they are doing is trying the fifth different way to throw it to the flat or to run yet another new play that hits in the same defensive gap as four others the players are more comfortable with. (Indeed, Rex Ryan recently went off on his players for their mental mistakes in that first preseason game.)

This issue, however, is solvable, and Tom Moore long ago figured it out.

NFL Team to Watch – Sam Bradford’s St. Louis Rams

When it comes to football as stimulating entertainment, not all teams are created equal. This is part of my pre-season series on Teams to Watch, which literally means to “watch their game,” not necessarily to “watch out for” (though it can mean that too)

The St. Louis Rams, who went 7-9 in 2010, were not a great team last season and are unlikely to be a great one this year. But there is reason for optimism. First, Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams’ second-year head coach, has been reshaping the defense in his image, and appears to be the steady hand on the wheel the team lacked under Scott Linehan. Second, the offensive line should improve and the backfield looks better and deeper than it is has been since Marshall Faulk manned it alone in his heyday: The great Steven Jackson returns, this time with some assistance from new additions Cadillac Williams and the quick Jerious Norwood. And, of course, Sam Bradford had a magnificent rookie season, where he undoubtedly showed that he is a future NFL great. Or did he? As Chase explains:

Sam Bradford’s rookie season has been incredibly overrated by nearly every football writer and talking head. . . The problem when it comes to evaluationg Bradford is that too many people are paying too much attention to the wrong stats. Bradford’s 2010 performance wasn’t very good, even for a rookie. Over the past 20 seasons, there have been 37 quarterbacks to throw at least 224 passes in their rookie season. According to the Net Yards per Attempt Index, which grades each quarterback by his average net yards per pass attempt adjusted for era, Bradford ranks just 22nd out of 37 quarterbacks. That puts him just behind Tony Banks and Trent Edwards, and right ahead of Joey Harrington and Matt Stafford. Bradford ranked 31st in NY/A last season, only topping Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen; he ranked just 29th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. Does that scream superstar to you?

I am a bit more hopeful, and that is why I’ll be catching Rams games this fall. Specifically, although I agree that Bradford’s rookie season should not be exalted as one of the all-time greats, I am willing to go beyond the stats in this case and apply some of that good ol’ fashioned “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” type of analysis. And what I saw was a smart young quarterback on a bad-to-mediocre team with a horrendous supporting cast, who managed to get himself through a lot of ballgames by taking the conservative option, dumping it off, and picking spots to throw downfield. I saw a quarterback who didn’t fall on his face, but, along with developing those downfield weapons, will have to learn to push the ball downfield. Most telling in this regard was St. Louis’s most important game, against Seattle late in the season. Had the Rams won that game, they would have been in the playoffs, but Bradford struggled against Pete Carroll’s blitz schemes, managing only roughly four yards per pass attempt and an interception. But I saw a guy who, with another year of maturity and a better supporting cast, could develop into a good NFL starter (with the added benefit of a generally weak division).

Moreover, the statistics are not all bad. Bradford’s 5.4 Adjusted Yards Per Pass Attempt (Pro Football Reference’s vaunted quarterback stat), although not great, was better than the rookie number for another highly touted rookie: Peyton Manning only had a 5.2 AY/A in 1998, his rookie season. My point is not that Bradford was 0.2 better than Manning, but instead simply that with young quarterbacks it’s a guessing game. Remember too that Bradford was coming off a college season where he barely registered any snaps due to injuries, and logic indicates that he’s at least on the right direction.

But the point is well taken: Bradford will not be Tom Brady this season, and his progress will be as dependent on his supporting cast as it will be on himself. Most specifically, Bradford needs his receiving corps to step up and improve. The only sure thing returning is former undrafted received Danny Amendola, referred to as a Welker clone for many reasons, some more obvious than others, but not least of all because they both were slot receivers at Texas Tech under Mike Leach. Amendola will roam the undercoverage, but from there it’s anyone’s guess: rookies Austin Pettis and Greg Salas look promising but are unknowns, Donnie Avery returns from injury, veterans Mike Sims-Walker, Danario Alexander, and Brandon Gibson have done some good things; no one really knows. Yet it’s not necessary in modern football to have two great gamebreakers outside, like Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, to have an effective passing attack. And no one knows this better than new Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.


Follow-pivot pass concept

Good stuff from Coach Hoover’s site:

I first learned this play while studying the Meyer/Mullen Florida Gator Offense. I remember sitting at their first Spring Clinic, listening to Dan Mullen talk. Mullen explained that their offense mainly used five passing concepts: All-Go [Ed.: See also this article.], Smash, Houston (maybe another article in the future), H-Option, and Follow-Pivot.

[Ed. Note: Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen got this play (among others) from Joe Tiller at Purdue. Check out pages 131 to 133 (in PDF page numbers, not playbook page numbers, of the 1999 (Drew Brees) Purdue playbook.]

After studying the Follow-Pivot concept, I realized that it was very similar to the NCAA pass (Post-Dig-Drag). However, because of the distribution of routes, this concept is better suited to beat Quarters coverage. . . .

Conceptually, the play creates a High-Low on the Free Safety, as well as [a] Middle-Triangle [read] off the two weak-side Linebackers (or weak-side and middle LBs). I always put the Post to the boundary, and have the Follow route coming from the field. I do this because teams will almost always rotate their coverage to the field (which would disrupt my Triangle) or because we see a lot of Quarters with the Strong Safety inside my #2 receiver to the field (which makes it difficult for that receiver to run the Post). I must create a situation where I can isolate the Free Safety for my High-Low read, and my Post and Follow routes can win.


The two receivers closest to the ball will run Pivot routes if displaced or Check-down/Breakout routes from the backfield. Their purpose is to attract the two LBs closest to the Post, or replace those LBs if they disappear in coverage or become pass rushers. Those two LBs are also the players that we are trying to occupy get the Follow route open. A coaching point that we teach to the Pivot & Check-down routes is to have them sit and replace the LB they are aiming for if he rushes the QB or drops into coverage. They will only work outside if they are covered, as this will open up a huge throwing lane over the middle for the Follow route. Finally, the outside receiver to the field runs a Curl, and is there should the QB have to scramble that way.

Check out the video cutup and read the whole thing. This is a good complement to the shallow cross concept I recently described.

Did Cam Newton play in a “one read” passing offense at Auburn?

Trackemtigers asks whether Cam Newton played in a “one-read passing offense” at Auburn, something you keep hearing from the media. Most of the talking heads vaguely use this term, usually implying that Newton literally would look at one receiver and, if he was covered, instantly start running. This kind of confusion is understandable given that teaching quarterbacks where to throw the football both seems like a bit of an inscrutable black art — which takes years to master the often subconscious subtleties necessary to do well  — but also because there are simply many different ways to do it.

In the NFL, less running, more of this

Compounding this in Newton’s case is that almost all the attention on his offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s offense has been on the running game, while the passing game has received very little attention. This is not a surprise, given the dynamic and multifaceted run game Malzahn employs, and given that, especially with Cam, the run set up the pass. But it ignores the fact that Auburn led the nation in passing efficiency and threw for over 3,000 yards last season — we’re not talking about Paul Johnson’s flexbone here.

Indeed, Malzahn’s reputation as a high school coach was as an air-it-out guy, and in his first season at Tulsa in 2007, the Golden Hurricane were second in the country in passing yards with over 5,000, behind only pass-happy attacks from June Jones at Hawai’i and Mike Leach at Texas Tech. (They were also second in the nation in yards per attempt, behind only the Tebow-led Florida Gators.)

So Malzahn knows the pass, and Newton was obviously good at what he was asked to do. But what was that? I can only speculate on what specifics Cam was given, but I am familiar with Gus’s passing game and have a strong idea of how it was tailored to Cam Newton.

Gus, going back to Tulsa, uses progression reads, meaning his quarterbacks read the first receiver, to the second receiver, to the third receiver, and so on. That means that there’s no way Cam was given a “single read” — a single receiver to look at — or did Malzahn literally tell him to only look at one guy and to ignore everyone else? No to the first but, at least sometimes, yes to the second. This is because if there was one read it was not a single receiver, but a single defender.

For example, take the smash concept, a play that Gus has in his arsenal. The progression on the play is: corner route to hitch/underneath route, making it a two receiver progression (and a third if you have the runningback checking down over the middle). But you can also teach the play as a single receiver “key” read: Read the corner — if he stays with the hitch, throw the corner; if he drops for the corner, throw the hitch.

Thus in this case, it might not actually be inaccurate to say that Newton had only a “single read,” but it’s also a bit misleading. Indeed, many NFL quarterbacks only have a “single read” if this is the definition, though they might have some other read or key telling them which single read to focus on. But, while I think this “single read” was sometimes the case, I think more likely Gus used the progression read, giving Cam the typical suite of “reads”: one, two, three, throw-it-away/run.

Chris Petersen of Boise State once set forth his view of a quarterback’s development as follows:

Smart Notes – Trick passes, Rich Rodriguez, Emory Bellard- 2/12/2011

This has already gone everywhere:

There are two lessons to this: (1) this kind of trickery doesn’t always translate well to actual playing time, and obviously playing quarterback requires a lot of skills beyond this sort of thing and (2) this is still great stuff, but, related to (1), the football being an extension of you is merely necessary rather than sufficient to be a great quarterback. You can see this latter point in basketball: if you ever visit an NBA or even college practice, you can see the players doing unreal things with the ball, but in a game, with the pressure on and defense, it’s much more difficult. That said, you can also take the lesson that it takes more than being able to throw a couple of nice passes in backyard football (or to hit a few shots at the local gym) to be great. The real thing is always harder than it looks.

Emory Bellard has passed away. Bellard, father of the wishbone (he wanted to call it the “Y” offense), was the original from-high-school-to-the-big-leagues-with-a-wacky-offense guy:

Bellard was on Darrell Royal’s staff at Texas in 1968 when the Longhorns developed a formation with three running backs that came to be known as the wishbone.

He coached at Texas high schools for more than two decades and won three state titles. His success landed him on the Texas staff, and while other assistants relaxed during the summer before the 1968 season, Bellard was busy trying to figure out a way to utilize a strong group of running backs after Texas endured three straight mediocre seasons. (more…)

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.