The Art of Football: Passing Game Tactics


"The best plan lasts until the first arrow leaves the bow." - Matrim Cauthon, in The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

Strategy is nothing without tactics. Tactics are fruitless without strategy. Lovers of football, the coach's game, we love strategy. We are students of the game. Tactics is a subject less studied by fans.

Tactics are not unplanned. My words above simply echo Sun Tzu's more poetic take: strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. But both his statements allude to the importance of preparation. It's apparent that there are subtle differences between the slowest route to victory and the noise before defeat, but both are the cautions against poor planning.

Much of Sun Tzu's wisdom is germane to planning and/or deception. I *plan* to explore the role of deception in football in a followup post. But then, I'm reminded of what Mat said in my quote above.

Mat lives in a fantasy world. His head is filled with the knowledge of ancient generals and military strategists. As certainly was Sun Tzu's, whatever the historicity. As, really, are today's military leaders, students of the game as they are. We don't know what ancient generals might have been whispering in Eisenhower's mind's ear. We know he had ol' Blood & Guts shouting in his physical ear. Things like "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week." And, we know Eisenhower himself said, "Plans are useless, but planning indispensible."

So planning helps; you knew that before you read this. But it's important to first establish the often rapid diminishing of returns from sticking to a plan, to illustrate the value in tactical response to action on the ground. Adjustments. Tactical adjustments are afforded little time for planning. Planning for execution, that is. But planning can manifest in other ways, like coaching technique, practicing highly-contextual situations and studying common responses and results to known tactics. Execution of planned adjustments, then, materializes dynamically in context.

So that's what this article is about, and serves as the intro to a probable short series. Tactical adjustments and their impact on game outcomes. Many of us are knowledgeable to a fair extent about strategy, scheme, and basic talent evaluation, and that makes up much of the best content Field Gulls has generated. But many of us are fuzzy on tactics and adjustments. Where coaches and players really make hay out of something. Let's take a closer look.

Sight Adjustments
As discussed earlier, sight adjustments are modifications made to a receiver's route according to the defensive coverage. The adjustment is made by both QB & receiver. They're typically used to beat a blitz. But what does "according to the coverage" mean, exactly?

Nobody better to break this down than Bill Belichick. Back in the non-Brady 2008 season Belichick explains how a sight adjustment was utilized when a safety creeps to the line threatening blitz.

The basic notion of getting open early as a response to unmitigable pressure is molded around the concept of doing so by moving into the area vacated by the blitzer.

Sight adjustments are triggered by defensive coverage but tied to the protection package of the play call. Because the protection package is shaped by how many & what type of eligible receivers are being sent out. For the Patriots, their X receiver (also known as iso, comparable to a WCO split end; typically the deep threat) responds to weak safety pressure with a slant, as we see here. Weak corner pressure triggers a hitch.

These are the two most common sight adjustments. The weak side is utilized more because there are fewer bodies to trick your sight adjustment tendencies with a sly zone blitz concept, but strong side examples are a Y receiver in the slot taking a diagonal pattern if the SS blitzes, or a hook pattern if he's split out wider.

One common counter to sight adjustments has been a fire zone blitz, which has been around for a while but enjoyed a recent rise in popularity about four years ago. It's a basic zone blitz, with a 3-3 cover shell behind 5 on the line. An extra man is sent blitzing, but rather than the typical zone blitz, where a lineman drops back into the vacated area, the drop occurs on the other side of the line.

Here's a Seahawk example of a fire zone vs. a quick slant. I don't believe this was a sight adjustment, but more likely a called play, but I wanted to include it because it provides a good visual of how quickly and subtly a sight adjustment could be made. This is in OT, note, on 3rd down and Dexter Davis has been subbed in. It's pretty reasonable to think the Cardinals saw this, expected a blitz and looked to counter with a slant. Note how far John Skelton throws in front of Fitzgerald, anticipating Clemons' drop into the throwing lane.

Option Routes
Not the same as sight adjustments, which effectively create outlet routes as a response to unaccounted pressure. Option routes are also adjustments to coverage, but are not contingent on pressure, but on the coverage of the route itself. Here are some examples straight from the 2004 Patriots playbook.

The first is a 14-yard comeback route to the outside. Roll coverage is a post-snap shift of most of the secondary toward one side of the field. Often done to either protect a young or lesser cornerback or to defend a premier wideout, the safety will roll over the top. That corner won't have deep coverage, then, and typically will come underneath as the receiver comes to him. You can see, then, that a comeback of this sort is vulnerable to both the corner and the safety interfering. The fade, then, exploits the corner coming underneath and provides extra cushion against the deep safety.

Next we have a stop route. It's 18 yards, so usually called with a 7-step drop. The receiver plants his outside foot and turns as if running a deep curl, and then breaks back outside just as the defender's momentum breaks up & in. But again, roll coverage can take this away, so when roll is apparent, just drop the funny business and fade outside. A fade option is very common for deep routes on 5-step drops against press coverage, as well, one reason we saw fades being run in critical situations with frequency under Jeremy Bates; a talent-hungry receiving corps and a weak-armed quarterback is bound to prompt plenty of press.

The 3rd is a slot receiver option. He begins a middle curl but will zip up the seam on a thin post if the "middle of the field is open." When that slot receiver is Wes Welker or Rob Gronkowski, the acronym takes on another meaning.

Let's take a look at them. To paraphrase Belichick's basic approach to option routes in the slot and from the end, "when the coverage sinks [back] we go underneath, when the coverage is tight, we try to go up the seam."

It seems Wes Welker dynamically made even more of an adjustment off his curl option, just going deep to give extra space from the safety rather than posting in.

Options can remain possible all the way until nearly the end of the route. As a counter to safeties jumping crossing routes, coaches will teach receivers to plant the outside foot, in order to make the cut inside, without committing momentum, anticipating the jump. If they get the jump, they can follow their momentum through the plant, making it a stutter step as they continue up the seam, hopefully bringing the safety inward by a step before he has to shift momentum back out again to keep contain. If the safety is cautious they cut as hard as they can to try to make some breathing room on the cross.

* * * * *

I didn't intend to make this such a Patriots-heavy article, but when it comes to prepared tactical adjustments, they're the most worthwhile study and I'm just fascinated by their offense. I've learned so much from Bill Belichick breaking plays down.

Other observations I've picked up from watching Randy Moss have underscored the true skill of route-running. We often hear about some receivers being particularly strong or weak in route running, and like me you've probably wondered, how can running along those shapes we see above be that difficult? Precision is stressed, and timing, when analysts describe the importance of these things, but those are vagaries that cover up the fact that, though route running is not a trivial skill, few know exactly how route running can actually be poorly executed.

What watching Moss revealed to me was that good route running isn't just running along a shape or pattern in synchronous timing to what the QB would expect, but rather the relationship with the defender. But first let me explain some details.

As you can see above, in virtually all pro offenses, every permutation of every route come with very specific length and width parameters. From 3 yards out, to 20 (not counting vertical), there are a dozen different route lengths. Additionally, receivers and QBs have to know the dimensions of the field by sight: 23 yards from hashmark to sideline; 9.5 yards from inside numbers to hashmark; 6.6 yards between hashmarks; numbers are 2 yards wide. So their split -- how far off the linemen they split out wide when lining up for a play -- is contingent on where the ball is, horizontally, on the field, and different plays require different splits. If the ball is between the hashmarks, a normal split is 2 yards outside the numbers, a big split is 4 yards outside the numbers, and a max split is 6 yards outside. If the ball is near or on the hashmarks, a normal split is now 4 yards outside that hashmarks' side's numbers, and on the edge of the numbers on the other side, while a big split is 6 yards out/2 yards out, respectively.

So route running is an exact science, but not a demanding one. Thus, skilled route running entails the use of speed, acceleration, momentum and body movement to control and steer the defender away from covering you. Of course that's much easier when you're a vertical threat like Moss, but as we've all seen, some very athletic receivers just struggle getting open.

What I've seen is Moss use his acceleration and body movement to implore the deep safety to backpeddle a couple steps, and uses the moment that safety shifts his momentum backward, to make his cut. It's one of the most effective tools for getting a deep out or comeback route open, gaining about 3 yards for over a second to bring the ball in. If the safety doesn't get pressed back before a receiver makes his cut on an out route, the safety will swarm onto the wideout and have a play on the ball.

Here's a nice breakdown that illustrates the concept on an opportunistic option slant that materialized due to the corner's excessive inside set.

Finally, one thing that's stood out from the two very different historically great Patriot offenses (2007, and 2010/2011), is how ineffective single-high safety coverage shells have been against them, and it's the single most interesting factor in the upcoming matchup at the Clink this October. One of Seattle's most-used coverage shells is "3 man free" which has three DBs in man coverage and a free safety center deep. Earl Thomas played very well in this role and enabled the rest of the pass defense to be better.

With 2007 Moss & Welker, New England ran a lot of dual-crossing routes against 3 man free. Usually in the same direction, and nearly as often they'd pair up out routes of different depth, but occasionally they'd cross from opposing sides. Basically, Brady would control the safety with superb pocket play, and simply wait for the safety to choose. As soon as the safety chose and took a step, he'd go for the other receiver and throw him open from the man coverage.

With Welker, Hernandez & Gronkowski, it's been dual slot/end seam routes against 3 man free. Safety chooses and Brady takes the other guy for a big gain. Sometimes some creatively disguised zone, or perfectly executed man coverage keeps contain on both routes. Remember my Belichick paraphrase? "When the coverage sinks [back] we go underneath, when the coverage is tight, we try to go up the seam." By being so well-versed in option routes, the receivers have recourse to adjust to a lot of good, sinking coverage to break those seam routes off & open underneath. It's going to be a very tricky matchup for Seattle, and figures to produce some of the most useful All-22 a Seahawk fan could ever dream of.