Football is a bottom up structure. The inverted pyramid of pressure allows guys at the high school level to innovate, college guys to evolve, then the pro guys to steal, often laying claim to creation in grand, sweeping media profiles of their genius. That’s football.
You can’t move right now for a column/book/podcast/discussion on RPOs in the NFL, something that’s riddled the college game for close to a decade (the box kind has been in the NFL for equally as long; and Brett Favre was running what amounted to makeshift, on-the-fly RPOs back in his Green Bay days, he just neglected to tell anyone on his coaching staff).
Philosophically – offensively, at least — the NFL will continue to move closer to the college game. It has to. Slimmed down playbooks, on-the-fly you-go-there-I’ll-go-here decision-making from receivers, backs, and quarterbacks alike will eventually command the whole league. Big 12 football on Sunday’s isn’t too far away, people. It’s inevitable
That’s the macro stuff. On the micro level, there are smaller concepts teams like the Seattle Seahawks should look to introduce right away. It doesn’t involve a philosophical overhaul. These are just little schematic tweaks or cute designs that the team should squeeze into its book for the coming season.
Attacking into the boundary
Pace-and-space is the name of the modern game. It’s even more pronounced in college. The wider hash marks and greater emphasis on athletes-in-space football puts concepts that stretch the field at a premium. But that’s also given rise to neat little counters: those creative designs where an offense uses the instincts of a defense— to protect that big, green ocean — against itself, attacking into the boundary.
There is all manner of creativity to be mined here. It’s something we’ve seen teams in the pro-game do more and more. Think Anthony Lynn in L.A, formerly the OC in Buffalo.
Lynn is a savant at scheming up 1-on-1 opportunities into the boundary. He went so far in Buffalo as to set the strength of his formation (by receiver, not necessarily the TE – the traditional way to ID formation strength) to the short side of the field, clustering his cohort into a tiny cul-de-sac pressed up against the sideline, no space to be found.
It was disruptive to the point of unnerving defenders. Buffalo finished 1st in rushing DVOA in Lynn’s lone season as offensive coordinator/interim head coach. Things didn’t go as well in his first year as a head coach in L.A.
Expect to see more in 2018. And expect boundary-attacking wrinkles to spread across the league.
Attacking into the boundary works, particularly when you can isolate a running back on a corner or rotating safety. We’re always looking for sweeping evolutions. Surely the pendulum will swing back to power-football as everyone goes smaller. Not necessarily, but can cut against the grain by tweaking where you implement those power-rushing concepts.
Don’t you just love this Josh Heupel-Missouri single-man counter design? It is creative and simple and is the perfect change-up to a barrage of inside-zone.
The Seahawks ran just 11 plays in 2017 in which it pulled a guard. ELEVEN. That’s unconscionable. Seattle has committed to more gap-scheme runs in 2018. Huepel’s counter design is a winner.
Footwork is key. So is the boundary receiver. The big guys up front do all the messy work, but it’s little more than they’re asked to do any kind of angle or gap-scheme concept. Wall off your defender at a certain angle in a certain rhythm.
The frontside tackle and guard fire off the ball, with the tight end/h-back (#81) following in-behind. At first glance, it looks like it will be some form of insert-zone play (the TE leading with the back following in behind) or perhaps a power-read (the frontside edge-defender left unblocked and read by the quarterback).
The defenders fire on inside-zone. Each one to the right of the center peaks inside. They cheat with their feet. Their eyes force them to take a couple of steps towards the ball. It’s only natural.
Those little slide steps set-up the defenders to out-leverage themselves. As they duck inside, the backside guard wraps around.
Then the real magic kicks in. The h-back and running back plant-and-fire with that classic counter footwork: sticking their foot in the ground one way, pausing, then shifting their body weight violently in the opposite direction.
The back explodes out of the mesh-point, with the h-back and backside guard walling off any fools who dared to maintain their gap discipline. The back drifts up to the second-level unblocked, leaving him 1-on-1 with a descending safety.
Running it into the boundary is a smart philosophical and tactical tweak. Heupel adds an extra bit of intrigue: Sleeping the receiver into the boundary. Heupel -- running what amounts to the Art Briles veer-and-shoot offense — regularly “sleeps” his isolated receiver.
In other words: they don’t run routes. It’s all about conserving energy and rotating receiver reps, while tiring out defenders. It’s creative, and it adds to the above design.
In the NFL, however, it’s fairly pointless. Guys are too good to have one of your eligible players removed from the play design by design. The goal of the play is to force that boundary corner to stay locked to the line of scrimmage, rather than backing up toward the area of the field Heupel is looking to attack.
A good pro-tweak would be to have that receiver run a stop-route (turning and facing the QB immediately, as if receiving a screen pass), whenever the corner is giving a cushion. Or, if the corner is up in press, send that receiver in motion.
Split-Zone with Jetsweep
The use of split-zone actions is a feature across the NFL. So is the jetsweep. The Seahawks’ speedsters – Tyler Lockett, Jaron Brown et al. — make any kind of jet-motion fairly potent: defenders eyes flicker as the offense dangles out some delicious eye candy.
Jet motions are typically thought of as a coverage revealer (zone or man) or as part of play-calling sequencing: setting up a play concept early that has a “pay-off” played tagged on later (motion, motion, motion, give).
It can do more. It should be a lethal part of any split-zone attack: dragging a defender or two out of position, and creating a pre-determined 1-on-1 isolation matchup in space.
Derek Mason’s Vanderbilt ran a crafty variation in 2017. It’s a straight-forward split-zone, run toward the jet-motion.
All the other jet rules apply. It can be used to reveal coverages, but, at some point, you have to hand the ball to that receiver in motion – or the defense will stop biting.
Vanderbilt ran the play out of a heavy formation, lining up a tight end and a wing to the field. That, coupled with the motion, got opposing defenses to hedge toward the field.
Now the play is in the hands of the offensive line. If blocked correctly, the running back should get a 1-on-1 play with the isolated corner.
(Note: watch above how the wing splitting across the formation fails to stick on his block, allowing the edge-defender to get back in and make a play. The run should have popped.)
Everything inside looks like a regular split-zone: crashing one side; deuce blocks inside; second-level reads from the interior linemen; the initial move of the tight end; how the back gathers the ball. But the split-flow action as blocked gives the back a cutback lane against an inferior tackler – the corner — rather than a linebacker or dropping safety.
It’s an excellent change-up that gives the defense a different look.
Seattle has made a ton of noise about sprinkling in more power elements this season. It will. But inside-zone will remain the foundational element of the run-game: get the big guys running off-the-ball; let the back pick his gap. Vandy’s design is an easy tweak to install. The Seahawks should take note.
Play-Action Tight End Fold
Studying Scott Frost’s offense means basically watching football porn.
Frost puts a little of everything into his system: West coast timing; triple-options; new-fangled RPOs; old-school power-runs; and all wrapped up in pace-and-pace. It’s truly a thing of beauty.
Everything is an evolution of stuff Frost has run before, as a player in college and the NFL, or as a coach with Chip Kelly at Oregon. Some things are all his own.
The most tantalizing one-off design: A play-action pass.
Did you catch that?
It’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve seen. It’s a pass all the way, not a read RPO. UCF’s tight end folds inside the team’s left tackle, as though it’s a traditional wrap play – the tight end displacing the tackle, and an edge-defender being “read blocked” by the quarterback.
The tight end checks his release:
Is he doubling the defensive end (#18) or is he climbing up to the safety?
Clearly, he’s coming for the safety, right?
The tight end drifted into the vacated space behind the deepest defender. The safety was planted firmly in no man’s land. It’s a fabulous concept, leading to the easiest of easy touchdown throws.
I want to clarify: Teams don’t do this! Frost is distorting what it means to be an eligible receiver. People check and release, sure. Backs will drift through the line of scrimmage as an outlet pass, sometimes. Tight ends don’t. They certainly don’t choreograph an act that has them fake a second-level block pulling inside a tackle. And they certainly don’t do it from a “nub” formation – a spread passing formation to one side of the field, a clustered run-formation to the other.
This is borderline dark magic stuff.
The safety had no idea what was coming. UCF sprinkled in some extra sweeteners to make the thing sing:
On the backside of the play, the team runs a double-slant concept with the slot receiver running a corner route. The goal: clear out one half of the field, and drag whoever you can toward the back pylon. Great.
In the backfield, the quarterback and running back fake a backside option play, with the back then charging into open grass, dragging whichever linebacker or safety he can with him. Even if it’s just their eyes and not their feet, it’s a win for the offense.
Against Maryland, UCF got both:
A win purely through play-design. Six points.
The Seahawks’ redzone run-game was the worst in the league in 2017. It was the single worst in the NFL since the Rams in 2007, and the second worst since 1987.
It was a disaster. The team lacked the talent to bully opponents off the ball. They lacked the creativity to come up with a fresh look. And the complimentary passing game boiled down to a double-covered Jimmy Graham, or hoping Doug Baldwin performed one of his customary moments of route-running sorcery.
Getting more creative with play-action and tight end movements is a must. It doesn’t get much better than Frost’s fold design.
Shifting the offensive line
Speaking of redzone creativity, how about this wackadoo one:
Notice anything peculiar in the above freeze frame? Take another look.
How about now?
Dave Doeren’s NC State side shifted the entire offensive line, starting the play with the quarterback lined up under the right guard:
This has all kind of repercussions for the defense. First of all, it’s weird. Anything that’s weird makes you blink, take a pause, have a think. That’s bad. Thinking leads to overthinking, rather than playing and reacting. It also leads to communication, the quickest way to miscommunication.
(The Florida State safety made one heck of a play on the example above. He shot his shot and met the back at the line of scrimmage. It was still a touchdown.)
There are more technical concerns, too. The defense has to figure out its gaps and where they’re supposed to be lined up. Were we already in the right spots or do we have to move? And the offense gets an overload of numbers to one side of the field:
That’s a whole lot of mass available to help open up a sliver of space for the running back.
Part of the beauty of this Doeren dandy is that the staff set it up during the previous drive. The team shifted multiple people over and over again:
You could argue that by shifting consistently, the defense was more used to communicating and re-aligning. But I’d suggest that by shifting previously, there’s more chance the defense would see such an extreme shift and not quite pick-up on it right away. Perhaps one defender falls asleep at the wheel. That’s all it takes.
Of course, moving your entire offensive line isn’t a sustainable tactic (I think?). You have to pause before you snap the ball. DC’s will get used to it. They will rep it. They will know what adjustments to make.
It’s the kind of play you roll out in a big, big spot. Like the second-half of a playoff game, when the defense doesn’t have a great deal of time to adjust. Remember the eligible receiver plays the Patriots used against the Ravens from 2015? This should be used in a similar vein.
If Pete Carroll is looking for some off-the-wall ideas to implement in 2018 — and, let’s be honest, Seattle is probably going to need a little bit of trickery down in the redzone – the Doeren device is a quirky variation he should indulge.
All the plays listed above are grounded in concepts the league already uses. They are wrinkles. But there are certain plays the NFL considers too college-y. These are often option plays. Why would we put our franchise on the line running an option play? The thinking goes.
It’s a tradeoff. The option is a classic you-go-here-I’ll-go-there play. A defender is conflicted. They cannot win. NFL sides actively decrease their chances at moving the ball because failing on an option play could mean more than failure to pick up a first down. It could be an organizational disaster – an injured quarterback.
But teams are adapting. Certain options plays are here forever, particularly down in the redzone. Every team with a quarterback who can move a little, delights in rolling out a well-timed option call: Carolina’s speed-option; Seattle’s tackle wrap; Dallas’ tight end lead.
Some option plays, however, remain off limits. Should they?
(Let’s ignore the obvious fact that you could argue, ‘Well, there’s other ways to get the job done. Ones that are equally as efficient and are far less likely to result in a poleaxed QB.’ We’re trying to have fun here. Roll with it.)
Let’s go back to the Baylor grab-bag for a bonkers design that breaks the laws of football physics. One that might exclusively fit the Seahawks and the loosey-goosey pocket movements of Russell Wilson: The pivot option.
Oh, boy. This is as risk-reward as it gets. Quarterbacks don’t turn their back to the defense unless it’s intended as an almighty play-fake – or setting one up in the future. Designing such a thing is a dastardly con job.
The offense isolates a cornerback in space. The right tackle and right guard seal the first-level defender (an edge, above). The quarterback takes his first step towards the field, the running back following along. Defenders bite, shifting their eyes, feet and body weight towards the field, shooting hard to set the edge.
Then the real fun kicks in. The quarterback pivots, spinning around and running a speed-option in the opposite direction.
The offensive line isn’t done yet. The right tackle works up the second-level to seal off any converging linebacker or safety, flipping his hips towards the middle of the field, and clearing out a runway.
The conflicted cornerback is left in a no-win situation: Chase the quarterback and watch a nippier runner skip in behind him as the QB pitches it out; squeeze outside-in, freeing an alley for the quarterback to charge upfield.
It’s so bonkers; so against the conventional wisdom. No one, not even the Panthers, who’ve most embraced funky option elements, will adopt this one. No one wants their $100 million man freeing up a clean shot to his back as a runner. But the Seahawks should!
Russell Wilson loves to pirouette. It’s his thing. He does it constantly in a bid to evade pressure, particularly when he’s in a deep drop. Why not start to include it in designs?
True, he has more protection in the pocket as a passer than he does spinning around as a runner. But I’m not talking about second-layer, scramble-like designs like the ones the Packers build in with Aaron Rodgers; I’m talking a quick spin that flips a run play post-snap.
Wilson is smart enough, instinctual enough, and agile enough, to keep himself out of harm’s way. He rarely, if ever, takes a big shot as a runner. No one does a better job of finding the sidelines.
This play was made for Wilson. If Carroll and co. are willing to run boot-action designs down in the redzone, or anywhere else for that matter, why not start to include some pivot options?