The Science Of Pass Offense...

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Feb 2, 2006
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The Science of Pass Offense


by Mike Tanier

In the next four Minicamp articles, we’re going to cover the passing game the only way Football Outsiders knows how: we’re going deep, baby.

The depth is necessary because NFL passing attacks are complicated. It’s often said that it takes three years to learn the West Coast offense. That means an undergrad can go from Intro to Calculus to Multi-Dimensional Topology in the time it takes a wide receiver to get from the front of Jon Gruden’s playbook to the back.

When discussing passing plays and strategies, it’s easy to lapse into incomprehensible coach-speak and “Red Right 22-Cross-In” gobbledygook. We don’t want readers to drown in an ocean of jargon, but at the same time, it’s important to use precise terminology at times. In the next few Minicamp essays, we’ll assume that you know the difference between a split end and a flanker and can tell a post pattern from an out route. We’ll use some play diagrams in place of a thousand words. And we’ll use plain English whenever possible.

Consider this week’s Minicamp an introductory course: a primer on the language and concepts of the passing game. Next week, we’ll examine quick slant routes and principles of the West Coast offense. After that, we’ll look at the spread offense. In the last installment, we’ll run some bootlegs and a waggle or two. At the end, you’ll have a deeper understanding and appreciation of football strategy, and you may pick up some pointers for your favorite video game.

Motion and Protection

Every successful passing play integrates three elements: the motion of the quarterback, the protection of the offensive line and any additional blockers, and the routes run by the eligible receivers.

When we think about pass offense, we are usually thinking about the routes. They’re what we drew in the dirt when we were kids. When we select plays in video games, we focus on the receiver’s patterns; the protection and quarterback’s drop are rarely issues. In the Minicamp articles to come, pass patterns will get most of the attention. But no combination of pass routes can be successful unless it is designed in concert with a protection package and the quarterback’s drop and progression of reads.

Let’s take a moment to consider all of the things a quarterback might do between the snap of the ball and the release of the pass:

1) The quarterback might take a three, five, or seven-step drop.

2) He might roll to his left or right. There are various types of rollouts, including the bootleg (a rollout with minimal protection) and the sprint out (a fast, flat move towards the sidelines to close the gap between the passer and an intended receiver).

3) He might execute one or more play action fakes.

4) While reading the defense, he may purposely look to one direction to confuse and mislead defenders. This is often called “looking-off” a safety or linebacker.

There are other variables. Some screen passes are executed from a one-step drop. A quarterback in the shotgun has different options when dropping back. Some plays have designed pump fakes to freeze defenders. And while he’s moving, the quarterback is constantly reading and diagnosing the defense. Many of these reads, like the passer’s drop and motion, are pre-programmed.

There are also numerous variables in the design of the pass protection:

1) Individual linemen may be assigned to block certain defenders or to control certain gaps. Each lineman might be assigned the gap to his left or to his right. Or, guards and tackles might be required to pinch the gaps on their inside shoulder, with the center assisting one of the guards.

2) Linemen with an empty gap can double-team defenders, or they may be assigned to “fan” left or right to engage an outside pass rusher.

3) A running back or tight end (or both) could stay in to block. The extra blocker’s assignment must match the roles of the linemen. For example, if each lineman is controlling the gap to his right, a running back might be responsible for any pass rusher outside of the left tackle’s left shoulder.

4) Running backs and tight ends might have “check and release” duties: they block if they have to, then run short patterns if they’re not busy with a pass rusher. These routes are sometimes called delay routes or leak routes.

5) On play-action passes, the offensive line must appear to run block. Any run-blocking assignment – pulling, trapping, double-teaming, and so on – can also be a play-action pass blocking duty. Play-action passes are designed to mimic specific runs, so if a guard pulls left on a counter play, he’ll pull left on the pass that starts as a fake counter.

6) If the quarterback is taking a three-step drop, the linemen must take short sets and engage their defenders quickly. Longer quarterback drops mean deeper sets as linemen establish a pocket. On screen passes, linemen set quickly, engage their defenders, then slip into the flat to block for the intended receiver.

Blocking assignments are often changed or clarified at the line of scrimmage just before the snap, adding another layer of complexity to the pass protector’s job.

So there’s a lot to think about before first post pattern has been drawn on the chalkboard. The quarterback’s motion and the blocking scheme are selected based upon the goal of the passing play. Passes designed for third-and-10 will have long drops by the passer, deep sets by the linemen, and no play action. Plays designed to get a running back open in the flat might include a rollout by the quarterback and extra protection by the tight end. The drop and protection schemes always match the pass patterns, and the patterns themselves are designed to work in concert to attack weak spots or get the ball into the hands of the offense’s best weapons.

Pattern Trees

The basic pass patterns are usually organized into trees. Here’s an example of a route tree. Here’s a similar one with slightly different numbering. Here’s one for tight ends. You get the idea.

All of the trees use the same basic numbering system; even-numbered routes are directed toward the middle of the field, while odd-numbered routes head for the sidelines. This is the standard numbering system that is introduced in Pop Warner ball and refined at each subsequent level through the NFL. While all of the basic trees are fundamentally similar, there are as many different passing trees as there are coaches at the prep, college, and pro levels.

The basic pattern tree tells only a fraction of the story. Trees only classify routes that begin with a straight downfield release. That leaves out shallow cross routes, V-routes, and scat routes. Double-move patterns, like the post-and-corner, aren’t on the basic tree. The standard tree doesn’t specify the receiver’s release: some patterns are only effective if the receiver can get inside or outside his defender at the snap. And different coaches have different names and variations for the same route: one coach’s “in” is another coach’s “dig”; a five-yard slant in Tampa Bay might be a seven-yard slant in Denver.

When designing a play, a coach can assign several dozen responsibilities to each of his five eligible receivers, from blocking to running a fly pattern. He can align his receivers in dozens of pre-snap formations. Factor in the various drops and protection schemes, and there are billions of feasible passing plays, all of which are in Mike Martz’s weekly gameplan.

Seriously, a playbook (and the human brain) can only hold so much information, and for every successful design, there are dozens of plays that aren’t worth the chalk required to draw them. An NFL passing play is much more than five guys trying to get open while five others block. It’s a carefully choreographed maneuver, designed to feint defenders out of position or place them in untenable situations. NFL plays must work against various defensive schemes and coverages, from deep zones to jailbreak blitzes. They must be complex enough to fool defenders but simple enough to implement in a few weeks of training camp. No wonder you can get a bachelor’s degree in the time it takes to master an NFL offense.


Bunch Right, Flanker Scat

Enough of the general discussion; let’s look at a play. Diagram 1 shows a typical pass play. In the weeks to come, you’ll see some plays that are adapted from coaching manuals and other sources, but this particular play is a variation of one in the Eagles playbook of EA Sports’ Madden ‘06 video game. We’ll call it Bunch Right, Flanker Scat; its true nomenclature would be more complicated and would vary from team to team.

Take a moment to analyze the offensive personnel. There are three wide receivers, one tight end, and a running back on the field. The defense would respond to this personnel package by bringing a nickel cornerback or safety into the game. Next, notice the triangle of receivers to the right; this formation would commonly be called “Trips Right” or “Bunch Right.” The bunched receivers are aligned very close to the right tackle, while the lone split end to the left is further from the formation and closer to the sideline. This is by design: any of the bunched receivers has the space to run a sideline-oriented pattern, while the left end is isolated in the open field.

Your attention is immediately drawn to that cluster of receivers, who are in great position to weave and cross each other’s routes. The defense must also pay special attention to the cluster. It may come as a surprise, then, that the left split end is often the primary target on a play like this. He’s usually in one-on-one coverage against a cornerback, with little help from the safeties and linebackers. He should have no trouble getting open on the five-yard slant pattern that is shown.

During his pre-snap read, the quarterback checks the coverage on the left split end and reads the defense to the right. The center checks the alignment of the defensive line, and both the center and quarterback read the blitz. This play is designed for the line to slide right, with each blocker responsible for the gap to his right (the line motion is omitted from the diagram for clarity’s sake). The running back is responsible for any blitzing defenders on the outside shoulder of the left tackle. Even receivers have pre-snap reads: on this play, we’ll say that the flanker (the receiver to the far right) will run the “hot” route if the defense blitzes to the right side. He’ll read the defender who is facing the tight end: if that player blitzes, the flanker will run a three-step shallow cross, turn, and wait for the ball.

Let’s assume that there’s no need for a hot route. At the snap, the quarterback first reads the motion of any deep safeties, then turns his attention to the left side. If he sees the safeties sitting in deep zones and the left split end gets a clean release, then he’ll hit that receiver as soon as he slants away from the cornerback. Gain of ten. Move the chains.

But that pass might not be available. The cornerback might get a great jam at the line. A deep safety may read the play and jump the route. A linebacker or even a defensive end could drop into coverage and take away the throwing lane. That’s where timing and spacing become a factor. The receivers on the right side of the formation are running patterns that develop slowly. By the time the quarterback looks to his right, he knows what the defense is doing. And if a safety or linebacker is helping out on the left side, that leaves one less defender to help out against the trio to the right.

The secondary target on this play is the flanker on the far right. He is running a scat route. He starts out as if he is running a drag or shallow cross, angling across the middle of the field. He runs behind the tight end and right end, who are executing deeper routes. He doesn’t sprint out at full speed; instead, he gears down his route so he can place his streaking teammates between himself and his defender. Timing is of the essence: if he moves too fast, he’ll execute his route before the quarterback is ready to throw. Then, as he approaches the middle of the field, he cuts sharply to the sideline, revs up to full speed, and looks for the ball. A prep or college receiver might be told to push off his defender when he cuts. An NFL receiver might try that, but he risks an interference penalty.

Imagine trying to cover the flanker. You watch him start to cross the field, but as soon as you follow him you get tangled up with the tight end, the right end, and your teammates as they drop into coverage. Just as you clear that traffic jam, the flanker is going the other way. If you are playing a zone, you see him drift towards the middle of the field, so you drop back to cover the deep sideline. By the time he crosses in front of you, all you can do is tackle him for a ten-yard gain.

The third option on this play is the tight end, though the quarterback will probably make the decision to throw to the big guy during his pre-snap reads. A bunch formation like this one usually causes a safety to creep up to help cover the triplets. That often leaves the middle of the field poorly defended. If the quarterback reads man coverage with no safety help, he’ll stare down the left end until any deep defenders start to cheat left, then he’ll throw the 10-yard dig route to the tight end as soon as he cuts across the middle. Similarly, if the defense managed to take away both the left end and the flanker, the tight end is probably isolated against a linebacker or safety. That makes him an appealing target.

The running back is the fourth option on the play. By the time the quarterback checks his fourth option, it’s time to get rid of the ball and settle for a short gain. After blocking to the left, the running back slips into the left flat and waits. With all of the action occurring on the right, the defense could easily forget about him. If he catches a short flat pass, the running back should gain a few yards before the cornerback corrals him.

What about the right split end, the guy running the deep fade route? He’s probably not going to catch the ball, but he may have the most important job of anyone on this play. His fade is called a “clear” or “top” route. He must lift the lid of the defense, stretching the safety on the right side so he is in no position to jump the shorter patterns. The right end attacks his defender aggressively, going full speed as he releases to the outside and streaks up the field. He tries to get behind his defender (or flash through the short zones quickly) and attract the safety’s attention. He turns 12-15 yards down the field and looks for a pass that will never arrive. Along the way, he causes traffic that slows down the guy who is covering the flanker.

If you are a safety sitting in a deep zone on this pattern, you see the flanker start to cross the field, you see a tight end working the middle, and you see a receiver running full tilt towards the end zone. Guess who you are going to cover? Your job is much easier if the right end goes through the motions and runs a lazy route: you keep your eye on him, but instead of chasing him, you also watch the quarterback and the other receivers. Chances are, you’ll be able to jump in and break up a pass.

But if the coach in the press box notices that the safety isn’t paying enough attention to that streaking end, he’ll let the quarterback know. Next time he runs this play, the quarterback will pump fake on a short route, then uncork a bomb to the guy running what’s usually a decoy route.

Precision and Harmony

Confused yet? We’ve only scratched the surface, describing one variation of one play. A real playbook would contain several look-alike plays, with one or more routes changed. It would also contain versions of this play from other formations. During the season, new wrinkles would be added: the scat route might become a drag route, the tight end might block instead of the running back, or pre-snap motion might empty the backfield to further baffle the defense.

No matter how much variation the coaches add to the plays, the fundamentals remain the same. Whether a team is running a short-passing offense, spreading the field with five wideouts, or building their pass attack off of play action and rollouts, all plays are built around the harmony of quarterback motion, protection, and pass patterns. All pass patterns are designed to use time and space effectively to hit the defense where it ain’t. When everything is working perfectly, it can be beautiful to behold.
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