Strategy Minicamps
How to beat your opponent with 11 living, breathing chess pieces

Introducing "Play of the Day"

by Mike Tanier

Welcome to Strategy Minicamps, Football Outsiders' annual strategy feature designed to nourish you through the pre-training camp doldrums with a hearty diet of play diagrams and coaching jargon. This year, we're doing things a little differently. Instead of publishing long articles on extremely specialized topics ("this week, 7,500 words on 3-technique tackle stunts!"), we're installing plays into the Football Outsiders playbook. Each "Play of the Day" article will analyze one or two plays taken from actual game tapes, examining how each play was designed and why it succeeded or failed. You will get a little taste of everything in the next few weeks, from the Colts' no-huddle offense to Vince Young rollout plays to the Redskins' double-reverse chicanery. Minicamp articles will be shorter but more frequent, allowing you to get your strategy fix several times per week.

Of course, a real playbook is organized by formation, personnel package, protection series, and by clusters of play types and concepts. An NFL playbook may contain 24 variations on the same off-tackle run based on the offensive formation, defensive front, and so on. (If it is the Jets' playbook, there are another 96 variations based on where Brad Smith is standing.) A real play series might contain a running play, a counter based on that running play, several play-action passes built off that running play, a reverse off that running play, and so on. We don't have time for all of that and neither do you. Therefore, the Football Outsiders Playbook will be a grab-bag of interesting, unique, or wacky plays we found while culling the game tapes. Our emphasis this summer is on "junk": reverses, receiver screens, bootlegs, empty backfields, full house backfields, and other goodies that offensive coordinators dream up on half-price tequila shooters nights. We're skipping the meat and potatoes of the playbook and going straight to the dessert cart. Dessert, after all, is the best part of the meal.

Trips, flips, motion and splits

Before we get into the actual plays, let's discuss personnel packages and formations. One thing we see constantly while breaking down tape is unusual personnel/alignment combinations. Lots of teams use empty backfield formations, but rarely do we see five wide receivers on the field. Instead, teams use three receivers, a back, and a tight end, or two receivers, two backs, and a tight end in their empty formations. Similarly, full-house backfields have come back from the brink of extinction in the last three seasons, but it's rare to see two fullbacks and a halfback in the backfield. Instead, teams fill their three-back formations with tight ends or even wide receivers lined up in the backfield.

Just because a team's base personnel is in the huddle -- two receivers, a halfback, a fullback and a tight end for most teams -- that doesn't mean that they won't come to the line of scrimmage in a three-tight end or four-wideout look. The plays we'll diagram in the next few articles are full of tight ends in the slot, running backs split wide, and receivers doubling as H-backs. Factor in pre-snap motion, and an offensive coordinator can turn ordinary personnel groupings into any number of exotic alignments.

Figure 1: Shift Slot to Backfield

Figure 1 shows the Chargers in their base personnel set: LaDainian Tomlinson at running back, Lorenzo Neal at fullback, Antonio Gates at tight end, and Keenan McCardell and Eric Parker at wideout. They initially line up with Neal in the left slot and Gates split slightly (about three yards) from the right tackle. This is essentially a four-wideout look; Neal won't beat anyone in a foot race up the seam, but he must be covered on flat routes and shallow crosses, so the defense must account for him. At the same time, the Chargers can effectively execute stretch or zone running plays from this formation, as Neal and Gates are both in position to act as line-of-scrimmage run blockers.

Once Neal motions into the backfield pre-snap, the entire offensive look changes. The Chargers are now in a clear strong side running formation. Once Neal moves, the defense has multiple adjustments to make. They probably want to move a safety into the box on the offensive right side. If a linebacker was covering Neal in the slot, he might move into a force position on the weak (offensive left) side. Defensive linemen might have to change their gap responsibilities. If the defensive left end and tackle had a stunt or twist called, such a play would be called off (Tomlinson would love to run right into a stunt with Neal leading the way). Many teams with run-intensive offenses use simple pre-snap motion like this to keep opponents from loading eight defenders in the box. The Bears used this motion tactic extensively in their playoff run last season, and we used a nearly identical diagram to illustrate one of their plays in a Too Deep Zone article last season.

Figure 2: Shift Back to Slot Right

The Chargers can do a lot more with this personnel package and initial look. Instead of creating a heavy running formations, let's empty the backfield by keeping Neal in the slot and sending LaDainian Tomlinson in motion to the right. This new formation (Figure 2) presents a whole new series of defensive problems. Five receivers can come off the line at the snap, four of whom have wide receiver speed. The defense is probably in a base 4-3 personnel package when the Chargers break huddle. In this formation, who covers Tomlinson in man coverage? Before the motion, the defensive left safety was responsible for Gates. After the motion, using basic man-coverage principles, that safety would cover Tomlinson and a linebacker would be responsible for Gates. That creates one mismatch, maybe two. Any blitzes from the offensive right side would be cancelled after this motion. A blitz from the left might still succeed, but Philip Rivers would have plenty of hot routes to choose from.

Figure 3: Flip Right and Curl Flats

Finally, let's empty the backfield but create a different look: a flip formation with Tomlinson in the gap between the right tackle and Gates (Figure 3). The previous alignment gave two of the league's best weapons plenty of open field to work with. This formation places them right next to each other, allowing them to rub defenders in pass patterns. The close alignment gives both Tomlinson and Gates the option of working the middle of the field, going deep, or running flat or sideline patterns. Figure 3 shows Tomlinson and Gates running a curl-flat combination. In man coverage, Gates would probably rub off Tomlinson's defender, setting up an easy completion in the flat. Against a typical zone defense, Tomlinson's flat route and the receiver's deep route would create space for Gates to run a 10-yard hitch or curl pattern. We moved Neal a little closer to the left tackle for this play so he could help with blitz pickup, but Neal could also leak into the short curl zone as an outlet receiver. The wideouts are inviting targets against a zero (no deep safeties) defense.

Clearly, defenders and their coaches have a lot to worry about, even before the ball is snapped. If the most basic inside handoff can be disguised by clever alignments, imagine what happens when offensive coordinators start calling the loopy plays from the back of the playbook. In a few days, we'll start analyzing some of those plays. They'll make an empty-backfield tight end/halfback curl-flat rub look like something the local peewee team runs.


34 comments, Last at 21 Jun 2007, 4:03am

1 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

This should be an excellent series - I thoroughly enjoyed the first installment. I take it that the writing of PFP is done?

3 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

I've only read the first paragraph, but already I am psyched about this new series of articles.

Now I will finish reading the rest of article.

4 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

Awesome. I can forsee loving this new series of articles.

One issue--the graphic for Figure 3 is identical to the graphic for Figure 2. Is this an error? Shouldn't Tomlinson be inside of Gates in Figure 3?

5 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

Good article. I've been doing some tape analysis and game-tracking on quite a few of last years games, and I can tell you that the quirk of lining up your FB out wide and motioning him into the strong-I/weak-I formation has become pretty widely used throughout the league. A lot of teams like to do the opposite with their WRs as well.

I'd say the Jets lead any other team I've watched terms of pre-snap motion (yes, even Manning's chicken-dancing Colts), they really go crazy with Coles, Brad Smith, Chris Baker and Jerrico Cotchery.

6 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

Does "Play of the Day" mean every day?

I don't want to sound like I'm complaining, just wondering if I should get my hopes up.

7 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

It may seem obvious, but I think it still gets overlooked somewhat; guys who can be very effective from multiple spots in different formations are really, really, valuable. A good offensive coordinator can really get a leg up on even the best defensive coordinators with such players, by exploiting matchups, which is also why a defensive lineman, like a Seymour or a Strahan (in his prime) who is terrific against both the run and pass is so valuable. Such a defensive lineman is the most sure way for a defense to negate any matchup disadvantages they encounter.

8 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

The Bears use the FB-split wide motion set often, too. Only they never, ever, pass out of the formation, as McKie motions into the backfield every single time and therefore does not need to be accounted for in coverage.

Similarly, I've seen many teams have the RB motion out wide (to the sidelines) on a passing play, and he usually is accounted for by a cover guy. I have never seen an NFL team actually throw to a RB in this situation.

9 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

The 49ers used to throw to backs split out wide all the time (especially Waters under Shanahan). It was all part of the true West Coast philosophy that you need to involve the backs as proper downfield threats and not just short, dump-off receiving options. Think about Waters running off down the middle of the field gainst San Diego in the Superbowl.

10 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

8: Umm, the New Orleans Saints?

Also, I saw Brandon Jacobs get thrown a bubble screen last year.

11 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

I know that the article is about the Chargers, but now FO readers know why the Saints had such a great year offensively. Reggie Bush is one of those players like LDT that scares D-coordinators. Except when he lines out wide, our best true RB (Deuce) is STILL in the backfield. (Granted, our TE's last year were not anything like Gates.) Will we be the NFC's version of the Colts in '07? (Great offense, just enough D to win games) It would be nice to repeat double-digit wins and a playoff victory. Geaux Saints!!!

12 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

"A real play series might contain a running play, a counter based on that running play, several play-action passes built off that running play, a reverse off that running play, and so on. We don’t have time for all of that and neither do you."

Umm...I think you are underestimating your audience.

13 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

Great stuff. Love the mini camps.

Maybe it's too late for this year, but I'd love to see these presented in an Offense vs. Defense type arms race angle. For example, show how a certain type of defense negates option 1, the offense that negates the defensive call, and the defense for that in turn and so on.

14 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

"The defense is probably in a base 4-3 personnel package when the Chargers break huddle. In this formation, who covers Tomlinson in man coverage? Before the motion, the defensive left safety was responsible for Gates. After the motion, using basic man-coverage principles, that safety would cover Tomlinson and a linebacker would be responsible for Gates."

I think this is wrong, the WILL would have the FB, the MIKE would have Gates and the SAM would take Tomlinson with the safeties over the top in a base man cover package. The movement would still cause a host of matchup pproblems ar the left/strong safety would probably have originally been helping the SAM with Gates and the coverages would have to shift very quickly etc.

This does sound like a great idea for a serries of articles though.

James C: I would have to check my tape of the Niners- Charggers Superbowl but I think that I remember Watters running his post from a pro-set, not motioning out wide (why I get annoyed that noone uses the pro set anymore, it allows so many more patterns for the backs to be run reliably)

15 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

Wow. What a heapin' dose of football from both Mite T and the FOers. Makes the summer somehow suck... less.

16 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

The wideouts are inviting targets against a zero (no deep safeties) defense.

That would be true if this were not the Chargers we were talking about. Their wideouts aren't exactly a strength of their offense.

On the other hand, if this were not the Chargers, then we probably wouldn't be talking about them having both an elite RB and an elite TE (unless maybe it was the Chiefs, but they don't exactly have the world's greatest WR's either...)

17 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

If that's the new Catholic Match Girl I spy under the first paragraph, I heartily approve.

19 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

I don't think there are a lot of MIKE who can cover Gates man-to-man (Peterson or Smith maybe, as they are Will playing Mike, Wilson maybe, Urlacher and that's all).
And when you know the Broncos (with one of the best linebacking corps of the league) assign Bailey to cover Gates, you can't reallisticly hope it.
You can't play a straight man-two against the Chargers, you have to go full zone or to put a db on Gates, except of course if you want to give them ten yards.
Isntead it would be more like a cover one with the strong on LdT and the FS shading on his left (where are Gates, LdT and the Flanker).
Did the Raiders let Morrison in man-to-man with Gates last year ? Idem with the Broncos and Wilson ?

20 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

It will be interesting to watch when the Bears play the Chargers in week one as far as who the Bears use to cover Gates and Tomlinson. I guess most people would have Urlacher cover Gates and Briggs (if he is playing) cover Tomlinson. However when the Bears played the Pats and the Giants last year Hillenmeyer played man coverage on the TE even when they were split out to the slot. It was a success against Shockey, less so against Watson. It can work quite well if HH gets safety help deep as while he isn't the fastest he uses his height to take the passing window away and plays underneath coverage very well.

Of course it may all be guesswork at this stage as Briggs may still be at home playing with toys.

22 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

The reason Hillenmeyer played so much against the patriots is that Ricky Manning Jr. was out for the game, and they didn't have any faith in the rest of their corners.

24 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

That's why I really wanted the Bears to draft Brian Leonard. The offense would be far more dangerous if they had some more options. And they're one of the few teams with enough pieces in place to spend a second round pick on a role player.

25 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"


HH manned-up against Shockey as well. Why is that then? Maybe because his size allows him to control a TE where a shorter linebacker would get exposed.

26 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

Look forward to the article on double-reverses. I would be interested in finding out the last time a double-reverse, or even a single-reverse, netted positive yardage, since every time I see one in a game its blown up by the D for a loss.

27 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

I seem to remember one play either last season or the season before where Chris Chambers got something like 60 yards on a reverse.

If only he could actually catch the ball 60 yards downfield...

28 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

Man I love these!

Yeah, I agree, you shouldn't have the MLB covering Gates.

What happened with the Bears' TE coverage last year? First half, the success rate against them out of the TE position was amazing (something like over 2/3rd went for 1st downs) although it was a relatively small sample size.

Then I go and mouth off about it to some Bears fans, I tell em, watch, you'll see, and they go on to finish the year with some of the best TE coverage I've ever seen. Including from Hillenmeyer.

So what changed? Did they make adjustments? Or was it fluky stats?

29 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

Not to complain, but this was called "Play of the Day" on 6/19 and now here it is the afternoon of 6/20 and there's no encore.

Mike T, please, I gotta have my fix! (ya big tease) You think I plan to work all day without taking strategic "education breaks"? Think again.

Regarding the Bears coverage of Gates... I don't recall how they covered Dallas Clark in the SB. He's essentially a slot WR half the time and only went 4/36 in that game. His least productive playoff game last year. As I recall, Addai went 10 rec for 66 yards. His most productive playoff game receiving last year.

SD's WRs don't command the respect that Marvin and Reggie do, but LDT is better than Addai and covering the RB could be a problem for them.

30 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

Excellent - I love these X & O playbook type articles. There is almost no chance of getting anything like this over here in Ireland

32 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

I could be terribly wrong, I think the good stats from TEs against the Bears early was due to low sample size. And you to remember most of the first 6 games were blowouts, so they were probably letting the other team throw short to the TE.

Addai having a such a good game in the Super Bowl was entirely due to scheme.

33 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

32 - Sample size I considered, until I noticed that it wasn't particularly small compared to any other team, some of whom were allowing very little success against TEs. but it had to have some sort of affect. The blowout factor, I hadn't considered, and you're probably right. They were 1st downs, though, and not all of them late in the game, plenty of them on third down. I did the tallies, last year, but have forgotten, now. But that probably did have something to do with it, as well. I sure would like to know if they made any adjustments, though.

34 Re: Introducing "Play of the Day"

re #26
Javon walker scored on a reverse last year against the Steelers (72 yards).
He had 123 yards for nine attempts last year.
It is a high-risk, high-reward kind of play.