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Over the previous week I’ve spent several hours watching Raider’s film from the 2014 season to get a feel for some of the formations and concepts we (Dawgs fans) might see this Fall. Although DeFilippo was not the Raider’s OC, he likely had major input into the overall scheme and the week-to-week play call sheet.
A play design philosophy that caught my eye was the use of packaged ‘coverage beaters’. Many ahead-of-the-curve NFL coaches including Andy Reid, Mike McCarthy, and Bill Belichick utilize the concept. I expect the trend to continue as defenses continue to improve at hiding their coverage shells (Cover 1, 2, etc.) pre-snap, forcing QB’s to diagnosis the defense with live bullets coming their way. Throw in the complexity of modern-day NFL defenses (man clues, 2 read, etc.) and you see why QB’s must have both the cognitive skills and work ethic in the film room to stand a chance.
Packaging coverage beaters into a single play is VERY simple. Place a ‘man’ beater and a ‘zone’ beater to each side of the formation and target the appropriate route combo. So why do this?
Effective route combinations are designed to work against the rules of a specific coverage shell. Good route combos put a defender in conflict by stressing his coverage rules. For example, the common curl-flat combo attacks the Cover 3 curl/flat defender.
The curl/flat combo is probably the most common Cover 3 beater run at all levels of football, from the NFL down to high school.
The curl/flat defender’s technique is to open at 45 degrees towards the sideline, get depth in the curl zone, and drive on the flat if the ball takes him there.
The curl/flat combo will stress the defender’s rules and technique by creating a horizontal stretch (sideline-to-sideline) in which the defender will be wrong regardless of which route he chooses to attack. If the c/f defender gets depth to step in front of the curl, the ball is going to the flat route. If the c/f defender jumps the flat route, the curl route will sit down inside the defender with a clear throwing window for the QB. It’s a lose/lose for the defender.
On the other hand, the curl/flat combo doesn’t work well against man coverage because the defender’s rules are not conflicted. It’s man coverage; align with proper leverage pre-snap and use your technique to play the man. In this case the route concept relies on the offensive player winning a 1v1 matchup.
Looking at another example, if the offense is running a man-beater like slant-flat, or “Arrow” concept, and the defense rotates into a Tampa 2 (a zone-based coverage shell) post-snap, the defense will likely win that match-up as they will have defenders in position to play the route combo. Again, the offense is relying on individual matchups. It’s great if your team has guys that can win consistently, but offensive schemes that heavily rely on matchups just don’t succeed. NFL defenders are simply too good.
The idea behind packaging coverage beaters is to provide an effective route combination in each play, regardless of whether the defense is in a man or zone-based coverage shell. The easiest way to do this is to run a man beater concept to one side of the formation and a zone beater concept to the other.
The QB will scan the defense pre-snap looking for clues that may tip him off to the coverage. Where are the FS and SS? How deep are they aligned? How much depth are the CB’s giving the WR’s? Are they aligned with inside or outside leverage? A good QB can put these clues together to identify the likely coverage shell pre-snap. The QB will then target the appropriate route combo based on the pre-snap read.
So on to our example….
Here’s the QB’s first look at the D….
-The defense is showing a 2-Hi look via the alignment of the FS and SS, although NFL defenses are great at hiding their intentions and false keying the offense pre-snap. NFL-caliber safeties are fast enough to drop down or rotate deep just before the snap, giving the QB little time to process the defensive coverage shell before live bullets are headed his way.
-The offense uses motion from the FB in an attempt to flush out the defense’s intentions. A good rule of thumb is if a defender follows the motioned player across the formation, the D is in man. If the defense shifts or ‘bumps’ their alignment towards the motion, the D is likely in zone.
-The play has packaged double slants, a very common man-beater to the left side of the formation. To the right side the offense is running a Y-stick concept in which the outside WR will run a flat route and the TE will run a “stick” route away from the defender’s leverage. The stick/flat combo is a great zone beater as it creates a horizontal stretch against the flat defender.
-The defense does not follow or “bump” when the FB motions, moving the strongside of the formation from left or right. What does happen is some pointing and gesturing between the FS and SS. This should immediately tip the QB to a responsibility change between the two, although this doesn’t necessarily tip the coverage.
-Just after the motioned-FB sets to create the “Stack” look, the safeties tip their hand….
-The defense has blinked first. The SS drops down over the FB at a depth of 7-8 yards while the FS rotates to the middle of the field. The QB now has several clues he can put together to correctly guess the coverage shell before the ball is snapped:
1. The Single-Hi safety indicates a MOFC coverage (Cover 1 or Cover 3).
2. The QB can probably safely eliminate Cover 3. The DB’s appear to be in man-alignment. They are outside-shaded to force the WR back into their deep help and playing at press-depth (1-2 yards of the LOS). In a zone defense, the outside DB’s would be aligned with at least part of their backs facing the sideline so they can side-shuffle for depth while rotating their eyes between the QB and WR.
3. The defense has 5 men on the LOS. In addition, the tight splits (“nasty” split) by the stacked WR’s allow for DB’s to get in on the fun as well. Throw in the SS aggressively dropping and the offense is likely seeing a blitz here. Because the defense cannot effectively cover twin WR’s to each side of the formation with a 3-under 3-deep zone, man is the likely look.
The QB has to process all this information, as well as team specific tendencies and keys within a second or two, again demonstrating why the ability to quickly process information and make accurate decisions is so vital for success as an NFL QB.
The Defensive Shell…
-The defense does indeed bring 5 men, attempting to stunt the left side of the O-line. The DB’s hold their ground to press the WR’s hoping the blitz will get to the QB before the WR’s get into their route stems, forcing a sack. This is a man coverage all the way.
-Notice the safety’s depth. He is 20 yards downfield acting as the last man standing in case a pass is completed. There is no subtlety to his task; don’t get beat over the top. Coaches call this “deepest of the deepest”.
-The QB’s head IMMEDIATELY turns to the man-beater route combo, indicating that he correctly identified the coverage as Man-Hi pre-snap. He knows the double slants are his man beater with the RB as a checkdown. This is the combo to target. Their is no time to manipulate pass defenders here (like looking off a safety) as double slants are a 3-step drop. The QB does not look towards the stick/flat combo as they are a zone beater and he has identified man coverage.
-The ball is already out as the outside WR pushes off his outside foot to stem the slant route. There is no LB to squeeze the throwing window (he blitzed) and a properly-run slant route is very difficult to cover in man, particular from outside leverage. The QB knows all this and is anticipating separation.
-Notice the clear throwing lane created by the blitzing LB. This is a 7 on 7 throw. Easy money for an NFL QB and WR.