Football is littered with specialized terminology. From reach block to Tare concept, commentators rarely get to explain everything you need to know before the next play. Inside The Pylon’s glossary was developed to give fans a deeper understanding of the game through clear explanations, as well as image and video examples. Please contact us with any terms or phrases you’d like to know more about.
The sail concept is a three-level passing scheme that overloads one side of the defense while stretching the coverage vertically. Typically, the sail concept is a combination of a deep vertical route from the outside receiver, an intermediate out or crossing route from the inside receiver, and a short flat route ‒ often a quick out or a swing route ‒ by the running back. This sets up a three-level read for the quarterback, with a receiver at 25-, 15- and 5- yard depths vertically.
The Arizona Cardinals use this scheme against the New Orleans Saints. Quarterback Carson Palmer is under center with 12 offensive personnel in the game, slot formation left and dual wing tight ends right. The Saints have their base 3-4 defense in the game and show Cover 3:
Larry Fitzgerald is in the left slot, with John Brown (#12) to the outside. The Cardinals run a play action fake here, with the sail concept to the slot side of the field. Brown runs the go route while Fitzgerald runs a deep out. After the run fake to Andre Ellington (#38), the back runs a short out into the left flat:
The intention is to stretch the outside coverage. The vertical route from pins the free safety and the playside cornerback deep. That allows Fitzgerald and Ellington to high-low the coverage in the flat.
With Brown occupying the two deep defenders, Palmer has his choice between Fitzgerald and Ellington. He selects the deeper option:
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Fitzgerald collects the ball in stride, and the Cardinals have an easy 30-yard gain thanks to the marriage of design and execution.
This concept works well against many coverages, including Cover 4. On this play, the Kansas City Chiefs have the football on their own 40-yard line, facing 2nd and 11. Alex Smith lines up under center with 13 personnel in the game, and the Houston Texans have their base 3-4 on the field:
The offense starts this play with the three tight ends on the left, but prior to the snap Travis Kelce motions across the formation, and settles into the left slot, where he will run an out route as part of the sail concept. Jeremy Maclin runs the vertical route, this time the post, and the backside TE runs a shallow drag, setting up the three levels:
When Maclin uses a vertical release against Cover 4, the cornerback turns to run with him. This means the slot-side safety is now responsible for the intermediate receiver ‒ Kelce. If the TE runs a quick route to the flat or a shallow underneath route, the safety must pass Kelce to the underneath defender, and the safety helps the corner on the vertical route. But if Kelce happens to release vertically, then the safety must pick him up in man coverage:
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The outside vertical route occupies the cornerback, creating space along the sideline for Kelce to operate. The safety’s multiple responsibilities gave Kelce room to operate from the slot, where the big TE shows his route running abilities.
But the play works especially well against Cover 3, where it puts pressure on the play-side cornerback and free safety. The Clemson Tigers illustrate this perfectly against Wake Forest. Facing 2nd and 8 with 5:45 remaining in the first quarter, Clemson deploys 11 offensive personnel with Watson in the shotgun.
The Tigers initially set up in a 2X2 alignment, with a slot look to the left, as tight end Jordan Leggett (#16) aligns as a wing and wide receiver Charone Peake (#19) splits outside. On the right, Hunter Renfrow (#13) and Artavis Scott (#3) are in an inverted slot formation, with Renfrow to the inside:
Wake Forest sends out a 4-3 base defense on the field, using an over front and strong-side linebacker Jaboree Williams (#39) covering the TE. The secondary initially shows Cover 4, but off the snap they roll into Cover 3 Buzz, dropping safety Cameron Glenn (#2) into an underneath zone:
Before the start of the play, Scott comes in motion from the right, and after the snap the WR, quarterback and running back C.J. Davidson (#21) meet at the mesh point, selling run action to the defenders. But Watson keeps the football, and the Tigers run a sail concept to the left:
This concept is the perfect play to attack Cover 3, as it puts free safety Zach Dancel (#9) into a bind: either he stays deep and helps on the vertical route, or he vacates the deep middle to cover the deep crossing route, leaving cornerback Brad Watson (#25) alone on Peake. Watson needs to read the FS and make his throw based off of Dancel’s decision.
The safety covers the deep crossing route from Renfrow, leaving Wilson alone on Peake’s go route:
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The WR is able to get a step on the cornerback, and Watson shows off his impressive arm, dropping in a perfect throw into the receiver’s arms four-yards deep in the end zone.
The concept works because of the pressure it puts on one side of a defense, while giving the quarterback simple reads in a condensed area. As these plays indicate, an offense can push the ball vertically, or attack intermediate zones, using this design.