While I was in college, autumn Tuesdays took on a familiar schedule.
Morning classes usually finished around 11:30, and being a College of Social Studies major that gave me more than enough time to make the walk from the Public Affairs Center, where most of my classes were held, down Cross Street to the Neon Deli. Although the way I’d pass by Olin Library, featured in the beginning of the movie “PCU,” which yes, was written about life at Wesleyan University.
The stop at Neon was to pick up the same Tuesday lunch, a chicken parm sub, and then cross over Cross Street into the Freeman Athletic Center. I’d wave to the student working the ID booth, make the left toward the swimming arena and duck into the administrative offices. Then I’d say hello to our SID who was usually shuttling from the fax machines up front to his offices, make a right down the first hallway, and plop down on the couch in head coach Frank Hauser’s office.
Our Tuesday noontime quarterback meeting was to install the game plan for the upcoming week, including our upcoming game script. There, on an old green couch that belonged on the set of “Frasier,” and below a bulletin board that displayed hundreds of golf scorecards from around the country, likely obtained on recruiting trips, I’d eat my lunch with the other two QBs and start learning the plays that would be featured during the week, including our “first fifteen.”
A recent discussion on Twitter brought my mind back to those Tuesday afternoons. Mark Bullock, who does fantastic work for both the Washington Post and the Bleacher Report NFL1000 project, is an incredible follow on Twitter who is always dropping scheme knowledge. He indicated that a fun summertime project would be to have a group of writers put together their “mini game plans,” identifying a package of play-calls that they would have on their play-sheets if they were offensive coordinators. So to kick things off I’ve identified plays in six different categories: 1st/2nd Down Passing Plays, Play Action Passing Plays, Third and Long Passing Plays, Screen Passes, Shot Plays, and Runs. Look, I’m a quarterback, so I’m more excited about throwing it than I am handing it off…
The point to this exercise, as discussed between Mark and myself, was to identify a package of plays for these situations that should have an answer for defenses while also setting the opposition up for a different play later in the game. The plays I’ve included, in my mind, accomplish those goals.
Because of the length of this piece, I’ve broken it up into three parts. Part 1 installs the 1st and 2nd down passes and our shot plays. Part 2 installs our runs and play-action passing plays, and Part 3 covers 3rd and long and the screen game.
1st and 2nd Down Passes
These are plays I would be looking to call on almost any distance on first or second downs, save for perhaps a 2nd and 25 situation, where I’d look to another section of the play sheet. We can begin with one of everybody’s favorites:
One of the more fascinating aspects of my second career is observing my own progression when it comes to offensive schemes. My playing experience was rooted in more of an Air Coryell offensive mindset, with some West Coast concepts sprinkled in throughout various playbooks. But over the past few years I’ve taken a real liking to some of the basic Air Raid concepts, with the Mesh play chief among them. From the simplified read structure for the quarterback to the various ways Mesh can attack defenses, its is a very quarterback-friendly design to execute.
Here’s the basic Mesh play:
This route concept has an answer for everything. Pre-snap, if the quarterback identifies one-on-one coverage over the X receiver he can take a deep shot. If it’s a single-high look, he can work the Corner/Swing combination which sets up a high-low bracket over that cornerback, before coming to the crossers underneath. Same basic read structure for a Cover 2/4 look. If the QB gets man across the board, he can peek the route to X, then peek that wheel route to H, before looking to the mesh.
92 Out or 92 Return
After running 92 a few times at a defense, you can then throw this variant at them:
Here you show the defense the standard Mesh concept, but instead of crossing over the middle each receiver stops and works back toward their sideline. It changes the eye angles for each of the underneath defenders, and combined with the more vertical routes, it gives you a chance to get the ball to those receivers in space in the flat. In this example the offense pairs it with a Hoss concept on the outside (hitch/seam) as well as a backside dig over the top of the two return routes. Similar to the basic Mesh, this route combination has an answer for any coverage. If the QB sees single-high, he can work the Hoss. Cover 2/4 gives him the return routes as well as the dig in front of the safeties.
Curl/Flat or Hank
This West Coast staple is a favorite of mine for two reasons: First, it gives the quarterback a nice defined read structure and second, it is a mirrored passing concept, that basically divides the field in half and allows the quarterback to pick his “best side” if all things are equal coverage-wise, throwing to either the short side of the field, the best matchup, or however the coaching staff wants to define “best-side”
That’s taken from Jon Gruden’s 1998 Raiders playbook. As you can see, the read progression is as follows: The QB first checks that sit route over the middle (with an alert on a potential hot route as well) and then works either side of the field on the curl to the flat.
Curl routes, when they are run well against a cornerback who has to worry about getting beat deep (Cover 1, Cover 3) are very difficult to cover. If the defense starts to respond by dropping that overhang or slot defender under that curl route to help, then the flat route should start to open up for you. Cover 2 and Cover 4 are a bit trickier with this concept, as the defense can keep the corner in the flat to take that away and then have the LBs drop under the curls, but there are still options. That sit route over the middle could work to get under the MLB as the linebackers drop, and then you can work in the flat-wheel variation, where the inside receiver runs a wheel route and should find grass along the boundary.
The Smash Family
I’ve made no secret of my affinity for the Smash concept, and this route combination remains one of the more popular concepts across all levels of football. At its core it combines a corner route with a hitch route and looks to set up a high-low over the boundary defender using those two routes. I wrote about this design in a piece arguing that RPOs are merely the evolution of the high-low concept and included a quote from Mick McCall, a college offensive coordinator, about this scheme and how it helps to “eliminate choices” for the quarterback:
The quarterback sees the flat defender and the safety. He reads from high to low. If he can throw the hitch, he takes it. If they cover the hitch, he looks for the corner route. If the safety is over top of the corner route, his focus goes to the backside.
When you teach the quarterback, he must eliminate choices. If the corner presses the hitch, the quarterback reads 1-2. That means he barely looks at the first read and goes immediately to the second read, which is the corner route. If the corner defender retreats, he reads 1-2. That means he throws the hitch if he can. 2014 Nike Coaches Clinic Manual pg 148
Here is the basic Smash combination:
So Smash and it’s cousin Flat-7 are two play-calls that are automatically in my script. You can run these out of a 2×2 with a mirrored look, so again if you get the ball on one of the hashmarks your QB can throw short-side.
Of course, defenses are always looking to take plays away. One of my favorite things to do (again, with the caveat that I’m not really normal) is to read defensive playbooks, as many of them include adjustments for the more common route combinations. A defensive playbook that I rely on and am always studying is the Nick Saban/Kirby Smart 2008 Alabama playbook. For nearly every coverage scheme they have calls, alerts and adjustments for route concepts. Among them is the Smash route. “Alert Smash” is a common adjustment for many of their coverages, and if they see the outside receiver hitch with this adjustment, they’ll drop the CB under the corner route and their Apex defender (the next inside defender) will rotate over to the hitch.
Another call that Alabama uses is Stomp, which is the inverse of the Alert Smash call. Here the CB squats on the hitch route and the Apex defender drops under the corner, with a safety rotating over as well.
Now here’s where we bring in the third variant of this: Smash-Divide
Again, a mirrored route design with the dual Smash concepts, but with that route from the #3 receiver to split the safeties. If you’re getting the safeties in Cover 2 looks over the top of the corner routes, you can then split them with #3 on this seam, running away from the dropping LB. That will slow the safety rotation.
Later in this piece we’ll install and discuss X Tunnel, but here we’re going to incorporate the play that X Tunnel sets up, which is the Tunnel-Go or Togo in my parlance:
There are some variations that you can play with on this design, including a switch verticals concept, as well as adjusting which receiver releases downfield, the inside receiver or the middle receiver. But chances are if you’ve had some success with X Tunnel a few times in a game, you can hit on this play downfield later in the contest. A good design to have in the bank.
“At least four times a game, down the field throws should be called realizing risk versus reward.”
-New England Patriots
The Patriots’ playbook has a section dedicated to “shot plays,” where the deep ball is the feature. That section begins with the above quote. I’ve always been a fan of taking a few designed shots downfield throughout the game based on situation: After turnovers, after a big run, near midfield, and on 2nd and short. Shot plays can be run with or without play-action, but I particularly love the idea of pairing a shot play and play-action on 2nd and short.
G Spread Left Utah Goalie/Peel/Whirl Flanker Right
This is a dual passing combination that incorporates a two-receiver in-cut combination on the left (Utah) with a three-man combination to the right. Here is the basic diagram:
As you can see, the three receiver combination has three variations. Goalie is your basic switch verticals look, with the outside receiver running a go, the inside receiver running a wheel and the #3 receiver running a swing screen route. Peel has the outside receiver run a post, while the rest of the routes remain the same. Whirl has the outside receiver run a curl route, and again the other two routes (wheel/swing) remain the same. Backside the B has a deep dig/search route, as well as a shallow crosser.
The QB wants to hit the wheel route in an ideal world. But, he can work backside after that as well as peeking that swing route in a pinch. Against Cover 4 that wheel route is likely taken away, so the quarterback should be on alert to work backside to that dig/search route finding grass underneath the safeties.
G 2 Half 66 Hoss Spin Ringo
The Hoss concept is a staple of New England’s offense, another two receiver route combination that consists of a hitch route from the outside receiver, and a seam route from the inside receiver. This is deadly for New England, particularly against single-high looks, when they can get tight end Rob Gronkowski working up the seam from the slot.
But this variation turns that hitch route into a double-move hitch-and-go on the boundary:
This is a beautiful design that also anticipates strong cornerback play perhaps taking away that shot play, with the potential adjustments from the two inside receivers. If the middle of the field is open (Cover 2 or Cover 4) those seam routes adjust to curl routes, letting the slot receivers check up underneath the safeties. If the cornerback stays on top of that double-move on the outside, the QB can work frontside to backside on those deeper curl routes. If the middle of the field is closed (Cover 1 or Cover 3) those remain as seam routes, and the QB can then move the FS with his eyes to one and throw the other.
So that’s the first installment, a variety of passing plays to stretch defenses and give our quarterback some options at multiple levels of the field with hopefully some simplified reads and looks. Next, we’ll take a look at our run game as well as our play-action passing designs.