While playcalling could seem simple at times (insert Darrell Bevell joke here), it’s far more complicated in actuality. Offensive coordinators may come out with a formation or motion in the first quarter, only to return to it late in the second half and repeat that concept or tweak it just enough to confuse the defense.
Usually, these kinds of plays are built off basic concepts, familiar enough to the offensive players to be installed without difficulty. They can then be used to trick the defense, which is expecting the more common play. At its core, the play-action passing game is just that – an unexpected transition for linebackers and safeties from seeing run looks to having to play the pass.
Take outside zone, for example. A common staple in NFL run games, it gets the flow of the defense going hard outside, leaving it ripe for a countering cross-flow play. Outside zone is flexible enough to be run from most any formation and with almost any motion as window-dressing. This leaves it as a favorite for most offensive coordinators to build something in. Play-action from outside zone was revolutionized when the naked bootleg was introduced. You suddenly have a quarterback cutting across the flow of defense, with the capability to build in a couple of options from there.
If you run zone to the strongside, the tight end will usually climb to linebacker depth before coming back across the formation, mirroring the quarterback. This will typically high-low the flat defender or following linebacker, making them choose between the TE and the QB. If you have a mobile quarterback, this adds an additional wrinkle to the decision for the defender and leaves an easy decision in the passer’s hands. That typically is why it is used so frequently with mobile or young quarterbacks:
Note the downfield drive route from TE Zach Ertz (#86) on this play as QB Carson Wentz (#11) rolls through his bootleg. This is a great example of putting the quarterback on the perimeter to make his own decision.
The naked bootleg from zone could easily be run off a split zone look as well. In that case, the H-back or wing player would come across over underneath the end into the flats for a pass.
Here, TE Brent Celek (#87) runs the drive route in this flood concept, while Ertz has the split zone. Celek is well covered by a dropping defender so Wentz feeds it to Ertz in the flat.
These are two standard adjustments of naked bootlegs from the zone. But, today, we’re not looking at the adjustment to outside zone. We’re looking at an adjustment to the adjustment, based on a concept from the playbooks of both McKinley Tech High School in Washington D.C. (where I am the wide receivers coach) and the Philadelphia Eagles.
The play in focus today is an adjustment to the first of the two aforementioned variations, the TE drive route. Above is the concept drawn up from 21 personnel.
The offensive line will slide to the run action side, leaving a fullback or TE to block opposite the call (in a split zone look backside). The receiver to the TE side runs a fly route with a mandatory outside release. He is not live in the progression – his job is just to clear his defender out of the play entirely. The opposite receiver runs an inside-releasing dig route breaking at 15 yards across the field. The running back carries out the run fake strongside and releases to the flat.
The key to this play is the TE (or #2 receiver to the playside). He runs a route that initially resembles the drive, but here’s where things get complicated. His goal is to sell the safety on that route and suck him down by using his head and shoulders to turn across the field. In the NFL, where players have done plenty of film work in advance, the safety will recognize the naked bootleg concept and come down on that drive route. The TE then bends vertically and turns back outside at 18-20 yards deep, running in total a deep pivot route.
In single-high, there’s no way that the FS can react against the outside-breaking route. Even in two-high coverage, he’s still very unlikely to be able to drive on that ball, especially considering he may have run responsibilities.
The quarterback must execute the play fake first, to sell the defense on the run. Then, he has to sell the bootleg. However, he’s not going all the way naked. He rolls to the backside A gap, where he’s able to set his feet.
His footwork is crucial to the play, as he usually has to set his feet and prepare to deliver the ball quickly. Remember that FB or backside TE? Oh, yeah, they’re matched up one-on-one with the OL’s slide protection opposite. That must be the first thought in the quarterback’s head.
The QB is trained to set his feet to the Z receiver running the 9 route, the player who is not in the progression.
This is not an element of the play designed to trick the defense. In fact, it’s to allow him to work through his progressions with far more efficiency of movement. Instead of setting his back foot directly behind him, he can then work through his open body back across the field of reads. These are far easier mechanics than having to re-open his hips against the flow of receivers, and allows him to work toward the center of the field as the TE will be coming across his line of fire.
Enough talk, let’s look at the plays.
Here, against Washington, the coverage rolls from a two-high to a one-high (Cover 3). Notice the job Ertz does selling the drive route with his head and shoulders basically looking the FS into sliding that way.
Also note the flat defender (in this case, All-Pro #91 Ryan Kerrigan). He’ll have a threat in his zone with RB Ryan Mathews (#24) releasing to the zone in front of him, so his read (not incorrect) is to step up, leaving even more of a throwing window for the quarterback.
This play also displays the danger of leaving a skill player manned up on the backside rusher, Trent Murphy (#93). Wentz has to slide away from his assigned backside A gap because he feels that pressure coming. He is hit as he throws but still delivers a great ball downfield for Ertz.
Let’s look at another example. Remember how I said before that part of the appeal of outside zone is how it can be used from multiple formations? Well, here, we see the same play concept being run from Pistol Slot Left Wing. The player running the deep pivot route this time is actually WR Jordan Matthews (#81) from the slot. This is against a two-high look, and the safety does not have nearly enough ability to break on the ball despite a sloppy route from Matthews.
Of relevance here are the linebackers. They stepped up against the run and were slow getting back into their zones against the pass, meaning the backside dig route came open across the middle late.
There’s more than one way to win your matchups in football. If you don’t have a more physical team, you can rely on the other side being coached well enough to do what they’re taught … which can be to their detriment. This concept, when taught with the proper quarterback mechanics, can wreak havoc for defenses struggling to determine whether it’s the standard naked bootleg or a half-roll deep pivot. For both coordinators, it’s just another play in the giant game of chess we know as football.