My Conflicted Relationship with Y-Throwback

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]We broke the huddle and walked to the line of scrimmage. It was third and goal, and we were trailing Hamilton College on the road. We needed points late in the third quarter, and opportunities were becoming scarce. My parents, who made the eight-hour drive to see this game, stood nervously near the end zone.

For the second-straight play, a pass was called from the sideline. This one was a little different, as we were digging deep into the playbook. Our goal-line Y-Throwback. But as I settled under center, we had the look we wanted from the defense – man coverage. We had a shot. I turned to my left and nodded to our other tight end, to send him in motion across the formation. It was time.

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Football is in many ways both a cyclical game, and a copy-cat game. Trends fall in and out of favor, and then back in again. Fullbacks, once a staple of the offensive game, are slowly working their way back to relevance after a down period for the position.

The Wildcat formation, after a season or two in the sun, disappeared as defenses figured it out, but now we are seeing more and more of it. When teams have success with something, whether a new scheme or a single play, other teams are going to try and duplicate that success, until defenses come up with an answer.

One of those trends is the Y-Throwback design, which has been utilized more and more the past few seasons. Last year, the Atlanta Falcons employed this concept under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and it inspired this piece after they used it for big plays against the Oakland Raiders and the Carolina Panthers.

Now, the Falcons were hardly the first team to use this design (believe me, I’m not that young). Here’s an example from a few years ago with the San Diego Chargers (google that kids) running this concept.

On this play, San Diego again uses Green on a crossing route, with a bit of a throwback element. Philip Rivers (#17) is under center with 12 offensive personnel in the game, with a 2 TE wing on the right and slot formation on the left. The Bengals have their base 4-3 in the game showing Cover 3 in the secondary:

Rivers will take the snap and fake a stretch play to the right with running back Melvin Gordon (#28). The design of the play gets the defense flowing to that side, but Ladarius Green (#89)  is going to run a crossing route from right to left, working away from the flow of the play:

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By the time the defense realizes the fake, Green has slipped through the middle of the field, seemingly unnoticed and is racing away from MLB Rey Maualuga (#58) with an easy first down.

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As the tight end came in motion across the ball, the strong safety trailed him. That confirmed my pre-snap read: Man coverage. That was step one. Now, I just needed to sell the run fake. I took the snap and reverse-pivoted, opening first to my left before wheeling around to pick up our tailback. I extended the ball with my left arm, put it in his belly, and at the last second pulled it back…

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This season, more and more teams are incorporating this play into their own playbooks. Last Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used it to free O.J. Howard for his first professional touchdown. Facing a 1st and 10 on their own 48-yard line, the offense lines up with quarterback Jameis Winston (#3) under center and 13 offensive personnel on the field. After sending wide receiver Chris Godwin (#12) in motion from right to left, they snap the football with this formation:

From the beginning, the play looks like your standard boot-action passing play, with Godwin and Cameron Brate (#84) running deep crossing routes as Winston comes out of a play-action fake and rolls to his right. Tight end Luke Stocker (#88), who began the play in a wing-alignment to the right, blocks for a moment before releasing to the flat:

In the square is O.J. Howard. He shows the defense a blocking movement on the linebacker, but he will not be stopping for long:

Instead, he will work across the flow of play to the opposite numbers, before turning vertical. As you will see, the entire secondary flows to their left, in mirrored opposition to the offense. That leaves Howard all alone:

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Touchdowns are rarely easier than that, even for Howard.

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As the New England Patriots look to get their passing game back on track after a 2-2 start, perhaps we will see more plays like this from last season. Here against Miami in Week 17, the Patriots face a 1st and 10 on their own 36-yard line. Using 21 offensive personnel, they align with Tom Brady (#12) under center in a strong slot left look. Tight end Martellus Bennett (#88) aligns as the single TE, on the right end of the line in a three-point stance:

Before the play, fullback James Devline (#46) goes in motion across the formation, and when the play begins, the offense shows outside zone to the right, but the tight end leaks across the formation, and the flow of play:

Brady comes out of the fake and retreats into the pocket a few steps, before hitting Bennett on the crosser:

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As I came out of my fake, I moved my field of vision from right to left. I spotted my primary target, our other tight end, crossing the formation from right to left as well. I also saw the defense flowing to the run-action. But as I moved my eyes to the left side of the field and readied to throw, there was a problem in the form of the unblocked defensive end on the back side.

My time was running short, and I needed to make a decision. Perhaps I should just eat this and settle for three point, given the situation. However, I had yet to throw a touchdown pass at the collegiate level, and man this was a great chance to break that drought…

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The Buffalo Bills are one team using the throwback design in 2017 with great effect. Under new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, their West Coast-based offense is starting to click thanks to the recent play of Tyrod Taylor. Tight end Charles Clay is a focal point of their passing game, and through the first four weeks of the 2017 season he is the team’s leader in receptions and targets. In their win over the Atlanta Falcons, Taylor and Clay hooked up twice on throwback designs.

The first time they hit this design came midway through the second quarter. Facing a 1st and 10 at their own 47-yard line, the Bills line up with Taylor (#5) under center and 21 offensive personnel on the field, in a Weak I Pro Left. Clay (#85) aligns on the left edge of the line, in a three point stance:

Here is the play:

Taylor will execute a play-action fake on the right edge, and then boot back to the left. A deep comeback route as well as a deep crossing route will attack the left side of the field. Clay, meanwhile, leaks across the formation before breaking vertically.

As the quarterback comes out of the fake and rolls to the left, he is pressured. Taylor quickly reverses field again, before finding Clay deep down field:

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Given the prevalence of the throwback in the league right now, the Falcons were ready for this, but Clay was able to get a step of separation on the coverage for the big play.

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I made up my mind, and cocked to throw. I might not get another chance like this, my parents didn’t come here to see me hold for field goals, let’s roll the dice…

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The Bills’ second connection on a throwback design came in the fourth quarter. With the score tied at 17 at the 6:25 mark of the fourth quarter, Taylor again lines up under center, only this time the Bills have 12 offensive personnel on the field using a slight variation on the throwback design. Clay aligns alone on the left side of the formation, and will run a corner route. Taylor fakes a running play to that side and rolls to the right, before stopping and looking to his tight end deep:

As we saw with the previous example, there is coverage on the tight end, although Clay has a step. But the flow of the play up front causes the free safety to slide to his left – and away from Clay’s route – just a bit. That’s all the Bills need to make the completion:

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Shortly after I was knocked to the turf, I heard the roar of the crowd.  This being a road game, I knew that was a bad sign. I got to my feet  just in time to see the celebration on the Hamilton sideline. As I walked to the sideline I got an earful from our head coach. Apparently, I had “[bleeping] thrown it right [bleeping] to them.” It was the last pass I’d attempt that game.

That Monday when I finally saw the play on tape, I could not believe it. The throw was so far over the head of our tight end he never had a chance, and the ball then dropped right into the waiting arms of the backside cornerback. It was zone coverage after all. So when you hear or read me stressing how quarterbacks read and diagnose the post-snap look when it doesn’t match up with the pre-snap look, this is why.

A few weeks ago I was scrolling the timeline during the college slate of games, and came across a tweet stating that this design, Y-Throwback, was undefeated. It prompted this from yours truly:

I’m a firm believer in coming clean, and owning up to mistakes. Quarterbacks much better than me will continue to make big plays on these designs, particularly the great ones in the NFL. But I cannot let you all live the lie. As great as these concepts are for attacking defenses, they are not undefeated. And for that, I apologize profusely.

(Seriously though, they are great designs. If your offense is not using them, fix that).

Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his BIG 10 scheme preview work here, such as his look at Indiana and the double post conceptNorthwestern and the Curl/Flat concept, or the Iowa Hawkeyes’ zone running game.

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