Eye candy. Window dressing. Whichever expression you prefer they stand for one thing in football: Taking a simple concept and adding formations, shifts, motions and/or fakes to try and confuse the defense, while maintaining the core structure of the design and keeping it simple for your offense and quarterback.
This can be done in both the passing and the running games. For years the Navy Midshipmen have run their option offense out of the flexbone formation. But in recent seasons they have incorporated more shotgun formations into their offense. As outlined by head coach Ken Niumatalolo, the “gun stuff” was just “window dressing”. “I’m the cake boss,” Niumatalolo declared after a victory over Air Force, “I just tell them what to cook, what kind of cake to make and they do everything. They design it. That’s all Coach Jasper and his staff.” So in the victory over the Falcons even though their quarterback lined up in the shotgun, they used the same three-back option plays with the same zone blocking schemes. It was just a different look to confuse a defense.
Why do offenses do this? Because it can confuse the defense and draw a defender’s eyes away from his real keys. Last season Alabama head coach Nick Saban addressed the new look LSU Tigers offense under Matt Canada: “Sort of eye candy, I call it, for a defensive player…it makes a guy not focus on his real keys and play fast and remember that you’ve got to play block protection. You’ve got to tackle. You’ve got to play the plays. You’ve got to read the keys and do your job. It is a little different, especially from anything that we’ve seen this year.”
We are seeing this same idea play out down in Houston.
The Yankee Concept is a staple of passing offenses. At its core it is a two-receiver, maximum protection passing play that is usually run off of play-action. As broken down in the Inside the Pylon Glossary piece on this design, it is generally a two man deep crossing combo, with the underneath receiver running a deep over route, and the other executing a deep post route over the top from the opposite side of the field.
From the Glossary piece, here is an example of the Washington Redskins running the Yankee Concept from a few seasons ago:
But Washington is not the only team that runs this concept. If you want another example of the Yankee Concept from this season take a look at the New England Patriots. As broken down in this piece from Locked On Patriots, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has brought the Yankee Concept into New England’s playbook this season to help get newly-acquired wide receiver Brandin Cooks involved in the passing game.
This example from New England comes from their game against the Houston Texans. In the third quarter the Patriots are driving and face a 1st and 10 near midfield. They align with quarterback Tom Brady (#12) in the shotgun and 12 offensive personnel on the field. Chris Hogan (#15) aligns to the left along with two tight ends. Cooks (#14) is split to the right.
The Patriots show a split-zone running design, with zone blocking to the left side and Rob Gronkowski (#87) blocking backside. The tight end helps to seal the edge for Brady, who carries out the run fake and then has the post route/over route combination to choose from:
The Texans drop back into zone coverage and cover Hogan well on the post route. Brady then drops his eyes to the intermediate level and hits Cooks on the crosser for a touchdown.
The split-zone blocking scheme that the Patriots use on this play gets us to the idea of “eye candy” or “window dressing.” Showing the defense a bit of a different look makes the defenders think for just a moment, but in the end this play is just the Yankee Concept, dressed up a bit. A deep post route, and a deep over route. Same progression concept for the quarterback.
That brings us to Jimbo Fisher for a moment. At the 2015 Nike Coaches Clinic, Fisher gave a presentation on the “Over Pattern.” This is one of his staples while coaching the Florida State offense. At its core, the Over Pattern involves a crossing route from one receiver in the progression. But Fisher took the observers through eight different variations of the concept, from Trips Y-Over to Trips Z-Over to Bunch Z-Over to Double Post X-Over to Y-Over X-B to X-Over Two-Backs to Bunch Z-Over to… well, you get the point. But then Fisher stated how eye candy helps an offensive coordinator fool a defense, but matters little to the quarterback:
It does not matter to the quarterback what formation or combination of receivers I run, he always knows the progression of his read. He looks post, over, and flat. It is the same high/low read for him regardless of the formation. I can get creative with the formations and motion, but he is still thinking post, over, and flat. 2015 Coach of the Year Clinics Football Manual pp. 86-87
The offensive coordinator can dress a play up, but in the end the read structure is the same for the quarterback.
Now we can talk about Deshaun Watson, Bill O’Brien, the Yankee Concept and the 2017 Houston Texans. As broken down by Ryan Dukarm in this great piece on the Texans’ play-action passing game, the Yankee Concept is a core component to their aerial attack. On this play against the Patriots, they run the scheme out of an i-formation using 21 personnel:
This is your more typical look at the Yankee Concept, a run action out of an i-formation, not a lot of window dressing here from Houston.
Now the issue becomes for an offensive coordinator, or an offensive-minded head coach like O’Brien, is one of eye candy. Eventually defenses are going to catch onto these designs. So how can you make the secondary think before the play, while keeping everything basically the same for the quarterback from a read progression standpoint. Remember Fisher’s words: It is the same high/low read for him regardless of the formation. I can get creative with the formations and motion, but he is still thinking post, over, and flat.
Against the Seattle Seahawks, the Texans faced a 1st and 10 midway through the first quarter with the football on their own 39-yard line. They line up with Watson (#4) in the shotgun and 11 offensive personnel on the field. Tight end Ryan Griffin (#84) is in the backfield to the left of Watson, and running back Lamar Miller (#26) is also in the backfield, to the right of the quarterback. Two receivers are in a slot to the right with Will Fuller V (#15) spilt alone to the left:
Prior to the snap slot receiver Bruce Ellington (#12) starts in Orbit motion toward the backfield:
He will be behind Watson at the snap, and here is the offensive design:
Griffin blocks across the formation as Miller and Watson carry out a run fake. Ellington cuts back toward his original side of the field on a swing route. Watson carries out a run fake with his running back and then fakes a pass to Ellington on the swing route. All of that? Window dressing for the Yankee Concept. Fuller runs the deep post, Hopkins runs the over route. Watch as linebacker K.J. Wright (#50) gets caught up looking at the window dressing before scrambling to cover Hopkins, who runs right past him:
The end zone camera has a great look at how the fakes in the backfield slow the defense at the second- and third-levels:
Later in the game the Texans returned to this concept:
Again, we see the run fake, the fake swing route to the receiver, and the Yankee Concept downfield. Another aspect to this design for the Texans, and mobile quarterbacks in general, is how the routes anticipate a quarterback who breaks the pocket. Here, Fuller is running the deep over route. When Watson feels the pocket break down around him and rolls to the right, he has a receiver working across the field with him. Should Watson have rolled to his left, Hopkins was coming across the field to that sideline. An added wrinkle/benefit to this concept for teams with mobile QBs.
Again, the two central elements of the route design – the post route and the over route – are incorporated into the play. All Watson needs to remember is his read progression: Look at the post, come down to the over route. Whether run out of a standard run formation or with all the crazy fakes in the backfield, the read for the QB is the exact same. It is up to the offensive coordinator or head coach to come up with the eye candy to confuse the defense. That’s his job, while it’s the quarterback’s job to make the throw. Right now, both O’Brien and Watson are doing their jobs pretty well, and this is just one example. So when the New England Patriots clash with the Texans next Sunday, eye candy is one of many things the defensive staff and players will need to keep in mind.