— It’s diagram time again! This week, we’ll break down some signature plays of the eight remaining playoff teams, including plays that helped teams through last week’s wild-card weekend.
All plays are taken from game tape of the 2010 season.
The Falcons do not try to outsmart anyone on offense. Their gameplans are simple and a little predictable — funnel the ball into the hands of their best playmakers, most notably receiver Roddy White.
Coordinator Mike Mularkey can afford to run a no-frills offense because he knows Matt Ryan can deliver pinpoint passes and White will haul in even the toughest catches.
Figure 1 shows the Falcons facing 3rd-and-20. You will sometimes hear broadcasters say that a coach has “nothing in the playbook” for such a hopeless down-and-distance situation. That’s silly. Mularkey calls a straightforward deep-pass play. White (84) executes a corner route, running 15 yards downfield before angling toward the sideline. Harry Douglass (83) runs a deep cross, Michael Jenkins (12) runs a fly pattern along the left sideline, and Tony Gonzalez (88) and Jason Snelling (44) run short bench routes so Ryan has somewhere to dump the ball if everything goes wrong.
But let’s face it: White is the only player Ryan wants to throw to on 3rd-and-long, and everyone knows it.
So how does White get open? As shown, the defense has three safeties deep; no one should be open 20 yards down the field. The blue double line shows Ryan’s eyes. He stares down the middle safety, never looking White’s way until the last second. White doesn’t tip his route; the defense doesn’t know whether he will cut inside, outside, or run straight up the field until he makes his sharp break for the corner.
The deep corner pass is incredibly difficult to execute — only a handful of NFL quarterbacks have the arm strength and accuracy to fire a pass into such a tight space so far down the field. Ryan’s eyes, White’s route, and the difficulty of the throw all force the safety to stay deep. He must worry about a go-route or post first, a hard-to-execute corner route second. Ryan fires a laser that only White can get to. The pass comes in a little low, but White dives, scoops up the ball, and keeps his body inbounds.
The Falcons' simple system is hard to stop because the team is fundamentally sound. They block and tackle well, run routes properly, and always execute their assignments. The Packers like to be exotic and creative on defense; the Falcons’ no-nonsense approach on offense provides the perfect counterattack.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers had difficulty establishing the run after Ryan Grant got injured. Grant was their only fast running back, so the Packers were forced to resort to cloud-of-dust rushing tactics that didn’t always complement the team’s wide-open passing attack.
Against the Eagles on Sunday, the Packers were able to grind out rushing yardage using a wrinkle they have tinkered with for years: the full house backfield featuring two fullbacks and a power-running halfback.
The formation shown in Figure 2 has a variety of names — the diamond, the inverted wishbone, or just the full house. Fullbacks John Kuhn (30) and Quinn Johnson (44) give rookie running back James Starks (45) a great escort of blockers. The diagram doesn’t show how surprised the defense was to see the Packers in a full house set on 2nd-and-10. As Aaron Rodgers (12) starts his cadence, linebackers point and reposition each other to make sure they can defend all the interior gaps.
At the snap, Rodgers pivots left, Starks jab-steps left, and the offensive line opens up to the left side. This gets the defense flowing in that direction. Kuhn and Johnson head straight for the outside linebackers, and each lays down a solid block. The center and right guard double-team the nose tackle, pushing him to their left and opening a large cutback lane for Starks. Starks obeys an age-old coaching point by “hugging the double team,” and uses the tandem block as a wall to cut to his right and go upfield. Only the middle linebacker has a chance to stop Starks, but he flowed to his left, got caught behind the double team, and can only muster a feeble attempt at an arm tackle. Starks plows downfield for 27 yards.
The Packers often pass from the full-house formation. With the whole defense worried about an inside run, there is a lot of space along the sidelines for the receivers to get open. But the full house is best used as a battering ram which keeps the Green Bay offense from becoming one-dimensional. The Falcons allowed 4.6 yards per carry this year and can be vulnerable up the middle. Plays like this full-house counter can wear the Falcons down, especially if the Packers find themselves nursing a lead.
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz is the guru of the double move. His teams may have trouble running the ball or protecting the quarterback, but his receivers are masters of the art of selling one route, then breaking off into another when a defender is faked out of position. Double moves were a staple of Martz’s Greatest Show on Turf offenses in St. Louis, and he has taught Chicago’s stable of speedy receivers how to shake defenders for big gains on deep patterns.
Figure 3 shows the Bears facing 2nd-and-10. Despite his reputation as an architect of wide-open offenses, Martz often uses blocking backs and tight ends, as shown in the diagram (the weakness of the Bears' offensive line leaves him little choice). Tight ends Greg Olsen (82) and Brandon Manumaleuna (86, lined up at fullback) join Matt Forte (22) running underneath routes, but don’t worry much about what they are doing. Their jobs are to give Jay Cutler (6) dump-off targets and to “hold the level” of the zone coverage. By stretching across the field on shallow routes, they force the linebackers and strong safety to stay close to the line of scrimmage, creating room for Johnny Knox (13) to work.
Knox runs what appears to be a post pattern, cutting toward the middle of the field at 12 yards. His defender overreacts to the cut, moving in front of Knox to take away Cutler’s passing lane. As soon as the defender commits, Knox smoothly breaks off and turns toward the sideline. Cutler may be mistake-prone, but he has excellent arm strength, and he delivers the deep-out pass so quickly that Knox can turn up field and race along the sideline until the free safety drags him down for a 67-yard gain.
Devin Hester (23) can also execute deep double-moves, and underneath receivers like Forte and Olsen have the hands and quickness to keep the defense honest. When Cutler is spreading the ball evenly among his targets and his offensive line is giving him time to throw, the Bears have a dangerous, unpredictable offense.
I’ll admit it: I wrote off Matt Hasselbeck before the Seahawks upset the Saints on Saturday. He suffered so many injuries this season that it was easy to write him off as a non-factor. Hasselbeck certainly is brittle, but he’s also a playoff tested veteran who has always excelled at the little things: finding secondary receivers, play-action passing, and picking zone coverage apart. And let’s not forget pump-faking. Hasselbeck used a brilliant pump-fake last week to punish an overeager Saints defender.
Figure 4 shows the Seahawks facing 2nd-and-long near midfield. Cameron Morrah (88) is a tight end/wide receiver tweener; a 240-pounder with sure hands but limited speed. The talent-thin Seahawks often split Morrah out as a receiver, and here he draws single coverage against a safety. The safety is not too worried about a backup tight end running a deep route, and when he reads Hasselbeck’s short drop in the pocket and a quick curl by Morrah, the defender thinks he has a potential pick-6.
But Morrah isn’t running a curl. The red double line shows Hasselbeck’s pump fake, which coaxes the safety to jump the route. Morrah is more nimble than he looks, and he quickly twists off the curl route and runs upfield. Hasselbeck’s experience and touch now take over. He doesn’t wait for Morrah to complete his route; he just floats a soft pass to the spot on the field where Morrah will eventually wind up. With both a tight end and running back helping in pass protection, this play is designed to give Hasselbeck maximum time to wait, pump, then float his pass.
Hasselbeck executed a similar pump-and-go play against the Bears early in the year, with Mike Williams (17) catching a deep pass after his defender got lured away by a pump fake. Defenses can stop the Seahawks just by playing sound fundamental football, but as the Saints learned, Hasselbeck and his teammates are good enough to make you look foolish if you get too sloppy. Just as the Bears learned during the season.
Wes Welker remains the heart and soul of the Patriots offense. Tom Brady distributes the ball to a dozen different targets, and the power running game has reemerged after a few years of spread-offense fascination, but when the Patriots want 8-to-10 reliable yards, Brady looks to Welker. While Welker is famous for catching quick screens, this season he has been running more traditional routes, and the Patriots have had to scheme to isolate Welker now that Randy Moss isn’t around to occupy the opponent’s attention.
Figure 1 shows the Patriots in an empty backfield formation on 2nd-and-10. Opponents never know when the empty backfield is coming because the Patriots stick with their base personnel. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) and running back Danny Woodhead (39) are in the huddle and opponents cannot predict what is coming. The defense at least has nickel personnel on the field, but with three receivers to the right side, a linebacker must drop into coverage against Deion Branch (84) and Welker (83) on the left. Whenever Brady suspects that a linebacker will cover Welker, he knows where he wants to go with the pass.
The Branch-Welker route combination is designed to keep the cornerback and safety on their heels. Notice that the two receivers are almost stacked at the line of scrimmage. Welker releases inside, so he is running behind Branch for a few steps, and Branch veers across the face of the linebacker, who freezes while figuring out who is going where. When defenders face stacked receivers, they often assign coverage based on the patterns; the cornerback is not covering Branch or Welker, but whoever cuts to the outside. Both Welker and Branch run crossing routes, and while the linebacker does a good job of diagnosing the play and chasing Welker, he’s not fast enough to stay with the receiver, who gains 15 yards.
The Jets want to play man-to-man coverage so they can unleash their blitzes, but Brady excels at finding and exploiting the weak links in man coverage. Darrelle Revis isn’t the answer for the Jets — Welker often hides in the slot or in stack formations and works the middle of the field, out of Revis’ range. If the Patriots can peck the Jets to death with plays like these, they can win easily.
The Jets' running game can sometimes get a little too fancy. Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is infatuated with Wildcat and Pistol formations, and while trick-play specialist Brad Smith has had his moments this year, the offense often grinds to a halt when he enters the game to take a direct snap. The Jets are a very effective rushing team when they keep things simple, and they proved against the Colts that they can generate yardage by running the ball when opponents are thinking pass.
Figure 2 shows the Jets facing 3rd-and-3. In today’s NFL, 3rd-and-3 is a passing down, so when the Jets line up with three wide receivers, the defense counters with nickel personnel, anticipating a short throw. Instead, the Jets run a quick sweep to LaDainian Tomlinson (21). At the snap, left tackle D’Brickishaw Ferguson (60) pulls to the left as Tomlinson’s lead blocker, while receiver Jerricho Cocthery (89) cracks back on a safety and Dustin Keller (81) turns to cut off any defenders pursuing Tomlinson from the back side.
The Jets catch the defense blitzing on this run: as shown in blue lines, the cornerback over Cotchery charges straight into the backfield, while the defensive end runs a stunt that pulls him away from Tomlinson. It’s another advantage of running on a passing down: the blitzing defenders are in no position to stop Tomlinson, and Ferguson has no one to block until he (and Tomlinson) are 10 yards downfield. A great block by Braylon Edwards (19) on his cornerback nets a few extra yards for Tomlinson.
The Patriots intercepted 25 passes this season, with Mark Sanchez throwing three of them. The Jets cannot afford to get predictable, and they cannot turn to Brad Smith and the odds 'n ends portion of the playbook every time they want to surprise the Patriots. Something as simple as a pulling tackle and a sweep on 3rd-and-medium will keep the chains moving and the defense guessing.
When a team has two outstanding pass rushers, we usually expect them to attack from opposite sides of the formation. Think Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, or (a few years ago) Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. But the Steelers like to blitz James Harrison (10.5 sacks) and Lamar Woodley (10 sacks) off the same edge. When two of the league’s fastest, hardest-to-block defenders attack side-by-side, a blocking mismatch is all but guaranteed.
Figure 3 shows the Steelers trying to shut down an opponent on 3rd-and-4. On passing downs, the Steelers often use a 2-4-5 personnel grouping. With just two linemen and four linebackers on the field, they gain a huge speed advantage over the opposing offensive line. The Steelers aren’t shy about their intentions on this play with Harrison (92), Woodley (56) and James Farrior (51) all lined up shoulder-to-shoulder on the offensive right. The Steelers often fake blitzes from formations like these, sending some of the pass rushers into zone coverage while attacking from another angle. That’s not what happens here — all three defenders are coming.
There are no fancy stunts or twists on this blitz. Farrior sacrifices himself inside; he wants either the right guard or running back to block him, creating space for his teammates. Both Woodley and Harrison take a wide approach, attacking upfield and trying to get outside the shoulders of their blockers. The opponent hopes to stop this blitz by making the running back block Farrior while the right guard and tackle range far to their right to knock out the other Steelers. Against many teams, this blocking scheme would work, but Woodley and Harrison are simply too fast for most offensive linemen. Once Woodley gets tangled up with the right tackle, he knows no one will be able to block Harrison, so he slows down and creates a little pile-up. Harrison is barely touched before nailing the quarterback for an eight-yard loss.
The Ravens' offensive line has trouble with speed-rushing defenders. The Steelers will scheme to isolate Woodley and Harrison against huge, slow linemen like Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda. By putting their best pass rushers on one side of the formation, they can dictate who will block whom, creating exactly the matchups they want.
In early December, the Ravens learned the hard way that it does not pay to be bomb-dependent against the Steelers. The Ravens completed 61- and 67-yard passes in Week 12, but the Steelers were happy to trade two bombs for four sacks, a Joe Flacco fumble, lots of incomplete passes, and 10 points. The Ravens reinvigorated their short passing attack in Sunday’s wild-card win, and their best hope to move the football on Saturday lies with a familiar-but-often-overlooked old face: tight end Todd Heap.
Figure 4 shows the Ravens facing 3rd-and-8. The defense is showing blitz, with three linebackers crowding the line of scrimmage, and the coverage is easy to diagnose: tight man-to-man, with a safety deep. The defense wants to pressure Flacco into hurrying a throw, and with receivers getting jammed at the line and the blitz likely to arrive quickly, there won’t be time for a patented Ravens bomb.
There’s nothing fancy about the route combination shown: Anquan Boldin (81) runs a deep post, forcing the safety to backpedal. The other receivers run out-routes, creating wide-open space in the middle of the field. Once Flacco sees that the linebackers really are blitzing, he knows he must throw quickly. Luckily, Heap runs a shallow crossing route at five yards, shaking off his defender by pretending to go deep (and getting away with a tiny push) before cutting across the middle. Heap catches the pass three yards shy of a first down, but with the cornerbacks along the sidelines and the safety deep, he only has to outrun his defender to pick up a first down.
Heap had 10 catches on Sunday, and Flacco completed a lot of passes over the short middle, a part of the field that the Ravens often neglect. To beat the Steelers, a quarterback must read the blitz, find a soft spot in the coverage, deliver a short pass, and give his receiver a chance to run for extra yardage. If the Flacco-Heap connection is clicking, the Ravens won’t have to spend the whole afternoon waiting for one or two big plays.