Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
14 Jul 2006
by Mike Tanier
The quick slant is the signature play of the West Coast Offense. Since the West Coast is the most prevalent offense in the NFL, it's not an exaggeration to call the slant the most important play in professional football.
The quick slant is a simple pass pattern: run three to five steps, slant toward the middle of the field, and look for the ball as soon as you make your cut. But like the Cover-2 defense or the zone blitz, the quick slant embodies an entire football philosophy, and it can form the core of a whole offensive scheme. A team that builds its plays around slants, like the Seahawks, attacks a defense much differently than does a team that builds around I-formation running, like the Steelers.
But even the Steelers execute the occasional quick slant: it's part of every NFL playbook. Because it is so ubiquitous, the quick slant makes a great introduction into the world of pass play design. If you can understand the quick slant, in all of it's myriad incarnations, then you can begin to comprehend how modern playbooks and gameplans are constructed.
The diagram to the right shows a classic slant play. This play is often called Slant-and-Flats or Slant-and-Shoot. In Jon Gruden's terminology, it is part of the Jet Smoke series: a set of plays featuring two slants and two flat routes. The play shown here is interpreted from a diagram Gruden used during a presentation at the 2004 coaching clinic, but similar plays can be seen in books like Football's West Coast Offense by Frank Henderson and Mel Olson and various other sources.
Let's examine each player's role in this Slant-and-Flats play:
Receivers: The left and right receiver each runs a slant route. Each stands at the line of scrimmage with his outside foot back and takes three long strides. Depending on the type of coverage and the preferences of the coach, the receiver's initial steps might be parallel to the sideline, angled slightly toward the middle of the field, or directed toward the body of his defender. Against press coverage, he must fight for a clean release while still moving upfield in the first three steps. If the defending cornerback is playing off the line of scrimmage or shading the receiver to the left or right, attacking straight toward his body will force him to backpedal, which will give the receiver plenty of room to make a cut.
On the third stride, each receiver plants and breaks at a 30-45 degree angle, anticipating the ball just after the break. The angle of the break depends on the coach's philosophy and the type of coverage; with safeties in the deep middle of the field, the receiver should take a tight angle so he doesn't drift into their zones. If the receiver failed to get separation from his cornerback, he can still shield the cornerback from the ball with his body as long as he has gotten inside the defender. The receiver must be ready to snap off the route and start eluding defenders as soon as he catches the ball.
Halfback: As the play is drawn, the halfback has blitz pickup responsibilities at the snap. If any defender blitzes wide of the left tackle's outside foot, the halfback must block him. If no one blitzes on that side, the halfback releases into the flat.
Fullback: The fullback is the hot receiver on this route. If a defender blitzes wide of the right tackle, the fullback must sprint into the flat and prepare for an immediate throw.
Both the halfback and fullback are check-down targets on this play. If the quarterback has nowhere else to go, he'll dump the ball into one of the flats for a short gain. But the backs are performing another important task: they are stretching the defense horizontally. Against man coverage, they are clearing the middle of the field of linebackers who could jump the slant routes. Against zone coverage, they are widening the flat defenders; in other words, they are forcing cornerbacks to disengage from the wide receivers and step up to defend the short passes.
Tight End: This play isn't designed for the tight end. He runs a seam route to occupy the attention of the safety covering him (or covering the zone behind the flanker on the right side). The tight end must release cleanly and attack the seam hard, ideally bringing a safety with him to the deep middle. If the safeties determine that the tight end is a decoy and start ignoring him, the offensive coordinator will spot it in the booth, and he'll tell the quarterback to look for the tight end deep the next time the play is called.
The Offensive Line: This diagram shows a likely blocking scheme against a four-man front. The center checks for defenders coming through the A-gaps, then assists the right guard. Protectors on the right side of the line block the gaps to their right. As shown, there's a big hole in the protection in the B-gap between the left guard and tackle. The halfback might be asked to read this gap and block before releasing into the pattern.
Quarterback: Pre-snap, the quarterback reads the coverage, looks for potential blitzes, and determines if the cornerbacks are playing press or loose coverage. This play works best on the strong (right) side; the tight end is clearing out defenders, and the flanker is off the line of scrimmage and more likely to release cleanly. But the play is largely symmetrical, so the quarterback can switch sides and see nearly identical routes. But he must decide while dropping to pass. Slant and flat routes are completed quickly, and the quarterback probably won't have time to switch sides in the pocket.
At the snap, the quarterback takes a three-step drop and reads the cornerback and linebacker to the preferred side of the field. If the cornerback is in loose coverage and the linebacker is chasing a running back, the slant will be open. If the receiver gets a clean release in press coverage, the slant will be open. If the linebacker blitzes, the quarterback hits the running back in the flat. He may also target the running back if the defense is in man coverage, the flanker is well covered, but the linebacker is slow in getting to the flat. If nothing opens up, he can try to reset his feet and throw the other way, dump the ball to the running back and hope for a two-yard gain, or throw the ball 20 yards over the tight end's head.
The Slant-Flat play explained above dates back to the Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark days. If you play video games, you probably executed the split-back Slant-Flat play a few thousand times. If quick slants only worked out of split-back formations, they wouldn't be very popular today. Luckily, this versatile play can be run from any formation, and it can be tweaked to fit a variety of situations.
Here is a very similar Slant-Flat play, this time from a single back set with an H-back in motion. After the H-back crosses the formation, there are three receivers flooding the right side of the field. This makes the quarterback's reads easier: he can tell if the split end to the left is isolated against his cornerback, and the shifting of the defense should tell him if they are in man or zone coverage underneath.
Once the ball is snapped, this play is nearly identical to the one run from the split-back formation. The receivers run their slants. The running back hits the weakside flat, possibly after reading for blitzes. The tight end attacks the strong side gap. Instead of running a seam pattern, the H-back runs a curl in the middle of the field. That makes him part of the quarterback's progression of reads: if the outside linebackers dropped into zones around the hashmarks ("hook zones") to stop the slants, there should be plenty of room underneath for an alert H-back to sit and wait for a short pass.
As shown, the tight end and H-back cross each other, creating a potential "rub" which could help either player get open. In another variation of the play, the H-back could slip into the flat, while the tight end runs the curl. Either player could stay in to help boost the pass protection. The choices are limitless.
Here is a Slant-Flat variation from a Twin WR set, with two wide receivers on the left side of the formation. In this iteration, three players run slants: the split end, the flanker in the slot, and the H-back. The tight end and running back work the flats; the diagrammed play has the tight end pass blocking before releasing.
In the NFL, most defenses counter a twins formation by bringing a safety or nickel defender to cover the slot receiver, while the left cornerback plays the "force" position outside the tight ends on the right side of the offense. That often creates a mismatch, with a starting receiver facing a safety or backup defender. If the quarterback reads an obvious mismatch or a blitz from the twins side, he throws the slant to the flanker. If the defense brings an extra safety into deep coverage on the twins side, that deep safety is usually assigned to help with the inside slant, leaving the split end in single coverage. If both cornerbacks line up in man coverage on the twins side, the receivers can clear them out, and the running back should have plenty of room to run after catching the flat pass.
If defenses adapt to the Twin WR Slant-Flat, the offense can counter attack by making the flanker run a curl route, having the split end run a drag across the middle, or sending the running back on an angle route across the middle of the field. And of course, a few running plays to the two-tight end side will keep defenses from loading up against the twins.
That's pretty much it: the play that turned Bill Walsh into Socrates, Joe Montana into a bronze bust, and the power-running NFL into a precision aerial show. How could one play, a short pass no less, change the way football is played?
Walsh built his version out of necessity when he began coaching the 49ers in the late 1970s. He had already helped design a technical, short-passing offense for the Bengals, but his offensive line in San Francisco wasn't good enough to keep quarterback Steve DeBerg upright for more than a second or two. So Walsh emphasized the three-step drop and developed pass routes that opened up quickly.
It was the right offense for the right time. The five-yard chuck rule had been instituted, and defenders could no longer batter receivers up and down the field. Defensive coordinators struggled to adapt. Cornerbacks didn't want to risk a penalty by getting too physical, and they didn't want to risk getting burnt. So they all but allowed those quick slants, hitches, smashes, flats and curls. Walsh (and later Montana) built an empire one five-yard pass at a time.
What came to be called the West Coast Offense met every challenge that 1980s defenses offered. Hot routes and running backs in the flat were perfect antidotes for the heavy blitzes applied by outside linebackers in 3-4 defenses. When the 46 defense moved a safety close to the line of scrimmage, it opened up the middle of the field: one cut, and a good receiver could turn a short slant into a 50-yard touchdown.
Zone coverage can neutralize the Slant-and-Flat family of plays, and the rise of the Cover-2 scheme can be traced to its efficiency against the West Coast Offense. Linebackers can take away the slant passing lanes by dropping into hook zones. Cornerbacks can jam receivers, pass them off to the safeties, and guard the flats. Of course, the West Coast Offense is more than just a series of Slant-and-Flat plays, just as the Cover-2 defense isn't just a playbook full of two-deep, five-under coverage schemes. But in many of the chess matches that we watch each Sunday, Slant-and-Flat and Cover-2 are the opening gambits.
Grab some graph paper or a video game with a play designer, and you can experiment on your own. You can build Slant-and-Flat plays from any alignment, from a power I-formation to a five-wideout spread to some zany Pop Warner triple stack. The principles remain the same. The combination of routes stretches the defense horizontally. The receiver breaks quickly and expects the ball immediately. The quarterback reads, sets and fires before the defense can mount a pass rush.
The variations are endless, and a coach like Jon Gruden or Mike Holmgren might have several hundred of them in his playbook. The variations give the West Coast Offense its complexity, and they make it difficult to defend. But the basics are deceptively simple. Watch carefully, and you'll see this route combination executed several times in every game, even if you're not watching a "West Coast Offense" team.
(Note: The term "West Coast Offense" has several meanings, and football historians know that it is most properly applied to Sid Gillman's AFL offenses in the 1960s. But the term is more commonly used to describe Bill Walsh's offense, and that is how it will be used in this series of articles. Deal with it.)
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