Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

03 Jul 2007

Play of the Day: Goal Line Tight End Passes

by Mike Tanier

On goal-to-go pass plays, the tight end is the quarterback's best friend. Unlike those skinny wide receivers, he's a good blocker who can help sell the run threat and contribute in pass protection. More importantly, he doesn't need a lot of space to get open, and his size allows him to "post up" defenders in tight spots. Most teams target the tight end at the goal line on rollout or play-action passes, but a good tight end can get open and score on a traditional dropback pass, even inside the five-yard line. Today, we'll install two goal-to-go plays for our tight end, one a traditional bootleg, one a dropback pass.

Goal Line Rollout Option

The following play, which we'll call Goal Line Rollout Option, can be found in various forms in every playbook in the pro, college, and prep level. This particular example is taken from the Steelers loss to the Falcons in Week 7. It's an interesting variation on the standard rollout play because the tight end doesn't cross the formation to catch the pass. Instead, he blocks on the strong side, gets lost in the wash, then climbs into the back of the end zone before the defense can locate him.

The situation: second-and-goal, ball on the Falcons 1-yard line, second quarter, Steelers leading 10-7. The play (Figure 1) is self-explanatory: Ben Roethlisberger fakes a handoff to Willie Parker, rolls to his right, and passes to Heath Miller in the end zone. There are just a few coaching points on this play:

1. The right side of the offensive line must sell the run action. In particular, Miller must sustain his block long enough to fool his coverage defender. The Steelers make this play look extra "run like" by making the right guard and tackle combo block their defender. Miller holds his block for about a two-count and steers his defender out of the C-gap (the gap to his left). Miller is actually a yard or two in the backfield before starting his pass route. Fullback Dan Kreider appears to block the C-gap, making it appear that he, the linemen, and Miller are clearing a path for Parker.

Figure 1: Rollout Option

2. The quarterback must sell the play fake, then get deep enough to avoid the pass rush. The Falcons penetrate on this play, but Roethlisberger fakes the handoff at about the 7-yard line and retreats to the 11-yard line while rolling out. The deep drop gives him a better angle to escape pursuers, and it gives Miller and Parker time to run their routes. If Roethlisberger executed a flatter rollout, he would put himself in good position to run for a touchdown but would have to throw back across his body to hit his receivers.

3. Roethlisberger's reads on this play are a) Miller, b) Parker in the flat, c) run to the cone, d) throw the ball away. The Falcons defense lost track of Miller, allowing Roethlisberger to easily hit his first read.

Gonzo Corner

Goal line defensive responsibilities are very difficult; in most cases, defenders must aggressively play the run, then worry about pass coverage. The next example shows how a well-designed goal line play can create an unsolvable dilemma for a defense: who do you stop, the superstar running back or the Hall of Fame tight end?

Not all goal line passes are built off play action. Teams with great running backs don't have to fake a handoff to get the defense to worry about the run, especially inside the 5-yard line. As the next play shows, a runner like Larry Johnson can occupy so much of the defense's attention that another great player, Tony Gonzalez, can find himself wide open in the corner of the end zone. This play, which we'll call Gonzo Corner, is taken from the Chiefs' victory over the Rams in Week 9.

The situation: first-and-goal from the Rams 3-yard line, second quarter, Chiefs leading 7-0. The Chiefs break huddle with two tight ends, a fullback, running back Larry Johnson, and wide receiver Eddie Kennison, who lines up as a left flanker and motions toward the formation pre-snap (Figure 2). Kennison's presence prevents the Rams from bunching their defenders in the box to stop Johnson. At the snap, quarterback Damon Huard takes a five step drop, fullback Kris Wilson and Johnson sweep to the left sideline, and Kennison runs a shallow drag route. Gonzalez ignores the blitzing linebacker face-up on him. Instead of blocking, he gains some depth into the end zone, then cuts to the left corner. He turns, and Huard's pass is right on the money. There isn't a defender within five yards of Gonzo when he makes the reception.

Figure 2: Gonzo Corner

How does a defense allow an All Pro tight end to waltz uncovered into the back of the end zone? Let's examine the defensive assignments for this type of play. The Rams are in man coverage. Typically, defenders match up with receivers by assigning them numbers, working from the sidelines to the quarterback. As the Chiefs lined up, Kennison would be receiver one, Gonzo would be receiver two, and Wilson would be receiver three. What about Johnson? Any back lined up directly behind the quarterback could run a route to either side of the formation, making him receiver four on the offensive left or receiver two on the right (tight end Jason Dunn is receiver one to that side). Such a back is often assigned to two interior defenders, usually linebackers. If the back runs left, the right defender takes him; if he runs right, he's covered by the left defender. The free defender then blitzes or drops into a zone.

If this play occurred in the middle of the field, the Rams' cornerback would cover Kennison, the safety would cover Gonzo, the linebacker head-up on Gonzo would blitz or cover Wilson, and the two interior linebackers would be responsible for Johnson. In the middle of the field, the Rams could afford to give up a three- or four-yard play on a flat pass to Wilson or pitch to Johnson. Because the Rams cannot afford to give up four yards on the 3-yard line, they must make some compromises (Figure 3). The head-up linebacker run-blitzes, taking him out of the coverage picture. The safety covers Wilson. The two interior linebackers are now responsible for Gonzo and Johnson. When both players run patterns to the left sideline, those linebackers face an impossible task. Watching the game tape, it appears that the right (offensive left) linebacker covers Johnson, while the hopelessly out-of-position left linebacker tries in vain to reach Gonzo. With Kennison and his cornerback causing midfield congestion, the linebacker doesn't have a chance.

Figure 3: Gonzo Corner (close-up)

The key to both of these tight end goal line plays is timing. If Roethlisberger held the ball another second or stared Miller down, the Falcons defense would locate him and disrupt the play. Gonzalez was wide open, but his defender was giving chase and the pass rush was closing in when Huard delivered the ball. The offense doesn't have a lot of space to work with near the goal line, and defenders can quickly close on a poorly-timed pass. But a quarterback with good timing and a quick trigger can pick up some easy touchdowns with well-executed pass to the tight end.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 03 Jul 2007

30 comments, Last at 09 Jul 2007, 12:58pm by MRH

Comments

1
by C (not verified) :: Tue, 07/03/2007 - 1:54pm

17th!

2
by Mr. Beefy (not verified) :: Tue, 07/03/2007 - 1:55pm

Unless the TE is Bubba Franks or Ricky Dudley in which case they drop the ball. :).

3
by Chip (not verified) :: Tue, 07/03/2007 - 3:20pm

love this stuff.

4
by fish shure (not verified) :: Tue, 07/03/2007 - 3:44pm

Great article.

Man... sucks to be that linebacker.

5
by krugman (not verified) :: Tue, 07/03/2007 - 4:14pm

Great stuff,Mike,when is the book coming out?(I'll buy it!)

6
by Bobman (not verified) :: Tue, 07/03/2007 - 4:16pm

Once again, a stellar article. One suggestion: two plays that DID work plus one that did not might have helped round out the educational aspect.

Based purely on this article, one could assume that TE's catch 100% of the goal-to-go TD passes because a well-executed play to them is impossible to stop (with LJ and TG maybe it is). Some DC somewhere has to have a plan for this type of thing.

7
by Karl Cuba (not verified) :: Tue, 07/03/2007 - 4:31pm

The Chiefs-Rams play epitomises Haslett's playcalling. It seems to be derived from Field Marshall Hague's tactics in World War I (after a frontal assault into their machine guns after has failed the last 17 times, it's the last thing Gerry will expect!!). That's the only rationale I can use to explain why anyone would try to defend the Chiefs by blitzing the linebacker that's lined up over Gonzalez. You have two other linebackers, blitz one of them.

(For further examples of Haslett's 'they'll never see this coming approach' think back to whenn he decided to get revenge on Mike Martz by beginning the game with an onside kick and then remember the bizarre colour his face turned afterwards)

8
by Cam (not verified) :: Tue, 07/03/2007 - 9:12pm

why in the world do you blitz the linebacker over Gonzo? Tryin to overload the strong side in case of a run? Don't look and just figure TG lined up strong side? think TG's crossing the middle?

if the defenders know they have man coverage on one of two guys, why line up so far to the strong side?

9
by Cam (not verified) :: Tue, 07/03/2007 - 9:13pm

those were just some questions raised in my mind by Karl Cuba's post

10
by Karl Cuba (not verified) :: Tue, 07/03/2007 - 9:50pm

Cam, there is no strong side on that play and if your major concern was to put bodies in the path of an expected run then you could shift the d-line

On the play in question, the safeety should have stuck on Gonzo, as he was the only remaining defender close to being in position.

11
by krugerindustrialsmoothing (not verified) :: Wed, 07/04/2007 - 12:42am

re: Gonzo Corner... if someone is going to be left open, why not choose the FB?

12
by Jonny (not verified) :: Wed, 07/04/2007 - 12:59am

This is one of the best series FO has run, and the timing is brilliant in this offseason slump.

13
by MartinC (not verified) :: Wed, 07/04/2007 - 6:52am

Nice breakdown again.

On the issue of the way the Rams covered the play - I think its a geat example of bad coaching and/or game planning.

You can't just run the same coverages against every team - you have to take account of the personnel you are up against and if the team you are playing has a great TE you have to be aware of that especially down by the goalline.

You can be sure the Rams had a breakdown of the Chiefs offensive tendancies and must have been aware of the threat that Gonzales.

There is not a linebacker in the NFL who can cover him man up anywhere even if he starts in the right place. This has to be a case where the coverage responsibility is varied from the norm and the saftey to Gonzales side has to be responsible for taking him off the line. The outside linebacker once he reads pass should try to chuck him at the line and then cover him and the MLB then takes the fulback if he goes right or the outside backer takes him if he goes left.

The Rams should have practiced just this play situation in the week and everybody should have understood their coverage responsibilities.

Still tough to stop and you have to play run first but with normal coverage they had no chance.

14
by James, London (not verified) :: Wed, 07/04/2007 - 12:06pm

Another cool minicamp. I'm gonna join the chorus wondering why the safety isn't covering Gonzo on this play, and why you're blitzing the LB lined up over the HoF TE.
This might be why the Rams had the 25th ranked pass Defense by DVOA last year.

15
by Karl Cuba (not verified) :: Wed, 07/04/2007 - 1:23pm

After thinking about the Chiefs-Rams play a little longer, the only reasoning that Haslett could have been using is that by showing double coverage on Gonzo (the safety and the linebacker are lined up over him), the Qb will notice this in his pre-snap reads and not look for Gonzo afer the snap. This should allow the linebacker to blitz but even then the safety should stay on Gonzalez. This also underestimates Huard, I would imagine most quarterbacks would look for their HOF tight end regardless.

16
by Parker W. (not verified) :: Wed, 07/04/2007 - 1:31pm

How about a synopsis of the Statue of Liberty play in honor of the 4th of July….

17
by Cam (not verified) :: Thu, 07/05/2007 - 5:23am

i was just referring to the offensive right side as the strong side. i dont know how incorrect that is.

18
by Pete (not verified) :: Thu, 07/05/2007 - 9:47am

Often the right-hand side is the strong side. You will often have your best tackle on the left, protecting a right-handed QB's blind side, while you have a tight end on the right.

I also love this series. I agree that 1 or 2 failed attempts (good defense, poor offensive execution) might be nice. I also would think the Safety should be covering the WR (erp. I mean TE), Gonzalez.

How likely is Heath Miller to catch a pass in the Red Zone? Seems pretty likely to me, but I have not watched enough Steelers games to be certain that he is one of the bigger receiving threats. How challenging is it to see the difference between an honest (driving past the line of scrimage?) run block and a fake run block? I think this could be key to accurately defending the play.

19
by Strange/David (not verified) :: Thu, 07/05/2007 - 10:27am

#18 -- How likely is Heath Miller to catch in the red zone? He's pretty damn likely, AS LONG AS Roethlisberger gets the protection he needs and executes properly. Most of Miller's missed catches have appeared to be Offensive Line and/or Quarterback error.

I have absolutely no statistics to back this up. I just remember a lot of screaming at the TV, and it was always, "Dammit, Ben!" and not "Dammit, Heath!"

20
by Karl Cuba (not verified) :: Thu, 07/05/2007 - 10:27am

17: Normally the strong side is where the tight end lines up. In the Chiefs play there was a TE on both sides of the line so neither was strong.

21
by Paul Doran (not verified) :: Thu, 07/05/2007 - 12:03pm

20: I thought that if there was a TE on both sides then the strong side is the side with the longest distance to the sideline.

22
by DoubleB (not verified) :: Thu, 07/05/2007 - 12:18pm

The strong side is the side of the field where the TE is located. If there are two TEs, then the strong side is where the most WRs are located. If it's a truly balanced set (12 personnel with a TE and WR each both right and left) then it's generally the wide side of the field. If the ball is in the middle of the field in a balanced set, the strength becomes the QBs throwing arm.

In the above situation the strength is to the offensive's left.

23
by MJK (not verified) :: Thu, 07/05/2007 - 1:06pm

I also don't understand why you would run-blitz the LB. Wouldn't it make more sense to have the LB engage Gonzo's block? If it's a run, then you occupy the TE's block and the safety and the ILB are behind you to plug the hole to each side. If it's a pass, you disrupt Gonzo's route.

24
by cjfarls (not verified) :: Thu, 07/05/2007 - 1:13pm

Everyone here talks about how the safety should've covered Gozo, but why is everyone assuming M2M coverage?
What would be the effects of a zone D where the CB covers the back corner (where Gonzo caught), while the safety covers the flat? You could still blitz the LB, as then all the MLB has to do is shift over a bit to cover that mid-side zone...

You then have the Blitzing LB & safety in prime position to stuff a sweep/pitch/flat pass left, you have the deep corner covered, and you have a MLB set to pounce on a quick slant by either Gonzo or Kennison... what am I missing?

25
by MJK (not verified) :: Thu, 07/05/2007 - 3:45pm

Zone coverage seems like a good idea if you KNOW it's a pass, but this LOOKS like a running formation, and it's only 1st down. If its a running play and your CB stays in the corner zone and the safety covers the flat, then Kennison can block the safety, Gonzo either seals off the OLB or pushes him wide opening a hole inside, and Wilson lead blocks to flatten thi ILB, and then Gonzalez walks into the end zone. That's the point of the article--teams that have a strong RB and a talented TE that can block or catch are very hard to defend in the red zone, exactly because of plays like this.

26
by Ilanin (not verified) :: Thu, 07/05/2007 - 7:40pm

18 - I get the impression that it's very hard in this instance to tell the difference between an honest and fake run block in Miller's case because, since he's an eligible reciever, he's not adjudged to be "pass blocking" per se, he's running a route that just happens to go straight through a defender.

27
by cjfarls (not verified) :: Fri, 07/06/2007 - 1:20pm

Okay, I see how the zone opens up the inside run more as the free defender is now the CB rather than the safety (since you free up Kennison to engage someone else as the CB backpeddles into the zone)... I guess you'd hope your LB could take on Gonzo and the Safety shed Kennison, but with LJ running downhill, a bad-angle arm-tackle ain't gonna cut it so I see the problem. Thanks MJK!

28
by White Rose Duelist (not verified) :: Fri, 07/06/2007 - 5:19pm

If it’s a truly balanced set (12 personnel with a TE and WR each both right and left) then it’s generally the wide side of the field.

If it's a truly balanced set with 12 personnel, it's a 5-yard penalty.

29
by DoubleB (not verified) :: Fri, 07/06/2007 - 9:28pm

12 personnel refers to 1 back and 2 TEs on the field. It has nothing to do with the amount of players on the field. It's shorthand so that the defense can determine what personnel grouping they should or want to put on the field (base, nickel, dime, jumbo, etc.). Sorry for the confusion.

30
by MRH (not verified) :: Mon, 07/09/2007 - 12:58pm

A little late to the party but...

I believe the reason Kennison goes in motion is to allow Huard to read whether the D is zone or M2M. If it's zone, my guess is the Chiefs run and if M2M throw to Gonzo.