Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
21 Jun 2007
by Mike Tanier
Shotgun-option offenses are in vogue at all levels of college football. At Utah and Florida, Urban Meyer designed offenses that successfully married spread formations with option principles. At Texas, Mack Brown used similar tactics to make his team national champions and Vince Young a superstar. Shotgun option plays became more common in the NFL last season, as teams used new strategies to take advantage of mobile quarterbacks like Young and Michael Vick. We want some of these plays in the Football Outsiders playbook. Today, we'll install one; we'll name it Shotgun Fake Option Seamer. The Titans executed this play against the Redskins last season.
The situation: First-and-10, ball on the Redskins 43, second quarter, Titans trailing 14-3 but driving. The Titans line up in a shotgun formation, single setback to Vince Young's left, slot left, tight end on the right side of the formation (Figure 1). The Redskins stay in their 4-3 base personnel package despite the three-wideout look. Linebacker Warrick Holdman aligns over slot receiver Drew Bennett. The Redskins cornerbacks are about seven yards off the ball. The safeties are too deep to be seen on the television replay. The pre-snap read suggests zone coverage; there's no defender covering the tight end, and Holdman on Bennett is a mismatch. This is probably a Cover-3 of some sort, but the Titans' clever play call makes it hard to determine what defense the Redskins were running.
At the snap, running back Travis Henry steps in to take a handoff from Young. All linemen except left tackle Michael Roos slide right and execute run blocks. Roos drops in pass protection, creating a gap between left guard and tackle. The Titans appear to be running a draw play. Right receiver Brandon Jones simply shuffles off the line; he's not involved in the play. Bennett drives hard to the sidelines. Left receiver Roydell Williams releases inside as if he is going to block Holdman.
Young play-fakes to Henry, who plunges into the B-gap on the left side. Young bootlegs left. The Titans now appear to be running a shotgun option: Williams seems to be blocking down, Bennett appears to be drawing coverage to the sideline, and Young certainly has the athleticism to cause trouble if he breaks containment. Holdman steps up to avoid Williams' block. The Redskins cornerback races into position to disrupt an outlet pass to Bennett and force Young back to the inside if he tries to run up the sidelines.
Suddenly, Young stops just wide of the tackle box. Williams, who never really engaged Holdman, turns upfield. There's a huge hole in the coverage between Holdman and the cornerback (drawn in to stop Young) and the safeties. Young's quick release makes this play possible. He tosses the ball to Williams 10 yards down the field just before the Redskins safety arrives. Williams puts a move on the safety and gains 10 more yards before going down.
The beauty of this play is the multiple bind it imposes on the defense. The Redskins were forced to prepare for a Henry draw, a Young bootleg, and a Bennett pass into the flat. The play they got was the one they expected the least. This play is really the capstone of a shotgun option sequence that features the draw, bootleg, and Bennett pass, plus perhaps a Jones screen to the far side, a wheel route by Bennett, and other plays. Figure 2 shows a common spread-option play, the kind that Texas might have run five or six times per game when Young was in college. It's a simple play, built around one read. The quarterback watches the first defender left of the left tackle's outside shoulder. If he blitzes, the quarterback hands off. If he drops into coverage or keys on the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs behind the slot receiver's block. The Redskins were ready for a play like that. They weren't ready for what Norm Chow cooked up that week.
Pro teams can't run spread-option all of the time: defenders are just too fast, and they'll clobber the quarterback if he gets too rollout happy (see the Falcons in the second half of last season for proof). But if we mix a few of these plays into our game plan every week, defenders will spend much more time thinking and reacting than attacking.
30 comments, Last at 23 Jun 2007, 6:36pm by xmenehune