"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
28 Oct 2005
by Mike Tanier
The Texans faced second-and-9 from their own 27-yard line against the Titans in Week 5. For most teams, that's a passing down, but new offensive coordinator Joe Pendry wanted to establish the run. So he sent his team to the line with three running backs on the field: Domanick Davis as the deep halfback, Moran Norris and Jonathan Wells as fullbacks. With David Carr under center, the quartet of backs aligned in a loose diamond shape.
Establish the run? Sure. But this formation looked like something from the 1940s.
Still, it was successful. The Titans defense read Norris' block off right tackle and over-pursued. Jonathan Wells helped seal off the back side. Davis crashed through a hole between the center and right guard, gaining 44 yards before the Titans defense caught up to him.
If you think NFL offense is all about spreading the field with four and five wideout sets, think again. Three-back formations are making a comeback, most commonly in the form of the inverted wishbone: a four-point formation like the one the Texans used. And teams aren't just running out of the new alignment, either; it's becoming a regular part of the playbook for rushing and passing plays.
The formation has a lot of names: the inverted wishbone, the diamond, the full-house backfield. It also has lots of cousins, like the veer, the wingbone, and the flexbone.
As seen in the NFL, the inverted wishbone looks like this: a halfback lines up about seven yards deep behind the quarterback. Two fullbacks line up three to five yards deep, aligned directly behind the tackles. Often, these two "fullbacks" are actually a fullback and a tight end, or two tight ends. The receivers are split wide on either side of the formation.
Colleges and high schools use a slightly different alignment. The two fullbacks are usually deeper in the backfield, and they are often shaded between the tackle and guard, creating a tighter bunch of backs. This is the formation that college teams like Michigan sometimes deploy in goal line situations. The difference is significant: when deeper in the backfield, the two fullbacks are in good position to take a handoff; in the pros, the fullbacks are poised to block or run pass patterns. College and prep teams will often combine the three running backs with a tight end or two on the line of scrimmage, creating a jumbo running formation.
The inverted wishbone was never a common formation in the NFL. The Slot-T formation, popular in the 1940's, used a diamond alignment, but one of the fullbacks usually went in motion before the snap and became a flanker. The Slot-T lives on today, as some teams motion into and out of the inverted bone.
With the exception of the occasional goal line plunge, three-back formations have become rare even at the Division I-A level. Navy and Air Force use a wingbone formation, with one fullback and two players in the slot who motion into the backfield to become option halfbacks. It's really more of a tricky single-back set than an inverted bone. The regular wishbone, with one fullback and two halfbacks, has become an endangered species at major colleges; other three-back attacks are all but extinct.
But three-headed backfields still thrive in the lower divisions and at the high school level. The inverted wishbone is the preferred formation for run-oriented prep teams facing opponents who execute the 50-defense: five linemen, two linebackers. The two fullbacks are in ideal position to fire out and block the linebackers, combo block an end, or fill a hole in the line when a guard pulls out to block the perimeter.
Maybe its utility against the 50-defense is what has made the inverted bone popular in recent years. But wait, pro teams don't run such a defense, do they? Yes they do: outside linebackers in the 3-4 defense often crowd the line of scrimmage, essentially making them defensive ends. As 3-4 defenses have become more popular, offensive coordinators have no doubt been looking for unique ways to attack them.
The Texans may have added a three-back wrinkle out of desperation: nothing has worked for them offensively this season. The 49ers and Browns have also been tinkering with the inverted wishbone. But it's not just a formation for the futile. The volunteers at the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project spotted the Chiefs, Panthers, Cowboys, Packers, Jaguars, and Falcons (as well as the teams mentioned above) using some sort of two-fullback, one-halfback alignment this season, not counting kneel plays at the end of the game.
The Panthers are getting the most use out of the inverted wishbone this season. They used the formation at least five times against the Saints and several more times against the Patriots and Packers. For the Panthers, it's a power running attack: Nick Goings, DeShaun Foster, or Stephen Davis takes a handoff and hammers the line behind fullbacks Brad Hoover and (tight end) Mike Seidman. But the Panthers have also executed some play-action passes and a reverse from the inverted bone.
The Browns are also proponents of the inverted bone, but they use it as more of a max-protect passing scheme. Trent Dilfer has completed short hitch passes to Antonio Bryant and Andre Davis from the formation; tight end Steve Heiden, lined up at fullback, slipped into the flat and broke a long gain on a rollout pass.
The formation is obviously versatile. Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning has two objectives: he wants plenty of blockers for his halfbacks, and he also wants Steve Smith isolated against a cornerback. Opponents often stack their safeties in the box against the inverted bone, so Smith has a better chance of facing single coverage. Maurice Carthon, Henning's counterpart in Cleveland, has very little offensive talent to work with, so he uses the formation to protect Dilfer and set up high-percentage passes.
No pro team is using the inverted bone the way most college teams do: as a goal line or short yardage formation. Most teams are using the formation on first-and-10 or second-and-long. No instances of three-back formations on third-and-short were recorded in the opening weeks of the season.
The Panthers and Browns may be the most devoted converts to the inverted wishbone, but the Falcons were the early adopters.
The 2002 Falcons had a talented scrambling quarterback named Michael Vick, a fine pair of halfbacks in Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett, several solid fullbacks and tight ends, and a terrible receiving corps. In other words, they were almost exactly like the 2005 Falcons.
Coach Dan Reeves adjusted his system to the personnel. He assembled a playbook full of rollouts and bootlegs for Vick. He found ways to get fullback Bob Christian and tight ends Alge Crumpler and Reggie Kelly on the field at the same time. And to keep opponents guessing, he installed an inverted wishbone formation: Dunn at halfback, Crumpler and Christian, Kelly, or Brian Kozlowski at fullback.
We don't have game charting stats from 2002, but Reeves used the formation frequently and successfully. Vick would hand off to Dunn running off tackle left, then waggle without the ball to the right. Or Vick would fake the handoff left, then roll right with the ball. Defenders were forced to play multiple choice, and when they delayed for a second, Christian or Crumpler would block them. The fullbacks always seemed to be open in the flats, especially when Vick was on the move. And the stretched out defense had no choice but to single-cover Brian Finneran and the other wideouts, who would sometimes shake loose for big gains.
Other teams were clearly taking note. And while few teams have a rushing threat like Vick, there's more to the three-back alignment than rollouts.
While it's an alignment on the rise, teams don't use the inverted bone that often. We see it on isolated plays spread across weeks, so it's hard to get a sense of what types of plays can be run effectively from it. Luckily, the folks at EA Sports included the formation (called Full House or Full House-Philly) in recent editions of Madden Football.
Hey, if Ron Jaworski can use a video game to diagram plays, then so can I.
The Panthers are given 12 plays from the Full House-Philly formation in Madden 06. Eight of the plays are runs: a variety of counters, slams, draws, and pitches. All but one of the runs are designed for the halfback. The four passes include a screen, a hitch-and-flat combo, a play action pass, and something called "WR Dbl Shake."
The four passes represent a fine sample of the types of plays our spotters have seen. In the play action pass, the fullbacks run wheel routes: they start out by slipping into the flat, then race up the sidelines. Wheel routes kill Cover-2 defenses, and they can be effective against man coverage when a player like Crumpler is covered by a linebacker. The double shake play is designed for a wide receiver, but the fullbacks run seam and corner routes: again, linebackers must beware. The flats-and-curls play looks a lot like what the Browns are doing out of the inverted bone.
Experimenting with the video game also reveals some of the weaknesses of the formation. Quick-hitting running plays don't really work; the halfback is too deep in the backfield. Those big, slow fullbacks/tight ends take a long time to lumber out of the backfield. And even the computer knows to put eight defenders in the box against the alignment.
But it's an interesting wrinkle: try using the Panthers playbook with the Ravens, then put Todd Heap in motion into the slot after he starts out as a wishbone fullback. Instant mismatch.
So what's next for NFL strategy? The Maryland-I? The Notre Dame Box? The Single Wing?
In the attack and counterattack world of football tactics, diversity is key. Over the past two decades, linebackers and defensive ends have been getting smaller: all the better to rush the passer or race into coverage. Offensive coordinators have countered by using more power formations. Watch a Steelers or Ravens game, and you are sure to see some two-tight end, fullback-and-halfback formations. The Steelers may not use an inverted wishbone, but they are seeking the same gains from a scheme that puts more big bodies on the field. And with tight ends now as fast as receivers were a generation ago, no one is shy about passing from a power formation.
Don't expect the pass-happy Eagles or Patriots to line up in a three-back attack any time soon. But don't be surprised if you see a lot more of the inverted bone. You haven't stepped into a time machine. Teams can only do so much from spread five-wideout formations. The rubber band is snapping back just a little.
32 comments, Last at 12 Aug 2006, 12:29am by Charles Wilson