14 Dec 2007
by Mike Tanier
Most NFL playbooks are the same when you drill down to their core. They all contain similar plays: off-tackle runs, dives, slant-and-flat combo routes, tight end seamers, long bombs with a running back flaring out for the checkdown pass. Every team's playbook has a junk drawer full of reverses and option passes, but nobody's running a spread-option or a Wing-T system. All NFL offenses evolved from the same two or three historic systems. Every team tries to move the ball in about the same way.
The window dressing, however, differs greatly from team to team. Some teams use dozens of formations and lots of presnap motion to confuse opponents and disguise tendencies. Other teams keep their formations relatively simple, showing defenses a poker face that can be as hard to read as any exotic shift-and-alignment package. Last weekend, when the Colts and Saints both played in prime time, we saw two teams on opposite ends of the formation spectrum. Saints coach Sean Payton never met a wrinkle he didn't love, and his Saints may use more unusual formations than any other team in the league. Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore is a minimalist who wants his players to line up, stand still, and await further orders.
Both philosophies can be successful; we all know the Colts can move the ball, and the Saints rank 11th in DVOA despite major injuries in the backfield. After watching both teams play (and sorting through my notes on other recent games), I developed a new appreciation for the diversity of NFL formations. At the same time, it became clear how similar most teams are under the hood.
Every formation has a purpose. Sometimes, that purpose is obvious. The I-formation is used to place a lead blocker in front of a featured runner. A trips-bunch package puts three receivers on the line of scrimmage where they can create traffic congestion to get open. An empty backfield forces the defense's hand by allowing five eligible receivers to come directly off the line.
Exotic formations also have specialized uses. When the Packers played the Cowboys a few weeks ago, they motioned tight end Donald Lee (86) into position about two yards behind the left guard while Brett Favre waited for the shotgun snap (Figure 1). Lee was aligned about where the blocking back stood in some of the old "wing" formations. The reason Lee moved inside was obvious: pass protection. Lee was in perfect position to pick up blitzers in the B-gap between guard and tackle. His presence allowed the left tackle to fan out and block edge rushers. Lee also ran some pass patterns from the formation â€“- the figure shows him running a little inside hook â€“- but he was little more than a decoy or last-ditch checkdown option. He was primarily Favre insurance.
Sometimes, the purpose of a funky new formation isn't as clear. The Saints use a lot of stack formations: two or three receivers lined up directly behind each other, usually split far from the tackle box. Stack formations have been bubbling up from the prep and small college ranks for years (they are popular at the Pop Warner level), but the Saints are the only team making extensive use of them in the pros. Payton has a triple-stack in his playbook, but I don't have tape of it. On Monday night, he used a double-stack formation like the one in Figure 2 several times.
The advantages of the stack formation seem obvious at first. The "back" receiver comes off the line unjammed, with the "front" receiver essentially setting a moving pick. The routes shown in Figure 2 are based loosely on what the Saints did on several plays. On the right, Lance Moore releases inside and then runs a post while Pierre Thomas hides behind Moore, then runs an out at seven yards. On the left, Marques Colston releases hard into the cornerback, then runs a hook at about seven yards, while David Patten starts inside, loops to the sideline around Colston, and runs the fly. With two receivers crossing each other's paths, it's easy for defenders to get mixed up, which is why cornerbacks must be layered (one a few yards back and to the side of the other) to cover stack receivers. The Falcons took their layering to the extreme: Their deep cornerbacks were about 10 yards off the ball against the double-stack, and their deep safety was in a no-man's land far beyond the line of scrimmage.
There's a reason I diagrammed generic routes instead of a specific play. The Saints usually didn't throw out of this formation. Instead, they ran Aaron Stecker up the middle. Another look at the Falcons defense makes it clear why. The Falcons never had seven defenders in the box against the double stack. Because the stacked receivers split so far wide, the press cornerbacks were in no position to stop an inside run. The deep cornerbacks were completely neutralized. Stecker consistently gained meaningful yardage while the receivers ran dummy routes along the sidelines. Payton used the stack formation for the same reason that lower-level coaches like it: It can be used to isolate some of the opponent's best athletes far from the direction of the play.
Of course, the Saints did sometimes throw from stack formations. In the second quarter, Patten caught a screen from a variation on the formation shown in Figure 2. On this play (Figure 3), Colston and Patten are stacked to the right, far closer to the end of the offensive line. Drew Brees is in the shotgun, and there's nothing noteworthy about the rest of the alignments or personnel. Once again, we focus on the Falcons' response to Colston and Patten: The defenders are layered, with Lewis Sanders (29) tight and DeAngelo Hall (21) and Chris Crocker (25) deep. My guess is that this is a 3-deep zone, shaded to the offensive right.
At the snap, the right side of the Saints line blocks for a one-count, then releases. Colston, who is a big dude (remember, he played tight end for your fantasy team last year), drives Sanders straight back. Patten takes his jab-step, then turns and drifts toward Brees. Brees must get the ball to Patten quickly or else the linemen will run too far downfield (the center comes close to earning a flag). Once he gets the ball, Patten has three blockers in front of him, and the Falcons defenders are ten yards downfield and in poor position to make a tackle. It's easy yardage.
Stack formations are great for inside runs, screens, and all manner of wipe/rub/pick plays. But not every team tries to feign defenders out of position. The Saints threw their usual kitchen sink at the Falcons on Monday night, but the Colts lined up in an ace formation with two tight ends on play after play on Sunday, daring the Ravens to stop them.
Diagramming Colts plays is like analyzing Hemingway's prose. The beauty of the Colts offense is its apparent simplicity, which makes it somewhat impenetrable. The clever design of the Saints plays above is obvious. Colts play diagrams look like straight-from-the-video game tactics. I've been studying Colts plays at the frame-by-frame level since last year's playoffs, but I've only started to unlock a few of Moore's secrets.
The Colts do very little formation shifting. Most of their plays are run from a single-back, two-tight end package, with Dallas Clark often aligned in the slot (Figure 4). In a typical game, the Colts may run dozens of plays from the two formations shown in the diagram. Their other formations are variations on these basic themes: Peyton Manning in the shotgun, Clark at H-back, some trips, four-wide, and empty alignments. If the Colts are in the I-formation, it usually means they are at the goal line, though they ran a few plays against the Ravens from the "I" when they were killing the clock. Presnap motion is rare.
Some might argue that the Colts use vanilla formations because they can: Their receivers are great, and Manning's ability to audible eliminates the need to move players all over the place. Those points are true, but there are other advantages to such simple alignments. One is that this "poker face" offense is hard to predict: Defenses cannot use formation cues to predict Colts tendencies. There's a more important advantage: The simplicity of the Colts' formation allows Moore to easily adjust and adapt pass patterns and combinations based on the opponent. The Colts can update and alter plays during practice without having to apply them to 60 formation variants. Practice and preparation time is precious during the season: Moore can install more plays in-season because he fusses less with alignments, motion, and personnel grouping.
Let's examine one small element of the Colts offense: Combo routes between the split end and the slot receiver to his side. Against the Falcons and Ravens, Reggie Wayne often lined up split left with Clark in the slot. They ran all of the standard combinations: double slants, curl-and-flat, and so on. They almost certainly ran some option routes, with one or both of the receivers reacting to the coverage and altering their routes.
Some of the Wayne/Clark route combinations were more unusual (Figure 5). They sometimes ran a double-out combo (top left): Wayne runs his out route at about 10 yards, Clark at about five yards. Clark runs his route at about half speed so there's a clear path from Manning to Wayne. This combination creates a simple man/zone read. Against man coverage, Wayne will get open when he snaps off his route. Against a zone, Wayne takes the cornerback past his depth, allowing Clark to break off his route and sit in a zone.
Figure 5 also shows a variation on slant/flats that the Colts used against the Ravens (top right). Wayne takes an inside release, drives out about seven yards, then slants in front of the safety. Clark appears to run a flat route, but the dotted line shows his actual path: He stops, turns, and runs an in route. The defender covering Clark on Sunday night drifted too far outside to defend the flat route, and Clark got wide-open over the middle.
Tricky route combos open up simpler ones: With Clark lined up in the right slot and Anthony Gonzalez split wide, the Colts often combine a seam route with a 12- to 15-yard square-in (bottom). This simple play is disguised by the sheer number of other combinations the Colts execute from this formation.
Despite the cosmetic difference, though, the Colts are still trying to do the same things that the Saints do. Figure 6, the first touchdown of the night for the Colts in Baltimore, shows how the teams attain similar results from different formation tendencies. On this play, Wayne starts out flanked wide to the right but motions toward the formation. At the snap, he is just a yard behind Gonzalez and perhaps a yard to the right. It isn't a stack formation, but it's close enough for Wayne to use Gonzalez as a moving shield. While Gonzalez runs a post, Wayne crosses beneath him on an apparent drag route. Both Corey Ivy (35) and David Pittman (24) react to the drag. When Wayne loops back and appears to be running an out route, Ivy peels off and gets deep while Pittman readjusts and heads for the sidelines. Wayne then wheels and turns upfield, which is just too much for poor Pittman. Ed Reed (20) is forced to defend the post, so he's in no position to stop Wayne.
If Sean Payton designed the same route combo, they would probably start in a stack formation. They would also probably create variations from a trips formation, an empty backfield, and so on. He would rather add complexity to design of the play, disguising it and increasing its effectiveness. Moore would rather create different combos from lookalike formations: Wayne could actually run the drag, or the out, or Gonzalez could snap off with a hitch at 12 yards, or whatever. Payton would also create route variations, of course, and Moore would rewrite this combination for use from a few other alignments. In the end, the similarities are more striking than the differences.
At their core, the concepts are the same: Create mismatches, isolate defenders, disguise tendencies, exploit coverages. It's the window dressing that makes each team's system look so different.
Long-time reader Tom Keiser, editor of the Rutgers University Gleaner, sent me a series of gags called "Lesser Known Moments in Eagles History." I planned to use the material, which commemorates 75 years of mostly bad football, as part of NFL Rundown, but there was a last-minute snafu.
Here's what Rundown readers missed this week:
Lesser Known Moments in Eagles History
1933: In the midst of the Great Depression, the Philadelphia Eagles are born. Eagles fans are depressed to this day.
1943: Due to WWII manpower shortages, the Eagles temporarily merge with the Cardinals, Steelers, and Bears. The Carpet Beagles go 2-8.
1948: The Eagles win their first NFL championship in a blizzard against the Chicago Cardinals. Back then, wins against the Cardinals actually counted.
1960: The Birds win the NFL title while the expansion Dallas Cowboys go winless. For Eagles fans, this goes down as the sole redeeming aspect of the Eisenhower administration.
1968: Angry over a 2-12 record, Eagles fans pelt Santa Claus with snowballs. In a sympathy strike, the Tooth Fairy boycotts the Philadelphia Flyers throughout the 1970s.
1976: Inspired by Rocky, Vince Papale tries out for the Eagles. Inspired by The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Ron Jaworski plays the following season in drag.
1985: Owner Leonard Tose loses the team after betting $25 million that New Coke would win the Pepsi Challenge.
1999: Eagles fans boo when Donovan McNabb is drafted. After a 48-year-old Jaworski starts 2-7, they give the kid a shot.
2004: Veterans Stadium is imploded, with three people awaiting their day in Eagles Court still locked inside.
2005: According to Wikipedia, the Eagles win Super Bowl XXXIX.
Next week, we make room for another editions of Guest Charters Speak. The week after, we'll be picking the Too Deep Zone All-Rookie Team. If you want to cast your vote, send me an e-mail at mtanier-at-footballoutsiders.com. You can also just post something here, but I might not see it. Unearth a gem that I might have missed, and I'll be sure to give you a shout-out. No running backs are needed at this time.
29 comments, Last at 17 Dec 2007, 8:55pm by Methodologically Flawed