Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

20 Dec 2010

Cleveland's A-11 Wrinkle

My first priority on Monday morning, after taking a lot of aspirin, was to diagram Robert Royal’s 20-yard touchdown catch against the Bengals. The Browns used an unusual A-11 type of formation on the play. They also got away with an amazingly illegal downfield block.

As shown in Figure 1, the Browns split tackles Joe Thomas (73) and John St. Clair (78) out as “wide receivers.” The word “receiver” is misleading, because they are not on the ends of the line of scrimmage, which means they are ineligible to catch passes or go downfield on passing plays. Tight ends Royal (84) and Benjamin Watson (82) are on the ends, so they are eligible receivers, with Josh Cribbs (16) and Mohamed Massaquoi (11) stashed behind them.

Figure 1: Robert Royal Touchdown

The Bengals do a pretty good job countering this strange formation. No one lines up in man coverage on Thomas or anything. The Bengals appear to be in zone coverage, and they also appear to be wary of a screen pass of some kind. You would be too, with Cribbs hiding behind a lineman and a tight end. At the snap, Cribbs drifts to the sidelines as if running a tunnel screen. Thomas blocks a linebacker. Leon Hall (29) and a linebacker I could not identify both slide into underneath zones; both look ready to chase Cribbs. They let Royal run deep, where Reggie Nelson (20) is a step late picking him up.

While all of this chaos is going on, running back Mike Bell (22), aligned in the slot, runs down field and blocks a linebacker. In the diagram, I have Bell 10 yards downfield, but that is a distortion caused by the background; in real life, he was between the 16 and 15 yard lines, making him four-and-a-half yards downfield. Bell initiates contact before the pass is in the air, and it is not a bump, pick, rub, or wipe. It is a square-shouldered block, in the open field.

In other words, Bell commits flagrant offensive pass interference, and his block has an impact on the play. Nelson, the deep safety, reacts to everything that happens in front of him. He sees the Bell block. As a defender, he must assume that Bell is legally blocking, probably for the Cribbs screen that most of us would expect from this formation. While Nelson freezes, Royal gets past him.

There is so much that officials must worry about on a play like this that you can imagine how a borderline penalty would go unnoticed. Bell did not commit a borderline penalty, but a flagrant one. This A-11 wrinkle is certainly interesting, and I am sure Brian Daboll and his staff have dreamed up a few screens from it, but I do not think Royal would have had an easy touchdown if the Browns played by the rules.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 20 Dec 2010

35 comments, Last at 21 Dec 2010, 10:21pm by Steven Humphries


by Led :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 11:55am

I see early blocks on many, many wide receiver screens and on virtually all of the successful ones. Strict enforcement of the offensive pass interference rule would make the play a lot less useful.

by Roy G (not verified) :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 12:00pm

You can block downfield before the pass as long as the pass isn't thrown beyond the line of scrimmage. All those early blocks on wide receiver screens are legal.

by zlionsfan :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 1:41pm

I believe that is the case in college football:

7.3.9.d. Pass interference rules apply only during a down in which a legal forward pass crosses the neutral zone (Rules 2-19-3 and 7-3-8-a and c) (A.R. 10-2-2-XXIV).

but what I see in the NFL rule book is this:

8.5.4 Other Prohibited acts by the offense. Blocking downfield by an offensive
player prior to a pass being thrown is offensive pass interference.

by The Ninjalectual :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 1:43pm

No, not "all" of them are legal. You meant to say "many" are legal.

by Roy G (not verified) :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 2:36pm

You are right, they may be illegal blocks for other reasons...

by drobviousso :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 12:12pm

Awesome write up. Thanks.

by Raiderjoe :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 1:12pm

Will reaf this later. Did not see game. Or higjlight yet

by Blotzphoto :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 1:19pm

I was sure that no one would see this game...

by Mac (not verified) :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 2:22pm

This was awesome. I would love to see a video clip to go with it. What is it that makes this sort of A-11 play legal in an NFL game, though? I thought that there were formation restrictions in the NFL rulebook that preclude it.

by DGL :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 2:39pm

The highlight is up on nfl.com.

The formation is fine for the NFL; the five interior linemen are ineligible even though the tackles are split out wide. The "actual" A-11 takes advantage of a high school rules loophole that allows any player to line up in either an eligible or ineligible position (regardless of whether they are wearing an eligible or ineligible number) in "short punt" formation, but doesn't require you to actually punt out of "short punt" formation. So in an A-11, a player could line up as an ineligible guard on one play, an eligibile wingback on the next, and an eligible split end on the next. This makes it tougher for the defense to figure out on a given play who's eligible and who isn't.

The Browns just used the wide splits of the tackles, but all five interior linemen were wearing ineligible numbers and the two ends and four backs were all wearing eligible numbers.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 2:53pm

Took advantage. That loophole was closed in 2009, so the "A-11" moniker doesn't exactly work anymore, although teams running the 'new' A-11 use ineligible receivers as much more than offensive linemen.

The guys who came up with the A-11 offense are still pushing to get rid of jersey numbering rules, but my guess is they won't ever succeed. It's a major, major advantage to the offense if the defense has no idea who's eligible to catch a pass or go downfield on a passing play.

by Mac (not verified) :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 4:17pm

Awesome; thanks for the link and information. It's been a while since I read about the A-11, so I was confused on the facts. Much appreciated!

by Chiefexec (not verified) :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 2:33pm
by Tom Gower :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 3:02pm

I'm pretty sure the formation is just a basic Emory and Henry. The Titans ran an occasional punt and fake punt out of it in the early 2000's and I remember another team running it since then, but this is probably its first appearance in a couple years. Steve Spurrier is also famous for running it.

by hrudey (not verified) :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 4:02pm

Yes, the Emery and Henry.

I hate to only contribute a spelling correction. Spurrier did run that on occasion at Florida and has also at Carolina.

by ABW (not verified) :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 4:27pm
by ABW (not verified) :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 4:30pm

And I screw up the apostrophes while being pedantic. Serves me right. I just hope I'm spelling the name of the punctuation mark correctly in this post, or I'm going to look really dumb.

by hrudey (not verified) :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 4:44pm

Eek. I even did a google on "emery and henry formation" and saw the Wiki page come up and forgot that it does the "did you mean ?" by default. I blame Hole in Sleep Pattern.

by Hurt Bones :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 6:04pm

Emery. I'll file that spelling for later use

by Chris Owen (not verified) :: Tue, 12/21/2010 - 1:30am

I'm getting board with this digression

by Podge (not verified) :: Tue, 12/21/2010 - 10:54am

I seem to remember Jim Zorn's Redskins running something similar to this last season.

And although that lead to significantly less actual success, it did lead to significantly more hilarity, so was probably the better play. Kind of.

by Nathan :: Tue, 12/21/2010 - 6:34pm

zorn tried the swinging gate... even fewer blockers for the qb

he called the play, someone called time out after they saw the weird formation, then zorn called it AGAIN. with predictable results.

by dmb :: Tue, 12/21/2010 - 8:52pm

A few games earlier, Hunter smith threw a 40+ yard TD after changing from FG formation to definitely-not-FG formation. The Broncos called a timeout after the Redskins changed formations the first time, and the Redskins ran the same play after the timeout. Of course, the play's success wasn't entirely dependent on the novelty of the formation...

by Anonymus (not verified) :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 4:36pm

What if NFL simply stops with position numbers and inelegibility?

by tuluse :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 5:31pm

What if they allow multiple forward passes on a single down?

We're just throwing out crazy hypotheticals here, right?

by Anonymus (not verified) :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 6:44pm

No, tuluse! I'm discussing the article.

The title reads "Cleveland A-11 Wrinkle". The A-11 offense consists of only one lineman (center) in the field. Everyone else is an eligible player. If I'm not mistaken, the basic A-11 team consists of: center; two tight ends, two quarterbacks, and six wide recievers.

I'm just asking what if this becomes the rule; not the exception...

by tuluse :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 8:47pm

There not going to change the rule. In fact, as stated above, the loophole that allowed a true A-11 in highschool has been closed. So you can't run it at any level now.

by sam :: Mon, 12/20/2010 - 5:43pm

"This A-11 wrinkle is certainly interesting, and I am sure Brian Daboll and his staff have dreamed up a few screens from it, but I do not think Royal would have had an easy touchdown if the Browns played by the rules."

If Reggie Nelson had coverage, I don't think it would have mattered.

sam! or the original sam from the old FO

by KDC (not verified) :: Tue, 12/21/2010 - 3:31am

"making him four-and-a-half yards downfield."

Doesn't this put him within the 5-yard contact zone?

by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 12/21/2010 - 3:13pm

That's what I was wondering.

by the cat in the box is dead (not verified) :: Tue, 12/21/2010 - 4:26am

I think the Eagles used this last year for about one play, during Vick's 'Wildcat experiment' phase. As I recall, they didn't run a pass out of it, just some funky sweep.

by Theo :: Tue, 12/21/2010 - 6:10am

Kudos to that high school football head coach who created this.

by Mikey B (not verified) :: Tue, 12/21/2010 - 12:19pm

As an Oklahoma Sooner fan, I actually recognize this formation.

Crazy Mike Leach, and obscenely fat Mark Mangino actually ran this in College circa 2000 and 2001. OU called it the Ninja, and I seem to remember Kansas running it occasionally when Manfat was coaching. I never seem to remember it working, and I always seem to remember it being used as a bubble screen instead of as a go pattern. But I definitely wouldn't put it in any of the principles of the A-11

by Mikey B (not verified) :: Tue, 12/21/2010 - 12:21pm

I believe it was called the Ninja, because the three person clusters resembled ninja stars.

by Steven Humphries (not verified) :: Tue, 12/21/2010 - 10:21pm

The A-11 Offense was adjusted to conform to traditional football numbering requirements in 2009 and has been thriving in traditional football rules for the last two years. So far this season, Cleveland Browns, Stanford, USC, and Miami have successfully run A-11 type plays. Boise ran a successful two point conversion versus Oregon in 2009. It is a dynamic offense with many many more formations than just an Emory & Henry look.

The Browns ran a play similar to an A-11 "Base Red Smoke Shoot" play. The smoke in the left "Red" pod compliments a quick screen. If the (#2) or left slot ran a shoot route down the middle of the field, he could have eaten up the Safety's cushion and possibly been wide open too. As it was, the smoke route worked great for a TD. Well diagrammed above.

There are lots of downloadable play diagrams and you can watch video of it operating within current numbering rules at www.a11offense.com.