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28 Oct 2005

Too Deep Zone: The Bone is Back

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.

A Bone by Any Other Name

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.

Bones Across America

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.

A Bone is Born

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.

Video Bone

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.

The Bone Rolls On

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.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 28 Oct 2005

32 comments, Last at 12 Aug 2006, 12:29am by Charles Wilson


by Parker (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 11:59am

I feel smarter after reading this. Thank you, Mike.

by B (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 12:04pm

Interesting how Vick was most successfull in a wishbone offense. Somebody page Jim Mora.

by pawnking (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 12:09pm

"There is no new thing under the sun." True 3,000 years ago. True today.

by James, London (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 12:13pm

Wow. Formation history, playcalling analysis, who's doing what in college, Madden 06 and a reminder that the Falcons can't pass all in one column. And free too.

That is impressive, particularly for a website that's "jumped the shark"... :)

by dayne boki (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 12:30pm

Everybody bashes mike vick for not being a good passer but I still don't understand why mora would come in and install a system that clearly hinders his ability. I will be the first to say vick is not that good of a quarterback but he is a crazy good athlete so why not have him roll out every play? I would like to see the maryland i (as they have that in ncaa 06)

by MJK (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 1:15pm

I don't think the Patriots HAVE three backs who are all healthy at one time...

by Adam H (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 1:34pm

RE 3 What about carbon nano-tubes?

by ElJefe (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 1:36pm

In 2003 (back when they still had Duce Staley and a healthy Correll Buckhalter) the Eagles ran a number of goal-line plays out of the true wishbone. And true-to-form for Tailgunner Andy, almost all of them were passes ... :)

by MTR (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 1:57pm

I think somebody (Jacksonville?) broke out the single wing as a goal line trick play a year or two ago.

Did anybody notice a kickoff last week where the man who caught the ball ran over to two men who had their backs to the defense, then the three of them ran different directions?

by Richie (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 2:00pm

I bet Carl will have something to say about this.

by Arkaein (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 2:26pm

For people who aren't very familiar with the Packers offense, in addition to various bone plays (which they don't seem to use very often), the Packers have made another "Jumbo" formation a big part of their offense over the past few years.

They call it U-71, after the number of Kevin Barry, the backup tackle who lines up as a TE in the formation. They also use a normal TE flanking him, a strong side FB, and a deep HB, as well as a WR split to the left.

In 2003 and 2004 GB ran this formation on nearly a quarter of their offensive plays. At least this is what I've read, and although it's not quite as obvious on TV a game I watched live in 2003 showed they did indeed use this formation very often.

I love seeing these power formations used in the NFL because I think diversity in offense is a great asset.

Finally (and since the article brought up the subject), if you're into Madden, click my name to see the plays I've developed, which include some nice power formations.

by Todd S. (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 2:46pm

Uh-huh-huh...huh-huh...he said "bone."

by Tyler (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 3:16pm

If Atlanta makes the playoffs, they should bust out the single wing with Vick, Duckett, and Dunn. My guess is the other defense would be so surprised, they'd rack up 250-300 rushing yards and get a few long passes out of it to boot. I don't know how you can have a singular talent like Vick and not use him to his full capabilties.

by Andrew (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 3:27pm

The Eagles do have a wishbone play where they stick Westbrook and Owens in the backfield with an option of either Parry or Smith in front as Fullback (IIRC), or split out to flank a Tackle to make a strongside formation.

They used it last year on a TD pass to Westbrook, where he followed Owens out of the backfield, with Owens attracting a crowd, and Westbrook walking in unmolested. They used a similar formation on a play I think against the Chiefs this year (may have been the Westbrook 2 pt conversion).

by pawnking (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 4:04pm

AdamH, okay, ONE thing new under the sun :-)

by sul (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 4:15pm

Terrific article. The wishbone is my favorite all-time formation. It reaks of the old-school but really you can run so many different types of plays out of it. Glad to see it making a comeback. I never understood why teams haven't at least tried it more, you can use an extra blocker in so many running AND passing situations.

by sean (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 4:29pm

Fantastic article.

by JonL (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 4:43pm

A really good article.

Washington seems a team that would run something like this. Put Portis, Betts, and Sellers in the backfield along with Cooley and Moss up front and I'll bet they could do some damage. Although now that I think about it, they probably motion in and out of this pretty frequently.

by The Shark (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 4:56pm

Please stop :(.

by Corey (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 6:03pm

Trent Dilfer has never thrown a pass to Andre Davis. Did you mean somebody else?

by ABW (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 7:18pm

He probably meant Andra Davis. Yes, at one point, the Cleveland Browns had WRs named Andra Davis and Andre' Davis.

by Ian (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 7:41pm

wow. In Z's article on SI this morning he says the same thing about Vick and the full house backfield. Creepy.

I watched this show one lazy summer afternoon on cable (NFL/ESPN/History Channel ? who knows) about the old four runners formations - talked alot about the four horsemen, but also about prep teams that still run the formations a lot. It was pretty fascinating how the misdirection worked, and seemed like it would still work in the NFL, even with linebackers like Ray Lewis.

Dunno, but fun to think about. Nifty article.

by PerlStalker (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 9:22pm

Denver used variations on these a lot last year. The would line up with the HB and FB in variations of the I and would motion a TE in as a second FB. It worked well enough most of the time. Though I don't think anyone would claim that Denver has had any recent problems running the ball.

by Ron Mexico (not verified) :: Fri, 10/28/2005 - 9:33pm

It was pretty fascinating how the misdirection worked, and seemed like it would still work in the NFL, even with linebackers like Ray Lewis.

You meaned washed up bums who get blown up repeatedly by every fullback in the league?

by Corey (not verified) :: Sat, 10/29/2005 - 3:52am

No, Andra Davis is a middle linebacker.

by ABW (not verified) :: Sat, 10/29/2005 - 3:52pm

Doh. Of course you're right.

Wow, people having very similar names really IS confusing.

by Israel (not verified) :: Sat, 10/29/2005 - 6:33pm

Nice piece. I expect the FoxSports folks know they are getting their money's worth - if they didn't know already.

(So are we freeloaders.)

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Sun, 10/30/2005 - 8:51am

Dang, only on FO does everyone already say everything I had to say.

I was going to come in and say my first experience with full-house was with Atlanta in Madden 2004. Then, since that was taken, I was going to mention that Denver ran a full-house type backfield using two TEs on the line of scrimmage and then bringing them separately back into the backfield last season. I forget why exactly, but I think it was when they were switching Droughns to RB and didn't have a FB on their roster (iirc Kyle Johnson was a practice squadder).

Well, there's still one last contribution I can make to this thread. Denver broke out the true, honest-to-goodness wishbone in 2003. They used it extensively against KC in the infamous Dante Hall Return game. Ran it pretty successfully.

by Podge (not verified) :: Mon, 10/31/2005 - 1:04pm

#25 - Maybe Dilfer was trying to throw the ball away and exploit a possible glitch in the intentional grounding rule involving players with very similar names?

by Requiem (not verified) :: Wed, 11/02/2005 - 3:35am

New poster, been a reader for a couple of weeks.

One thing that seems to be missed (it was touched on briefly at the end of the article) is that the diamondbone (D-bone) formation is great if you want to figure out what defense the opponent's running or to create a mismatch.

I've watched quite a bit of the Panthers this year (mainly because Delhomme is on my fantasy team) and in the games I've seen they are in the formation at least 1/3 of their plays. They often shift into and out of the D-bone to get those aforementioned isolations or to help Delhomme figure out what the coverage is.

Many times they'll have Davis AND Foster in the backfield with Mangum or Hoover serving as the fourth point in the diamond. A lot of times they'll send Foster out in motion to be the slot receiver or flanker (and hopefully identify a mismatch). Sometimes they'll shift into an I formation or a pro-set. What's interesting about the Panthers' use of it, is the variety of movement going on before the snap (and there's a LOT of it going on).


by Rudy Pyatt (not verified) :: Thu, 01/26/2006 - 12:24am

Thank you for saying what I've been preaching for years. Modern D is geared to stop the pass, West Coast and spread sets especially. History shows that three RB sets can hit w/speed as well as power. MdI, Power I, T. All of them can still work. For one thing, you're less dependent on building a monster-type O-line: you can use those extra backs for anything you'd pull the guards or tackles for. 'Course, the kinds of counters-fakes-misd available for runs are complemented by how they can set up play action...Pull a guard left, counter the RB back the other way w/the other backs leading around the end...or let two of them run wheel routes while the third stays in to block. Hmmmm...

by Charles Wilson (not verified) :: Sat, 08/12/2006 - 12:29am

Emory Bellard ran the "original" Wingbone at Mississippi State in the early 1980's with QB John Bond and ran the Diamond Bone with Don Smith at QB after Bond had left. Very much close to the same formation, with a tight end and no line splits to speak of. Emory would joke about how his team was the only team in the country that had to take showers before practice.

The Wingbone was a true triple option attack and the Diamond Bone was a pass happy affair with powers and traps for the runnning attack. The only play I never saw was the Belly and I admit that I don't have all of the games on tape.

All of you pass types have no idea of the power and offensive dominance built into this little formation.

Charles Wilson