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14 Dec 2007

Too Deep Zone: Window Dressing

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.

Saints Get Stacked

Figure 1: Tight Protection

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 –- the figure shows him running a little inside hook –- 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.

Figure 2: Double Stacks

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.

Figure 3: Patten Screen

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.

Moore Vanilla

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.

Figure 4: Two Colts Formations

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: Colts Combo Routes

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.

Figure 6: Wayne Double Move

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.

Bonus Coverage

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.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 14 Dec 2007

29 comments, Last at 17 Dec 2007, 8:55pm by Methodologically Flawed


by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 3:23pm

Am I the only one that sees Figure 1 overlapped with the text? My work PC sometimes does wacky things with the page layout (usually fixed by a couple F5's), so I'm not sure if what I'm seeing is actually there.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 3:29pm

Ok, nevermind. It's fixed now.

by B (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 4:12pm

The Jets use a triple-stack formation as well. I've seen them use it as a screen to the guy in the back, or as a fake screen where they throw to the lead guy.

by citizen jason (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 4:45pm

#2: It happens for me too--I think the ad is knocking the graphic out of the way (depending, of course, on screen resolution, etc. etc.)

Great article, though. I always thought the colts seemed to look like they were running the same play all the time. I guess I was sort of right. Reminds me of an article I read in the Sun-Times after the Bears-Seahawks game that claimed the Seahawks basically only ran like 7 plays the entire game. Looking at this, maybe that was true ...

by Luz (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 5:06pm

the ad is wreaking havoc on figure 1 for me too.

by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 5:25pm


Belichick talks a lot about running limited formations. He says that the less formations you run, the more difficult it is to determine what exact play you're going to run. You have to occasionally run out of pass formations, etc, just to show you can, and will do it. He avoids really strange formations because limited plays can be run out of them.

I'm sure Holmgren/Meeks/etc run limited offensive formations for the same reason.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 5:41pm

Re: 4

I don't know why I never thought about my screen resolution (I'm running a widescreen at 1280x720). I just always assumed it was something funky with my firewall or something.

by Steve (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 5:42pm

Nice work... I wonder how nice it must be for Moore to be able to rely on protection long enough for Wayne to execute (essentially) a triple move...

The league is all about execution and having players. The rest is gravy.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 5:49pm

1/2 not fixed for me, but a very good read nonetheless.

MT: Tony Ugoh OT and Ed Johnson DT from Indy for the all rookie team.

by andrew (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 5:59pm

Carpet Beagles.

I am so making this team in Madden.

by MDZ (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 6:01pm

Bobman, As a Colts fan I love what Ugoh's been doing, but I'd have to go with Joe Thomas at LT (and for Offensive ROY). I haven't seen much of Levi Brown, but the Cardinals seem to run really well behind him at RT. I don't know who I'd pick between Ugoh and Brown for the 2nd tackle. I know the Colts line went way down when Ugoh was hurt and has since rebounded, but I don't know how the Cards fared when Levi was out. I wholeheartedly second your suggestion of Ed Johnson. When was the last time you heard anyone on TV mention Booger McFarland? The Saints game?

by The Broilermaster (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 6:08pm

re 1:

The add over-writing issue only happens to me with IE, not Firefox, for some reason, and tends to happen less with the window maximized. *shrug*

by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 6:21pm

I charted a play this season where someone used a triple stack. I'll see if I can find it - I've just done Lions games and the GB-Was game, so it wasn't either of the teams mentioned so far.

by stan (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 6:29pm

Every pass play in the NFL has multiple conversion routes for the receivers and QB to read. The beauty of an effective offense is the ability of the QB and receivers to be on the same page. Sometimes it really is as simple as Wee Willie Keeler's secret to hitting ("hit where they ain't"). Conversion reads are about going where they ain't.

The stack packages are used because they make it very hard to play man coverage without help. If the DBs play a banjo at the same depth (you got inside, I got outside), pick plays are easy or the receivers simply go the same way -- double slant will almost always be open. If the DBs play at different depths, it is very hard to switch.

Defense adjusts by putting a safety over the top to help. This opens up the running game.

by stan (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 6:32pm

In past years, I've seen the Jets use stack techniques down on the goal line. TE in a nasty split with Chrebet a yard back and a yard inside. It looked like Wayne read the coverage and either slanted or ran a quick out

by methdeez (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 6:35pm

I am glad you did not include those Eagles jokes. They are poor.

by Dev (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 7:27pm

Thanks for the football lesson! You keep writing, and I'll keep reading.

by Bob Coluccio (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 8:15pm

The max protect scheme didn't work very well for the Packers against the Cowboys because Lee's not a great blocker, the guards played badly (also Tauscher was gimpy), and Favre ignored the underneath stuff. In other words, players and execution.

by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Fri, 12/14/2007 - 8:24pm

Regarding Bob's comment, saying the guards played badly is an understatement. Daryn Colledge was benched early in the second quarter for what one Packer coach termed "a pathetic effort".

by Purds (not verified) :: Sat, 12/15/2007 - 2:20am

The one Colt pre-snap motion that drives me crazy (because it's so predictable) is when Clark (or another TE) is in the slot right, and motions toward the RT very slowly, sometimes walking. This will, 100%, be a run to the right, with Clark attempting to seal the farthest defender on the right side. And, it never works after the first time each game. In the NE game, it worked once, and then the play the second time made Rodney Harrison look like a speedster as he saw the motion, crowded the line, and attacked, hitting Addai for a loss.

by thestar5 (not verified) :: Sat, 12/15/2007 - 3:13am

Great article but I also have figure 1 blocking some of the writing.

by TCaptain (not verified) :: Sat, 12/15/2007 - 6:28am

Navy does the same kind of thing as the Colts, as far as running only a few plays and formations but making them look like the others enough that it creates the confusion and unpredictability of many formations and plays. As a Notre Dame fan, I've seen it can be pretty lethal. The one challenge is that it takes a very intelligent play caller to avoid tipping his hand. It's easier to guess which play is coming if there are only seven plays to choose from. But a good play caller, like Moore or Johnson, can anticipate what the defense's guess is and do something different. Pretty genius, it uses what the defense perceives as a strength to create a weakness.

by Stuart Fraser :: Sat, 12/15/2007 - 12:43pm

I've seen Cleveland line up in a triple stack, but I think this was on a direct snap to Cribbs, and Anderson was lined up as the third man in the stack.

I suspect the point of this triple stack was to prevent the CB taking the chance to flatten the starting quarterback, rather than anything strategic.

by mm (not verified) :: Sat, 12/15/2007 - 9:29pm

20- perhaps Moore is carefully setting up the Patriots. Run the same play all season long, then, in the AFC championship game, run a play-action deep pass with the same motion.

There are very few teams I could see 'throwing away' plays like that for the entire regular season, but I could totally buy the Colts or Patriots doing it just to set something up in the playoffs.

by Pete (not verified) :: Sat, 12/15/2007 - 9:44pm

The Colts offense (line, QB-WRs, coaches) have been together for a lot longer than most teams. This allows them to have complex options, but still know what everyone else is doing. The Colts' offensive players need to be very capable of recognizing the situation, assessing possible options, and making the right choice(s). This sounds simple, but it is not. Marvin Harrison is far from the fastest WR. However, he (and now Wayne and probably Clark) and Peyton have the same recognition, assess the same options, and pick the same option (often before the snap).

by Bobman (not verified) :: Sun, 12/16/2007 - 2:35am

#25 You are right, and much ash been made of that connection. Not to beat a dead horse, but that's what killed them mid-season (in addition to the OL going belly-up); Thorpe and Moorehead were not in the same recognition-category. You could argue the same "catching category" as well. (And Gonzo was a rookie with a broken thumb) But a few of those six SD picks were wrong-route picks. Say you take out two of them for that reason, and the hail mary at the end, and Manning has only 3 picks, probably a few more points scored so they wouldn't have needed AV's FG at the end. Water under the bridge.

#11 MDZ, I have not seen Joe Thomas and suspect he is better than Ugoh (Hell, 9 months ago they would not have been discussed in the same sentence. Plus I love him for fishing with his dad rather thanplaying the ESPN lapdog on draft day. Now they might end up in the same category as Ogden, Pace and Glenn, all drafted in the first round the same year. Glenn was DAMN good but never could quite crack elite status with those two guys ahead of him.) But Ugoh's impact is pretty measurable by their performance in his absence. Night and day. Plus I am biased. Big surprise. Oh, and I have heard Booger's name mentioned recently, but it's probably not fair since I had his folks over for dinner last week. They raved about Ed Johnson, but probably mentioned their son once or twice.

Purds, #20, THANKS for giving it away! Sheesh!

mm #24, Yoiks! Thanks for giving away the double-secret fake! Your CIA application has been denied!

Of course, using Vizzini's iocane powder logic from The Princess Bride, when the Pats see that motion in the playoffs they will be sure it's a run, because the Colts are too smart to make it an obvious run, therefore they will have a fake, but the Colts are SOOOO smart that they will know the Pats will suspect a fake, and therefore it will be a run.

My head hurts. Must eat some iocane powder.

by Unshakable Optimist (not verified) :: Sun, 12/16/2007 - 10:31am

Here's the first paragraph for anyone who can't see it:

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.

by croxall (not verified) :: Mon, 12/17/2007 - 1:30pm

For me, Joe Thomas is a no-brainer, far superior choice to Ugoh at LT in the All Rookie team.

Ugoh has struggled. Not atypical stuff, don’t get me wrong, just usual rookie bumps. He’s given up a lot of pressures, and were his quarterback less accomplished, he’d have given up a lot of sacks and I honestly don’t think for a minute that he’d be seriously in this discussion. Yes, he’s a lot better than the guys that spelled him when he was out, but that is because they suck, not because Ugoh’s performance has been anything to write home about.

On the other hand, Joe Thomas has been one of the best 5 or 6 left tackles in the league this year. I don’t think Ugoh is in the top 20 yet. To my mind, we’re talking night-and-day gap in their respective performance. Yet I notice Ugoh has more fan votes for the Pro Bowl than Joe Thomas. The mind boggles.

by Methodologically Flawed (not verified) :: Mon, 12/17/2007 - 8:55pm

Incredible post, thanks.