The Passing Game III: Bootlegs
by Mike Tanier
The best way to protect a quarterback is to keep him in the pocket. But it's not the only way to protect him.
A fast quarterback deserves the chance to run once in a while, and defenders must make a lot of adjustments when the passer is on the move. That's why playbooks are filled with bootlegs, rollouts, sprintouts, waggles, options, and pins, plays that move the quarterback away from his protective bubble behind the center.
This installment of Strategy Minicamps will focus on play-action bootlegs, plays that feature a fake handoff and a rolling quarterback who has the option to run or pass. All play-action bootlegs are built around the same principals and are designed to achieve the same goals. These plays use misdirection to confuse defenders. They look like running plays, slowing the pass rush and drawing linebackers close to the line of scrimmage to open passing lanes. The run action also slows the pass rush, and the movement of the quarterback forces defensive linemen to change their pass-rush angle. Finally, play-action bootlegs usually flood one side of the field with receivers while putting the quarterback in position to execute short, easy throws.
A Run to Set Up the Pass
All successful play-action passes are built from running plays, so we should draw up a run before we examine a bootleg pass. This simple run, which we'll call Weakside Counter, lends itself well to play action. Let's discuss each player's assignment on this counter play; we'll assume that the defense is in a vanilla 4-3 alignment:
Left tackle: Step right, reach-block 3-technique tackle to the left.
Left guard: Pull behind the center, stay shallow, cross the formation, and read the situation on the right side of the field. If a linebacker or safety is unblocked outside of the right tackle, the guard kick-out blocks, pushing that defender to the sideline. If there is no defender wide of the right tackle, the guard logs (walls off to the outside) the first defender in pursuit, sealing off the right flank of the line.
Center: Block the nose tackle or 1-technique tackle.
Right guard: Double-team the nose or 1-technique. Depending on the defensive alignment, either the center or guard may climb out to the second level to take on a linebacker.
Right tackle: Block the defensive end aligned to his side. This may be a difficult reach block if the end lines up too far outside. The motion in the backfield should pull the end toward the right tackle, making the block easier.
Fullback: Fill in the gap left by the left guard. Stop any defenders from racing through the hole. If the hole is clear, climb out to the second level and stop a linebacker's pursuit. The fullback must sell the illusion that he is lead blocking for a run to the left; second level defenders often key the fullback, and will step to the left (their right) when he starts moving.
Receivers: Run the cornerbacks off with what appear to be deep routes. On the left side, the receiver can just keep running. On the right, he should prepare to block as soon as the defender reads run in the backfield.
Tight end: Climb out and block the strongside linebacker or safety. Notice in this variation of the play, the tight end is on the back side. If he were on the right, he would seal the edge or help the right tackle to contain the defensive end.
Quarterback: Pivot, take three steps toward the halfback. Execute handoff. Roll left. The quarterback should "ride" the halfback while handing off; for a split second, it should not be clear who has the ball.
Halfback: Step left with the left foot, selling the fake with the eyes and hips. Cross over with the right foot, then plant with the left foot and cut right. Take the handoff and read the block of the pulling guard. If the guard kicks out, run between him and the right tackle. If he logs, run further to the outside.
Simple, right? Like all counters, this play is built on misdirection. The initial action in the backfield suggests a run to the left, and several linemen are blocking to the left. If defenders overreact to all of this motion, they'll run themselves into blocks or out of the play. The alignment of the tight end (teams usually run in his direction) and the bootleg by the quarterback also create confusion and slow defensive pursuit.
Now, let's build a bootleg pass that looks similar to the Weakside Counter. Boot Right is adapted from a play developed by Mike Huard in Football's Best Offensive Playbook. Rich Brooks explains a similar play in Offensive Football Strategies.
Notice that the formation and the blocking assignments for Boot Right are identical to Weakside Counter, which is why we spent so much time discussing them in the last section. The left guard still pulls and logs while all of the other linemen are veering left and protecting their gaps. The lineman must appear to be run blocking: they should come out of their stances low and aggressively engage their opponents. If the linemen sell the run, linebackers will step up to fill their lanes. It's important that no one tries to block on the second level on Boot Right: linemen cannot go upfield on passing plays. If the center and guard have the nose tackle under control, then the center should turn his attention to the backside gap created by the pulling guard.
At the snap, the fullback acts like he's lead blocking in the gap created by the pulling guard, just as he did in Weakside Counter. In fact, he may actually have to chip an aggressive defender on his way through the gap. But he must be careful not to get caught in defensive traffic: his real job is to get out past the defensive line level, cut right, and run hard into the right flat.
The halfback's motion has been reversed on this play; he starts right, cuts left, and takes the fake handoff. The quarterback and halfback must work hard to sell the fake. The halfback then reads for any high-speed pursuit from the left. If a blitzing linebacker has a chance to blow up the play, the halfback must block him. A good play fake should slow that linebacker's pursuit, however; if so, the halfback runs hard off left tackle, fooling the defense as long as he can. In some variations of this play, he'll back off toward the far sideline and wait for a backside screen pass.
The quarterback sells the fake, then takes his time as he rolls right. He should reach a depth of about nine yards and find a spot behind the right tackle before he sets to pass. A little nonchalance goes a long way with Boot Right. If the fullback and halfback are charging left at full steam while the quarterback drifts to the right, the defense will initially follow the flow of the runners.
The split end runs a fly pattern. If you read the first two articles in this series (here and here), you know this is a clear route: his job is to run off his cornerback (in man coverage) or to force his cornerback and the free safety to back off (in zone coverage). You also know that while he's the least likely player to get the ball, the coordinators will call for the bomb if the defense forgets to cover him.
The flanker runs a deep post on the backside. He's also trying the get the secondary to take a deep drop, but he's a more likely target than the split end. When zone defenders read a rollout, they tend to mirror the quarterback, particularly if he's a Michael Vick type who must be shadowed. If safeties vacate the middle of the field, the post pattern is often open.
The tight end climbs out past the linebacker level and runs a crossing pattern in front of the safeties at a depth of about 10 yards. He must hustle to stay within the quarterback's line of sight, but ideally the tight end should trail the motion of the quarterback and fullback slightly. A fast tight end may have to run this route at three-fourths speed. A really slow tight end will have to angle to the right as he climbs. Against man coverage, he wants to stay in front of his defender and get at least a half-step of separation. Against zone, he finds an open spot on the field after crossing, slows down, and waits for the ball.
The quarterback generally reads the fullback first, then the tight end, then the backside post. If a defender comes unblocked from the right, the quarterback must pull up and throw to the fullback. If the quarterback isn't threatened, he reads the defender in the right flat. If the flat defender is chasing the quarterback or has dropped off to cover the tight end, the fullback should be open for an 8-10 yard gain. If the flat defender is covering the fullback, the tight end should be open.
Imagine that you're the linebacker assigned to the right flat zone on this play. You are facing a running formation, usually on a running down. Your opponent is a team like the Broncos that loves to run the ball. At the snap, everything looks like a running play to your right. You have no choice: you move to your right to stop the run. But then you see the fake and the rollout, and you realize that both the fullback and the tight end are headed for the spot on the field you just vacated. Of course, you'd have a better chance of breaking up the play if you guessed it was Boot Right at the snap. But then you would be easy pickings for a kick-out block on Weakside Counter.
Pin-0 and the Waggle
Plays like Boot Right often include a running option for the quarterback. If the defense over-commits to the play-action fake, the quarterback could roll out and find 20 yards of empty field in front of him. In that case, it's off to the races. But there are better ways to clear out some running room for a fast quarterback.
A "pin" play is a play-action bootleg with an extra blocker at the point of attack. The pin sacrifices an eligible receiver, but it usually seals one side of the defensive line and gives the quarterback the option to run for a substantial gain.
The diagram to the right shows H-Doubles Naked Pin-0 as described by Joe Tiller in Offensive Football Strategies. You'll see some similarities to Boot Right â€“ there's a pulling guard, a play-action fake left, and a receiver (this time a slot wideout) running a crossing pattern. The key to the pin is the action of the tight end, who is now on the right side of the formation: instead of running a route, he double-teams the defensive end to the play side or blocks any blitzing defenders wide of the right tackle. As an eligible receiver, he is allowed to work upfield, but he must be careful not to throw any downfield blocks until the quarterback decides to run or pass.
The block of the tight end makes it hard for the defense to contain the quarterback. After the fake, the quarterback reads the containment. If the defensive pursuit is light, he gives the pulling guard a "run" signal (usually, he just yells "go"). The guard now knows that the quarterback won't pass the ball, so he's free to climb out to the second level to hunt for linebackers. If there are no free running lanes, the quarterback looks to throw the out route to the split end, then the crossing route, then the far-side post. In a pinch, the quarterback can just throw the ball out of bounds wide of the out route.
Another way to provide more blockers for the rolling quarterback is to pull both guards. This play is a variation on Blue 29-Waggle from the playbook of legendary Delaware coach Tubby Raymond; instead of using Raymond's famous Wing-T formation, we'll run it from a two-back, two-tight end set. This play is designed to look like a sweep left, and the two tight ends to the left would block to seal the edge if this were an actual sweep. But it's a bootleg, and both guards pull right to protect the quarterback. The route pattern looks familiar enough: there's a clear route, a fullback racing to the flat, a shallow cross, and a deep cross. But a running quarterback (think Rich Gannon, circa 1986) would be encouraged to run first, dump to the fullback second.
Blue 29-Waggle is designed for a lower level of competition, and pro teams rarely pull two guards on a rollout. A fast NFL defensive tackle could easily blow up this play in the backfield. But this play could also be called with a "solid" offensive front: no pulling guards, just a fake sweep to feign the defense out of position. The particulars of the play aren't as important as the fundamentals: with a fake handoff and the right combination of pass routes, a well-drilled offense can gain some easy yardage.
Bootleg passes have several advantages, but one major disadvantage: they only attack one side of the field. At the prep or college level, it often makes sense to cut the field in half, shortening the passes and simplifying the reads. But in the NFL, where defenders can cover a lot of ground quickly, you don't want to keep bunching up your receivers. Eventually, the defenses will counterattack with outside blitzes and lopsided zone coverage.
The best way to attack an NFL defense is often to spread it out. In the final article of our four-part series on the passing game, we'll get those pesky defenders to play on their heels with some wide-open, multi-receiver formations.