by Mike Tanier
Welcome to Strategy Minicamps, Football Outsiders' annual strategy feature designed to nourish you through the pre-training camp doldrums with a hearty diet of play diagrams and coaching jargon. This year, we're doing things a little differently. Instead of publishing long articles on extremely specialized topics ("this week, 7,500 words on 3-technique tackle stunts!"), we're installing plays into the Football Outsiders playbook. Each "Play of the Day" article will analyze one or two plays taken from actual game tapes, examining how each play was designed and why it succeeded or failed. You will get a little taste of everything in the next few weeks, from the Colts' no-huddle offense to Vince Young rollout plays to the Redskins' double-reverse chicanery. Minicamp articles will be shorter but more frequent, allowing you to get your strategy fix several times per week.
Figure 1 shows the Chargers in their base personnel set: LaDainian Tomlinson at running back, Lorenzo Neal at fullback, Antonio Gates at tight end, and Keenan McCardell and Eric Parker at wideout. They initially line up with Neal in the left slot and Gates split slightly (about three yards) from the right tackle. This is essentially a four-wideout look; Neal won't beat anyone in a foot race up the seam, but he must be covered on flat routes and shallow crosses, so the defense must account for him. At the same time, the Chargers can effectively execute stretch or zone running plays from this formation, as Neal and Gates are both in position to act as line-of-scrimmage run blockers.
Once Neal motions into the backfield pre-snap, the entire offensive look changes. The Chargers are now in a clear strong side running formation. Once Neal moves, the defense has multiple adjustments to make. They probably want to move a safety into the box on the offensive right side. If a linebacker was covering Neal in the slot, he might move into a force position on the weak (offensive left) side. Defensive linemen might have to change their gap responsibilities. If the defensive left end and tackle had a stunt or twist called, such a play would be called off (Tomlinson would love to run right into a stunt with Neal leading the way). Many teams with run-intensive offenses use simple pre-snap motion like this to keep opponents from loading eight defenders in the box. The Bears used this motion tactic extensively in their playoff run last season, and we used a nearly identical diagram to illustrate one of their plays in a Too Deep Zone article last season.
The Chargers can do a lot more with this personnel package and initial look. Instead of creating a heavy running formations, let's empty the backfield by keeping Neal in the slot and sending LaDainian Tomlinson in motion to the right. This new formation (Figure 2) presents a whole new series of defensive problems. Five receivers can come off the line at the snap, four of whom have wide receiver speed. The defense is probably in a base 4-3 personnel package when the Chargers break huddle. In this formation, who covers Tomlinson in man coverage? Before the motion, the defensive left safety was responsible for Gates. After the motion, using basic man-coverage principles, that safety would cover Tomlinson and a linebacker would be responsible for Gates. That creates one mismatch, maybe two. Any blitzes from the offensive right side would be cancelled after this motion. A blitz from the left might still succeed, but Philip Rivers would have plenty of hot routes to choose from.
Finally, let's empty the backfield but create a different look: a flip formation with Tomlinson in the gap between the right tackle and Gates (Figure 3). The previous alignment gave two of the league's best weapons plenty of open field to work with. This formation places them right next to each other, allowing them to rub defenders in pass patterns. The close alignment gives both Tomlinson and Gates the option of working the middle of the field, going deep, or running flat or sideline patterns. Figure 3 shows Tomlinson and Gates running a curl-flat combination. In man coverage, Gates would probably rub off Tomlinson's defender, setting up an easy completion in the flat. Against a typical zone defense, Tomlinson's flat route and the receiver's deep route would create space for Gates to run a 10-yard hitch or curl pattern. We moved Neal a little closer to the left tackle for this play so he could help with blitz pickup, but Neal could also leak into the short curl zone as an outlet receiver. The wideouts are inviting targets against a zero (no deep safeties) defense.
Clearly, defenders and their coaches have a lot to worry about, even before the ball is snapped. If the most basic inside handoff can be disguised by clever alignments, imagine what happens when offensive coordinators start calling the loopy plays from the back of the playbook. In a few days, we'll start analyzing some of those plays. They'll make an empty-backfield tight end/halfback curl-flat rub look like something the local peewee team runs.