by Mike Tanier
The full-house backfield is the coelacanth of NFL formations. It seemed to be extinct by the middle of the 1980s. Then, a few years ago, it suddenly reappeared. The Panthers used three-back formations more than any other team last season, but the Cowboys, Browns, Redskins, and other teams tinkered with the strategy in the last few years.
The typical full-house package includes several running plays, some six- or seven-man protection passes, and a few wrinkles on basic pass plays. Today, we are going to install something a little more exotic: an end around from a full-house formation. This play was used by the Redskins against the Titans in Week 6. The play only yielded a minimal gain, so we will examine ways to improve it after we look at what actually happened on the field.
The situation: First-and-10, first quarter, Redskins trailing by three points. The Redskins deploy a three-receiver, single-back, single-tight end personnel package, but they align in a full house formation with Chris Cooley and Antwaan Randle El at "fullback." (Figure 1) The Redskins use lots of pre-set and pre-snap motion, and they will often motion out of this look into a very different formation. But the Redskins stay in their full house set. Right end Santana Moss only splits about five yards from the right tackle; Brandon Lloyd's split on the left side is wider. Most of the Titans defense is not shown for clarity's sake; the Titans are in a nickel personnel package.
At the snap, Cooley leads Randle El on an apparent off-tackle run right. The blocking on the right side suggests an off-tackle run. Moss steps off the line and braces to log a linebacker. The right tackle and guard execute a trap block, with the tackle blocking down while the guard pulls into the gap. Mark Brunell pivots on his left foot, takes a drop step with his right foot, and reaches with his left hand to give the ball to Randle El. There are only a few hints that this is anything other than a simple running play: the formation, the fact that a wide receiver is in the backfield, and the motion of Clinton Portis, who sweeps left while the other backs move to the right.
The apparent handoff to Randle El is a play fake. Moss' block is also a fake; he turns to the backfield and begins to execute an end around. Brunell takes another drop step and gives to Moss seven yards deep. Theoretically, the Titans defense should be fooled by the fake to Randle El, while some of the "stay at home" defenders on the left side should cover Lloyd and Portis on play-action pass routes. In principle, Moss will only have one defender to contend with: the right defensive end, unblocked on the play. Surely, that player will either a) get caught inside by the right-run action, b) tackle or pursue Portis, or c) be no match for Moss in the open field.
Unfortunately, this play fails because the Titans defensive line is able to penetrate and disrupt the play (Figure 2). The trap block on the right side isn't well executed; not only does a defensive tackle reach the backfield in time to disrupt the handoff to Moss, but the left end gets enough penetration to slow Moss at the start of the play. The right end, meanwhile, isn't suckered by the play fake and nearly crashes into Brunell and Moss at the handoff. Only Moss' athleticism prevents a disaster. The two defenders force a fumbled exchange, but Moss dribbles the ball, picks it up, and jukes his way to a short gain.
Let's improve this play before installing it. We'll start by replacing the trap blocks on the right side with a simpler scheme. There's enough subterfuge on that side of the ball to sell the right-run fake. Next, we'll instruct Portis to chip the right end if he penetrates early. We'll also add a counter step to Portis' initial motion (Figure 3). With all three backs going in the same direction at the snap, most of the defense should flow to the offensive right. The result is a simpler play that should be more effective. The Redskins had a tendency to overcomplicate their offense last season anyway.
This particular end around is a once-per-season play, but it is too cool to leave out of the playbook. It's a novel way to get a great player the ball in open space, and like any good counter-action play it punishes the defense for over-pursuit and over-aggressiveness. Mix a quirky formation, an unusual personnel grouping, and a little trickery, and you've got an instant defensive migraine.