by Mike Tanier
On goal-to-go pass plays, the tight end is the quarterback's best friend. Unlike those skinny wide receivers, he's a good blocker who can help sell the run threat and contribute in pass protection. More importantly, he doesn't need a lot of space to get open, and his size allows him to "post up" defenders in tight spots. Most teams target the tight end at the goal line on rollout or play-action passes, but a good tight end can get open and score on a traditional dropback pass, even inside the five-yard line. Today, we'll install two goal-to-go plays for our tight end, one a traditional bootleg, one a dropback pass.
Goal Line Rollout Option
The following play, which we'll call Goal Line Rollout Option, can be found in various forms in every playbook in the pro, college, and prep level. This particular example is taken from the Steelers loss to the Falcons in Week 7. It's an interesting variation on the standard rollout play because the tight end doesn't cross the formation to catch the pass. Instead, he blocks on the strong side, gets lost in the wash, then climbs into the back of the end zone before the defense can locate him.
The situation: second-and-goal, ball on the Falcons 1-yard line, second quarter, Steelers leading 10-7. The play (Figure 1) is self-explanatory: Ben Roethlisberger fakes a handoff to Willie Parker, rolls to his right, and passes to Heath Miller in the end zone. There are just a few coaching points on this play:
1. The right side of the offensive line must sell the run action. In particular, Miller must sustain his block long enough to fool his coverage defender. The Steelers make this play look extra "run like" by making the right guard and tackle combo block their defender. Miller holds his block for about a two-count and steers his defender out of the C-gap (the gap to his left). Miller is actually a yard or two in the backfield before starting his pass route. Fullback Dan Kreider appears to block the C-gap, making it appear that he, the linemen, and Miller are clearing a path for Parker.
2. The quarterback must sell the play fake, then get deep enough to avoid the pass rush. The Falcons penetrate on this play, but Roethlisberger fakes the handoff at about the 7-yard line and retreats to the 11-yard line while rolling out. The deep drop gives him a better angle to escape pursuers, and it gives Miller and Parker time to run their routes. If Roethlisberger executed a flatter rollout, he would put himself in good position to run for a touchdown but would have to throw back across his body to hit his receivers.
3. Roethlisberger's reads on this play are a) Miller, b) Parker in the flat, c) run to the cone, d) throw the ball away. The Falcons defense lost track of Miller, allowing Roethlisberger to easily hit his first read.
Goal line defensive responsibilities are very difficult; in most cases, defenders must aggressively play the run, then worry about pass coverage. The next example shows how a well-designed goal line play can create an unsolvable dilemma for a defense: who do you stop, the superstar running back or the Hall of Fame tight end?
Not all goal line passes are built off play action. Teams with great running backs don't have to fake a handoff to get the defense to worry about the run, especially inside the 5-yard line. As the next play shows, a runner like Larry Johnson can occupy so much of the defense's attention that another great player, Tony Gonzalez, can find himself wide open in the corner of the end zone. This play, which we'll call Gonzo Corner, is taken from the Chiefs' victory over the Rams in Week 9.
The situation: first-and-goal from the Rams 3-yard line, second quarter, Chiefs leading 7-0. The Chiefs break huddle with two tight ends, a fullback, running back Larry Johnson, and wide receiver Eddie Kennison, who lines up as a left flanker and motions toward the formation pre-snap (Figure 2). Kennison's presence prevents the Rams from bunching their defenders in the box to stop Johnson. At the snap, quarterback Damon Huard takes a five step drop, fullback Kris Wilson and Johnson sweep to the left sideline, and Kennison runs a shallow drag route. Gonzalez ignores the blitzing linebacker face-up on him. Instead of blocking, he gains some depth into the end zone, then cuts to the left corner. He turns, and Huard's pass is right on the money. There isn't a defender within five yards of Gonzo when he makes the reception.
How does a defense allow an All Pro tight end to waltz uncovered into the back of the end zone? Let's examine the defensive assignments for this type of play. The Rams are in man coverage. Typically, defenders match up with receivers by assigning them numbers, working from the sidelines to the quarterback. As the Chiefs lined up, Kennison would be receiver one, Gonzo would be receiver two, and Wilson would be receiver three. What about Johnson? Any back lined up directly behind the quarterback could run a route to either side of the formation, making him receiver four on the offensive left or receiver two on the right (tight end Jason Dunn is receiver one to that side). Such a back is often assigned to two interior defenders, usually linebackers. If the back runs left, the right defender takes him; if he runs right, he's covered by the left defender. The free defender then blitzes or drops into a zone.
If this play occurred in the middle of the field, the Rams' cornerback would cover Kennison, the safety would cover Gonzo, the linebacker head-up on Gonzo would blitz or cover Wilson, and the two interior linebackers would be responsible for Johnson. In the middle of the field, the Rams could afford to give up a three- or four-yard play on a flat pass to Wilson or pitch to Johnson. Because the Rams cannot afford to give up four yards on the 3-yard line, they must make some compromises (Figure 3). The head-up linebacker run-blitzes, taking him out of the coverage picture. The safety covers Wilson. The two interior linebackers are now responsible for Gonzo and Johnson. When both players run patterns to the left sideline, those linebackers face an impossible task. Watching the game tape, it appears that the right (offensive left) linebacker covers Johnson, while the hopelessly out-of-position left linebacker tries in vain to reach Gonzo. With Kennison and his cornerback causing midfield congestion, the linebacker doesn't have a chance.
The key to both of these tight end goal line plays is timing. If Roethlisberger held the ball another second or stared Miller down, the Falcons defense would locate him and disrupt the play. Gonzalez was wide open, but his defender was giving chase and the pass rush was closing in when Huard delivered the ball. The offense doesn't have a lot of space to work with near the goal line, and defenders can quickly close on a poorly-timed pass. But a quarterback with good timing and a quick trigger can pick up some easy touchdowns with well-executed pass to the tight end.