Walkthrough: Spread the Word

by Mike Tanier

The Spread and the Gun

The spread offense is taking over the NFL. Or is it?

We all watched the Patriots tear through the league last year, setting offensive records with what could best be described as a spread offense. Last year's Patriots executed 77 percent of their plays with three or more wide receivers, and 22 percent of their plays from four- or five-receiver sets -- and they didn't lead the league in either category. The Colts, Super Bowl champions two years ago, used the most three-plus-receiver sets last season, and they've been running a system based on multi-wideout principles for years. The Lions, coached by offensive guru Mike Martz, used the most four-wide and five-wide sets. The Packers and Cowboys spread the field with three or more receivers early and often. Even the Steelers started using more multi-receiver sets under coordinator Bruce Arians. The NFL is a copycat league (no doubt you've heard that before), and as more teams experience success with the spread, more coaches and coordinators will start adapting their systems to keep up. Or so you'd think.

Pro Football Weekly took notice of the change in their annual season preview magazine. "Spreading it Out" by PFW editor Matt Sohn highlights the rise of multi-receiver, single-back, and shotgun sets. Sohn also carefully debunks some of the misconceptions surrounding the new schemes. For example, he delineates the differences between Martz's offense, the spread-option offense popularized by Florida's Urban Meyer (the one with all the quarterback sneaks), and the old-school spread used by June Jones in Hawaii. Sohn points out that despite all the four-wide and empty backfield formations, no NFL team currently calls its offense a "spread." He also explains that the spread grew from multiple influences and isn't a natural step in the evolution of the West Coast Offense or some other scheme.

It's all good stuff. There's only one problem: There has been no sudden rise in multi-receiver sets in the past three years, or even the past ten years. In fact, spread formations have been a major part of NFL playbooks for well over a decade.

Thanks to our Game Charting Project, we know how many three- and four-receiver formations each team has used in the past three seasons. Here are the league averages:

Year 3+ WR 4+ WR
2005 50% 11%
2006 48% 11%
2007 52% 12%

That slight increase in 2007 could represent the Patriots' sudden change from a running-and-tight end driven offense to the Moss and Friends show last year. Or it could be random fluctuation. I think it's the latter. For every team like the Patriots, there's a team like the Jaguars, who used three or more receivers just 36 percent of the time, or the Chargers, who used them a league-low 33 percent of the time. Yes, the two teams that faced the Patriots in the playoffs were diametrically opposed to them when it came to receiver usage. And while the Giants used three-plus-receiver sets a league-average 48 percent of the time, they used four-receiver sets a league-low three percent of the time. Those NFL copycats still have a variety of successful models to Xerox.

Our three-year window of information doesn't tell us much about changes over time. Luckily, I found some older data about multi-receiver sets. The old Pro Football Revealed annuals by STATS Inc. contained team-by-team breakdowns of three- and four-receiver sets. Here are the breakdowns from a decade ago:

Year 3+ WR 4+ WR
1997 46% 11%

That's right, folks. Teams were using just as many multi-receiver sets a decade ago as they were last year.

Before you ask, there were no Wayne Fontes /June Jones run 'n' shoot teams in the NFL in 1997. Fontes was no longer the Lions coach (hard-runnin' Bobby Ross replaced him), and Jones was already in Hawaii. The only team than ran a base three-wideout front was the Ravens, who listed Derrick Alexander, Michael Jackson, and Jermaine Lewis as starters in most games. Those Ted Marchibroda Ravens used three-receiver sets a whopping 85 percent of the time, though they rarely used four-receiver sets (just 10 plays).

Many of the teams that used multi-receiver sets in 1997 did so out of necessity. The Colts, who were awful that year, used four-receiver sets 29 percent of the time, which would rank second to the Lions if they played in 2007. Lindy Infante's 1997 Colts spent a lot of time passing to play catch-up. Still, there were plenty of good teams, like Bill Parcells' 9-7 Jets, that chose to spread the field with four wideouts more than 20 percent of the time. And teams knew that it was beneficial to run from a spread formation: Teams ran from three-receiver formations 26 percent of the time in 1997.

So if teams have been spreading the field for a decade or more, why does it suddenly look new? One thing that has changed in recent years is the number of shotgun sets. Check out the rise in passes from the shotgun in the past four seasons:

Year Pct of passes
from shotgun
2004 20.1%
2005 24.7%
2006 30.3%
2007 41.5%

This is radical change in just a few seasons, and it's probably due to the success Peyton Manning had using shotgun sets on non-passing downs four or five years ago. You can go team-by-team, quarterback-by-quarterback, and see philosophies change. Donovan McNabb threw 77 passes from the shotgun in 2006 but 245 in 2007. Broncos quarterbacks threw 70 shotgun passes in 2005, 109 in 2006, and 255 in 2007.

The rise in shotgun sets explains why teams are classifying the new trend as a rise in "spread" offenses, not as a return to the run 'n' shoot, which didn't use the shotgun much. Meyer's spread-option, which is taking college football by storm, is built almost exclusively around shotgun formations, though Meyer-inspired teams will often use two running backs and a tight end in shotgun sets. NFL teams like the Jaguars take a similar approach, keeping the backs and tight end on the field and running delays and draws from the shotgun. The real trend in the NFL may be that teams are finding new ways to run the ball from shotgun sets, allowing them to use the shotgun on first-and-10, adding much more variety to already complex offenses.

But while teams may be adopting some Meyer principles, nobody is running a spread-option in the NFL. And technically, teams aren't "spreading the field" any more than they have been for the last decade. Shotgun offenses are on the rise, not spread offenses. A semantic point, but it's important to get our terminology as precise as possible.

Safety Blitz

Reader Dan Skourup writes:

I have one question about the double-TE offense. I always thought it was the way to go, until I saw the Steelers kill the Colts in the playoffs a couple years ago. The Steelers kept blitzing their safeties and it seemed like they would get right to Manning almost every time. I'm curious if they've come up with a way to combat this problem short of putting a fullback on the field to keep in to pass block.

Let's unpack a few concepts before we hit the chalkboard. First, when the Colts use two-tight end sets, they usually have one of the tight ends (Dallas Clark) flexed out or in the slot. Second, you can probably guess that Manning and Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore have all kinds of plans to counteract the safety blitz, and none of them involve a fullback. Finally, I don't have game footage to work with, so the following diagrams are built from general principles, plus my notes about the Colts offense and Steelers defense. As I recall, the Steelers did use a lot of safety blitzes against the Colts in the playoffs three years ago, and they did get to Manning a lot. But the safety blitz was just part of the Colts' problem in that game, as I hope to touch upon in these diagrams.

Figure 1: Steelers Zone Blitz

Figure 1 shows a typical Steelers-type zone blitz, though the play itself comes from an old coaching guide. The Steelers are in a base 3-4 personnel grouping against the Colts' two-tight end package. The Steelers rush six defenders on this play. Notice that all three defensive linemen stunt hard to their right, each crossing a blocker's face to attack a gap different than the one they are aligned in. Two linebackers twist behind the flow of the defensive line to the left. The free safety cheats toward the line presnap, then shoots hard into the weakside B-gap.

Think about the problems that this blitz poses for the offensive line. The left tackle must worry about the outside linebacker presnap. When that defender drops into coverage, he must reset and (typically) block the slanting defensive end. There's a good chance that the left tackle and guard will miscommunicate and leave either the safety or slanting end unblocked. There's also a chance the guard will simply whiff when trying to block a fast safety like Troy Polamalu. There are similar concerns on the right side of the line, where two defenders are attacking the strongside B gap. The player most likely to get to Manning on this play isn't the safety; it's the linebacker marked "M" in the diagram (for the 2005 Steelers, M might have been James Farrior, who had 2.5 sacks against the Colts). With the right guard blocking a slanting end and the right tackle going wide to stop another linebacker, Mister M should have an open lane to the quarterback.

How do you stop a blitz like this? If you are Moore and Manning, you start with a well-designed blocking system in which several players read the defensive front and anticipate the blitz. Ideally, both Manning and center Jeff Saturday see the free safety creep into the box, and if Saturday can't adjust the blocking assignments to allow for extra protection, then Manning calls an audible or hot route. In this example, the "blocking" tight end runs a hot route: a quick slant where he anticipates the ball as soon as he makes his break at three steps. The tight end will be inside the dropping coverage linebacker and in front of the strong safety, in good position to gain seven or eight yards and possibly break a tackle.

The halfback is shown making two possible blocks in Figure 1. Typically, he would set and block the free safety. But depending on the offensive line adjustments, the halfback could cross the formation and take on the first defender to come through, probably M. In that scenario, Manning would shuffle left and try to throw a deeper pass to that side of the field. This is a difficult block for the halfback, so he may have to motion over to the right side of the formation pre-snap. Of course, it is then imperative that the left guard blocks the safety, because there is no second tier of protection behind him.

Figure 2: Steelers Basic Blitz

All the Moore schemes, Saturday calls, and Manning hot routes won't help at all if the Colts linemen cannot block the Steelers one-on-one. That's really the problem the Colts had in the playoffs three seasons ago. While the Steelers surely served up their share of rum raisin blitzes against Manning, they had plenty of success with vanilla. Figure 2 shows a straightforward five-man rush featuring the free safety and the Joey Porter-style blitz linebacker. There's nothing funky about the blitz package: the Steelers just want to create a safety-on-halfback or fast linebacker-on-slow left tackle mismatch. That worked often enough against the Colts three years ago. Joey Porter and other linebackers beat left tackle Tarik Glenn off the line, and Glenn made it worse by chasing shadows in that game, turning to block defenders who were dropping into coverage or slanting into a different gap.

So how do the Colts stop good blitzing teams from collapsing the pocket and making Manning sandwiches? Stopping creative 3-4 blitzing teams isn't their strongest suit, as last year's playoff loss to the Chargers once again demonstrated. (Special teams aren't their strongest suit either, as the regular season loss to the Chargers showed.) Moore will often move his blocking tight end around the formation, shifting him to the left side in some situations and using Dallas Clark as a blocker in others. While I don't have numbers to back it up, the Colts seem to run more delays and draws with Joseph Addai than they did with Edgerrin James, and a few successful runs can slow down even the most ferocious blitz. It's important to remember that the best way to stop the blitz is to stay out of blitz situations, and the Colts use their running and short passing games to limit the number of third-and-longs the team faces.

But no fullback. Moore's system is designed to beat the blitz with quick thinking and quick passing, not extra bulk. The system has produced a Super Bowl ring and scads of playoff appearances, so it must have some merit.

Ready for My Close-up, Mr. Davis

Daunte Culpepper set a somewhat dubious record last week: He earned the highest score ever in the Two Minute Drill minigame of the 2002 edition of Madden. Culpepper set the record during a gala premiere party for Madden 2009, scoring 14,500 points and earning a place in the Guinness Book of World Records: Gamer's Edition, assuming some hyperactive 12-year-old doesn't break his mark in the next six months.

There's something depressingly Sunset Boulevard about Culpepper playing the minigames of a seven-years out-of-date video game just so he can relive his past gridiron glories. But Culpepper wasn't just waxing nostalgic when he broke out his last generation game system and re-loaded the classic Mike Tice playbook. No, Culpepper still plans to play in the NFL, and the Madden record is part of a clever plan to get back into the graces of his last employer:

Culpepper: Mr. Davis? It's me, boss, Daunte Culpepper.

Al Davis: Culpepper? I already told you, kid. You're through.

Culpepper: Before you throw me out, I want you to watch this footage. I have been working out with some of my old friends from the Vikings. I think you'll be impressed.

(Culpepper cunningly replaces the DVD player in Davis' office with a PlayStation2 and selects Replay mode.)

Davis: I'll say, that is impressive. You hook up with Randy Moss over and over again. I'm also impressed that you got 22 guys to show up for these drills. And what a bunch of guys! There's D'Wayne Bates and Mo Williams and Byron Chamberlain. I haven't seen them suit up in years. You even got John Madden to provide play-by-play and ... hey, isn't that Pat Summerall?

Culpepper: Uh, yeah boss. He didn't have anything better to do so he came and helped out.

Davis: That's great. I can see that you called a lot of audibles. Heck, the word "Audible" even appears on the screen when you do it. This is some of the best practice footage I have ever seen!

Culpepper: (fiddling with game system) Is it as impressive as this old footage I found of Raiders great Bo Jackson?

Davis: Say, this is old footage. Kind of blurry. Oh, no, we only returned the kickoff to the one yard line! What was Tim Brown thinking, running backward like that? I hope we called a bomb. No, a handoff to Bo Jackson. Look at that: None of those Patriots guys can catch him. They keep diving at his legs. But why does he keep running in circles? Marcus Allen used to run in circles sometimes. That's why I hired a private investigator to tail him. Anyway, this footage is almost as good as your practice footage, Culpepper. But what is this Super Tecmo Bowl on the screen?

Culpepper: Oh, you know how stadium naming rights have gotten.

Davis: Oh sure. Well, in light of this practice tape, maybe I will re-sign you. But I have to go across town and talk to my advisors before making a move.

Culpepper: (fiddling) I wouldn't go out in the streets, Mr. Davis. Just watch this news footage. It's not safe anymore in Oakland. Or, as the city fathers have renamed it: Liberty City.

Davis: Oh my God, that guy just got carjacked in broad daylight! He got beat down with a baseball bat, and nobody did anything! Oh good, here's the police. That dude is going to rot in jail. Wait a minute? He's back on the street? All they did was take away his weapons and a percentage of his money? Oh my God he's driving on the sidewalks and running over prostitutes. What is this world coming to?

Culpepper: You see? It isn't safe. Just write me up a two-year contract right now.

Davis: I dunno, kid. The practice tape is good, but I spent a lot of money on a rookie quarterback last year, and he deserves a chance.

Culpepper: Maybe. But didn't that rookie have a reputation for getting really soft, round, and flabby?

Davis: Yeah, he did get a little soft and flabby. What was the kid's name again?

Culpepper: (fiddling) Kirby. His name was Kirby.

(Next week: Shaun Suisham signs a $20 million contact with the Raiders.)

Book Review: Best Game Ever

Football history often hinges on tiny events: dropped passes, questionable calls, goal-line lunges that come up one yard short. On December 28th, 1958, the placement of a line judge's foot helped turn NFL football into a national obsession.

Mark Bowden recounts the scene in his first foray into sports history, The Best Game Ever, which tells the story of the legendary 1958 Championship Game between the Colts and Giants. The Giants faced third-and-4 at their own 40-yard line with just over two minutes to play in the fourth quarter and a 17-14 lead. A first down would allow them to run out the clock and preserve their second championship in three years. Frank Gifford took a handoff, gained a few yards, then disappeared into a pile-up. Colts defensive end Gino Marchetti broke his leg in the pileup, and the line judge was distracted by Marchetti's cries of pain as he tried to spot the ball. Giants players claimed that he spotted Gifford's forward progress with his right foot, then got mixed up and placed the ball with at his left foot, a yard short of the first down. The Giants punted. The rest, as they say, is history.

Had Gifford made that first down, the Colts may never have emerged as a league powerhouse, and the careers of legends like John Unitas, Raymond Berry, Marchetti and Lenny Moore might have turned out differently. More importantly, the championship game would not have gone into overtime. The Gifford stop, the Colts comeback, and the overtime period were broadcast nationally on primetime television. The game introduced many fans to professional football, a spectacle that Bowen describes as "mortal combat from some dark underworld" when contrasted with the sunny Saturday pastime of college football. The 1958 game was a compelling drama that attracted thousands of new fans and vindicated Commissioner Bert Bell's efforts to allow small-market clubs like the Colts to compete with economic powerhouses like the Giants.

Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and Guests of the Ayatollah, imbues the 1958 title game with cultural significance. He notes that television and football were growing up together, and that each helped the other become a dominating force in American social life in that fateful game:

The nation was experiencing what was still a new kind of human experience, a truly communal live event, something made possible by the new medium. In future years the phenomenon would become familiar, but no less powerful, as the nation gathered to watch rocket launches, the aftermath of assassinations, a magnificent civil rights speech, an astronaut stepping on the moon, a presidential resignation ... In this moment, football itself was about to step fully into the age of television.

The Best Game Ever covers the big picture, but it's a football book with historical implications, not a history book with football pasted in. Colts wide receiver Raymond Berry emerges as the major character in the story. Berry, a perfectionist who spent hours watching game film, taking notes and running practice routes, was considered an eccentric in the rough-and-tumble world of 1950s football, but his preparation and focus paved the way for a more modern, sophisticated approach to conditioning and strategy. In The Best Game Ever, Berry finds a soulmate in lanky quarterback John (not Johnny) Unitas and meets his intellectual match in Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry.The chess match between Berry, Unitas, and Landry provides many of the book's most dramatic moments.

Bowden's profiles of Berry, Unitas, and Landry are illuminating, even to readers who are familiar with the NFL legends. Supporting characters also get their time to shine. There's Sam Huff, the young defender who nearly quit football before Landry created the middle linebacker position that Huff would come to define. There's the young Frank Gifford, a breathtaking talent who sometimes exasperated coaches by keeping one eye on his film career. Bowden captures these individuals and others in the days before they became infallible sports legends or busts in Canton: no-nonsense offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi, smart-alecky Colts heavyweight Art Donovan, embattled veteran Giants quarterback Charley Connerly. It also captures the pro football milieu of the era: radio broadcasts, cloudy black-and-white televisions in smoky taprooms, gridiron greats with summer jobs, and teenage photographers sneaking onto the sidelines by wheeling disabled veterans into the game.

It's great history and great fun. You can argue that the 1958 championship game wasn't the Best Game Ever (there's the Ice Bowl, Super Bowl III, the Chargers-Dolphins playoff in 1982, Rams-Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV), but you can't argue with the quality of Bowden's book, a great summer read for the history-obsessed football fan or the football-obsessed history buff.


37 comments, Last at 06 Jul 2008, 8:11pm

#1 by Doug (not verified) // Jul 01, 2008 - 11:19pm

Can you write an article on the advantages an offense has from not lining up under center, and why the shotgun is flourishing?


Points: 0

#2 by Giovanni Carmazzi (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 12:10am

I think you just put Joey Porter on Dallas Clark in your diagram....

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#3 by Tom D (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 1:03am

Once again, a great article. I'm going to have to try and work rum raisin blitz into my football vocabulary, but I don't think it's going to stick.

I could almost see Al Davis falling for that stunt.

It seems crazy to me that over 40% of passes were out of the shotgun. Last year I was wishing the Bears would spread out more to try and make room for the running game, but now I think maybe they should go the opposite way, and be the trend setter for the next offense to sweep the NFL. Bring back the T-formation!

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#4 by halftime (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 2:24am

they're showing that steelers colts game of the week on the nfl network today. everything you wrote about the blitz is dead on especially the part about two defenders going into one gap about staying out of blitz situations. in that game the steelers didn't record any sacks until they were up 14 points which makes it so weird that brady took 4 sacks while his team was actually winning the superbowl.

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#5 by Bobman (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 3:10am

Man, reliving the nightmare. Not to throw anybody under the bus or nuthin', but there were plays in that Colts/Steelers game that it looked like only three guys were blocking. If it wasn't Manning back there, there easily could have been about 8 INTs or 8 more sacks. It's funny that people here and elsewhere slammed Manning for saying, "we had some protection problems." Him saying "the sun rises in the east" would be about as obvious and prompted cries of "he's throwing the moon under the bus."

Wow, I am still in awe of the Steelers' post-season run that year.

OMG, that Al Davis is stoopid! I can't believe that really happened, but I am sure it did as Mister Tanier would never lie or make shit up.

And thanks for the book review. Gotta get it, esp as I'm the sole Colt fan in a family of Giant partisans.

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#6 by Harris (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 8:43am

I could be wrong, but shouldn't what is popularly known as the West Coast Offense really be called the Bill Walsh Offense? I always thought the proper West Coast Offense was the product of Don Coryall. We should be consistent if we're going to be semantic pedantics.

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#7 by NewsToTom (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 9:54am

Re #6
MDS had a piece in PFP where he noted that Dr. Z was wrong, in that the term "West Coast Offense" was used before the story about Z's conversation with Kosar (I think). Then again, that doesn't tell us where the name came from.

I vote for "Virgil Carter Offense" for the 'West Coast Offense' as that term is usually used, and "Greg Cook Offense" for the Coryell/Zampese deep pass attack.

Re Greatest Game
I've enjoyed Bowden's other books, and already own, but haven't yet read, Greatest Game, but noticed Dr. Z's comment about 32 factual errors. Now, Z isn't always right (see above), but that does mildly concern me.

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#8 by JoRo (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 11:02am

Great stuff with Culpepper.

Also thought the spread/shotgun was very interesting. I found it really interesting that as Denver started to move towards the Cutler-Era shotgun increased. Plummer would have really been a good fit for the Buc's... I had remembered reading Gruden wasn't a huge fan of shotgun... or am I mistaken?

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#9 by Aaron (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 11:28am

I think Walkthrough might be my favorite feature on this site. Keep 'em coming.

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#10 by Jimmy (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 11:49am

We should be consistent if we’re going to be semantic pedantics.

Then that should be 'semantic pedants'.

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#11 by dryheat (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 11:53am

I'm a frantic, tantric, semantic, pedantic from the Atlantic, but I typically go the extra mile.

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#12 by Jimmy (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 12:30pm

#6, Harris

On a more serious note, Walsh always insisted that the controlled passing offense often referred to as the West Coast was first used in Cincinnati and should therefore be called the 'Cincinnati Offense'. Of course Walsh was only the OC for one year before he left for San Francisco. You are correct that the original west coast offense was Coyrell & Co in S.D., what makes the whole thing even more confusing is that the two systems are almost opposite in how their personnel and strategy are orchestrated. My personal opinion is that no offense which uses the I-formation as it's base set can be using Walsh's west coast principles. Therefore any team which claims to be using the west coast and still heavily relies on the I-form must have coaches who are too dumb to understand it properly. The other alternative is that some teams use Coyrell's passing principles together with a strong running attack, but then confusingly refer to the whole thing as West Coast.

The problem is that you have the two preponderant offensive systems for the whole NFL (which just about every team use) both designed and made famous in the same state. I also think coaches are perfectly happy for the lack of clarity about exactly which offensive philosophy their offense is based upon to continue.

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#13 by Jimmy (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 12:36pm

#12, me (sorry to double post but I have noticed a mistake in my previous post and as it is pedantry day on FO I need to make amends)

OK Walsh coached for more than one year in Cincy, but he only used the short passing verison of his offense there for one year.

Why would the Greg Cook offense be the Coyrell/Zampese version? Didn't Cook play for Walsh?

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#14 by Bobman (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 1:33pm

Pedantry? Isn't that both illegal and gross? You pervs.

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#15 by NewsToTom (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 2:37pm

Re #13
Sorry, I should've called it the Gillman/Coryell/Zampese offense. Walsh had watched Gillman with the Rams and then the Chargers, and worked for Al Davis, a former Gillman assistant, in Oakland before moving on to Cincinnati. My understanding is that Walsh relied heavily on that background in a deep pass attack in developing the "Greg Cook Offense," then switched gears after Cook got hurt.

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#16 by RaiderKirby (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 3:19pm

Kirby to inhale P. Manning, press down button to absorb abilities. Also will inhale R. Moss, spit back out at stupid fumble-tucking QB Brady. Raiders win Super Bowl 43 on long pass pass from Kirby to R. "Jiggly Puff" Curry.

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#17 by Adam B (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 3:42pm

Does Bowden's BRINGING THE HEAT (on the 1992 Eagles not count as history? It had already happened by the time he wrote it ...

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#18 by Joey Jo-Jo Jun… (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 4:02pm

Smart Football just wrote an interesting article examining, in part, the Steelers' blitz schemes in that game against the Colts. The readership here might enjoy it...


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#19 by jim's apple pie (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 4:07pm

I think that 33% figure for the Chargers 3-WR sets is misleading. Does that number include Gates as a receiver or a tight end? Because Gates is the #1 receiver in the Chargers offense so I'm sure that number would get a huge bump if you changed his classification from TE to WR (a la Dallas Clark, who I assume was counted as a WR for the Colts number). I would be interested to see what the Chargers number would be if this change was made.

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#20 by pedantic (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 4:30pm

Since everyone seem to be arguing details about genesis of various offensive systems, it should be pointed out that the "Urban Meyer" Spread Option was originally developed and evangelised by Rich Rodriguez and should properly be called the Rich Rodriguez Spread Option.

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#21 by Jimmy (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 4:35pm

One thing I noticed in the Steelers/Colts game mentioned was that the Steelers were using an unusual alignment on obvious passing downs. Aaron Smith was lining up in the gap between RT and RG about one line behind the line of scrimmage, and every time he did the Steelers managed to get great pressure on Manning and caused havoc. The pressure would come from the offense's left side when they would end up with two blitzing players isolated against either only one player or with a clear mismatch (ie. Joey Porter against a back in space). On the snap Smith and Hampton (or Hoke?) would crash right and von Oelhoffen would charge into the LT, basically meaning that the Colts were left with only a back remaining to try to block all the blitzing players coming from the left or middle. I suspect there are several reasons behind Smith positioning a yard deep. It will be more difficult for linemen to get a good postional block when trying to run the ball which would make it easier for Smith to hold the point and allow his pursuit to catch up to the play. It would also be easier for Smith to make sure that the RT can't get across to block him on passing plays (not that the Steelers didn't always have plenty of possible candidates to blitz or fake blitz lined up near the strong side anyway). It is obviously easier for a LE to drop into coverage if he is lined up off the line. One possible reason for lining up your LE a yard deep if you are planning to overload blitz the weakside you have to be sure that your LE doesn't crash inside just as the offense runs a sweep straight past you, anyway my thought was that the LE might have a better view of the backfield and line play from a yard deeper (disclaimer: I have never played defensive end in my life - at least not in any form of the game that doesn't involve counting bananas before you are allowed to cross the line of scrimmage - so I have no personal experience to draw on here).

One of the things I am curious about this is why it worked so spectacularly against the Colts that day? It could have been that Indy were almost crucifying themselves by persisting with a spread attack. If the Colts had used two backs even on third downs they could have probably managed to block everyone more successfully on when blitz came and had them run into the flat or on curl routes when the Steelers went to zone. If you can pick up a big blitz your receivers should be able to get open more easily using the space vacated by the blitzing players, and the Colts had some pretty good receivers.

Another possibility is that it is an intrinsic weakness in the Colts blocking scheme. Polian has said in an interview (which I think was on this site back in February or so) that they only look for four or five skills for the linemen they draft. The benefit of this is that they can find linemen who have all the skills to start in their scheme in the fourth or fifth round. It could be a possible drawback that they lack the skills to adjust to the amount of stunts and twists that the Steelers threw at them that day. Is this the fabled (and possibly imaginary) flaw in the Colts offense against 3-4 defenses?

I posted something about the odd line alignment on the thead the day after the game and no one seemd to care then so I am not sure why I have bothered to type all that stuff out again now, oh well.

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#22 by Bobman (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 5:22pm

Wow, Jimmy, that was awesome. One small answer is that Indy has/had very few 2-back sets/plays, if any. To paraphrase many of the players and coaches, they have a limited playbook and rely on doing what they do well. Back then, they might have only had 2 men in the backfield for short yardage runs, no pass blocking at all.

They probably could not have even thrown a second back out there and said "Block somebody for Pete's sake!" (And if they did, I'll bet $10 that Pitt would have brought heat from elsewhere.) Some of the blame is on Manning's and Saturday's heads for recognition and anticipation and communication issues, and then Tom Moore for maybe not putting them in a position to be able to handle it, and also the OLs who in some instances were standing around alone protecting their zone when two rushers were crashing through elsewhere.

It is a bit of mystery (Ken Wisenhunt might have some insight) that a team that did so well all season crumpled at home against a team it had beaten before. The earlier win wasn't quite the smackdown it seemed since Pitt spotted Marvin Harrison an 80 yard TD in the first series and Ben R was still recovering from various ailments, but it was certainly a tale of 2 different games.

Part of it was Indy's reliance on the pass--hard to get sacked when you're running the ball. Their one great drive--94 yards in the 2nd quarter, was run-heavy. The rest of the game didn't play out quite that way. Moore and Manning seemed to absorb that lesson for the next season's playoff run, when they also had fresh RB legs for the playoffs.

I don't entirely buy the Colts' 3-4 flaw theory, since they do well agaanst some 3-4 teams. Maybe it's a flaw against 3-4 teams that also happen to be in the top-5 (NE won the prev 2 SBs, Pitt won that year, SD and Dal had pretty good talent in their wins in that season, plus SD had 2 ST TDs in the Week 10 win in 2007), in which case it's a flaw everyone shares.

I think the key is running more; sometimes running into the teeth of a stacked D. Manning is so good at switching into/out of plays that sometimes running stubbornly early might open things up later when the D shows one loook that drew a run earlier and think they have him fooled--a good play-fake could yield big results in the 4th quarter when guys are dragging a bit. And then the next time the D might be a step slower because they don't know what to expect. blah blah blah-sorry it's so long. This bitter Colt fan takes his hat off to the 2006 Steelers. They executed.

Points: 0

#23 by Zac (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 5:41pm

When did Al Davis become Seinfeld-era George Steinbrenner? I half expected him to turn around and trade Culpepper for alcoholic chicken.

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#24 by The McNabb Bow… (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 6:57pm

Re: 12

Therefore any team which claims to be using the west coast and still heavily relies on the I-form must have coaches who are too dumb to understand it properly. The other alternative is that some teams use Coyrell’s passing principles together with a strong running attack, but then confusingly refer to the whole thing as West Coast.

Sounds like Marty Schottenheimer. His teams had a strong running element, but he called it West Coast.

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#25 by Harris (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 7:16pm

#10 Yes, but that doesn't rhyme.

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#26 by DZ (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 8:52pm

Great piece. I also question how the playoff game against the Chargers this year showed a 'weakness' against the 3-4. The Colts put up plenty of points, and the three turnovers were pretty flukey plays (unless you claim the Chargers were to blame for Kenton Keith's horrible hands).

Indy lost that game because they couldn't generate a pass rush and stop the Chargers O, not because the Charger D played all that well. True, Merriman got pressure on Manning on the next to last drive down by the goal line, but good pressure on a pair of plays doesn't equate with an offense 'struggling' against a defense.

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#27 by Steve (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 10:07pm

Great analysis on the use of the spread offense in the NFL. The Blitz piece was excellent as well especially given the lack of game film to work with. And the Culpepper/Davis skit is outstanding. Keep up the good work FO!

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#28 by SJ (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 10:17pm

@ # 19

I think you're definitely onto something with the Gates factor. Another conributing factor may be that in a number of Charger games this year the second half consisted of Billy Volek handing off to Turner or Sproles in an effort to run out the clock. That kind of offense surely has a negative effect on "spread" numbers.

I wonder if its possible to run these Game Charting stats through a DVOA style analysis to see when teams are more likely to go with multiple reciever formations. Obviously trailing teams are more inclined to this strategy, but I would be interested as to which teams are more likely to use it at the start of a game or when leading, and if use of the spread in those situations has been increasing in recent years.

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#29 by Brian (not verified) // Jul 02, 2008 - 11:30pm

You can argue the game was not the best ever, especially if you have no clue about NFL history.

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#30 by Crabbie (not verified) // Jul 03, 2008 - 1:44am

Someone mentioned Bringing the Heat above, and it's really one of the better books about the NFL that I've read. Not in terms of strategy and management (it takes place before the current cap system), but in its depiction of team dynamics. It really stands out from most other sports journalism (which Bowden gives a pretty caustic treatment) in that while it profiles the personalities involved, it does so in a very clear-eyed and not always complimentary way. He even devotes a lot of time to the offensive and defensive lines long before they started to get much attention. Most fascinating to me was that he really gets in to what it's like to be a poor rural kid who suddenly finds himself a professional football player.

Also, having read the book, it's sad to see the number of principles who have died just a little more than 15 years later, still pretty young men. In addition to Jerome Allen (whose death and funeral are covered), there's also Reggie White and Andre Waters. I actually almost cried when Waters committed suicide - the depiction of him in the book is so well-rounded and vivid that I really did almost feel like I knew the guy, or wanted to.

Sorry to get all gushy, but it really is (like The Blind Side an excellent book even for non-football fans, and in my opinion is one of Bowden's best. He also wrote a very good article about Hank Fraley for The Atlantic a few years ago. Seriously, I think of Bringing the Heat as being of the same caliber as Breaks of the Game, actually even better if I can be permitted that heresy.

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#31 by Mike_Tanier // Jul 03, 2008 - 11:44am

Oops. Somehow forgot Bringing the Heat.

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#32 by Tom D (not verified) // Jul 03, 2008 - 1:08pm

Ron Turner is another coach who calls his scheme a West Coast offense, but it doesn't really look like one (maybe a little when Griese was at QB). It's looked like vertical passing supplemented with power running the whole time he's been in Chicago.

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#33 by brasilbear (not verified) // Jul 03, 2008 - 2:43pm


I think that's a unfair rumor. I don't think Ron Turner runs an offense. I almost yearn for the John Shoop days.

But seriously, I agree. He calls lots of shots down the field, and despite what Berrian said in his press conference, there are not alot of slant, quick or otherwise over the middle.

Points: 0

#34 by young curmudgeon (not verified) // Jul 03, 2008 - 7:52pm

Re 20: I was going to make the same point, but I actually read the thread first and saw your post. Rodriquez having significant responsibility for the development of the spread offense is definitely the way I remember it.

Points: 0

#35 by old (not verified) // Jul 04, 2008 - 6:35am

Great article!

...I think the key is running more; sometimes running into the teeth of a stacked D. Manning is so good at switching into/out of plays that sometimes running stubbornly early might open things up later when the D shows one loook that drew a run earlier and think they have him fooled–a good play-fake could yield big results in the 4th quarter when guys are dragging a bit. And then the next time the D might be a step slower because they don’t know what to expect. blah blah blah-sorry it’s so long. This bitter Colt fan takes his hat off to the 2006 Steelers. They executed.

:: Bobman — 7/2/2008 @ 4:22 pm

The quick scores in the first half definitely helped the Steelers defense. Still, as you say, the Colts could have run the ball more. I am sure you as a Colts fan may have had a few heart attack moments in that game, but I literally jumped/fell off the couch during the Bettis fumble play. It was a hell of a game.

I thought at the time, and still think when Manning said 'We had some protection problems...' he was including himself in the blame and the criticism was just to criticize Manning.

Points: 0

#36 by stan (not verified) // Jul 06, 2008 - 1:45pm

Re: Colts-Steelers

Joey Porter called out the Colts (before the reg season game) as soft. For some reason, a lot of idiots thought he was talking about the receivers. Offenses are "soft" when the O-line cannot line up and play power football. Anyone looking at the Colts' power ranking on the FO stat site knows that those Colts were really pathetic at power running (and had been for years).

The Steelers had such disdain for the Colt running game that in the 2d half, they played a lot with only 2 DL, 3LBs, and 6 DBs -- not just in pass situations, but every down (they couldn't expect to situation sub vs. the Colt no huddle). Colts still couldn't run the ball.

Steelers used the dime to play a lot of people in coverage the first game. In the playoffs, they decided to use their strength upfront to overwhelm the soft Colt O-line. They did. They physically just kicked ass.

The SD game at Indy was the same thing. Anyone with a tape of it need only watch the Colts' first play, an E. James outside stretch run to the right. The Colt right tackle got slammed straight back about four yards off the ball. Not good. Later in the game, notice how a blitzing SD LB bullrushes the Colt LG and drives him out of the picture on a drop back pass (about 10 yds back) before reaching over and pulling Manning down. Total physical domination.

Schemes, audibles, draws, screens, and hots can relieve some of the pressure, but it is really tough to win when the offensive line is getting completely dominated by a physical defense.

Points: 0

#37 by Joey Jo-Jo Jun… (not verified) // Jul 06, 2008 - 8:11pm

#24: Eh, I don't think that Marty ever claimed to run a west coast offense except for the years Joe Montana was in town, during which they actually did run a west coast offense (more or less).

Points: 0

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