The NFL Conversation Domination Playbook: Volume 2
Mic-drop-worthy insights to sack those Monday morning quarterbacks
As promised, Volume 2 of the Football Conversation Domination Playbook is here. We have five mic-drop-worthy insights to help you dominate Brad, the aggressively ignorant football know-it-all in your life.
Many teams will have trouble moving the ball and scoring points this season. And with that comes one of the favorite pastimes of Brads everywhere: quarterback-bashing. Even Brads with microphones enjoy a good quarterback-bashing. Now, don’t get me wrong, some quarterbacks’ play warrants the besmirching of their family name. But let us not pile on or overly besmirch one man for what is a team effort. When Brad says, “Our QB sucks,” you can chime in with, “It’s not all on him.” Brad will likely try to beat you to the punch and bring up one of your team’s other on-field deficiencies: dropped passes, no running game, lack of a deep threat, unreliable pass protection. He won’t be wrong; at least one of those will fit. But he won’t have informed criticism for the offensive coordinator, the architect. Here are three criteria you can use to evaluate and speak intelligently about OCs:
- Play design
An OC’s weekly goal should be to create both macro playcalling dilemmas for defensive coordinators and micro execution dilemmas for defensive players on the field using swift and thoughtful playcalling, well-designed plays and packages of complementary plays. If an OC can do those three things over the course of an entire season, he will be a head coach by the beginning of the next season. Just ask Kyle Shanahan. I actually think some team should have paid him head-coach money or more to be their OC, not make him the head coach, but that’s a whole different article. Here it is if you want it.
18. First Things First
On first down, throw the ball to your best receiver. The most important thing in the minds of all defensive coordinators is to stop the run on first down, so they are more likely to call single-high defenses (defensive alignments with one safety deep and the other close to the line of scrimmage). Generally, those defenses are tougher against the run and weaker against the pass. And if your team has a top-tier receiver, he will be double-teamed on third down, so don’t wait until then to throw him the ball.
Last season, Quintorris Lopez Jones, aka “Julio,” had the second-best year of his career and the Atlanta Falcons had the best offensive season in NFL history. And prioritizing Jones on first down is a major reason why. Jones led the league in first-down targets with 64 and receiving yards on first down with 820 yards. New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas was a distant second with 573 yards. The strategic decision to get the ball to Jones on first downs is not just about picking the most advantageous time to throw the ball. It creates a first down playcalling dilemma for the opposing defensive coordinator, a choice: Stop the run and hope the DBs can hold up, or play for the pass and rely on the front to hold up. This is why good cornerbacks are so valuable. They can hold their own against top receivers without compromising the rest of the defense.
Bonus: Jones’ best statistical season was in 2015. Shanahan was his OC then, too. He had 1,871 receiving yards, second best ever. First down was when he did a disproportionate amount of damage. On first down, he was targeted 92 times and caught 66 passes. Those are the highest totals in the past 25 years for each of those statistics. He gained 962 yards on first down, which is second all-time to Issac Bruce’s 1,015 first-down receiving yards in 2000.
17. Hurry Up and Slow it Down
Shanahan is a decisive playcaller. Sounds like a small thing, right? Unlike many offensive coordinators, who seem surprised that they have to call another play, Shanahan is aware of the potential outcomes of the current play and has plays ready for every feasible resulting down and distance. And he sends the play in immediately. Aside from the benefit of not having your team look frantic and waste timeouts, it allows time for the offense to do formation shifts and run players in motion before the snap of the ball.
The Falcons often would start with a tight end or fullback lined up outside of a receiver who was split wide. If a safety or linebacker lines up across from the TE/FB, then the defense is playing a man-to-man scheme. If a cornerback widens to cover the TE/FB, then the defense is in a zone scheme. Obviously, the defense has a few different coverages and blitzes from both man-to-man and zone looks. Which is when the motion helps. If, as I told you last week, empty is truth serum, then motion is the lie detector. Like an actual polygraph, motion is not 100 percent accurate. But the defense will have to adjust to the motion, giving the defense an idea if a blitz is coming and from where it may come.
Against the man-to-man looks, motioning the TE/FB into the backfield or to the opposite side of the field is effective because it guarantees an isolated one-on-one matchup with a lot of space to work for the receiver left alone. And the Falcons can add the TE/FB to the protection in case of blitz. If they get a zone look, they can leave the TE/FB lined up outside, occupying the cornerback, and motion the receiver across the formation, creating a triple-receiver formation to one side. In many cases, motion to triple receivers will force the defense to show if there is a blitz coming and where it is coming from, because only the players not blitzing are free to adjust. And if the defense is not blitzing, triples are great for overloading zone coverages.
So now, after only a few seconds, quarterback Matt Ryan knows the defense and knows where he’s going to throw the ball before snapping it. There is no need to go through his progressions while defenders are barreling toward him. All that is left to do is look the safety off, count on the talented receivers to run the well-designed play and deliver a decisive and accurate pass. It is a lot easier to be effective and accurate when you know exactly what is going to happen.
16. Fooled Ya
Speaking of play design, let’s revisit Week 4 of the Falcons’ season. Despite a 300-yard receiving day for Jones, Shanahan’s craftiest plays were not designed to get Jones the ball. I was most impressed by passes to unknown fullback Patrick DiMarco and backup tight end Austin Hooper.
Let’s start with the pass to DiMarco. It was first-and-10. The Falcons had the ball on their 13-yard line. They were in base offense, 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, two receivers). The tailback and fullback were in the I formation behind Ryan. Jones wasn’t in the game. Conventional wisdom suggested the Falcons would run the ball in that situation. The initial formation had the tight end split wide outside of the receiver (sound familiar?). Outside linebacker Shaq Thompson followed him, indicating to Ryan that the Carolina Panthers, who mostly play Cover 3, are now in man-to-man coverage, expecting a run. Ryan waved for the tight end to motion back to his traditional alignment next to the offensive tackle. That was the only indication that this wasn’t a run, because in the original formation the TE took the LB out of the box. It was a one for one, and that’s better than blocking him. Bringing the TE in brings the LB back into the box, which means if they were going to run the ball, somebody would have to block him, which is not a sure thing.
At the snap of the ball, the Falcons run what looks like an isolation run play, which would require DiMarco to block All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly at the line of scrimmage. But it is a play-action pass. Kuechly charges up to meet DiMarco’s “Iso” block at the line, DiMarco avoids him and runs uncovered into the area vacated by a streaking receiver. Ryan connects with DiMarco for an 18-yard gain.
The pass to Hooper was on first down, a play-action throwback that went for a 42-yard touchdown. With “13” personnel on the field (one back, three tight ends, one receiver), the defense is expecting a run. The one receiver is Jones, so the defenders are going to account for him while playing the run aggressively. The Falcons run a play-action fake to the left where Jones is lined up, and Ryan bootlegs back to his right. Jones runs a deep crossing route from left to right, and the Panthers know it. It was covered well by the weakside corner and safety, but suddenly Ryan stops and throws back to the left. Hooper is all alone at the goal line: touchdown.
There really isn’t anyone on the defense to blame — this was just a really well-designed play. Hooper was lined up next to the tackle on the right side with another tight end next to him in a wing position. At the snap, Hooper blocked left with the run fake. But when Ryan rolled to the right, taking the attention of the defense, Hooper kept running left, then up the sideline. The Panthers were in Cover 4, and the weakside corner and safety did exactly what they should have done, considering the keys they were given.
Technically, the weakside linebacker should carry any wheel routes, but since the play fake drew them to the line and Hooper came from the opposite side of the field, it was impossible for him to recognize the play until it was too late.
15. No Whammees! No Whammees!
Let’s say the next game on the schedule for your team is an opponent with a ferocious defensive tackle. Or you’re watching a game with friends and a defensive tackle seems to be in your team’s backfield, causing havoc on every running play. Brad will yell some platitude like: “We are losing at the point of attack.” “We gotta double-team that guy,” or “Block that [expletive].”
This is where you step in and say, “Maybe our O-line shouldn’t block that [expletive] at all.” Give it a second to sink in. Wait for Brad to say something dismissive, then pounce. Tell him, “The double-team only works if our guys can win early, either driving the tackle back several yards or moving the tackle into a position where one of our linemen has enough leverage to handle the tackle alone, freeing the other lineman to engage a linebacker. If we can’t do either of those things, then we will be outnumbered in the running game.”
Now it’s time to flex on him. Casually say, “We should run the wham a few times.” Chances are Brad won’t know what you’re talking about, so launch into this explanation. “There are many variations of the wham play, but the basic principle is somewhat counterintuitive: Run the ball at a D-lineman whom the O-line is instructed to completely bypass en route to blocking the LBs. The aggressive unblocked defenseman, feeling like it’s his lucky day, will sprint in toward the running back, oblivious to the tight end or fullback, who will blindside him or ‘wham’ him. It is important that the whammer’s alignment at the snap of the ball is outside of the whammee’s field of vision. You could use a fullback offset away from the whammee, but I prefer to use the blocking tight end (every team has one).”
B0nus: First, before you go around using my terminology, you should know that “whammer” is a term used in NFL meeting rooms, but I can’t say that I have ever heard “whammee.” So use at your own risk. But use with confidence. Remember, it’s a thing if you make it a thing.
Traditionally, the whammer comes from the backside, meaning away from the play’s action. So, if the run is going right, then the whammer will be aligned somewhere to the left of the quarterback. But not too far, because they need to get to that unblocked D-lineman before he wrecks the play. If everything goes according to plan, the playside O-lineman will block the LBs and the whammer will “kick out” or push out the whammee, the ball carrier will cut inside the wham block and gain 4 yards before he is touched. Though less common, the wham can also be run with the whammer on the playside. In this case the whammer is looking to “pin” the defender in, allowing the back to cut outside.
If the whammer is not able to move the D-lineman and create a hole for the ball carrier on the x-axis, that doesn’t mean that the play is dead. As long as the whammer gets in the way of the whammee and the other players hold their blocks, the unblocked D-lineman will be a few yards in the backfield while the rest of the defense is a few yards behind him, creating a y-axis hole that could be exploited by a quick running back.
Press your luck?: It is possible that the wham doesn’t gain yards for your team. But if you run it a few times early in the game, that relentless D-lineman will probably start to slow down and think twice before he presses his luck and goes barreling into the backfield. If you need a reference from last season, the New England Patriots implemented the wham to deal with the Cleveland Browns’ defensive tackle Danny Shelton.
Shoutout to Mike Larson …
14. Andy Reid has a Nice Package
Hold on …
I wanted to give you a second to wallow in that awkwardness before I explain …
OK, that’s enough.
Now, by “package” I am referring to a group of complementary plays, of course. It’s nice to design an effective play. But defenders are smart. If the offense runs it too many times, the defenders will begin to anticipate it. Sadly, for many OCs that means it’s time to call a different, unrelated play. But for a wise offensive mind, it is just the beginning of the fun. That successful play is part of a package of complementary plays that build on each other.
All plays in a package should look similar initially but differ in ways that are almost indistinguishable until it is too late. It is not enough for the plays to just be different. Each play in a truly vexing package should attack the same defender or group of defenders in opposing ways, using their awareness as a weapon against them.
In a Week 13 win against the Falcons, Andy Reid, the Kansas City Chiefs’ head coach, called a couple of jet sweeps for Tyreek Hill. Hill went in motion down the line, and Alex Smith snapped the ball when Hill was only a few steps away, in a full sprint. The speedster, Hill, with a running start, took a handoff from Smith and outran the linebackers to the edge, gaining significant yardage. In isolation, that is a well-designed play that takes advantage of the speed disparity that Hill has over the Atlanta linebackers.
Later in the game, Hill motioned in and faked the jet sweep. Having already seen it twice, the Atlanta linebackers took two hard steps forward and to the right before they realized that it was play-action and Travis Kelce was open behind them, in the zone that they had just vacated.
They went back to the same formation and motion again. This time they faked the jet sweep and handed the ball to the running back on a dive. The linebackers hesitated for a split second, but it wasn’t enough to spring the back. The last play in the package didn’t work, but overall that was a successful package of plays.
So, when Brad complains about your team’s offense, remind him of that one play that your team executed well. Then quip, “Our OC should build a package around that. A couple of complementary plays could really help.”
Bonus: Opposing defenses watch film. So if your team has a lot of success with a particular play in one game, a good OC designs complementary plays for the following week’s game.