The NFL Conversation Domination Playbook on bunches, hugs and why you ain’t that good
An expert’s guide to trash-talking your way through the season
This is the last of the preseason All 22 columns. The next All 22 will be about real NFL regular-season action. I will be referring back to these insights throughout the season and delivering new ones. So, you can continue to dominate conversations and snicker disapprovingly at the talking heads who rely on clichés and platitudes to fill dead air.
And please use these insights to dominate Brad, the aggressively ignorant football know-it-all in your life.
6. Free Release
Nobody likes it when the quarterback checks down to the running back. Granted, from the offensive perspective, it is better than a sack or interception. But the coordinator won’t be pleased if his sophisticated plays are rendered moot by a conservative quarterback. And receivers don’t like being decoys for running backs.
Conservative quarterbacks can be annoying to defenders, too. Checkdowns are particularly frustrating to would-be sackers, who are one step from getting to the quarterback when he dumps it to the back. Not only are the defensive front players deprived of a sack, but they also have to turn and run to the ball.
Defenses can limit the checkdowns by blitzing because the backs often have a check-release, which means that they can only release into a pattern if there is no blitzer for them to block. So, if you send a blitzer or two, the back will stay in to protect, eliminating the conservative quarterback’s safety valve. Then the quarterback is forced to throw a riskier downfield pass.
As you should know by now, in football, there is an answer for everything. Offenses have plays that give their back a free release, meaning they have no blitz pickup responsibilities. They are permitted to run their route no matter what the defense does. When this is the case, they are almost certainly going to get the ball quickly when the defense is blitzing because the protection could be outnumbered and the quarterback has very little time. A free releasing back’s route will almost always start with him running from his position in the backfield to the outside, unless it is a screen pass (we will discuss running back screens later). If the blitz is coming and he releases into the line, he will get slowed down or knocked down. And the quarterback doesn’t have time to wait.
The back will most frequently run a swing or angle (lookie) route. Of course, the defense won’t leave the back uncovered, so the end man on the line of scrimmage has peel responsibilities. That means that if the back free releases to his side, he will peel off and cover him. The end man is normally not as athletic as an interior linebacker, who might have comparable athleticism as a running back. The end man is normally a defensive end or 3-4 outside backer, so this is a great matchup for the offense. If you have a top-notch shifty back with good hands — think Darren Sproles — would you rather have him stay in for protection or catch the ball in space with nobody around but a defensive end?
That’s how 36-year-old Sproles at 5-6, 190 pounds becomes the best pass protector on a team. The prospect of him matched up with big guys intimidates defensive coordinators. They’ll certainly be more cautious when he is on the field.
5. Rush to coverage
This is when a “hug” rush could become useful. The defensive coordinator tacks “hug” onto the end of any man coverages (1, 2-man, etc.) and some zone blitzes that function like man coverage. This tells the linebacker, or whoever is responsible for covering the back in a particular play, to run toward his coverage responsibility at the snap of the ball. To the offense this looks like a blitz, so if the back has a check release, he will not release and try to block. If that happens, the linebacker then converts from covering the back to trying to beat his block and get to the quarterback. If the back free releases, the linebacker covers him.
If the defense is lucky, the quarterback will see the linebacker’s pre-snap demeanor and expect a blitz, then see the linebacker’s first steps toward the backfield and read blitz until the linebacker covers the free releasing back. A great quarterback would anticipate that option based on the defensive pre-snap alignment, ignore that linebacker and work down the field. A good quarterback may recognize it during the play and throw it away, or work down the field late, which could end in a sack. A bad quarterback may never recognize what’s happening, throw it anyway, and either get the ball intercepted or get the running back hit.
4. Don’t screen to beat the blitz
Use the defense’s aggressiveness against them and call screens against a blitz-happy defense. That’s what I have always heard since the early ’90s when I first started following football. The logic makes sense. Let the defensive front charge past the O-line toward the quarterback and at the last second throw the ball just past the oncoming defenders to the running back, who will have a convoy of blockers.
But in my experience, it rarely goes that smoothly for the offense, at least not in modern football. The speed of the defensive front players is part of the reason. They retrace to the running back and tackle him more quickly than they have in the past. But the major reason is because aggressive blitzing defenses know it is coming, practice for it, and talk about it all the time.
“You ain’t that good. Be alert for the screen,” is something I am sure every defensive lineman has heard. “You ain’t that good” is a reminder to the D-lineman that if he beats the O-lineman quickly and easily, then it is a setup. They are intentionally letting him through to set up the screen. NFL interior linemen are particularly good at sniffing these out.
3.Play action for intermediate passes
Early in the season last year, the Houston Texans didn’t seem to understand that play action isn’t only for going deep. Play action is actually more effective for intermediate pass plays.
Against the Indianapolis Colts, the Texans were running the ball well and conventional football logic would tell you that the safeties will start to creep closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. The proper response to that is a play-action deep post route, attacking the area vacated by the safety. However, the Colts and many of the other teams that faced the Texans refuse to go into single-safety coverages. They were content to let Lamar Miller run the ball, but not give up big plays to receiver DeAndre Hopkins. That doesn’t mean that the Texans should abandon the play-action altogether. They should design play-action passes that target the backs, tight ends, and slot receivers because, while the safeties won’t bite on the run fake, the linebackers will. I agree 12 yards to tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz isn’t as sexy as 60 yards to Hopkins, but there is nothing attractive about sending the punter into the game. Later in the season, the Texans adjusted and targeted their tight ends more.
All NFL offenses script their first 15 plays. Of course they want to score, but the first 15 should be a recon mission. The defense will show its game plan on the first few third-down plays. They’ll run the blitzes that they installed for this game, double cover the offense’s top weapon, or play zone. The offense should run a variety of shifts, formations, and motions and track the defensive adjustments. Then the offense can dictate to the defense the coverages it wants. For example, on the first third down, line up in a three-receiver spread formation, but align the tight end outside of the receiver, then shift to empty. If a linebacker follows the tight end outside and the safeties stay in a two-deep shell, you know they are in 2-man. If after a dummy cadence the defense shows blitz, shift to an empty formation to see if the defense checks out of the blitz to cover 2 or if they stay with the blitz.
The offense may not convert the first few third downs. But, they’ll have a better chance for success in future third downs if they take the time to understand what the defense wants to do.
1. Bunches and Stacks
A bunch is when the offense aligns three receivers close together. A stack is when one receiver is on the line of scrimmage and another receiver is a yard behind him and next to him. Bunches and stacks are great for beating man coverage. The receivers’ close alignments allow them to route combinations that pick or rub defenders off of their coverage responsibility.
Defenders have developed a few ways to deal with the rub routes that come from bunches and stacks. They can switch. That’s pretty self-explanatory versus a stack. Versus a bunch that includes three receivers, the middle defender will lock on his man, while the other two defenders may switch depending on the route. Defenders also have the option to high-low a bunch or stack. Normally one of the receivers will run a short route and others will run intermediate routes. One defender will press the point man in the stack and cover whichever receiver runs the low route. A high-low versus a bunch is called a cone, but it works pretty much the same for the point defender. The other two defenders are off of the line and they switch to the two receivers who run intermediate routes.
Some offenses enter a game with five to 10 different bunch and stack route combinations ready when they are facing a team that plays a lot of man coverage. It is important that the defense mixes up their responses to bunches and stacks, so the offense can’t predict how they’ll defend it.