X's & O's - Anatomy of a Scoring Drive #3: 4 Verticals/Shallow

Our third installment of ‘Anatomy of a Scoring Drive: A Play a Day’ analyzed the power-football Iso Weak concept. Today we move on to our first pass-attempt of the series, a ‘4 Verticals/Shallow’ concept.

Play #3 Recap

Down/Distance – 1st and 10

Formation – I Formation Twins Right

Concept – Iso Weak

Result – 11-yard gain and first down

In our previous play Hue Jackson took advantage of low-hanging fruit, attacking a large run bubble created by the Browns’ defensive alignment with the ‘Iso Weak’. The offense easily won the weak-side B-gap, moving the NT (nose tackle) off his spot, climbing to the scrapping WILL, and kicking out the MIKE with the fullback.

Tailback Giovani Bernard pressed the hole with authority and made a beautiful jump-cut to take the ball outside, where lacks of back-side contain led to extra yards and a first down. Only a great hustle play by rookie strong safety Ibraheim Campbell prevented the play from potentially hitting for six points, as the alley was wide open and the offense had a blocker on the cornerback. The defense was very lucky not to give up more yards here.

Trends we see after three plays:

  • The defense’s front-seven alignment continues to create large run bubbles
  • Hue Jackson has attacked the outside gaps two out of three plays with the Counter OF (C-gap) and Pin-and-Pull (D-gap). 
  • The offense has created numbers at the point of attack via well-designed blocking schemes
  • Continued disappointing play from NT Danny Shelton. A slow second step and poor pad level has led to an inability to anchor double-teams and prevent jump throughs to scrapping linebackers.

Great individual plays by defensive lineman Randy Starks, MIKE Karlos Dansby, and SS Ibraheim Campbell have prevented the offense from gaining extra yards in spite of having leverage at the point of attack. Unfortunately, individual effort will cover up structural deficiencies for only so long.

Play #4

Down/Distance – 1st and 10

Field Position – Ball spotted on the left hash of the Browns’ 45-yard line.

Formation – Gun Empty Right

Concept – 4 Verticals/Shallow

After using multiple running backs and/or tight ends to run the first three plays of the drive, Jackson decides to clear out the backfield with an ‘Empty Right’ formation. The directional nomenclature tells the offense which side of the field the three receivers should align to. Generally, the three-receiver side will line up to the wide-side (‘field’) in order to create maximum room for the route concepts.

To the short-side (‘boundary’) Jackson has an inline tight end and a single receiver to complete the five-receiver surface. The tight end and #3 receiver (receivers are counted from outside-to-in) to the wide-side align on the line of scrimmage to meet the requirement that at least seven players are on.

The defense counters the empty formation with a Nickel package, playing Cover 2, man-under behind a four-man front.  Both safeties align at least ten yards off the ball indicating a split-safety coverage pre-snap, although it is possible the WILL (located above the top hash) and the weak safety are playing a form of bracket coverage or 2-Read (we’ll look at the concept further in) on Tyler Eifert (the inline tight end). The left cornerback is clearly playing press-man on the strong-side #1 receiver with the nickel back and MIKE playing #2 and #3 respectively.  

Notice the right cornerback’s alignment at the top of the screen. His feet are at seven yards and his leverage has put him at least one yard inside the flexed tight end. While the cornerback may look misaligned, there is a very good reason we see this depth and leverage.

It is highly unlikely the defense is playing true two-deep, man-under to the two-receiver side. Based on the alignment we see the most-probable coverages are an inside-out bracket on Eifert or a pattern-matching concept known as ‘2-read’ or ‘Blue’.

If the defense is playing bracket coverage, the linebacker will play Eifert from inside-out while the weak-safety plays him outside-in from 11 yards. The cornerback’s depth and leverage is an adjustment to the route-running abilities of the #1 receiver.

If the flexed tight end is a well-rounded route runner (Gronk, Eifert, Walker, Kelce, Barnidge, etc.) the cornerback needs to play press in order to deny the multiple route stems he might see. Because Eifert is attached to the formation, the defense is betting that they will see one of three routes from teh flex player: a slant, a hitch, or a fade.

The cornerback’s general rule is to “sit on the slant, react to the fade”. The technique is to dual read the receiver’s release at the line of scrimmage (vertical or inside here) and the quarterback’s eyes. If he sees an in-breaking route his inside leverage will give him a great jump on the ball, creating a possible pass break-up or interception. If the receiver releases vertical, an NFL cornerback should have no issues flipping his hips and ‘stacking’ (staying overtop) his man downfield.

Again based on the cornerback and weak safety’s depth and leverage the defense could also be in a ‘2-Read’ check, a pattern-matching coverage that requires both defenders to read the release of the #2 receiver.

Keep in mind that the #2 receiver can release one of three ways:

  1. Outside (a bubble or flat route)
  2. Vertical (a seam route, dig, post, corner)
  3. Inside (shallow cross)

Do not overcomplicate the coverage by getting caught up in the jargon. Always remember that the coverage will play out based on these three releases. The rules are relatively simple.

  • If the #2 receiver releases vertical (continues downfield past 8 yard) everyone plays man on their receiver. The cornerback will man-up the flexed tight end and the weak safety will play man on Eifert with the WILL carrying him underneath.
  • If the #2 receiver releases inside the cornerback will man-up his receiver, the WILL should collision the shallow route, and the weak safety will zone off in order to rob the weak hook zone.
  • If the #2 receiver releases outside the cornerback and weak safety will switch responsibilities. The cornerback will drive on Eifert’s route, the weak side linebacker will get eyes to the #1 receiver looking to rob a quick-game throw like a slant, and the FS will take all verticals by #1.

Andy Dalton’s third-quarter interception during the Bengals’ 2013 Wild card loss to the Chargers illustrates the 2-Read concept in action. Pay attention to the right-side of the offensive formation and remember your 2-Read rules. Keep your eyes on the #2 receiver as his release will determine how the routes are distributed among the defenders.  If #2 releases outside before ten yards, the cornerback will convert his man coverage and sit in the flat to break on any short routes while the safety tops any vertical from #1. If #1 breaks inside on a slant the linebacker will squeeze the throwing window.

Justin Gilbert's pick-six against the Indianapolis Colts was the result of a similar "trap" coverage concept. Gilbert assingment is to pass off his receiver to the free safety if he continues vertical past ten yards. Once he passes of his man, he will move his eyes to the quarterback and look for any outside-breaking routes entering the flat. Because the shell looks like Cover 1 at the snap, Andrew Luck is baited into throwing the pick as he assumes Gilbert has been cleared-out by the vertical route from the #1 receiver.

For a great breakdown of 2-Read check out Matt Bowen’s recent article breaking down trap coverages.

The MIKE has the toughest assignment as he must carry a vertical by the #3 receiver without a guarantee of deep safety help. A reroute is vital in this situation to prevent a free release and slow down the route speed, given the split safeties time to break towards the middle-of-the-filed hole as the inside receiver is coached to run into this void on any vertical route combinations

The route concept is a 4 verticals/shallow combination that is designed to clear out the underneath defenders with the downfield routes before hitting the shallow from the inline tight end (Eifert). The quarterback will ‘peek’ and throw the verts if something drastic happens post-snap (a blatantly blown assignment or a defender slipping), but the goal of the play is to create a personnel mismatch via Eifert on a linebacker. As we will see further along in our study, mismatches via personnel usage is a hallmark of a Jackson-designed offense.

Unfortunately because the play happened so quickly we do not have much material to analyze, although we can breakdown a few coaching points.

Focus on the weak safety standing on the 36-yard line. Notice that rather than opening his hips and retreating towards a deep-half landmark like a traditional Cover 2 safety, he uses a ‘flat-foot’ technique to read Eifert’s release (inside, outside, vertical).  After Eifert releases inside he continues to read the quarterback, breaking towards the middle of the field when quarterback Andy Dalton starts his throwing motion. At no time does the weak safety move his eyes towards the flex tight end, leading me to believe that a bracket coverage or 2-Read technique was on.

Like the weak safety, the left cornerback immediately turns and bails as he reads the vertical release by Eifert. He has no issues staying overtop the flexed tight end from his extreme inside leverage, demonstrating why this side of the coverage was set to attack Eifert.

Karlos Dansby does a good job rerouting the #3 receiver as he pushes vertical. Dansby’s technique is to open towards the #3 receiver and attack him with violent hands while using his body to wall off the route if he attempts to enter the seam. We can see the receiver widen significantly to avoid the full brunt of the collision, putting him within two yards of the #2 receiver to create poor spacing (the SS can now break on throws to either receiver as they are in close proximity).

Dalton makes the throw before Eifert crosses the WILLS face, likely anticipating separation as the Pro Bowl tight end is matched-up on a linebacker.  The WILL does an outstanding job with the collision on the receiver as he crosses his face and moving his feet to wall off the route. It looks like Dalton was expecting the shallow to be run at more of an up-field angle, but the collision and reroute forced Eifert to flatten it out. Great job defending the pass by the WILL.

This particular play demonstrates the weakness within the clear out/shallow concept as there is no check down if the short route does not come open. Dalton knows he has a single option here so he gets the ball out quickly in spite of no immediate threat from the pass rush and a receiver with no separation.

Although it took four plays, the defense has finally put together scheme, assignment, and execution to temporarily slow down the offense’s momentum. Join us for the fifth installment of ‘Anatomy of a Scoring Drive’ to see if Hue Jackson goes back to the running game or elects to air it out on second and ten.

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