Browns' X's & O's - Anatomy of a Scoring Drive #9: Packaging Beaters

After analyzing the popular Outside Zone as Part 8 of the OBR's ‘Anatomy of a Scoring Drive: A Play a Day’ series, we go back to the air to break down 'coverage' beaters using the Fade/Out combo.

Play #8 Recap

Down/distance - 1st and 10

Field Position – Left hash of the Browns’ 27-yard line

Formation – Trey Right Closed

Concept – Outside Zone Right

Result - 4-yard gain

Facing a 2nd and 10, Bengals' offensive coordinator Hue Jackson returned to his reliable ground game with an Outside Zone concept, looking for a 4-5 yard gain to set up 3rd and manageable. Jackson elected to break run-direction tendency on this play, moving the ball to the field (wide-side) after running the previous four ground-game concepts to the boundary (short-side). Jackson likely chose to break tendency for two reasons:

  1. When the offense has used personnel groupings with two tight ends the defense has responded with split safeties, using the weak safety to guard the tight end (rather than the cornerback. This coverage responsibility will keep the weak safety out of the box as a run defender, reducing the number of defenders at the point of attack.
  2. Outside Zone is a perimeter-based run, so by running to the field the tailback will have more space to work in if he can get to the alley.

The new Browns' coach likely ran the concept to attack two continuous weaknesses within the defense's structure and run-fit integrity:

  1. Large run bubbles
  2. Lack of defenders in the box, allowing the offense to create numbers at the point of attack.

Solid effort and technique from Jaime Meder, Paul Kruger and Karlos Dansby held the play to 4 yards despite the offense holding numbers at the point of attack for the fifth play this drive (nthe offense is now 5/5 on run plays). The defense's 3-4, 'under' front simply cannot schematically handle two tight end sets the offense is continously showing. Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil needs to find an answer to the run bubble and run-fit issue quickly, or the defense will be in for a long game of ground-and-pound football. 

Some trends we see through eight plays:

  • The defensive front-seven alignment continues to create large run bubbles
  • Hue Jackson has attacked the outside gaps three out of five running plays with the Counter OF (C-gap), Pin-and-Pull (D-gap), and Outside Zone (D-gap). He has also attacked large interior run bubbles with the Iso/Lead on two of the previous three running plays
  • The offense has consistently created numbers at the point of attack via well-designed blocking schemes 
  • NT Danny Shelton has yet to prevent a scoop to the second level when he is combo-blocked (three plays). As a result, the Browns' linebackers are unable to freely scrap to the ball, leading to solid gains on the ground. Jaime Meder's single appearance this drive resulted in the nose tackle bullying his blocker into the backfield, altering the tailback's path to the hole and likely saving the defense some yardage.
  • Hue Jackson is now attacking match-ups through the air. In three of the previous five plays he has schemed one-on-one coverage in space via alignment and concept for Tyler Eifert, A.J. Green, and Marvin Jones. The aggressive coach is creating opportunities to get the ball out in space to his skill position players.


Play #9

Down/distance - 3rd and 6

Field Position – Right hash of the Browns’ 23-yard line

Formation – Quad Back Lo (left)

Concept – Fade/Out-Double Slants 

Facing a 3rd and 6 in easy field goal range, Jackson dials up to a play design philosophy utilized by many of the best offensive coaches in the game (including Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, and Sean Payton). Rather than run a single route concept integrating the four receivers (five if you include the tailback) Jackson 'divorces' the two side from each other, running two-man pass concepts to each side of the formation. This idea is know as 'packaging' coverage beaters.

Effective route combinations are designed to work against the rules of a specific coverage shell. Good route combos put a defender in conflict by stressing coverage rules. For example, the common 'Curl/Flat' combo attacks the Cover 3 curl/flat defender via a horizontal stretch.

Cover 3 Buzz

 Cover 3 Buzz

The 'Curl/Flat' combo is likely the most well-known Cover 3 beater run at all levels of football, from the NFL down to high school.

Curl Flat-Stretch

Curl Flat Sretch

The curl/flat defender’s technique is to open the hips at 45 degrees towards the sideline, get depth into the curl zone while alternating the eyes between the quarterback and receivers, and finally drive on the flat if the ball takes him there.

The 'Curl/Flat' stresses the defender’s rules and technique by creating a horizontal stretch (sideline-to-sideline) in which the defender will be wrong regardless of which route he chooses to attack. If the C/F defender gets depth to step in front of the curl, the ball is going to the flat route.  If the C/F defender jumps the flat route, the curl route will sit down inside the defender with a clear throwing window for the QB. It’s a lose/lose for the defender.

On the other hand, the curl/flat combo doesn’t work well against man coverage because the defender’s coverage rules are not put in conflict. If it is man coverage, align with proper leverage pre-snap and use man-technique. In this situation, the route concept relies on the offensive player winning an individual matchup.

Looking at another example, if the offense runs a man-beater like the West Coast classic 'Slant-Flat' and the defense rotates into a Tampa 2 (a zone-based coverage shell) post-snap, the defense will likely win that match-up as they will have defenders in position to play the route combo (cloud corner will jump the flat route with a seam/hook defender in the slant window. Again, the offense is relying on individual matchups to win the routes. It’s great if your team has players that can win consistently, but offensive schemes that heavily rely on matchups just don’t succeed long-term. NFL defenders are simply too good.

The idea behind packaging coverage beaters is to run effective route combinations regardless of whether the defense is in a man or zone-based coverage shell.  The simplest way to do this is to run a man beater concept to one side of the formation and a zone beater concept to the other.

The quarterback will scan the defense pre-snap looking for clues that may tip him off to the coverage.  Where are the free safety and strong safety?  How deep are they aligned?  At what depth are the cornerback's aligned? Are they aligned with inside or outside leverage?  A good quarterback can put these clues together to identify the likely coverage shell pre-snap.  he will then use this information to target the appropriate route combo based on the  read.

In the clip below Raiders' quarterback Derek Carr accurately identifies 'Man-Hi (Cover 1) behind a blitz pre-snap, and immediately targets the man-beating 'Double Slant' concept (the offense had a zone-beating 'Stick' combo to the bottom).

Coverage Beaters

In order to create space for his 'beaters' Jackson spreads the defense out by using a 'Quad' formation that places two wide receivers to each side of the formation. The defense responds with what looks like a Cover 2 shell pre-snap with a possible '2-Read' trap concept to the field. Notice the defense showing a potential blitz from the MIKE (although you will rarely see a blitz out of true two-high safety shell; the numbers don't add up, leaving an uncovered skill player).

Jackson runs a 'Double Slant' concept to the field (wide side) with a 'Fade/Out' concept to the boundary (short side). 'Double Slants' work particularly well against man coverage and Cover 2, while the 'Fade/Out' is most effective against Cover 2 and Cover 4 (Dalton likely had the option to check the 'Fade/Out' to a traditional zone beater if a safety dropped down pre-snap). The tailback completes the routes by 'check releasing', or pausing to look for a blitz before releasing through the line of scrimmage into an option route against the linebacker.

It is very apparent that quarterback Andy Dalton knew exactly where he was going with the ball before the snap. We see a great example of route anticipation here as the ball is out as soon as the receiver enters his route stem (break). What exactly did Dalton see that allowed him to process the play and get the ball out so quickly?

Reading the secondary will tell the story of the coverage, particularly with the lack of disguise here. First, locate the safeties. Both are standing with their heels 14 yards off the line of scrimmage. At this depth there is little to no chance either will have the time to 'drop' into the box, creating a MOFC (middle of the field closed) shell like Cover 1 or Cover 3.

Furthermore, if the defense is in a Cover 4 shell the safeties should be aligned over the #2 receivers at 8-10 yards. The strong safety (top of the screen) is 3-4 inside the #2 receiver while the weak safety is 2-3 yards outside the #2 to his side. There is no way either can play a vertical route from #2 at this depth and leverage. Just from this single piece of information Dalton can:

  • Reasonably rule out a blitz, as most blitzes (particularly from Pettine) will be paired with Cover 1, Cover 3, or Cover 0 (no deep safety)
  • Safely narrow the coverage options down to a variant of Cover 2
  • Expect a hole in the middle of the field, deep sideline, and possibly the flat if the defense is playing a Tampa 2 (the stress points in split-safety coverage)

Moving on we can glean more information by reading the depth and leverage of the cornerbacks, nickelback, and linebackers. 

  • To the top of the image we see the right cornerback tight to the line of scrimmage in press coverage with the SAM aligned outside the box with his heels at four yards.
  • Moving to the bottom of the screen we see the nickelback pressed up on the slot receiver while the left cornerback appears to be in off-man. The cornerback's depth (deep of the first down marker) and the #2's matchup on the slot defender, who must guard a '2-way-go' (receiver can release inside or outside), make the speed out an easy read.
  • Against man coverage the fade route will clear out the corner so the out can hit underneath near the first-down marker. Against a zone-- which is unlikely here as the strong safety's alignment on the right hash makes it virtually impossible to play overtop a vertical route from the #1 on his side of the field--the fade route will hold his attention long enough for the out to hit underneath.

At the snap a defensive lineman  'buzzes' out and underneath to join the coverage. O'Neil likely made this call to help protect against underneath routes like shallows while helping the MIKE guard Giovani Bernard', as he is an excellent pass-catcher out of the backfield. Note that this leaves three defenders to rush the quarterback with eight in coverage.

The slot defender has a tough assignment on Bengals' receiver Mohamed Sanu, as he must guard a variety of in and out-breaking routes from his position. Sanu immediately releases inside, bending his route to the sideline and creating separation from the snap. To the top of the image we can see both defenders jamming their men as they run the slant concept.

The clear out from A.J. Green does the job, creating ample space along the sideline for the speed out to hit. Because Dalton released the ball as Sanu entered his break, the slot defender had no chance to make a play on the ball. Sanu shows some open field shake to take another 4 yards after the catch, taking the ball to the Browns' 16-yard line for a 9 yard gain. 

Hue Jackson has methodically led his offense into the red zone via an effective combination of runs and passes that has the defense on their heels. Tune in tomorrow to see what does he has in store for first down.

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