AbsolutAnalysis: The Virtual Playbook

Back from a long hiatus, X's and O's Guru Matt Lathrop has prepared a playbook with several ideas assembled for optimal learning. Fortunately for us, he's ready to drop the knowledge on our readers. Sit back, grab a beverage, and discover the anatomy of a play system in Matt's latest AbsolutAnalysis!

Recently, I took some time to put together an offensive manual and playbook. I did this partly for my own interest, and partly in hopes of returning to coaching some high school ball in the County, since I had to take a year off following completion of college (this whole “job” thing is kind of a bummer). At 100 pages, it turned out to be a bit big for a high school manual, but obviously fairly minute for a pro-sized book – which I have seen easily top 400 pages.

When I put together the playbook (with input from a close friend), I documented the thought process of our passing game. I took some notes and created an outline, which I am going to flesh it out a bit for this article. I figure that someone out there may get something from this, whether it is some insight on how a play may be constructed, or if it might provide some ideas to figure out what’s happening on the field.

To start, I suppose I should provide a quick rundown of the semantics of the passing game. Basically, each pass play is either a 3-digit number or a 2-digit number with a tagged route. Here is how it breaks down:

1st digit: Pass series (3-Step/Quick Passing, 5-Step, Movement, Play action)
2nd digit: Protection (BOB, Slide, Hinge)
3rd digit or tag: Route (combo/concept)

For example, “512” would be a 3-Step (5) slant package (2) with BOB (man/Big on Big or Back on Back) protection (1), and “62 Texas” would be a 5-Step (6) Texas route package with Slide protection (2). The entire play call would be surrounded by the formation, motion or shifts, the cadence, and a tag or alert. i.e. “Trey Right Zoom 512 Wax.”

One of the most inspiring quotes (from a scheme perspective) I have come across is from Norm Chow, the offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans:

“We are going to try to take advantage of what the other team is doing on defense. During the course of a game, with the sophistication of defenses, coverages are disguised and the use of zone blitzes and fire blitzes become very hard to beat. We’d be lying if we said we sat up in the box and knew what coverages were being run.

What we try to do is take a portion of the football field, the weak flat for example, and we will attack that until we can figure out what the defense’s intentions are. Then we try to attack the coverage that we see. It is very difficult to cover the whole field. We are not going to try to fool anybody. We are going to take little portions of the field and try to attack them until the defense declares what it intends to do.”

If you ever have a chance, find as many Norm Chow interviews as you can, he can be refreshingly candid about what he likes to do with his offense. What I liked so much about this quote is that he provided younger coaches like myself some comfort in our development of reading defenses, and knowing when to call which play – there can be quite a bit of pressure to be a “Master play-caller.” Chow shines some light on how to be that great play caller. It’s not about being a psychic or a mind reader; it’s about dissecting the defense and learning about what they are trying to do versus certain looks.

Grasping the defense’s intentions throughout the course of the game is what allows for all those great play calls, not being a mind reader and “knowing” what the defense is going to do two plays down the road. Sure, the guessing game works on occasion, but you’re going to run into some serious trouble when you guess wrong. Later in the game, those predictions become educated guesses based on what you’ve seen.

I am sure you are all familiar with the concept of scripting plays, the old Bill Walsh idea of lining out your openers during the week. The object of this is to allow you to give the defense deliberate looks and see how they react and adjust. Based on what they do, you will go into your play sheet and your “if-this-then-that” planning.

Alright, let’s get back on track.

When I got to a certain point with the playbook, I already had plays that went after the flats and the hook to curl zones such as Slant, Hitch, Stick, and Texas. I had Fade and Vertical concepts included, but had some room for another play. One concept I have always liked is the Deep-In. I am a big fan of the Don Coryell vertical stretch style of passing, and since I needed a five-step pass I tinkered with a Dig concept that I ended up implementing. I run a dig as a modified Square-In, with the receiver running two quick breaks, so it ends up starting like a Curl, but flattens out like an In. I like the versatility because the receiver can be trained to curl the route up and show his numbers to the QB in certain situations instead of flattening the route.

The basic idea behind the dig is to put a high-low read on the safety. Simply put, a receiver would run a post over top the safety, and another would run the dig underneath him. The QB would key the safety, and throw opposite his coverage. The read may come down to watching the safety’s hips or shoulders; if they open, throw the dig. If he stays square throw the post over top.

By the nature of the game, the play needs to be flexible enough to work against both 1-high (e.g. Cover 1,3) and 2-high (e.g. Cover 2, 4). The best answer for this play was not to run the high-low from opposite sides, but to run it from the same side. This way we can run it against a single safety or against a 2-deep by picking on the safety to the side of the combo. Since we are going after the safety, we are going to run the breaks in the 12-15 yards portion of the field.

The base set for this play will be Doubles, which is probably my favorite formation. One back, one TE, and a Slot allows us to have an extra receiver but maintains the extra blocker and running lane by keeping the TE on the field. I really like having two receivers on the backside as well, it will come in handy to stress that side of the field and give us room for adjustments and variations.


I toyed with running a high-low from opposite sides versus 2-high by bringing the Z underneath across the field to the far hash, like with a Drive or Drag concept. But I decided to work from one side since I like the 3 wide look so much and leaving the Z at the flanker will give us some more flexibility.

We will use the X receiver to run the Dig, and the Slot/Zebra to run the Post. Having the Slot run the Dig would get him to the break quicker, but the X Post might not give us the best angle for the combo on the Safety. Running the Slot up the seam on the Post will stress the safety more, and will allow the X to gain separation against the CB and work to find the window behind the Will on the Dig.

Primary Combo:

This will also allow us to make an easy adjustment against 1-high by letting the X work into the Hook-to-Curl zone underneath a skinny post.

Now that we have the primary read in place, we need to figure out what to do with the other receivers. As you may see, just running a two-receiver combo into this coverage presents some problems. So, we need to find a way to occupy the other defenders in various coverages. Starting with the playside, the zone that needs some attention is the flat. There is one logical (and relatively obvious) way to put a receiver there. Aside from dragging a man across the formation, the HB is available.

Since I am a “pass protection first” guy, I like to use my backs as check-release players. The most dangerous defender to the Dig would be the Will, so we need to have the HB check his action on the snap. The HB will step up to the line and check for a blitz. If the Will fires, fine, we have him occupied and we like our X working the Dig against the CB in man coverage. The same idea applies if the CB blitzes. I will protect the QB and let our X work over top against a lone LB. Keep in mind that by using a check-release scheme, the QB can keep on his primary read and not worry about throwing hot against a blitz.

Assuming no blitz, the HB will release on a hook and work into the flat, showing his numbers to the QB and waiting for the pass. This will put a man in the flat and give the QB and easy check down.

If we are facing a cover 2, we need to be aware of the Mike dropping to the deep middle, between the safeties. One way to take advantage of that is to use the Texas concept as a starting point. Back when the Tampa-2 was gaining popularity, Mike Holmgren used the Texas concept to take advantage of the void the Mike left in the short middle of the field. He would run a FB, H-back, or the like on a little angle route and have him settle over the center 4 or 5 yards down field. However, we don’t have a back to use, so we need to use either the Y or Z.

If we use the Y, he would run a quick middle route and it would be fairly painless to get him there. Easy enough. Now what to do with the Z? Our options are somewhat limited since we don’t want him getting in the way of the Y or Dig combo. We could easily use him as a clearing route or as a backside post to stress the Strong Safety. For that matter, we could run the entire backside on verts, but the Mike, Sam and SS need to be held and kept honest.

Now how about swapping assignments by having the Z take advantage of the Mike and the Y hold the SS? By running the Y on a Flag route (basically a Corner route by a Slot or TE), we can force the SS to widen in a Cover 2, or get behind a CB against Cover 3. This would primarily be a purpose route to stress the SS and try to get behind coverage for the QB to peek at before checking down.

Now we have the hole in the middle of the field left by the retreating Mike.

I like our option of running the Z shallow to that spot. The Flag could allow up a rub or pick with the Z running a modified drag concept we discussed earlier, just in a different role. A Y Flag should run the Sam off long enough to get the Z underneath him and settle about 5 yards over the center in the void the Mike created. Now we have a #2 option for the QB after reading the FS and peeking at the Flag for a homerun. The QB will be able to work just one side of the field while taking a quick peek at the Flag to see if the Y got behind coverage.

The QB has an easy enough pre-snap read, needing to find the Safety and, as always, be aware of any blitzes that may come. At the snap his read is not too complex. He must read the Safety’s movement and throw opposite coverage; if the Safety comes up on the Dig, throw over his head. If he drops or turns and runs, hit the Dig. If the QB doesn’t like the combo, he can peek at the Flag and drop it over the head of the Y where only he can catch up to it. He doesn’t have to drop it on a dime, he just needs to make sure no one but the receiver can get to it. If the Flag isn’t there, the Z should have found the window underneath the Mike by then. The QB can check to him, and then to the HB if he is on his release. After that it’s time to scramble, and every receiver should go into scramble mode by breaking off their routes at the given depth and following back towards the QB so he wont be throwing across his body.

Now we have a play I like. We can make adjustments easily, like adding a tag to have the slot run a wheel, or mirror the combo to work both safeties. This is one of my favorite things about having a good play that works against different coverages from several formations: easily adjust the routes without changing the concept of the play, or messing with the QB’s read. Here are a couple possible variations.

The left play is just a mirrored route that adds another Dig combo to the opposite side and works on both Safeties. The QB would pick a side before the snap, based on factors such as defensive leverage, talent match-ups, or underneath alignment. The read would remain the same on the combos. The play on the right has a Wheel adjustment by the #2 receivers. The #1’s will both run their respective routes, but will have a Wheel working outside of them. The QB will still read the Safety and throw away from his coverage, making this a simple yet effective adjustment with the capability to be an explosive play.

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed the article. If you have any questions or positive feedback, please email me. If you have any complaints, please email my editor.

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