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Summer School: How Pat Shurmur uses pre-snap motion to manipulate the defense

Let’s look at a basic offensive weapon — motion — and how the Giants might utilize it

It’s summer — it’s close enough. With the kind of dead period in the NFL calendar, we’re getting into the start of our annual Summer School series. Throughout the summer we’ll be going into some of the basics and intricacies of theories and schemes we might see with the New York Giants in 2018. With a whole new staff and philosophies on offense and defense, there’s a lot to cover. Today, something that starts and sets up a number of offensive plays.

Pre-snap motion is a common occurrence for an NFL offense. It’s easy to miss or ignore, but there’s multiple benefits behind sending a man in motion before the ball is snapped.

Under the coordination of Pat Shurmur, last year’s Minnesota Vikings offense excelled at using pre-snap motion to its advantage. That should be something Shurmur continues with the offense of the New York Giants. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Vikings used pre-snap motion on 35.5 percent of their offensive plays last season, which was the 11th-highest rate in the league. The Giants used motion on 31.7 percent of plays under Ben McAdoo (15th), but the Vikings were much more effective using it on pass plays — 7.3 yards per drop back to 6.1.

In its most basic function, pre-snap motion gives the offense a sense about whether the defense is running man or zone coverage. With a receiver in motion, the offense can tell if the defense is in man coverage if a defender goes with him ...

... or in zone if no one does.

This can help the quarterback decide which concepts will or won’t work against the coverage and can help the play or a change of play become easier.

Assessing coverage off of pre-snap motion isn’t perfect or automatic — there’s a sense of gamesmanship between the offensive and defensive coordinators who will go to any length to disguise the upcoming play — but more often than not, the offense can get a sense of what the defense plans to do with simply moving a skill player from one side of the formation to the other.

When used properly, pre-snap motion can give the offense a schematic advantage by creating a mismatch against the defense.

Let’s start in Week 2 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Vikings initially lined up in a trips look with three receivers to the left of the formation and no one out wide to the right.

Before the snap, Stefon Diggs motioned from the left slot to the outside right. No Steeler followed to the right and coverage on the left started to be revealed as the safety dropped deep and the linebacker crept over towards his zone.

The mismatch really comes with what’s set up on the right side for the defense. With no receiver originally on that side of the field, the Steelers called a corner blitz, which wasn’t changed after Diggs’s motion. That left Diggs isolated against safety Sean Davis, a matchup the Vikings would love to take and exploit any chance they could.

The route running of Diggs also helped. His initial step out set Davis up laterally and gave Diggs plenty of room to break up the field and get behind the safety. The end result of the play was a 21-yard gain on a 2nd-and-7 that set up the Vikings for a touchdown two plays later.

Motion doesn’t just have to be limited to the wide receivers or the player the play is intended for. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Vikings came out in 21 personnel with a running back, a fullback, one tight end, and two wide receivers.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph started in-line on the right side of the line and motioned over to the left. The defense didn’t shift much in its alignment — the most movement was along the defensive line — but the motion significantly impacted responsibilities along the defense.

Tampa Bay was lined up with two deep safeties. Once Rudolph cleared the linebacker in his route, he became the responsibility of the safety on the right side, who bit on the tight end’s break to the outside. That left the middle of the field open for Stefon Diggs.

The coverage technique of Brent Grimes on the outside was still such that he expected there would be help from the deep safety — which there would have been before Rudolph motioned over — and by the time he turned his hips in an attempt to run with Diggs, the receiver had enough leverage and speed built up to easily get open down the field. The result is a 43-yard gain.

When the backs get involved, it can really help to spread the defense. This play happened early in the NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Minnesota was again in 21 personnel, this time with the quarterback in shotgun, one running back offset to the left, and the other initially behind the QB.

This time the back motioned out of the backfield to create a trips look on the right and that shifted the entire defense. The Eagles had to make sure they had enough defenders to cover the three receivers to the right and with no receivers split outside to the left, safety Malcolm Jenkins backed up nearly 20 yards from the line of scrimmage on the right hash. With a running back still in the backfield, linebackers prepared to play the run on the left side and lined up within five yards of the line of scrimmage.

All this worked together to free Kyle Rudolph down the field on a deep corner route. Once he got past the first linebacker, there was no one to catch him and the only deep help was all the way on the other side of the field.

Motion can also be used to help out in the run game — the Vikings used motion on 42.9 percent of their designed runs per Sports Info Solutions, the eighth-highest rate in the league.

On this play against the Baltimore Ravens, the Vikings came out in 11 personnel (three wide receivers). Though three receiver were on the field, it was still a fairly heavy run formation. Slot receiver Jarius Wright (17) was lined up on the hash of the strong side next to the tight end and the wide receiver on that side, Adam Thielen, was parked inside the numbers.

Theilen was the player who motioned before the play and he moved in tight of the formation, between the tight end and the left tackle. Cornerback Jimmy Smith (22) mostly stayed to the outside, but Thielen’s motion did bring down safety Eric Weddle (32) closer to the line of scrimmage.

But that was OK, because while Thielen’s motion brought another player into the box, it was his responsibility to block him and that assignment was key to the whole play breaking open. As the line worked to open the D-gap outside the tight end, Thielen’s block on Weddle freed Latavius Murray for a 29-yard touchdown.

These motions and formations can add even more deception when play action is added to mix. Against the Washington Redskins later in the season, the Vikings came out in a similar formation — 11 personnel, but a little wider in the set up.

Thielen, again lined up on the outside of the strong two-receiver side, followed similar motion to the Baltimore play and ended up behind the tight end and right tackle. This motion brought in the slot corner, who shifted inside, and the deep safety from that half of the field, who went from the 38-yard line to the 31 because of the motion. Washington was ready for the run.

Minnesota faked the run — pulling guard and all — and after a chip block, Rudolph released to the flat. The slot corner blitzed and bit on the run while Thielen’s route carried the safety who moved up to the line pre-snap. This left Rudolph with a solid chunk of space to pick up 13 yards on first down.

Motion is a fairly basic concept for an offense, but it has the potential to open up big plays, make life easier for the quarterback, and complicate things for the defense. It’s also something the Giants are likely to take advantage of more under Shurmur than they have in the past. It’s something that can easily be overlooked, but it’s a weapon that should be used more effectively in 2018.