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Summer School — How did they do that?

Taking a closer look at a play the Giants should steal

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

When we set out to do this year’s Summer School series, I wanted to use tape of the New York Giants to illustrate points and concepts in action.

But sometimes in the course of film study and working on other projects, things just jump out and grab your attention. Fortunately it’s July and the NFL is on summer vacation — and while I believe in making the most of every day on vacation, this is also the time of year when you should take the time to stop and smell the roses.

So when I came across this play while looking at how the New Orleans Saints use Alvin Kamara, it was just too nifty to not stop and take a second look which eventually turned into twenty or so looks. But hey, I’m a fan of football first and like to think of myself as a student of the game — and I like to think that the majority of Big Blue View readers are as well.

So what better time to take the scenic route than the part of the calendar when no news is the best news?

The Play

There are a few things to watch on the offensive side of the ball.

We’ll start with the Saints’ personnel package and alignment. They are running an “11 - Personnel” package, or one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers. However, they have TE Ben Watson detatched from the offensive line and RB Alvin Kamara lined up as wide receiver on the offensive left. The end result is and empty set “Spread” offense, and we can see the effect it has on the Atlanta Falcons’ defense, forcing them to spread their defense from sideline to sideline.

Next I want to take a look closer at the route concepts run by the Saints.

If we divide the field in half, the Saints are clearly running two different passing concepts. At the top of the screen they are running part of an “All Curls” concept, a staple of Air Raid offenses and a signature of San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

In college Air Raid offenses, the All Curls concept is typically run out of a “2x2” alignment, such as this play from the Washington State Cougars.

College Air Raid offenses typically run “10 - Personnel” packages (that is, one running back, no tight ends), or a 4-receiver set. The running back either runs a curl route as well, or stays back as a pass protector should the defense show blitz.

Shanahan alters the play by running a standard NFL “11” package and aligning his players in a 3x1 set with two receivers and the tight end to one side of the formation. That half of that look is what we see from the Saints in our featured play. The receivers then accelerate hard off the line of scrimmage, trying to sell the vertical stem of their route. The idea is to convince the defense that the receivers are running deep routes and driving the secondary back. In reality, the curl routes are only run about 10 yards downfield before receiver suddenly hitches back to the quarterback.

Done correctly the curl routes create separation against both man and zone coverage. They also create an easy read and throw for the quarterback. All the receivers are facing the passer, hopefully with the ability to block the defender from the ball with their body, and the quarterback only has to pick the receiver with the most separation.

The downside to the concept is that while it can be good for generating first downs, it doesn’t have much big play potential. The receivers are stopped and facing the quarterback, which makes tackling easy and yards after the catch difficult. Generally, big plays only come on bad tackles or exceptional plays by the receivers.

But the Saints do love them some YAC opportunities, which is why the left half of the play doesn’t involve curl routes.

On the left side we have Kamara at wide receiver and All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas in the slot. The defense is clearly (and wisely) doubling Thomas, but the Saints use that to their advantage with this route combination. The play call has Kamara run a dig route toward the middle of the field while Thomas runs an out route toward the sideline. Similar to a mesh concept, the route combination would allow one or both of the players to find the soft spot in zone coverage or force separation against man coverage.

In this case, the route combination accomplishes both of these.

The Falcons are so committed to not letting Thomas beat them that the player initially covering him seems to vacate his zone, creating a massive void for Kamara to exploit. The crossing routes force separation in the coverage and Kamara finds the void where Brees easily gets him the ball. From there he is able to get downfield and make a 21-yard gain out of a seven-yard catch.

For the last piece of the puzzle, let’s take a look at Drew Brees.

Brees initially looks to the right side of the offense, toward the curls. Without being in the classroom with Payton and Brees, we can’t know how the reads were coached. It’s possible that the curls were his primary read, but its also possible that the crossing routes were the primary read.

In either case, the defense reacts to Brees’ eyes, holding coverage on the right and expanding the void in coverage in the middle of the field. Brees works over to the crossing routes on the left side of the field in short order and quickly sees Kamara running free. He takes advantage of a light pass rush and solid protection to hold the ball for an extra beat for Kamara to present an easy target before releasing the ball.

Concepts On Display

  • 11 - Personnel.
  • All-Curls concept.
  • Crossing route combination.
  • Defensive manipulation by the quarterback.
  • Using alignment to create mismatches.

Why I Like This Play

This is just a nifty play.

It takes two staples of Air Raid offenses and reworks it to fit within the structure of a more traditional West Coast format. The result is a pair of quick-hitting route concepts that provide easy answers for the quarterback against both man and zone coverages. It also serves to potentially create mismatches for the offense’s two best players in Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.

Now, why did I focus on this play from the Saints when I’m supposed to be writing about the Giants? Well, for one, it’s July and I wanted to take the time to appreciate good play design, wherever it comes from. But also, these would be an excellent play from which the Giants should take inspiration, if not steal outright. It is quick-hitting, which would help negate the opposing pass rush, as well as present the quarterback with a variety of easy-to-make throws.

And while the Giants no longer have a wide receiver who inspires respect (read: fear) like Thomas does, both Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram are (or should be) more dangerous weapons than Kamara and Ben Watson. It simply makes sense to look for ways to feature them in the offense in ways that are very difficult for the opposing defense to defend.

But mostly: This play grabbed my attention, I had to take a closer look at it, and we’re on Summer Vacation.