You may have noticed a theme with our Summer School series this offseason.
Over the course of the summer of 2021 we’ve looked at the various ways in which offensive coordinators can use play design to gain tactical or strategic advantages over their defensive counterparts. We’ve looked at the strengths and weaknesses of most popular personnel groupings used by offenses at the NFL level. We’ve looked at just some of the ways in which coordinators can align their skill position players within those groupings, as well as how play designers can construct their formations to force defenses into certain looks.
All of these things are ways in which offensive coordinators can manipulate the defense and set their players up for success before the ball is even snapped.
Of course we always have to take the execution of the play into account, but clever play design can put defenses in uncomfortable positions and create opportunities for offensive players to exploit with good execution.
That being said, we’re going to lightly skip over the execution of individual plays for today’s edition of Summer School, and jump right to the meta game played between offensive and defensive coaches.
Coaches and players watch hours and hours of game tape throughout the offseason and every week in preparation for a game. And while they are certainly looking for clues to individual players’ technique and tendencies, they’re also looking for any hints or insights into the tendencies of the opposing team’s scheme or play caller’s tendencies.
While we each might like to think we’re unpredictable wildcards, everyone has their likes, dislikes, and tendencies formed by their personal experiences. NFL play callers are no different, and careful film study can reveal those tendencies. For instance, one play caller may like to follow an explosive passing play with a quick running play to capitalize on defenders who might not have recovered after sprinting down the field. Another coach might strongly favor a Smash concept when attacking Cover 2, or a defensive coach might commonly use a post snap rotation to Cover 3 when facing a certain alignment out of 11 Personnel.
No coach, no matter how good, can know with certainty what their counterpart is planning to do on a given play. However, with enough homework they can come to the game with a pretty good idea of what their opponent will do in certain situation and make some educated guesses. Every little bit of information is an advantage, and coaches are constantly looking for every advantage they can get to win a game.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at one of the ways in which coaches gather information about their opponents then use that to their advantage.
We’re going to start with one of the most common ways in which teams gather information on game day: Play scripting. Like so many aspects of modern NFL football, the practice of play scripting likely harkens back to legendary coach Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers.
Each week in preparation for a game, Walsh would create a script for his offense to start that weeks game. He would decide which plays his offense would run, and in what order, ahead of time. When Walsh started scripting the openings to his games he started with just the first five plays, but that quickly grew to a game script of the “First 15” and even 25 plays.
Lowell Cohn, who wrote the book “Rough Magic: Bill Walsh’s Return To Stanford Football” said to Sam Farmer of the LA Times of the practice, “He would test the defense in various ways. I know this because I would sit and watch film with him.
“When he was at Stanford, he showed me what he had done against USC his first year. I don’t remember the play, but he said, ‘I tested this guy.’ And what he was looking for in their secondary was, how would the cornerback react, what coverage would they rotate to help the cornerback? And now he knew it.”
“And he would come back to that cornerback and use that knowledge against USC. Or against the Rams or whoever.
“It’s not that he would forget which plays to call. There was a specific reason, a progression so he could learn about the defense and use it against them.”
Play scripting in action
The Los Angeles Rams Sean McVay has a reputation as one of the best offensive minds in the NFL today, and its well earned. His offensive scheme is built on forcing defenses into favorable match-ups (for the offense, that is) then attacking in a number of different ways from a single look. They like to get in one personnel set and run a variety of plays — both running and passing — out of that grouping and present a variety of looks for the defense.
Let’s take a look at the first four plays of the Rams’ 2020 game against the Dallas Cowboys, which were their first plays of the season, and see what they could glean from the defense’s response.
As we saw in our look at how NFL offenses use spacing to create matchups and opportunities for their offense, the Rams were among the teams to make the most use of condensed formations. They waste no time in establishing that trend and use a condensed formation right from the start here.
While the Rams are known for their usage of the 11 personnel set, they were actually one of the heaviest users of the 12 personnel set in 2020 with 29 percent of their offensive snaps coming with two tight ends on the field. That’s how they start off here with a look that suggests a power run attack with two tight ends and the wide receivers tucked in tight to the rest of the offensive formation.
But instead of running the ball, the Rams go with play action for their first play of the season (defying the dogma that teams need to establish the run for play action to be successful). The team also throws in some jet motion from wide receiver Josh Reynolds before faking the outside zone run to the offensive right.
However, QB Jared Goff hangs on to the ball, rolling to his left and finding WR Robert Woods for the short pass. While this is just a quick pass that gets Woods the ball behind the line of scrimmage, it winds up going for 20 yards and helps the Rams start their season with a touchdown.
It also gives McVay some important information on the Dallas defense.
The Cowboys bite hard on the Rams’ jet motion and play action, with the entire defense shifting to the right to defend the supposed run play. That tells McVay that Dallas doesn’t want to get beaten on the ground and are likely keying strongly on his tight 12 personnel grouping. Likewise, how strongly Dallas reacts to the play fakes and how they ignore Woods suggests that their discipline is a bit lacking.
The Rams keep a the same personnel grouping and formation for their second play.
This time the Rams do go for the running play, with an outside zone run to the left. As with the last play, the Rams make use of pre-snap motion with a jet sweep, and once again do so in the direction of the handoff.
This play only picks up 4 yards, which is good but not great for a running play. It does serve to keep the offense on schedule and moving down the field, but the Dallas defense does a much better job of defending here than on the previous play. But as nice as the positive yardage is, there is also value in what the defense’s response tells McVay.
We once again see Dallas key on the Rams’ running game, reacting with the flow of the blocking scheme. The second and third level defenders come downhill hard to honor their run fits and running back Cam Akers doesn’t have much room with which to operate. But we also see the defenders in the secondary bite on the jet motion at the the snap, pulling them out of position, at least somewhat.
For their third play, the Rams move into their customary 11 personnel package and dial up a bit more sophisticated play design to see how the defense reacts.
Los Angeles throws several concepts at the Dallas defense with this play, starting with some pre-snap motion, moving the tight end from the left side of the offense to the right. They’re once again using a condensed formation, but as we’ve seen, that doesn’t necessarily mean much.
The defense doesn’t react much to the pre-snap motion, strongly suggesting that they’re playing a zone coverage. The Rams add a second motion to their play, using more jet motion at the snap, and for the third straight time it goes to the play side. They once again use play action, as they did in the first play, and the defense confirms some suspicions by biting hard on the run fake. And as they did in the first play, the Cowboys’ defense largely ignores Woods as he motions across the offensive formation. That proves to be a mistake again, as Los Angeles sets up a screen for Woods and he is able to turn another short pass into a 39-yard gain and put the Rams in scoring position.
For our fourth play we’re back to first-and-10, and things should start to look pretty familiar by now. The Rams are in a condensed formation with their 11 personnel grouping still on the field.
For the first time the Rams don’t use jet motion to start their play, but they do use play action. Goff keeps the ball and rolls to his right in a mirror to the first play of the drive.
The Cowboys’ defense again reacts poorly to the misdirection and leaves Woods wide open on the offensive right as Goff rolls out and delivers the pass. Woods is able to turn upfield and pick up a quick nine yards to set the Rams up with a first and goal from the 6-yard line.
This play also all but confirms that Dallas is more concerned with defending the run than the pass, that they react poorly to misdirection, and that lapses in discipline can be used against them. As good of an outcome as this play has on the field, it’s a big success for McVay as well.
Three plays later, the Rams are in the end zone with a touchdown to start their season. They also came away from the drive with several insights into how the Dallas defense will react to their offense. While they might not have been the determining factor, those insights likely played a role in helping the Rams secure a 20-17 win to start their season.
As with the concepts behind the West Coast Offense and so many of Walsh’s innovations, scripting plays quickly caught on and it’s now a common tactic used by offenses to learn about their opponents during the game.
Teams will make sure that their scripted plays are among their best and most practiced plays, ensuring that they’re well-executed on game day. As Cohn states, scripted plays act as a control for the offense, allowing them to accurately read the defense’s responses to certain concepts and situations. And while scripted plays allow coaches to evaluate individual defenders, it also allows them to evaluate how defensive coaches will respond to the offense’s concepts.
As useful as the insights into how players respond to offensive plays, insight into how the defense will respond schematically is even more important for the offensive coordinator. That information can — and is — used to inform the coach’s decisions throughout the rest of the game.