Football has always been about winning, at every level and in every era. Teams are always trying to find every possible edge to gain advantage over their opponents in the constant arms race between offense and defense, as well as between teams.
Teams not only look for the best players they can, players with rare athletic traits and skill at their positions, but they look for innovative ways to put them in position to create big plays. Offensive coordinators have long schemed ways to create separation for receivers or to create running lanes for playmakers in space.
Offenses have certainly come a long way from the old mantra of “three yards in a cloud of dust”.
Over the last several years we’ve seen offensive minds dig into every aspect of the play that are under their control to look for potential advantages. We’ve previously looked at personnel groupings, formation design, and ways coaches can look for insight into the defenses they’re facing.
Today we’re going to take a look at how coordinators can choose and sequence plays to manipulate defenses. Over the last few years we have seen coaches begin to make use of play sequencing — that is, a specific order in which they call plays to get a desired result — to influence defenses.
Now we’re going to get into one of the more fascinating ways in which offensive coordinators can act on the information they’ve gathered with play scripting and pre-snap motion.
Play sequencing, or the order in which plays or types of plays, are planned throughout the game has long been a part of football. A big part of defensive film study and game planning is gaining a sense of what plays a team likes to use in what situations. And offensive coaches have constantly used their play selection to try and gain a tactical advantage over the defense. For instance, offenses have consistently preached “establishing the run” in order to make play-action passes more effective.
While there’s no need to run the ball to make play-action passes effective — defenders will come downhill to honor their run fits from the very first snap of the game — play sequencing can be a potent weapon in the hands of a creative play caller. Modern offensive minds like Sean McVay and Kliff Kingsbury consistently use their play design and play calling in a similar way as a stage magician uses their hands, patter, and showmanship to distract their audience and create expectations.
We have seen an explosion in offensive production in the modern NFL, and the drive to use every aspect of the offense, from the players’ individual skill sets, to personnel selection, to play design, to even the order of plays called, is a big part of that.
We see good examples of play sequencing every Sunday, but I want to highlight one of my favorite examples in recent memory. We’re going to take a quick hop back in time to 2019, and the game between the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals.
Our first play is early in the game. This is the fifth play of the Cardinals’ second drive with 6:58 remaining in the first quarter, on first-and-10 from the Cincinnati 32-yard line.
Arizona lines up in 11 personnel in a 3x1 set with a bunch formation to the left. This is a pretty common look for the Cardinals and they had used a similar alignment on a David Johnson run two plays earlier.
The play starts with the running back going in motion from the backfield to the slot. The Bengals made frequent use of man coverage, and their shifts in response to the motion suggest that they’re in man coverage. Likewise, moves defenders in better position to be engaged by the blockers.
The play itself is a pretty quick and simple wide receiver screen to Larry Fitzgerald. The play is well-designed and executed, resulting in a pretty easy 9 yards for the offense. This isn’t the first time the Cardinals used a screen play — though their first screen failed thanks to some disrupted timing — but a quick-hitting and successful screen also serves the purpose of establishing screen as a play to be respected in the mind of the defense.
Next we’ll spin ahead to the Cardinals’ next drive and the final play of the first quarter. We’re in a similar situation as the previous play, with a second-and-10 from the Cincinnati 34-yard line.
Once again the Cardinals line up with that bunch formation to their offensive right, though this time they appear to be in their 10 personnel grouping. And once again we see the running back go into motion to the slot. This time, however, it’s to the left slot creating an empty-backfield look. The presence of the bunch set forces the defense to weight their personnel alignment to the offensive right, and away from the play side.
The offense uses a quick route combination which creates a natural rub on the play side. The running back runs a quick out route while the X receiver runs a post route. The receiver’s route clears out both the cornerback covering him and forces separation on the linebacker who motions to cover him from the slot.
This is another safe play for the Cardinals, and they pick up a quick and easy 7 yards to keep their offense moving and get into a manageable third down situation. This play also helps to remind the defense that they need to watch both the bunch set to the right as well as the other two skill position players to the left. The Cardinals force the Bengals to defend the whole field and show multiple plays out of similar looks.
Finally we come to the really memorable part of this play sequence.
This is later in the game, with 1:17 left in the second quarter. That being said, we are in a similar situation as in the first two plays, with a first-and-10 from the Cincinnati 37-yard line.
The Cardinals have continued to use their bunch set and show screen plays to reinforce those concepts in the mind of the defense. But this time they do something truly unexpected and attempt to cash in on both the defense’s expectations and how they have reacted to the previous plays.
Again we see the Cardinals line up in (what appears to be) their 10 personnel set with the bunch formation to the offensive right.
Murray quickly throws a lateral to Fitzgerald, apparently recreating the screen play from the their second drive. The Bengals quickly react to the apparent wide receiver screen, with six defenders converging on the 3 player bunch formation.
Meanwhile the X receiver and running back both run vertical routes, which the defense obviously honor, clearing two more defenders out away from the play. It would appear that the defense has learned from the previous plays and has all the offensive options covered.
The one player they don’t have covered? Quarterback Kyler Murray.
Fitzgerald quickly resets his feet and throws the ball back to Murray, in front of whom the Cardinals have set up a screen. There isn’t anyone around Murray and his teammates are in good position to block for him, so this play looks as though it could go for a big gain. However, the timing of the play is a bit off and Murray has to drift backward to receive the pass, both of which combine to limit this play to just a 5-yard gain.
But while the offense only made a modest gain on the play, we can see from the defense’s reaction how they were able to gather information, create expectations, and act on those expectations. While play sequencing like that isn’t necessary for an offense to excel, teams should be looking at every advantage they get to edge out opposing offenses.
It’s my belief that football is as much a game of resource management as it is physical will and skill. Execution and winning individual match-ups will always be important to winning a football game. However, so much of the work that results in a win takes place off the field in between games. Work done in building a roster, scouting opponents, self-evaluation, coaching, and scheming can all combine to set the players up to succeed on game day.
Teams are constantly looking for every edge they can find over their competition, and even seemingly innocuous aspects of the game like personnel selections, formation design, and play selection can give a team a competitive advantage. As much as innovative front offices are looking for market inequalities in acquiring talented players for low prices — such as exploring the trade market for veterans or claiming restricted free agents — coaches are looking for unexpected ways to gain an advantage.
That might be weaponizing the spacing between their players to force voids in coverage or traffic among defensive players. Coaches can use their play calling at the start of games to gather insight to inform future decisions. And as we saw here, teams who are able to run a variety of plays out of similar personnel groups and looks can sequence their plays to (almost) set up desired future reactions.
Of course, defenses don’t stand idly by while offenses turn over every stone for a competitive advantage. They are constantly reevaluating themselves as well, looking for new and innovative ways to employ their own athletes and counter new offensive trends.
While so much attention is paid to acts of incredible athleticism on game day, a closer look shows just how much everything that goes into a play — from the roster construction to the game plan to the individual play design — matters.