The 2014 NFL Playoffs are upon us. That's either exciting if you're a fan of a playoff team (because, awesome), depressing if you're not (because all you have to look forward to now are mock drafts and fantasy baseball), or maybe a little bit of both to everyone (because they're turning off all meaningful football soon).
Either way, whether you're planning on watching your team take the field this weekend or just planning on watching a team you don't really even care much about, I thought I'd try to offer a little primer on a few offensive schemes you may see some of the eight Wild Card round teams use. Maybe it will make things more fun.
First, my marquee matchup:
(6) New Orleans Saints at (3) Philadelphia Eagles
Chip Kelly's offense sure doesn't work in the NFL, just like we all thought would happen, huh? His weird college read-optional-zoney offense thing only led the NFL in rushing in its first full season at 160+ yards per game, over 200 total yards more than the second place Buffalo Bills. His gimmicky style only helped Philly finish fourth in the NFL in points scored with 27+ per game. It wasn't just a run game, either. No team had more 20-yard+ pass plays. No team had more 40-yard+ pass plays. Only Peyton Manning's Broncos, Philip Rivers' Chargers and Drew Brees' Saints had a better team QB rating on the season.
If you're not a fan of stats, here's maybe the simplest way to gauge the effectiveness and efficiency of Chip Kelly's offense in the NFL: the Eagles tied with the Broncos for best in the NFL with 6.3 yards per play. With Nick Foles at quarterback, just like we all thought would happen.
The basic crux of Kelly's system is making the defense defend the entire field. There are many ways that he accomplishes this, but one that I want to highlight is the outside zone package.
The outside zone package
Kelly blends read-option principles with packaged play principles with zone blocking and power-O blocking and downfield passing and screens and bubbles and ... well, he just does a lot of cool stuff.
The outside zone read is a change-up to Kelly's inside zone, which is really his bread and butter. The outside zone exploits defenses that cheat to the middle of the field to take away runs in that area -- in other words, it discourages stacking of the tackle box. It also puts speedy, shifty running backs into space, where they can do their thing. LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas excelled in Kelly's system at Oregon and there's probably not a better-suited back for it in the NFL than LeSean "Shady" McCoy.
Below, you see a great example of how Kelly uses this outside zone play to spread the field and make the defense account for plays going to either (any) direction. This is a simple idea, but not easily executed and surprisingly taxing on a defense.
First, prior to the snap, DeSean Jackson goes into motion at a dead sprint across the formation. In this case, the Bears are in a man-coverage scheme so the cornerback to his side follows. This takes one defender out of the play immediately. Second, the read-option fake handoff, even for a relatively slow pocket passer like Nick Foles, holds two defenders because they must respect his ability to run with the football. Even if he gets 4 yards, that hurts you. Because the fake holds the two backside defenders, the left tackle can just immediately release downfield and seal the linebacker.
Fourth, just to spice things up a bit, Kelly runs a pulling scheme up front with his guard and center. Because of the motion and read-option mesh point fake, it's three on three at the point of attack, and when Philly's blockers all hit their blocks, McCoy is home free.
The cool thing about this scheme is that you can package it into several plays. See below -- the Eagles ran pretty much the exact same play later in the game and instead of handing off to McCoy (which the defense clearly thought was going to happen), Foles swings it to Jackson.
In this case, the corner has not followed Jackson across, and the numbers on the outside are even. Big gain.
Of course, there are wrinkles therein that you can incorporate. Instead of sending Jackson in motion, for instance, you can release a tight end into the flats where Jackson would have ended up above. Below, against the Cowboys in Week 17, Philly does this.
As McCoy runs through the mesh point with Foles, you can see defenders keying in on his angle. When Brent Celek releases into the flats, it's essentially three offensive players against two defensive players. That's the math you like.
This play went for six points.
Against the Cowboys, later in that same matchup, you can see what the fake screen pass option to Jackson, along with the mesh-point fake handoff, does to the defense. You effectively take defenders out of the play and off their pursuit (make the defense defend the whole field), and allow your running back more space to run.
Same concept, but in this case, Foles handed off. This play went for six.
Obviously, the Saints defense has its hands full. Rob Ryan's unit presents an interesting matchup for Philadelphia. Of course, even though I heap all this praise on Chip Kelly, I would be remiss to remind you that Sean Payton is one of the preeminent offensive minds in the game. If he's not beating you downfield with one of his speedster receivers, he's running it between the tackle with Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram, tossing it out to the ever-explosive Darren Sproles or throwing it up for Jimmy Graham.
I'm just really hoping for an all-offense barnburner, a 63-54 game, or something like that. These teams have the offensive firepower and creative scheming to do so.
One surefire way to create points is to generate "explosive plays." Gauging by 20-or-more-yard passes, as I stated above, the Eagles finished the year with an NFL-best 80. The Saints, no slouches themselves, finished third (one behind Peyton Manning's Broncos) with 67. Brees and New Orleans tied for second in the NFL with 15 passes of more than 40 yards. So, they like to chuck the rock downfield.
You can't just, you know, actually chuck it downfield over them there mountains and hope for the best. How do you scheme to get guys open?
Key on Marques Colston in the slot
This is simplified, of course, but when you send five receivers out into routes against a defense with seven defenders in pass coverage, you're going to get a one-on-one matchup or two downfield. The key for the quarterback is figuring out quickly which player is going to be in that one-on-one situation, and throwing it decisively.
In the play below, I believe that WR Marques Colston, aligned inside in the slot, is the linchpin for this play. By overloading the set to the right, Brees dictates some matchups, and knows pre-snap that the safety is his primary read. With four defenders against three receivers to that side, once that safety commits to Colston running the slant, Lance Moore's defender has lost his help over the top.
Protection holds up, and Brees lets it fly.
Essentially, with three vertical routes in the same area, the idea is to make the deep safety, with his eyes in the backfield, choose which route to defend, then throw it elsewhere.
There are few quarterbacks with better deep-ball accuracy than Brees, and the way he moves and resets in the pocket so deftly allows him to buy time for long-developing plays like this to happen.
Having major targets like Colston and Jimmy Graham gives the Saints' other receivers more chances in one-on-one situations and that's why Brees does such a good job of spreading the wealth. However, Colston and Graham get so much attention for a reason -- they're very big, reliable targets, particularly over the middle.
Below, you can see that the Panthers blitz with five and keep four deep with a two-under look. The two New Orleans routes to the right-side flank draw the attention of the deep safety to that side, and Colston is able to slip behind the linebackers for a big gain.
It's maybe a copout to say "watch for Marques Colston, one of New Orleans' best receivers, to make a difference," but the way that he tilts coverages from the slot (along with Jimmy Graham), really opens up a lot for their other receiving options. Something to watch.
Also on the docket ...
(5) Kansas City Chiefs at (4) Indianapolis Colts
I think it's safe to say that the Chiefs offense runs through Jamaal Charles. A legitimate MVP candidate this year, Charles amassed nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage (1,287 rushing, 693 receiving), and led the Chiefs to a possibly surprising 11-5 record and a playoff berth.
We know what Charles can do on the ground, and I've already broken down what he can do in the screen game, but one key area that I think will show up this weekend in the rematch of Week 16's game against the Colts is what Charles can do as a legit pass-catching back.
The option route
This is actually a pretty simple concept. The Chiefs run four vertical routes on the outside, Jamaal Charles stays in briefly to block but then works his way through the line to become a receiver. While I obviously cannot be sure what the actual play call is, to me, this looks like Charles has an option route here. Depending upon the defensive alignment of the linebacker or safety in coverage, Charles can either cut outside or run a slant upfield toward the middle.
Much like a screen, I think that this play is actually meant to go to Charles as the primary.
When the linebacker plays inside leverage right down the middle of the field, Charles cuts outside with plenty of cushion, receives the pass and breaks a tackle to pick up 9. The stutter-step juke at the end results in a comically bad tackle attempt by the linebacker, who then takes out his own teammate like a bowling ball. Unfortunately, the deep safety to the play side is there to make the tackle.
The Chiefs ran a very similar play later in the game on a third-and-17, and Charles was able to pick up about 15 to put Kansas City in a manageable fourth-and-short situation (which the team converted).
The basic difference in the execution of the play here, though, is that when Charles sees the linebacker in outside leverage, he runs a slant. After making the catch, he picks up some quality YAC, with the help of some downfield blocking.
He's pretty good.
The Colts have an absurd 15 players on injured reserve, including their top receiver, Reggie Wayne, and a guy who looked like burgeoning star in the pass game, Dwayne Allen. As a result, Andrew Luck has had to turn to receivers with less experience such as LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen and surprisingly, Da'Rick Rogers. These players have actually done well for themselves. Considering their inexperience, it makes sense that Colts OC Pep Hamilton has gone about calling smart route combinations to scheme some of his players open. That showed up against the Chiefs in Week 16.
Whether it's man coverage, a matchup zone or straight zone, there are things you can do to confuse and confound a defense. In the case below, it looks like a matchup zone defense in the slot and on the outside, and when T.Y. Hilton motions inside, the responsibilities for coverage get muddled.
Because it becomes difficult to quickly tell which receiver is the "outside" guy and which is the "inside" guy, you see two Chiefs defensive backs stick to Hilton, and Rogers comes free underneath.
Note the routes run by Hilton and Rogers -- both wait until the last second to time their stems -- and sell it well that they're both looking to run deep routes.
(6) San Diego Chargers at (3) Cincinnati Bengals
These playoffs are just rife with interesting stories. The Philip Rivers Renaissance in Ken Whisenhunt's offense is up near the top of the list for me. After being mostly left for dead after last season, Rivers rebounded to the tune of 4,478 yards (fifth in the NFL), 32 touchdowns (fourth), 8.2 YPA and an 105.5 QB rating to lead his team to a 9-7 season and a playoff berth.
While studying their offense this week, one thing I noticed was that the Chargers like to utilize variations of the "levels" concept. See below.
Versions of the levels concept can be used against man or zone and with San Diego's diverse group of pass catchers running routes from several platforms -- outside, in the slot or from the backfield.
As the name suggests, you run two or more receivers on the same side at different levels of the defense and the quarterback can quickly go through progressions to find the open man. In the Chargers offense, which is characterized by versatile personnel, Rivers has at his disposal: Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal at receiver; Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green at tight end; and Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead at running back. The amount of combinations you can get from this group is what makes it dangerous and hard to scheme for.
The Bengals have one of the best defenses in the NFL, but their offense is also somewhat underrated for its explosiveness. With A.J. Green, Gio Bernard and the rest of Andy Dalton's weapons, this is a team that can score points in bunches (sixth most in NFL in 2013). In fact, the further I get into this paragraph, the more excited I get about this game in particular.
Attack the safety
I wanted to find something clever about the Bengals offense to break down, but I just kept coming back to how damn good A.J. Green is. He's really, really good. He's the type of player that opposing defensive coordinators lose sleep scheming for. That's why my key for the Bengals this week is going to be Andy Dalton NOT throwing to A.J. Green.
Because teams tilt coverages so much toward Green (and because Dalton is rather fearless in throwing it up for him at any spot on the field), it leaves opportunities elsewhere for Cincy's other playmakers to make plays.
See Marvin Jones below against the Ravens in Week 17:
Against three-deep coverage, Andy Dalton made the Ravens pay several times for cheating to Green's side too much.
See below: That's Green at the top, and Andrew Hawkins at the bottom. Hawkins picked up 38.
(5) San Francisco 49ers at (4) Green Bay Packers
Colin Kaepernick and the Niners pass game has seen a resurgence over the second half of the season with the return of Michael Crabtree, which in turn made Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin that much more dangerous, but for the team that threw the ball fewer times than anyone else in 2013, pounding the rock is going to be its key to the game. Particularly because from what I've heard, it's supposed to be, like, -1,000 Kelvin out ... or something really cold. Pound the rock. That's what they'll do.
The Niners run game is really cool. There, I said it. Jumbo sets with eight offensive linemen. A 295-pound fullback. Pistol formations. Read option. Designed power runs from the quarterback. Pulling guards. Power-O. The Niners are the men who built the Eiffel Tower with metal and brawn.
Their guards will swallow your linebackers whole.
Also, inexplicably, their offensive linemen are athletic enough to do this. I'm sure this will be a big part of the game plan.
As for the Packers, points will not come easy against a very stout Niners defense, but you might've heard, this Aaron Rodgers guy is pretty good. I don't anticipate that the Green Bay run game will explode against an elite front seven like that of the Niners (though Green Bay's run game has been very impressive this year), so I would expect Mike McCarthy and company to supplement this with the quick passing game. Specifically, by getting Randall Cobb matched up with San Francisco's absurdly good middle linebackers.
Cobb's versatility as a receiver and running back who can act as a joker in the offense allows Green Bay to find matchups it can exploit. Harkening back to these two teams' matchup in Week 1, watch Cobb run a double-move to slip past NaVorro Bowman for a first down. In my opinion, these types of throws will be essential to Green Bay's game plan this week -- the Niners trust their two elite middle linebackers to run in coverage on just about anyone, and that's a challenge that Green Bay may need to take head on.
In general, look for Cobb to be a focal point on the inside, with Jordy Nelson on the outside.
All in all, an amazing set of matchups. I can't wait to see and break down these classics above, plus some of the schemes and wrinkles that teams still have up their sleeves.
Photo credits: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports; Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports; John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports; Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports; Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports