NFL Film Breakdown: How Stefanski is Using Zone and Counter to Power the Cleveland Browns Run Game

The Cleveland Browns might finally have things headed in the right direction and in large part that’s due to the run game that Stefanski has installed. The Browns rank 1st in the NFL with 942 yards rushing with an average of 188 per game. While Stefanski uses plenty of stretch zone and wide zone, his use of the counter scheme has really powered the Browns run game. With strong and athletic linemen and some very talented backs, Stefanski has helped establish a power, tough nosed, identity in the run game for the Browns. He’ll dress counter up in an infinite number of ways which helps create creases for Chubb and Hunt to attack and allows his linemen to drive block and wall off defenders on the inside. Counter is somewhat of a rarity in the NFL – at least as a bread and butter run play. Defenders are so fast and good at penetrating, they can often disrupt the play if the timing isn’t there. That’s why Stefanski is using his fullbacks, H-backs, and any other personnel he can find to make counter hit faster and more cleanly open up space.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

We’ll start off with their pure counter look before we dive into how Stefanski likes to add wrinkles and make his counter look slightly different from play to play. When they’re running their generic guard and tackle counter, they like to run counter strong so that they know that they’re going to typically be running at the 3-technique that is lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard which in turn, makes the down-block for the center easier because he’s now facing a 1-technique that is shaded on his backside shoulder.

In counter, the guard kicks out and the tackle is the one that wraps through and up-field. Usually if there’s an end, that’s the guy that’s left for the kickout but since the Browns here are in 12 personnel with two tight ends and the end is in a 6 technique head up with the first tight end, the guard has to be able to sift through and kick out the first outside man that appears that is trying to pinch down on the hole. That ends up being #58 at the Mike linebacker position. The guard wants to kick him up and out and then the tackle coming behind him, is meant to wrap up and through that kickout block and block the first enemy color. It can depend on the scheme and leverage of the end man on the line of scrimmage, but the tackle will usually look inside out as they wrap through.

Everyone else is down-blocking. The rest of the line trying to create a wall that prevents penetration and pursuit to the play-side. So, the two tight ends are down-blocking on a combo to the Will linebacker – meaning they’re leaving the Mike for the guard or tackle to pick up. The play-side guard and tackle are also double teaming and trying to climb but the defensive tackle here does a good job anchoring and preventing that. The center walls off, and the receiver in the tight split just tries to get in front of any backside pursuit and slow it down. Chubb does a good job of being patient here and riding his blocks up-field.

So, that’s counter at its core. A guard kick, with a blocker wrapping behind with down-blocks and double teams from the play-side. Let’s now take a look at the variations that Stefanski runs with the Browns – because there are quite a few. The simplest next variation is a guard and H-back pull. The Browns block it slightly differently on this snap than your conventional counter though. The kickout is now designed to be on the linebacker because the play-side tackle is hinging and blocking the defensive end. With no end man on the line of scrimmage to kick out, the pulling guard is now responsible for kicking out the play side linebacker. The H, who is replacing the role of the tackle, is looking inside to block the flowing backside linebacker. As a result, the counter hits a lot more vertically and tighter to the center of the field.

You can see comparatively how this is a harder block now for the center because they’re running counter weak, away from the H back. They’re doing this though because they want that open B gap on the play side. So, the play side block for the guard is much easier on their down-block on a 1 technique which helps prevent penetration. If that player was in a 3-technique, as we’ll see soon, the play would be run like a normal counter because they wouldn’t be able to down-block a potential 3 tech there and still be able to block the end. Because the guard isn’t kicking out the end, he has to know he has to be really tight to the line of scrimmage here because he can’t over run that linebacker that’s going to fill the B gap. It’s not perfect because he gets the up-field shoulder of the linebacker, but it’s effective enough to create movement and space. The H wraps around looking inside for the flowing linebacker, and Chubb again does a good job running tight to the wrap block and bursting up-field off of it.

As a comparison, you can now see that same concept run against the Bengals when they have a 3 tech to the play side. The left tackle now down blocks on the 3 technique, and the guard wraps around him. The Browns in both these cases used a jet motion – which, to be honest, they could stand to do a lot more of.

A lot of data is indicating that plays run with pre-snap motion have a higher expected point value on them than plays that don’t. Stefanski was notoriously bad with that with the Vikings last year and ran motion on only 5% of plays and it’s not much better this year. You can see though how impactful that motion is, because it forces the end man on the line of scrimmage out of the play. The guard is now able to wrap up to the linebacker, the H follows behind looking inside first, and while that player that the motion originally moved ends up making the play, it’s not until they’re already 10 yards downfield.

The Browns will also really change it up and mess with linebacker reads by pulling the play side guard instead of the backside guard and run counter with a fullback. It’s almost like a wide trap that can hit very fast with the kickout from the guard and then a more athletic pulling fullback coming across the formation to wrap through. All the staples of counter are there though. You have the down-blocks and climbs to linebackers creating a wall, you have the kickout, and you have the wrap through. Because they’re running at a 3-technique, the the fullback knows that the guard is going to kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOLS) and that the tight end is going to be able to easily climb to the linebacker based off of alignment. So, the fullback is now looking outside in and picks up the corner that’s walked down into the box. Everything works as schemed and Kareem Hunt is able to get a really nice gain off of it.

They’ll even occasionally have their fullback kick out the EMOLS and have the guard wrap through. Yet another small wrinkle to get to counter but make it look a little different.

Before going into the Browns last couple forms of counter, it’s important to look at their wide zone, because they work off of each other. Wide zone and stretch zone are essentially the same play and it’s largely semantics, but the Browns like to run them both. It gets linebackers flowing and creates cutback lanes for their running backs. They’ll run naked boots off of it and play action and it can be a super effective play for them.

This is an example of stretch zone. Really the defining characteristic for me, and the difference between this and wide zone, is the play side tackle and the size of horizontal steps by the rest of the line. If the tackle is trying to lead with and wrap his hips to seal the outside, I call it stretch. It’s a slight philosophical difference in how the play is run. You can see the tackle is working to seal the outside and allow the running back to turn the corner, which he does successfully. The rest of the linemen are taking hard horizontal steps and working to overtake and climb to linebackers to create hard flow and cutback lanes for the running back when linebackers over pursue.

The ball might not always go outside, but that’s the goal of stretch zone. They really want to create hard flow and stress the edges and are willing to be a little more vulnerable to some inside penetration to do so.

Compare this now to wide zone, where you have a similar alignment from the end man on the line of scrimmage, but now the tackle is just drive blocking him out of the way. He’s not as concerned with sealing the end and is okay with the play cutting up underneath him. The rest of the line takes slightly less aggressive horizontal steps but otherwise stay on the same tracks as the stretch zone.

The main reason I wanted to show some of their wide and stretch zone is to show how the flow works on the offensive line and what that causes in the defense. They’ll often throw in a fullback and have him lead block on their zone plays as well. He just takes the same track as if he was a running back, reading outside-in on the defensive linemen and then attacks the first linebacker to appear and acts as a lead blocker.

Now that we’ve seen how the Browns use their wide and stretch zone and even incorporate lead blocks with the fullback into it, we can go back to our counter. The Browns will run that same look with the outside zone lead, and now they’ll pull that fullback around on a counter action and wrap just like we were seeing before with the H. He takes steps forwards like he’s lead blocking, the down-blocks from the line look an awful lot like wide zone steps and reach steps, but now the guard and fullback are coming around on counter. The guard kicks out and the fullback wraps through.

This is the same concept but a great illustration of how this looks similar to wide zone and gets the linebackers out of position. Again, we have the fullback fake lead to counter wrap and the guard kicking out but take a look at all the linebackers taking a step the wrong way. Because they establish the wide zone and wide zone fullback lead, the linebackers react to it and are out of position. They get caught in traffic trying to scrape across, you have two lead blockers going the other way and there’s one poor corner who’s supposed to take on a kickout block from a guard. Not a recipe for success for the defense.

The Browns also have a guard center counter that they’ll run that can really force defenses to flow hard to the wide zone look and can also be read similarly from the running back perspective. It’s really the same concept we’ve been going over. Just now we have the play side guard and center working the counter action. Guard kicks out, center wraps through. It does make for some incredibly tough blocks on the backside though. It’s a big ask to  cut or wall off pursuing defenders so it’s been a little hit or miss for them but when it hits, it can hit big.

What’s cool is that when they don’t go for the cut blocks backside to prevent pursuit, the play can turn essentially into wide zone. If the defense over flows to the two pullers and the stretch and cutoff blocks, the running back can cutback to the backside just like we see in wide zone. Some really interesting little wrinkles and shows how the run scheme is all tying together for the Browns. The plays build off each other to look similar and keep similar concepts, they’re just designed with slight tweaks and differences.

To finish things off quickly, we’ll talk about that game winning end around to OBJ that the Browns called to beat Dallas because it works off these same concepts. It’s a gotcha play two rungs up the ladder. The Browns run wide zone, they run wide zone fullback lead, then they have the wide zone FB counter wrap play, and now here they are running the counter H-back look except the H-back is now wheeling back around and lead blocking for the end around to Odell Bekham Jr. They still pull the guard and give the Cowboys every indication it’s another one of their power looks and the linebackers buy it and get out of position. They ran it earlier in the game and got a good chunk out of it.

The Browns are grinding people out right now in the run game. Even though Nick Chubb is down for a few weeks, Cleveland just keeps on running it down people’s throats. They are pretty versatile in their game plan and will be heavy zone one week and heavy power and counter the next but the beautiful thing is that it all ties in together. Stefanski has found a way to mesh them into one identity. An identity of aggressive, powerful, and tough football. A team that can grind away your will on the ground and make things easy for Baker Mayfield and some absolute top tier weapons in Odell Bekham Jr, Jarvis Landry, and even Austin Hooper. If you can’t stop the run of the Browns, it’s going to be a long day. The Browns won’t stop running until you make them and if things continue like this, they may keep running all the way to the playoffs.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

NFL Film Breakdown: Reich Has Indy’s Run-Game Rolling

The Indianapolis Colts racked up 2,130 rushing yards on 4.5 yards per attempt and boasted the #3 ranked offensive line according to PFF. Marlon Mack went over 1,000 yards rushing and added 8 touchdowns on the ground. Their guard Quenton Nelson has the best two-year run-blocking grade and what used to be a weakness for the Colts has been totally revamped in the last few years. Nyheim Hines adds speed and a receiving threat out of the backfield with 320 yards receiving and the scheme run by Frank Reich since coming over from Philadelphia has really set the Colts up for success. Reich’s diverse run game creates lanes and different looks similar to the way that Shanahan does in San Francisco and the Ravens have done with Lamar Jackson.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Coming from the Andy Reid and Doug Pederson coaching tree, Reich differs from Shanahan and McVay mainly in his lack of pre-snap motions and shifts and using multiple schemes as the foundation of the run game. There definitely is still some window dressing but Reich largely attacks in the multitude of ways he asks his linemen to block. Many teams subscribe to slight variations of inside zone or outside zone. A few sprinkle in power and pin and pull schemes – Frank Reich does it all. The change in the Eagles run game without him has been the most telling as they have shifted to an almost exclusively outside zone team with Miles Sanders since he left.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll start with their use of the outside zone and stretch and then progress to the multiple looks that the Colts gave defenses. The big difference between outside zone and stretch is the aiming point and track of the offensive line and running back. In outside zone this is typically off-tackle. In a stretch scheme, the aiming point is the force defender outside – usually an outside linebacker or strong safety. The basic concepts are the same though. The 49ers run it a ton with Raheem Mostert as do the Raiders with Josh Jacobs. The Colts offensive line is impressively athletic and fast though and can really reach and seal on stretch looks to the outside.

Dallas Cowboys strong safety Jeff Heath (38) moves to tackle Indianapolis Colts running back Marlon Mack (25) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Here, the Colts run outside zone weak away from a tight bunch formation with #84, Jack Doyle and two receivers. This causes some alignment issues for the Jaguars as they’re now strapped to maintain a numbers advantage to either side. They have 6 on 5 to the strong side with a corner off the screen and 4 on 4 to the weak side with a middle field safety. Simple math says to run weak and that’s just what the Colts do. Since the defensive end is playing in a wide 9 technique, the play-side tackle doesn’t even try to reach and scoop him and instead drives him up and out of the play. Quenten Nelson #56 does a great job of fighting to get his hips square and keep the defender inside his frame which allows the running back to get outside. Once he’s outside, it’s the running back on the safety 15 yards down the field. This isn’t anything wild or schematically crazy. Reich just set up a formation to put the defense in conflict and then took advantage of the numbers.

When the outside does get walled off and that aiming point outside the tackle or force defender is taken away, all of the Colts’ running backs do a good job of reading and cutting underneath flowing defenders. Since the Colts are so effective at reaching and getting outside, it forces linebackers to scrape over the top more aggressively which then opens up some comeback lanes backside which is exactly why the outside zone scheme can be so effective for backs with good vision.

They’ll also run outside zone out of a split back formation which isn’t something you see a ton. The 49ers will do it with Kyle Jusczyk or Kittle at fullback or H but rarely will they line up in a true split back formation. This again gives the Colts the numbers advantage. There’s 4 defenders on 4 blockers and it’s the backside linebacker that ends up having to scrape across all the traffic and make the play downfield.

Sometimes, the Colts line doesn’t even need the formational help. They can straight up just be more athletic and seal off linebackers and defensive ends.

A small wrinkle to add to the outside zone look is to put in a split flow with the H back coming across to attack the backside defensive end. This allows for more space on cutbacks in case defensive end or outside linebackers stay tight to the line of scrimmage and hold contain.

If defenses are falling asleep on that backside crunch action, the Colts will just hand it off to the H coming across on a jet action.

A less common addition to that outside zone look that I absolutely love is the power pitch underneath it. The track of the running back stays the same but the play-side defensive end is left unblocked now and the backside guard pulls around as if he’s running power. If the unblocked defensive end comes upfield, the guard should go underneath him and lead up the field on the pitch option to the H. If the end stays flat or comes down the line, you give it to the running back. I’m also a big fan of shifting into a split back formation with one of their receivers Pascal to give a different look and to then hand it to him on the outside zone look with Ashton Dulin, another one of their receivers, being the pitch option.

You can also see another shovel option with a normal split back look and Jack Doyle running the shovel track.

The Colts also like to run pin and pull action with their athletic linemen. They’ll even trust smaller receivers like #14 Zach Pascal to wall off and pin defensive ends when they’re in tight splits close to the offensive linemen. This makes it tough for linebackers and defensive tackles to scrape across the pin and allows for bigger guys to get in space and block smaller defensive backs. The rest of the line runs a stretch and seal concept where they sprint to get leverage to the play-side and then wall off defenders almost like a punt return or kick return to one side of the field. They run it both with and without a receiver and it’s just as lethal with the tackle pinning as a wide receiver in a tight split

One of my favorite window dressing plays is a simple down-block concept that has everyone on the line attack and seal the first person to their inside shoulder with the H coming across on a crunch that works almost like a single person counter action. It was super effective and opened up gaping holes. Both times, Reich runs it off of a shift which forces the defense to communicate before quick snapping it and coming back across to the same side the shift came from.

Throw in some jet sweep or orbit motions and now you’ve got defenses totally out of position with linebackers tracking the jet and filling incorrectly which allows for the Colts offensive line to take good angles and open up huge holes for Mack and company to take advantage of. Watch the linebackers and see how many of them track and go with the orbit motion instead of staying play-side with the running back.

So now if you’re a defensive end or linebacker you can get stretched and sealed on outside zone, kicked out by an H on split zone, run underneath on a shovel option, or pinned by a receiver or an offensive tackle. It makes their jobs incredibly tough and gives false read keys for linebackers as well. Add some window dressing and flare on top of it and you’re asking a whole lot of every single one of the defensive players in the run game. Receivers can end up in the backfield, at H, motioned, released on play action, and the list goes on.

Reich has completely transformed the Colts’ running game. The diversity in looks that they give teams every single week make them difficult to prepare for and with a stable of capable backs in Mack, Hines, Wilkins, and now Jonathan Taylor taken in the 3rd round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Colts are going to be a tough team to stop on the ground. Throw in Philip Rivers to keep defenses honest and the Colts could absolutely win the AFC South. Frank Reich has built that offense to live off the run game. Now that they have a quarterback again, they should give the Ravens and the Chiefs a run for their money to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on YouTube for video breakdowns and Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

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Rookie to the Rescue? Film Analysis of Eagles RB Miles Sanders

The Eagles have been in must-win games for the last month, their season is hanging in the balance, and a rookie running back has come to save them. Miles Sanders has racked up 246 rushing yards, 151 receiving yards, three touchdowns, and has touched the ball 69 times for the Eagles in the last three games. None more important than their 17-9 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Over that span he has accounted for 31.4% of the Eagles yards, 50% of their total touchdowns, and 23.3% of their total points. He’s by no means a polished back at this point but let’s check out Miles Sanders and where he’s effective, struggles, and why he has a chance to give a spark to an Eagles offense that is looking to upset someone in the playoffs.

While Sanders is still a rookie and is making some rookie mistakes, there’s a lot to love about him and his ability to make people miss in small spaces. His 3-cone drill at the combine was #1 for running backs at 6.89 seconds and while his 40 was middle of the pack at 4.49, he certainly has the speed to gash defenses when he gets a crease. His athletic abilities are most impactful when gets the ball in space on swings out of the backfield, screen passes, or on outside zone plays where he can read outside-in. He also does an exceptional job with draw plays and anything that gets him on the edge. That being said, he has a really difficult time reading inside zone, double-team blocks, and setting up his blocks to create space. The Eagles don’t ask him to pass protect much and he can lacks aggressiveness and toughness in meeting a LB at the line of scrimmage which results in him being pushed into the QBs lap but he gets the job done more often than not. The Eagles run game isn’t very diverse which limits Sanders in some ways. There is almost no power or pin and pull concepts and they rely almost exclusively on zone running game.

We’ll start off with his problems and inconsistency reading inside zone, being patient, and reading flowing linebackers. Inside zone is a run play that emphasizes double teams with two offensive linemen double-teaming a defensive lineman before one moves off and climbs to get to a linebacker. This theoretically creates push at the line of scrimmage while also allowing linemen to get onto the second-level defenders. The running back has the option of staying playside on the dive (solid arrow), reading off the flowing linebackers for the cutback underneath the backside double team (dotted arrow), or bouncing (white arrow). By pressing the dive, in this case, off the left guard’s (#77) left hip, the linebacker #47 is forced to read the direction of Sanders. This gives time for the double team to work up to him and for the center #62 to get onto him for a block. Sanders reads that the playside dive is unavailable with the strong safety #20 coming in to fill and takes the cutback line for a positive gain.

Solid blue = original dive track, Dotted blue = cutback, Dotted white = bounce, Yellow = initial blocks, Orange = climbing off double team blocks

This is exactly how you’re supposed to run inside zone. It forces the linebackers to flow and think, your linemen get push up to the linebackers on the double teams, and the running back patiently takes what’s available to them. Unfortunately, Sanders does this with wild infrequency. For every time he makes the right read, he will look to bounce outside and get tackled for a loss or no gain. 

Here’s an example of Sanders working the same concept, but trying to bounce it outside when both of his double teams are winning and have created 3 yards of push downfield. His first read, the dive, is there but he lacks the discipline and patience to take the positive yardage in front of him.

Here is another case of Sanders going for the cutback instead of working playside and getting tackled for a loss. Kelce #62 and the left guard #73 have hooked and climbed to the linebackers on the playside to the left. Instead of pushing that hole, Sanders immediately looks to cutback instead of going for the dive.

Blue = correct read of double team, Red = actual track taken by Sanders

Here is another example of Sanders trying to bounce and lacking patience with the double teams on inside zone.

While watching Miles Sanders work the inside zone can be frustrating, when he hits it, he has exceptional burst in the open field. Where he really excels is on outside zone and stretch plays. Instead of reading inside out like on inside zone, outside zone emphasizes pushing to the outside as much as possible until each sequential gap is sealed by the defense. It can force the defense to over-pursue to the outside and opens up lanes underneath. The difference is night and day for Sanders who becomes way more decisive, explosive, and dangerous with his lateral quickness and ability to plant and get north and south.

You can see in the gif below how when #53 seals the outside on defense, Sanders cuts up underneath. He then progresses to the next block, where #47 again has outside leverage. Sanders once again cuts up underneath and falls forward for a seven yard gain. The outside zone stresses the defense and forces them to pursue to seal the outside which can open up lanes on the cutbacks underneath. Sanders continually excels at these plant and go concepts that utilize his lateral quickness and allow him to see the field while in space on the fringes of the field.

Giving Sanders space and creating an “open field” environment is what he thrives on. On inside runs when things are condensed and he can’t see the field, he tends to make poor decisions and has a tendency to try and bounce outside where he’d then be able to work the open field. You can see even on this outside zone play when he takes the track of running outside and it’s quickly sealed off, he’s much more powerful and decisive cutting up and towards the teeth of the defense than he is on inside zone plays.

Again , despite a poor initial aiming point, he is much more decisive and explosive off the outside zone blocking scheme with the offensive line stretching to the right while double teaming up to the linebackers — helping Sanders get outside and to the edge of the defense.

To utilize him in space, the Eagles love to run screens with him. They usually run a guard and center two man screen that gets Sanders out near the sideline with blockers in front of him where he can see the field and gash defenses.

Kelce #62 is an absolute monster in the open field. There’s not many centers that are even close to being as athletic as he is and that are able to get on small and shifty defensive backs. He’s exceptional on reach blocks for outside zone as well and he perfectly suits the skill sets of Miles Sanders. Sanders is great at reading blocks in space that are more lateral in nature. That’s why he excels both at outside zone and in screens, swing passes, and quick pitches. He can struggle taking the right initial track but as he gets more experienced, that should buff out.

On their screen versus Dallas, they ran a play-action before leaking Sanders into the flat. Instead of having Sanders pass pro, the Eagles will play-action him into the flats a lot to use him as a hot read for blitz pickup instead of having him meet a linebacker at the line of scrimmage in a scan protection on normal drop-backs. This way, you avoid putting a rookie running back who is still developing in blitz pickup in harm’s way and also get one of your best players in space out into the flats. Against Dallas, they use this and leak out both guards and their center to screen for Sanders off the play-action. Sanders does a great job reading in the open field and picks up 26 yards.

While Sanders definitely has some aspects to his game that need to be polished and worked on, he is an exceptional weapon in the open field and on outside runs. Used the right way, he can be a huge weapon for the Eagles as they attempt to write another Cinderella story and make a playoff run. With his ability to read pin and pull blocks, outside zone, and be effective in the screen game, he can damage a defense in multiple ways. The true test is whether he can become more decisive in the inside run game and gain the tough yards that the Eagles will need to be true contenders.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe here and let us know what you think. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen. If you feel like donating to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here.

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Opening Scripts and Exploiting the Defense

Seven plays, 75 yards, 4:21 off the clock, and 7 points. The Saints’ first opening drive touchdown of the year did a great job attacking the weakness of a defense and stacking plays that look different but are the same basic concepts.

Play-callers often come into games with a set script for their first drive. Usually it builds in different formations, personnel, and looks to 1. See how the defense adjusts and reacts to, 2. Attack weakness in the defense, 3. Show plays that will be built on later that look similar but that are different, and 4. Potentially catch the defense in a sub package of players that they feel like they can exploit on that drive. This set script can range anywhere from five to 15 plays that coordinators want to run at the beginning of the game to get their playmakers involved and test the defense.

The Saints huddle on 3rd and 12 vs. the Panthers on their opening drive in week 12 of the 2019 NFL season

Data shows that if you have no explosive plays in a drive (16+ yard pass or 12+ yards on a run), you have a 9% chance of scoring. If you have one explosive play that scoring probability goes to 49% and if you have two explosives, it goes up to 77% (Maddox & Slack, 2011). The Saints had two in their opening drive including the 26 yard TD run by Murray.

The best way to get explosives is by scheming up plays for your best players. The Saints started off doing just that. Murray, Thomas, and Kamara each had two touches on the drive and Tedd Ginn had a 30 yard gain on a scramble drill from Brees. What capped the drive is how they started with their first play though. The Saints came out in heavy personnel to try and force the Panthers to match with big bodies, something the Panthers are thin on with an already porous run defense.

The opening play featured a personnel group with three tight-end types and one running back – Latavius Murray. The Saints crunch their H, #86 across the formation in the hopes that it pulls a LB out of position and causes a loss of gap integrity. Instead, Luke Kuechly and the linebackers bump over, fill perfectly, and cause Murray to bounce right into a gap filled by Eric Reid (#25). The center and right guard are occupied by the defensive tackle #95 Dontari Poe and can’t climb to get an extra block. You’ll still take your RB in a hole on a safety any day though and Murray falls forward for three yards. You can see the blocking scheme and the tracks and fits of the LBs in the image below.

Saints first play from scrimmage. Hand-off to Murray for 3 yds (E.Reid)

Take a look at the great job of the Panthers linebackers all being assignment-sound and fitting perfectly in their gaps. Great team football. Murray makes a decisive cut and falls forward for what he can when he meets Eric Reid in the hole.

After going spread and hitting a short completion on a shallow crosser to Michael Thomas, the Saints are set up with 3rd and 3.

They dial up a pretty simple high / low concept with their two best players on the same side of the field Kamara (#41) takes a wider split in the backfield to enable an easier release and Michael Thomas (#13) is split to the single receiver side. With both of them on the same side and only three players on defense to guard them, one of them will be singled up and open a window for the other. With a pre-snap motion and no man follow, Brees knows that the Panthers are in cover two with two outside leverage corners up close to the line of scrimmage and two deep safeties. Now all Brees has to do is read #23 (the red triangle), the nickel corner over Kamara. If he comes up on Kamara’s hitch pattern right at the line to gain, he can throw the post behind him to Thomas. If #23 drops under the post, he can throw the sit for the first down. Super easy concept and read which was helped to diagnose with the pre-snap motion.

D.Brees pass short left to M.Thomas to NO 45 for 13 yards (E.Reid). Pass 12, YAC 1

Not the easiest catch, but watch the space it creates for Thomas when #23 comes down on Kamara to play the sticks.

Following their first down, they give it to Kamara for a 5 yard run. While the next play goes for 30 yards on a scramble drill, it also might be concerning for Saints fans. The Saints go with a two-back set and split Kamara #41 out wide hoping for a mismatch. The Panthers, however, are in nickel with an extra defensive back on the field to guard against exactly this type of thing. Kamara demands too much respect as a receiver to put a linebacker on him but this also lightens the box and makes it easier for the Saints to run. A double edged sword. The Saints use a short motion to try and create some leverage for Kamara on a corner-fade while sending Ted Ginn on a skinny post down the middle of the field right at #25 Eric Reid at safety. Ted Ginn does a great job of stemming his route outside and forcing Reid to turn his hips to the sideline to prevent against a fade. He then snaps it off to run a post and there’s absolutely nobody in the middle of the field with #33 the other FS coming down on the intermediate dig route. Drew Brees is looking right at him… and doesn’t throw it. It’s as wide open as you get in the NFL, he has a clean pocket, and all he has to do is throw it out down the opposing hash and let Ginn run under it. You can see in both the sideline and end-zone views that Brees is looking at him. Concerns about Brees’ arm strength have been a concern as he has gotten older and the Saints are only attempting about three deep passes a game which might make you wonder if Brees trusts his arm on deep throws anymore (Player Profiler, 2019). Despite the miss on the read throw to the post, Brees moves out of the pocket, Ginn works back towards the ball and they connect on the sideline for a 30 yard gain.

D.Brees pass deep left to T.Ginn ran ob at CAR 26 for 30 yards. Pass 30, YAC 0

Watch Eric Reid, the Safety at the bottom and how Ginn forces him to flip his hips and wins the middle of the field.

On the scoring play they go back to heavy personnel and actually bring in an extra lineman in addition to two tight-ends and a running back (Murray) but are essentially in the same formation. A couple plays earlier, Dontari Poe, who helped blow up the first play and hold a double team, game off with an injury. Wouldn’t you know it, the Panthers lined up exactly the same as they did on the first play of the game when faced with heavy personnel and wouldn’t you know it, the Saints ran essentially the same play right at McCoy’s replacement. This time, with a little window dressing, a shift, the right guard and right tackle win their double team and drive their man into Kuechly (#59) who reads the fullback and goes to fill the wrong gap. As a result, he can’t scrape over the double team and the cutback lane opens up. Murray reads the hole, cuts off his guards back, and explodes into the open field for a touchdown.

W.Clapp reported in as eligible. L.Murray right guard for 26 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Watch Kuechly #59 at MLB move to the right to attack the FB and designed gap for the play. Not sound defense though. #54 is already there to fill and with Kuechly out of position, it opens up a hole for Murray.

While nothing world-beating or terribly innovative, the Saints opening drive exploited every weakness it could find in the Panthers defense. As soon as a backup came in, they attacked, they overloaded one side of the field with two of their best players, they threw different formations and personnel at them, and they called plays to get the ball in their best players’ hands. All resulting in an opening drive TD for the Saints and a perfect a start to a division game as you can hope for.

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(2019, November 26). Retrieved from Player Profiler:

Maddox, D., & Slack, D. (2011). From Helmet to Headset: Coaching the R4 Expert System. Apopka, Florida: Certa Publishing.

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