Highlighting the Strengths and Weaknesses of Every NFL Offensive Scheme

Matt Stein@MatthewJSteinCorrespondent IIJune 26, 2013

Highlighting the Strengths and Weaknesses of Every NFL Offensive Scheme

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    With every offensive scheme in the NFL there are going to be strengths and weaknesses. 

    Some offenses are going to have more strengths than weaknesses while other offensive schemes are no longer used in the NFL by many teams. Of course, a team's personnel makes a big difference in just how strong or just how weak an offense can be.

    Today we'll highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each offensive scheme.

Smashmouth Run Game

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    There aren't many teams that run more of an old-style, traditional smashmouth run game anymore. With the majority of NFL teams going to more of a pass-first offense, this type of offense has been left in the dust.


    The obvious strength of this type of offense is the fact that it eats time up off the clock. The idea is for the offensive team to wear down the defensive team to where it can then pick up huge chunks of yards.

    It also keeps the defense of the smashmouth team fresh due to long stretches it spends on the sidelines instead of on the field.

    Another strength to this offense is how it opens up the play-action pass. Teams that run over and over again can lure linebackers and safeties towards the line of scrimmage to open up the vertical passing game.


    With a smashmouth run game, an offense needs to have a truly dominant offensive line in order for it to be successful. That is a weakness because not too many teams put together a run-first offensive line with great physicality.

    Another weakness is that this type of offense doesn't have the ability to score quickly. It is also easier for defenses to predict what is going to happen with greater frequency.

The Pistol

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    The Pistol offense is a rather new offense in the NFL, made popular by in the influx of athletic quarterbacks into the league. Chris Ault, former head coach at the University of Nevada, is often called the "Godfather" of the pistol offense.


    One strength of the pistol offense is the fact that the quarterback is closer to the line of scrimmage than in a normal shotgun formation. This means that he can read defenses better and get the ball in his hands quicker.

    The pistol formation also makes running the ball easier than in a shotgun formation. The running back is closer to the line of scrimmage and therefore has a better chance of picking up positive yards.


    The biggest weakness to the pistol offense is the possibility of wrong decisions being made. You see, even though the quarterback has the ability to read a defensive scheme better, it doesn't mean that he will always make the right read.

    Indecisiveness can ultimately kill the pistol offense before it even has a chance to make a positive impact on the game.

Vertical Passing Game

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    Former coach Don Coryell is the man who made the vertical passing game famous during his string with the San Diego Chargers. His offense was known as the "Air Coryell" offense and was the first offense to really push the ball down the field with the passing game on a consistent basis.


    With the vertical passing offense, you constantly have at least two receivers running down the field to make a play. This opens up the possibility for a huge gain on nearly every single play.

    Another strength is that it really opens up the running game due to the fact that defenses have to be so cautious about the deep ball. With linebackers and safeties playing deep, a running back can consistently pick up chunks of yards in a vertical passing offense.


    Since the quarterback is looking down the field in this type of offense they can often have to wait for a play to develop. This makes them susceptible to a high number of sacks over the course of a season.

    Another weakness of this type of offense revolves around the personnel a team has. In order for a team to truly be successful with a vertical passing game they need a strong-armed quarterback, receivers with the ability to adjust to the deep ball and tight ends who can work the middle of the field successfully.

    Not many teams boast all three of those keys to the vertical passing game. 

West Coast Offense

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    The West Coast offense is one of the more popular offenses in the NFL. It was really made famous by head coach Bill Walsh during his days with the San Francisco 49ers.


    There is no question that the biggest strength to the West Coast is the actual speed of the offense. With short, accurate passes, the offense has the ability to continuously put pressure on a defense with completion after completion.

    This causes a defense to quickly get worn down and feel defeated. The continuous quick passes eventually opens up the offense for a number of big runs or big pass plays.

    Another strength is the simplicity of the playbook for a quarterback. Walsh was famous for only running a handful of plays over and over again during the course of a game.


    Due to the fact that the West Coast offense is a pass-first offense, there is always the possibility of quarterbacks getting sacked. Even if a quarterback isn't sacked, they can often get hit numerous times during a game due to how much time they can spend out of the pocket on designed bootlegs and roll-outs.

    The West Coast offense can also produce a number of turnovers. If cornerbacks can get a good read on a quarterbacks eyes they can jump in the passing lanes of the short passes and cause interceptions.


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    There aren't many teams currently in the NFL that use a run-and-shoot offense. In fact, one of the only teams to use the run-and-shoot offense on a consistent basis is the New York Giants.


    The key to the run-and-shoot is creating mismatches. With the offense rolling out so many wide receivers, defenses need to put four or five defensive backs on the field that are capable to succeeding in coverage.

    Not many defenses can do that which allows a wide receiver or tight end to get an advantage and make a play. There is also the possibility for receivers picking up extra yards after the catch due to the defense being so spread out.


    Much like the West Coast offense and vertical passing game, the run-and-shoot has the potential to be dangerous to a quarterback. Without any tight ends or extra blockers, defenses that blitz can easily get pressure on the quarterback.

    Another weakness is the relatively ineffectiveness that this type of offense has in the red zone. Without the room to spread out a defense, a team can struggle to put points on the board when close to the end zone.

The Spread

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    As NFL teams become more pass-happy, we see more and more of them switching to a spread offense.


    Much like a run-and-shoot offense, the spread offense is all about creating mismatches.Teams will spread four or five receivers out wide in order to get a favorable matchup between a receiver and a linebacker or safety.

    The spread offense also has the ability to create vertical passing games with more frequency due to spreading out the defense. Another strength for this offense is the fact that a team can easily run a no-huddle offense in the spread offense.

    Since the personnel on the field rarely changes, teams can go without a huddle in order to put more pressure on a defense.


    Once again, sacks are going to be a major weakness of this type of offense. We saw it last year with the Green Bay Packers when they allowed the most amount of sacks in the entire league.

    With defenses currently becoming obsessed with finding dominant nickel and dime cornerbacks, they'll be able to more easily cover the spread offense.

Spread Option

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    Much like the spread offense, the spread option is an offense that is designed to spread the field with numerous receivers. The big difference in this offense is having a quarterback that can run.


    By spreading out the defense, a team running the spread option's biggest strength is once again creating mismatches. However, these mismatches are not only taken advantage of by receivers, but now they are also exploited by a quarterback who can successfully run the ball.

    With the defense being spread so thin with so many extra cornerbacks on the field, there is always the opportunity for a huge gain. All it takes is one missed tackle or one missed assignment and the offense has now picked up major yards, if not a touchdown.


    There's always the cause for concern when you have a running quarterback leaving the pocket. One big hit on him and there is a good chance he could end up injured.

    This also brings up the possibility of turnovers becoming more likely due to quarterbacks and receivers lower on the depth chart frequently handling the ball.

Read Option

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    Few offensive schemes are becoming more popular than the read option. Where the read option differs from the spread option is that the quarterback reads the defensive end right after the snap. 

    Depending on what the defensive end does dictates whether the quarterback is going to run the ball or hand the ball off to his running back.


    Obviously, the biggest strength of this type of offense is the ability to pick up huge chunks of yards on a consistent basis when they make the correct read. With the defensive end out of the picture, the quarterback or running back only needs to beat a few people to pick up huge yardage.

    The other strength of this offense is that it really opens up the passing game. With defenses needing to be extremely aware of a running quarterback, they'll often be forced to put more defenders towards the line of scrimmage.

    This opens up passing plays down the field for the offense and the chance for big plays through the air.


    The biggest weakness to this type of offense is going to be the possibility of injuries. Just look at Washington Redskins' quarterback Robert Griffin III. He took a continuous beating during his rookie season and ended up paying dearly with serious injuries throughout the year.

    Another weakness to this offense is that defenses have been spending so much time during the offseason figuring out how to slow it down. Much like the Wildcat offense of a few years ago, it wouldn't be too surprising if NFL defenses had figured out how to slow down the read option completely in the next year or two.

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