In this installment of the "NFL 101" series at Bleacher Report, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen breaks down schemes and execution for two-point conversion attempts at the pro level.
Click here for the previous version of NFL 101 on trap coverages.
Going for a two-point conversion in the NFL creates some challenges from an offensive perspective. The field shrinks, throwing lanes are drastically reduced and defensive coverages and schemes take a major step forward in aggressiveness.
With the back of the end zone acting as a 12th defender, safeties can tighten their initial alignment, cornerbacks can be more willing to bump wide receivers on their releases and second-level defenders can come downhill hard to hit the run game right in the mouth.
So, how do you manage these two-point situations as an offensive play-caller, knowing there will be pressure looks, stacked run fronts and defenders in the secondary who are willing to jump routes given the limited space on the field?
Using the All-22 tape, let's put together our own two-point playbook with a series of play calls and concepts that highlight personnel, alignment, scheme and specific one-on-one matchups. Here's a rundown of what we will cover:
—Movement Passes (Sprint/Boot)
—Jumbo Play Action
—Option Series/QB Power
—WR Fade Routes
Moving the quarterback is an excellent way to create throwing lanes and counter zero-pressure or man-pressure on a two-point attempt. Get the quarterback to the edge of the pocket, improve the sight lines and give him a primary read underneath on a high-percentage throw, with a receiver or back working away from coverage. This is a quick toss, an immediate target for the quarterback when executed properly.
The Swap Boot is very similar to a standard boot scheme, but in this situation the receiver or back running the flat route works behind the line of scrimmage. This forces the defender in coverage to fight through traffic to match the route.
Here's an example from a Broncos two-point play using "Posse/11" personnel (three receivers, one tight end, one running back) against the Dolphins, with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders shifting to the backfield to give Denver a split-back look out of the shotgun.
After the shift, Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes has to "travel" (or match to his coverage). This allows the Broncos to set up a pick off the run action in the backfield, with Sanders releasing (behind the line of scrimmage) to the flat.
The idea is to show the open-side run, release Sanders to the flat and set a pick, with receiver Wes Welker running an inside curl from a reduced split. Create the traffic off a mid-direction look with an easy read for quarterback Peyton Manning.
Take a look at the play:
Check out Welker's release and the pick he sets on Grimes. That knocks the cornerback off his path to match the flat and opens up the entire right side of the field for Sanders.
If Welker can't set the pick, the reduced split and the misdirection in the backfield will create enough traffic to force the cornerback to bubble over the top. Remember, this is a short field. Angles, false steps and such are the difference between a defensive stop and a receiver walking into the end zone.
I love this play as a two-point option or deep in the red zone, and we see it across the league from teams such as the Eagles and Chiefs. Make the defender work through the wash to match the flat. That's tough work.
Sprint: Flat-7 (Corner)
There are two routes defenses have to prepare for out of the sprint series: Flat-7 (Corner) and Flat-Curl. And there is a key pre-snap alert when the running back shows a "chowed" alignment (outside leg of the tackle). He is there for a reason: to seal the edge of the formation with the quarterback getting to the edge of the pocket.
Using another example of Manning and the Broncos against the Dolphins, let's take a look at the sprint pass (Flat-7) out of "Posse/11" personnel, with Miami showing a zero-pressure alignment (no safety in the middle of the field).
As I said above, the sprint and boot game allows the offense to counter pressure. That's what we see in this example with the running back in a "chowed" alignment and Manning on the sprint action.
I really like this concept because the Broncos are also in a position to set a pick for the flat (a common theme with Denver) as wide receiver Demaryius Thomas takes a hard, inside release before stemming to the 7 cut. This creates an opportunity for Welker (aligned in the slot) to break to the flat off the release from Thomas with Sanders running the over route from the back side of the formation (third option in the route for Manning).
Now check out the play with Manning targeting Welker on the flat:
With the slot cornerback playing from an inside shade (zero-coverage technique), Welker can release up the field and break away from the leverage position off the defender. Even without the pick from Thomas, Welker can separate to the flat while Manning creates a throwing lane off the sprint action.
This is a simple, effective way to target the flat by moving the pocket and running a route that takes advantage of the expected zero pressure defenses will show given the field position/game situation.
Jumbo Play Action
Every team runs play action out of its "jumbo" package, and it works almost every time because defenders fail to play with eye discipline.
As we talked about above, second-level defenders (and defensive backs) are ultra-aggressive in goal-line situations and on two-point plays. So, why not take advantage of that and set some bait with play action? Force them to stick their eyes in the backfield and then target the flat, 7 or run an inside pick play. All it takes is one false step to the line of scrimmage and it's time to put six (or two) points up on the board.
The Flat-7 off play action is the No. 1 route of "Jumbo/23" personnel (three tight ends, two running backs) at every level of the game as it gives the quarterback a simple two-level read to dump the ball to the flat or hit the tight end on the 7 route.
Here's an example from the Patriots-Chiefs matchup this past season that I would put in the two-point playbook. Reduce the formation, show the run action and force the defense to play its coverage responsibilities:
Kansas City creates an old-school Power I look with defensive tackle Dontari Poe aligned at fullback. From a defensive perspective, this is a high run alert with the Chiefs putting the big boy in the game to lead up through the hole.
However, it's all window dressing for Alex Smith to use play action and target either the H-back bursting to the flat or tight end Travis Kelce on the corner route.
As you can see, Smith uses the play action, gives some ground and then identifies Kelce running the 7 route. With the Patriots matching two defenders to the H-back in the flat (coverage bust versus play action), Kelce has room to separate to the corner of the end zone.
It doesn't take much to make a mistake in this situation and leave a receiver open for a touchdown or two-point conversion.
Jumbo Hi-Lo Crossers
Another option out of "Jumbo/23" personnel is the Hi-Lo Crossers concept off play action. This creates inside traffic versus both goal-line zone and man coverages with the box stacked and plenty of bodies inside the numbers. Again, reduce the formation, test the eye discipline of second-level defenders and force the defensive back to chase from an outside leverage position.
In this example from Bears-Packers, Green Bay runs the Hi-Lo Crossers concept (two-level read with underneath crossing routes) versus a goal-line man-coverage look from Chicago:
This is the same route we see out on the field with "Posse/11," "Ace/12" (two receivers, two tight ends, one running back) or "Regular/21" (two receivers, one tight end, two running backs) personnel, but the formation is reduced and the play action is added to the mix. At the snap, quarterback Aaron Rodgers shows the ball to running back Eddie Lacy on the closed side play action as the Packers want to create inside traffic and suck those linebackers up to the line of scrimmage.
Here's how the play unfolded:
Rodgers targets the tight end running the intermediate crossing route against cornerback Kyle Fuller as the rookie is playing from an outside leverage position. But don't forget about the underneath crossing routes in this concept, which can create an absolute mess of bodies with linebackers attacking downhill and natural pick situations that can spring a tight end open.
These Jumbo personnel routes are excellent calls in a goal-line situation, but I also see them as top calls for two-point plays because of how much stress they put on the defense to play with eye discipline and coverage responsibilities. Plus, it gives the offense the option of running the base Power game (Power O, Counter OF, Lead) with two backs on the field and a collection of blockers up front.
NFL offenses love pick routes because they put quick, open targets to the flat. Yes, they are "illegal" plays, but how often do you see the refs toss the flag when a receiver sets a pick inside to clear an open path to the flat?
Because of that, these pick plays show up every week on the film inside the deep red zone, and they set up as great calls given the amount of man coverage defenses play in two-point situations.
Let's start with an example from Bears-Falcons, with Chicago running a classic Spot Route from a bunch alignment (offset back plus a stack formation). The "spot" is a curl-corner-flat combo that plays out like a pick play to get the offset back open to the flat.
Out of the stack alignment, Brandon Marshall runs the 7 cut and Alshon Jeffery releases inside on the curl. Here, Jeffery sets the pick on the linebacker in coverage versus the offset back with the X receiver (aligned in a reduced split) coming back across the formation on the shallow drive or shallow crosser.
The "spot" route is a staple in NFL playbooks and an ideal call for a two-point play because it allows the offense to pick off a linebacker in coverage to hit the flat on a quick read for the quarterback.
There are multiple ways to set a pick from a bunch alignment, but I look at one of the Broncos' top concepts because they clear out the cornerback and also set and inside pick to get No. 3 (count outside-in) open to the flat with open field to work with.
Here's an example to check out from Chiefs-Broncos, with tight end Jacob Tamme releasing to the flat out of the bunch alignment:
The Broncos release the No. 1 receiver on a wide stem and then push the route up the field. That's the clear-out to remove the cornerback. However, the real story on this play is the No. 2 receiver on the short, inside release. That might be called an attempt to run a quick curl, but we all know better—it's a pick.
No call here as the inside pick allows Tamme to release to the flat with no defender to match the route. Almost too easy, right?
Yes, this is a touchdown pass from the 5-yard line, but how about installing the route on a two-point attempt? That's stealing if the refs are afraid to toss the flag.
The read-option, triple-option, Inverted Veer, speed-option, etc., can be viewed as "novelties" in the NFL, but I like the option series based on game situation. If a team is deep in the red zone or on a two-point-conversion attempt, running the option forces the defense to play assignment-sound football and declare quickly on the edge (quarterback, dive or pitch).
Here are four different examples of option concepts that will put some stress on the defense to play its responsibilities:
Read-Option (QB Keep)
The Seahawks' read-option scheme is at the top of my list because it is a one-read scheme with quarterback Russell Wilson keeping the ball or handing off based on the initial path of the edge defender.
In this example against the Giants, Wilson has to read the edge defender through the mesh point (quarterback-running back exchange). If the edge defender crashes inside, Wilson will keep the ball. However, if the edge defender stays up the field (or slow plays the read), Wilson can hand off to the running back on the inside zone.
Here is the play:
With the defender closing inside on the dive (running back), Wilson pulls the ball and gets to the edge of the defense. That's it. Don't make it more complicated than it has to be. A one-read scheme allows the quarterback to "read" through the mesh point and then put this ball across the goal line.
Read-Option (RB Dive)
From the same Giants-Seahawks matchup, we can look at the dive with running back Marshawn Lynch getting downhill off the mesh point.
With the Giants dropping a safety down on the edge (late), Wilson has an easy read here to hand off to Lynch with the defender sitting outside. This turns into a base zone run for Lynch as the veteran cuts back to find a wide-open running lane into the end zone.
Yes, NFL teams can get more advanced than this by using an "arc" block to account for a possible "scrape exchange" technique (defense wraps linebacker around to play quarterback), but we have to look at the situation. If this is run as a two-point attempt, keep it simple and put the ball across the goal line.
I pulled a play from Seahawks-Chiefs because I like the idea of using the speed option (with a counter step) as a two-point possibility. This allows the quarterback to "option" the edge defender with a pitchman.
Here's the play with Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith getting to the edge of the formation to "option" Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin with running back Jamaal Charles on the pitch.
With any speed option, you want the quarterback to attack the edge defender. This forces the edge player (Irvin) to declare. Is he going to play the quarterback or stay up the field to take the pitch?
In this situation, Irvin closes on Smith, who pitches the ball to Charles for a score.
I'm putting the quarterback "power" into this category because of the option look the offense can give based on the alignment and the counter step.
Think of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and his size/athletic ability on the power play with the offense pulling the back-side guard and kicking out with the offset back. No different than a "Power O" scheme up front with the quarterback pushing the ball through the running lane.
The Panthers dress this up by shifting a wide receiver to the backfield and showing an option look to the open side off the counter step from Newton (wide receiver simulates the pitch). That allows the guard to clear on the pull, and it also can force the second-level linebackers to step to the open side.
This example isn't on a two-point attempt, but it sets up to be a solid option given the blocking scheme.
TE 'Iso' Routes
The tight end position in today's game is about creating favorable matchups, and that doesn't change on a possible two-point attempt. Remove the tight end from the formation, force the defense to show its cards based on the matchup and then exploit the one-on-one coverage.
Think of Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce, Jason Witten, Greg Olsen, Jordan Cameron, etc. These are guys who can use their size and athleticism to create leverage to the ball and then go take it away at the point of attack on the fade or the slant.
The fade is the ultimate weapon at the wide receiver position (which we will get to), but it also applies to tight ends who can box out linebackers, safeties and even cornerbacks in a one-on-one situation because of the ball placement and their ability to make the play at the highest point.
Here's an example from the Bears-Patriots matchup in a 2x2 formation with New England shifting Gronkowski out wide to isolate the tight end. With the Bears playing Cover 1 (man-free), linebacker Shea McClellin adjusts to the shift and walks out into coverage.
This is an easy read for quarterback Tom Brady to identify the matchup he wants with Gronkowski lined up against McClellin. With the linebacker playing from an inside alignment, Brady can target the upfield shoulder of the tight end on the fade route.
That's exactly how you expose a matchup issue for the defense given the size, talent and playmaking ability of Gronkowski. Put it up and let the big man go finish the play.
The tight end can be isolated to run the slant from the back side of a 3x1 alignment (called a "Dakota" alignment) or by shifting the tight end out of the formation to take advantage of a pre-snap defensive look.
From the perspective of a two-point attempt, the slant is a great call as it allows the tight end to win to the inside and then use his frame to essentially "box out" the defender at the point of attack.
Here's the "Dakota" alignment from the Saints tape with Jimmy Graham aligned as the back-side "X" receiver.
NFL offenses will usually run a front-side "tare combination" (clear-out fade, flat, stick-out combo), but the focus is on the one-on-one matchup with the tight end. In Cover 1, the free safety won't help on the play (too much ground to cover given the field position), and in Cover 0 there is no help inside with the defense sending pressure.
Take a look at this play from Broncos-Patriots, with Gronkowski shifting from the formation. That forces linebacker Von Miller to adjust and walk out in a one-on-one matchup against the New England tight end.
This play is over on the release when Gronkowski wins to the inside. Even if Miller recovers and drives to the upfield shoulder, Gronkowski has now established inside leverage and is in a position to shield Miller from the ball.
A basic rule in this two-point playbook we are creating today: If you have a top-tier tight end, get him the ball by creating a true one-on-one matchup.
One-Step Fade/Back-Shoulder Fade
Playing the fade in the red zone is tough work for any defensive back in coverage because he has to stay in-phase (on the hip), locate the ball and then go up through the hands to finish.
That's not easy against wide receivers such as Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, Kelvin Benjamin or Jordy Nelson. These guys have the size, strength and leaping ability to climb the ladder and make the play.
Plus, we have to factor in the ball placement, as quarterbacks in today's game love to target the back shoulder on the fade with ridiculous throws that are almost unstoppable at times.
As a two-point play, I love the idea when you have an elite wideout who will test the technique of a defensive back in coverage.
I call this a one-step fade because the quarterback gets the ball out quick with a short drop and then a toss to the corner of the end zone.
Take a look at Nelson against Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller on the one-step fade in the 2014 matchup at Soldier Field.
As a standard rule, defensive backs will align with an inside shade (take away the slant by alignment) and react to the fade (drive to the inside hip of the receiver, get the head around). However, Fuller stops his feet on the attempted jam, and that allows Nelson to get up the field and create leverage to the corner of the end zone where Rodgers delivers a perfect ball.
In this example from Colts-Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger targets rookie Martavis Bryant on the one-step fade.
Here, Roethlisberger puts the ball up and lets Bryant climb the ladder. With the defensive back working to recover, and failing to get his head around, he has to try to "play the pocket." However, the Steelers rookie simply goes up and takes this ball away.
One of the main reasons the back-shoulder fade has been so tough to defend is because of the receiver's ability to initiate contact. It's never called, and it allows receiver to push off, gain separation and then catch the ball away from the defender's leverage.
Dez Bryant is one of the best in the game at executing the back-shoulder fade because of his strength at the point of attack.
Check it out:
With Bryant initiating the contact against the cornerback in coverage, he can create enough separation to give quarterback Tony Romo a window to throw this ball. And with the throw put to the outside shoulder, there is no chance for the cornerback to recover or make a play.
We often see this up in Green Bay, with Rodgers putting the ball on the back shoulder of Nelson for points, but I also like the idea of the Cowboys using Dez Bryant on the back shoulder on a two-point attempt when he can draw contact, separate and catch the ball away from the defender. That's stealing.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.