The NFL's Most 'Unstoppable' Plays

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterJune 28, 2015

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"That's unstoppable."

It's a phrase we often hear on Sundays in the NFL when an offensive coordinator has called a specific play that perfectly exposes a defense based on field position, game situation and the projected matchup.

From the back-shoulder fade route to option schemes, these play calls test technique and eye discipline and create the ultimate one-on-one situations, leaving defenders looking for answers.

As a former defensive player, I don't believe anything is truly "unstoppable" when you play with technique and vision. However, after going through the film, I've put together a list of five schemes that challenge my own theory due to the consistent results and big-play opportunities these schemes create.

Patriots' Red-Zone "Iso" Slant to Rob Gronkowski

The Patriots do an excellent job of creating isolation situations for Rob Gronkowski by removing the tight end from the formation. This forces the defense to walk out a linebacker, safety or even a cornerback in coverage against the size, power and athleticism of the Patriots tight end.

At times, this looks too easy. With Gronkowski aligned as a wide receiver in the deep red zone, a safety has to try to take away the slant. Once that ball is snapped, Gronkowski consistently whips defensive backs on the release to give quarterback Tom Brady a clear throwing window to rack up another touchdown pass.

Breaking Down the Scheme: The Patriots will remove Gronkowski in a variety of formations, but the one I want to focus on is the "Dakota" alignment. This is a 3x1 formation out of Posse/11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) with Gronkowski removed as the backside "X" receiver (split end).

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That creates a "trips" look (3 WR) to the open side of the formation, while Gronkowski is isolated on the other side against a defender in coverage. Now, Brady has a true one-on-one matchup to target with the league's top tight end running a basic, one-step slant against both Cover 1 (man-free) and Cover 0 (blitz-man) schemes.

"Unstoppable" Factor: Gronkowski is the NFL's top weapon in terms of creating favorable matchups because he can create leverage inside on the slant and shield the defender from making a play on the ball.

This allows Brady to target the upfield shoulder of the tight end once Gronkowski establishes inside position. And given the field position, the defensive back (or linebacker) in coverage doesn't have time to recover.

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In the Patriots' playoff matchup against the Ravens, Gronkowski aligned as the backside "X" against safety Will Hill in a red-zone situation. Hill attempted to take away the slant by his alignment (inside shade), but he failed to slide his feet at the snap and get hands on the tight end. That opened the door for Gronkowski to expose the poor technique of the Ravens safety and put six points on the board.

Gronkowski is too big and too strong. Even with the proper technique from a defensive back in coverage, this basic slant caters to the skill set of the tight end. And he's going to win that matchup almost every time.

Cowboys' Back-Shoulder Fade to Dez Bryant

Inside the red zone, the Cowboys and quarterback Tony Romo can maximize Dez Bryant's rare talent on the back-shoulder fade. This concept highlights the strength, ball skills, body control and leaping ability of the NFL's top wide receiver in a situation where he can initiate contact and separate to finish.

One of the toughest routes to defend at any level of the game, the back-shoulder toss gives Romo the opportunity to deliver the ball away from the defender's leverage while Bryant plays to the offensive-oriented rules of the pro game.

Breaking Down the Scheme: As long as Bryant is on the field and aligned on the bottom or outside of the numbers, you know the fade is coming. This alignment creates room for Bryant to run the fade while also forcing the defensive back in coverage to play for the slant (adjust to inside shade/head-up).

Bryant can use a straight outside release or show the quick stutter move at the snap (forcing the defensive back to widen his feet and lunge on the jam) to create separation off the release.

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I said above that Bryant will "initiate" contact, and that's exactly how it plays out. However, instead of extending the arms (which should be called as offensive pass interference), Bryant is a master of creating enough contact to separate from the defensive back while Romo puts this ball on the back shoulder (as we see above against the Eagles).

That's when we see the unique body control and ball skills of Bryant take over as he adjusts and finishes (once again) with a touchdown.

"Unstoppable" Factor: For starters, the refs are going to eat the flag in this situation. Regardless of how much defensive backs get in the ear of the refs (usually in the form of pregame alerts to Bryant's push-offs), this example below against the Texans is a "no-call" situation in which both players are using their hands. That's why Bryant attacks the defensive back.

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Plus, the ball placement is key. With defenders taking away the slant by alignment, they have to drive to the inside hip and play up through the arms of the receiver at the point of attack. However, this ball is thrown to the back shoulder—away from their initial leverage.

Given the contact, ball placement and skill set of Bryant, the Cowboys wide receiver has victimized plenty of defensive backs on the back-shoulder throw. It's almost automatic when Bryant is allowed to separate at the point of attack and catch the ball away from the defensive back in coverage.

Packers' "Sting" Route to Jordy Nelson

The Packers, like every offense in the NFL, have a "shot play" in the game plan that allows them to use play action and max (eight-man) protection to take a shot over the top of the defense.

For Mike McCarthy's team, that play (or concept) is called the "sting" route. Jordy Nelson uses a deep double move to sell the 7-route (corner) and break back to the post for Aaron Rodgers to target. The classic Cover 2-beater puts a huge amount of pressure on the deep-half safety to stay square against speed up the field.

Breaking Down the Scheme: Using the playbook diagram, we can see the release, stem and break point for the "sting" route against a standard Cover 2 shell.

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This double move breaks at 15 yards down the field on the "dino" stem. The receiver has to sell the break to the 7-cut in order to get the safety off his landmark (top of the numbers) and to open his hips. That will create an opportunity to break back inside to the post with no immediate help.

However, drawing it up and executing the route are two different things. That's where Nelson, Rodgers and the Packers' pre-snap look come into play.

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With Nelson in a reduced split (tight to the core of the formation), the Packers use closed-side play action with eight-man protection. This gives Rodgers time for the route to develop while Nelson gets a clean, free release off the ball to get down the field (with speed).

That ultimately creates a one-on-one matchup with the safety rolling to the deep half. And that's where Nelson exposes the poor technique (or the guessing) by the safety biting on the "dino" stem.

"Unstoppable" Factor: For a route that shows up with multiple teams, why choose the Packers? Because of Nelson and his ability to sell the double move at full speed without wasting movement at the break point.

Nelson forces safeties to take the bait while opening up the door to the post. And once that happens, it's time to strike up the band and play the fight song—because Rodgers isn't going to miss down the field. Here's another example of the Packers' "sting" route against the Vikings and safety Harrison Smith.

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Nelson forces Smith to widen, open the hips and lose leverage back to the inside. Instead of staying square and continuing to gain depth (relying on the cornerback to sink under the 7-route), Smith jumps the double move. That's trouble when Rodgers is about to unload the ball.

I see Smith as one of the top safeties in the NFL, but Nelson spun him around like a top on this play. This is a nightmare situation for a deep-half safety in Cover 2 or Cover 6 when the play action and max protection give both Rodgers and Nelson time to eat up the top of the secondary.

Seahawks' Triple Option

When we talk about the option schemes in the Seahawks offense under coordinator Darrell Bevell, the focus shifts to the read-option with quarterback Russell Wilson "reading" the path of the edge-defender through the mesh point. The idea there is for Wilson to keep the ball or hand off to running back Marshawn Lynch on the dive (inside zone).

However, the Seahawks' version of the triple option (which was adopted from Gus Malzahn's playbook at Auburn) is one of the tougher schemes to stop because it requires the secondary to play with discipline in their option responsibilities. Get lazy with your eyes, and this is an explosive play waiting to happen.

Breaking Down the Scheme: In terms of the triple option, I always point to the classic "veer" scheme out of split backs, "I" backs or the wishbone (dive, keep, pitch). However, in this scheme (a spread-offense concept), the quarterback can pass the ball for the third option (replacing the pitch). Think of the read-option with the wide receiver coming into play on the hitch or the fade.

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As you can see in this example from the Seahawks-Panthers tape, Russell Wilson can hand off to Lynch (dive), pull the ball (QB keep) or throw the quick fade (pitch) against Carolina's Cover 2 shell. If the safety fails to read the release of the No. 1 receiver (run/pass key in Cover 2) and top the fade, Wilson can pull the ball and "option" the cornerback.

"Unstoppable" Factor: It's the big-play ability. That's one of the reasons I love option football at every level of the game. It forces defenders to play with discipline in their responsibilities. Make a mistake, and the offense will produce an explosive gain.

Back in Week 1, the Seahawks executed this option scheme against the Packers when Wilson pulled the ball to "option" the cornerback. Defenders wondered if they should sink with the release of No. 1 or attack the line of scrimmage with Wilson getting to the edge of the formation. Was it a run or a pass?

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With the cornerback breaking downhill to play Wilson, the Seahawks quarterback can dump the ball to wide receiver Ricardo Lockette. That creates a one-on-one situation in the open field in which the receiver beats safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to put a touchdown on the board.

I do believe this is a "game plan" play for the Seahawks, and it can be looked at as a novelty on the NFL stage compared to the college game. However, the opportunity is there to expose the secondary when this scheme is executed properly with Wilson handling the ball.

Steelers' Counter OF with Le'Veon Bell

Everyone wants to chuck the ball around the field in today's NFL, but there is no substitute for a dominant run scheme that hits defenders right in the mouth and caters to the vision, acceleration and balance of Bell in the Steelers playbook.

The Counter OF isn't something new or exotic. In fact, it's one of the core power run schemes in the NFL, with counter action in the backfield and two blockers pulling to the play side. However, I'm picking this scheme because of how the Steelers utilize their personnel and alignment to attack the edge of the defense while opening up a running lane for Bell to push the ball upfield. 

Breaking Down the Scheme: The Counter OF can be run out of one- or two-back sets with the back-side guard and fullback/H-Back pulling to the play side. This allows the guard to kick out the primary force while the fullback/H-Back pulls up through the hole to block the initial second-level defender (linebacker or safety).

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However, in Pittsburgh, the personnel and alignment allow the Steelers to dictate the blocking scheme while forcing the cornerback to set the edge. Run to the left side, and this creates an opportunity for the Steelers to pull both guard David DeCastro and tight end Heath Miller (aligned off the ball as an H-Back) with Bell waiting for the blocks to develop. 

It's an old-school power scheme that creates a favorable blocking matchup (DeCastro against a cornerback) with Miller in a position to pick up the linebacker or safety filling downhill.

"Unstoppable" Factor: Bell plays a major role in the success of the Steelers' Counter OF scheme because he is so patient with the ball. That allows DeCastro and Miller to pick up their blocks before Bell showcases his rare burst to get up the field and through the second level of the defense.

But going back to the personnel and alignment, this sets up perfectly as the cornerback has to squeeze down, take on DeCastro and reduce the running lane. That sounds great until DeCastro pulls to the edge. This is when the cornerback usually widens or retreats (opening up a running lane) due to the mismatch at the point of attack. Take a look at the Bengals' Adam Jones attempting to set the edge below.

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Old-school power running schemes won't come up often in discussions when talking about "unstoppable" plays in the NFL. That's boring stuff in today's fantasy football world. But given Bell's skill set, the athleticism of DeCastro to pull to the edge, the blocking ability of Miller and the offensive alignment, this is one of the toughest plays to defend.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report.

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