NFL 101: Introducing the Basics of the 4-Minute Offense

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterJuly 4, 2015

Bleacher Report via NFL

In this installment of Bleacher Report's "NFL 101" series, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen breaks down the schemes and execution for the four-minute offense at the pro level.

Click here for the previous version of NFL 101, which broke down the two-minute offense.


Grind the clock, move the sticks and close out the game.

A game situation that is often overlooked on Sundays, the "four-minute offense" is one of the most crucial aspects of pro football when protecting a lead in the fourth quarter. This is an opportunity for the offense to take control of the line of scrimmage and physically whip the opposition up front while the seconds methodically tick off of the clock.

Forget about bringing out the punt team and putting the game on the shoulders of your special teams and defense. Instead, run the ball (over and over again), work the clock, use high-percentage throws and even sprinkle in some play action while forcing the defense to burn timeouts.

This is big-boy football, and there is nowhere to hide with reduced formations and downhill run schemes. The game is played inside a phone booth and the toughest guys are going to win when everyone in the stadium knows you are going to run the ball.

In the four-minute offense, ball-carriers are coached to stay in bounds (sacrifice more yardage to get on the ground) and the majority of the route concepts feature quick, inside breaking throws with the boot action coming into play to expose overaggressive edge defenders.

Today, let's break down some key aspects of the four-minute offense in the NFL using the All-22 coaches tape and highlight the schemes that will allow you to move the ball, eat the clock and get out of the stadium with a win.

Defensive Philosophy vs. 4-Minute Offense

Before we get into the specific offensive concepts that show up in the NFL game during a four-minute situation, I wanted to quickly hit on the defensive rules (or philosophies) to conserving time and getting off of the field.

Here are the notes from my playing career in the NFL to give you a look at how the defense approaches a four-minute situation when they have to get the ball back for their offense with some time to work with:

• Match personnel and attack line of scrimmage

• Swarm tackle; strip the ball

• Cutback, boot, reverse: Hold all edges

• Win in gap control

• Use crowd noise

• No penalties

• No celebrations

• Force the ball-carrier out of bounds

• Know the signals for timeouts if clock is running

• Review the "take a dive" signal ("scuba" call)

Big-Boy Run Schemes

The Power O, Counter OF, Wham, Iso, Stretch and Inside Zone. Those are your core power and zone run schemes in the NFL. Nothing exotic or creative here in a four-minute situation. These are old-school schemes with the offense using their base run personnel groupings: Tank/22 (1WR-2TE-2RB) and Heavy/13 (1WR-3TE-1RB).

Like we talked about above, there is nowhere to hide in this situation, and the offense would love nothing more than to run the ball consistently. Chip away with four-yard runs, continue to move the chains on third down and then do it again and again and again until the clock runs out. Wear down the defense and make them quit. 

Let's take a look at a couple of examples from the tape:

Steelers vs. Titans: Counter OF

With the Steelers protecting a 27-24 lead, Todd Haley's offense started the four-minute drill around the seven-minute mark of the fourth quarter—and leaned on the run game to close this one out in Nashville.

Pittsburgh did show some inside zone, but the top concept on the tape during the game-ending drive featured running back Le'Veon Bell and the Counter OF scheme: a classic power play with Bell taking a counter step and the Steelers pulling the H-back/fullback and backside guard to clear out a running lane.

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Even with the Steelers blocking down, kicking out the edge defender with guard David DeCastro and pulling the H-back/fullback up through the hole, they can't account for the safety filling downhill.

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That's where Bell takes over, as he has to make the defender miss and push the ball up the field. Check out the move from Bell against the safety. This is really smooth, a nasty cut from one of the league's top backs on a scheme that absolutely dominated the Titans in the final six minutes of the Steelers' win.

Physical, downhill football to close out the game.

Packers vs. Vikings: 2-Back Stretch

When you watch the Packers work the four-minute drill, Aaron Rodgers will target Jordy Nelson on the hitch route against off coverage or throw an inside cut to Randall Cobb from the slot alignment. However, at the core of the Packers' game plan in this situation is running back Eddie Lacy on the zone schemes.

During Green Bay's 24-21 win over the Vikings in Minnesota last season, the Packers leaned on the two-back stretch scheme out of Tank/22 personnel with fullback John Kuhn on the lead block, the offensive line showing zone-blocking technique (step play side) and Lacy finding daylight to move the ball vertically up the field.

Here's a look at the final run during that four-minute drill, with Lacy finding a crease to make one cut before advancing the ball.

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This run allowed the Packers to kneel on the ball, kill the clock and wrap this victory up (as you can see from Rodgers' reaction). And although Mike McCarthy's team will show some power concepts out of the gun in a four-minute situation, it's Lacy's running style (power, vision and balance) that creates opportunities for the Packers to wear down defenses and run the clock into the ground.

High-Percentage Throws/Routes 

During a four-minute situation, you don't want your quarterback throwing the deep out or comeback or trying to force the ball into a tight window. Instead, look for inside cuts or a quick read to the flat in 3rd-and-2 through 3rd-and-6 situations. Get the ball to your receivers, tight ends and backs in the field of play where they can advance the ball past the sticks and keep the clock running.

Think about base route concepts here, the same stuff you see on Friday nights in high school such as Slant-Flat, Curl-Flat, All-Slants and the Flat-7 with the corner route clearing out room for the flat receiver to catch the ball in space.

Take a look at the examples below:

Steelers vs. Falcons: Curl-Flat

In the Steelers' final drive to close out the Falcons in Atlanta, Pittsburgh used the Curl-Flat concept to beat Cover 4 (Quarters) with Antonio Brown running the intermediate curl against off coverage.

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With No. 2 running to the flat (to remove the curl defender), Brown can push up the field and create separation at the break point. This allows the Steelers wideout to come back downhill to the football with the cornerback sitting high and to the outside and the safety driving on the throw (safety/cornerback bracket No. 1 with no vertical threat from No. 2).

This was a quick read for Ben Roethlisberger to look up his top receiver and move the sticks—while the clock continued to run. Make the catch, get down and go back to the run game.

Broncos vs. Patriots: Flat-7

Even with a two-score lead, NFL teams will still go into their four-minute offense to bleed clock and ensure a win. That's what the Patriots did during their win over the Broncos in Foxborough using the Flat-7 route (and a pick) to secure a first down late in the game.

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With Tank/22 personnel on the field, the Patriots use pre-snap motion to bring tight end Rob Gronkowski back across the formation to the open side of the field. However, the key here is the alignment (or split) of the X receiver. This is called a "nasty" split (tight to the core of the formation) and it's done for a reason—to pick the linebacker in coverage.

At the snap, the X receiver takes a hard, inside release to essentially cut off the linebacker and force him to either go under the stem or "bubble" over. That allows Gronkowski to burst to the flat while creating a quick, easy read for quarterback Tom Brady to target the tight end.

This is an easy way to run a base concept in a four-minute situation while also ensuring there will be a quick read for the quarterback off of the inside stem/pick from the wide receiver. 

Giants vs. Rams: All-Slants

During the four-minute drill in the Giants-Rams matchup in St. Louis, New York was up 10 and looking at a 3rd-and-4 situation. The call? Go with Posse/11 personnel (3WR-1TE-1RB), align in a 3x1 formation and run all slants (four slant routes).

That's a safe calla smart call, reallyto create one-on-one matchups where the wide receiver can win at the snap, create leverage inside and finish the play to move the chains.

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However, this set up perfectly for Eli Manning and the Giants because of Odell Beckham Jr.'s production throughout the game. That forced the Rams to roll their coverage to Beckham in a critical game situation to take away the Giants' top receiver, thus generating a true one-on-one for Rueben Randle on the back side of the formation.

As you can see in the All-22 diagram, the free safety rolls to Beckham with a "Fist" call. That means the Rams are going to double Beckham with a safety over the top and a cornerback underneath playing from a "trail man" position (inside shade, low to the hip). Think of it as 2-Man against a single receiver. This allowed Manning to target Randle on the quick three-step drop that resulted in an explosive gain due to the lack of inside help after the catch.

NFL offenses won't always see this specific coverage/matchup from the defense, but it's another example of using the three-step passing combinations in a 3rd-and-2 through 3rd-and-6 situation in order to convert and continue the drive.

Boot/Swap Boot

The boot and swap boot schemes show up consistently in NFL four-minute situations because they put stress on the edge defenders and linebackers to play with eye discipline when they are selling out to strip the ball or make a play against the run game.

Similar to the route concepts we talked about above, the boot schemes are designed to create misdirection while giving the quarterback a quick read underneath. That would be the flat receiver in a standard boot scheme and the swap boot scheme.

This allows the offense to take advantage of defensive players with their weight on their toes to attack downhill to the run by getting the quarterback to the edge with an immediate option in the flat.

Seahawks vs. 49ers: Boot (Flat)

With the Seahawks holding a 19-3 lead, the goal for Pete Carroll's team in this situation is to run the ball and just wear out the 49ers up front. That eats clock with Marshawn Lynch, but it also creates an opportunity to show the run action with quarterback Russell Wilson getting to the edge of the pocket on the boot.

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This alignment tells us to alert for the boot due to the wide receiver split. That's considered a "nasty" split with the wide receiver on the bottom of the numbers and the ball on the near hash. He is reducing his split to come back across the field on the "over" route (third read in the progression for Wilson).

To the front side of the formation, the tight end on the ball (Y) releases up the field on the 7 route with the off-the-ball tight end (U) stepping down (to show run block) before releasing to the flat. This gives Wilson a two-level read (and a run option) after he shows the ball to the open side of the formation on the play action.

The idea is to force the defenders to attack downhill while Wilson boots to the edge with a target open underneath in the flat. It's a safe call in the four-minute drill. 

Steelers vs. Falcons: Swap Boot

The swap boot plays out just like the standard boot; however, the receiver running the flat route releases from the opposite side of the formation (behind the line of scrimmage). It's an easy way to "hide" the receiver to the flat while forcing the defender in coverage to work through the wash to match up.

Going back to the Steelers' final drive in their win over the Falcons, Pittsburgh ran the swap boot with Antonio Brown releasing behind the line of scrimmage (flat route) and tight end Heath Miller running the 7 cut.

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Again, show the ball on the play action, sell the run and look to expose the defense with the boot game.

Brown is the primary target in this scheme, but the Falcons are attacking downhill at the snap and fail to read their base run/pass keys (tight end vertical release equals pass). This allows Roethlisberger to work off of the run fake, target Miller down the field and put this game away on the swap boot.

All that's left is a couple of kneel-downs after a smart play call from Haley to ice the game.

Naked Boot

The "naked boot" (quarterback keeps the ball off play action) is an excellent call against defenses that crash hard on the edge in a four-minute situation.

With edge defenders taught to play cutback, boot and reverse, they should read through the run action and stay up the field to play the quarterback. However, given the situation, these edge defenders often crash down the line of scrimmage and open the door for the quarterback to keep the ball on the naked boot.

Lions vs. Jets: Naked Boot

With the Lions holding a seven-point lead in the four-minute drill and needing one more first down to put the game away, Detroit called for quarterback Matthew Stafford to run the naked boot against Rex Ryan's defense.

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Focus on the edge defender in this play as he crashes immediately down the line of scrimmage. Given the score and the game situation, he is selling out to make a stop or get the ball out on the open-side run.

However, this opens up the edge for Stafford to boot off the closed-side run action to Reggie Bush before getting outside of the formation. And once the Lions quarterback picks up the first down, he gives himself up and stays in bounds to keep the clock running. 

Giants vs. Seahawks: Naked Boot

This is almost the same play with the Seahawks and Russell Wilson moving the sticks one more time to close out the win against the Giants.

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Again, look at the edge defender. There is no discipline here, no cutback, boot or reverse keys. Instead, the edge defender crashes down against the run action and allows Wilson to get outside of the formation.

And, just like Stafford, the Seahawks quarterback gets what he needs to move the sticks and then slides. Don't take a hit or look for more yards. Get down and close it out.

Expose Cutback Lanes

To wrap this piece up, let's talk about exposing cutback lanes at the running back position. As an offense, you know the linebackers and edge defenders are playing ultra-aggressive. They have to in order to make stops and to limit the amount of time coming off the clock.

That presents opportunities for running backs (especially in zone schemes) to expose second-level pursuit or take advantage of edge defenders crashing down (same as the naked boot).

Check out these two examples:

Giants vs. Cowboys: 2-Back Stretch

With the Cowboys up seven points, everyone in the crowd knows that DeMarco Murray is getting the ball to ice this game. That means the zone schemes and closed-side runs with Murray looking for daylight. However, this created an opportunity for Murray to read the linebackers at the second level while looking to cut the ball back.

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Focus on the linebackers in the Giants' eight-man front as they over-pursue to the play side. That immediately opened up the back-side edge of the formation for Murray to cut the ball back and push up the field before getting on the ground.

Lions vs. Jets: Inside Zone

Detroit's Reggie Bush made an excellent read off the inside zone scheme against the Jets because he immediately put his eyes to the back side of the formation and the edge defender.

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Remember, in most zone schemes, the back-side edge player is left unblocked. And in a four-minute situation, the running back has to understand that the edge defender is going to crash at the snap.

This is a sweet cut from Bush as he makes the edge defender miss before taking the ball up the field. But don't forget about the awareness from Bush as he stays in bounds to keep the clock rolling in the Lions' win over the Jets.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.


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