The Most Important Schemes and Concepts in the NFL Today
The ability to create and disrupt explosive plays with schematic and personnel variation is more important now than at any other time in NFL history. Offenses and defenses are more complex than they've ever been. Players are faster, stronger and smarter. Teams substitute waves of players for specific probabilities and substitute them right back out again for another probability.
Some coaches prefer to live in bygone eras when you could just "line up and beat your man," and for a few players, this is possible. When you watch Julio Jones or Rob Gronkowski demolish coverage with sheer physical mastery, it is a wonder to behold. But even the best players in this era benefit greatly from a bigger and more adaptable playbook.
The 2016 Atlanta Falcons cut a wide swath through the NFL with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's brilliant game theories until the last several minutes of Super Bowl LI. Shanahan's pre-snap motion concepts, some of the most advanced we've seen, set defenses on their heels all season...until the Falcons forgot about situational football.
Correspondingly, the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, with Doug Pederson's fantastically diverse offense, never took their foot off the gas and were able to take it to the New England Patriots in ways the Falcons weren't when the two teams met in Super Bowl LII.
And that's the thing. Schematic diversity isn't just a philosophy to be tried and discarded; it's a brand for your entire franchise. It's a thought process that permeates the front office, coaching staff and roster. You go out and get the guys who can handle your playbook. You extend the concepts further as your players become comfortable with your ideas. Eventually, if your players and schemes match up ideally, you can take both all the way to a Super Bowl championship.
With that in mind, here are 10 of the most important—and popular—schemes and concepts in the NFL today.
The Run-Pass Option
We’ve heard a lot about RPOs this season, and with good reason—the Super Bowl champion Eagles used them frequently, though the narrative that they’re basing their entire offense around them is overblown. In reality, the Eagles use them a handful of times per game for generally minimal gains, though the threat is enough to keep defenses off balance.
In its simplest iteration, a run-pass option gives the quarterback the flexibility to either hand the ball off or make a quick throw based on the actions of an unblocked defender to the quarterback’s front side. If the defender cheats up to play the run or blitzes, the quarterback simply throws to the vacated area. If the defender hangs back in coverage, especially if this action makes the front-seven count favorable for a run, the quarterback hands the ball off.
There are many more complicated versions of the RPO, and NFL teams have been proactive in using them. The Dallas Cowboys use three-level RPOs with more than one available receiver, and the Texans have used pass-pass options in which the quarterback is weighing the use of two different receivers as opposed to a receiver and a running back.
The RPO is different from—and more varied than—the standard read-option. With an RPO, you don’t need a mobile quarterback to make the run fake a dangerous possibility, though it helps if you have that, as well. Instead, the RPO is an ever-growing series of concepts that give quarterbacks and offensive coordinators flexibility after the snap—and it keeps defenses guessing wrong most of the time when it’s executed correctly.
The Pick Play
Pick plays are as controversial as any play in the NFL right now, especially when the New England Patriots run them—and the Patriots run them all the time. What offenses are doing in pick plays is using two or more receivers to run their routes in close formation, and one receiver sets a pick (as you would in basketball) by holding up a defender so another receiver can roam free in the defender's area. It's legal within one yard of the line of scrimmage, and it's not always called when it's executed beyond that.
These plays are especially effective in the red zone, when offenses are facing defenses running man coverage to avoid getting picked apart by quick-throwing quarterbacks and receiver routes that have just a few steps before someone's a target. Man coverage takes away a lot of quick routes, and even crossing routes, which means that offensive coordinators have to get creative.
The pick-play version of creativity is simple and repeatable—when you have two defenders manned up on two receivers, have one receiver impede the path of the defender assigned to his teammate so that the teammate can find open space in a hurry.
Used for years in the NFL, pick plays are more choreographed and effective than ever because they create a numbers advantage through angular design.
The Mesh Concept
A fundamental part of Air Raid offenses in college football for years, the mesh concept looks to gain an advantage against defenses at linebacker depth by installing crossing drag routes. In this look, you’ll have a receiver on either side of the formation running crossing routes at close range to each other, and the "mesh" point is where they cross.
Against zone coverage, this is a great way to force the linebackers to play to the mesh, leading to potentially big gains on deeper routes between the linebackers and the safeties or quick outside throws to a running back or receiver past the numbers. And against man coverage, the dual crossers can take underneath defenders out of the play as they stick to their assignments.
There are many different ways to confuse defenses with crossing routes; the mesh concept is a great way to do it in a quick passing game. The Eagles, for example, get big plays in their third-down packages with running back Corey Clement in the backfield. The quarterback’s first read may be to Clement on a wheel route, but he’ll honor the read to the mesh receivers and perhaps further mess with the defense by incorporating play action. In such a scenario, the quarterback can read the linebackers and make the throw based on their actions.
The Bunch Formation
Among all the formations you'll see in the NFL, the bunch formation may be the one that fosters the most consistently effective creativity for offensive coordinators. In a bunch formation, you'll have a triangle of receivers with one at the top of the triangle right at the line of scrimmage and a receiver flanking him to either side just behind. This is different than a trips formation, in which you have three receivers aligned to one side of the formation in a straight line.
Teams can do all kinds of things out of the bunch. One thing the Pittsburgh Steelers have done for years is run the ball out of the bunch formation with receivers blocking to their side. This was especially effective when Bruce Arians was Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator from 2007 through 2011. It helps if you have a receiver who can block as well as Hines Ward always did.
When attacking a defense using the bunch formation, there are all kinds of things you can do to displace your opponent. You can run "Levels" concepts in which receivers are running routes to the short, intermediate and deep parts of the field to the same side. You can have two receivers running a crosser downfield and the third receiver running a quick screen as the quarterback's bailout read. You can run all kinds of natural pick and rub routes, taking one defender out of the play. Bunch crossing concepts work especially well against man coverage.
In today's NFL, the name of the game is to bring a numerical and angular advantage to the passing game, and there are more ways to do that out of bunch than any other formation.
The Double Slant
When Sean McVay replaced Jeff Fisher as the Rams' head coach and Rob Boras as the team's offensive mind, it was clear that the former Redskins offensive coordinator had a lot on the ball. McVay probably saved Jared Goff's career, as Goff looked to be one of the all-time draft busts in Boras' archaic offensive system, while McVay used a ton of creativity to create easy openings for his young quarterback.
One of the most consistently effective passing plays the Rams have under McVay, and this is especially true in the red zone, is the double slant to one side. On this play, two receivers will run quick in-breaking routes, with one receiver making his cut a couple yards farther downfield (or in the end zone) than the other. It works against man and zone coverage because defenders tend to look to the deeper route and leave the underneath receiver with openings.
McVay also likes to call the double slant with the receivers a few yards apart. This is an outstanding man-coverage-beater because all Goff has to do is to look to the play side and decide quickly which of his receivers has gained an opening in one-on-one matchups.
It sounds like a simple concept, and it is, but it works well. Not every play design has to have infinite parts to work, and it's a testament to McVay's effectiveness that he has so many quick, simple concepts that make his offense go.
The Option Route
Option routes have been in the NFL for decades. They gained fame in the American Football League of the 1960s, when San Diego Chargers head coach Sid Gillman made them a part of his playbook. But the team that took off with them was the Detroit Lions of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Offensive coordinator Mouse Davis adapted several concepts from the college Run and Shoot offense, including an expanded series of plays in which anywhere from one to every receiver would adjust his route depending on the angle and coverage of the defender. If the defender looks to gain outside leverage, the receiver adjusts his route inside, and vice versa. That's a simple distillation of the idea, but NFL teams have taken the concept and expanded it over time.
The Patriots probably run more option routes than any other team; it's a major part of their playbook, and one of many reasons their offense has been so effective through the Bill Belichick era. The Pats look for receivers who are quick on the draw and can retain the option routes in the playbook—these days, teams have them built into their route concepts. It requires a formidable level of understanding for the quarterback, as he has to know the routes his receivers are supposed to run as well as the alternate routes that are designed based on coverage in specific situations.
Not every team fills its playbook with option routes, but they're a major part of the NFL today—and a proven way for receivers to work smartly to gain tactical advantages.
Is pre-snap motion an offensive concept that can be used against a defense? It all depends on the creativity of the coach using it. In its most basic form, pre-snap motion has one or more offensive players moving before the snap to try to exploit personnel mismatches. A big receiver moving to the slot against a smaller cornerback, or a halfback moving from the backfield to the line of scrimmage to roast a linebacker who isn't that good in coverage, and so on.
In addition, quarterbacks use pre-snap motion to deduce whether the defense is playing primarily man or zone coverage, depending on the compensatory movement of the defenders. If a defender follows your receiver across the formation, you can be pretty sure you're facing man coverage. If more than one defender passes off the reaction to the motion, it's zone.
Where it gets interesting is when you have a coach who's looking to change the entire offensive concept with pre-snap motion. Former Falcons offensive coordinator and current 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan may be the best with it in the NFL today. He'll take a two-back set and motion to empty with both backs at the line of scrimmage and the fullback split wide. He'll motion stacked receivers to a bunch formation, and on and on. Anything to create a tactical edge.
The rise of the nickel defense as the base defense in the modern NFL started when Saints head coach Sean Payton had Reggie Bush in his backfield and would motion him to the slot over and over to take advantage of three-linebacker base defenses. Eventually, those defensive coordinators would have to take one linebacker off the field and replace him with a slot cornerback because every down looked like a passing down.
That's the beauty of creative pre-snap motion—the ability to paint a picture the defense didn't expect and isn't prepared to attack in a personnel sense.
The Bear Front
Formations come and go in the NFL. Trends recede when opponents come up with working counters, and every smart coach is adapting all the time. One thing I’ve seen more of in the NFL over the last couple of years is the Bear Front, which defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan used to great effect with the Chicago Bears of the mid-1980s. The 1985 Bears defense is considered by many to be the greatest single-season defense in NFL history, and the problems created for an offensive line by Chicago's front can still help defenses to this day.
It’s a five-man front with the nose tackle head over the center as opposed to a gap at the center’s shoulder. Then, the two defensive ends line up at the outside shoulders of the guards. This forces each guard to play to his outside gap without help, as the center is occupied with the nose tackle. Then, outside linebackers rush the passer from the outside of the formation in one-on-one battles against offensive tackles—though at times they get chip blocks from tight ends and running backs.
The Bear Front worked then and works now because in addition to the matchups issues it creates at the line of scrimmage, it also allows inside linebackers to naturally flow though and disrupt the pocket. Bears linebacker Mike Singletary made it to the Hall of Fame in part because of his ability to break through those openings quickly and effectively.
It’s easiest for a 3-4 base defense to run a Bear front without substituting players from a personnel perspective, but you’ll see different iterations from 4-3 base teams as well. The Eagles like to present a linebacker where the nose tackle would be to create pre-snap confusion for the quarterback, and as long as the spacing causes problems for the offensive line, you’ll see the Bear Front in the modern NFL.
The Roving Dime Defense
In the 2017 regular season, NFL teams averaged 34.2 passing attempts to 26.9 rushing attempts per game, per Pro Football Reference—when you hear that it's a passing league these days, that's the trend. To counter this, NFL defenses put more defensive backs on the field in their base formations, and the dime defense, with six defensive backs, has become a staple.
However, dime defenses do leave teams open to opposing offenses who are effective in the power running game because with one linebacker on the field, some of the power in the front seven is taken away. An adaptation we've seen over the last few years is the rise of the hybrid safety/linebacker. Mark Barron of the Rams and Deone Bucannon of the Cardinals are two of the most notable such players, and when the Eagles go to their dime defense, it's safety Malcolm Jenkins who often patrols the field at linebacker depth and with linebacker responsibilities.
Jenkins can cover anything you throw at him in the short-to-intermediate areas, but he's also become great at running downhill and taking care of run responsibilities. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz appreciates Jenkins' versatility, and you can expect more teams to scout the collegiate ranks for those players who have the potential to take on dual roles. Hybrid defenses are the norm in the modern NFL, and the roving dime defense is valuable in that it covers all the bases.
Both the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots started the 2017 season with pass defenses that were not going to survive the season as they were constructed. New players were struggling to grasp schemes, and things didn't look good for either team. But both saw a quick turnaround in the consistency of their coverage as their coaching staffs brought in more pattern-matching coverage, and it's a staple concept in the NFL today.
Pattern matching can be thought of as a series of coverages in which defenders play man or zone after the snap based on the routes run. Alabama head coach Nick Saban started using it when he was with Bill Belichick's Cleveland Browns staff in the 1990s and had to deal with explosive route concepts in which his defensive backs were spread across the field. It's worked well for Saban at the college and pro levels. Man coverage rules the day until receivers break from zone areas, at which point those defensive backs can switch responsibilities. The defenders are reading patterns and adjusting—in a simple sense, it's the defensive version of the option route. If the receiver does this, the defender does that.
Pattern matching gives modern pass defenses a great deal of adaptability without a massive upgrade to the playbook, and it brings a sleight of hand to defenses that are often overwhelmed when facing spread passing concepts and formations. It also gives defenses the adaptability to break out of one pre-snap coverage, if that coverage doesn't make sense based on the routes they're facing.