Find out the various ways that coaches around the country are setting up their passing game by using unbalanced formations and run concepts.
By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
Research Note: When referencing unbalanced formations, we’re referring to any formation where there are no players on the line of scrimmage to one side of the formation. Rules say there must be at least seven players on the line of scrimmage.
X&O Labs recently published its research report on zone and gap runs from unbalanced formations, which can be found by clicking here. While we got tremendous response from our coaches, social media posted over 400 shares alone, we decided to conduct research on the "married" concepts that coaches use to throw the ball off these unbalanced run games. The first part of our study revolves around the straight data collected from our surveys. We included many of these numbers in our previous report because we wanted a pulse on the "Why" behind coaches that use these formations.
The fact is 35.6 percent of coaches use unbalanced formations between 6-10 snaps a game, 33.7 percent use them five snaps or less. So when we developed our survey on unbalanced formations, we wanted to find out why coaches will use these formations and what they use them for. So we asked them. The results are below:
Case 1: Reasons for Unbalanced Sets, Various Personnel Groupings/ Types of Unbalanced Formations
Reasons for using unbalanced formations:
- 27.4 percent of coaches will use unbalanced sets to get an extra blocker on the perimeter. This helps with perimeter run game schemes like toss, speed option, outside zone and jet sweep.
- 26.5 percent of coaches will use unbalanced sets in order to create and extra gap in the run game. We’ve found this is more suitable to gap schemes like power and counter.
- 15.6 percent of coaches will use unbalanced sets just to "create a different picture" for the defense. As one coach told us in our survey, "defenses just don’t know how to adjust to them."
Offensive "Structures" That Utilize Unbalanced Formations:
The common thought was that only unconventional offenses like the Wing T or option style systems employed "end over" or unbalanced formations, but the truth is various offensive systems are finding ways to create unique formations that give them an advantage at the point of attack. Perhaps it was the success that Boise State and Stanford University had (both of which we’ll detail later on) that triggered more coaches to utilize some of the same sets. While we are hesitant to label offenses into "systems" we were curious to find out which types of offensive structures will use unbalanced sets. Now, we realize this could be a measure of which kind of coaches are involved in our surveys, but in either case, our findings are below:
- Spread Offensive structure: 41.6 percent (this surprised us)
- Multiple "I" formation structure: 25 percent
- Wing T offensive structure: 23.1 percent
- Pure option structure: 6.9 percent
Popular Types of Unbalanced Formations
Once we analyzed which types of offensive structures most utilized unbalanced sets, we wanted to find out which types of formations they were using. We realize that there could be dozens of specific unbalanced sets (Boise State uses two dozen alone), we decided to group these formations into "types" of unbalanced sets. So, our data was collected in the following areas:
- 4 or 5 man surfaces on the line of scrimmage (48 percent of coaches prefer this): Bringing and extra offensive lineman over to one side of the formation- or brining one into the game, not only creates an extra body (a big one) but it also creates an extra gap.
- 3 man surfaces with two receivers on the line of scrimmage (22.9 percent of coaches prefer this): We’ve found that these types of formations allow for quicker access to the perimeter for runs like outside zone, toss and jet sweep. Many of the coaches we spoke with that run these formations will use those types of schemes.
- 3 man surfaces with one receiver on the line of scrimmage (22.2 percent of coaches prefer this): We’ve found that many Wing T and unconventional offensive systems will employ these types of formations. In most cases, the widest receiver is the only player eligible in these sets, so we have found most coaches will get their better receiver there of the play-action pass game.
Types of Pass Concepts from Unbalanced Formations
We had an overwhelmingly positive response from coaches that choose to use run-action pass concepts in unbalanced formations. The reasoning behind this was two-fold:
- Defenses get "tensed" when they see heavy formations: Heavy formations are an apparent "eye" trigger for defenses to get on their heels, prepping themselves to come downhill quickly. Despite how much game planning a defenses does, once an offense gears up by bringing an offensive lineman in the game (like Stanford does below) or overload one side of a formation (like Boise State does below) it’s difficult to tell players to make sure they get their run/pass read- particularly when they are getting a mesh fake with a ball carrier in front of them. Their eyes tell them it’s run all the way, and offense can use that to their advantage.
- Simple Pass Protection Rules: We all know the most important part of installing pass concepts is in the protection. Many run-action pass concepts employ some form of turn back protection in which lineman have a gap responsibility (not a man) to handle. In fact, over 70 percent of the coaches we polled, choose to execute some form of gap protection when implementing these play action schemes.
Most Common Run-Action Pass Concepts out of Unbalanced Formations:
Based on our survey, the following run-action pass concepts were most popular among our coaches:
Boots based off of top runs: 41.7 percent of coaches felt this was their most productive run action pass concept. These concepts include waggles, sprint outs, nakeds and bootlegs. The reasoning here was centered around the ability of the QB escaping the pocket to make throws on the run.
Drop back pass game off top runs: 37.8 percent of coaches were more comfortable with using these kinds of schemes. Run-action schemes like isolations and draws are more frequent in this category. These are "big shot" circumstances where safeties can be coming downhill in a hurry on the run fake, and losing leverage behind them.
Screen Game: 18.4 percent of coaches felt this was their most productive pass concept out of unbalanced formations. The most popular of which is a Rocket Screen concept with two receivers on the line of scrimmage. It provides the horizontal leverage needed to get on blocks and make big plays. Or, a quick bubble to the slot receiver if the defense doesn’t cover down or bring a player over to defend him.
Case 2: Power Pass Variants
It was without any uncertainty, that the Power Pass concept was the most utilized run-action pass scheme from unbalanced formations. We surely can’t credit Stanford University for being the originators of the scheme, but we can say that there are dozens of coaches around the country who have emulated the Cardinal "Spider Pass" concept- and have done so with a great deal of success. Perhaps we’ve all seen the sit down John Gruden had with former Stanford QB with Andrew Luck, months before he entered the 2012 draft following last season. And if you haven’t, here is Luck detailing the "Spider 3 Y Banana" with Gruden:
What Luck explains in the clip above is how wide open the FB is in the flat route is off the Power fake, something Jim Harbaugh and his staff built the program on when he was there. What Luck did not talk about is how the Cardinal ran the same scheme to the two-man surface of their Balco personnel grouping, where they will bring an extra lineman into the game.
The clip below if from the 2012 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State. Stanford used Balco to continually hammer the Cowboy defense into submission all the way down the field in this drive. Once Luck and the offense started to build a rhythm, they call the Spider concept to an unbalanced formation, sending the tight end- who is to the two man surface side- on the seven (post corner) route and sneaking the FB into the flat (Diagram 3). Although the play wasn’t successful, you can see how the weak side flat player got caught up in the run action.
UNLV’s former offensive coordinator and X&O Labs subscriber Brent Meyers has put somewhat of a spin on the Spider 3 Y Banana concept by using what he calls a "stop route" combined with a post corner by the number one receiver. He will not use the tight end in the route progression. Meyer likes the call on first and second down, a run tendency to the defense. It’s the Running Rebels number one play call for run-action passes. Both the X and Z line up on the line of scrimmage covering up the tight end, with the backs in an "I" formation. The line will gap protect away, what Myers calls it backside turn protection, from the call side, starting with the offensive tackle play side.
The tight end, because he is ineligible, will normally block the defensive end depending on the front. If the defense is an even look, where there is a tackle bubble (Diagram 4), the tight end blocks on the defensive end. If the defense is in an odd front with a guard bubble look (Diagram 5) the tight end will block down. After the tailback gets the token Power fake, he fits off the tight end in an odd look and off the tackle in even look.
The X receiver will run what Meyers calls a "stop" route, which to him is 10 yard step, a plant with the outside foot, and break back to the ball finishing at a depth of 8 yards. The slot receiver will run a 9 route, a post-corner with a break at 10 yards, setting the depth at 25 yards. According to Meyers, his job is to take the "top off the coverage," and rarely is a target. The fullback will work an arrow route, which will build to five yards intersecting the sideline. The QB will reverse pivot to fake power, then half roll to get "behind the ghost tight end," according to Meyers. He will read the fullback to the stop in that order (Diagram 6).
One of the changeups that Meyers will do is use what he calls Shop, which is a trade from a near slot to a near unbalanced look (Diagram 7). According to Meyers, it’s a safe answer to field zone pressures, particularly in the red zone. "Rarely will we line up in unbalanced anymore," said Meyers. "Shifting to the field from the boundary allows us to throw the ball into the field against the blitz. We have the long stick by the five-technique blocked and we have the scraping Mike taken care of. It’s hard route to cover with three under, three deep coverage, because that post/corner puts a stress on the corner."
One of the best coaching points that Meyers gave us was on the technique of the fullback "bluffing" the force player by giving him a kick out fake. "The biggest thing we need to do is get the Sam to bite on the power fake," he said. In order to do that, we have him dip his outside shoulder, aiming at the near knee of the defender, to simulate the kick out block. Once he frames him, he gets out as fast as he can to the flat."
Another variant of the Power pass out of an unbalanced formation is what Mercyhurst College (PA) calls it a Fire Pass. Similar to the Spider concept, the Fire Pass is designed off a Power run-action, but Mercyhurst still will pull the backside guard just like it would in the run scheme. "We used to do both, but pulling the backside guard has gained us a tremendous advantage in deception," said Mercyhurst head coach Marty Schaetzle, who guided the Lakers to a 9-2 record this season and a share of the conference title. "The protection is a lot of the fake. Every time we run it we have linebackers scrapping over the top of blocks and getting out of position. It really messes with their eye discipline."
Schaetzle will utilize his Fire Pass in two different formations- a tackle over formation with a tight end backside (Diagram 8) or he’ll bring in an extra tackle and eliminate the fullback (Diagram 9). He will gap protect to the front side of the play, with each lineman securing his inside gap- it what he calls "accordion" protection, indicating a folding down action. The backside guard will block the first man outside the last man on the line of scrimmage (Diagram 10). "We tell him to pull with speed across the center," says Schaetzle, who uses the same open pull technique in his Power run scheme, which he says he’s used over 200 times this past season.
According to Schaetzle, the most important part of the scheme is the timing between the tailback and the pulling guard. He tells the guard to get to his point, which is outside the tight end and tackle, one and a half yards in front of the tailback. "The guard goes full speed, the tailback has to be patient," he says. "After taking a jab step away and receiving the fake, the tailback chips from outside in."
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A breakdown of UNLV's Spider pass concept including diagrams, and position assignments
A video tutorial and complete breakdown of Norfolk State University's "Scissors" and "Double Post" concepts out of their fly motion package
Mercyhurst College's (PA) Fire Pass concept out of its Tackle Over formation with detailed diagrams and game footage
Insight and game footage of Kean University's (NJ) weakside Iso Cutback Pass out of its unbalanced twins formation
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Although there can be numerous pass combinations, Mercyhurst has been successful with what Schaetzle calls his "Dino" concept where the outside receiver (X) will run the post route. The slot receiver runs an underneath concept, working across the field, climbing from 25-30 yards to the opposite sideline (Diagram 11). "We’ll often have him fake the crack on the alley player before getting out into his route," he said. "His entire job is to get the free safety in one high to jump on him (Diagram 12). According to Schaetzle, the slot could be a target in the Dino concept if the backside corner bites on the run-action (Diagram 13). In this case, the route can climb to 35 yards or more in depth. He will find the void in the defense and take it. Another option is to run the slot on a 16-yard out route to freeze the safety and hit the post route behind it. If the slot gets on his stem at 16 yards quickly, it should drive the safety to get vertical leverage, allowing the X to get in front of him. (Diagram 14). The Y will not be in the route at all.
Jeff Prewitt, a coach at Ramsey High School (AR) also will use a Y trade to get into unbalanced in order to throw his Power pass, which he calls Red Gladiator. His pre-snap look will look like an "I" formation with both wide receivers on the same side. He will fake the off-tackle power and sprint the QB out to the unbalanced side, in which the Covered TE gives us an extra blocker on that side. "We'll use the number one receiver to clear out the corner, while the number two receiver runs a 10 yard out. The fullback comes out of the backfield to run five yard out. This is a simple scheme, but due the heavy run nature of our offense this look gives defenses a hard time."
For a more detailed look at Coach Prewitt's Power Pass concept with route adjustments and rules check out the following video.
Case 3: Isolation Run Action Passes
For most of the coaches we spoke with, the idea of the run-action scheme is to get second and third level players to bite on the run-action. We found that the isolation scheme (both strong and weak) could be another productive run-action pass concept out of unbalanced formations. Craig Cicardo, the offensive coordinator at Kean University (NJ) will run a cutback isolation scheme to the weak side of his tackle over twins formation. Cicardo will use a tackle over formation, keeping his tight end on the backside, also keeping both receivers on the same side.
His most productive pass concept has been the Post route by number one and an Out route with a wheel variant by the number two or slot receiver. The difference in protection here is he will gap scheme the front side and man scheme the backside of the concept. Both backs will simulate the run fake with his B back (FB) blocking the first play side linebacker if he pressures and the tailback works his isolation play fake.
"Isolation Cutback is used as a weak side run play when the defense wants to overload to the unbalanced side," said Cicardo. "Next, when the defense begins to try and get more people involved in the run game by having their Safeties press the line of scrimmage and man up to the unbalanced side, we will try and throw the ball over their heads with play action."
This concept is very similar to what Boise State University was doing early in the Chris Petersen era. In the clip below you’re going to see the Broncos start in double tight end twin look, shift to a "I" twin set and finally motion to a unbalanced pro set just to run a weak side isolation play pass (Diagram 15). Both outside receivers run vertical routes with adjustments, while the fullback and tailback have hole routes in front of the QB. The play wasn’t successful, but if nothing else gets defenses to get on the balls of their feet to stop the run, only to open up throwing lanes in the pass game.
Case 4: Unbalanced Naked/Boot Concepts
During our research we’ve found a strong presence of boot and naked concepts out of unbalanced formations. Many coaches prefer this because of it combines misdirection with the run action and gets athletic QB’s a chance to get the ball on the perimeter.
In the film clip below, you’ll see Boise State (circa 2007) use a weak side Power scheme as a run action and boot away from it. They start in a tackle-over formation with the tight end replacing the backside tackle then trade the H back and FB to the other side of the formation. The inclusion of the H makes a four-man surface and the FB becomes a wing to the same side (Diagram 16).
Once the QB fakes the weak side Power scheme, the number one receiver runs a 20-yard comeback route, the backside tight end runs a drag while the TB, after getting the token fake, slip out into the flat (Diagram 17). The QB winds up trying to get to the perimeter, but couldn’t escape the contain player.
One of the more interesting responses we received came from Tim Klingbeil, the head coach at Wabasha-Kellogg High School (MN) a single-wing coach who uses a spin concept by his quarterback out his boot game. The reversing out of the QB combined with the run action of the single back produces instant confusion for the defense, allowing receivers to get behind them. Coach Klingbeil shared his Boot Pass concept in a power point below:
To see video of Coach Klingbeil’s Syracuse Decoy Pass, click on the link below:
Of course, these are just some ideas that you can start to implement in your program. Most programs will run some form of Power, Isolation or Boot concept, so it only makes sense to compliment these run actions with pass plays that go along with it. Adding unbalanced formations only creates more conflict to the defense, asking them to be conscience of both the run and pass.
Questions or Comments? Post your questions below and Mike Kuchar will respond shortly.