Pre-Snap Movements to Gain Leverage

Jun 6, 2011 | Offense, Trades, Shifts and Motions, Formation Structures

Researchers' Note: You can access the raw data - in the form of graphs - from our research on pre-snap movements: Click here to read the Statistical Analysis Report.

Manipulating defenses seems to consistently be the main goal of most offensive coordinators in the modern era. How can I defeat a defense without even snapping the ball? It’s the thinking man’s "game within a game" that occurs pre-snap. Football is a game of moving parts, which explains the constant references it draws to the game of chess. In this report, X&O Labs is going to show you how to put your moving parts in a position to out-leverage, outnumber and outthink a defense.

Aside from conducting our usual research on this topic, which was compiled through surveys, we’ve also decided to offer an online video tutorial on three of the top ten offensive programs in the country that are tops in using pre-snap movement: Boise State University, Auburn University and the University of Oregon. These are three high-octane offenses that know how to score points (all averaged over 44 points per game last season) and know how to do it with efficiency (all averaged over 69 players per game last season). We took the top four movements in their packages, tight end/wing trade, jet motion, flash motion and slash motion, and detailed how they can attack a defense.

Why Pre-snap Movement? Surprisingly, when we polled coaches we found that the majority, 35.4% use motion on less than half of their offensive snaps. They don’t make a living off doing it. This tells us it’s done with a purpose, in order to see how defenses will react. Many of the offensive coordinators we spoke with threw the term "change the picture for the defense" around, meaning getting them to think. Once you get an aggressive defense thinking, you’ve won. For the intents of the report, we will distinguish between the three different types of pre-snap movement.

Types of Pre-snap Movement:

  • Trade: A trade is when a player on the line of scrimmage will move from one end to the other pre-snap. These players are usually tight ends, H-backs or fullbacks. In fact, Boise State will only trade those types of players because it cuts down on the learning curve. No other players need to memorize the terminology needed to run the scheme.

  • Shift: Similar to a trade, a shift will usually involve more than one player. Common shifts include shifting into bunch sets (3x1 sets), or shifting from spread sets to tight sets and vice versa. These are done as soon as the QB gets under center or gives and indicator if in shot gun.

  • Motion: A motion is done either by an inside receiver in normal sets or an outside receiver in unbalanced sets. We’ve found the most common forms of motion have been jet or flash motion, where one receiver will start full speed pre-snap and get across to the mesh-point of the QB before the exchange.


Advantages of Pre-snap Movement:

  • Gain a mismatch in personnel: The bottom line is you want to get your best player on a lesser player. As a coordinator, there may be numerous ways to do this, but we’ve found one of the most advantageous ways is to motion a player (like a ball carrier) from the backfield into the slot receiver (which we’ll detail later). Defenses still need to adjust by either covering him with a safety or outside linebacker. Some of the coaches we spoke with will find a way to motion their best player and get him the ball on a bubble screen or quick out and let him run with it.

  • Gain a leverage advantage on the perimeter: These types of pre-snap movements will mainly consist of multi-player shifts, such as shifting to a bunch set (Diagram 1) in order to take advantage of space. These are spread to compressed type movements in which most perimeter schemes (like toss, speed option, outside zone) are associated. It forces the defense to cover the entire width of the field.

  • Gain a numbers advantage: These types of movements consist of motions where you’re bringing one a player from one side of the formation to the other. Many coaches prefer the jet or flash sweep (Diagram 2) in this situation because they are bringing another player to one side of the formation. When coupled with pull schemes like power, counter, etc., you have the capability of adding yet another player offensively to the side of the motion.

  • Identify coverage rotation: A primitive, yet significant determinate of running a pre-snap movement is to identify if a defense is running man or zone coverage. Of course, there are other indicators to determine this such as the leverage of the cornerbacks, but running a full motion across the formation (Diagram 3) still can be a sure-fire way to identify coverage. If it’s a man concept, expect movement with your movement. If the defense is in zone, you could anticipate either a third level safety drop or a second level linebacker bump.

  • Promote a "toe to heel" mentality to the defense: I first heard Bobby Wilder, the head coach at Old Dominion University, preach this at a clinic when he was the offensive coordinator at the University of Maine. It is Wilder’s goal to get an aggressive defense (one that’s one its toes) to start thinking (resulting on its heels). If defenses start to be concerned with what you’re presenting, they lose sight of their responsibilities. We all know the defensive coaches mantra uttered at all levels, "If you think, you stink." This offensive ideology negates that concept.

Because there are so many variables of trades, shifts and motions (Boise State has 44 in their playbook right now) we’ve decided to breakdown the three top pre-snap movements used by the coaches we polled. We detail the movement; explain the benefit of the movement and which offensive schemes coaches like to run off that movement. Again, we have all this evidenced by video clips of the more prominent offenses in the country running it.

Case 1: TE Trade/TE and Wing Trade (Diagram 4)

Type of Pre-snap Movement: This is a trade/shift, where you bring your tight end from one side of the offensive formation to the other. It also can be used in conjunction with an H-back (as Boise does), both will travel together. Our research found that 54.2 percent of coaches we polled use this movement as part of their offense.

Objective: The majority, 51.3 percent of coaches, will use this movement to create another gap at the point of attack. It’s productive against four down fronts; the idea is to change the strength of the defense. Most four down fronts will align their 3-technique to the three-man (or tight end) surface. When you shift or trade your tight end, it forces defenses to change the strength of their front. "How often does a rush or open side end practice against a tight end surface?" asked Wilder. "How much work would a nose guard get by playing a 3-technique? Now he’s susceptible to double teams at the point of attack on gap schemes."

Defensive Adjustment Indicators: Upon calling the movement, it’s imperative to see how the defense will react. Among variables such as secondary rotation and front adjustment, 32.8 percent of coaches will use this motion to identify who is playing t