Mike Shanahan denies all knowledge of any bootlegging activities that allegedly occurred during his time in Denver. NOT PICTURED: Jay Cutler driving a Bears-orange 1969 Dodge Charger with "06" painted on the side.
Last week, I took a look at some of the offensive plays used by Mike Tice during his years with the Vikings. Now, I want to turn my attention to what quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates is going to bring to the party. It's no secret that Jay Cutler never shined in the offensive systems of Ron Turner and Mike Martz the way he did when he was with the Broncos. With Jeremy Bates, Brandon Marshall, and Cutler back together, though, the hope is that the Bears can design an offense that will once again play to Cutler's strengths. First up, a look at a staple of the Shanahan offense: the bootleg.
Before the Xs and Os, let's deal with the obvious. Jeremy Bates wasn't the mastermind of the Broncos' offense, Mike Shanahan was. I'm not going to make the claim that Bates is somehow going to wave his magic clipboard and turn this offense into the second coming of the Denver teams that won back-to-back Super Bowls under Shanahan. Bates was the position coach for Jay Cutler his whole time in Denver, however: it was his job to teach Jay the offense. As such, Bates knows the Shanahan system as well as anyone not named Shanahan. And while Mike Tice comes from the same general offensive system as Mike Martz - the Air Coryell - Jeremy Bates' West Coast system will add a new dimension to the Bears offense. I'm going to highlight a few of these differences over my next couple of articles. Next week, we'll look at the role of tight ends in the Shanahan WCO and at specific ways Denver took advantage of Brandon Marshall in drawing up their offense. First up, however, is the bootleg.
The bootleg is a simple enough play concept. Roll the quarterback out of the pocket to get him away from pressure, and let him size up the action downfield. The QB is able to get a clear read on the coverage - a luxury rarely available in Mike Martz' system - and then throw to the open man. If nobody's open, the QB can always take the free yards in front of him. The bootleg plays directly into Jay Cutler's greatest strength: his ability to throw the ball while on the run. While many young QBs are sent on the bootleg to simplify their reads - they'll only look at one side of the field - Jay Cutler has enough power to throw the ball across the field even when he's on the run. The bootleg also is a good way to minimize the Bears' greatest weakness: poor offensive line play. In the Shanahan offense, bootlegs often come off of play-action heading the other way - the running back and offensive line take the defensive line one way, but Cutler and the ball both move away from the pressure. As long as the tackle or tight end is able to seal the edge, Jay will have all the time he needs to deliver the ball.
Let's look at a couple of different ways that Shanahan drew up the bootleg. The game I'm looking at is the 2008, Week 10 match-up between the Broncos and the Browns. The first play from scrimmage? A play-action bootleg that went for 36 yards. The play was drawn up perfectly to take advantage of how the defense would read the play.
The Broncos came out with a tight end on each side of the line and executed a run-fake to the left. Meanwhile, the right-side TE sealed his edge of the line to prevent the pressure from getting to Cutler. The Browns are in a Cover 2, and the middle and weak-side linebackers both crash down to the line when they read a run. This opens up the middle of the defensive formation, and TE Tony Scheffler (first "O" on the left of the line) sneaked his way out to safety depth with only the strong-side LB (first "X" on the left side of the defensive line) following. Exactly what Shanahan wanted: his tall TE in man coverage against a shorter LB. Now in the open, Scheffler sold the linebacker covering him on a "standard" crossing route over to the same side of the field that Cutler is rolling to. After seeing the linebacker position himself against this crossing route, Scheffler turned straight upfield and was able to get separation. While this put him right in the middle of the free safety's deep zone, Brandon Marshall's (far left "O") go route down the sideline forced the FS to stay where he was until the ball was in the air. As such, Cutler had a big window to hit Scheffler for a big gain. The moral of the story? Even if your line can't block, you can always use a bit of misdirection and a roll-out to set up deep passing plays.
Later in the game, we get that "standard" bootleg - a play with one receiver working the sideline while another comes over to that side on a cross. It was a little bit harder for them to sell the run this time around - thanks to injury, the Broncos were forced to play an unknown rookie named Peyton Hillis - but they still managed to draw in the defense on the play-action. With the run-fake going to the right side of the formation, Cutler started rolling to his left.
He knows that his strong-side receiver (Eddie Royal, ) is in single coverage and will be able to get open on his curl route, so first Jay looks to throw across his body and hit Marshall for the big gain: 15 is running a go route down the right hash. The deep safety has come over to help cover Marshall, however, so Jay keeps rolling to the left to find Royal and the slot receiver. This time, the linebackers didn't bite and the slot receiver is bracketed by linebackers, and by now, the defense has blown past the left side of the line. The tight end did put a bit of a chip block on the defensive end, but the TE quickly released his block to stroll into the flat as Cutler's dump-off option. With two defensive linesmen bearing down on him, Cutler finally pulls the trigger on the pass to Royal, who is wide open after coming back to the ball on his curl. An easy fifteen yards, despite the poor blocking up front.
There's a reason Lovie Smith likes to talk about getting off the bus running: when you have a potent run game, it's easy to use play-action to help out your passing game. The Broncos' offensive line wasn't as bad in this one as the Bears' has been over the last couple of seasons, but it wasn't a whole lot better, either. With rookies at both tackle positions, Cutler was sacked twice and barely managed to dodge two others. Their run blocking was equally as mediocre, although that was also because the Broncos were down to their last backup at running back by the end of the game. But while the line struggled in pass-protection at times, they were able to get just enough of a push in the run game to set up these play-action bootlegs. As long as the run game is a threat, defenses have to respect play action. Bates' knowledge of the Shanahan offense will allow the Bears to paper over some of the shortcomings in the offensive line while still taking full advantage of their downfield weapons. If it worked with the patchwork offensive line and running back committee in Denver, it can work here.