Wait, I can throw it to those guys again?
Last week, I took a look at how the offense Jay Cutler ran in Denver used quarterback movement to reduce pressure on the quarterback. Today, let's turn our attention to another common feature of the Shanahan offense: pass plays out of a two tight end formation. The Lovie Smith Bears have always been fond of two TE sets - Ron Turner ran the better part of his offense out of it in 2008, and even "I hate tight ends" Mike Martz liked to have two on the field. Slant your way below the fold to see how Shanahan and Bates used their tight ends to demolish zone coverage schemes and make big plays.During Lovie Smith's tenure as head coach, we Bears fans have been forced to watch other teams continually split our zone coverage with tight ends. The Cover 2 was designed to defeat the West Coast offense - it concedes the short stuff but forces teams to play perfectly on long drives - but it makes it no less frustrating when you have to watch all those passes sailing between defenders. These "down the seam" routes are staples of the West Coast Offense. Even Ron Turner knew how to work the areas between zone defenders. Consider this play from the Bears' 2008 match-up against the Saints.
The Saints were showing a standard Cover 2 look and were expecting a run on this second down, but Kyle Orton audibled into this play. It's nothing fancy - the two wide receivers settle into the middle of each cornerback's zone to keep them close to the line, and the two tight ends run directly to the top edge of these short zones. With the cornerbacks occupied by the wide receivers and the safeties having to stay deep to prevent the tight ends from going vertical, both tight ends ended up getting open in the soft spots above each cornerback zone. Orton missed the throw to Greg Olsen, of course, but it was a good play call against this zone scheme.
Shanahan, of course, runs his two tight end scheme with a bit more sophistication than Turner did. While Turner liked to keep both tight ends - well - tight to the line, Shanahan preferred to keep only one tight to the line and put the other TE in the slot. The advantage of having one of your TEs off the line? It forces the defense to reveal more of its coverage scheme based on who lines up over the slot man: it is going to be a slower linebacker who can get beat with speed, or will it be a defensive back who will have problems defending a jump ball? Also, on running plays, it allows the slot TE to block or distract linebackers without having to get past the defensive line.
While you might think that the Browns are in man coverage based on how closely the receivers are being covered, they are actually in a zone here. When the play starts, the "close" tight end (the farthest "O" on the right of the line) stays home to block and allow Cutler to look left. The tight end in the slot (second "O" from the left) runs straight upfield for about ten yards and then makes a quick move to the inside. The LB that was directly over him at the start settles into his short zone to keep an eye on the running back, and the middle linebacker ends up being too slow in his break to the ball to defend the pass. The reason the middle linebacker was late to the play? On the previous play, the Broncos used the exact same formation to run the ball right up the middle. Since the LB has to peek into the backfield to make sure it's not another run, he isn't able to get back into his zone quickly enough. The slot TE settles into this gap in the zone, makes the catch, and gets a first down.
Another interesting foible of the Shanahan 2TE scheme is that he rotates the side the slot TE lines up on every play: 1st down, the slot TE is on the right; 2nd down, he's on the left. My best guess is that this rotation is designed to keep the linebackers on their heels. In any case, this play from the fourth quarter was able to manipulate the linebacker and go for a touchdown:
Down by three and just outside of the red zone, the Broncos faced a 3rd and 11. They emptied the backfield and put Jay Cutler into the shotgun. The two receivers on the right of the formation make quick moves to try and beat their coverages and then turn on the jets. Cutler, not seeing anything open over there, turns his attention to the left side. The "close" TE (again, the last "O" on the right of the line) has run a nice double move. This TE - Daniel Graham - started working left on a slant and settled right in front of the linebacker (the "X" in the middle of the defense) as if to make a catch. The spot where he stopped is marked with the tick through his route path. When the TE stopped here, the linebacker hesitates - he assumes that Graham is about to get the pass, and takes a step towards him. It was a fake-out, however: Graham takes off towards the sideline again and gets separation from the LB defending him. The WR and TE on the left side have moved the cornerback (first "X" on the left) and the free safety (deep "X" on the left) to just where Jay Cutler wanted them: away from the soft spot between their zones. With the linebacker still trying to catch up to Graham, Cutler throws the ball and hits him in stride. The safety gets blocked out of the way by the other TE, Tony Scheffler, and Graham waltzes the final ten yards to give Denver the lead.
Shanahan liked having two tight ends on the field. It obviously opens up a lot of possibilities in the passing game and can also cause some mischief in the running game. Let's hope that Bates is able to capture a bit of that 2008 magic and get every ounce of value out of the Bears' tight ends. Next week, I'll look at how the Denver offense used that other variety of passing weapon, the wide receiver. I heard they had some guy named Brandon Marshall who was pretty good in the system...