“Mazzone’s snag concept is one of the best in the game at achieving such consistency. The concept is simple, hard to defend, and easy for the quarterback to read.
Essentially, the snag puts the outside linebacker in conflict (as spread offenses so often do), forcing him to either defend the snag route (a route run at a 45 degree towards the middle of the field by the outside receiver, who stops at five yards and looks for the ball) or the swing route by the running back. The number two receiver (second man from the outside) runs a vertical route (usually a corner), which is difficult for the safety to defend if the cornerback gets involved on either the snag or the swing route. The middle linebacker, who (in many defenses) opens towards the number three receiver (the running back), has a long way to run to get involved with the play, especially if it is run to the wide side of the field. The play is not only effective because the quarterback is given easy passing targets, but because forcing the linebackers to vacate the box so often helps the Bruins to establish their prolific run game.”
It is always important for an offense to put the defense in conflict. The throwback screen (note that this is not the only name for this play, but it is what I will use) is a classic – and underutilized – way to do so, particularly for a team that often uses sprint action with its quarterback.
The 1992 Houston Cougars were one such team. A record breaking run and shoot offense, Houston was known for lighting up the scoreboard with an offense that almost always had the quarterback sprinting to one side or the other. Not surprisingly, this forced Houston’s opponents to flow and devote more defenders to that side. This is where the throwback screen comes into play.
The assignments on the play. The quarterback sprints to the right (as on a typical Houston pass play) while the linemen touch their defensive linemen and go. After making his sprint, the quarterback turns and fires to the wide receiver on the left, who bends inside of the block by the left tackle on the cornerback.
The first step is the sprint itself. The defense must respect this movement and act accordingly to account for the possibility of a quarterback run or receivers flooding in the direction of the sprint.
Texas takes the bait, with the defensive line rushing hard and the linebackers blitzing to pressure the quarterback. Everyone moves in the direction of the quarterback sprint.
We can see Texas doing just that, with linebackers blitzing and the coverage sliding in the direction of the roll.
All 6 Texas box players are now behind the Houston line (wasted on the play), while the Houston offensive linemen move downfield to make their blocks.
This leaves the backside vulnerable.
The left tackle gets just enough of the cornerback on a cut block to give the wide receiver a clear lane to the inside.
Next, we see the ball being caught. The left tackle cuts the cornerback, giving the receiver a clear running lane. Four more offensive linemen head downfield to block – on only one defensive back.
More blockers than defenders = something good is going to happen.
From there, there is nothing but open space ahead.
Highway to the end zone.
The true value of the play goes beyond the 6 points that go up on the board. The defense must always be wary of the throwback (coach John Jenkins was known to run it repeatedly in the same game, using it as a staple play). This opens up the field for the basic offense to the sprint side – which is what Houston wanted to be running, anyways. It also slows down the rush, by penalizing a defense who pressures the quarterback with too much abandon. This, in turn, gave the Houston quarterbacks more time to throw.
The throwback screen is difficult to execute and requires extensive practice commitment. The offensive line must be athletic and have great timing, the quarterback must be accurate enough and with a strong enough arm to spin under pressure and hit the receiver in the chest with the ball, the receiver must be fearless enough to take a hit if the defense isn’t fooled and fast enough to exploit them if they are, and the coach must be dedicated enough to install the play with patience. If those elements are present, the throwback screen is a valuable investment for any team who uses sprint action extensively or who faces over-aggressive opponents.
The link to the play (at 9:00) as well as great end zone footage of the Houston run and shoot against Texas:
Below, Tony Franklin and Sonny Dykes show us a modern version of the play with the 2013 California Golden Bears:
Aggressive defenses with multiple fronts and complex blitz schemes create problems for offenses due to their multiplicity and unpredictability. These defenses are high risk, high reward, and high difficulty. They require skillful play calling, as “choosing wrong” in terms of pressure leaves the defense susceptible to huge plays. Sound, simple defenses – while lacking the same attacking and confusion creating abilities – are not as susceptible to such breakdowns. In other words, aggressive defenses are “boom or bust,” and too much complication can lead to breakdowns at inopportune times.
Such was the case during the 2012 divisional playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints. With 2:18 left in the game, the 49ers trailed 23-24, facing a 3rd and 7 at the 27 yard line. They came to the line with Frank Gore as the lone back, and immediately shifted to an empty formation, with a tight end and two receivers to the right, and two receivers to the left.
The Saints were an aggressive, blitzing team under coordinator Gregg Williams. This style helped lead them to a Super Bowl title in 2009, a year in which they were second in the league with 35 defensive takeaways. 2009 showed the “boom” of the defense, while the Saints were about to experience the “bust” in San Francisco.
Above, note the Saints alignment. It is clear that they have called a blitz in an obvious passing situation in order to put pressure on Smith. It is no mystery where the blitz is coming from. There are FIVE defenders near the line of scrimmage between right tackle Anthony Davis and Frank Gore in the slot. While it isn’t clear which of the five will rush the passer – such is the benefit of the aggressive defense – almost half of the defense is concentrated near the line of scrimmage in an area covering not more than ten yards. Not surprisingly, this leaves other areas of the field open to exploit.
We also see wide receiver Kyle Williams in motion. Cornerback Patrick Robinson follows him to the inside. Herein lies the most interesting aspect of the play. As the play unfolds, Robinson continues running towards the center of the field – even as the ball is being run in the opposite direction. He will run himself to the opposite hash as Alex Smith runs down the sideline for a touchdown. Nothing better illustrates the problem with an overcomplicated defense. Because it requires players to execute so many different schemes and coverages over the course of the game, they must devote brain power to performing many different assignments throughout the game. This means that they often cannot play without thinking, which causes them to lose sight of what is important – the ball. Such is the case here, as Robinson runs in a direct path away from the ball.
There is no misdirection as the play unfolds, above. Kyle Williams cracks the defensive end – a staple play from Pop Warner on up. Left tackle Joe Staley pulls to lead the play. Notice the five defenders to the right of the formation that we noted before the snap. They are wasted from the snap of the ball, with no chance to make a play. Cornerback Robinson is well on his way to the opposite hash. A simple quarterback sweep, and eight Saints are on the wrong side of the field. Of the remaining three, two are on the hash being cracked to the inside, and the third is Robinson sprinting in the wrong direction. The 49ers have almost half the field at their disposal, with Joe Staley leading the play and no one in sight for him to block.
Above, we see Robinson on the hash, and the remainder of the Saints in pursuit.
Joe Staley’s cut block seals the play.
Defensive coordinators must balance the benefits of aggressiveness and unpredictability with the necessity for execution. Many multiple, attacking defenses have been successful and will continue to find success, but coaches must ensure that the players are not so assignment driven that they lose sight of what is most important: stopping the ball. As the Saints showed against the 49ers, this issue exists even at the highest level of play. While it is easy to blame a player for an assignment mistake, a coach must also look to himself, and ask whether he has added more than his players can handle. Even if a player botches a seemingly “basic” defensive (i.e. a safety not covering his deep half of the field in cover 2), the coordinator must ask if this is a manifestation of the player’s inability to play without thinking as a result of overcomplexity. The danger of overcomplexity isn’t only seen in major plays of the game; often, it is in the moments of tentativeness that add up throughout the course of a game to act as an invisible sabotage to playing aggressive, winning defense.