On Dec. 9, 2018 the red hot 11-1 Los Angeles Rams traveled to Chicago to play the 8-4 Bears on Sunday Night Football. The Rams were favored by three points going into the game and not only did bettors think that they would win, but they also expected a high scoring game.
The over/under for the game was set at 51 points, despite the Bears’ number 1 ranked scoring defense. The game ended up going the exact opposite way of what Vegas predicted. The Rams offense was not just stopped by Vic Fangio’s defense, but it was absolutely massacred. Jared Goff threw four interceptions and was sacked for a safety by the impressive Bears front (this gameplan works out a lot better when you have Goldman, Hicks, Trevathan, and Mack). Gurley was held below 3 yards per carry in the 15-6 shellacking.
Fangio used a 6-1 front in this game [see below].
This front made it extremely difficult for the Rams to get to the second level and there is essentially no room for combo blocks on the offensive line. This allowed the MIKE linebacker to run clean with plenty of time before being blocked. It is both packed in tight with four down linemen from C gap to C gap and perimeter sound as there are two more players on the outside to stop the play from getting to the perimeter. The front leads to plenty of plays such as this:
The center and right guard lose their one-on-one blocks and the linebacker can run in free leading to four different guys getting in on this tackle for a loss. Then with the Rams ground game effectively neutered, the Bears were able to let their pass rushers tee off on obvious passing downs. Not only was America watching this game, but Bill Belichick watched this game. He stole the 6-1 front from Fangio and implemented it against McVay in the Patriots' Super Bowl win over the Rams
One front was able to be utilized to stop the one back wide zone. So how did McVay adapt to the 6-1 front after he was pounded with it?
The main play used to combat the 6-1 specifically is the crack toss.
The idea behind it is that if the defense will be that tightly packed with only one linebacker coming from depth, then let’s quickly get outside with lead blockers. It's a simple concept at its core. Defense packs in tight? Go outside. The crack toss is a toss play with at least one offensive lineman and typically a tight end or fullback as well pulling outside to lead the half back. The crack comes from the "crack" block from a wide receiver [sometimes tight end] on the end man along the front. This seals the end while opening up a chance for your offensive linemen to block defensive backs and linebackers. On this play, they pull around our old friend Andrew Whitworth and the tight end Gerald Everett and they lead the way for a nice gain.
The 6-1 defense is not the only front teams have begun using to try to slow down the wide zone. Another front that is much older and comes from Buddy Ryan is the bear front. A bear front is five defenders on the line of scrimmage with the three interior defenders lined up in a 3T-0T-3T combination. This leaves no "bubble" for wide zone teams to attack, it limits double teams, and it lets the linebackers play clean as well.
You can attack the bear front with a crack toss as well, but another play that works well against it is the windback play.
Windback is essentially a counter without a puller. Windback looks a lot like split wide zone at first glance. All of the OL is working in unison, but here they are working to the backside rather than the playside.
From this shot, it looks like split wide zone. Split meaning that the tight end or fullback will work against the grain and kick out the unblocked man.
This is the difference between the two plays. Instead of handing it off in the direction that the wide zone is going, the quarterback hands it off in the direction of the tight end. The reason it works against the bear is that it gets the linebackers flowing in the wrong direction and then adds an extra man to the playside.
Here is an example of the Rams using windback against something close to a bear front (4T instead of 3T).
Jet motion is something that McVay has utilized with his wide zone in Los Angeles. At the start of his head coaching career, the jet motion almost always went in the opposite direction of the wide zone. Three of the main purposes for this are: it slows down backside pursuit, it kicks linebackers over, and he can give the ball to one of his best players on the move and in space.
In this example, the ball is handed off to Cooper Kupp for a nice gain, but they utilize Robert Woods as well. You can see that it just quickly gets the ball on the outside away from all the mess inside. To the other points, you can see the linebackers move over with the motion right before the snap. This helps the offensive line to seal them off when they get to the second level on wide zone.
Here we have jet motion to the playside rather than the backside. I think this play was added in 2019 by McVay after his offense was "figured out." In 2017-18 he almost always had his jet motion go to the backside rather than the playside. This play works as a change-up to that so there is not a "tell" as to where the wide zone could be going. It also adds numbers to the playside and can play out a little bit more like a two back wide zone which is why I think it works against the bear front and 6-1 front better. Even without adding numbers and blocking, the jet motion will kick over linebackers again. While this seems counterintuitive on its face, sometimes that can lead to linebackers playing too far over and over running the play. If that happens the running back can cut up the middle and be alone with members of the secondary.
I talked about counter without a puller in windback, but here we have the play dubbed as power without a puller in duo.
This works in conjunction with wide zone as a quick downhill play in contrast to the slower developing wide zone play. The idea behind duo is to get at least one, but hopefully two double teams and to work them vertically to the linebackers. The running back will read the MIKE linebacker on the play and make his cut off of how he is blocked. On this particular duo play No. 51 works inside, so the back cuts it outside. Duo is also a nice way to set up play action when you do not want the offensive line running away from the quarterback like in wide zone.
Since I just mentioned play action, let’s move on to some of the play action plays in the wide zone system. The first and most important one is the naked keeper.
You get wide zone action from the offensive line (looks like bulls on parade) with a fake handoff in that direction. The quarterback then rolls out to the unprotected or naked side of the play. This particular naked keeper includes a slide route from the wide receiver. The slide route typically comes from a player tight to the formation and off the line of scrimmage (sometimes on though to be extra sneaky).
It looks a bit like split wide zone with the slide route being the sifter. Instead of kicking out or sealing the end, the receiver will continue to the flat as the primary read for the quarterback. It’s hard to defend in zone coverage with usually some routes that clear out the defenders on that side of the formation and hard to defend in man coverage due to the player sprinting across the formation. A very common play to use in case the backside end on wide zone keeps crashing the party. Just need to be careful about the possibility that a player knows what is coming and gets a free shot at your quarterback.
Play Action Over
Next up for play action, there is a whole series of different plays, but I am going to classify them all as play action with an over route. There are a ton of different variations of it and they do serve different purposes, but at its core, the play I am talking about is either duo or zone play action combined with a deep post and an over route.
This is an example of what I mean by play action with an over route. It is really the simplest of these ideas with just two routes. You get a deep post from A.J. Green and an over route from Tyler Boyd underneath of that.
You can see that all of the second level defenders have their eyes in the backfield and start moving downhill to fit the run.
One good thing to notice in this play is the savvy of Boyd’s route running. He sees that there is not a ton of room between him and the linebackers and also wants to eat into the cushion of the defensive back. To help this instead of just running over, he turns vertical and pushes downfield. This alleviates both issues as it creates more room behind the second level while eating into the cushion of the cornerback.
You can see how open Boyd is at the end of this play. This occurs not only because he pressed vertical, but Green also does a good job of taking away defenders on the deep post. There is not a defender within four yards of Boyd and it is an easy chunk gain for the Bengals offense.
The last play I want to go over is leak. This is another play action pass, but instead of looking to hit the over route, the offense is trying to get a player wide open on the other side.
The play looks like another play action play here. It looks as if it’s a naked keeper with a slide route, but this time the Rams are not going for the easy lay-up. Kupp on the backside goes up to the linebacker and fakes a block making it seem as if this is a run play and that he is not a receiving threat. Without even giving a big fake, the defense seems to disregard him. He then “leaks” across and then turns up the field for a walk-in touchdown and a very easy throw for the quarterback. This play does not have to be packaged to look exactly like a keeper. It can also look like one of the many play action over route combinations or another play action pass that is heavily utilized. The main ideas are to clear out one side of the field with deep posts or crossing routes, fake a block with the leaker, and then run a route to the cleared out section after the fake block.
While it is fun to look at all of the different plays that can be utilized in the wide zone system, it is also important to package these plays together. Essentially each one of these plays should be able to be run out of a single formation and made to look like all of the plays. It is similar to a great pitcher in baseball where his fastball looks like his change-up and his slider. You do not want your opponent to know what is coming until it is too late for them to react appropriately. This packaging of plays is one of the main keys of the McVay and Shanahan success with wide zone. With Zac Taylor coming from Sean McVay’s coaching tree as the Rams quarterback coach, I would expect him to know how to package these things together, but playcalling and play design is difficult. The coach needs to know when to call each play, how to make them all look the exact same, and what adjustments to make if the defense gives certain looks. If the coach does successfully do all of that however it typically results in fireworks.
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