Feared Plays Every opponent knows they're coming, but defensive coordinators still go crazy trying to stop them

November 16, 1998

NFL defensive coordinators live with nightmares. They close
their eyes and see Terrell Davis breaking a run back against the
grain and going all the way. They see a slant pass that should
go for eight yards go for 90. They see a receiver set a pick,
and they scream for a flag that never drops. In their dreams
Cris Carter sprints into double coverage and snatches the ball
away from two defenders. Jerome Bettis, legs churning, body
tilted forward at an impossible angle, sheds tacklers like a dog
shaking off raindrops. What thrills the crowd humiliates
defensive coordinators, and they grip their temples and murmur,
"Oh, my god."

Here are five of the plays most likely to leave defensive
coaches mumbling to themselves, partly because of the plays'
designs but mainly because of the players who make them work.
"Everyone studies the Broncos' downhill pitch," says Bill
Musgrave, a Philadelphia Eagles offensive assistant and a former
Denver Broncos quarterback. "Every team has it in its playbook.
But everyone doesn't have a Terrell Davis."

BRONCOS' DOWNHILL PITCH

When a back takes a pitch and runs toward the sideline, with the
defense streaming over to meet him, that's called running
uphill. When he cuts it back swiftly, decisively, through a
tattered landscape of contorted bodies and arm tackles, that's
downhill running, and no one does it better than Davis, who's on
pace to break the NFL's single-season rushing record.

What makes the play so feared? "The whoosh!" says Buffalo Bills
pro personnel director A.J. Smith. "Some backs dance before they
make their cut, and that blows up the play. Terrell hits it with
a whoosh."

"His power, his speed, his instincts," says Seattle Seahawks
defensive coordinator Greg McMackin, "plus he has the best
vision of any back I've ever seen."

Davis also has a supporting cast that seems to have been put
together with this play in mind. The offense is built for speed,
for the quick strike. There are no 300-pounders on the line, no
250-pound fullback, no 270-pound tight end. Howard Griffith, the
fullback, is a compact 230. So is Shannon Sharpe, a
pass-catching tight end who takes great pride in his blocking.
Once Davis gets downfield, he's escorted by a pair of wideouts
who are serious about their blocking, Ed McCaffrey and Rod
Smith. And while the front side of the most mobile line in the
business is taking its guys for a ride, the back side is closing
off the pursuit with a precise series of cut blocks--a scheme
that is hammered into the Broncos by Alex Gibbs, one of the
finest line coaches in the league. "Alex does a tremendous job
of coaching back-side techniques--who you're going to block, who
you're going to turn free," says Denver offensive coordinator
Gary Kubiak. "So many concepts, and he adjusts them every week."

"How do you stop the cutback?" says Dallas Cowboys defensive
coordinator Dave Campo. "You try to make a picket fence. Then
they eliminate the pickets."

Davis creased the Cowboys for 191 yards in a 42-23 victory on
Sept. 13, including, on consecutive plays, scoring runs of 63
and 59 yards on the downhill pitch. "When you pitch the ball,
everybody is running," Davis says. "Legs are being cut, people
are hitting the ground, people are grabbing other people,
defensive linemen can't come off their blocks. That's when you
start to find seams."

The feared cutback. How do you stop it? "Penetration," Musgrave
says, "except that their linemen won't let you penetrate because
they're too quick. Teams try eight-man fronts, bringing up a
safety, but Terrell can run over safeties."

McMackin recalls the last time the Seahawks and Broncos met, on
Oct. 11. Denver led 21-16 with less than two minutes left but
was facing a third-and-three at its own 25. "We tried an all-out
blitz, with everyone just selling out," says McMackin. "We had
to get the ball back. It was do or die, and we died. He broke a
70-yarder."

49ERS' QUICK SLANT

The Los Angeles Rams were in good shape. In a December 1989
battle for the NFC West lead, they had a 10-point,
fourth-quarter lead over the San Francisco 49ers, and they had
the ball on the Niners' four-yard line. Then the Rams fumbled,
and San Francisco recovered.

"Watch the quick slant," Los Angeles defensive coordinator Fritz
Shurmur phoned down from the coaches' box. Niners wideout John
Taylor had already burned the Rams for a 92-yard score on Joe
Montana's patented quick slant, a play that should have gone for
five yards. Shurmur hung up the phone just in time to watch
Montana to Taylor on, yes, the quick slant, this time for 95
yards. San Francisco went on to win the game 30-27 and clinch
the division title.

Here's a tip: If you want to talk football with Shurmur, who now
coordinates the Green Bay Packers' defense, do not--repeat, do
not--mention the quick slant. "You think I've forgotten about
it? Well, I haven't," Shurmur said recently. "The cornerback
falls down on one of them, we miss a couple of tackles on the
other. I've had 1,000 nightmares about that play. A five-yard
gain, at best, winds up blowing open a tight game."

Everyone has the quick slant, but defenders don't fear it when
other teams run it. Montana to Taylor or Jerry Rice? Steve Young
to Rice, Terrell Owens or J.J. Stokes? That's another matter.
It's a trademark of the Bill Walsh concept of throw short, run
long: precise timing and a big receiver who can dwarf a
cornerback, break his tackle and then get downfield in a hurry.

How do you stop it? Well, you start by drafting bigger corners.
Rice, Owens and Stokes are 6'2", 6'3" and 6'4", respectively.
"The classic mismatch," says the Bills' Smith. "If you don't
have three defensive backs who can match up, too bad for you.
Get a bigger one next year."

But how do you really stop it? "The biggest thing is making the
tackle," says Campo. "Then you have to work real hard with your
corners on quick recognition and getting a good jump, getting
inside on the slant lanes. The problem is that the 49ers can get
to the slant in a lot of different ways, and they can run a lot
of stuff off it."

"The scariest part of the play," New York Jets assistant head
coach Bill Belichick says, "is the Sluggo adjustment. If the
cornerback jumps inside to stop the slant, the receiver just
takes off downfield on a go pattern. Slant plus go equals Sluggo."

Equals uh-oh.

VIKINGS' STEM ROUTE

This shouldn't be in anybody's playbook, but it has been, ever
since 1990, when Eagles coach Buddy Ryan decided that all
wideout Cris Carter could do was catch touchdown passes. Ryan
released Carter, and over the last nine years he has become the
Minnesota Vikings' alltime receptions leader, with 709,
including 77 for scores.

The stem route has been a big part of it. It's a schoolyard
play, a pass near the goal line. Carter runs for a spot, jumps
high and comes down with six points. It's not the fade, where
the receiver angles to the corner of the end zone and the
quarterback throws an alley-oop type of pass. This one is a
dart; the passer has to drill the ball.

Seems simple, right? Too simple. Why is this feared? Almost
every team has a deep threat, and to say that the bomb is the
most feared play in football, well, that's like saying that an
airplane crash is the most feared part of travel. It happens,
but the percentage isn't high.

The Carter stem route, which is straight, like the stem of a
tulip, represents a kind of arrogance. Our guy is better than
yours, the Vikings are saying. Put one defender on him, put two,
doesn't matter. He'll beat them all.

Flash back to Oct. 25, Vikings-Lions in Detroit. The game was
tied 13-13 in the third quarter, and Minnesota had a
third-and-goal on the Detroit 10. The Vikings were in a
three-wideout set; the Lions countered with a dime defense, six
defensive backs. Four of the five eligible receivers were
spectators. Halfback David Palmer hung around in the backfield.
Randy Moss, wide right, and Jake Reed, wide left, ran half-speed
five-yard routes, as if their hearts weren't in it. Ditto for
tight end Andrew Glover, who ran a lazy hook pattern six yards
downfield. Only Carter, slotted inside Moss, seemed serious. He
sprinted to a spot just over the goal line. The Lions were
serious about him, too. A pair of defensive backs locked on to
him in bracket coverage, inside and out. Quarterback Randall
Cunningham delivered the ball to the only receiver who had drawn
tight double coverage. Three players go up, Carter comes down
with the ball. Six points.

"A play like that sends you a message," says Tampa Bay
Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. "Moss is the guy
who gets deep, but in a critical situation, there's Cunningham
drilling it to Carter. You fear that play because it doesn't
matter to them what coverage you're in, single, double, he's
their go-to guy, and they're daring you to stop it."

"Sometimes you get away from schemes and simply say, My guy is
better than yours," A.J. Smith says. "Everyone can jump, but
Michael Jordan can jump and hang just a little better, with that
great timing. That's Cris Carter."

SEAHAWKS' ACTION BUNCH PASS

Defensive pass interference is called maybe a couple of times a
game. Offensive interference? Maybe once every two weeks. Most
offensive interference calls result from blatant picks, such as
when a receiver runs smack into a defender, thereby preventing
him from covering his man. Sometimes that will be called. A
grayer area involves two receivers crossing in such a manner
that the defenders will bump into each other, an insidious
maneuver, and one that's harder to spot and almost never flagged.

Former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs was the master of the
bunch formation, in which three receivers flood a small area and
then break into their patterns, creating confusion among the
defenders. Seattle's version is interesting because it combines
the pick with the bunch.

The Seahawks have gotten a lot of mileage out of the pick in
medium-yardage situations on third down and when they are near
the goal line. Flanker Joey Galloway, tight end Christian Fauria
and fullback Mack Strong run to an area, creating a bunch, and
then run their routes. Galloway's route is laid out so he can
screen off, or pick, the linebacker covering Strong. During the
second quarter of a 33-14 win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week
2, Seattle scored on such a play, with Warren Moon throwing a
four-yard pass to Strong on second-and-goal.

The Seahawks have used the play for seven years, as long as
offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has been with them. "You're
creating congestion, a cluster, making it harder for the
defenders to get to the guy who's going to the flat," he says.

The weakness? You need an old hand at quarterback who is quick
to recognize when the pick has been successfully set and can
pull the trigger fast. At 41, Moon qualifies. "It's a really
dangerous play in the red zone," says the Bills' Smith. "If the
quarterback knows what he's doing, it's almost a guaranteed
touchdown. It's fringe-illegal, but it's like running a traffic
light. It's over quickly."

How do you defense the bunch?

"Zone it," says New York Giants defensive coordinator John Fox.
"It's too easy to get picked off if you're in man coverage."

"Pressure," says the Jets' Belichick. "Make it tough for the
quarterback to get out of the play and get to his hot receiver."

STEELERS' BOSS 34

It goes by different names and numbers, but every team has a
Boss 34. The tailback takes a handoff, follows his fullback to
the strong side and, if the hole is jammed, cuts back weakside.
It has defined the Pittsburgh Steelers since the days of John
Henry Johnson in the early 1960s. For the past 2 1/2 seasons
Jerome Bettis has been the heavy hammer. The theory is simple:
The defense will tire before the 250-pound Bettis does.

"I fear players more than I do plays," says Fox. "To me Detroit
means Barry Sanders on the delayed draw. San Francisco is Rice
on the quick slant."

So Pittsburgh means Jerome Bettis on Boss 34, right?

"Nope. [Center] Dermontti Dawson," Fox says. "He's so gifted
that he gives them blocking options other teams don't have. No
matter how you play your nosetackle, the Steelers will always
get a pulling lineman to the strong side, because Dermontti can
nullify the nose guy. He can even pull and lead a play himself."

Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis coached the
Pittsburgh linebackers from 1992 through '95. "Dawson's the
X-factor," says Lewis, "because he can pull and cut off a
linebacker. The tight end blocks down, the fullback gets the guy
in the hole, the back-side linemen cut down their guys, and
that's when the play works. With Bettis you'll probably see that
play six to eight times a game, and if you don't stop it, 20
times."

X's and O's aside, no defense can be thrilled with the idea of
250 pounds hammering at it 20 to 30 times a game, whether he's
running Boss 34 or another play. "He hits a hole, and even if
it's not so big, his bulk sort of gets him through," says
Vikings defensive coordinator Foge Fazio. "With a guy like
Terrell Davis, he knows where the crease is, and he's going to
hit it. Bettis is more one-way, like he's on a track. I
particularly hate having to face him on a wet field. Guys just
slide right off him. He gets his pads down, and you can't get
him on the ground."

How do you stop Bettis?

"The way you stop any big-back attack," says Fazio. "Get ahead
so they have to throw the ball."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOE ZEFF [Diagram of football play] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOE ZEFF Broncos' Downhill Pitch Davis, who makes excellent reads on his linemen's blocks, is most dangerous when he cuts back (red dotted line). In Week 2, he burned the Cowboys for long scoring runs on consecutive plays.[Diagram of Broncos play] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [See caption above--Terrell Davis running with ball] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOE ZEFF 49ers' Quick Slant San Francisco likes to throw the slant to the weak side, which on some occasions leaves the explosive Rice with only a cornerback or a safety to beat for a long gain, even a touchdown.[Diagram of 49ers play] COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above--Jerry Rice running with ball in game] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOE ZEFF Vikings' Stem Route The stem lets Minnesota profit from Carter's athleticism. Even when the Lions went to a dime package (as diagrammed above), he outbattled two defensive backs for a 10-yard score.[Diagram of Vikings play]
COLOR PHOTO: VINCE MUZIK [See caption above--Cris Carter making catch against defender] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOE ZEFF Seahawks' Action Bunch Pass Because it typically calls for a short pass, the action bunch would seem to be an easy throw. But timing is everything, and it helps having an old pro like Moon at the controls.[Diagram of Seahawks play] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [See caption above--Warren Moon throwing pass in game] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOE ZEFF Steelers' Boss 34 Bettis piles up the yardage, but the man behind many of the Bus's long trips is Dawson (63), who, according to one defensive coordinator, gives Pittsburgh options that other teams don't have.[Diagram of Steelers play] COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON [See caption above--Jerome Bettis running with ball as Dermontti Dawson makes block]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)