Anatomy of an NFL Play

Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Fassel doesn't waste any time, installing one of his favorites, PFB Double Square Out, on Day One
September 04, 2005

It's the opening day of Baltimore Ravens training camp, 7:43 p.m. The first offensive team meeting is scheduled to start at 7:45, but coordinator Jim Fassel sees that everyone is already in the conference room at the Best Western in Westminster, Md. "Shut the door," he says. "Let's get started." Then, from his right, comes the muffled ringing of a cellphone. "Turn that s--- off, men! Concentration, men. Concentration and focus. It's time to go to work." And so for the 39 players in the room, the painstaking process of learning the Ravens' offensive playbook kicks off with the first of five nights of intense instruction. On the day following each of the meetings, there will be an on-field demonstration and practice of what was explained the night before. The players were exposed to various parts of the playbook at a minicamp in early June and during 10 days of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) in May, but this is much more serious. Baltimore will carry about 25 offensive players on its 53-man roster, and mental mistakes made in training camp are one factor in determining who stays and who gets cut. Thirteen pass plays and six running plays will be installed on the first night, including one of Fassel's favorites: PFB Double Square Out. (That is the name Fassel used for the pass play when he coached the New York Giants. The Ravens have another name for it, but Fassel did not divulge it because his quarterback might audible in a game using the current terminology.)

Thirteen pass plays might not sound like many, but in Baltimore's encyclopedic playbook each one can be run in up to five formations and with a variety of personnel on the field (two wideouts, two backs, a tight end on one call, for example; three wideouts, a back, a tight end, for another). With all the derivations, Fassel will actually be installing 45 pass plays and about 30 running plays at this meeting. Each player will be expected to know his assignment for each play at the two practices the next day.

After Fassel sets the tone for camp with a 23-minute introductory speech, he divides the players into five groups--quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wideouts, linemen--and sends them to separate meeting rooms with their position coaches. Fassel works with the quarterbacks, so he gathers veterans Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright, rookies Derek Anderson and Darian Durant, new quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel and two other assistants, Jedd Fisch and John Fassel (Jim's son), around a long conference table. There is some levity in the room during the 90-minute session, but overall the mood is purposeful. "Look forward to the next day's installation, men," Jim Fassel tells the quarterbacks. "Get in the playbook every night. Do your homework."

Using a projector and a laptop with PowerPoint, Fassel flashes onto a big screen a diagram of each play and the accompanying duties of each skill player; then he shows videotape of the play as it was run in a game or at a minicamp. Some plays are familiar enough that only 45 seconds are needed to review them. Others require five or six minutes of explanation. The presentation of PFB Double Square Out lasts 74 seconds. PFB. Pass Fullback. Double Square Out. Two wide receivers run square-out patterns. Left unspoken when the play is called in the huddle, but spelled out in the playbook: The tight end runs a route down the middle of the field that, depending on the coverage, could turn into a deep post pattern or a cut back. The two backs stay in and protect the passer, then flare out--fullback left, running back right--as secondary receivers.

Sounds easy enough. But without proper execution by every player, the play won't work. For instance, Boller and tight end Todd Heap must read the defense the same way or the quarterback will look foolish throwing to a spot that Heap didn't go to. "This should be a good staple play for us," Fassel says to the four quarterbacks, who are staring at the play on the screen. "It gives you everything. You like it, Kyle?"

"Oh, yeah," Boller says. "We can do a lot of damage with this."

The Ravens primarily run PFB Double Square Out with two receivers split wide, one to each side; a tight end, lined up outside the right tackle; and two backs in the I formation, a fullback and a running back directly behind the quarterback (diagram, left). Sometimes they will use a tight end in the fullback spot, and sometimes a second back. The routes that are run and the quarterback's progression reads depend on the scheme that the defense is using.

Say a defense lines up with a deep safety and the corners playing soft, off the line. The two wideouts run 12-yard square outs, the tight end a 12-yard incut, the fullback a two-yard cross to the left and the running back a flat pass to the right. If the quarterback notices the second safety shading the right side, he's going to look left at the snap, to the wideout on the left. If that receiver is covered, he looks to the fullback.

Say the corners play bump coverage, with one safety in the middle. Then the wideouts run 15-yard comebacks, and the other receivers run the same routes as before.

Say the corners play bump coverage and the safeties play Cover 2 (the ubiquitous coverage in which the safeties divide the deep secondary in half, each taking a side). The wideouts run fades to clear the middle of the field, leaving the tight end--in Baltimore's case, the athletic Heap--licking his chops. If one of the safeties moves toward a wideout, which often occurs, the tight end should be left one-on-one against a linebacker. Even if one of the safeties shades toward Heap, the tight end is quick enough to find an opening away from the direct line of the safety, and Boller reads Heap's destination. "I'm winning that every time," says Heap. "It's one of my favorite plays."

And if worst comes to worst, the quarterback has the two backs as options. That's what Fassel means when he says the play has everything: five receiving options.

The play was originally designed by Bill Walsh in the early 1970s, when he was an assistant under Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals. With quick skill players in the backfield and at wideout, Walsh saw the wisdom of scattering the secondary so the defense couldn't focus on any one receiver. "We don't call it enough," Fassel says. "This year I could see us calling it three times in some games. That's a lot for one play."

Why would the Ravens use it so often? Because their receiving options are much improved this year over 2004. Heap has recovered from an ankle injury that slowed him all season, and the wideout position has been fortified by the signing of free agent Derrick Mason, who led all NFL wideouts last year with 96 catches for the Tennessee Titans, and the drafting of Mark Clayton, an All-America at Oklahoma who was the 22nd pick in the draft.

On the field the morning after that first offensive team meeting, Fassel paces behind his unit. He has PFB Double Square Out slated to be run twice in practice--once in a seven-on-seven drill, when the linemen aren't on the field, and once in a full 11-on-11. Because the four quarterbacks take turns during practice, Boller won't get a shot to run each play. In fact, when PFB Double Square Out is run for the first time, Wright ducks into the huddle.

"Twos are up!" Fisch calls out. "Regular! Regular!" (The second-team offense is in with the standard two-wide, two-back, one-tight-end personnel group.)

"Let's make it work!" Fassel barks. "Come on, men!"

Wideouts Devard Darling and Randy Hymes split left and right, respectively. The first-team defense is on the field. Darling is single-covered by Deion Sanders.

"Blue 18!" Wright calls, his hands under center. "Blue 18! Hut!"

At the snap Darling sprints 10 yards upfield with the wily Sanders giving him space. Wright stares a hole in Darling, and just as the quarterback throws, Sanders breaks to the spot where the ball is headed.

"Awwww, s---," Fassel mutters angrily.

Sanders hauls in the pass as if he were the intended receiver. He high-steps 10 yards downfield, and fans in the bleachers howl louder than they have all morning. Wright drops his head, knowing he's going to hear it from Fassel.

"Hey!" Fassel says to Wright. "You've got to see that now. I mean, he is sitting on that thing, and you're throwing it all the way across the field. It's not going to work." (Translation: Wright should have recognized that Sanders was waiting to jump the route and was baiting the quarterback.) Because of Wright's mistake, Fassel decides to run PFB Double Square Out two times more than planned. On his second try Wright dumps the ball to rookie fullback Justin Green for a completion just beyond the line of scrimmage.

Then Boller gets a turn. With a safety sneaking in to his right, Boller overthrows wideout Clarence Moore on the left side. "Did they bail?" Boller asks Fassel, wanting to know if the defenders dropped off the short routes and concentrated on the two wides. Doesn't matter, Fassel tells him, just make your read and throw it. "All you have to do is rhythm-throw and you'll be fine," Fassel says.

Wright goes back under center, and Sanders covers wide receiver Patrick Johnson. Wright doesn't even look left this time; he completes the square out to Fred Stamps, the wideout on the right.

After the two-hour practice ends, Fassel walks off the field and reflects on the execution of his pet play. "If it were all perfect, they wouldn't need coaches," he says. "They pay those guys on defense, too."

It isn't long before the Ravens' offense starts running smoothly. Over the first two weeks of camp they run PFB Double Square Out 22 times and complete 14 passes, an excellent percentage. If Boller can make the play work as often during the season, he will make Fassel a happy man.


Making It Happen

Each skill-position player's role in the play PFB Double Square Out, as designed by Jim Fassel

QB -- Takes a quick five-step drop when three defensive backs are deep, a slower drop with slightly more time to pick a target against two deep safeties. Against three-deep coverage, the first progression read is to find the safety sneaking down and look first at the wideout on opposite side from safety. If the wideout is covered, the next option is the fullback or the running back. Against two-deep, if neither safety is bearing down on the tight end, he's the first option. But if a safety joins a linebacker in covering the tight end, the Z, or flanker, is the first option, followed by the backs. Alert: Be smart. Look for the great athletic matchup, such as a tall receiver against a short nickelback.

Z -- Flanker: Lines up wide right and runs a 3 route, a 10- to 12-yard square-out pattern with a hard cut. If he draws press coverage from the corner, the Z converts the route to a hinge, or sharp comeback, at 15 yards. Against press coverage by the cornerback and two-deep coverage by a safety, the route becomes a fade, or a deep go route.

Y -- Tight end: Runs an inside 8, a deep post pattern. If the middle of the field is closed (MOFC), he will run a 12-yard inside cut; if the middle of the field is open (MOFO), he will nod at the linebacker and run a post. Nod means to go hard at the linebacker to force him off coverage.

X -- Split end: Lines up wide left and runs a 3 route, a hard 10- to 12-yard square-out pattern. If he draws press coverage from the corner, the X converts the route to a hinge, or sharp comeback, at 10 to 15 yards. Against press coverage by the cornerback and two-deep coverage by the safeties, the route becomes a fade, or a deep go route.

H -- Fullback: Must pass-protect first (Fox), then run route. The fullback picks up any inside blitzers, then runs short route up middle and to the left.

R -- Running back: Must pass-protect first (Fox), then run route. The running back picks up blitzers from the right side of the offense, then fades into the right flat on a short route.


• In this variation the tight end (Y) goes in motion (dotted line) then runs his route across the middle, working between the linebackers and the deep safety (inset).

• The quarterback takes a five-step drop and prepares to throw to the flanker (X), who runs an out pattern and cuts off his route in front of the cornerback (inset), at 12 yards.

PHOTOPhotographs by Al Tielemans PHOTO PHOTOCHRIS GARDNER/AP (BOLLER)QB Kyle Boller TWO PHOTOSSIMON BRUTY (PLAY) PHOTOSIMON BRUTY OPTIONS TO CONSIDER Fassel likes PFB Double Square Out because it gives his quarterback five receivers to choose from.