How to Run a Spread Offense – Keeping it Simple

One of the key aspects to running a spread offense is sticking to the rules on each play in order to keep it simple and make the game easier for your offense. Common sense plays a huge role in attacking defenses and spreading the ball effectively. There are three rules to remember when running a spread offense or really any offense for that matter: numbers, space and alignment. I have covered these rules in a previous article: Spread Offense Pass Plays – Getting Your Best Receiver the Football. Basically, if you have more players (numbers) than the defense, if you have more space to the boundary (short side) or field (wide side) for your players to work with, or if the defenders are out-leveraged by alignment and position then you have an advantage over the defense. If your offense can follow these simple rules, then you will be able to make the decisions easy for your QB when deciding where to attack with the football.

Indianapolis Colts vs Seattle Seahawks (Week 4, Oct 1, 2017)

The game between the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks is a great example of how sticking to the rules of numbers, space and alignment makes it easy for your offense to be successful. Despite throwing 2 INTs early in the game, Seahawks QB Russel Wilson had an overall good performance, with 333 total yards (295 passing yards and 38 rushing yards) and 3 TDs (2 pass TDs and 1 rush TD). Ultimately, the Seahawks triumphed over the Colts 46 – 18. This result was mainly achieved by the ability of the Seahawks offense to play by the three key rules when attacking the defense. This article will discuss several plays where the Seahawks were able to take advantage of numbers, space and alignment to beat the defense. The plays included in this article are post wheel, hitch screen, bubble screen and the use of empty formations.

Play 1 – Post Wheel

On this play the Seahawks are lined up in a 3×1 formation with the TE on the single side. The flanker (Z) runs a post, the H runs a whip-out and the inside receiver (in this case X) runs a wheel route. The TE on the single side runs a 10 yard dig. This play is essentially a pick play designed to get the inside receiver open on the wheel against a defense in man coverage. The H running the whip-out is aiming to get in the way of the defender covering the X receiver, creating a rub and giving the X receiver an alignment advantage. This creates an open window for an easy throw by the QB.

As for the QB, he reads the CB. If the CB covers the post route, the QB will throw the wheel. If the CB stays to cover the wheel, the QB will throw the post. If the post is bracketed and covered by the safety, the QB will check the ball down to the whip-out.

Because the defense is clearly in man coverage, the QB knows pre-snap that he is going to the pick concept to get the alignment advantage. He also knows that he is throwing the wheel route as the CB will cover the post in man coverage. The result was a 27 yard completion to receiver Doug Baldwin.

Knowing that the defense is in man coverage, the Seahawks could have added an extra element to their play call. They could have lined the RB inside the TE and got him to run a speed out, just off the back hip of the TE. This would have created another pick play and natural rub against the defense. This would put the LB that is in man coverage of the RB in conflict as it would be difficult for him to get out to cover the speed out as he would most likely run into the TE and CB covering the TE. The QB can look to get a quick completion to the RB and if he’s not open straight after the snap, he just resets and looks to throw the wheel route (because he knows it will probably be open against man coverage). Adding this option also gives the QB an outlet to get the ball out quickly and avoid a sack if the D-line happen to get immediate penetration into the backfield.

Play 2 – Hitch Screen

On this play the Seahawks are lined up in a 2×2 formation with the receivers bunched up on the left side of the formation. The Y motions across the formation to join the bunch pre-snap. No defender follows the receiver across the formation, indicating the defense is in zone coverage. We have discussed the use of perimeter screens in more detail in previous article: Read Option Football (Spread Series) – Adding Perimeter Screens. The QB is looking to see if any defenders follow the receiver across the formation. If no one follows the receiver, then the QB will throw the ball to the screen because the offense now has a numbers advantage to that side (3 receivers vs 2 defenders). This is exactly what happens on this play and the Seahawks get an easy completion to Paul Richardson for a 9 yard gain and first down.

Ideally, I would prefer to have Tyler Lockette with the football instead of blocking as he is not a very big or strong player and would find it difficult to effectively block a typical CB (you see in the video above that Lockette gets knocked off his feet very easily when he tries to make a block). In addition to this, Lockette is also one of the fastest and most agile players on the field, and would be far more dangerous with the ball than Paul Richardson. As such it would be more beneficial to have run a bubble screen instead of a hitch screen in this scenario. Ultimately, both screens would end up accomplishing the same thing, but the bubble screen in this scenario would be utilising the skillset of the their players more effectively.

Play 3 – Empty QB Run

On this play, the Seahawks are lined up in a 3×2 (empty) formation with the RB lined up at the flanker position to the trips side of the formation. The defense is lined up in Cover 4 and if you count the numbers of the defense pre-snap, you can immediately see that they really only have 4 defenders in the box as the LBs are lined up in coverage almost over the receivers. This means that the offense has 5 lineman vs the defense’s 4 lineman (meaning that the offense has the numbers advantage). This means that the QB should be running the football because the defense has failed to account for the QB and is unsound in the box.

When you think about it, it is actually a 6 vs 4 numbers advantage for the offense. Even if the defense had a LB in the box to account for the QB, they would still only have 5 defenders which can be blocked by all 5 O-lineman (meaning that the offense still has the numbers advantage with the QB as a running option).

The Seahawks easily exploit the defense on this play, although, instead of a designed run play, the QB scrambles out of the pocket after the play begins to develop and he confirms that everyone is in dropping into coverage post-snap. This results in a 23 yard rushing TD to QB Russell Wilson.

Play 4 – Empty RB fade

On this play, the Seahawks are once again in a 3×2 (empty) formation but this time with the RB lined up at the flanker position to the twins side of the formation. Once again the defense is in man coverage, although this time they are in Cover 1 and have 5 defenders in the box instead of 4. The Seahawks can run the ball with the QB because they still have the numbers advantage in the box with 6 vs 5. However, on this play the defense is caught off guard as a LB is stuck in man coverage on RB J.D. McKissic (who is one of the fastest players on the field). This is a mismatch any day of the week and the Seahawks waste no time in taking advantage. The play results in McKissic outrunning the LB for a 27 yard TD reception.

The only thing I would change on this play is put the FS in far more conflict so he can’t just run over to cover the RB on the fade. At least one of the receivers on the trips side of the formation need to be running some kind of vertical route to draw the safety’s attention. This would allow the QB to easily look off the FS and then throw the fade to the RB, giving the RB more space to make an uncontested catch.


As you can see, sticking to the three simple rules of numbers, space and alignment will make things much easier for your offense. These rules are vital for QBs and the offensive coaches, as you must always be counting the numbers on every play, checking the defensive alignment and seeing where the space is in order to take advantage of what the defense is presenting to you. Doing this will enable you to have a sound play call on every play of the game and set your offense up for success.

If you have any questions or would like to add to this discussion, please feel free to comment in the section below.

Feature image photo credit:

photo credit: Keith Allison <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/27003603@N00/23103624913″>Doug Baldwin</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>




  1. I hope you enjoyed this article!
    Please join in the discussion by commenting below, we’d love to hear your thoughts, questions and feedback.

  2. Wow. I had no idea about football because in my countries we do not have it but this article has made me fascinated about how to play it.

    I did not know that it only required 3 simple rules for an effective offense for the Quarter back.
    I will start following football with a better understanding that space and alignment because I feel I am getting the drill of it now, Thanx again

    • Hi Thabo,
      I’m glad to have peaked your fascination and happy that you learned something new. American football is a complex game, but it is quite simple and very fun to play when you know what to look for.

      What country are you from? You are missing out on all the excitement of american football.

  3. Wow. I can tell you are a big football fan. Probably, you love playing it too.

    Although I do not know American Football very well, I know that it is a great strategic game. Football has very simple rule, right? Advance 10 yards in three downs. With this simple rules, all the strategies can be created. Football reminds me of Go game. Go game also has very simple rules. Take more territories. With this simple rule, it has become one of the most complicate strategic game.

    The quarterback functions as a control tower & brain of the game. And, you categorized the strategies into three parts: number, space, alignment. Your classification is simple and clear even to me.

    I am also a big sport fan. I love watching baseball, football (soccer) and tennis. When I lived in Ottawa, I also visited Scotiabank Arena quite a few times to watch Ottawa Senators’ game. Personally, I love playing badminton and swimming.

    As a sport mania, I have been thinking of watching American Football. New NFL season just started, and it will be the best time to jump in. I want to watch Superbowl this season. Your classification of QB’s strategies will be helpful. Thank you for your motivation.

    • Hi Jason,

      Yes my brother Tristan and I are massive fans of football and have played and coached for many years in Australia. It is such a great game with both challenges and excitement.

      Yeah pretty much, if you are on offense you actually have 4 downs (plays) to advance 10 yards, but most teams kick the ball away to the other team on 4th down to get better field position for their defense. Your comparison between Go and American Football is great! Simple rules allow you to be creative and try out as many different strategies as you can come up with to try and win.

      Indeed, the Quaterback is the centrepiece of the whole offense, if they don’t know what’s going on, then your offense will struggle to score points. So it’s important for them to know what to look for (numbers, space and alignment) when they are out on the field so they can make the best decisions on each play.

      It’s good to hear that you’re a sports fan, now is a great time to jump into watching the NFL and the Superbowl is always something to look forward to. We’re glad that you were able to learn something new and that our information will help you enjoy watching the games.

  4. Hey Justin!
    I LOVE how detailed and in-depth your post is! Football can be incredibly complicated with 22 athletes on the field and running all over the place on every play. It really can be a treat to watch.

    The diagrams remind me of playing Madden NLF 07 some years ago. I think I recognize some or parts of some of the play names. I really enjoyed reading about the fades and screens and how the different plays worked. It was a good refresher to something I haven’t thought about much in 7+ years. It is so easy to get lost in the analysis (in a good way) – it can be very interesting!
    Nowadays I mainly just watch Tom Brady’s Patriots in the playoffs, but it’s hard not to enjoy watching football.

    Have fun,

    • Hi Ben,
      I’m glad that you enjoyed the article! Having in depth analysis and coaching that is easy to understand is what we try to provide in all our content.

      Yes! I remember the days of Madden 06 and 07, seems like such a long time ago now. Happy to see that you enjoyed learning about the plays. The strategy, preparation and analysis is one of the best parts of the sport.

      Good to hear that you still watch football, to be honest it’s pretty hard not to watch Tom Brady and the Patriots play during the playoffs – they’ve been consistently great for such a long time.

  5. Wow you certainly know your stuff in Football! As I am from the UK I dont really follow American Football but this is really interesting and I do have some friends that do watch it so maybe now I can get better understanding. I like the clips to show the examples you are using, very useful 🙂

    • Hi Lee,
      Thanks for your praise! We’re honestly still trying to learn new things and develop our understanding of the game all the time so we can provide accurate information and correct coaching in all our content. The NFL play several games over in the UK each year, so you should check one out when you get a chance. It’s a good atmosphere and fun to see the players live. I’m glad to see that the videos are helpful in showing how the plays work.

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