Spread Offense Pass Plays – Attacking the Safety to Create Deep Pass Opportunities

A lot of the spread offense focuses on various read option plays with quick pass attachments to compliment the run game. One aspect that is often overlooked when running a spread offense is the ability to use deep pass concepts to manipulate safeties in order to open up space deep down the field. These spread offense pass plays are designed to either put the safety in conflict, or take them out of the play altogether. This enables the QB to make easier reads on deep pass plays and throw the ball into open windows. There are a few effective strategies you can use to attack the safety: run them off (run a receiver straight at the safety so he has no choice but to cover the receiver in front of him), give them difficult reads (have two receivers run close together to clog up space in the safety’s zone and force him to choose a receiver to cover) and use different formations to gain alignment advantages.

Arizona Cardinals vs Dallas Cowboys (Week 3, Sep 25, 2017)

The game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Dallas Cowboys offers several examples of how you can manipulate the safety to create space deep down the field. Despite the Cardinals losing the game, their QB Carson Palmer had a good performance, throwing for 325 passing yards on 29 completions from 48 attempts and scoring 2 passing touchdowns. This result was achieved through the Cardinals’ use of deep pass concepts which manipulated the safety, creating space down the field and allowing receivers to get open for big completions. The plays discussed in this article include Scissors, Smash and Flanker dig.

Play 1 – Scissors

On this play, the Cardinals are lined up in a 3×1 tight bunch condensed formation; the Y is in the TE position but lined up off the line of scrimmage and the receivers are in a bunch squeeze formation (see our earlier article which discusses squeeze formations in more detail: Spread Offense Pass Plays – Using Condensed Sets to Attack the Defense). The single side receiver is lined up in a normal spread alignment. The Z runs a post, the H runs a corner route and the Y chips the DE before running a drag route across the formation. The RB has hook route out of the backfield. The single side receiver runs a dig route (although on this play he loses inside leverage and is unable to run it properly). The dig route also creates a Portland concept with the Post and the Dig route picking on the safety in the middle of the field.

For the scissors concept, the QB reads the playside safety. If the safety comes down to cover the corner route, then the QB throws the ball to the post. If the safety drops back to cover the post, then the QB throws the corner. If both the post and the corner are covered, the QB will check it down to the RB underneath. The post route is effective in drawing the CB’s attention as in man coverage, cover 3, cover 4 and cover 6 the CB is forced to turn their hips and follow the post as it is basically a deep vertical route going through their zone. This almost always opens up space for the corner route to come open. On this play however the Safety came down to cover the receiver running the corner route so the post route came open in behind.

The second time the Cardinals ran this play, they completed it to the corner route for a 24 yard completion to Larry Fitzgerald on 3rd and 18. However, due to a minor issue in the Cardinal’s play design, the CB was free to back up and take away the corner route, almost having an easy interception. The issue is that the hook release by the RB places no stress on the CB who may be potentially covering the flat. As it appears to also be a check release, the hook route is slow to develop, and it is located more to the middle of the field. This means that the CB has no one in front of him to cover and is free to keep dropping back and clog up the space for the deeper routes.

A way to fix this would be to release the RB out to the flat instead of having him run a check release curl close to the box. You can see this in the example below on this play in the 2018 Week 7 Game between Detroit Lions and the Miami Dolphins. The RB draws the outside defender down to cover him in the flat, which opens up space for an easy throw to the corner route. If the RB was not attacking the flat, that outside defender would have continued to back up, potentially covering the post and shutting down the play.

Play 2 – Smash

On this play, the Cardinals are lined up in a 2×2 tight left formation. The Y stays in pass protection while both flankers (X and Z) run corner routes. The H runs a deep dig over the middle to draw the safety’s attention away from Larry Fitzgerald who is 1 on 1 against the CB in man coverage. This play resulted in a 15 yard TD to Larry Fitzgerald. This is a good example of attacking the safety and eliminating him from the play by running a player straight at him or in front of him. This gives your flanker more space to work with for an easy 1 on 1 throw and catch when the defense is lined up in obvious man coverage.

Play 3 – Flanker Dig

This play is from the 2018 Week 14 game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Detroit Lions, with Josh Rosen as the QB for the Cardinals. The Cardinals are lined up in a bunch spread formation. The H runs an inside breaking vertical route to clear out space and running straight at the playside safety and forces him to back up to cover the vertical route. The inside receiver runs a deep out, while the flanker (X) runs a dig. The Lions are in obvious man coverage pre-snap, which means that the vertical clear out route by the H receiver basically takes out 2 defenders on this play and opens up a lot of space for the dig route to come open underneath. In addition, the bunch formation also helps in opening up space as the defenders are condensed over a small area of the field pre-snap, and then they are spread out post snap when the routes develop. This gives the offense an alignment advantage which not only eliminates the safety from the play, but helps receivers get open and creates an easy read and throw for the QB.

Attacking the Safety Leads to Deep Passing Success

As you can see, attacking the safety is an effective way of opening up space deep down the field to get receivers open and create easier reads and throws for your QB. This can be achieved by running the safety off, clogging up their space to give them difficult reads and by using different formations to gain alignment advantages. This is useful if you need to pick up large chunks of yardage to move down the field quickly, or you just want to play aggressive and keep defensive coverages on the back foot. If your team struggles to get consistent completions deep down the field, then try incorporating these strategies into your pass play designs to put your offense in better positions. As always, remember that variation is crucial. Be as creative as you can be when designing your calls. The more variation and window dressing, the harder it is for defences to figure out how to defend you.

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: Brook-Ward <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/57915000@N02/26448577130″>Larry Fitzgerald</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/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. This is a detailed and tactical. The corresponding diagrams and videos meant that a ‘newbie’ like me could visually see the described techniques of American Football in play.
    My national game in New Zealand is Rugby. We have a team called The ‘All Blacks’ who will be defending their ‘World Title’ in Japan this month.
    Those deep throw passes that you guys do are incredible…..

    • Hi RJ,
      I’m glad that you were able to learn something new, it can be a complicated game to learn and it’s good to know that the diagrams and videos help with understanding the plays being discussed. The professionals make the deep throws look easy, but it is actually a rather difficult skill.
      I’m actually from Australia so Rugby is big here too, The All Blacks are the best team to ever play the game! Best of luck in the upcoming World Cup.

  3. What an awesome post. I really enjoy how you show the images along with the videos to show which plays are taking place and how they look in the game. It is nice to see how the plays work with the speed of the game and what type of reactions and speed to expect with these plays. Beautifully done and very helpful!

    • Hi Paul,
      Glad you enjoyed the article. Happy to see that the diagrams and videos help with understanding the plays and providing a clearer sense of how they work in action.

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