Spread Offense Pass Plays – Using Condensed Sets to Attack the Defense

If you want to run a successful offense, running pass plays from condensed sets (squeeze formations) will make it easier to put defences in difficult positions, get your receivers open and allow your QB to make easier throws. The basic idea of using condensed sets is that you force the defense to squish in closer to the box pre-snap, then put them in conflict by spreading them out post-snap. These formations give your offense a lot of space to the edges of the field for receivers to get open and for the QB to make easier throws. It also means that the defense has to cover more ground post-snap. As these formations are less common than your average 2×2 or 3×1 spread sets, defenders will often be confused as to who they are covering and how to defend their zones.

New England Patriots vs Carolina Panthers (Week 4, Oct 1, 2017)

The Week 4 matchup of the New England Patriots vs the Carolina Panthers was arguably the best offensive performance for the Panthers all season. The Panthers struggled offensively through the first three weeks of the season and QB Cam Newton was coming off his 3rd worst QB rating for his entire career. Despite this, the Panthers offence dominated against the Patriot’s defence, with QB Cam Newton throwing for 316 yards on 22 completions from 29 attempts and scoring 3 passing touchdowns. Newton averaged 14.3 yards per completion and led the Panthers to a strong 33 point game and an upset win over the Patriots. This result was achieved with the use of passing concepts run out of condensed receiver sets. The Panthers averaged 18.5 yards per catch and completed 4 out of 5 3rd down conversions when throwing the ball from condensed sets. The plays discussed in this article include smash, mesh, drive, flood, pick plays and variations of these concepts run out of bunch squeeze formations.

Play 1 – Smash + Flanker Whip

The first variation of the Smash concept that the Panthers used was smash + flanker whip. On this play, the Panthers are in a 3×1 bunch squeeze formation. The H runs a corner and the Y runs a vertical seam route. The Z receiver however, is running a whip out instead of a speed out. This complicates the read for the CB if he is in zone coverage, making him declare what he is doing very quickly as the whip out develops slightly slower than a speed out. The CB can no longer play in between both the flat and the deep 3rd of the field. This creates an easy read for the QB who is reading the CB to determine whether he throws the corner or the whip-out. In addition, the whip-out is a great route to beat man coverage and often creates easy separation between a receiver and a CB in man coverage.

I have covered the smash concept in a previous article: Spread Offense Pass Plays – Using Deep Pass Concepts to Attack the Defense. But basically, the QB reads the CB. If the CB sits down to cover the flat, the QB throws the corner. If the CB backs up to cover the corner, the QB throws the whip-out. The first time the Panthers ran this variation of the Smash concept they completed it to receiver Devin Funchess for a 13 yard gain on 3rd & 8 against the Patriot’s cover 3 defense.

The second time, the Panthers completed it to Funchess yet again for a crucial 5 yard gain on 3rd & 3, this time against man coverage.

Play 2 – Smash + Drive

The next variation of the smash concept was run from a 4×1 bunch squeeze set with the TE (Y) lined up on the single side of the formation. On this play, the RB motions to join the trips formation pre-snap and then runs a whip-out. Once again, the H runs a corner. The inside receiver (in this case Z) run a 10 yard dig, and the X runs a drag route underneath. What’s interesting to note here is that the H and Z run their routes close together to create a rub against the defenders in coverage. This clumps defenders close together, causing confusion in the secondary and creating a large amount of separation when receivers break on their routes. This play brought the Panthers their biggest completion of the game for 43 yards to receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

Play 3 – Mesh

The next concept used by the Panthers was the mesh concept. This play was run out of a 3×1 bunch squeeze set which began as a 2×2 formation and resulted in an easy 10 yard TD. The H receiver motions across the formation into the flanker position pre-snap. The defender responsible for the H receiver also follows him across, indicating the defense is in man coverage. The H now runs the corner route from the flanker position, the Y runs a speed out and the X receiver is dragging across the formation, creating a rub concept with the RB who is running a drag route underneath.

The defence is clearly in man coverage on this play, however, what’s interesting to notice is that there is a miscommunication on defense as the CB responsible for covering the H receiver is confused about which defender is covering which receiver now that the formation has changed. It appears that the CB (#25 Eric Rowe) following the H receiver is expecting to switch responsibilities with the other CB (#24 Stephon Gilmore) in man coverage. Ultimately, this confusion causes the defence to end up leaving receiver Devin Funchess uncovered for a free TD. If the defender had been covering the H correctly, then the H would have actually run the corner route. But because Funchess saw immediately that he was uncovered, he just went vertical and signalled for the ball as there was no need to create separation by breaking on the corner route. This is a great example of how lining up in an uncommon formation, especially when dressed up with an added motion, can cause problems for defenses even before the ball is snapped.

For arguments sake, let’s say that the defense didn’t have a total brain snap and actually covered who they were supposed to. The QB would then progress through his reads, from the corner route to the speed out then to the RB dragging underneath on the rub part of the concept. As you can see, the LB in man coverage on the RB runs into the X receiver dragging across, meaning that the RB is completely uncovered out of the backfield. This would most likely result in an easy catch for a walk in TD to RB Christian McCaffrey as no defenders are near him.

Play 4 – Smash + Flanker Post

The final variation of the Smash concept used by the Panthers was smash + flanker post. On this play, the Panthers are once again in a 3×1 bunch squeeze formation with the TE lined up on the single side of the formation. The H runs the corner route, the inside receiver (in this case X) runs a speed out instead of running a vertical seam route like he normally would and the flanker runs the corner route (ending up in the same area the inside receiver would end up on the vertical seam route). The Y runs a brush route on the single side (I have covered this route in a previous article: Spread Offense Pass Plays – Getting Your Best Receiver the Football).

What’s interesting to note here is that the H receiver running the corner route, does not end up breaking on the corner. Instead, he adjusts to go vertical up the seam instead. This is a smart adjustment against cover 3 (when running smash out of 2×2 squeeze) and cover 4 (when running smash out of 3×1 squeeze). This is because in cover 3 or cover 4, the CB will be backing up to cover the exact area where a corner route would normally end up. Meaning that the open space is actually in the area just before the receiver breaks on the corner route. If you coach your players to make this adjustment against obvious cover 3 and cover 4 teams, then you will turn a less than ideal play call into an advantageous one.

In this case, the Patriots were running cover 6, with cover 4 to the bunch side of the formation. The Patriots were expecting the Panthers to run smash, which they did. However, the Panthers had adjusted, with receiver Kelvin Benjamin converting his corner route into a vertical seam instead for an open catch. This small adjustment resulted in a 39 yard completion to receiver Kelvin Benjamin and an important 3rd down conversion to start the 4th Quarter.

Play 5 – Pick Play

The only unsuccesful 3rd down conversion out of a condensed passing set came on this play. Unfortunately, the Panthers went stale with this play call. On this play, the Panthers were lined up in a 3×1 bunch squeeze set. the RB motions out to the flanker position to create a 4×1 broken bunch formation and runs a fade route. The SS follows the RB on the motion, indicating man coverage. A general rule that you see with 4×1 (Quads) formations, is that when the RB lines up at the flanker position, he alomst always runs a fade. This is to make sure that the pass concepts remain the same for the receivers in trips and in quads so there’s no confusion. So essentially the RB is wasted on this play as he is just occupying the extra safety.

For the actual concept, it appears as if it is a pick play designed to get the inside receiver open. The H runs a fade, clearing out the space vertically and to the outside, the X runs a drag, clearing out the space to the inside and the Y runs a fake speed out which becomes a slant. The idea is that the Y will be open in the vacuum of space created by the H and X clearing out. Unfortunately, the Partiots were in man coverage on this play which means that there was a defender playing tight to the Y the entire play. The Panthers probably expected the CB’s to switch responsibilities in man coverage, just as they did earlier on the motion and TD to Devin Funchess. This would have meant that the outside CB (#24 Stephon Gilmore) would have been covering the Y. Gilmore was backed up and to the outside pre-snap which would have made it difficult for him to come down and make a tackle on the Y coming underneath as he was outleveraged and would have probably run into the H clearing out vertical. This would have created an open space for an easy catch and first down. But the Patriots kept it simple, staying in man coverage with no switching responsibilities.

The best option on this play would have been to throw to the single side receiver. The alley is clear, which means the QB could audible to a single side slant route (identifying and attacking the single side ally is discussed in greater detail in our previous article: Read Option Football (Spread Series) – The “Gift” Route). A brush route would also have been effective as the CB had inside leverage, making it easy for the receiver to win outside leverage and then create separation on the break towards the sideline.

There are several alternatives the Panthers could have run in order to keep the Patriots on the backfoot. First of all, if they wanted to run a designed pick play, then they should have designed a pick for the RB. Instead of wasting the RB and losing an attacking option, they should have included him in the concept. They could have motioned the RB into the 4×1 bunch squeeze formation they ran earlier, only this time, have him run a pick route underneath his fellow receivers.

The Panthers could have run a different pass concept such as a variation of flood from their 3×1 bunch squeeze set. You notice that on the failed play by the Panthers, the LB initially runs out to cover the RB out of the backfield but the SS is actually in man coverage on the RB. Unfortunately, the partriots have time to correct this error as the ball isn’t snapped soon after the motion. On this play, you could give the RB a shuffle motion from the backfield pre-snap and then snap the ball soon after he starts moving. This will force the defence to react to the movement, without giving time for confused defenders to adjust their mistakes. This means there is a greater chance a receiver is uncovered due to a defensive error. In addition, the natural picks created by the closely run routes will allow your receivers to create greater separation from the defenders in man coverage. Running the flood concept also gives the defense a different look to the smash and corner style concepts they’ve been seeing throughout the game.

Implementing condensed formations successfully

As you can see, using condensed formations offers many significant advantages for your offense whilst creating many more problems for the defense. I always encourage you to have as much variation as possible with your play calls. However, one thing to keep in mind when implementing squeeze formations is that you must maintain the integrity of the concept. This means that receivers running concepts out of a condensed formation should end up in the same spots they normally would when running the same concepts from a traditional 2×2 or 3×1 spread formation. These concepts work for a reason. Add as much window dressing as you want with pre-snap motions and switched route responsibilities, but always make sure the end result of the concept remains the same. Too often I see coaches completely off their heads, cooking up crazy experiements in the lab when they use bunch formations; changing concepts to unsound or bastardised versions of what they should be. Of course, they run these plays to very little success, wonder why they don’t work and usually blame the players for not being able to execute their ridiculous concoctions.

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@N02/45080316474″>Cam Newton</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. You have included a ton of great information here!
    I have always enjoyed watching American football and I learned about a lot of new plays in this article. I like how you included videos along with detailed descriptions about the plays because this helped make it easier to understand.
    Very interesting and enjoyable article!

    • Hi Jesse,
      Thank you for your feedback, I am glad that you found the article interesting and were able to learn some new types of plays. It’s also good to see that the videos make the information easier to understand as american football can be quite confusing and tricky to learn. I find that learning a little more about how the game works makes for a much more enjoyable viewing experience when watching the NFL or College football.

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