Spread Offense Pass Plays – Using Deep Pass Variations to Attack the Defense

One aspect of spread offensive football is throwing on deep passing routes in order to move the ball down the field quickly to get into scoring position. Using deep passing concepts allows offenses to make big chunk yardage, gain momentum through explosive plays and force the defence to play conservative as they back off out of the box in an attempt to cover all the receivers in the pass game. These concepts are usually run with 3 or 4 receiver sets in order to spread the defence and create enough space to execute the routes. Many of these plays are utilised in 3rd down situations where the offense needs to convert the play in order to stay on the field. Interestingly however, the deep passing concepts can be used on any down if you want to put pressure of the defence and place their secondary defenders in serious conflict. The Arizona Cardinals vs Detroit Lions in the 2017 Week 1 game is a great example of how to use deep pass variations to attack the defence.

Arizona Cardinals vs Detroit Lions (Week 1, Sep. 10, 2017)

The week 1 game between the Cardinals and the Lions saw the QB matchup of Carson Palmer vs Matthew Stafford and two pass heavy teams going head to head. The Lions won the game 35 – 23 and ended the game with 296 passing yards, averaging 10.2 yards per completion. Lions QB Matthew Stafford threw for 296 yards on 29 completions from 41 attempts and scored 4 passing touchdowns. These numbers were achieved by several deep passing concepts with different formations and route variations. The plays covered in this article include drive, shallow cross, smash, levels, and variations of these concepts.

Pass Play #1 – Deep Drive + Smash

The drive concept is a high-low passing concept which focuses on targeting the MLB with two routes over the middle of the field. The play features a drag “crossing” route from the WR and a 10 yard dig from the TE or slot receiver. Normally this play is run from a 2×2 formation with the flanker and TE/slot running the drag and dig on the playside, and the other two receivers running verticals like so:

The first example of a deep pass variation to the drive play is the deep drive + smash concept run by the Lions from a 3×1 spread formation. The TE is in the wing position and the ‘H’ is on the line. The ‘X’ receiver motions in to an almost stacked alignment pre-snap and then runs a 10 yard dig over the middle of the field. The ‘H’ takes an outside release (to give himself space to the middle of the field for when he breaks in at the top of his route) and runs a 15 yard dig. The TE chips the DE and then releases on a speed out. What’s interesting to note is the exchanged responsibilities of the WR’s to the play side. The X is now running the 10 yard dig instead of the drag route, and the H is now running the 15 yard dig instead of the 10 yard dig. In addition, the TE is running a speed out instead of releasing vertical on the back side of the play. This variation to the standard drive concept places added pressure on the secondary, in particular the 3rd level defenders (SS & FS) as the routes are deeper down the field. On the backside of this play the Z and RB are running a smash concept. The Z runs a burst corner while the RB runs a flare. This combination targets the CB covering the WR on the single side.

The QB follows a whole field read progression on this play beginning with the smash concept. If the corner sits to cover the flat, the QB throws to the WR on the burst corner route (1a). If the CB backs up to cover the WR, the QB checks to see if the RB is covered coming out of the backfield. If he is open, the QB will throw the ball to the RB on the flare (1b). If neither route on the smash concept is open, the QB will flip his eyes to the 10 yard dig. If there is an open window, the QB will throw the 10 yard dig (2). If the 10 yard dig is covered (either by the MLB dropping into coverage or the FS coming down), the QB will reset to the 15 yard dig (3). If there is an open window, the QB will throw the 15 yard dig. If not, then the QB resets and checks the ball down to the TE running the speed out (4).

Pass Play #2 – Fake Shallow Cross Smash

The shallow cross is a deep passing concept which focuses on targeting the safety to the side that the concept is run. The play features a post and a dig on the play side, with a drag “crossing” route underneath. The QB reads the FS to determine where he throws the ball. If the FS bites down on the dig, the QB throws the post. If the FS backs up to cover the post, the QB throws the ball to the dig if there is an open window. If neither route is open, the QB checks the ball down to the drag underneath:

The next deep passing concept variation the Lions employed was disguising the smash concept with a shallow cross look. This play is run from a 3×1 spread formation. The H receiver runs a post corner and the TE runs a dig route. The X receiver runs a whip-out route to the flat. The key thing to notice on this play is that the post, dig and drag look sells to the defence that it is a shallow cross concept. This gets the secondary defenders flowing to the middle of the field, putting them in conflict when the receivers break back out to run the smash concept. The double move on the post corner is a great way of picking on the NS, especially if he has man coverage on the receiver.  The QB reads the CB; if he sits to cover the flat or locks on to cover the X, the QB throws the ball to the post-corner route. If the CB backs up to cover the post-corner, the QB throws the whip-out.

This design of showing a shallow cross look and then hitting the defence with the smash concept on the same play is an effective way of opening up space deep down the field for a big gain.

Pass Play #3 – Levels Smash

The levels concept is a high-low passing concept which focuses on targeting the OLB with two routes over the middle of the field. The play features a quick in from both the slot and WR, while the TE runs a 10 yard dig. The QB reads the OLB, if he backs up to cover the dig, the QB throws the quick in to the slot receiver. If the OLB stays down to cover the quick in, the QB throws the dig to the TE. If neither route is open, the QB throws to the quick in from the WR:

Following the previous deep passing variation which set the Lions up in scoring position, they once again went to the smash concept (this time off of a ‘levels’ look) to get the ball into the endzone. This play is run out of a 3×1 spread formation with a 3 receiver set and TE on the single side. The X and H both run shallow in routes (levels concept) while the Z receiver runs a corner. The TE and RB run smash as well to the single side. The QB reads the CB, if he stays in the flat, the QB throws the corner. If he backs up to cover the corner, the QB throws to the WR on the in route (or flare to the running back if QB decided to throw the single side concept). This is an effective concept as many teams tend to play man coverage in the redzone. On this play Stafford recognises that it is man coverage because the CB followed the Z across the fomation to line up to cover him. This means that the CB over the X will most likely lock on to cover the shallow in route, which leaves plenty of space for the Z receiver to run his corner route and creates a big window for the QB to throw the ball for an easy touchdown.

Variations in Spread Offense Pass Plays

These deep passing variations used by the Lions out of 3×1 formations are great examples of how offenses can place pressure on defensive secondaries whilst still running sound play designs. Switching route responsibilities, using motions to change formation looks, and adjusting releases all work to put the secondary in serious conflict. In addition, the use of double moves and pick play designs are excellent ways of isolating receivers one on one with 3rd level defenders to gain leverage and create separation. These concept variations make it much tougher for the defense to combat the passing game, whilst opening up clear throwing lanes for the QB to execute easy throws deep down the field.

Feature image photo credit:

photo credit: Brook-Ward <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/57915000@N02/29306817382″>TJ Jones</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a>






One Comment

  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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *