This is part three of our series looking at some of the key principles of the new offense the Jets are installing under coordinator Jeremy Bates. It has been a while since our last chapter. The team got us distracted by the whole drafting a new franchise quarterback thing.
For a refresher:
Today we are going to look at the role of the bootleg in the offense, something that actually incorporates the topic of the first two entries. There are elements of zone blocking and establishing the run in both.
When a football team tries to run, there is an inherent problem. The defense potentially has 11 players who can potentially tackle the ball carrier. The offense has only 10 players who can block. Somebody has to carry the ball. And on most run plays, that number is really 9. The quarterback hands the ball off and doesn’t block anybody.
This numbers game clearly benefits the defense.
One way zone based rushing attacks beat this effect is through use of the bootleg.
As you remember, a zone play has the entire offensive line going in one direction at the snap.
Since the offense cannot block everybody on defense, it has to prioritize. Which defender is least likely to make a tackle? The defender at the end of the line away from where the play is going seems like a good bet, right?
He isn’t anywhere near the play so he comes with a lower priority. There is a problem here, however, in case you couldn’t tell. The guy Atlanta isn’t blocking on this play is Khalil Mack. Mack might not be near the ball, but you couldn’t put it past an athlete like this to fire across the field and get the ball carrier. And the same is true of many of the top athletes on the edge in the NFL.
How do you counter this? You counter it by putting another responsibility on Mack’s plate. The play could also be a fake handoff with the quarterback cutting against the grain of the play.
If the unblocked edge guy gets too far up the field as happens here, the quarterback has plenty of space to work and a fairly easy completion.
Although our focus here was on Mack from the edge, you certainly can see there are other benefits to the bootleg. It certainly can help to get the entire defense moving in one direction and then throwing the ball the opposite way.
Once you show the bootleg, it makes the run game easier. That unblocked edge guy has to be a little more hesitant on future run plays.
You can see here how tentative Mack is and how he angles himself in the direction of the quarterback. He is accounting for the fake. By the time the back hits the line of scrimmage, Mack is so far out of the play that he’s no threat to tackle the ball carrier.
The quarterback isn’t throwing a physical block here, but he essentially is serving as a blocker. The edge guy has to account for the possibility the quarterback could pull the ball back on a fake handoff and break outside. It takes the edge guy out of the play, meaning the quarterback does have the same effect as a blocker.
That essentially makes it 10 blockers vs. 11 defenders. When you consider most defensive plays have at least one safety playing deep to prevent the big play, things become even. That safety is nowhere near the play and isn’t in position to tackle the ball carrier unless he breaks a huge run. So really you have an even amount of blockers and defenders. If everybody makes an effective block, you have a change for a successful run.
It also is worth noting that the bootleg doesn’t have to be a passing play. If your team has a quarterback capable of doing damage with his legs, it can add an extra dimension to the run game as Russell Wilson shows us here.
One final thing to note is there are points where the bootleg will fail. The offense is after all leaving a defender unblocked. Sometimes he will read the play and destroy it.
There tend to be two immediate reactions when a bootleg fails, “Our offensive line stinks,” and, “Our offensive coordinator stinks.”
In reality, it wasn’t the offensive line’s fault. That player was unblocked by design.
In the case of the offensive coordinator, the reaction is overly harsh. That clearly was not a successful play, but unsuccessful is different from useless. Even though the play did not work, it reinforced to the defense that the quarterback could keep the ball on a fake handoff and run away from the flow of the blocking. That edge guy knows he cannot just run down the line to tackle the running back because of the threat of the bootleg. Even if the play doesn’t work, calling the bootleg once or twice a game is worth it simply so the defense gets the message to stay at home.
Conversely, if the offensive coordinator catches that unblocked edge guy getting too aggressive at going after the back on run plays, it is time to call a bootleg.
As we have discussed in other parts of this series, Jeremy Bates is a protege of Mike Shanahan. Bates has not run an offense in a long time so we cannot say how he might have changed. I will make an educated guess, however, that we will see an offense with Shanahan principles.
The bootleg is a staple of offenses like this. When one considers Sam Darnold’s mobility and effectiveness throwing on the run, this aspect of the offense seems like a good fit with the new franchise quarterback’s skillset.