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Searching for football’s next offensive frontier

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NFL: New York Jets at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Football is a game where strategy frequently evolves. A coach tries a new way of doing things. Sometimes it gets mocked. At a minimum there is typically some skepticism.

That all disappears once something works. Then everybody copies it, and the unique way of operating becomes commonplace.

You frequently hear writers and television personalities talk about how a coach runs the West Coast Offense or the Air Coryell. These really are misnomers in the year 2019. Every single offense in the NFL contains the key features of the schemes Bill Walsh and Don Coryell ran. They worked so everybody copied them.

In recent years, we have seen innovations such as shotgun heavy offenses, spread formations, and the run-pass option take the league by storm. These are now staples of any offensive system.

For a stretch these concepts did give the original teams running them an edge, though.

Doing things differently is often born out of necessity. Many strategic innovations were born on the high school and college levels by undermanned teams. Coaches at underdog programs don’t have the luxury of leaning on the status quo. They need to figure out a way to give their team a strategic advantage. If they don’t, their team loses a lot of games, and they get fired.

I’m always excited to think about where the next strategic innovation will be.

Years ago I had a thought in my head about possibly trying to get into coaching offense in football. It was a fleeting moment, but it made me ponder the way offenses worked. There was something that dawned on me.

At every snap, seven offensive players must be right on the line of scrimmage.

The two players at the end of the line are eligible receivers.

The five in the middle are not. That’s where my mind wandered. Almost every team in football deploys these players in the same way for almost every snap. A center snaps the ball. Right next to him are other two big linemen on each side, one tackle and one guard.

While everybody operates this way, there is no rule requiring it. It isn’t even the historical status quo for football. The single wing, which was once the dominant formation in the game, put an unbalanced offensive line on the field. The two tackles were next to each other at the snap.

Teams in the NFL and other high levels will run the occasional play without a balanced five man offensive line next to each other, but it tends to be for a play here or there as a gadget.

These plays show the potential of different thinking.

Back in the 2016 opener, the Bengals broke out what is known as the Emory and Henry formation against the Jets. Decades ago, a college named Emory and Henry utilized this formation. It breaks offensive linemen and wide receivers into three groups of three across the field.

Cincinnati got to this formation by moving two tackles out wide.

There was clear confusion from the Jets.

This formation produced an advantage for the Bengals. It essentially took the edge rusher out of the play.

What he really needed to do was move over completely and line up across from the tackle.

He failed to do so, however, and his rush to the quarterback was rendered ineffective. Because the tackle was flexed out wide, the quarterback could just flip it out to the receiver on that side. The extra blocker the tackle provided offered a numeric advantage to Cincinnati. All Jets defenders on that side were now blocked.

Back in their 2013 opener against Washington, the Eagles used this same formation.

The Eagles married this formation to the zone read. They had three offensive linemen in the middle against four defensive linemen.

Three offensive linemen were responsible for blocking three defensive linemen.

The unblocked defensive lineman was the read guy. If he crashed on the handoff to LeSean McCoy, Michael Vick’s job was to pull the ball and take it outside.

Since he ultimate stayed too far outside to defend the Vick keeper, the handoff went to McCoy for a run up the middle.

One of the most difficult tasks for offensive coaches in the NFL is figuring out how to get the ball to their playmakers in space. In this instance, the formation did the work. McCoy ended up in space on a run up the middle, which is normally the most congested part of the field. The linebackers and safeties who normally could have contributed to the congestion were pulled to the edges of the field by the formation.

McCoy ends up one on one in space, a favorable matchup.

Here’s the full video. You can see for yourself the total presnap confusion the formation caused.

One of the ways the league helps officials keep track of eligible receivers on a given play is jersey numbers. Each position has a range of jersey numbers players are allowed to wear. Players who wear numbers between 1 and 49 and 80 through 89 play positions of eligible receivers.

Offensive linemen wear numbers between 50 and 79. They are not eligible receivers. (Numbers 90 through 99 are reserved for linebackers and defensive linemen.)

Being an eligible receiver is not just about the number you wear, though. It is about where you align. There are five eligible receivers on each play. As we discussed above, there are seven players on the line of scrimmage each play. The two players at the end of the line are eligible. There are also three players who start the snap behind the line of scrimmage. They are also eligible. (The final player is the quarterback.) The five players on the line of scrimmage at the snap who are “covered” are ineligible.

Prior to the snap, a player wearing an offensive lineman’s number can report to an official that he will be an eligible receiver for that play. If you’ve ever been at a game and heard an official announce before the snap something like, “Number 79 is an eligible receiver,” that’s what it means. Number 79 has told the official he will be lining up as an eligible receiver. He is then permitted to go out on a route and receive a pass as long as he lines up in the formation at an eligible receiver’s spot.

Conversely, players with the numbers of eligible receivers can report themselves to the officials as ineligible and line up as an offensive lineman for that snap.

I know praising the Patriots can be painful around these parts, but they utilized this rule in a brilliant way back in the 2014 Divisional Playoffs against Baltimore.

They made use of a play where they used only four true offensive linemen. The guy at the right who seems to be lining up as a tackle is actually a tight end, and he is an eligible receiver since he was the end guy on the line at the snap.

How did they do this? Shane Vereen, a running back, declared himself as an ineligible receiver and lined up in the slot.

Vereen was on the line, but he wasn’t the furthest outside guy so he was an ineligible receiver.

The Baltimore defense read Vereen as a slot receiver, though, so a man went to cover him, leaving the tight end masquerading as a tackle open.

And this wasn’t totally wrong. Even though Vereen was not an eligible receiver, that only means he was unable to catch a forward pass. He still was able to receive a lateral. The defense needed to account for him. This essentially gave Tom Brady a sixth possible receiving target on the play when Baltimore’s defense only accounted for the traditional five.

The Patriots finally gave us something cool, but John Harbaugh and the Ravens coaching staff had to (kind of) ruin it. Instead of just tipping his cap and admitting he was outschemed and outcoached, Harbaugh complained, and the league changed its rules.

Players wearing offensive linemen numbers (50 through 79) can still line up anywhere as ineligible receivers (like in the Cincinnati play from above, which took place after the rule change). However if a player wearing a skill position number (1 through 49 or 80 through 89) declares himself ineligible for a play, that player must line up in the tackle box.

I still see a loophole. If a team wanted to use a running back the way New England used Vereen, they could issue him an offensive lineman’s number and list him as a tackle. He could then go into the slot as an ineligible receiver and become a sixth target as a lateral option.

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When I’ve seen concepts like these, they have tended to be as a one off, short-term deals. Nobody has committed to adding variety to the way ineligible receivers are utilized. It is always five linemen placed next to each other exclusively at the highest levels of football.

But the few instances when I have seen teams mix it up, the defense has frequently had no idea what to do. They’ve never practiced for these situations. In many instances, they’ve never seen anything like it. These formations and alignments create total confusion.

Let’s say there was a team with staggeringly low offensive production. Maybe this team is down to its third string quarterback. Maybe its coach has a reputation for being an “offensive innovator.” Might this be something to take a look at?

The possibilities are endless. On one play, there might be two offensive linemen out wide to the right as blockers. On another, there might be two wide right and one wide left. Maybe later a somebody goes to the slot as an ineligible receiver. He becomes a lateral option, giving the quarterback six targets on a play. Maybe then another guy lines up in the opposite slot as a second ineligible receiver lateral option, and the quarterback has seven targets.

Maybe the team has a star back who is struggling to get much going against loaded defensive boxes. Maybe sending some of his linemen out wide forces defenders to follow them, lightening the box and creating space for him to run.

An offense could spend all week practicing a few concepts and getting comfortable with them. Then once game time came, they could be married to an up tempo pace, snapping the ball so quickly that the defense doesn’t have time to communicate and figure out what is coming next.

I think some day a forward thinking coach will realize how many different ways there are to effectively use his five ineligible receivers. That coach will become known as one of the game’s great offensive minds, and his offense will put up impressive production.

I wonder when it will happen, and whom that coach will be.