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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Run and Shoot Series Part 2 - The Seam Read and the "Go" Concept

[This is Part 2 of a multi-part series on a "Simple Approach to the Run & Shoot." In one sense I mean "simplified," but the series is, more than anything else, intended to diagnose and explicate some of the fundamental concepts behind the shoot, and discuss how I might marry them with some passing modern ideas, all in an effort to just understand passing offense generally. You can see the full series here. Part 1 is here.]

John Jenkins, one of the run and shoot's pioneers and most prolific prophets, is a bit eccentric. Jenkins becamse famous during his time at the University of Houston as offensive coordinator and eventually head coach, where he coached Andre Ware to a Heisman trophy and David Klinger to ridiculous statistics, including the outrageous (in several senses) eleven touchdown passes Klingler threw against Division I-AA Eastern Washington. According to Sports Illustrated, former Texas A&M Coach R.C. Slocum once said of Jenkins: "For somebody who is really a pretty good guy, John has managed to piss off coaches all over the country."

And some of this brashness was instrinsically tied up with his role as run and shoot maven. As discussed previously, Ellison and Mouse Davis (as well as Red Faught) innovated the offense, but Jenkins was there at least from the time it took off. He coached quarterbacks under Jack Pardee and Mouse Davis with the USFL's Houston Gamblers back in 1984 (their quarterback was some guy named Jim Kelly), followed Pardee to the University of Houston, and stayed as head coach after Pardee became head coach of the Houston Oilers. Of course, Jenkins's personality wound up doing him in as much as anything (burning playbooks and refusing to share ideas with other coaches, though to be fair some of these stories are anecdotal). But, when it came to the run and shoot concepts, the man is an encyclopedia.

The Seam Read and Adjusting Pass Patterns

This part of the R&S series is intended to break down the "seam read" (or "middle read") route as a way of introducing the offense's most fundamental principle: that receivers adjust their routes on the fly. Jenkins explained this principle in the manual (maybe more of a manifesto) he gave out to the USFL Houston Gamblers quarterbacks back in the mid-1980s (again, Jim Kelly):

"Any conversation on any type of offensive theory without the acknowledgment, consideration, and complete understanding of defensive opposition is entirely useless. This statement certainly applies to our situation more so than any other team in football today. For with our repeated route altering and adjusting dependent upon the recognition of coverage categories, it is obvious that we must be capable of reading and reacting to coverages properly. When reacting properly, we place the defenses into an impossible state leaving them rendered helpless. In simpler terms, whatever the defense throws up at us should be wrong. Naturally this is due to our own proper decisions in reacting to the specific coverages revealed."

I will at once agree and break slightly with this approach. Again, the run and shoot is all about adjusting pass patterns based on the defensive coverage. Yet these adjustments were largely decided upon by fitting all defensive coverages into five categories and having everyone identify which category the coverage fell into. As June Jones explained back when he was with the Detroit Lions: "The defense may think it has many coverages, but we will fit them all into one of our five categories." I don't think this particular approach can be done as effectively now as it once was, particularly considering how much time that approach takes.

But I do agree that (a) offenses -- coaches, quarterbacks, receivers -- must understand defenses, and (b) that converting and adjusting patterns based on coverage is important. The only difference is a matter of degree: the receiver will adjust his pattern based on certain "keys" given by one or two defenders, and the quarterback will similarly look for keys and "open grass" (the empty spots in the defense), but will not get hung up in knowing exactly what the coverage is. Does this mean he would not be able to explain the difference between Tampa Two and Cover 5 (Cover two man)? Of course not: he better know that. But it doesn't mean that, when dropping back, the quarterback's first thought needs to be "Oh, they are in Cover 3 invert!"

To see what I mean, let's look at the seam read route itself, and then I will talk about the "Go" pattern, one of the offense's (in my view) three or four most important concepts, and maybe the most.

The inside vertical releasing receiver is the seam reader. He might run a seam route (release straight up the field and catch the ball between 16-20 yards deep between the deep coverage), he might break for the post (split the deep defenders and catch the ball between 18-22 yards downfield), or curl or run a square-in (catch the ball about 12 yards deep underneath the deep coverage).

There's been a number of ways to teach this route, and to many it appears intimidating. Indeed, a number of times I have demonstrated on this site two-way choices, but so many? Here's how it is easiest taught:

  • #1: Identify the safeties, which can be done pre-snap. How are they aligned? Going to be one-high (single free safety down the middle)? Or two-high (Two deep down the middle)? Identify the safety closest to you.

  • #2: Post-snap, release downfield, attacking the near safety (even if it is the strong safety rolled up, as shown below). Make a decision at 8-10 yards on what you will do.

  • #2A: If there is a single high safety, can he get to you? If not, continue up the seam looking for the ball between 16-20 yards.

  • If the single-high safety plays too deep and shaded to make the seam effective, come underneath him on a square-in (keep running against man coverage, settle in the hole on a curl against zone).

    If the single-safety overreacts to the formation or your route, cross him. (Sometimes this is communicated in the run and shoot by having the quarterback do a pump-fake, which releases receivers into their "secondary routes.")

  • #2B: If there are two-deep safeties, cross the near safety to attack the middle of the field. This is not a "bomb" throw, expect it on a line between 18-20 or 22 yards deep.

  • But if the two safeties play so far deep that the receiver can't effectively split them, he must run a square-in underneath them.

    Against blitz man (no deep safeties) some run and shoot teams have the receiver break immedediately into a slant, while others treat it like two-deep and let him run a post. I prefer that approach.


    Okay, that seems like a lot to take in. A few points. First, the decision tree can be simplified as "find the open spot between deep defenders, and if you can't get deep, run a square-in or curl underneath them." In other words, you'll notice above that if the defense is in middle of the field open ("MOFO" or a two-high), the receiver tries to get deep down the middle because that's where the grass is. Conversely, against middle of the field closed ("MOFC" or 1-high with one safety deep) the receiver tries to find the deep spot away from the deep free safety -- if he is coming from the far side that opening should be right past the strong safety, or he might have to cross under him if the safety overreacts. So it can be explained different ways.

    Second, and most importantly: this is the foundation for the entire offense. The triple-option is confusing and multifarious, but everyone knows you'll practice it all the time. That's how it is with this. You install this route on the first day and everyone must master it because it will show up -- in one form or another -- on almost every play. This will become obvious as I discuss the route in the context of the "Go" (below), as well as "streak" and "switch" and the "choice," and continue to show how it can be a backside combination for other routes like the smash pattern.

    Third, even if the seam-read receiver doesn't get open or get the ball thrown to him, having a player running such a dynamic route has its advantages for the offense. Most important of all is that it essentially lets one player dominate and control almost the whole middle of the field, thus further opening up the routes to the outside. That's why, in the 'shoot, the seam read is often the second or third read on the play.

    Finally, as an update, I've already gotten some questions on practicing this route. There's more to say about it but here's two quick points. One, the way to begin by teaching it is just to take the receiver and a coach and have the coach act as the single-key defender, usually the near safety. The receiver will adjust his route based on what the coach does (or doesn't do). Once you've practiced that you can move to team "routes on air" -- multiple quarterbacks each running the same play and throwing to each of the receivers -- and use dummies where the defense will align, but again with one coach or player giving the seam reader his key. The second point is that during any team drills the quarterbacks are told not to throw the ball to the seam reader unless he gives them a very clear read and route -- the QB must see what he's trying to do. This gives the receiver lots of incentive to get it right and to be decisive.

    Now, onto the "Go" concept.

    The Run and Shoot "Go"

    The Go is actually relatively simple, and is based all around the seam reader's route. Even without it, it's a nice little hitter in the flat, but with it, it becomes the foundation from which you can build an offense.

    It is a "trips" formation play -- in the 'shoot, the concepts are typically designed around whether you are in "doubles" (two receivers to each side) or trips, three to one side and a single receiver on the other. The routes are fairly simple. The outside man to the trips side runs a mandatory "go" or "streak" -- he releases outside and takes his man deep. (Update: A helpful reader points out how important it is that the receiver take a "mandatory outside release" -- i.e. if the corner is rolled up and tries to force the receiver inside, he still must do all he can to release outside and get up the sideline. This is imperative for many reasons, among them to keep the near safety stretched and to widen the defenders to open the flat route.)

    The middle slot runs the seam read, outlined above. The inside receiver runs a quick flat or "sweep" route: he takes a jab step upfield and then rolls his route to five yards in the flat. An important coaching point is that this player must come right off the seam reader's hip; you're looking for a rub against man to man.

    On the backside, the receiver runs a streak but if he cannot beat the defender deep, he will stop at 15-16 yards and come back down the line of his route to the outside. The runningback is usually in the protection, but if not needed, he will leak out to the weakside.

    The quarterback's read begins with the near safety: where is he? Tied up in this is what kind of coverage are they playing on the outside receiver? If there is no safety help on him, he can throw the ball to that guy one on one deep. But that's considered a "peek" or "alert" (in Bill Walsh's terminology): it's a deep route you will throw if it is there but otherwise immediately eliminate it and work with the normal progression.

    The quarterback's key of the near safety tells him what he's looking for. If he plays up he's throwing off him: if he takes the seam receiver, he throws the flat, if he takes the flat, he throws the seam. In any event, you usually tell the QB: "throw the seam, unless . . ."

    If the near safety plays deep the QB looks for a two-high coverage (Cover 2), and will likely get that. In that case he first wants to see whether the safeties "squeeze" the seam reader as he runs a post. If they do, he knows that he likely has a two on one with the outside receiver on a go and the receiver in the flat on the cornerback. If the QB ends up eliminating those routes he will look backside.

    In any event, the quarterback can always deliver the ball to the man in the flat, particularly against man coverage. As Mouse Davis says, you want to keep hitting that flat route as long as they give it to you, because eventually they are going to come up and that's when you'll kill them with a big play.

    And that's about it. It seems like a fair amount but basically the quarterback just wants to identify the near safety and then work his seam reader to the flat: somebody is going to pop open. If you thirst for more, June Jones (partially) explains this play to Bob Davie, below:

    Finally, below are a few variations on the Go. It should be noted that the most obvious ones just switches the assignment of #2 and #3, the seam reader and the flat runner. Sometimes the defense tries to wall a guy off and by switching assignments you suddenly get a free release downfield and an easy path to the flat. It's all about breaking tendencies.

    But below are a few others. One is "Go curl," which adds a curl route to the go concept creating a kind of curl/flat read.

    The other creates a kind of "vertical flood" concept by tagging the seam reader with a corner or "sail" route.


    So that's the seam read and the Go -- two foundations of the run and shoot. There's plenty more to say, but in many ways it's all down hill from here: this is the tough stuff. The offense works because this stuff is practiced over and over again to perfection, and it provides answers against any coverage. And again, my "simplified" approach here does not require that the quarterback and receivers identify all coverages and fit them into neat boxes because I do not think that is tenable or productive anymore. (I also am ignoring certain other R&S principles like "secondary routes" triggered when the quarterback makes a pump fake.) But you can get the same variable effect -- and the same production -- without identifying fixed coverage categories; indeed, in today's game I think that is asking too much. Instead, I think the best approach is to talk about finding the open spots and running away from coverage. The rest is academic.


    Anonymous said...

    This is really good stuff - thanks for posting. We run the 'shoot and I've had the privilege of sitting in with Coach Davis and much of what you say is exactly what I've heard coming from him.
    A couple notes that I might add on the Go route. He would say that the read on Go changes from inside-out to outside-in depending on the coverage. If you see a squat corner, you'll probably hit either the seam or the outside route; if you see a deeper corner, take that flat every time. And if you see man, he warns "not to pee your pants." Funny guy.
    In addition, he mentioned that all routes have a secondary that is cued by the pump fake. The outside receiver converts to a deep comeback, the #2 receiver does exactly what you describe in the seam read, and the inside receiver converts the flat route to a wheel.

    Chris said...


    Thanks for the kind words. Good points on Mouse, and some of that gets into me trying to present a sort of "simplified" approach. I expect that in my later posts I will annoy some R&S purists but as I said, the goals are to (1) explain some fo the offense's basics to the uninitiated, (2) spark more interest in the offense in its purest froms, and (3) show how you could implement other concepts into the 'shoot and use the concepts in other contexts. I will deal with that (3)'d point later in the series, and I expect at that point to really annoy some 'shoot gurus. But that's why I didn't really get into the changing progression depending on coverage (though Mouse is right) and the true secondary routes. I just focused for now on primary ones though with the seam read, though scramble rules may dictate a similar result.

    Anonymous said...

    Thanks, Chris.

    I coach a semi-pro team and I've been running "Go" and "Switch" a whole lot. The recievers were initially skeptical but seemed to change their mind when they realized how they could be open every time by just adjusting their routes to coverages.

    We run the flexbone triple as well, so I tell my QBs that Go and Switch are just "option through the air." That helped them get the concept a little bit.

    Keep it up, looking forward to the next post!

    lookingforajob said...

    Great stuff here, I just shared this on our forum ( and expect a lot of excited readers.


    Anonymous said...

    Chris, just in case you thought your readership wasn't very high, know that there are a lot of strategy junkies like me who hang on your every post. Amazing stuff!

    Anonymous said...

    Great article Chris. One thing I might help clarify. I've been a "shooter" for a few years and to my understanding, the back side route of the trips formation for Go, Slide, Hook, etc. is a mandatory go release to the sideline. He is never instructed to stop his route. This is done to turn the corner's shoulders and head outside to prevent him from playing, or sitting, on the seam read crossing release. If the WR stops his route, the corner can see the cross, float inside, and rob the route. The QB is instructed to never throw this route backside, unless for some reason he's uncovered. To my knowledge, the only time a WR can break off a go route is if he is on the same side of the seam read, e.g. choice, streak, switch, and Go swap. Looking for more, thanks Chris.

    Coach Dunham said...

    Somewhere along the path from my first use of the Shoot in 1977 to the present I picked up a rhyme for the seam read.

    When reading the safety:
    He's even, I'm leavin'
    He's droppin', I'm stoppin'
    He crosses me, I cross him

    When you have a MOFO, it is an automatic "He crosses me."