I am currently coaching a team in the Swedish first division (amateurs) but I believe that what is true at our level translates well to the high school level.
You always hear coaches at clinics talk about being balanced and that your passing game will open up your running game. That is true however, only if you have a successful passing game. Most defensive coaches I know love when teams try to be balanced, but in effect all they do is waste 50% of their downs on something they donít do very well. So what is the solution to this? Well, in my mind, not giving up on the passing game or to only run playaction and screens like some conservative coaches seems to like. My feeling is that you can have an efficient drop back game without a ton of techniques, reads and endless hours of practice.
My concept is based around six route combinations that you can run out of just about every formation, which makes my system very dynamic and versatile. The most important cornerstones of the system are:
"Donít even talk about routes and reads before you make sure the QB is protected" one coach once told me. That is very true. We use only two base protections in our 3-step game, Base and Crash. Base is a simple zone protection scheme, all line men block man over to gap to their strongside except weakside tackle who blocks weakside. The fullback/singleback blocks weakside B-gap. That way we are protected pretty solidly against just about every front. Matchup wise we are just fine, we'll have big on big all across the line and our best backfield blocker picking up any weak side blitz. The weakness of that scheme is two outside rushers to a side. If a defense picks up on this scheme you either have to have a QB who is quick enough to get rid of the ball before the rush gets to him or you have to motion a player in to protect that side. We usually do that with our closest player via a "bandit" - call. We simply motion the closest receiver or back in to protect to that side. When! defenses pick up on that we call our delay to that player who often is wide open since the defense now considers him a blocker.
Note: we never pass protect with our Y/TE, unless we are forced to due to a bandit-call. Our crash protection is a cut-block scheme we use when we face more rushers than we can expect to pick up. We cut block to our right with our linemen and the FB picks up the backside rush. That way we are pretty sure we won't get pressure up the middle and have a chance to get rid of the ball in time. Usually teams coming with that kind of heat play man coverage so we want to run slant hitch or fade against them.
2. QB technique
We want our QB to able to throw on rhythm, if he doesn't like what he sees after the snap he should just throw it away and focus on the next play. Never force a ball into coverage. The dropback is the backbone of the 3-step game, we tell our QB to make a pre snap read to decide if he is going to throw to the left or right side of the field. That will give the QB an opportunity to cheat to the side he's going to throw to. The third step will be slightly away from the side heís throwing to, that way the dropback is faster and without any hitch. Also, the cheat step will put the QB in a perfect throwing position without setting his feet after the third step. I.e. if the QBīs pre snap read tells him to go to his right his third step will be slightly to his left, that will open up his hip to the target and speed up the delivery of the ball. Some coaches will argue that you should cheat to the side you're throwing but that in effect turns your 3-step into a 4-step and therefore throw's off the timing. I'm not saying that there is a huge difference or that our way is the better way for everybody, but this has really helped us improve dropback speed and ball accuracy.
We divide the field in two parts, vertically, to call routes. Our play call is 3 digits, the first number is the left-side route combination, the middle number is the play series (3 is our 3-step number) and the third number is the right-side route combination.
Ex. a 1-32 pass would mean that all receivers left of the center runs combo route 1, the line will give 3-step protection and the receivers to the right of the center will run combo route 2.
Our main concern when we design routes is "What coverageís do we face" and "How can we beat it?" We have developed six route combinations that we feel will give us a good option no matter what coverage we face at our level. Some teams like to use numbered routes and call them individually for each receiver but my experience is that is to much information for the QB to handle at the line of scrimmage. If you have 4 or 5 WR packages it's very tough for the QB to make good decisions. We believe in coverage recognition, most teams will give you a pretty good idea of what coverage they're using. That information should tell the QB which side he's going to throw to, post snap he'll decide which receiver he's throwing to. That gives us a good chance of a completion even if the defense was in a disguised coverage or trying to rob us. Our combinations are always a pair of routes, if we have a trips side the #3 receiver will run the same rout as the #1 receiver. If we have a single receiver side that player will run the outside route. (See explanation below). Only small adjustments will be made to this rule.
Our routes are: (#1-#2-#3 receiver)
Combo-route 1: Fade-arrow-(fade)
This is our vertical threat vs. Man coverage and press techniques. We tell our QB to take a chance downfield if the down and distance is to our advantage, we don't want defenses to be able to dictate when we're going to throw deep. If they play man in a third and medium, to third and short situation we usually don't want to go to the fade. Instead we'll trust our #2 player to be a better athlete than his coverage player (usually a linebacker or a strong safety) and throw the arrow. Vs. zone the read is easy; rule = low corner = go to fade, high corner = go to arrow. The QB should make sure where to go by reading the #1 defender post snap.
Note: we always call one side to fit vs. Man coverage and one to fit vs. the type of zone we expect in a given situation. We almost never call "1-31" since that gives the QB very few alternatives vs. zone...
CR 2: Slant-speed out-(slant)
We really like this combination. Against man coverage we tell our receivers (in twin or trips looks) to tighten their splits to create almost a stacked look. That way we create a mesh or rub when the routes cross. If we face a zone defense we like a bigger split to avoid compressing the zones and run into coverage. If we have this route called to a trips side we tell the #1 WR to run a skinny slant and the #3 WR to run a fat slant. Usually we throw to the speed-out vs. cover 3 and to the slant vs. cover 2.
CR 3: Speed-out-corner-(speed-out)
This is our zone beater. We feel we've got a great chance to complete the pass to our #1 in the flat if they sit back and play cover 3 or 4, if they come up and play cover 2 the corner route should be open regardless of where they line up their safeties. We give our #2 freedom to adjust according to alignment of #1 and #2 defenders, he should always try to find the exact split between them. That means that the route can change in depth from time to time. The only time we don't really like to run the 3-combination is against cover 5. If a team plays cover 5 we tend to go to routes 4 and 5, or got to our 5-step game since we should be solidly protected.
CR 4: In-seem-(in)
This is one of our most versatile routes, we'll have a good chance to have one player open regardless of coverage. The seem will work as a clearing route for our #1 WR running the square in, and the seem will be open downfield vs. a cover 3 look, splitting the area between the FS and the CB. The #2 shold always position himself inside the #2 defender when running downfield. This combination will also work just fine vs. man coverage, the seem will either be open downfield or clear the throwing lane for the square in. The in is great vs. man if you make sure to cut underneath the defender.
CR 5: Hitch-corner-(hitch)
This combination is very effective and simple to use vs. cover 2 or 3. The read is very simple; key the #1 defender, if he sits in the flat go to the corner, if the defender backs out you go to the hitch. Both routes will work just fine vs. man coverage, often the corner-route is a good choice since you got your #2 WR matched up with a LB or safety. The most important thing is to make sure that your QB isnít greedy and goes for the bigger gain (the corner) if the CB is playing soft. Our philosophy is to take what the defense gives you and not take any unnecessary risks.
CR 6: Curl-cross-(curl)
Here is a very effective and simple way to create a nice throwing lane and/or find out if the defense is in man-coverage. We use this combination only from "Twins" sets, after having completed a couple of slants. The #1 WR will run a curl, witch looks much like a slant for the first 6 steps. The #2 WR will run in at about a 60-degree angle, not getting parallel with the LOS until he's about 6-7 yards deep. The QB will read the #2 defender, if he sits or widens the QB should throw as quick as he can to the cross before it gets into coverage on the inside. If the #2 defender bites on the cross and stays with his man (=man coverage) the throwing lane to the curl should be huge. Since it's man coverage the release and cut of the #1 WR is very important. If possible an inside release is preferred, if the DB plays the inside too hard the WR must make his (slant) cut under the DB. Otherwise the DB will regain coverage once the WR curls up.
We use some tags to change individual routes or assignments if needed. We just add a word to the play-call, a "1-34" would be a "1-34 swing" if we want the halfback to ignore his protection rule and swing instead. Tags can be used endlessly to get the little wrinkles you need to be successful.
I hope you enjoyed this article and maby got an idea or two!
Solna Chiefs / Sweden