John DeFilippo pulled out a roster sheet and started drawing little X’s and O’s in the margins. His football brain kicked into top gear and there was terminology and schematic philosophy flying around everywhere. It was like being in one of those big boxes that shoots money up in the air and you get to keep whatever you can grab. Even listening back to the conversation at three-quarters speed, it’s hard to keep up.
It’s only when you wander deep into the caverns of football strategy — away from the conversations about whether it’s “Super Bowl or bust” — and into the finest details do you see that today’s football coach has to be a historian, a chess player and a professor at the same time.
And Dr. DeFilippo falls into the category of modern offensive minds who grew up in the game with all the world’s information at their fingertips. So if he wants to get a better understanding of a concept, the Vikings’ offensive coordinator can pull up a YouTube game from 1994 or he can buy a book from Amazon in two seconds flat or he can watch how every other NFL coach used that concept by pulling up the All-22 game tape in a snap and get two different angles.
“I was doing a study on something late last night that I’m not going to divulge,” DeFilippo said excitedly.
Wrap your mind around that. He’s installing an NFL offense for a team with a new quarterback and in his spare time he’s sitting in a dark lab with flashing computers all around him cooking up something the league isn’t ready for.
OK maybe it isn’t that dramatic, but the cat and mouse game of NFL offensive coordinators trying to evade the Ph. D minds on the defensive side has been pushed to a level that makes the old days look like a game of Candy Land.
And the offensive guru who finds the slightest, one-percent edge will not only be celebrated as a genius, but also copied out the wazoo the following season.
This offseason the Philadelphia Eagles — where DeFilippo was the quarterbacks coach — have gotten to wear the Football Genius Crown following their Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots. While the Eagles used offensive concepts that drew from every famous offense ever — the West Coast, Run and Shoot, Air Coryell — it was Doug Pederson’s use of Run/Pass Options that caught the attention of the football media.
Nearly every day this offseason, you could have opened Football Twitter or tuned into NFL Live or any of NFL Network’s shows and heard something about how Team X will be using RPOs and see-our-latest-breakdown-of-RPOs-at…
While Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer quipped that RPOs will be “all the rage” this year, there’s a few things to keep in mind about RPOs: A) Everyone in the league has been working on ways to stop them, which means their impact could be limited, B) There are limitations to RPOs that aren’t often discussed, like the fact that it’s difficult to create a vertical passing game.
So it isn’t that you should ignore your favorite analyst when they’re talking RPOs, just keep in mind that they will only be a small part of this year’s football innovation puzzle.
Here’s the other thing to note: The Football Genius Crown was given to Philly and Pederson, but heading into last year’s playoffs, that title would have gone to wunderkind Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams.
So when offensive coordinators around the league are in their labs at 2 a.m., they aren’t just studying the Eagles, they are also looking every bit as closely at the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense in L.A.
One thing the NFL’s chess masters will notice is how often the Rams used bunched formations.
A bunched formation was aptly described in this SB Nation piece from 2013 as a “group three or more receiving options — any combination of receivers, tight ends and running backs — together on one side of the field.”
According to Pro Football Focus data, the Rams used bunched formations on 47 percent of their offensive plays. The next highest team was Arizona with 36 percent and only seven teams used bunched formations more than 25 percent of the time. The Vikings used them 17 percent. The Giants were under 10 percent.
The SB Nation article from five years ago insinuates that bunched formations are the next wave. Now as the league looks to copycat McVay, there’s a good chance those numbers will spike across the board and that prediction will come to fruition.
In 1996, Andrew Coverdale authored a book called The Bunch Attack: Using Compressed, Clustered Formations in the Passing Game.
Coverdale, who is now an offensive coordinator at Trinity High School in Louisville, Kentucky, started writing about bunches only a few years removed from its first use at the NFL level.
“Historically my understanding and my study in the early ’90s is that it all started with Joe Gibbs,” Coverdale said over the phone. “He was the first guy to really explore how this would work and then other disciples of his took it and ran with it.”
“All the punches and counter-punches offensively and defenses have evolved from there over the last 25 years.”
Here is an example from the 1992 Super Bowl of Gibbs’ Washington team motioning into a bunch formation…
When you drill down to the most basic reasoning for using three receiving options lined up tight together, it’s all about making life more difficult on the opposing defense.
“It creates space to run in, it creates space to the outside of the field…. It gives those guys access to crossing routes across the field but it also gives you a lot of space to run in on the same side of the field, so that’s the Day 1 starting point,” Coverdale said.
What DeFilippo was drawing on the edges of his roster sheet was the different ways defenses try to stop bunched formations.
“You can play lock-and-combo, which if the nickel is here, corner here, corner there, he’s locked on,” he says, scratching on his paper. “These two guys in-and-out or they can lock and everyone’s staying on their man or they form a box and play zone… so there’s really three ways teams defend the bunch play. When you use those, you want to have those beaters that the team plays. Maybe the team shows you two of the three.”
What DeFilippo is saying is: When offenses come out in a bunch formation, the defense has to react.
“The first thing it allows you to do, number one, is make the defense talk,” DeFilippo said. “How are they going to cover it? Especially in man coverage.”
Offensive coordinators also know that the number of different ways a bunch formation can be defended is limited to a few different alignments and coverages.
“If we know we can limit your inventory of pressures, fronts, looks, based on us getting in bunch because we’ve created extra gaps because we’ve created the possibility of rubs and certain things, we can narrow your coverage options,” Coverdale said. “Then we can get better at the things we want to use to attack and feel like we’re in control of the chess board.”
Here is an example of a route combination the Rams use to take advantage of corners being forced to play outside leverage against a bunch formation.
The Smash-Return combination out of the 3 man bunch was a great play for the Rams in 2017. The releases play on the leverage of the defense. Check out the link to see what other concepts McVay uses: https://t.co/tx23rI7nR3 pic.twitter.com/6Zi23lmIGf
— Bobby Peters (@b_peters12) May 31, 2018
You can imagine the type of crazy in-depth football conversations that must go on between DeFilippo and quarterback Kirk Cousins must have on a daily basis. Many quarterbacks these days could double as offensive coordinators and Cousins takes that to the extreme by spending countless hours studying film and football philosophy.
Not surprisingly, he’s a fan of bunched formations.
“It tends to get defensive backs to have to play off techniques,” Cousins said. “Now you’re not getting pressed and jammed off the line of scrimmage quite as often. In stack alignments, you can create some confusion for a defense as to who is releasing where and who becomes the new number one, number two and number three to the defense as you present it.”
Nobody in the NFL would consistently try to play man coverage straight up three-on-three against a bunch formation because the “natural picks” would create far too much havoc. It would be like playing that street game with three cups and a ball underneath on every play. That makes it more challenging for shutdown corners to lock onto one wide receiver.
There are other layers offenses add to further shake their opponents. One of those is adapting routes based on the defense.
DeFilippo writes notes in pen over a drawing of the “dagger” concept in bunch formation.
He’s looking at this play, which comes via the Philadelphia Eagles 2017 Third Down Manuel, written by author (and football coach) Bobby Peters.
DeFilippo explained that the slot receiver, who is running straight up the field, is asked to run his pattern differently based on what he sees at the line of scrimmage.
“This is called a ‘through route’ right here,” he said. “Depending on where the near defender was, if it’s single-safety middle, we told him to go to three yards on the opposite shoulder of the near safety. If it was two high, let’s say quarters, he’d run right through the inside shoulder of the strong safety, that way that took him out of there and now you have high-low on the flat player. If it’s cover-2, we know that the safeties are getting wider, he’s going right down the middle of the field to get the mike linebacker to climb with him.”
“What’s controlling the play is the through route right there and that’s coached three different ways depending on the coverage,” DeFilippo added.
You can understand why receivers have to have pretty high football IQ to succeed in today’s NFL.
Cousins added that sending players in motion pre-snap — like Joe Gibbs’ club did in the early 90s — adds another layer to confusion.
“I know that it can unsettle defenses a little bit when you’re always changing strengths and formations and motions,” Cousins said. “You force them to communicate on the fly and make adjustments. Certain defenses are affected by it more than others. It is just one more thing to throw at them to hopefully make them a little unsettled. But as an offense, you have to be on it. You have to learn all those shifts and understand how you fit in.”
Motion gives the quarterback some of the answers to the test questions, most notably: Is the defense in man or zone?
“A lot of the time, [McVay] is sending a guy in motion and holding the cadence,” Coverdale explained. “Now he’s seen everything he wants to see about defensive intentions, so he’s holding the cards. A lot of what he’s doing with the motion is that it’s a cadence tool to gather information.”
Here is an example of the Rams motioning out of a bunch formation into a 2×2 look.
In the example above, when the Vikings’ corner follows the Rams wide receiver, that tells quarterback Jared Goff that the Vikings are playing man coverage. There’s also motion into fake jet sweeps that make defensive ends hesitate for a tick.
“When you can disguise and make the same things look different, I think you can have a really successful offense,” DeFilippo said.
“High School offense”
In the book Doug Pederson’s wrote following the Super Bowl — in which he embraced his Football Genius Crown — he mentioned that a Denver Broncos player had called the Eagles a “high school offense.”
You may be reminded of a time period in the NFL where pundits called Chip Kelly’s innovations, “a college offense.” Now you see Kelly’s influence all over the league.
There is a long and wonderful history of all three levels narrowing from each other and bunch formation philosophies are no different. DeFilippo said he talks with coaches from other levels on a consistent basis in his never-ending search for football truth.
“If it’s a good idea, why not take it? Teams steal things from us, copy things from us, we’ve copied things from other people, I’m not going to say we haven’t done that,” he said. “The other thing is, if it hits against a defense, I’m sure they’ve corrected it, but maybe you have something off of that play. Or off that formation where you know they’re going to overcompensate here, so now I can go back here. It’s a cat and mouse game when it comes to that.”
Coverdale, who doubles as a history teacher, said there are a number of significant differences between the way high schools and NFL teams use bunch formations, in part because the field is split up differently. In high school, the hash marks are wider, giving an even larger advantage to the offense.
“The difference between Pederson and a lot of other NFL guys was, they had the humility to learn from something that could be relevant and put their own twist on it, whatever the level was, and get beyond the level,” Coverdale said. “The guys who max out their own situations are the guys who can get beyond ‘well it’s college’ or ‘well it’s high school.’ To me people saying that are guarding their own ego rather than getting better.”
On the NFL side, they have the advantage of being far more complicated. Instead of doing math homework, players can spend hundreds of hours studying and practicing specified techniques on their own. The NFL can take good ideas from other levels and add their own unique wrinkles.
“You’re always looking to expand and grow. It doesn’t matter where you go to get your knowledge,” DeFilippo said. “I know a lot of great high school college when I was recruiting college football that were innovating and smart and could have been coaching at this level. I don’t think it’s that the pros are turning into college or college is turning into pros. I don’t think it’s that. I think everyone’s looking for ideas and to get better. ”
Play-action and the run game
Running the ball in the NFL is somewhat controversial.
The best way to demonstrate the argument is this: According to Pro Football Reference, only four teams out-performed the number of expected points on a given play with their run game, while twenty teams out-performed the expected points through the air.
Running on first-and-10 on average will gain something in the range of four yards, while passing is closer to seven.
However, the play-action element of running is hard to quantify. Teams still fear getting trucked in the running game, so linebackers jump into their gaps, leaving open space in the secondary for passes. Cousins has been a major beneficiary of this because of clever play designs from the likes of McVay, Jay Gruden and Kyle Shanahan.
DeFilippo got pretty excited talking about running and play-action out of bunch formations.
“For play-action game it’s fantastic,” he said.
McVay has cleverly found ways to give the exact same looks on run and pass plays, in part because he’s using bunch formations at such a high rate.
“In the case of the Rams, a lot of that is tied to the bunch,” Coverdale said. “If you want to be a run/play-action guy, football is a game of pictures and bunch is one way to present a real distinct pictures and make those things look alike.”
Here is an example of a run and a play-action pass that look nearly identical with the formation and the tight end blocking up the middle.
On the very next play…
There are added benefits of bunch formations when it comes to pure running plays — one being that receivers can contribute in blocking schemes.
“We’re trying to get all of our guys involved in that,” DeFilippo said. “Some have a mentality for it better than others. You are not asking a guy to be a trained killer out there, you’re asking him to get a nudge on a D-end. You see us do that a lot as well with our backs and our wideouts. Just help the tackle out a little bit. Just slow ’em down a click. That’s really, really good stuff when you can use those things.”
Mike Zimmer’s defense held the Rams and their bunch-obsessed offense to seven points last season. He said the Vikings have multiple gameplans for how they are going to defend bunches.
“There’s different ways of covering it,” Zimmer said. “Sometimes the guy up covers the back guy, sometimes the guy up covers the up guy. Sometimes they go in-and-out. If you’re playing man-to-man there’s a lot of different things they can do.”
“Usually going into games we talk about ‘we’re going to start this way but during the game we may change to this, but this is how we’re doing to start out,'” Zimmer added.
Coverdale estimates there are around eight different ways to stop bunch formations — and that’s not counting additional wrinkles.
Against the Rams, Zimmer used the best instrument in his tool box to play mind games with Goff. Just before the snap, star safety Harrison Smith would move around, sometimes up to the line of scrimmage, sometimes back into a two-deep safety look.
“It’s a procedural cat and mouse game and you have to be better at your procedures and communication, that’s one of the million reasons someone like Harrison Smith is gold,” Coverdale said. “The faster you can recognize and get people in and out of stuff, gives you the ability to have the chalk last. Smart defensive coordinators, when I do anything that looks like a check, they check immediately so I can’t get that advantage. It’s a matter of being tied together and having real efficient communication, that’s where a lot of the game is being played right now, especially at those levels and I think it’s fascinating.”
In this example, Smith gives a middle open look, then drops down to the line of scrimmage. The linebackers also shift at the last moment.
The experience of Zimmer’s defense helps tremendously. Last year the Vikings carried over nearly every starter from the previous year. This time around, they will only replace the three-technique and nickel corner.
There are two other ways that the cat can corner the mouse in bunch. One is by blitzing.
“Because you’re in there tighter they can bring more guys from different places and not have to show you anything so you are vulnerable to certain kids of blitzes that you would be able to see easier in wider sets,” Coverdale said.
Another way to hinder the passing game in bunch is to be physical with the up receiver — the guy on the line of scrimmage.
“Whichever guy is on the ball, usually middle guy, you want to get as much of him as you can, you want to put your hands on him and destroy him physically so all the traffic lanes get clogged up,” Coverdale said.
Bunch and the Vikings’ personnel
You have to wonder how high John DeFilippo jumped in the air with glee when he sat down and watched the 2017 tape of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
When either Sam Bradford or Case Keenum threw in the direction of Thielen, they registered a 104.4 quarterback rating. For Diggs that number was even higher at 120.4, which ranked seventh in the NFL.
Former offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur used them all over the field — as both outside and slot receivers and in formations galore.
The plan for 2018 sounds similar.
“Since Day 1 since I’ve been here, personally one of the first things I said when I got in front of the offense and we were installing the passing game was ‘don’t learn your spot, learn the concept because all of you guys have no idea you’re going to be put everywhere,'” DeFilippo said.
The return of running back Dalvin Cook will also allow DeFilippo to line up his running back as a receiver whenever he sees fit.
“Here’s the thing I’ve noticed as more of an NFL fan than anything else: Bunch used to be real specific to 11 personnel, three receivers, now everybody can get into bunches out of all their personnel groups,” Coverdale said.
That certainly applies to the Vikings.
Yes, it’s probably the most football thing ever for the offensive coordinator to smile wide when you bring up the No. 2 tight end and fullback, but the value of David Morgan and CJ Ham in the Vikings’ offense is wildly underrated.
DeFilippo can call the same plays, just with significantly different personnel packages, sometimes ones that are traditionally used for runs. Opposing teams will often bring in more linebackers when Morgan and/or Ham are in the game. But the Vikings can still throw and use play-action in those situations — and sometimes they can speed up the game to keep extra linebackers on the field.
“Say you’re in 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends) and a team goes four-four on you (for defensive linemen, four linebackers) and you have athletic tight ends and athletic backs that can line up in different spots, you can hit them with the no-huddle mock and keep them in their four-four personnel and go down the field, run the football, throw the football and it’s advantage offense and they can’t sub.
“If you have athletes like we have who can do a bunch of different things, I think it’s taking the same concept you have and dressing it up a bit, so it’s one less thing the quarterback has to learn. The other day we ran one of our base third down plays and instead of [Rudolph] in at No.3 we had [CJ Ham] in there at No. 3 and Rudolph on the other side. We just dressed it up.”
Ultimately we may not see the Vikings line up in bunch formations as much as the Rams did in 2017. In fact, it’s just as likely that the league copies the hell out of the Rams that they adapt to the Rams and they will fall off the face of the map (See: Kelly, Chip).
And no matter the direction, Coverdale offers one important reminder about all the talk of schemes, chess masters and historians:
“Every week in the NFL I’m sure you’re looking across the sideline and there’s a couple guys who can ruin the game…in the NFL you need a whole pocket full of answers for some of those cats,” Coverdale said. “Using different personnel groups to get into bunches is one thing they have at their disposal.”
What our study of uses of bunch formations reveals is that the Vikings will use everything at their disposal and they the offensive and defensive minds and offensive and defensive personnel to morph in whichever direction the league goes.