The Stafford Offense: Curl Series, 2 of 3

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

For the first part of this series, see The Stafford Offense: Curl Series, 1 of 3

Personnel and Motion Variations

Last time, we looked at the standard All Curls play that features mirrored Curl-Flat reads. It is a standard play that most offenses have a version of in some form. The challenge for any offense with such a common play is figuring out how to run it in a way that an opposing defense will not adjust to counter immediately. Two ways to accomplish this is my dictating which players the defense has on the field (personnel) and where they line up (formation).

The Lions roster is loaded with offensive skill position players that can line up all over the place and present matchup problems for opponents. The most important among them are 85 TE Eric Ebron, who was drafted to be a large athletic tight end that could outrun linebackers and safeties in coverage, and running backs 25 HB Theo Riddick and 21 HB Ameer Abdullah. Both Riddick and Abdullah are good receivers out of the backfield who have outstanding quickness and agility; they are also very difficult for linebackers and safeties to cover one on one, and are dangerous runners in space after the catch.

Recommended reading on personnel packages:

The most interesting takeaway comes from the Football Outsiders articles and the Kirwan piece linked above. According to Kirwan:

...the number one personnel grouping that the best teams strive to develop and employ to create problems is 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers). The Colts used 11 personnel well over 500 times last season, the Vikings over 350 times, and the Packers, Patriots, Cowboys, Saints and Bengals were all in the 200-plus range. Six of those teams won their respective division and the Packers were a close second.
If teams use their 11 personnel on first and second down, it becomes a simple read for the QB as to run or pass. The X and slot receiver frequently demand three defenders on good 11 personnel teams. On the other side, if the flex tight end and the Z receiver also demand three defenders or at least 2 ½, as they often do, then that means there are five defenders in the box, all of which can be accounted for by the offensive line, leaving a run as a very effective call.

If Kirwan is right (and Football Outsiders agrees), then it is interesting to know what defenses will do to stop this most crucial offensive package. Here's Football Outsiders from the Matching up to 11 article (emphasis added):

If teams are not playing with four defensive backs against 11 personnel, then how many are they playing? Unless you’re the Chiefs or Texans, the answer most of the time is five.
The frequency column shows that most teams picked their preferred sub package and stuck with it. On average, they used it roughly 81 percent of the time. The Packers were the only team that showed a real split in how often they were in which package, using five defensive backs 51 percent of the time and six defensive backs 44 percent of the time. We only charted them with six snaps using their base 3-4 look against 11 personnel. Most teams were more divided between dime and base as their primary alternatives to the nickel they overwhelmingly preferred.

The point here is that as an offensive football team, you want to have your 11 personnel on the field as much as possible because it's the most dangerous grouping with the best matchup opportunities. The Detroit base offense is Calvin, Tate, Moore, Ebron, and the flavor of the month at running back. However, defenses will suck away your advantage of going faster by substituting out to a nickel package: you have one more wide receiver, so they go to one more defensive back.

What if you could screw with that logic?

This is what a quick and agile back like Riddick or Abdullah does. If you have 21 personnel with Calvin, Tate, Ebron, Riddick, and Abdullah on the field, should a defensive coordinator treat this like 11 personnel or a true 21 personnel? A bunch of people have advocated splitting out Riddick in the slot as a wide receiver - that's how highly some people think of him as a pass catcher.

What about Calvin, Tate, Ebron, Abdullah, and Burton? If Burton catches the ball well enough to be a mini-TE or Abdullah can run short routes as well as a basic slot receiver, is this really 21, 12, or even 11 personnel (Burton as the "back")? It depends where everyone lines up, and even when you lock in which defensive players are on the field, you get to see how those defenders are matching up to our hybrid players - and at that point, you can play games by moving people around.

Using 21 personnel and still getting 11 personnel capabilities is huge because you can get the defense to think twice about going to its preferred mix of linebackers and defensive backs. If they go light and you see 5 DBs, you now have a blocking advantage out of the I formation or any Weak or Strong I variation. If they go heavy and put base personnel out there with 3 linebackers, you can guarantee you have a LB vs Theo or LB vs Abdullah matchup on the field. And if they want to put the Nickel on the running back, you have a guaranteed safety or linebacker against Ebron, which may be even more crazy.

The big thing is to be unpredictable in how these versatile players get used.

2015 Madden at Saints, Overtime (5:28). 2nd and 7 at the New Orleans 15

I promise I am not going to turn this series into a Madden game blog series, but sometimes setting up the situations I want to use to highlight is easier than hunting for an example. What I have here is a plausible shootout situation in overtime against the Saints. Detroit is in 11 personnel with Calvin, Tate, 13 WR TJ Jones, Ebron, and Abdullah on the field. But instead of coming out with Abdullah in the backfield, this is basically four wide with Abdullah as a wingback on the left edge of the line.

The defense is in a 3-3-5 against my 11 personnel and initially aligns two high but walks a safety down to the line and rotate to Detroit's right. This gives us lighter personnel to the left, so that's the side to attack. New Orleans zone blitzes here by dropping the guy in front of Abdullah (59 LB Dannell Ellerbe) and bringing 32 SS Kenny Vaccaro on the safety blitz on Stafford's right. This means we have Ameer Abdullah running wide of 59 LB Dannell Ellerbe dropping into zone, which is a heck of a speed mismatch with Abdullah in space.

Personnel-wise, I had a speed advantage of effectively four wide plus Ebron against a five DB package. With a safety up high, at least one of my "fast" guys had to be matched up on a linebacker that gets caught out of position to take away the quick arrow, and my guy beats their guy to the corner.

Sowing Confusion with Motion

Last time we had an example of an All Curls play where flipping the assignments for stationary receivers caught a defender out of position. The problems you create for defenses with weird personnel and formations is made even worse when you move people around. This is especially true when you have overloaded formations to put defenses out of their comfort zone and then force them to make an adjustment with little warning before snapping the ball.

2014 at Carolina, Second Quarter (7:58). 1st and 10 at Detroit 20.

The Lions come out on first down in a relatively heavy 12 personnel set (Bell, Ebron, Fauria), but align in a passing formation: bunch right with Tate solo tight to the left. Carolina counters with a defensive formation tilted to the bunch side with all of the deep help there.

The Lions put Fauria in motion and end up with a balanced set similar to a flip tight single back formation. If you thought the wide open flat route in my Madden example was too ridiculous to be believed, watch 25 CB Bene Benwikere gesticulating wildly to try and get the defense to adjust to the motion. The Panthers drop into Cover 3, but something is amiss at the top of the formation where everyone had to reset their assignments. Instead of moving to the wide underneath zone, the nickel Benwikere runs with Calvin up the seam right into 59 MLB Luke Kuechly.

Stafford hits Ebron wide open in the flat, who then turns it upfield for 16 yards.

2014 Dallas Wild Card Game, Fourth Quarter (11:27). 2nd and 12 at the Detroit 3

Motion also creates opportunities by drawing the attention of the defense. In the fourth quarter backed up against their own goal line up 20-17, Detroit called an All Curls play following a Joique Bell minus two yard carry. Ebron (boxed in pink) comes in motion left to right and 42 SS Barry Church (boxed in purple) moves up near the 10 yard line to align over him. At the snap, Ebron runs the flat behind Calvin (boxed in yellow) going up the seam.

Dallas is in zone coverage and Church gets distracted by Ebron's motion: both he and the actual underneath defender 38 CB Brandon Carr move with Ebron to the outside. Calvin gets a pretty clean release up the seam on what looks like an on the fly adjustment to streak through the space Church just vacated. Why didn't Stafford throw to Calvin for the big play?

Stafford is looking to Ebron as the first read here, expecting Carr to run with Calvin. Instead, everyone pulls off of Calvin onto Ebron. This would have left Calvin open for a long strike, except 54 LB Bruce Carter is following Stafford's eyes in zone coverage and commits hard to take away the throwing lane. But look how fast Stafford hops and resets standing in his own end zone and fires to Fuller on the center check. Fuller breaks a tackle and picks up a huge 21 yard gain to get us out of trouble, but really this is yet another example of Stafford playing remarkably fast because he is instinctively feeling the timing and blazing through reads.

2014 Buffalo, First Quarter (2:24). 1st and 10 at the Buffalo 46.

Another example of motion messing up the defense - we have Golden Tate starting as the outside WR in a bunch set to the left coming across the formation in motion. 37 CB Nickell Robey follows him to the other side of the field, leaving 24 CB Stephon Gilmore (boxed in red) and 23 FS Aaron Williams (boxed in yellow) to sort things out on Stafford's left. Williams points to himself to signal the adjustment to Gilmore that he will take the inside and Gilmore needs to stay with whoever goes outside.

Gilmore doesn't get the message and drops back as if he's going to play the deep part of the field, leaving Pettigrew uncovered in the flat. Stafford, seeing both defenders deep past the 40 yard line, immediately goes to Pettigrew without hesitation, picking up 7 easy yards. How do we know this was a communication breakdown on the motion adjustment? Watch Williams and Gilmore after the end of the play:

Non-Mirrored All Curls

Another way to vary the look of the play to opposing defenses is to unbalance the formation and tweak it a little to not be mirrored anymore. While this commits us to attacking one side of the field, it allows Detroit to manipulate the defense into making it the "correct" side to attack anyway by dragging some of the coverage away from where we want to throw the ball.

2014 New Orleans, Second Quarter (7:47). 1st and 10 at the New Orleans 47.

On the right side of the formation, Jeremy Ross poses a deep threat that New Orleans is forced to send a man over to cover. The Saints show two deep and are playing Cover 2 Sink, with everyone backing off the line of scrimmage.

If you recall the Madden example we started with at the top, this is just throwing to a different guy wearing 21 in the flat with defenders out of position in zone drops.

2014 at Minnesota, Third Quarter (3:58). 2nd and 6 at the Detroit 44.

Like the normal versions of the All Curls play, the Lions can motion or shift into a normal set to run this modified All Curls as well. Believe it or not, this is 35 HB Joique Bell shifting from the lone setback position to the tight slot. The formation at the snap should be very familiar:

Minnesota is in man coverage, and the vertical stem by Jeremy Ross in front of Bell forces the defender to run wide. Ross pushing upfield acts like a moving screen, and creates separation for Bell to pick up 8 yards and a first down.

Also, notice the route switch on the right side of the formation between the right seam curl and center attack curl. Although these are all changes the defensive coverage needs to adjust to and pick up, the basic read for Stafford remains the same since a receiver ends up in the places he expects them to be - regardless of where they started. These kinds of things make the play "complex" for the opponent while keeping it simple for our players.

Next Time: Trips with Seam Control

All Curls and its variants is a nice play that Stafford seems to hit very consistently for first downs regardless of whether he's hitting his first read or his third read. He processes the play very quickly, probably due to repetitions running versions of it in every offense he's played in. Although it is a well-known play, route switches, motion, and personnel changes can get defenses out of their preferred personnel and confuse defenders in coverage.

In the third and final installment for the Curls Series, we'll move to a packaged three receiver combination that gives a slightly different way to keep the curl alley open.

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