The Stafford Offense, Curl Series 3 of 3

For the first part of this series, see The Stafford Offense: Curl Series, 1 of 3
For the second part of this series, see The Stafford Offense: Curl Series, 2 of 3

Attacking with Trips: Firm 444

So far we have relatively balanced formations like double slot or tight formations with Curl-Flat reads to either side. All Curls is a very old and reliable play that comes to us from the godfather of passing himself, Sid Gillman:

Gillman's numbering system assigned the number 4 to the 12 to 15 yard curl routes. In his system, a regular 4 was a 20 yard curl breaking to the inside that got 15 yards depth while a firm 4 got 12 yards depth instead. This "Firm 4" is what we have today as the modern curl route, which is what we've seen in our All Curls plays. The reason Gillman called it a Firm 4 is that it was used mainly in his Firm series of plays, which was an intermediate 5 step drop series with all five receivers in the pattern - hence the name, according to him, because (emphasis in the original!) "the firm call tells the line to block base and set firm for a QB taking a 5 step or a 5 & 2 step."

Since a quick hitch was assigned 1, the curl plays that Gillman ran were the 414 and 444 playcalls. That's curls on the outside with a hitch in the middle or curls by both wide receivers split out from the formation plus whoever was inside as the Y (whether TE or slot). The action that was specified for the HB and FB were almost always flat routes either wide or angled up - forming Curl-Flat combo reads to both sides for the base 414 and 444 plays.

But look at what happens when Gillman starts diagramming out variations on his core 444 play with a trips formation instead of base alignment (labels in red added by me). His actual instructions written out to the Y receiver in the detailed position assignments says the variation route may turn the 4 into a 9 (vertical go route) depending on the position of the safeties and coverage. This is not what Gillman has actually drawn. The trick is to read his note at the end of the variations and diagrams:

This is not as well defined a balance distribution pattern because X & Z are really thinking breaking points #1! Y always thinks in terms of areas but WR's think in terms of breaking points to throwing lanes. The RBs end up in the wide areas running fan flares but X & Z may not end up in the number areas!

Let's break down it down point by point:

  • Balance distribution here refers to the horizontal stretch element and the spread of the routes across the formation. Recall the Firm series is first and foremost a timing series, meaning the crucial thing for the route running is that they must break and complete exactly on time with the quarterback's footwork and throw.
  • This is why the left wideout X and the right wideout Z running the Firm 4 curls on the edge have to focus more on breaking correctly at the right depth than trying to establish horizontal spacing from everyone else.
  • The Y on the other hand, is supposed to be working the seam and between the hash areas to space out because the X and Z cannot concentrate on that. Y's job is to compensate and create the spacing. If there is an SCF/Bronco defender in front of him, the Y runs the seam and takes him out of the equation for our Curl-Flat combo to the outside.
  • When describing Y's objective as area based, this is like talking about modern middle of the field routes that look to sit down on seams in the zone coverage. Gillman wants his Y route runner to find open spaces and pull at the defenders around him.
  • That action from the Y in the middle of the field and the flat action from the backs is what helps clear the throwing lane. Gillman explicitly states that his "WR's think in terms of breaking points to throwing lanes," by which he means that the geometry being set up by the depth of the route and the timing are working with the middle attack and flat routes being run around the WRs to open a particular throwing lane; the WR needs to make sure he's in the right place at the right time at the end of that cleared out lane when the QB is ready to throw.

Now look back at Gillman's variant diagrams. The Y receiver there is not actually running a post route - that bend in the line is there to indicate he wants the Y receiver to bend inwards to find the soft area and pull in defenders from the edges to clear the hash lanes. But holy crap, doesn't that look suspiciously like it is in fact supposed to be a post route?

The Weis/Petrino "Choice" Combo

From earlier, we pointed out that the Curl-Flat route combination is great against Cover 3 and any kind of man coverage as long as your guy can get separation on the break (like Calvin did against Richard Sherman). But if you are too predictable about how you run the Curl-Flat combination, Chris Brown points out that the defense can adjust by walking a linebacker or safety off nearer to the flat:

For example, on the curl/flat combination shown below, the coach will say that if the linebacker widens with the flat, throw the curl. However, if the defense wants to, it can always double cover the curl and cover the flat one on one and take it away.

Any team running Curl-Flat extensively needs ways to force the defense to think twice about always spreading to the edge. One way to accomplish this is the same way Gillman did it: use your slot receiver or tight end in the Y position to pull them back inside. If they don't want to follow the Y inside, you have a clear throw uncovered right in front of the QB for easy yards.

We don't actually want to throw the Y since it's there to clear out for the X and Z, but you know if the defense wants to hand us a first down... who the hell am I to turn them down?

Similar to the standard two receiver combinations (like Curl-Flat, Smash, Slant-Flat, etc) where two routes work together to affect a defense, there are three receiver combinations (like Sail/Flood, Snag, Spot, etc) that are designed to attack in a very specific way. One such combination is shown here:

Most of the logic in this section follows Chris Brown's excellent article on route adjustments. On the left is an excerpt from the 2005 Carolina Panthers playbook and on the right is a small bit of the 2003 New England Patriots playbook. OC Charlie Weis with the Patriots that year had a route combination called Choice, which is just a run and shoot style choice route with two options run by the Y.

MOFC: If the middle of the field is "closed" (i.e. there is a high safety sitting in centerfield like in a Cover 1 or Cover 3 shell), the Y receiver breaks to the corner and attacks the sideline Cover 1 hole like a super deep Smash combo over the Gillman Firm 4 Curl at 12 yards depth. Any team trying to sit a CB on the Curl and move a LB out to the flat now gets a three level Flood style attack, and the CB sinking deep with the Curl has to come off and take the Corner route - leaving our schemed Curl open.

MOFO: If the middle of the field is "open" (i.e. no centerfielder, either two high or zero high safeties), the Y receiver breaks to the post and attacks the middle Cover 2 hole. Regardless of whether the Y receiver breaks inside or outside, if they have a defender aligned over them, the vertical stem up to the break point at 12 yards carries the defender out of the throwing alley to the Curl.

The 2003 Patriots playbook brings the Choice three man combo into play in their play action passing series, which I thought was interesting. Now look at the upper right corner of the capture from the 2005 Panthers playbook: there is the Choice combination in an explicitly named combo called Choice for Carolina as well. Even better, look at the bottom right and there you have a named combo called Curl which is basically mirrored Curl-Flat with a choice route in the middle of the field that has a deep post option: the Y either comes back and turns the play into All Curls or against a MOFO defense can extend to a post route - which is exactly the Weis Choice combo.

Three Easy Petrino Pieces

For an idea of how this trips Choice combo is used in practice, let's examine three plays from Bobby Petrino's 2005 Louisville playbook. They are in three different formations with three different treatments of both the Choice route and what the other two non-combo receivers are doing.

The first example has a normal looking trips grouping to the right running the Choice combination, a tight end on the left side running a corner route alone, and a blocking back that checks then releases. The thing to pay attention to is the read progression on the QB assignment:

Pre-snap, the QB must locate the Free Safety and determine if he is in centerfield 1 high or if there are 2 high safeties. This is the Home Run alert notification: if the FS is in a bad alignment to help whoever is going to carry the Choice route runner (designated by Petrino as receiver W here), the QB should go ahead and take a shot.

Otherwise, the progression is to go from that W Home Run alert read down to the X running the Curl, then Z running the Flat, and then the center checkdown R leaking into the middle. That is exactly the same Curl-Flat read we had with the All Curls play except now you can be opportunistic with the Choice route for a big play if it's there. We never intend to actually throw the Choice route because a sound defense is supposed to take it away - it is the most threatening part of the play design.

Here's an example of an empty backfield play that packages scheme beaters to each side. On the frontside of the formation to the right is the Choice combination. This is our standard Curl-Flat progression of Curl to Flat to whatever is sitting in the middle as the checkdown. The interesting part of the play is to the left hand side, which is a Dig-Drag hi-lo combination. Remember how we said Curl-Flat is somewhat weak against Cover 2? Well, Dig-Drag is an underneath zone beater.

When you go to the QB assignment on the play sheet, you find two different progressions. The first set tells the quarterback when he sees 2 high safeties, read the Choice player first because he should be running the Post into the middle Cover 2 hole. If he is taken away by the safeties, that means the Dig-Drag underneath is a two on one versus a linebacker, which we should win easily.

Petrino uses the same reverse shallow to deep drag read order that Air Raid guys like Mike Leach use, which I endorse heartily. After the W Choice route, the QB is supposed to look at the X drag running across the face of the linebacker. If it is open, take that. If the linebacker jumps the drag, the tight end as Y should be the trailing behind into the space the linebacker just vacated. Either you get a deep shot to the Post, a flanker drive to the X running full blast across the field, or an intermediate Dig in space. All of these are good outcomes.

The second progression is for single high safety. What's it say? Exactly the Curl to Flat to center check.

The final Petrino example is a play very dear to me because it is one of my two most frequently called plays in Madden. In the Lions playbook in Madden, this is called Ace Y Trips Curls, and has Calvin Johnson by default as the W running the Choice route, Golden Tate wide left as the lone Curl, and whoever you slot at WR3 running the frontside Curl in the Curl-Flat. This to me, is the second most broken play in Madden once you know how the reads all work off the defense because the play is "good against everything" in a single read to the same side all the time.

Now, the play in Madden is not exactly the same as what it looks like in Petrino's play sheet. It is a simplified version that eliminates the corner choice for the slot receiver. Instead of a "Choice combination," it is a Curl-Flat-Post combination with the slot man ALWAYS running the post. I think this is a superior option if you do not have a ton of experience with the QB and slot receiver running the play because it removes the possibility that one or both of them might read the defense wrong. You know when the QB throws into the middle of nowhere and the announcers say Stafford thought his man was going to break the other way? That's what i'd want to eliminate.

Why does this work well even if we get rid of the corner option? Remember the conditions under which the slot receiver chooses the corner option: single high, which is basically Cover 1 or Cover 3. But against those coverages, we want to throw the Curl-Flat anyway, so who cares if we have a Corner over the top of it? The only thing we care about with the Choice route in a single high situation is that he run the vertical stem and clear out any seam defender who might sit in the Curl throwing lane.

Against a two high safety look, the Post is what we would want the slot receiver to run even if he was actually running a Choice route: "vs Cover 2 take the middle." So in the situations where the slot receiver is going to be a primary target, he's running the correct route and there is no way for the WR or QB to guess wrong about where the other guy thinks the play is going. Notice the Curl-Flat-Post combination is now equipped to handle Cover 1, Cover 2, and Cover 3, with everyone running stuff in front of a Cover 4 look, so we're okay there as well.

What's the route of last resort? The HB leak checkdown in the middle of the field, so again we have the alert Post then the classic Curl to Flat to center check. That means the Z receiver (all the way on the left by himself) is simply extra and can really be running whatever we want. If we wanted to make him a backside Slant, an intermediate Dig, etc., it's all fine because he never enters the quarterback's read progression (Scroll back up to the first Petrino play - notice the Y never enters the read progression there, either, and can be doing anything... including stay back to block).

Here is what is on Petrino's play sheet showing what happens against each of the basic coverages:

In the upper left is a single high safety look, the upper right is a double high safety zone look, the lower left is a 2 Man Under look, and the bottom right is a zero blitz. The upper right and lower left corners reduce to the Curl-Flat-Post combo. Pretty much if I ever see that lower right zero blitz with a safety on Calvin and no help over the top, i'm looking to score a touchdown on that play.

Lions Curl-Flat-Post Examples

First, the core read. Here is Tate on the Curl:

2015 at Minnesota, Second Quarter (14:26), 1st and 10 at Detroit 20

The first example from the loss at Minnesota is a good example of how the Post and Flat routes drag defenders away from the throwing lane to hit the Curl. On the right side of the formation, 15 WR Golden Tate is the Curl while 85 TE Eric Ebron runs the Flat under Tate and 10 WR Corey Fuller has the Post component of the combo. The backside is a strange delay Levels type combo with 81 WR Calvin Johnson running the quick in route and 21 HB Ameer Abdullah running the second delayed in route after chipping 97 DE Everson Griffen.

The Vikings are in Cover 1 with 54 LB Eric Kendricks (boxed in purple in the route picture) playing what appears to be a spy assignment in the hole. At the time of the route breaks, Fuller is pushing up the seam with Kendricks on him while Ebron pulls 24 CB Captain Munnerlyn over to the right flat. As Stafford prepares to throw, all defenders in the vicinity are therefore moving with momentum away from his throwing lane, which makes for a very safe throw to Tate.

Although in this picture it looks like the Vikings are in a Cover 3 shell, they are not. 23 CB Terence Newman is playing extremely backed off man coverage on Tate while 34 SS Andrew Sendejo is likewise playing very backed off of Fuller. The reason they are giving so much cushion is because they have no deep help. 22 FS Harrison Smith (boxed in pink in the route picture) is playing over the top of Calvin Johnson and will not be able to get over to the Choice combo half of the field. None of the man coverage defenders playing anyone pushing a vertical stem can afford to let a receiver get behind them - hence, the ten yard cushion on Fuller.

The play shows how the backside can be any other kind of route combination - it doesn't really matter since the Curl-Flat-Post combo stands alone. Tate took this for ten yards and a first down.

Second, Ebron on the Flat:

2015 at Minnesota, Second Quarter (13:13), 2nd and 8 at the Detroit 32

Two plays later, Detroit comes back and runs the Curl-Flat-Post on the left side from an empty gun set. Minnesota rushes 5 and drops into Cover 1, sending Kendricks (who is creeping up towards the line). Believe it or not, 55 LB Anthony Barr (boxed in pink) is the defender assigned to Ebron running the Flat behind 16 WR Lance Moore on the Curl and Tate on the Post.

Normally, Stafford would want to hit Moore on the Curl against man coverage, but must get rid of it before the route can develop. The protection adjusts inside to account for the blitzing linebacker, which means Griffen is coming off the edge around 71 LT Riley Reiff unblocked. Still, Stafford recognizes everything quickly and guns the ball over Griffen to Ebron, who is so far away from his man that he picks up 16 yards and another first down before being caught at the sideline.

Now, let's see Tate run the Post:

2014 New Orleans, Fourth Quarter (12:11), 3rd and 16 at the Detroit 14

The situation here is dire: Lions down 20-10 in the early Fourth Quarter, backed up after a six yard sack of Stafford. When we absolutely needed to convert a third and forever without Calvin Johnson in the lineup, what play did Detroit run? That's right - Scat Trips Left Z Post. The Saints come to the line and roll everyone up into press coverage. Stafford sticking with this playcall means he has supreme confidence in Tate to get an outside release and cut back inside his cover man to the soft underbelly of this completely vacated two shell.

His faith is well placed since Tate dominates his press man and breaks into wide open space; Stafford tracks him the whole way and delivers a 19 yard completion for a clutch conversion on third down. Remember what we're looking at here - this is tight man coverage so neither Curl is going to get enough YAC to move the chains. The Flats are obviously useless here. This is Stafford and Tate understanding the situation and knowing they are going to make this play convert.

Finally, under what conditions would Stafford not go to the Curl-Flat-Post side?

2014 at Carolina, Second Quarter (1:05). 2nd and 10 at the Detroit 20.

Down 6 on the road with the last possession before the half, Detroit is looking to get on the board and needs a chunk play to get the drive going. We are in an empty gun set with Ross (Curl), Ebron (Flat), and Tate (Post) running our trips combo to the right. Calvin is split left running a Curl with 21 HB Reggie Bush shifting out of the backfield to run the Flat underneath Calvin.

Pre-snap, the Panthers are more or less symmetrically arrayed with one high safety, corner over the WR split wide, and a seam defender over the slot. Personnel-wise, they have matched up with Detroit's 11 personnel using five defensive backs: nickel 25 CB Bene Benwikere is over Golden Tate in the right slot. The mismatch is now Reggie Bush versus 58 OLB Thomas Davis on the left hand side. It's not just the personnel that slightly favors the left side - look at where the ball is spotted and notice how 59 MLB Luke Kuechly is not centered between the hashes but is instead positioned to help out against Detroit's right side.

Stafford gives a neutral look right back to the Panthers and stares down the middle of the field at Kuechly at the snap. The coverage is actually Cover 6, which looks like Cover 4 (Quarters) to one side and Cover 2 on the other side. Kuechly is the key here, and Stafford needs him to stay out of his favorable (left) matchup side. With Stafford giving nothing away, Kuechly has to drop straight back and actually gets caught glancing at Ebron leaking to the flat on Detroit's right.

On the left Cover 2 side, Davis is aligned on the hash at the edge of the tackle box inside, so he's out of position and makes a mad scramble to the flat once Reggie releases outside to the Flat. This puts Calvin one on one against 23 CB Melvin White, who has to carry Calvin on the vertical stem and is now effectively playing loose man in front of 21 FS Thomas DeCoud. As long as Calvin stays outside the hashes, he can maintain enough horizontal spacing away from Kuechly to give Stafford a safe throw.

Calvin posts up outside the paint and takes it to the center coverage hole for 15 yards and a first down. Similar to how alignment could influence the defense in part 2 of this Curls Series breakdown, we have Stafford using that and his eyes to pin one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL.

Next Time: Quick Post/Angle Iso

This concludes the Curl Series, which is a staple for the passing game no matter what system is being run. Air Raid, Spread, West Coast, Coryell, you name it - everyone has some kind of Curl-Flat play in their offense. It's a familiar play structure that can be mixed and matched with other route combinations, can be run from almost any formation and personnel mix, and - judging by his quick decision making and solid timing - is something Matthew Stafford is clearly comfortable operating.

The Curl-Flat combination and the related Curl-Flat-Post combination attack the edge of the defense with a WR split wide and a back or tight end leaking to the sideline flat. Next time we'll start looking at a way to punish teams that start spreading out and cheating their cover men closer to the sidelines to take that away.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Pride Of Detroit or its writers.