For the first part of this series, see The Stafford Offense: PA Z Cross, 1 of 3.
Changing up the Z Cross
Any play can be countered if it's too predictable and we rely on running it the same way too often. Instead of throwing a thicker playbook at the opponent, let's see how our best play can be disguised to appear like it's more than one play. We'll look at a bunch of ways we can change up the base Z Cross:
- Y Cross (From last time) - Instead of the Z running across the field, use the TE as the crosser.
- X Cross (From last time) - Instead of running the X as the clearout, send the TE vertical from a heavy formation and use the X as the crosser.
- Z Pivot - Instead of crossing the field, the Z receiver can break back to the outside.
- Z Option - Instead of reading alert vertical to crosser, let the Z receiver read the coverage and choose to either cross or pivot
- Double Clearouts - Instead of one outside vertical from a run heavy formation, go three wide and send two vertical clearouts
- Double Crossers - Instead of one crosser, send two crossers in opposite directions
- Hi-Lo - Instead of one crosser relying on staying behind linebackers, also let a back leak in front of the linebackers to distract them
Now Watch Me Whip
2014 Minnesota, 3Q (7:43). 2nd and 9 from the Minnesota 43.
The Z Cross is a great intermediate route, but if the defense is prepared for this thing, they might be prepared to retreat off the play action bite to the backside. Consider this snapshot from last time when we saw the Bills defense bite on play action against Z Cross:
Both defenders on 15 WR Golden Tate's side are to his outside and there are no linebackers in the throwing lane down the middle of the field. Stafford has a clear shot between the hashes. Now look at what the Vikings linebackers did once they realized Stafford flashed a play action fake and kept the ball:
The Vikings seem prepared to get in the throwing lane for the Z Cross - if Tate was continuing across the field, there would be two or three defenders in good position to tip the ball. Moreover, 22 FS Harrison Smith in man coverage on Tate is cheated over to the inside, ready to move up on the crossing route.
This is like the F Post play with 25 HB Theo Riddick: if the defense knows he's going to cut inside, they can position inside to take that away. The counter there was to have Riddick pivot out on a whip route away. If the defense wants to go inside, Riddick goes outside. The same principle applies here. If the defense wants to go backside against the crossing route, Tate can pivot back to the sideline.
Minnesota was well prepared for the Z Cross. Too bad Tate wasn't running a cross and instead whipped back to the sideline for a 14 yard gain and a fresh set of downs.
Z Cross + Z Pivot = Z Option
2015 at New Orleans, 3Q (12:40). 1st and 10 at New Orleans 35.
Recall what the next step was in the F Post concept: combine the alternatives. Instead of calling an F Post or an F Pivot for Riddick, we could have Riddick run an F Option route and let him decide whether to break outside or inside based on the coverage. The Lions can do the same thing with the Z Cross and Z Pivot routes, letting the slot receiver decide whether to break inside or outside based on the deep safety.
Here we have an interesting variation with 20 personnel (no tight ends in the game): 15 Golden Tate is wide left, 81 WR Calvin Johnson is wide right, and 13 TJ Jones is in the slot. Detroit has 46 FB Michael Burton and 35 HB Joique Bell in a Weak I set behind 9 QB Matthew Stafford under center. The Saints don't know what to make of this weird combination and play it vanilla: stacked 43 front dropping to pattern match Cover 3.
After the play fake with both outside receivers clearing out the perimeters down the field, Jones baits 31 S Jairus Byrd into thinking he will run the cross. Stafford and Jones are on the same page; by the time Jones turns to break it back to Stafford's left, the ball is already on the way. As long as both quarterback and slot receiver are reading the coverage the same way, the option route is very difficult to stop.
This is a very nice 20 yard play by TJ Jones to move Detroit into the red zone. The next play was the excellent 15 yard Abdullah touchdown run.
Two Man Combos in the Middle
2015 Oakland, 1Q (14:55). 1st and 10 from the Detroit 22.
On the first play of the game, Detroit decides to go with the Z Cross out of a wild 11 personnel package: 87 TE Brandon Pettigrew as an in-line blocker next to 74 RT Michael Ola, 15 WR Golden Tate tight next to Pettigrew, 16 WR Lance Moore in the left slot, and 81 WR Calvin Johnson wide left. The lone setback? 25 HB Theo Riddick behind Stafford under center! Is it a run with blocking TE Pettigrew in the game? Is it a pass with HB Riddick in the game? Do we really have Riddick in the game for a snap from under center???
If you ignore Moore's crossing route coming from the Lions' left to right, this is basically Tate running the Z Cross under a clearout by Calvin. The interesting bonus here is that the second crossing route by Moore provides Tate with a rub/pick opportunity. We don't get a rub here, but no matter: Tate still gained 19 yards.
2014 Miami, 3Q (0:08). 2nd and 9 on the Detroit 39.
Running a second man over the top of the crosser is one way to mess with the coverage in the middle of the field. Another way to mess with that coverage is to send a second man very shallow to distract the underneath defenders. Here Detroit takes 45 FB Jed Collins and moves him out to an H-back position on the right side. Instead of a full play fake, Stafford gives a token flash fake to Bell. The run fake component is weaker, but look what Bell does after the flash fake:
Bell leaks out into the middle of the field and turns around, right in front of 55 MLB Koa Misi. He even acts like he's trying to make a catch on the throw by Stafford. Look how that pulls Misi forward the same way a real play action fake might have. The play might appear different to the defense, but the net effect of all the moving parts is exactly the same as far as Stafford is concerned: he has Tate coming across the field for 28 yards in front of out-of-position linebackers.
What if safeties ignore the clearout?
2014 Miami, 1Q (4:06). 1st and 10 on the Detroit 49.
25 SS Louis Delmas tries to jump the crossing route by Tate (he actually runs the pivot here) instead of providing deep help to 5'10" 21 CB Brent Grimes against 6'5" Megatron.
That was a very bad decision by Delmas. Very bad.
Next Time: MOAR PLAY ACTION
In a recent comment section (the January Jim Caldwell poll), BillySimsMadeMeDo wanted to know what I thought Jim Bob should do with the offense install in the offseason, asking "should they stick with what he had been doing so well for the last 8 games?" My answer is yes. The Z Cross variants in this fanpost are what I mean by "improving how motion, packages, slight variations, and formations can enhance the effectiveness of what’s being called rather than trying to install more base plays."
Taking a single extremely effective concept, Detroit ran this thing out of a whole bunch of formations and personnel groupings... with and without window dressing routes that aren't part of the designed read for Stafford. We don't need a lot of base plays as long as the defense is unsure of what those plays will actually look like from game to game.
Obviously there is more to play action than running one play a bunch of different ways. Next time we'll look at other play action examples that can be paired with our power run game plays.