by Mark Saltveit
I was writing to my Australian friend Martin Clear about some of Chip Kelly's Double-stack and Four-TE formations, which led to an interesting discussion. Australian you say? WTF? Well, Martin is a student of the game (from afar, admittedly) and also played tight end on a team that won Australia's American-rules football championship. (He's also a world-class palindromist who won several SymmyS Awards for outstanding palindrome achievement this year, but that's not why we're here).
So, sure, he sees the game from a very unusual vantage point, and you might disagree with some of what he says, but I think he adds an unusual and helpful perspective. I was asking him what he would call a tight end who lined up on the line of scrimmage but in between the tackle and the sideline, sort of a "forward-slot" position. He came back with an interesting history of the tight end position:
"Firstly, the idea of what a 'tight end' is has exceeded its definition. The eligible receivers are the ends (of the seven required to be on the line of scrimmage, the two on the outside) and the backs (the four NOT required to be on the line of scrimmage). The position names derived from these legal requirements: an 'end' was a guy at the end of the line of scrimmage. A 'back' was a guy who wasn't. A 'tight end' was an end lined up next to the tackle, a 'split end' was a guy who wasn't. When football consisted of four backs in touching distance of the quarterback, and pass plays were in the gadget section of the playbook, these definitions were fine.
Once passing became a regular part of the game, a more typical formation (for anyone with a QB who could actually throw) was to have one split end and one back wide of the formation, with the width to enable passes to be thrown wide enough to prevent the run-preventing defenders from being able to get to the pass receiver. The wide back was called a 'flanker'. In practice however, the jobs of the 'split end' and the 'flanker' were identical - except that one of them started half a pace further back. Over time, the players at these positions evolved ... lean, fast and tall, with catching skill as the primary requirement. They began to be called 'wide receivers' - a term that included both split ends and split backs. And the NON-split ends did not evolve - while they caught passes, they still had the size to block. But - and here's the odd thing - that ROLE - combination blocker and receiver - began to be called 'tight end'. So you'd actually hire a 'tight end'.
The position a back was in, where he was only one man outside the end of the line of scrimmage (whether outside a tackle or a tight end), but OFF the LOS used to be called a 'wingback'. That term is rarely used now, because the people who fill the role are those hired as 'tight ends'! When you think about it, the idea of a tight end being OFF the line of scrimmage breaks the purpose of the name: if you have a 3-tight end formation, how can the line of scrimmage have three ends?
What Kelly is doing with his 3- and 4-tight end formations is not really tight end POSITIONS, they are tight end body-sizes. A 4-TE set is not really four tight ends at all: it's two TEs and two wingbacks. The only reason it is called a 4-TE set is that the guys running it are all built like brick shithouses.
So after this long-winded explanation, the correct term for a tight end on the line but away from the tackle is 'split end' ('slot' incidentally is short for 'slotback', and logically enough, refers to an off-the-LOS position). But 'split end' conveys the idea of a slim guy whose only role is to catch footballs. With 'tight end' etymologically moving from defining a position to defining a role (with commensurate physiological requirements), your guess on the name of a tight-end sized guy who is split out is as good as mine! Incidentally, I always used to joke with my teammates that the hardest thing to tell my mother about playing football was how I went from being a tight end to being a split end, but I digress ..."
We then went on to talk about some of the more unusual looks Chip Kelly has shown in this preseason, such as the Double-stack, designed to force the defense to choose (and show clearly) how many people they are putting in the box.
Re the double stack, the formation only gives a 5-on-5 in the middle if there is a 2-deep defense. Most 4-wide formations DO get a 2-deep D, but if you look at the top photo on this FishDuck.com column about the Double-Stack, you'll see that the Colorado D have put two defenders on each stack, and then left only a single 'center-fielder' safety. This gives them 6-on-5 vs. run. In this formation, the center-fielder can be exploited by having one guy in each stack go deep: one of them has to be single covered. Sometimes the defense will decide not to put two DBs wide against the stacks - OSU in your photo appear to have done this: the lower stack has only one cover guy, with only a free safety far inboard. The QB should automatically quick-screen this on an audible - or even on a pre-arranged silent read: "if you get only one cover guy on the stack, it's a quick-screen regardless of the playcall".
And that gets me on to the key to running stack receivers: QB reading, and receiver reading.
You HAVE to have a QB who is able to read the defense and make accurate determinations of who they have covered and where. And because the reads are mostly pre-snap reads, you have to have a QB who is fast release and accurate, rather than a marquee deep strike arm.
The other factor is receiver block reading, because there are 2 DBs to be blocked, and only one blocker. We used to do this as a drill: 2 defenders on a blocker ahead of a ball-carrier. It seems like the defenders should always be able to get a man there, but the method is for the blocker to engage one defender and then for the ball-carrier to stay close behind the blocking pair until the second defender committed to moving past the blocking pair on one side or the other, whereupon the ball-carrier would commit to the OTHER side. The blocker then had to read that this had happened, and continue to engage the first defender, who will obviously try to slide off to the side the ball-carrier is going. The ball-carrier's job was called 'running to color', because the ball-carriers were told to resist their natural inclination to run to open space, and instead run to the ass of the blocker, staying as close as possible to force a commitment from the second defender.
Once the second DB has committed, the blocker can win either of two ways: 1) by successfully preventing the DB from disengaging to that side, or 2) from driving the DB backwards far enough so that even if the front DB does successfully disengage on the side the ball-carrier goes, he only makes tackling contact far enough downfield for a healthy gain anyway. The key to both 1) and 2) is drive-blocking ability, and that is where Kelly is getting a huge advantage over using WRs in the stack: the guys fronting the stacks are primarily blockers not receivers, so they carry a size advantage into the assignment against the DB for this type of 2-on-2 screen."
Do you get the sense that Martin doesn't have enough people to talk about football with, over in Sydney Australia? He then went on, with a branching topic. I bet he'd enjoy discussing stuff in the comments, even if you think he's full of crap.
"Sidebar: with stacking, personnel is important. We used to run a gadget play called the Satellite Express, which consisted of stacking FOUR receivers one behind the other. The idea was the front guy ran a fly, next guy a post, next guy an out, and next guy a slant, so it all flared out nicely. This was a good play to get the less experienced players a run, as a lot of them were receivers (we always got a few guys who wanted to play but didn't really have the body size for it, and they usually ended up as 3rd-string receivers, where they did less potential damage on their occasional forays onto the field than as 3rd-string DBs).
The Satellite Express when first sprung on our own defense at training produced a commendable amount of confusion among the defense, and we were all clapping ourselves on the back. Then we ran it a second time. The CB on that side, an ex-LB, found a different tactic. He played bump-and-run. Given the inexperienced and featherweight receivers, it turned out to be bump-without-run - he skittled all four of them like ninepins. The QB had no-one to throw to, but he was laughing too hard to throw anyway. I don't believe the Satellite Express ever made it into a real game.
Good bump and run IS however a good way to disrupt a stack, because if you disrupt the front guy, you sometimes disrupt the back guy as well. However it requires a dominating DB, which Kelly beats by using TEs instead of WRs. Another method is to disguise the man-to-man cover. You cover with a bump-and-run look, but the head-up DB bumps the front guy, but then covers the BACK guy, leaving the deeper DB to cover the front guy, who has hopefully been delayed. This is very effective against a screen, because the front DB moves toward the ball-carrier before he even becomes the ball-carrier. The risk it carries is against a quick slant by the back stacked guy - that tends to be out from under the front DB, and if the pass is quick enough to get there before the outside LB can get across, the play can go deep.
Another way to attack the stack is zone, using the outside backers to cover the slant zones. This gives the OLBs a double responsibility: RB contain on run plays, and slant cover on pass plays. It's only effective at low levels of football where the time to hit a slant is appreciable ... any NFL QB should be able to pick it apart.
Again getting away from NFL, I designed an offense once - again, only used in practice - that consisted of two split ends on each side standing NEXT TO each other. Nine guys on the line of scrimmage, like this:
At the ready, the QB would call one of three signals, whereupon two guys took a step backwards to make one of these legal formations:
Note that in the latter two a tackle became eligible - the tackles were actually tight ends anyway. This meant a sudden change in the defensive cover requirements: shifting from the second of the three to the third meant that a man-to-man defender had to move from covering the B receiver to covering the Y receiver, a very long trip, as well as a defender shifting to cover the other side T. In practice, the defense had to go man-to-man against six receivers, even though two of them weren't eligible. The ones who WEREN'T eligible, however, were available for use as stack screen blockers, so even if they single-covered an eligible/ineligible pair, the screen gave a 2-on-1. The whole thing provided a pain in the ass for the defense.
Now this may be waving red flags in your head. So I should reveal that in the early days of football here in Australia (I played the first game of football in real equipment played in this country, in 1985), we weren't bothering with trivia like which numbers were eligible or 'reporting eligible' to the referees, so I was able to call these shifts which made B or Y or the two tackles instantly eligible or ineligible. Once the observers worked out that my formation design was just exploiting a loophole in the enforcement of the rules, it was agreed that my idea was not in the spirit of the game, and I was bringing far too much of that 'thinky' stuff to bear, and we should all go back to just running into each other ... which we did.
However the split tackle idea could still work - legally - for Chip. How about this formation:
The tight end at E takes the blocking responsibility of the tackle most of the time, but can go on a pass route if not covered. If the defense DON'T commit two defenders to cover the A-T stack on the left, you screen A behind T - with only ONE defender in front of him. [Note -- the Eagles practiced a formation something like this in OTAs last May, as Jimmy Kempski noted.]
However, this is NOT a tackle eligible play. The tackle is INeligible ... he's just split, which is obviously rarely seen. Split tackle plays require instant read and react QBing, because you're thinning the blocking in front of the QB, or at best replacing a tackle block with a TE block. For the split tackle play, you need someone who is a good blocker, but a good open-field blocker not a LOS blocker. It's actually more of a tight end role, however, as you say, they could shift into it from a normal formation if they have a mobile agile tackle able to do the open-field blocking job.
"Ah, I love musing about these things." -- Martin Clear