It’s 1958 and the Middletown High School football team in Dayton, Ohio has gotten off to a rocky start to the season. The team has lost four out of its first five games, getting a lucky draw in one of the games to land a record of 0-4-1. The head coach is Glenn “Tiger” Ellison, and it’s his 14th season at the helm. Ellison, known as simply “Tiger,” is sitting at a crossroads, potentially facing his first losing season as the head coach. He has to do something to fix the issues that the program has faced on offense, so he turns to the Lonesome Polecat offense (pictured below), a scheme that he would rely on for the rest of the season and build off of it.
This new offensive philosophy was different than others, because it would signal a devotion to the passing game, which was unfamiliar to Ellison as well as the rest of the football world. Ellison had been a smash-mouth football coach, relying on his running game to get the job done. “I was a possession coach, a slave driver, a blood-and-thunder guy,” Ellison said. And now, because of a slow start to the year, he was going to abandon his entire offensive philosophy in hopes of salvaging the season?
Ellison did absolutely that, turning to the forward pass and winning five games in a row with it. For the following season in 1959, Ellison would add more passing plays and formations to his offense, most notably a 2×2 set of receiving threats which he would call the Run-and-Shoot.
For nearly five seasons, he would rely on the forward pass of the Run-and-Shoot to win games and it did just that, helping him win 38 of the team’s 45 games before moving on to the Ohio State University.
Seven years later, Ellison would write about the offense, stating it was a “revolution,” and he was completely right. The offensive philosophy would revolutionize the sport of football from that moment forward and it still does today. The Run-and-Shoot offense is arguably the most significant influence on NFL (and college football) offenses, often gathering the attention of coaches who want to learn more about ways to improve the efficiency of their offense.
One of the coaches who has learned from Kevin Gilbride, one of the greats, is Chris Palmer, who was recently hired as the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. Palmer worked with Kevin Gilbride in the early nineties with the Houston Oilers. He was a wide receivers coach while Gilbride called offensive plays and broke NFL passing records while doing it. Palmer has since had multiple stops, calling plays and being a quarterbacks coach. I noticed while watching last week that Gilbride’s offensive background as a Run-and-Shoot offensive coordinator has had a noticeable influence on Palmer’s design of the passing game. While analyzing the structure of Palmer’s passing game, I charted some staples of his offense. The first things I charted were the most commonly used formations by Palmer.
Like the Run-and-Shoot offense, Palmer’s offense featured a two-by-two set of receiving threats. The two-by-two set, often known as Doubles, is important to note because it is the founding formation of the Run-and-Shoot offense. It is also one that is commonly used in the NFL today.
This formation is commonly used because it presents problems for defenses having to account for the possibility of four vertical threats down the field as well as having enough guys in the box to play the run.
Moreover, Palmer’s offense featured two other main formations, the three-by-one set and the two by one set. The three-by-one set is commonly known as Trips, and it is pictured below.
The Trips set is problematic for defenses because it raises the possibility of the receiving threats flooding an area of the field as well as using defenders as picks (like in basketball) to create matchup advantages.
The third and final formation that the Titans commonly presented was a 2×1 set, often known as Twins. This formation is important to note because it presents the likelihood of seeing two receiving threats attacking the defense using both levels of the field, short and deep, thus putting a defender in a bind between the two offensive players.
These three formations are very important to keep in mind when analyzing the Titans’ offensive weapons. The Titans have a quality running back, Chris Johnson, as well as multiple and versatile receiving threats, such as wide receiver Kenny Britt and tight end Jared Cook. Cook in particular jumps off the screen because of his ability to out-muscle linebackers while being able to run with defensive backs down the field. Players like these present matchup difficulties for defenses, which consequently gives the offense an advantage.
Furthermore, while studying the passing game structure of Chris Palmer’s offense in Tennessee, I noticed a lot of staples from the Run-and-Shoot offense. The use of motion to undress defenses, the use of vertical stems to apply pressure on secondary players, constraint plays, reading post-snap, as well as the famous passing concepts of the offense, such as the Switch concept.
The use of motion to undress a defense’s disguise is something that was started by Tiger Ellison in the infant years of the development of the Run-and-Shoot. Motioning players is action which causes reaction. The reaction of the defense may be a tip-off as to what coverage they may run. Also, the more motion, the more the defense has to make checks, meaning they have to get out of the play called and into another one. This, in particular, can be problematic because the more checks, the more likely the defense ends up in their base defense, which is not the desired outcome.
Vertical stems are an important offensive staple because they apply pressure on secondary defenders and allow the offense to stay one step ahead of the defense. The application of pressure on secondary defenders is simple. Picture yourself standing 10 yards across from a defender. At the snap of the ball, you are to run full-speed at the defender and once you close the gap between yourself and the defender, you break off the vertical stem (or line) and run your designated route. The defender is likely to react by backpedaling quickly and losing his leverage on the receiver. Also, as stated, the defense’s goal is to get a jump on what the offense is doing by reading the patterns of the offensive pass catchers, but if all the patterns look similar, it is tough to read and react.
Constraint plays, as Chris Brown of Smartfootball.com talks about in the link, are one of the most important parts of developing an efficient offense because they are build-ups to the core plays of your offense. There are several examples of constraint plays, such as screen passes. Screen passes are used to slow down an overly aggressive defense by using their momentum against them. Let the defenders charge downhill and then throw past them while simultaneously allowing blockers to get out and block for the pass-catcher.
Another example is the use of the play-action passing game. Offensive play callers tend to like to run the ball to set up their pass plays, and more specifically, their core pass plays. When the offense is successfully running the ball, the defense tends to get closer to the tackle box (the marker from the line of scrimmage to five yards out in front of the offensive line) because they want to cheat by stopping the run. When a play-caller starts seeing that, he knows that it’s time to call the play action and hit the defense over the top with a pass.
Moving forward, the use of post-snap reads is by far the most famous staple of the Run-and-Shoot offense. The aforementioned vertical stems are important here as well because once pressure is applied on secondary defenders by the closing of the gap (a.k.a cushion), the pass-catchers are to react to the defenders by reading their leverage. For example, if the defender is taking away the inside, the pass-catcher can run a route outside. An instance from one of Palmer’s old playbooks is below.
Another example is below and it features the Seam Read route which attacks the middle of the field. The route is a staple of every Run-and-Shoot offense, and in a lot of today’s successful NFL offenses, including the Titans 2011 offense. The receiver or tight end that is running the route is expected to read the middle of the field to see how many safeties are presented. If there is one safety, the pass-catcher continues to run straight down field (a Go route). If there are two safeties, the pass catcher will cross the middle of the field by running a Post route.
The final staple of the Run-and-Shoot offense that is also seen in Chris Palmer’s offense in Tennessee is the Switch concept. As seen in the image below, the two wide receivers run a diagonal stem for about five to six yards before turning up the field. The inside receiver, known as the No. 2 or slot receiver, runs what is called a wheel route and has multiple options based off of the coverage and leverage of the defender. Meanwhile, the outside receiver, known as the No. 1, runs up the field after the diagonal stem and also has up to four options to choose from. If there is a safety in the middle of the field, he can run straight down the field (Go route) or a Deep In. He also has the option of running a post route if there are two safeties in the middle of the field.
(Switch concept performed at the top of the image)
Early into the 1958 high school football season, Ellison was struggling to get his offense performing to its usual standards. A coach who heavily relied on smash-mouth football in the past 13 years was now at a loss as to how to fix his offense, so he turned to the forward pass and as he eloquently put it, it was “the story of a revolution.”
The offensive revolution was dubbed the Run-and-Shoot, and it has had the biggest influence in modern day passing games in both professional and college football. Palmer’s use of motion, post-snap reads, and passing concepts such as the Switch and vertical stems would make Ellison proud.
Additional reading links below:
Chris Brown ofdoes a great job explaining the Run n Shoot in a series at the links below: