Dictating The Play – An Explanation With C.J. Prosise and Jay Gruden

C.J. Prosise announced himself on Sunday Night Football. Without him, the Seattle Seahawks likely wouldn’t have beaten the New England Patriots. Prosise didn’t just account for 153 yards on 24 touches. The rookie running back had value that surpassed his production as he altered the identity of the Seahawks offense.

Whenever an offense and defense meet, one is more likely to be the aggressor. One is more likely to be proactive while the other is reactive. One is more likely to dictate how the outcome of each play will be determined.

It’s easier to explain this with an example.

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Take this Third-and-6 play from the first quarter. Prosise lines up in the backfield next to Wilson. The Seahawks have three receivers to the wide (left) side of the field and Jimmy Graham isolated outside the numbers on the narrow (right) side of the field. Everyone on offense is in a position that you would rationally expect them to be in. This means the defense doesn’t need to adjust its play call.

At this point of the play, it’s more important to look at what the defense is doing than what the offense is doing.

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Prosise’s positioning in the backfield allows the defense to keep two linebackers in the box. These two linebackers afford the defense more versatility and take away any clarity that Wilson might have had. Before Wilson knows where he’s going to go with the ball, he has to figure out what those linebackers are doing.

Dont’a Hightower(#54) and Shea McLellin(#58) could be doing anything. Wilson can’t know at this point.

Will both rush the quarterback to create a five-man pass rush? Will both drop into coverage? If they do drop, how will that impact the rest of the coverage? What happens if one comes and the other drops? If so, which one comes and which one drops?

These are all things Wilson has to consider while Prosise is next to him in the backfield.

Before you watch the above gif, go back and look at the original image. Note where Graham is on the field and note the safety to that side of the field. The Patriots didn’t want to give Graham a one-on-one in space so the Seahawks took advantage of that by isolating him on one side of the field. Graham keeps the safety away from the box and the other receivers, limiting the versatility of the defense.

Now, watch the above gif. Look at how the defense reacts to Prosise motioning out wide.

McLellin leaves the box and follows Prosise. Hightower shifts over to McLellin’s spot and Wilson identifies Hightower so the offensive line sets its protection with the expectation that he will rush the passer. McLellin followed Prosise. Everyone else stayed in positions they were already in. This suggests to Wilson that they are playing man coverage.

Any team in the league can motion their running back from the backfield into the position of a wide receiver. The Seahawks could have done this with Christine Michael or Alex Collins. Not every team can motion a running back out wide and still have five legitimate receiving options on the field. When Prosise moves outside he’s not going to just turn and face his quarterback at the snap or run straight downfield like limited backs are forced to do.

With Graham pulling coverage on one side of the field, Prosise is given a one-on-one matchup in space against a strong-side linebacker. A linebacker whose primary value comes in tight spaces and whose fatal flaw is exposed when he’s dropped into space.

Prosise runs a precise, fast route. The linebacker stumbles as he is left behind. Wilson’s easy read is paired with an easy throw for a first down. An obvious passing down became an easy passing down for the offense because the offense dictated the matchup it would attack.

The quarterback didn’t have to perform against pressure, he didn’t have to make a difficult pre-snap or post-snap read. He didn’t have to fit the ball into a tight window or throw a receiver open with anticipation, touch or timing. He just had to not mess it up.

You need a lot of talent to consistently dictate plays in the NFL. Right now the best example we have is the Denver Broncos defense.

Nobody can block Von Miller. You either adapt your play calling or play designs to account for Miller or you let him wreck your play calling and play designs. Miller hurries the quarterback up, shortens the field and makes it easier for each of his teammates to do his job. It’s why he got paid quarterback money in a league that overpays quarterbacks. Miller with that secondary and Demarcus Ware on the other side of him is simply terrifying.

One team did recently turn the Broncos defense into a reactive entity: The Oakland Raiders.

The Raiders neutralized Miller by attacking the Broncos’ greatest weakness. They ran power plays up the middle over and over and over again. The Broncos couldn’t stop them. Miller had one sack and Derek Carr threw for fewer than 200 yards on 31 attempts, but the Raiders running backs combined for 215 yards. Miller spent most of the game on the outside, reacting to running plays that he could do nothing about.

Maybe the original and definitely the most common way of dictating games is with play action. There are a number of offenses in the leage that excel at keeping their opponents off balance with unbalanced formations or different types of play fakes and route combinations. Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs immediately come to mind. The Chiefs don’t have great individual talent though so Reid’s offenses still don’t put up huge numbers.

An offense that does have great individual talent resides in Washington.

Jay Gruden’s offense boasts arguably the most talented group of pass catchers in the NFL. The one thing they are missing is a running back. With Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and the re-emerging Vernon Davis (not to mention the immenent arrival of Josh Doctson and the recent impressive play of Maurice Harris), Washington has a group of receiving options that mixes supreme talent with congruent complements. That weaponry shares the field with an offensive line that performs collectively like one of the best pass-blocking units in the league.

The Washington coaching staff has clearly defined strengths and they run an offense that plays to those strengths. At least, they did over the second half of last season.

When Kirk Cousins’ production blew up midway through last year, the offense’s emphasis on play action plays played a big role. Over the first nine weeks of last season, Cousins completed 32 of 46 play-action passes for 403 yards, one touchdown and one interception. From that point onwards, he completed 39 of 54 passes for 744 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.

He went from averaging 8.8 yards per play-action pass attempt to averaging 13.8 yards per play-action pass attempt.

Play action, especially hard play action, is the original form of dictating because the goal of play action is to distort the defense. You are intentionally doing something to draw defenders out of position or make them lose their assignments. The defense’s play call is distorted, forcing each defender to spend time recovering the ground he gave up while the quarterback and his receiving options are fully focused on connecting with each other. Not to mention, play action naturally slows down pass rushers.

That is presuming you are an effective play action team. Washington are a very effective play action team. This was highlighted on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings when 110 of Cousins’ 262 yards came off of play action.

Six of Cousins’ nine play action plays were designed to get the quarterback out of the pocket. This typically means that it was a hard play fake where the quarterback lines up under center and extends the ball back to his running back before running to the opposite flat. In the above gif, you can see the first example of Washington executing a play fake from Sunday’s game.

Tight end Vernon Davis gains 15 yards and a first down on this play.

Davis’ role is a fascinating one and it speaks to great play design from Gruden and his staff. He is initially responsible for run blocking, or rather selling a run block, on the backside defensive end. That is a crucial role because the backside defensive end is the one player in position to meet the quarterback after he executes the play fake. Davis sells the run block well before leaking out onto the second level late. Because the linebackers and defensive backs were reacting to the play fake and Davis was engaged witha  defensive end, nobody ever even considers covering him.

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The backside defensive end actually does a decent job on this play to react and take away the quarterback’s option to scramble. It’s more of a consolation than anything though because the quarterback doesn’t ever need to scramble. More important is the fact that the quarterback has plenty of time and space to operate in. All of the pass rush was washed across the field with the play fake, leaving him to function at a luxurious pace.

All three receivers are on the same side of the field when the quarterback breaks the pocket. This is a half-field read. The Vikings force the quarterback into the most difficult read by taking away his first two options downfield, but, mentally, it’s far from a difficult play.

Distorted coverage gives the quarterback a wide open receiver, no pass rush to deal with and a short throw that can/will result in a big gain.

You can see almost exactly the same thing happen for Cousins’ second touchdown throw when he underthrew a tight end throwback after play action but it ultimately never mattered because the defense was reactive and the offense was proactive. The tight end throwback is maybe the toughest play in football to defend because anyone can run it and create such separation. We’ve seen Kyle Shanahan use it with Brian Hoyer and Matt Ryan, Jeff Fisher use it with Case Keenum, Dirk Koetter use it with Jameis Winston. No matter the type of quarterback you have, that play almost always puts the defense in a perilous position.

Washington use two very specific play fakes that work extremely well. The above play is typical of what they do when Cousins breaks the pocket. When he stays in the pocket, they look to attack the middle of the field.

These are back-to-back plays from the fourth quarter when Washington needed a drive to take the lead. They are (essentially) the exact same plays. The linebackers are drawn forward by the play fake. The defensive backs are pushed back by vertical routes. That means the natural space between the two levels of the defense is stretched so that the quarterback has a wide window to hit a sharp, in-breaking route.

Cousins is a very inaccurate passer but that isn’t shown in his numbers for a couple of reasons. One, his receivers are exceptional at adjusting to inaccurate passes. Two, the majority of his passes are thrown short so the difficulty level is consistently lower for him compared to his peers. Three, they dictate to defenses so that receivers can be schemed open for easier throws.

On Sunday, Cousins had an accuracy percentage of 75 percent (9 of 12) on qualifying throws that traveled five or fewer yards downfield. He had an accuracy percentage of 43 percent (9 of 21) on throws that traveled six or more yards downfield. Creating big plays off of play action and with YAC (he had 81 yards of YAC) allowed Cousins to be effective while rarely doing anything that would be calssified as difficult.

For the Vikings, this was another game where they were reactive all over the field. The Vikings were dominant over the first month of the season as their pressure upfront and athleticism behind it made it very difficult for offenses to approach games the way they wanted to. Since then, Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter have gone missing while Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks have slowed down. Whether injuries are playing a role or not is unclear.

Dictating the play can be done in different ways and the style of an offense or defense can be just as important as its quality.

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