On the stat sheet, it’s a ten-yard touchdown for the Redskins over NFC East rival Philadelphia. In action, it’s a look at how the pro game is incorporating the best parts of college ball.
‘Skins Head Coach Mike Shanahan is no stranger to cutting-edge offense–his Broncos team made zone blocking schemes the tactic dujour at all levels of the game. Melded with Shanahan’s West Coast background, the resulting offense earned John Elway his first two Super Bowls. It was the perfect combination of old and new. Neither Shanahan nor his staff have much in the way of recent college experience, unlike the 49er’s combination of Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman, for example. This hasn’t stopped Washington from adopting all manner of spread-option plays and tweaks (particularly from Baylor’s playbook) to put rookie star Robert Griffin III in a position to maximize his talents. The emphasis has been on using spread-option plays and the Pistol. It seems to be working–at the time of writing, Washington is the league’s top rushing team and they’re a win away from claiming the East title.
Alfred Morris’ touchdown exemplifies the old-meets-new attitude of today’s run game, with college influences coming more and more to the forefront. The play starts with a bunch-pistol look with the run-strength to the left and the line showing a pass-protection look. The Eagles are aligned to match the run threat to the left, and as the play unfolds, it’s obvious they’re expecting pass. Combined, the Eagles are poorly positioned to take what Washington throws at them.
Morris and RGIII make a reverse pivot/jab-step hand-off combo that gets the defense looking in the wrong direction, while the backside tackle pulls around to lead block. This is a classic counter play and evocative of a Joe Gibbs squad at its finest: Morris runs to daylight almost unthreatened. Of course, the classic counter plays all came from the I-formation, and usually had a backside duo pulling behind a mass of linemen looking to mow down anyone in its path. While it doesn’t have any option aspects, this Pistol-formation play has the playside tackle pass-set while only the backside tackle pulls to hit an isolated linebacker feels like a pistol/pro adaptation of Rich Rodriguez’s Dart play. Sharper eyes will notice that Morris is aligned a yard deeper than is standard in the Pistol; this is probably to give him more room to sell the counter and get to full speed.
However you peg its influences, the Eagles didn’t know how to handle the play. The playside defensive end is best positioned at the snap to gum things up, and even better positioned (by default) an instant later when his colleagues get washed away from the play. The DE reads the pass-set of the guy in front of him, though, and runs himself out of the play. The backside ‘backer plays the pass, the Mike wanders into the line of scrimmage, and the playside ‘backer reacts too slowly to have an impact. Out of the entire secondary, only the safety recognizes run, though even if he had a chance of playing force versus a pulling, full-steam tackle, there’s no one to fill in around him.
If it makes Eagles fans feel better, you aren’t alone. Teams across the league are struggling to stop all manner of college imports and their resulting hybridizations.