Play-action passing rules the NFL right now. Teams of all different kinds of makeup and quality of play have found great success throwing off of play-action. While that success has spread all around the league, a handful of teams have come to set the expectation for what a play-action passing offense is supposed to look like. The Minnesota Vikings, coordinated by Kevin Stefanski and guided by offensive advisor Gary Kubiak, are one of the few elite play-action teams.
Minnesota’s particular brand of play-action offense is driven by heavier personnel sets from under center that feed off of a strong zone running game. They share similarities with the 49ers, Rams, and Titans in that regard, which makes sense considering all of the coordinators from those teams loosely fall from the Mike Shanahan/Gary Kubiak coaching tree. That brand of play-action offense, given its reliance on a strong running game and propensity to pull in defenders to the box via formation, is often geared toward shot plays down the field. Those shot plays are vital to the offense finding its explosive plays while the run game keeps the offense chugging along.
Post/Over is a common route combination that falls under this category. Some people call the concept Yankee, but in NFL playbooks, every team likely has a different name for it. Even Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, who many tie directly to one another given their tenure together in Washington, call it different things. Whatever you want to call it, the idea is to put the deep safety in a bind by forcing him to choose between sitting over the post or nailing down on the deep over route, which then creates a downfield one-on-one to whichever receiver the safety moves away from, or to hesitate altogether and leave both open.
Of course, like any concept, it’s not perfect. There are coverages that can deal with it, even if they require particular types of coverage defenders. The standard technique to defend this concept is to allow the deep safety to stay over the top of the post, while the cornerback responsible for the post will peel off to cover the area the deep over route is supposed to be attacking. From a pure leverage standpoint, it’s the easiest way for the safety to be active in the coverage.
Well, that isn’t what the Packers did against the Vikings in Week 16.
It’s not the cornerback on the post who peels off of his coverage, it’s the cornerback on the deep over route. The safety instead nails down on the over route to replace the cornerback and gets a bit of help underneath from a linebacker to bridge the time gap between the cornerback peeling off and the safety barreling down. The cornerback who peels off the over route, Kevin King (20), then floats up the field to replace the safety as a deep middle player and help out with covering the post. With the way this coverage unfolds, it’s easy for a quarterback to see the safety vacate the deep middle of the field and believe that area is exploitable. That illusion allows the cornerback flowing up from the opposite side of the field to sneak into a position to make a play on the ball, just as King did in this instance.
Reward is not without risk, however, especially as it relates to coverage. Excelling with this particular style of coverage against Post/Over requires a smart, athletic deep middle safety and cornerbacks who can run. If a team has slow cornerbacks and/or a deep safety who thinks just a tick slowly, this coverage is asking to give up a big play.
None of those talent issues are present for the New Orleans Saints, health permitting. Marshon Lattimore is an elite cornerback, and safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell are among the best duos in the NFL. Even rookie Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who is a nickel/safety hybrid, has been playing very well and could fit into a true safety spot if need be.
This clip is from 2018, but the core of the Saints’ secondary from that season is the same as this year’s, and the two key players on this play are Lattimore and Williams. Williams, playing over the offense’s right hash before the snap (he starts on the midfield logo), nails down on the crosser moving from left to right. Philadelphia’s receiver being in a tight split out of that formation is a bit of a tip that he is going to be running the over route, and Williams picks up on it immediately and triggers down without hesitation. As Williams is nailing down on the crosser, Lattimore is peeling away from it to travel up the field and replace him in the deep middle area of the field. Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz lets it rip, assuming he has the one-on-one, and Lattimore flies in to undercut the catch point for an interception. While this ball being underthrown helped the Saints out a bit, each of the key coverage defenders on this play executed flawlessly.
The Saints got Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson on the same coverage early this season, with Bell serving as the safety nailing down instead of Williams. The two cornerbacks flow up the field to perfectly cap the post, while Bell makes it down in time to cut off the over route to DeAndre Hopkins (10). Watson tries to move off his spot and heave up a miracle to save a broken play, but the throw falls a bit short for an incompletion. Though Watson almost made this work, plenty of quarterbacks in the league do not have that kind of problem-solving ability and aggression late in downs — especially not Cousins.
The Vikings are going to have to pull out a number of variants or similar-looking concepts to work around this particular technique from the Saints secondary. Whether it’s tweaking the Post player’s route, snapping off the Over route in the middle of the field, or changing both routes after the stem altogether, Minnesota can’t just run vanilla Post/Over concepts over and over against the Saints. Perhaps they could steal a few concepts from similar offenses.
One such change is to have both outside receivers aim their stems slightly toward the inside to threaten a post or an over route, then stop on a dime to turn back to the quarterback. The Vikings have already run this a handful of times this season with some success, including this example against the Chargers from midseason. Both wide receivers are able to get the cornerbacks covering them to commit up the field and overrun the break point of the route. The sudden snap of each route is a major change from the looser Post and Over routes, so this can serve as a nice changeup.
This example is from Shanahan’s San Francisco offense in 2017 with Brian Hoyer behind center. Though not exactly the same concept, it is a riff off the same idea of asking both receivers to make sharp breaks where they would normally commit to their Post and Over routes. To the bottom of the screen, elite cornerback Patrick Peterson gets caught trying to cheat inside and stumbles all over himself trying to recover, opening up a clear window for the wide receiver on the sideline. Hoyer just misses the mark — because of course he did — but the concept played out the way it was intended to.
Here is another tweak from Shanahan, who is hands-down the best at creating wrinkles off of this one general concept. In this instance, tight end George Kittle (85) shows the Over route all the way. He stems up the hash before turning over the middle of the field as if he’s going to attack that 11- to 20-yard area between the left hash and the painted numbers. Instead of following all the way through, however, Kittle snaps the route down between the hashes.
Again, none of these changeups are supposed to be direct pulls from the same concept with just one little change. Some of the route depths change, some of the landmarks change, and some of the offense’s goals change as the concepts do, but the general idea of riffing off one vertical stem up the middle and one stem that threatens the intermediate middle area is going to keep defenses honest. If the Vikings can hit some of these concepts, or whichever changeups they opt for, the Saints may be inclined to move to safer coverage techniques.
There are likely 100 other schematic back-and-forths like this to look at in this game alone, but as pronounced as Minnesota’s play-action attack is, and with New Orleans having one of the few secondaries that can play this style of coverage effectively, it could be a game within the game worth paying attention to.
What’s tricky is that these particular play-action concepts may only show up four or five times all game, perhaps less depending on how much of an early lead the Saints can amass. Being that these plays always go for first downs and 20-plus yards when they hit, though, the difference between even just a couple of these plays working or not could create a meaningful swing.