Rubber Bands of Steel, Part Two — Washington’s Play Action Game

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In the first part of yesterday’s Redskins’ preview, I looked at the wide stretch, a foundational running play in the Redskins playbook. I showed some stills from the Texans game to demonstrate how the zone blocking puts pressure on a the front seven to maintain line discipline and to avoid getting hooked away from pursuit.

Let’s re-visit the third still, because it hints at the next progression in Washington’s attack:

Look again at Dallas’ weak-side OLB, Anthony Spencer and how he’s locked on to the Texans tailback. He’s paying no attention to QB Matt Schaub, even though Schaub is executing a fake bootleg turn. In fact, QBs in this system are coached to make a bootleg turn on all stretch plays, to keep a pass option in the pursuit players’ minds.

Spencer made the proper read here. When this play, the 19 HO strong, is run, the fullback will often block away from the play’s flow, and take on the backside OLB or DE if he’s facing a 4-3 front. The fullback is on the tight end’s side, tipping that this is a run.

But What If The Call is Pass?

What happens if the play is run the more conventional way, with the fullback blocking on the weakside? And what if Spencer or a Demarcus Ware sells out to beat the fullback’s block and chase the tailback down? He may succeed, but that zealous pursuit set him up for the next call — the fake-stretch bootleg. In that instance, the offensive line and the running back would sell the stretch run wide, while the fullback would take his backside contain block and release into the flat. The tight end, here seen blocking Demarcus Ware on the strong side, would release inside and run a crossing route, giving the the quarterback an intermediate level target. Meanwhile, the Z, or flanker would run a post at the deepest level.

If Mike Shanahan can open the game and establish his stretch plays to the perimeter, either inside or outside his tight ends, he’ll put the Cowboys OLBs in a quandry. Is the run they seem to be seeing a true run, or a play-action pass? They have to read their play keys quickly and correctly, because if they play run and the call is a bootleg, they’ll vacate the fullback for an easy completion. On the other hand, if they become too conscious about rubbing out Donovan McNabb’s rollouts, they’ll leave their run lanes open, and Clinton Portis will get a massive cut-back lane on the backside.

The Cowboys’ safeties and inside linebackers also have to quickly and correctly recognize run-or pass. Otherwise, they’ll be slow in forcing runs and give up large chunks of real estate. If they force too quickly and McNabb rolls out with the ball, they’ve given up the deep middle for bombs. Houston, if you’ll recall, threw a moving-pocket wrinkle at Dallas two weeks ago. They put a bunch formation on the right side and faked a run away from it. When Schaub rolled out wide, he had Jacoby Jones breaking free in the deep middle for a score. These are just the types of throws successful early running sets up.

News that the injured veteran defensive spine, ILB Keith Brooking and SS Gerald Sensabaugh, have returned to practice is the best bit of Cowboys news this past week. As much as the kid inside linebackers, Sean Lee and Jason Williams intrigue me, and as much as Barry Church’s preseason play encouraged me, I would not want to trust their pass-run recognition skills over 60 snaps Sunday night. They would be facing a play calling master, and somewhere along the line, Shanahan would set up a rookie starter and burn him.