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Hard Knocks Meets the Hardwood

The Packers, Falcons, Steelers, and Patriots have more in common than fighting for a Super Bowl berth: They’re spearheading an offensive revolution by playing basketball on grass

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

For the casual observer, this NFL season has likely largely been defined by great quarterbacks playing great football: Tom Brady dominating, Matt Ryan breaking through, Aaron Rodgers running the table after promising to do just that. Dedicated observers, however, see something deeper: a fundamental shift in the way the game is being played.

The phrase “basketball on grass” isn’t new, but the shorthand for a wide-open style of offense has never been as apt as it’s been this season. Never in NFL history have one-on-one matchups downfield been more prevalent or more crucial to an offense’s success; never have we seen more defensive backs consistently on the field, or more eligible receivers running routes against them. Or, as Steelers wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey puts it: “We believe in ‘Get your ass open.’… It’s basketball.”

Since 2008, the number of plays per season in which teams used five or more defensive backs has increased 60 percent, and the biggest single-season jump in that span occurred from the 2015 campaign to the 2016 season, according to TruMedia. Leaguewide, teams ran plays featuring five or more defensive backs 1,657 more times during the 2016 regular season than in 2015. After trending in this direction for nearly a decade, the hardwood officially replaced the turf this season.

And the final four playoff teams are a big reason. Here are the four quarterbacks who posted the best passer rating this season with five offensive players running routes and at least five defensive backs on the field: Brady, Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and Rodgers, in that order. Those quarterbacks will play in the league championship games on Sunday, in part because they’ve become the point guards of the NFL.

“Basketball is a great comparison because I think there’s a lot of cutting and movement and backdoor movement in football right now,” says former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer. “It’s about deception in routes and this idea that we’re going to keep moving, keep moving, and we know this movement is going to create an open guy.”

The idea is no longer being used as an experiment; it’s increasingly an imperative tool for contending. And that’s where this year’s playoff teams separate from the pack: They have the star QBs, yes, but also the skill players built to “keep moving.”

In situations pitting five pass catchers against five or more defensive backs this regular season, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell both ranked in the top five in receptions. In those same scenarios, Atlanta receiver Taylor Gabriel’s 88 percent catch rate was first among receivers by a wide margin — besting his teammate Mohamed Sanu, who was second at 82.9 percent. Jordy Nelson led the NFL with 11 touchdowns on five-on-five plays, while New England’s Chris Hogan led with 20.9 yards per catch. In 2016, 67 players leaguewide caught 40 or more passes on plays involving five route runners; in 2006, that number was just 26.

Speaking to reporters earlier this season, Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said the Falcons use “some schoolyard, backyard-type concepts to their routes: some ‘get open’–type concepts” that he called “basketballesque.”

While that may have been an oversimplification, Schwartz wasn’t off base. “Julio Jones is the big man, drawing all the attention,” says Super Bowl–winning coach and current NFL Network analyst Brian Billick. “I need my forward in Sanu, [Gabriel] is going to be the 2-guard, moving quickly and cutting, and the H-back is my utility guy, blocking at the point of attack or trying to get a good matchup and nailing the occasional 3-pointer and can guard your 2 or 3. The game has changed.”

For the four teams set to compete on Sunday, it’s changed for the better.

Passing exploded leaguewide around the start of this decade. The top six passing yardage seasons in NFL history, and 15 of the top 17, have occurred since 2011. But even amid that scoring aerial boon, the game generally remained the same aesthetically. That changed with the proliferation of five-receiver plays and defensive backfields with at least five members on the field at once.

Extra DBs tend to come at the expense of a third linebacker or fourth defensive lineman, while extra receivers can come at the expense of a tight end or running back staying in to block or being on the field at all. Billick says that for most of his NFL coaching career, which spanned from 1992 to 2007, teams stayed in base personnel (four defensive backs and, in most cases, three linebackers and four defensive linemen) 60 percent of the time. “You’d be in a nickel 40 percent of the time,” he says. “A few years ago that flipped — and this year, I talked to a defensive coordinator who said they are in base 25 percent of the time.”

That means more defensive backs on the field than ever before. Of course, the basketball-playing teams can still find the holes:

There are a handful of reasons for the shift Billick describes. For one, NFL rule changes cracked down on pass interference in the mid-2000s, making it harder for defenders to fight, allowing receivers to get an edge in coverage. What’s more, Dilfer points to the influence of the college game in the past five years, as more spread-oriented college coaches have joined the NFL ranks as assistants. If you think this sounds like college spread offenses, not so fast: NFL coaches say that while the literal spreading out of the players may have been adopted from the college game, NFL teams can’t run pure college spreads for myriad reasons — from downfield blocking rules to narrower hash marks that limit the open space on each side of the field. “People may look at it and think this is becoming like the college game,” Billick says. “Well, no, but maybe it’s headed towards more of a hybrid.”

Meanwhile, run-pass options, where quarterbacks can decide to run or throw depending on how they read the defense after the snap, are increasingly en vogue for the most innovative offenses. Dilfer estimates based on his film study that the completion percentage on RPO throws was around 90 percent during the regular season, with a similar success rate on short screens, at which Dilfer notes all four playoff teams also excel. “All of these archaic coaches felt like they had permission to be like ‘Andy Reid is doing it, I can do it too,’” Dilfer says of opening up the different possibilities in the passing game. “And this is the next generation of guys, and it’s all about space plays.”

Today’s wide-open basketball plays are the natural offshoot of years of these pro-pass trends. “We’re seeing this [style] with Kyle Shanahan, with Todd Haley; we’re seeing this with Josh McDaniels, and we’re seeing it in Green Bay where Rodgers is just saying ‘I’m rolling left, you get open,’” says John Lynch, former NFL safety and current Fox analyst. “I’m marveling at the way these guys are setting up plays and manipulating.”

Successfully opening up the offense isn’t just about play calling; it’s about draft strategy and free-agency strategy. It’s about personnel. Teams like the Falcons are excelling at schoolyard routes because they planned for this.

As with basketball, size matters. So does quickness. Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons general manager, says he signed Sanu as a free agent this offseason because he liked how his 6-foot-2 frame paired with the 6-foot-3 Jones on the other side. And then there’s the speed. “When you look at the speed in this receiver group, you have Julio who’s a 4.39 [40-yard dash] guy, you have Aldrick Robinson, you have Taylor Gabriel who’s a 4.29,” Dimitroff says. “These guys are legitimately the fastest group I’ve ever been around.”

Size and speed at receiver have always mattered, but the difference is how the savviest teams are now deploying those bodies. These pass catchers excel on wide-open plays that seem simple but are in fact a science. “What may look like a rounded, goofball route by Julio or Sanu is actually genius,” says Dilfer.

The key is for pass catchers to “activate” defenders, using vertical routes to pull safeties out of the play in order to create space for the primary target on a five-receiver play. “So Sanu may run vertical, and he’s just clearing space for Julio to wander anywhere he wants,” Dilfer says. Jones’s route may be a simple curve into the middle of the field, but everything that’s happening around him sets him up to succeed.

Dilfer notes that the Patriots were trying this simple concept against the Ravens in December — except everyone on the Ravens forgot to cover the activator, Hogan. The result was a straight-ahead 79-yard touchdown.

The Patriots won’t be the only team attempting such exploits this weekend. Rodgers leads the NFL in pass attempts in these five-on-five situations, and all of the quarterbacks playing Sunday excel at throwing into one-on-one coverage and into tight windows.

The Steelers have perhaps the most dangerous weapons among this group: Bell and Brown, two of the most talented players in space in the NFL. Their presence trickles down. The wide-open offense is a huge advantage for the Steelers who aren’t the big two. “Most teams got the blueprint from defending us from the teams in our division,” says Heyward-Bey. “That means double-teaming [Brown].” Heyward-Bey’s most notable reception this season came in an October matchup against New England, whom Pittsburgh faces on Sunday. Five players went out for a pass on a third-and-4 from the Patriots’ 14-yard line. The play needed to unfold quickly, because no one was back to block. As expected, Heyward-Bey says, Brown was double-covered.

“AB is getting covered by [Malcolm] Butler and the safety comes down so I’m all alone in one-on-one coverage with 25 [Eric Rowe],” Heyward-Bey says. “All I have to do is put a nice move on him and I’ll get open.” It worked:

Lynch, when discussing Atlanta’s offensive prowess, points to a first-half play from Atlanta’s divisional win over Seattle. The Falcons sent five players out for routes. “Kyle Shanahan had someone in the flat, Julio Jones coming across the middle and drawing a lot of attention, and then he just sneaks Tevin Coleman out and he’s wide open,” Lynch says. The Falcons were running a “scissors” concept, in which one player (Coleman) ran straight and then to the corner of the end zone while another (Gabriel) ran straight and then broke toward the middle of the end zone. Jones and his receiver brethren sucked the oxygen out of the play, and the safeties didn’t bother sticking with Coleman.

Gabriel, who has been one of the best players in the league against five defensive backs this season, says Falcons players have a good amount of freedom to get where they need to on the field instead of working toward set points. “I’ve had a lot of success in beating man coverage,” he says when asked about facing five defensive backs. “When you’ve got a guy like Julio on the field — earlier in the season, they were kind of playing man coverage and moving the safety over to Julio’s side. So it’s just me taking advantage of man-to-man coverage and making the most of it.”

Spreading the Seahawks so thin last Saturday was part of the Falcons’ plan, Lynch says. The Seahawks had successfully blitzed the Falcons in their matchup in October, “and so Kyle said ‘We’re going to get everyone out running routes,’” Lynch says. “They spread people out and there are two ways to respond when a team can blitz, like Seattle: pack it all up and protect, or say ‘Let’s open this up.’ They want to open it up.”

Lynch says that Atlanta’s ability to poke holes in Seattle’s famed Cover 3 defense impressed him most. These days, defenders have to grapple not only with harsher officiating, but also with more frequent one-on-one coverage. Dilfer says that one of the few ways to stop these high-octane offenses is to be as unpredictable as possible on defense. He points out that even against Houston’s Brock Osweiler last week, the Patriots showed “eight different coverages in the first 15 or 20 plays.” For individual defenders, though, the task remains staying ahead of the forward — er, receiver.

“I tell corners — all playing corner is now is basketball,” says former Steelers corner and current NFL Network analyst Ike Taylor. Taylor, who went to college to play basketball but ended up walking on to the Louisiana–Lafayette football team instead, says he’s always imagined himself guarding players as if there were a hoop behind him, but that this new offensive era has forced nearly everyone to think that way too. “You only have 5 yards to do your damage,” Taylor says, referring to the distance from the line of scrimmage in which defensive backs can be physical with receivers. “After that, it’s not letting the guard get to the basket.”

For the defenses posting up this weekend, it’s all about not getting dunked on.