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Football 101: The Spread Offense

The concept of the spread is as simple as the single word "spread". You want to spread the defense out so they have to be good at tackling in space.

Dez Is Awesome!
Dez Is Awesome!
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things that really burns me up, (besides a flame about six feet tall), is seeing bright football minds continue to do just the opposite of the old baseball adage of "Hit'em where they ain't!" When an offense needs a first down or a short yardage touchdown, what do they often do? They run the ball to where the big pile of bodies are, they run at the bunching.


Does that seem intuitively silly to anyone else but me? If you want to go somewhere and there is a multiple car pile up in front of you, how do you get where you are going? Do you try to push the pile of cars, or do you go around them? Anyone else think the answer is obvious?

Now, to be fair, there are times when your offensive linemen are so good that they actually can open up a hole and the back can run right through it.

To be sure, I am not talking about always passing inside the 10, or inside the 5, etc. If you have a good running game, it is better to run the ball than it is to pass it. What you have to look at is how many negative plays does the offensive line give up over the course of the season. If they give up very few negative plays in the running game, then running the ball inside the red zone, and inside the 10, and inside the 5, etc, is always preferable.

One thing I know all of you have asked yourselves before, is the question of is it better to be at the 12-yard line or at the 10-yard line with a first down. Answer, it is better to be at the 12-yard line. Yep, see this interesting stat sheet from Football Outsiders here.

A second potential wrench in the idea that being closer to the end zone is always better is that a first down from 11-to-15 yards out offers the opportunity for a team to get a first down inside the opponent’s 5-yard line, where the probability of scoring a touchdown is very high. What football fan hasn't cringed as a running back bulls just inside the 10 rather than falling down at the 12, where the former results in first-and-goal and the latter would offer the opportunity for another first down inside the 2?

One thing that the chart seems to tell us is that from the 2-yard line out to the 5-yard line, passing for a TD has the better odds. However, that can be misleading.

At first glance, this hardly tells us anything we don’t know about today’s NFL. Except at the opponent’s 1-yard line, a passing play is typically preferable to running on any given play, and the probability of scoring a touchdown on any given play is lower the farther a team gets from the opponent’s end zone.

However, because running plays are more likely to result in a positive gain that does not score, probability may dictate that certain combinations of play choices are preferable to passing. For example, electing to pass on all three downs from the 5-yard line results in a 66.4 percent chance of scoring a touchdown on average, assuming that no play ends in a sack and field position does not change due to penalty. On the other hand, running three times from the 5 seems like it would be a worse choice. However, if the play can be assumed to achieve a positive result -– either gain two yards or score –- on each of first and second down, the probability of scoring a touchdown increases to 74.6 percent if a running play is called on third down, or 70.7 percent if a passing play is called.

Of course, this all rests on the competence of the rushing player and his offensive line. If you expect that a running play will gain one yard or score from the 5 and then pass on third down from the 3-yard line, the probability of scoring a touchdown is only 58.9 percent -- in other words, the offense with a below-average running game would be significantly better off passing three times from the 5.


Has anyone ever heard of "run to daylight?" Well today we are going to talk about how teams are beginning to at least figure that out in the passing game. About 14 years ago Lloyd Carr, University of Michigan head coach, was talking about the spread offense when he said:

"I think defensive head coaches are up against it. Until they come up with some concepts that will slow this offense down, I think you are going to see more of it."

Well, he was right. Two years later, this offense had become so prolific that he further said:

"what these schemes are doing is to spread your defense so far over the field that they expose some weakness, and they make you play a lot of one on one. You have to tackle a great back out in the open field. Your defense has to run all over the field."

One of the reasons why it is very difficult to score when you get into the red zone is the same reason that the defense doesn't want you in the spread. The defense likes to have your 11 guys all lined up in the middle of the field where the player per square foot of football field is as big a number as possible. They like to have you bunched up in the middle of the field so they don't have to cover as much ground to make the stop.

So, what did Steve Young do almost every time he was inside the 10-yard line? He went empty set and spread out the defense, and often would then do a quarterback sneak because there would be few defenders in the middle of the field behind the defensive tackles or nose tackle. Why? Because their jobs depended upon playing their man that was spread out wide. If my memory serves me, he was successful about 95% of the time because it is about numbers of players to beat, and if they are all out wide....well, need I say more?

And what do most NFL coaches do when we get inside the 10-yard line? They run the running back up into that big pile in the middle of the field. That pile that they made even bigger by putting extra backs behind the quarterback that the defense didn't have to worry about because they also were lined up in the middle of the field in line with them. So, there is no numbers advantage when we run into the bunching, and that is one of the reasons that it is so hard to score down there.

So, the concept of the spread can be stated with these bullet points:

  • Use formations and motion to spread out the defense.
  • Make the defense remove run defenders in order to add pass defenders.
  • Use audibles to run against five in the box with better running lanes, and pass against six in the box.
  • If they leave in linebackers, then they are accepting a huge mismatch.
  • If you have four wide outs and one running back, you have much better running lanes.
  • The quarterback's pre- and post-snap reads are much easier because the defense is forced to cover out wide.
  • Having less in the box makes blitzes much more difficult to disguise.
  • If the defense does blitz, then hot reads become easy money.
  • If the secondary is playing off, then dink and dunk, if they press, use motion to free a receiver to go deep.
  • Run a lot of bubble screens and split the running back out wide to get him in space.
If you had to pick one single thing that made the '86 Bears defense so good, was its ability to disguise its coverages. Well, with the spread, that becomes extremely difficult if not almost impossible. This means that a decent quarterback can read where the weakness is in the defense and then attack that weakness.

Now when we combine the spread, with the hurry up and no huddle offense, does anyone wonder why we are seeing so much improved offense in recent years?

At the moment, the only way the defense can improve against this pass happy league is to get faster players on defense than the offense you are playing against, and that is very difficult to do, because the really fast guys all want to play offense.

Well there is another Football 101 post from me. Hope you enjoyed it. In case you missed some of my previous ones, here is a drop down that you can select from.

And, once again, you know what to do if you liked it. Love those tweets, like on Facebook, and Rec's.

And of course, comments are really welcome as well.

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