Every offensive scheme has that one shot play they like to return to because it works when you have the right combination of arm talent at quarterback and speed at the wide receiver position (or tight end in the case of the subject of this article). The combination of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur, in conjunction with their offensive weapons, gave a jolt to the Kyle Shanahan offensive scheme and tree when LaFleur was hired by Green Bay.
When the play designer who knows when to call the shot and arm throwing it can put the pass out there deep downfield, then the recipe for success is greatly increased. Even if the play is unsuccessful, the very idea of it being on tape means that a defense has to prepare for it. That’s the beauty of the Shanahan system: call everything, put it on tape, and make defenses prepare for it so that when they see it, undoubtedly something else is open downfield.
The play call in question is the keeper play action corner post concept the Shanahan tree calls “Hiccup” LaFLeur/Hackett may call it something different but LaFleur is off the Shanahan tree and it’s become a route they’ve called with regularity even if they have not thrown it this season.
But calling Hiccup during the course of a game is not as simple as just running it without setting it up. The Shanahan tree coaches are methodical in their play calling, ensuring they have the right play sequencing that shows the defense multiple looks.
There is a method to the madness the coaches in that tree are meticulous in their game planning, only calling the play and sequencing it to get there if they feel the defense is showing some kind of tell that would allow them to throw it. It’s sort of a break glass in case of an emergency type of play call.
Though to be fair, former LaFLeur colleague and boss and current Rams head coach, Sean McVay, called the play versus the Bears in week one without ever using the traditional play sequencing to get there.
Packers fans may remember this play. It was thrown for a touchdown in 2019 by 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to George Kittle when Kittle completely turned around cornerback Kevin King on the corner post route.
So how do the Packers, and other teams in the coaching tree, sequence their play calling to get to the corner post route? The traditional method is setting up the the play through calling outside zone, outside zone boot keeper play action, then finally calling corner post against the boot flow.
The primary reason the Shanahan system is so sought after in general and why it works for the Packers in particular is because everything looks the same, from the way the offensive line fires off the ball and moves in unison laterally to the way the quarterback executes the play fake. Speaking to Brandon Thorn of Trench Warfare, 49ers left tackle Trent Williams told him that “In Kyle’s scheme, play-action looks exactly like the run, which makes it so hard for defenses to key in on.” The steps look like running game steps.
In a recent coaching clinic on CoachTube, University of Arizona head coach Jedd Fisch (who was the Rams assistant offensive coordinator in 2018 and 2019) stressed the importance of running and utilizing play action passing from identical formations. “What we’re able to do is get in that exact same formation, and make everything look exactly the same, and then turn it into a keeper” where they can get a 20 yard explosive pass.
The base running play in the offense is the wide zone or outside zone. There are subtle differences between the two but the premise is the same: get to the edge and only cut back inside if the defense dictates that as the running lane. The reason the outside zone running play is effective is because the running back runs to where the defense is not. You can generally tell where the running play is going based the alignment of the two end men on the line of scrimmage.
Head up or inside of the tight end, and the run will bounce to the sideline. If #1 is kicked out but #2 is pinned inside, then the lane is between the two. If both end of the line of scrimmage defenders are kicked out to the sideline because the defense is selling out on the edges, then the run cuts up inside the interior of the defense.
Wide zone boot play action
Building on the foundation of the run game, the play action pass off of outside zone is the other knockout punch this offense is capable of delivering and they can either naked boot the quarterback out to the backside or run a more traditional drop back play action.
The play simulates the outside zone and the line sells the run through their steps and blocking action. It looks like a run initially to the defense and at that point, the receivers are running the same direction. The play creates an explosive pass for a 24 yard gain.
The naked boot compliments the outside zone well because the defense is flowing laterally toward the sideline instead of vertically north and south. Defenders caught in the mix have to turn and locate the receivers after they’ve been running full speed for 7-8 yards. This enables the receivers to get open as defender’s chase.
Throwing the corner post
One variation the Shanahan tree will throw at the defense if they sense a naked boot and cheat back across or take away the intermediate crossers is to run a corner post behind the defense. The initial and second stem of the corner post route makes the play look a flood or sail concept to one side of the field.
After the defense commits to the flood and sinks underneath the corner, the receiver breaks his route back across the field toward the far post. The result is he usually gets wide open for a big play.
Jedd Fisch, in the CoachTube video referenced above, goes on to say about shot plays:
“Aligning in the exact same formation, same start, first five steps, is it a run, is it a play action pass, or are we setting up in the pocket to take a shot down the field and make them pay as they’re trying to defend the run game, or they’re trying to defend the play action and keeper game. So as everything looks the same, now we’re able to set up maximum protect, and take a shot down the field.”
He goes on to explain about the initial start of the play:
“But when you look at if from this angle, what’s different? It looks the same, it’s the same wide zone play. It’s the same action up front, the left guard and center, the left tackle is doing almost the exact same thing. But now our right tackle is no longer climbing like he did in the run.”
In 2020, the Packers got an explosive pass and touchdown off the corner post route when Aaron Rodgers connected downfield with Robert Tonyan for a touchdown versus Chicago in a late season matchup.
Matt LaFleur stated during an NFL Network special on sideline technology that they noticed this play might be available to them based on something earlier in the game.
“We were running a keeper as we call it and we could tell the backside corner wasn’t backing up when the safety was cutting our crosser. And our keeper corner, we tagged a post to it to try to take advantage of the situation. And we were able to hit Robert Tonyan for a touchdown on that play.”
The play in question:
Notice how the backside corner cuts the crosser and leaves an area wide open where the corner post would normally be run.
The Packers tried twice to make the Bears pay for cheating on the keeper play action by calling their corner post concept for an explosive play and on the second try they got their explosive that went for a touchdown. The video below is the second time they tried in the third quarter.
The defense follows the flow of the offense line as they cue on the wide zone run. Everything looks the same. The defense sees keeper pass that LaFleur mentioned above so the corner tries to cut the crosser from Adams, leaving the hash wide open as Tonyan stems the corner and then back to the post across the field. The Packers made them pay for defending the keeper play action pass.
The play call and sequencing can be deadly and when all three are on tape (wide zone, wide zone keeper play action, keeper play action shot play), then a defense has to prioritize what they want to defend at the expense of moving players around to eliminate an offense’s route concepts or run game. They might leave them exposed for a shot play or they expose another weakness in their scheme/coverage. The coaches off of the Shanahan tree in general, and LaFleur specifically, are highly skilled play callers who know when and what to call at the right time.