Hiccup

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·5 min read
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One of the more fascinating aspects about the game of football is the idea of layering plays on the offensive side of the football. Showing a defense one look and then, later in the drive or later in the game, giving them a twist to that design that hits for a huge play.

A common concept in the NFL today is a three-level route combination working off play-action, with the quarterback rolling out to one side of the field. Here is an example from Week 3, provided by Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers:

As you can see, Herbert fakes a handoff to the left side and then rolls to the right, to read out the three-level concept on that side of the field. Mike Williams is the deep read, on the corner route. Keenan Allen is the shallow read, as he runs a route to the flat. In many cases, as you see here, the intermediate read comes from the back side, in this case the crosser from Donald Parham.

Teams can get into this three-level design any number of ways. Another example comes from the Indianapolis Colts from Week 4 against the Miami Dolphins. Here, tight end Jack Doyle runs the deep corner while fellow tight end Mo Alie-Cox aims for the flat. The intermediate read here is a backside dig from Michael Pittman Jr., working from left-to-right:

On this play, Carson Wentz gets pressured off the fake handoff to Marlon Mack, but he is able to evade the edge rusher and find Pittman working across the field for a big gain on third down.

So as you can see, the routes are layered from deep to short, with a corner route comprising the deep read for the quarterback. Combining play-action with this three-level read gives the QB one side of the field to diagnose, and multiple options to choose from.

Now, after showing teams this kind of design, whether early in a game or earlier in a season, offenses can hit them with this adjustment.

Hiccup.

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For more on this design, you can check out this piece from Alex Rollins as he breaks down Hiccup on his Patreon. As you can see, the deep route looks to be a corner route, but that receiver breaks back to the post away from the flow of the play. The quarterback still rolls to one side and has a route in the flat as well as an intermediate route to look to, but the shot play is the post working away from him.

The previous play we looked at came from Wentz and the Colts. Here they are on Thursday night running this variation against the New York Jets for a big play:

Wentz rolls to the right, but stops and throws the deep post route to Zach Pascal working away from the flow of the play. The deep safety, perhaps expecting the corner route, tries to get over the top of that but when Pascal breaks back to the inside, the safety has to execute a baseball turn that gives the receiver a lot of room to operate.

As the above example of Hiccup comes from Kyle Shanahan’s offense, it only makes sense to include an example from the San Francisco 49ers. You might remember the Trey Lance deep shot to Trent Sherfield from the preseason that had many wondering about how quickly the rookie would start?

Hiccup:

Lance rolls to the left on this play, and Sherfield runs the deep route, breaking to the post and away from the flow of the play. It goes for a huge gain, causing many to salivate over Lance’s arm strength.

Because that is an element to his design: It is not the world’s easiest throw.

Another team using this idea in recent weeks? The Los Angeles Chargers. Take this throw from Herbert to Mike Williams this past Sunday in Philadelphia:

This play unfolds a bit differently, as wide receiver Josh Palmer comes in jet motion and runs a wheel route to the right side. Herbert carries out a run fake and rolls in that direction. From the backside Allen runs the crosser, which serves as the intermediate read. But the target is Williams, who runs the post route working away from the flow of the play. Again you see a deep safety commit to a corner route, and have to execute a baseball turn to try and stay near the post route.

Speaking of the Chargers, we can wind this down by looking at two plays from their thrilling win over the Cleveland Browns. Early in the game, the Chargers dial up the three-level boot concept with Herbert rolling to the right, where he has a pair of tight ends aligned. Stephen Anderson runs the deep corner route while fellow tight end Parham releases to the flat. Allen is again the middle read, crossing the field from left to right:

This plays out like the examples that began the piece, with Herbert reading one side of the field from Anderson’s corner, to Allen’s crosser and finally to Parham in the flat. Herbert hits the short route and it goes for a catch-and-run touchdown.

Well, a little later in the game offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi busted out the change-of-pace, and it worked to perfection:

Safety John Johnson III mirrors the flow of the play, as he keeps his eyes on a rolling-out Herbert. But when Williams breaks to the post and not the corner, the safety has to execute that difficult turn. That gives the receiver all the time he needs to separate and work open for the 42-yard score.

I, for one, eagerly await the variation that comes off of this design.

Because you know it is coming. Will it be a corner-post-corner? A corner-post-stop? Or something else entirely?