Game Planning & Play Calling in the Age of the RPO
Chapter 5: openers
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Openers are the way in which a play caller chooses to start a football game. The openers are meant to send a message to the defensive coordinator in how the play-caller is going to try to run this football game. In the surface-to-air system it is my preference to always use openers to send the message that this will be a very difficult game from an intellectual standpoint for the defense to attempt to play.
I want to convey two major messages with my openers; the first message I want to convey is that I will be very aggressive trying to score touchdowns, the second message I want to convey is that I will be using a great deal of formations, motions, and other types of changes in order to confuse the defense. The opener that I choose to utilize can change from week-to-week and often does. I do not think that the opener needs to be nor, should it be the same against every opponent every week. The openers are really the way in which the offensive play-caller should attempt to put his stamp on the game.
There are many times where my openers actually have very little to do with how I intend to call the game. Sometimes I will want to call a very aggressive game, so I will call very aggressive openers but at other times I will want to have a more conservative game plan where I rely on my defense in my kicking game and call a very aggressive set of openers. Sometimes I'm going to play reckless go-for-broke style of offensive football and I may start out with very conservative openers. Each week’s openers should be tailored to send the message non-verbally across the sideline that the offensive play-caller wants to convey to the defensive coordinator, his staff, and his players. I feel that openers are really the way to start out a conversation. I want to start out in a variety of different sets.
So often, my openers are a manifestation of my desire to move the defense around and dictate the style of play that I wish to play. Therefore, most of the time my openers will include formations that may not be traditional, motions that may not be normal, and generally plays that are designed to send some sort of specific message.
Examples of Game Openers
As was stated above, openers will often change from week to week. These plays should be designed to send a message to the defense each week. Also, as was stated previously, these examples that follow are all examples of openers that we have utilized in our record-breaking offensive years of 2016 and 2017.
The first such opener that I want to explain is the Unbalanced Jet Play (Diagram 5-1).
In this play we are bringing our X and Z receivers over into an unbalanced look and adding a sniffer set to the equation. These three athletes allow us to outnumber the defense with the exception of the hash safety or the R1 defender in our Surface to Air System nomenclature. This athlete is accounted for by allowing the tailback to be set to the unbalanced side and sending him to attack the R1. The H receiver will be brought in Jet Motion and shoveled the ball to execute the end around action against the defense. The offensive lineman will simply execute aggressive outside zone footwork.
The reason this play is a great play to use as an opener is because it involves several components that defenses will not like. This play involves using an unbalanced formation, a sniffer Titan set, a running back to the 3- receiver side, and Jet motion from the h receiver. All these components combined make it very difficult for the defense to process what is being done to them and it gives the offensive coordinator a great opportunity to look at the defense and see how they handle a variety of situations. These situations include: how does the defense processes unbalanced sets, how does the defense process a sniffer tight end set, and how does the defense handle motion. The offensive coordinator is then able to see how the defense will handle this variety of situations while also getting himself a big opening play and getting the ball into one of his playmaker’s hands at the very beginning of the contest.
The next type of opener that has shown itself to be successful the last few years is a play that we in the Surface to Air System call Crazy (Diagram 5-2).
The crazy play has the advantage that the offensive tackles are split out wide and are with two receivers on the numbers to each side of the field. The center and guards remain in their normal alignment and therefore the quarterback is still able to run zone-read style football in the box.
A simple check by the quarterback is to look to the outside pods and determine whether he has a 3 on 2 advantage and can throw the ball to either pod located out on the numbers. If the quarterback is not able to execute the throw to one of those pods, then he can very simply read the remaining defenders in the box and play zone-read football. This is an excellent way to spread the defense out from sideline to sideline and determine how well the defense can run to the football.
One of the major components of our system is analyzing whether the defense can identify formational variations and finding out whether they are able to run to the football and make tackles in wide open space. This is a sort of formation and play that allows us to analyze both of those components simultaneously and make a couple great determinations about whether the defense is prepared to play our style of football effectively. This is also a great way to get the ball to playmakers in space and hopefully get a cheap 1st down to start the football game. Defenses will oftentimes realize that we wish to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands early in the contest and get quick 1st downs. When the defense realizes this, they will oftentimes attempt to jump these quick passes and see if they can get an early turnover. It is therefore useful to utilize a Joker Play early in the contest to keep the defense on their toes (Diagram 5-3).
So, let's assume that the defense is going to be playing some sort of 1 high structure right here. the offense will come out in a standard 2x2 set and utilize motion into a 3 x 1 set. this serves to allow the offensive coordinator to determine how the defense intends to handle motion from a balanced to an unbalanced set. The offensive coordinator can elect to go ahead and throw now screens to the perimeter and take advantage of any numerical superiority that may be achieved in the flat.
However, a great way to start the football game is to go ahead and throw in a now Joker play and take advantage of the defense’s tendency to jump routes early in the game. If the play is successful, then it's very likely the offense will be up a touchdown after their first possession. If, however the defense sniffs out the Joker play, attacks it, and prevents it from being a score the offensive coordinator has still accomplished his main goal which is to send a message to the defense they should not jump quick routes in the flat. This sort of play serves as a constraint against the defense and the defensive coordinator from jumping quick breaking routes. This sort of play included in your openers list will allow you to throw more high percentage quick throws that enable your quarterback to have success throughout the game because you have backed the defense off and warned them early in the contest.
Sometimes it is necessary for the offensive coordinator to get into a heavy set and simply play some smash-mouth football with the defense at the start of the football game. It is a great idea, if the offensive coordinator feels like he has the Personnel to do so, to get into a heavy formation and hit the defense and be physical with them early in the contest to see what sort of defensive fronts and character that will create. A great way to do that is by bringing in two sniffers and running inside zone with a double split kick out by those two sniffers from a pistol set (Diagram 5-4).
This formation and its personnel grouping might be hard to utilize later in the game as some of the personnel might be borrowed from the defense. It is best to use these heavy sets early in the game before those linebacker type of players off your defense have become fatigued from playing multiple quarters of defense. This is another way to send a message to the defensive coordinator that you intend to be physical and attempt to run the football as a standard part of the game plan.
It is an important part of calling plays to understand what openers are and why they are being utilized. Openers should be a way for the offensive coordinator to send a message not only to the defensive staff but also to his own sideline.
These plays are a way to demonstrate how and where and with what sort of physicality the offense of coordinator intends to call the game. It should also be said that openers should draw the eye of the defensive coordinator to what the offensive coordinator wants him to see. These plays for me are essentially a way for me to mess with the head of the defensive coordinator and show him things and established precedents for later in the game. I want to make the defensive coordinator worry about formations and motions and other sorts of twists and variations that may or may not be a part of the overall game plan.
I am also looking to establish tempo with many of these openers being one-word calls that we created for that week. Lastly, I am attempting to get cheap first downs and big chunks of offense yardage where I know I can flip the field at a bare minimum make sure that I can punt the football onto my opponent's end of the field or even get a cheap touchdown or field goal to start the contest. I have long felt that openers are a critical part of being an effective play-caller in a system like ours but unfortunately, they are one of the more underutilized and undervalued aspects of play-calling in the modern game of football. I feel that these plays should be emphasized and discussed and be a useful part of every offensive coordinator’s repertoire when he goes into a game. These are also a fun and exciting “Strike Up the Band” sort of plays and send a message to both sidelines that you intend to come out and play fast and to play physical in each contest
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