5 NFL scheme trends to watch in 2023

With all 32 NFL teams having finalized their rosters for the upcoming season, we know who will be playing where when the year finally begins.

But what will those players be doing?

The NFL’s schematic wars are never-ending. Football is a game of adjustments, responses, and adjustments to those responses. An offense starts doing something that works, the other 31 teams follow suit, defenses figure out an answer, and then the offenses work on their adjustments to that defensive solution.

What schemes should fans be on the lookout for in the year ahead? Here is what to watch for in the never-ending scheme wars.

The option game

If you are reading this piece, you are probably well aware of how teams are using run-pass option (RPO) designs to stress defenses, both in the passing game as well as in the rushing game. For example the Philadelphia Eagles certainly relied on the RPO game, leading the league with 75 passing dropbacks on RPO concepts according to charting data from Sports Info Solutions.

Quarterback Jalen Hurts led the NFL with 67 RPO dropbacks according to SIS, completing 53-of-65 passes for 434 yards and four touchdowns, without an interception. He posted an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 7.4 on those attempts, above his overall ANY/A of 7.31.

But the Eagles and Hurts were not alone. Looking at league-wide numbers, there were 916 dropbacks on RPO plays a year ago, up from 709 during the 2019 season. There were also 2,674 rushing plays on RPO concepts last year according to SIS, up from 1,439 during the 2019 campaign.

But in the year ahead, RPOs will be just part of the option tale. Consider what we are seeing and hearing out of multiple training camps:

That’s right. In the year ahead we might see more and more offenses dial up traditional option designs. If you look at the two clips from Browns camp, you see first what some call the “triple option,” with Deshaun Watson taking the snap and choosing whether to hand the ball off on an inside run, or to keep it and then decide between a pitch to a second running back or just holding onto it himself.

In the second clip you see a speed option design, where Watson takes the snap and presses the right edge, before pitching to the back.

As a matter of fact, if you recall the AFC Divisional game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Jacksonville Jaguars a year ago, that is exactly how the Chiefs opened the game on offense:

Here is another example, from the Denver Broncos, of an option design. Russell Wilson has the choice to hand off inside, or keep and stress the edge with a pitchman alongside him:

Successful offenses find a way to isolate a defender, put them into conflict, and make that player wrong no matter what they decide to do. If you think about many downfield passing concepts, that is how they create explosive plays: By putting a defender into conflict and giving him no good choices. On a “post/dig” combination for example, a single-high safety in the middle of the field might have to chose between those two routes to cover, and the quarterback reads that defender and throws off his reaction.

Option designs like these work in similar fashion, by putting a defender in a position to choose, and making that player wrong no matter what he does.

Now, defenses have ways of countering these designs, such as the “scrape-exchange” where they crash the unblocked defender — the “end man on the line of scrimmage” or EMOL — inside. On many option designs, the quarterback will see that and not hand the football off, keeping it himself.

That is when a linebacker loops around from the second level and into the QB’s path. The two defenders “exchange” responsibilities, force the QB to make the decision they want, and make him pay.

Now, if the QB has a pitchman with him, he can still make something happen on the play.

With defenses playing more two-deep coverages — more on that in a moment — offenses are finding more and more ways to create in the run game. Using the quarterback as a runner gives the offense a numbers advantage. If you consider that the offense might have a “+1” advantage in the box with both safeties deep, that becomes a “+2” when the QB gets involved as a runner.

As such, we might see more of the good old option this season.

Motion for impact

Motion can be a crutch for people like me, along with play-action passing plays.

An offense is struggling? Use more motion! Run more play-action! They help the quarterback and can give them information before the play begins. They work to put defenders into conflict, as we outlined above.

However, in recent years defenses have stopped playing along when it comes to motion. It used to be that motion would give the quarterback information regarding coverages, but now, defenses are muddying the waters. As we outlined last year, defenses can run with a motion player — a man-coverage indicator to a quarterback — and then drop into zone. Or they can ignore motion — a zone-coverage indicator to a quarterback — and spin into man coverage at the snap.

That’s no fun …

So if motion for information is not as useful in the past, that does not mean motion is off the table. Now offenses are leaning into motion for impact. Movement at the snap that creates confusion on the defensive side of the football, and creates opportunities in the passing game for the quarterback.

Consider this play from the Arizona Cardinals from Week 17 against the Atlanta Falcons:

Wide receiver Greg Dortsch goes in motion right before the snap, working towards the outside. That pulls the cornerback down near the line of scrimmage, and opens up a window for quarterback David Blough to find tight end Trey McBride on the out route.

On this play from Week 5, the New Orleans Saints send tight end J.P. Holtz in motion across the formation, which causes the safety on the right side of the offense to widen his alignment. The result? Tight end Adam Trautman is wide open on a seam route for a touchdown:

This play also comes out of a 13 personnel, three-TE package. More on that in a minute.

Even the New England Patriots, who were not exactly a schematic dream on offense a season ago, got into the act. On this short-yardage play from Week 18 Jakobi Meyers is in motion at the snap, and watch as it creates confusion, and a big play:

Again, motion is nothing new in the NFL. But with defenses countering motion with their coverages, motion for information is out.

But motion for impact might be in.

Bigger personnel

As alluded to in the previous segment, teams are creating big plays in the passing game out of bigger personnel packages. Last year saw offenses use 12 personnel (two tight ends), 21 personnel (two running backs) and even 13 personnel (three tight ends) but instead of running the football with those bigger bodies on the field, they attacked vertically in the passing game.

On this play from Week 12 the Seattle Seahawks empty the formation, but with three tight ends on the field. Running back Kenneth Walker and wide receiver DK Metcalf align on the left while TEs Noah Fant, Colby Parkinson, and Will Dissly align on the right. The Las Vegas Raiders have a base personnel package in the game using five defensive linemen, two linebackers, and four defensive backs. They were likely expecting a running play.

Instead they got this:

Take this play from the Raiders, against the San Francisco 49ers. They combine 13 personnel with motion at the snap — speaking to our previous point — to create a window for Jarrett Stidham to hit Darren Waller up the seam:

As a matter of fact, the quarterback who used 13 personnel most often in the passing game last year?

Patrick Mahomes.

The Chiefs passer attempted 46 passes a year ago out of 13 personnel according to charting data from SIS. How did he fare on those plays? He completed 33 of those passes for 545 yards and 7 touchdowns, without an interception. Mahomes posted a Total Expected Points Added (EPA) of 24.09 on those attempts, the best by a QB last year.

For reference Geno Smith was second with 14.56.

Mahomes also posted an ANY/A of 13.6 on those plays, topped only by Jared Goff.

Here is one of those plays, from Week 11 against the Los Angeles Chargers. It might also be his best throw of the year:

Here is one more for good measure, from Super Bowl LVII:

Certainly having Travis Kelce helps. But for years now the name of the game has been “lighter and faster” on both sides of the football. Spread offenses with multiple-WR formations. Light boxes on defense with two-deep coverages. But football is a cyclical game, and teams might lean into more and more bigger personnel packages this year.

Also, football is a copycat game. With the Chiefs having success with 13 personnel in 2022, expect some teams to follow that model.

Simulated Pressures

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Finding ways to generate pressure on the opposing passer is usually the top of a defensive coordinator’s to-do list.

But bringing pressure in the form of a blitz is often a risk-reward proposition. Because if you do not get home, the other team’s band is going to play. Because blitzes give a quarterback an opportunity to get to a hot read or take a deep shot — provided he has time to get the throw off — and in those instances, big plays follow.

That is why in an effort to generate that much-needed pressure, teams are turning to simulated pressures. These are not blitzes, as the defense is sending just four after the quarterback, but the four rushers come from unconventional alignments, and defenders who look like they might be blitzing, instead drop into coverage.

The aim for the defense? Create confusion up front, cause the quarterback to take a moment or two post-snap to reset his expectations in terms of defensive coverage and where he needs to set his eyes, and hopefully get home with a free rusher, or at least create enough confusion to impact the play.

One of the teams that used simulated pressures last season? The Baltimore Ravens. Take this play from Week 5 against Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens put five defenders on the line of scrimmage: Three down linemen along with pass rushers Odafe Oweh and Malik Harrison. Both Oweh and Harrison are aligned on the edges, in two-point stances.

Burrow might expect both Oweh and Harrison to come after him, but instead they both drop. It is linebacker Josh Bynes who comes from the second level, along with the three down linemen. The result? Bynes has a free run at Burrow, and gets home for the sack:

On this play between the Cardinals and the Seahawks, Seattle shows Kyler Murray some pressure presnap, walking up linebacker Jordyn Brooks into the A-Gap, along with a pair of edge defenders (Darrell Taylor and Uchenna Nwosu) on each side of the formation. But as the play begins both Brooks and Nwosu drop into coverage as the Seahawks rush four. Joining Taylor and the two down linemen? Safety Ryan Neal, coming from the second level:

Complicating matters for the Cardinals is the inside slant from defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson. That draws the attention of the right guard for a moment, which creates a clear lane for Neal on his blitz. Another free rusher, another sack when the defense brings just four out of a simulated pressure.

In Week 17 the Cardinals were handed another sack off a simulated pressure look, this time at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons. Arizona empties the backfield and puts Blough in the shotgun, while Atlanta shows just four up front. But with a linebacker lurking over the left tackle, the Cardinals slide the protection in that direction.

There is just one problem. Lorenzo Carter, aligned over the left tackle in a two-point stance, drops into coverage. As does that lurking linebacker. Instead the fourth rusher comes from the opposite slot:

The result? A left tackle blocking air, and a slot defender with a free run at the quarterback.

The name of the game on defense the past few years has been limiting the explosive play, by throwing numbers at the problem. Keep safeties deep, limit the damage, and hope the offense makes a mistake.

One way to force those mistakes, while still keeping that numbers advantage?

Simulated pressures.

The MOFO wars

We end with what has been the major theme of the past few NFL seasons.

Defenses trying to limit the explosive plays in the passing game by keeping both safeties deep and playing a variety of coverages to try and prevent the big play.

Over the past few seasons we have seen reliance on two-deep coverages: Cover 2, Tampa 2, Quarters, and even some Quarter-Quarter-Half or Half-Quarter-Quarter, to try and prevent the big play. According to Next Gen Stats these two-deep coverages were used on 55% of total passing attempts in 2022, the highest rate ever recorded by NGS.

How have offenses responded? In a few different ways. They have looked to attack the middle of the field, in the soft area between the two safeties. They have turned to the running game, trying to create opportunities on the ground against light boxes.

And some of what we have discussed is an effort to combat those coverages. Throwing out of bigger personnel, using motion at the snap to try and displace defenders, using the option and involving the quarterback in the rushing attack to create more of an advantage up front.

In many ways, this battle is the foundation for the scheme trends we expect to see this season, as well as what might be coming.

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