Xs and Os: Introduction to West Coast Offense Route Combinations

Aaron Rodgers is the trigger man in Mike McCarthy's modern version of the West Coast Offense.

Aaron Rodgers is the trigger man in Mike McCarthy’s modern version of the West Coast Offense.

The Green Bay Packers offense is commonly referred to as a “West Coast Offense.” Likewise, Aaron Rodgers is often called a “West Coast Quarterback.”

For this article, I’ll take a look at some of the basic route combinations that exemplify the West Coast Offense, particularly those that you are likely to see on Sundays in Lambeau Field.


This is an oversimplification for illustrative purposes. There are nearly endless route and personnel combinations. I’m only going to cover a few of the most common and basic concepts.

The West Coast Offense Defined

We must start any discussion about the West Coast Offense with Bill Walsh. He, of course, is the greatest West Coast Offense coach in NFL history and won three Super Bowls.

Over the years, the moniker “West Coast Offense” has come to mean many things, and if you ask three people to define it, you might get three different answers.

Certainly, offenses evolve over time in that ever-changing game of cat-and-mouse between the defenses, but some of the defining aspects of the West Coast Offense haven’t changed for decades.

I’ve come to understand the West Coast Offense to mean how Walsh modified Sid Gillman’s passing principles to match his own attack philosophy. Specifically, Walsh utilized a short, precision timing passing game to attack the underneath coverage to supplement the run game.

However, that doesn’t mean the West Coast offense is strictly a short passing game. There are plenty of vertical routes that come open once the underneath dominance is established.

Numerous of Walsh’s offensive-minded descendants, including current Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, former head coach Mike Holmgren, Jon Gruden, Mike Shanahan, and Brian Billick, have all won their own championships with their own flavors of Walsh’s offense.

By inspecting the coaching tree below, you can see that Walsh was a disciple of Sid Gillman, who I mentioned last week as being the father of the modern passing game. Gillman’s imprint revolutionized the game during the 1960s and his concepts are still widely used today.


The Sid Gillman coaching tree. (Public domain image from Wikipedia).

I’m not saying that the passing game was primitive and haphazard before Gillman, but it certainly was more refined and orchestrated after him.



Historical Perspective: Vince Lombardi’s Offense Was More Complex Than You Think

Vince Lombardi ran a precision offense that may be remembered incorrectly within his legend.

Vince Lombardi ran a precision offense that may be remembered somewhat incorrectly within his legend.

Former Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi is arguably the greatest coach in the history of the NFL. However, I believe that his legacy is actually underrepresented in the annals of fame.

Lombardi is often credited for having his teams seek perfection. As part of this perfection, the legend suggests that his offensive playbook was more simple than his peers. But, since his players ran the smaller offensive category to perfection, it was the winning formula en route to five NFL championships over a seven-year stretch.

The legend perpetuates the notion that the Packers Power Sweep was the main driving force for the 1960s dynasty. They swept their way into the history books.

Pundits today also continue their accounts by suggesting that the modern game has surpassed Lombardi and he wouldn’t be able to compete with the contemporary sophistication.

Granted, Lombardi’s offense wasn’t as open as Tom Landry’s multiple-shift and intricate “System” at the time, but it was much more complex than history seems be crediting him.

I have always been a great fan and student of Lombardi’s playbook. It started when I was a young child and was given a copy of his posthumous book “Vince Lombardi on Football,” edited by George L. Flynn. Throughout the book, Lombardi painstakingly teaches the reader, down to the finest detail, the mechanisms of executing his football plays.

Allow me to highlight some of Lombardi’s offensive philosophies and play calls to demonstrate that his offense was quite contemporary and multiple for the time, and to also showcase how some of his staples are still present in today’s modern NFL.

Exhibit A: The Passing Tree

Sid Gillman is often called the “father of the modern passing game.” He was among the first to standardize receiver routes and attach them to precision timing. The routes were perfectly constructed to match the quarterback’s drop back with the break of the receivers to mesh in a completion.

He was one of the reasons the AFL exploded on the scene with wide-open passing attacks. The game would never be the same after his imprint.

Before Gillman, oftentimes receivers only ran a few routes to match their skill set and simply would try to “get open” and then look for the ball.



Xs and Os: The “Smoke” Route

Aaron Rodgers uses the "Smoke" route to steal some easy yards.

Aaron Rodgers frequently uses the “smoke” route to steal some easy yards from defenses.

The plays that quarterbacks call in the huddle are not always the plays that get executed at the snap of the ball. The “smoke” route is a sight adjustment that allows the offensive to steal some free yards from the defense.

The “smoke” route has become a staple in modern NFL, and even college, offenses these days. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers sometimes runs the “smoke” play at least once during every game he plays.

What is the “smoke” route?

Basically, it’s a quick hitch throw to a receiver that is not called in the huddle. It’s usually performed after a running play has been called.

The quarterback will see that the wide receiver is being matched up with off-man coverage, which has the cornerback at least 5-7 yards off the receiver.

Rather than going through with the running play, especially if the box is stacked, why not try for a few free yards to the outside? The cornerback is practically begging for this throw by aligning in off-man coverage.

It’s not a verbal audible, but rather a silent one. Once the quarterback and receiver both see the off-man coverage, they will make some sort of eye contact and a gesture to indicate the “smoke” is on. The gesture is only known between the receiver and quarterback.

Aaron Rodgers throwing a "smoke" pass with the laces out.

Aaron Rodgers throwing a “smoke” pass.

At the snap of the ball, the quarterback takes a one step drop and immediately fires the ball to the receiver on a short hitch route.

This happens very quickly, and the quarterback may not have time to get the laces right, which is why you may see them throwing the ball without the use of the laces.

Only the quarterback and the receiver know the “smoke” is coming. Everyone else runs the play as called, which is why you often see the offensive line run blocking during such a play.

The “smoke” isn’t a viable option for every snap of the ball, and certain conditions should be met before the quarterback calls it.




Conditions for calling the “smoke” route:

1) Defense is in off-man. There has to be a 5-7 yard gap for the quarterback to quickly throw the ball with little risk of interception.



Packers Playbook Wrap-Up: All Defensive Sub-Packages and Personnel

Packers Playbook LogoWell, that concludes the look at a lot of the defensive packages used by Dom Capers and the Green Bay Packers. This was obviously not an exhaustive list, but it does highlight some of the most important formations used in the Packers’ defense. As you watch the games this upcoming season, hopefully you can start to recognize what Capers is doing and how it responds to the opposing offense.

For those of you who haven’t read all of the installments, here are some final links to them:

Before we conclude this series, though, I just want to wrap up a couple items. First and foremost is the terminology I’ve been using. In honest confession, I have tended to use some general terms interchangeably, even when there are slight technical differences. Words like “defense,” “formation,” and “package” aren’t exact synonyms.

In reality, anything outside of the base defense for a team is considered a “sub-package.” Hence, the nickel, psycho, dime, bat, etc., are all sub-packages, because the Packers run a 3-4 as their base package. That said, the modern day NFL seems to be forcing out this concept. When teams like the Packers are running a 2-4-5 set more often than a 3-4-4 set, can it truly be considered a “sub” package?

The terminology will stick in football jargon, but it’s something worth considering. The 3-4 base does help to drive the overarching philosophy for what Dom Capers does, but when it comes to defensive packages, it’s taking a backseat. We’ve all seen how the passing game is evolving among offenses, and it’s only logical that the defenses change to scheme against it.

Finally, we can’t ignore the impact that players have on which defensive packages are used. Outside of things like the opposing offense’s personnel grouping, down and distance, and field position, the defensive coordinator picks his packages to best suit the strengths of his roster. Ted Thompson works to pick players that fit the scheme, but Dom Capers works to create defensive packages to fit the personnel.



Packers Playbook, Part 8: The Hippo Defense

Packers Playbook LogoIn our eighth part of this series, we are going to take a look at the Green Bay Packers’ heavy “Hippo” defense. This formation is obviously used in short-yardage situations, particularly on third and fourth down where a running play is expected. It adds an extra lineman by sacrificing a defensive back, usually a corner.

Explaining the Formation

So far we’ve been moving towards defensive packages with more and more defensive backs. With the Hippo defense, we are going to do a complete 180-degree turn and look at a personnel grouping with only three defensive backs. The Hippo is a 4-4-3 defense that aims to get more big bodies along the line of scrimmage to block up running lanes.

The front line of this heavy defense consists of two defensive tackles, two defensive ends, and two outside linebackers. That’s some serious beef for the offensive line to try to move. Behind them are the inside linebackers, and in the secondary are two safeties and a cornerback.

Without getting into any sort of complicated player technique and tactics, the primary goal of the front six is to disrupt the blocking lanes and prevent the offensive linemen and tight ends from getting to the second level. These guys are going to get as low as possible to control the point of attack and, in many cases, simply take out the legs of the opposition.

The inside linebackers and safeties are, in essence, the clean-up crew. They flow towards the ball and continue to clog up any running lanes left behind by the line. Their reaction has to be quick and their angles sure in order to get to the running back and make a successful stop. Let the ball carrier get past the linemen, and it’s probably going to end up being a conversion.

Obviously, the defensive assignments can vary depending on the tendencies of the opposing offense. The threat of a pass could tie up the cornerback and one of the safeties, preventing them from helping in run support. At that point, it’s up to the defensive coordinator and players to rely on their film study and opposition scouting to make the right call.

The Hippo Defense in Action



Packers Playbook, Part 7: The Prevent Defenses

Packers Playbook LogoIn our seventh part of this series, we are going to take a look at the two types of “prevent” defenses used by the Green Bay Packers and other teams: the “Quarter” and “Half Dollar.” These obviously continue the naming sequence used by the Nickel and Dime packages. The prevent defenses boast seven or more defensive backs and, as its name implies, is used to prevent a quick score.

Explaining the Formation

Prevent defenses add extra defensive backs in an effort to keep the offense from getting behind them. In other words, they aim to keep the ball in front of them, avoid a deep completion, and make the offense eat up time. This means they’re often used when little time is left on the clock and the opposition is trailing in points.

The Quarter defense is composed of seven defensive backs – two or three safeties and four or five cornerbacks. Up front, you’ll generally see one defensive lineman and three linebackers from 3-4 defenses, creating a 1-3-7 personnel grouping. Most likely the defense will use two outside linebackers as pass rushers and an inside linebacker to cover the middle of the field.

When we get to the Half Dollar defense, the number of defensive backs rises to eight. (Obviously, this tends to be almost all of the cornerbacks and safeties on the active roster.) In maintaining a three-man rush, you will often see the inside linebacker come off the field to accommodate the enlarged secondary (1-2-8 personnel). The Half Dollar is rare and primarily used to defend the Hail Mary pass in the final seconds of the game or the half.

One really interesting thing to note at this juncture is that Dom Capers seemed to use the Half Dollar personnel more than the Quarter personnel in 2012. I don’t have any statistical data to back this up, but as I browsed through NFL Rewind looking for examples of each, I found it very difficult to find examples of the Quarter defense. In fact, Capers would often use a Bat package (1-4-6) in the early part of a prevent drive before switching to the Half Dollar. Those Bat packages would generally use Jerel Worthy as the linemen, Clay Matthews and Erik Walden as the rushing linebackers, and Brad Jones and Dezman Moses as the coverage linebackers.



Packers Playbook, Part 6: The Bat Defense

Packers Playbook LogoIn our sixth part of this series, we are going to take a look at the Green Bay Packers’ variation on their dime defense, the “Bat.” This seemed to become Dom Capers’ 2012 version of the Psycho, but with six defensive backs rather than five. He replaces a lineman with a linebacker, creating a level of confusion but maintaining the speed of the dime.

Explaining the Formation

The Bat is to the Dime as the Psycho is to the Nickel. It is a 1-4-6 personnel package that aims to create another level of confusion and flexibility. As we said with the Psycho package, the defense can hide their pass rush intentions a little bit better when any of the four linebackers can blitz or drop into coverage.

To be honest, there really isn’t a lot of new information to add about the Bat that wasn’t covered in the previous Psycho and Dime posts. You’re generally going to see this package in long yardage situations and late downs. The defense is looking to force a quick throw (or sack) and prevent a long completion.

Capers probably started using this formation with more prevalence last year because of his group of defensive backs. The addition of Casey Hayward in conjunction with the hybrid abilities of Charles Woodson gave Capers reason to get them both on the field. He also didn’t quite have the strength of five linebackers that the Psycho requires.

The Bat Defense in Action

We’re going to return to the Week 5 game against the Indianapolis Colts, but this time we’re fast forwarding to the fourth quarter, when the Colts are up 22-21. (Sorry to open up old wounds.) There’s 5:03 left in regulation, but the Colts are backed up on their own 7-yard line with 3rd-and-9 to go.

Breaking Down the Play

Once again, the Colts come out in an 11 personnel grouping (1 RB–1 TE–3 WR), but this time with their receivers in a 2×2 set. Andrew Luck is in the shotgun, and it’s clear their intentions are to throw the ball for the first down.

Capers naturally responds with a speedy dime package, but goes with the Bat for some extra aggressiveness so close to the goal line. It’s a Cover 1 look with Morgan Burnett as the single high safety. Jerron McMillian plays the other safety role, while Tramon Williams and Sam Shields take the outside receivers. Charles Woodson and Casey Hayward are each in their most natural positions – close to the line and heads-up on the inside receivers.