On Wednesday we talked about the Erhardt-Perkins offense: its history, some of its usage and some principles on how it’s going to be used in Denver. Today I’d like to touch a little more upon what the Air Coryell offense is and how it fits together with the EP for Denver, including specifically what the groups of players are doing by position.
As I noted last article, Denver is combining the EP vertical passing offense with its power running game - and by saying ‘power’ I’m not dismissing the zone blocking aspect. Big, stronger blockers with good feet fit into this approach efficiently - they can have a lot of size and power, even though zone blocking is generally expected from smaller linemen. The issue is simply whether they have the feet to handle it. A simple way of combining the two systems comes from Ron Erhardt himself. Back towards the end of his coaching days, Erhardt took his system and combined it into a hybrid with the spread formation, in an approach that was quickly dubbed ‘Air Erhardt’. A coach whose team has been running a spread variation and is developing a good running game can use some plays from that as a good beginning. Denver is more likely to do what they’ve said - to use the run more aggressively.
There are unquestionably overlaps that would let Mike McCoy use that spread/EP combination if he's interested. It combines much of what Josh McDaniels did in setting up his own preferences with some pretty standard EP principles - motion on the OL and both pulling and trapping, with aggressive run formations and scheme and a power running game that also protects the QB. The differences, as you’d expect, would mostly come in the integration of the running game with the spread. A higher emphasis on the running game and an emphasis when passing on going vertical (more, say, than the amount that you’d go horizontal in combining the WCO with the EP, is another option that’s worth discussion at some point).
Other ways to vary it would hinge on the amount and the style of running versus passing - how much the TEs and RBs are used, whether you use max-protect (and how often) and similar areas. We’ve talked about much of this already so I won’t bore you rehashing it - if any questions come up, please ask by emailing me at email@example.com
Integrating the System
There are normally three or four basics when integrating the EP and your own running game:
- You’ll need at least two faster receivers for the longer routes combined with a skilled pocket passing offensive QB. This is one reason that Tim Tebow isn’t being used right away - his skillset just doesn’t fit the combination of systems on offense as well as Kyle Orton’s does. The scheme calls for a vertical pocket passer.
- A strong inside power running game (which also is a great weapon against the classic 3-4 defenses that San Diego and KC run).
- Mid-range routes by TEs, WRs and sometimes RBs. Shorter routes can be substituted at times depending on the players’ skillsets. The WRs, as noted, are usually going for some vertical real estate. That doesn’t mean that they won’t go shorter.
- Although people often miss this one, the combined system is extremely effective in the red zone and on short-yardage situations. You can’t just stack to stop the run and you can’t blitz to stop the pass, because the offense can audible out of either dilemma. Denver’s struggled especially in the red zone recently and this should prove helpful. The combination of the two systems (EP and Coryell) doesn’t permit the defense to lock down just one or the other. The pass routes tend to set up fast in the shortened area of the red zone and the threat of the more powerful run game makes it hard to defend against both.
Remember, EP offenses also tend to run a lot of trapping and pulling by the tackles/TEs and guards. The majority of the movement is the pulling of the guards - if you’re going to run right, the left guard - Zane Beadles, say - is going to take a step back and to the right with his right foot, turn and then hightail it to the offense's right in order to help clear the way at the front of the playside blocking for the RB. Every offense I know of in the NFL uses this approach part of the time, and all the OL players know and understand the way you pull a guard.
Trapping is similar - it’s occasionally known as a ‘mousetrap’, and sometimes the tight end but more often the tackle is responsible. In either case, the point of a trap block is to let a defender come on through the LOS while a lineman off to one side pulls back and out of the line on the snap and comes across to block that defender outward from the inside as he heads across the LOS. Done right, it takes the player clear out of the play.
The movement aspect of the Coryell/EP fits well into the blocking that McDaniels wanted used when he first arrived. Denver will add more zone blocking on running downs, but intersperse some degree of ‘gap’ blocking - which emphasizes pulling guards - although Denver will be adding trapping by tackles and tight ends as well. Overall, regardless of the specifics that we can’t know yet, we do know that historically the combination of the two is a pretty effective, well-balanced attack. Using line motion with inside runs along with the vertical passing attack has also been very effective in red zone situations, as noted, and we all know Denver could use some more red-zone effectiveness.
What’s the QB Doing?
In terms of passing, the EP commonly uses a Coryell-based vertical passing attack that creates the time for those plays to develop (among other options) by freezing the D momentarily with play-action passing. Orton is particularly good there, and that may give him time to work through his progressions, which he can be slow at sometimes. There’s not much question that WR Brandon Lloyd will be a frequent target, although the QB will be moving the ball around. Again, keep in mind that a predominately vertical passing attack like Denver’s can (and should) have horizontal options (the quick passes to the flat, for example) that keep the system from becoming predictable. That’s where some folks say that they see a way to overlap with the WCO - I don’t disagree.
TJ made a good point that affects Denver when he was explaining the RB/TE/WR groupings and how they’re counted in 212, 221 or 311 by more commentators. TJ also noted that most hardcore football junkies will take the route of the coaches and players and use the two-digit system (21, 22, 31, respectively). This is the system that you see our own Ted Bartlett use because the two numbers imply the third - there are 11 positions, 5 of them are OL and 1 is a QB, so if you know the number of running backs and TEs, you can know the number of WRs. The three-digit system is also commonly used, though. (Note - I use it frequently, as I tend to avoid math:D).
As TJ points out, the personnel packages take you a lot deeper into the football strategy of individual teams than you might realize, for it's the first telltale sign of what an offense plans to do. However, personnel packages are not a substitute for offensive philosophies. A different Coryell/Vertical Offensive philosophy is a good example of this. Chargers head coach Norv Turner learned the Air Coryell system from Ernie Zampese, who learned it from Coryell himself. Norv Turner, as TJ noted, currently uses a two-back personnel system to stretch the field. He utilizes play action, running backs in protection, and mid-to-deep routes. It's a very thorough, effective system with options for nearly all down-and-distance circumstances.
Mike Martz, offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, also comes out of the Coryell school, but utilizes an extensive one-back system with infrequent use of play action, since it’s not Jay Cutler’s forte (developing better pocket protection is one goal of the Coryell/EP, and Chicago needs it. They’re using some of the same approaches that Denver is, which makes sense). Denver will be coming from the same general system (and suffers the same basic problems with protection) but will be using both max-protect and a 212 package - 2 RBs, 1 TE and 2 WRs - to accomplish carrying off the EP.
We’ve discussed the various issues and responsibilities often enough to pass on adding another section on the RBs. Suffice it to say that a smashmouth approach that uses pulling and trapping by the line uses RBs as receivers as well as blocker/ball carriers will be looked for from the Broncos.
Air Coryell and the EP
The Coryell offense was grown from the fertile soil of Sid Gillman’s remarkably creative mind - he set the stage for both the vertically-inclined passing approach of Al Davis and Don Coryell, and also the horizontally-based system of Bill Walsh’s, which has come most commonly to be called the West Coast Offense. You will still find people who prefer that appellation for the Coryell system. Don Coryell used this system in San Diego with ‘Dandy’ Dan Fouts to rewrite a lot of records when Coryell was head coach of the Chargers between 1978 and 1986. Coryell also used power running with his passing approach, a fact that isn’t lost on Mike McCoy or the Broncos.
Air Coryell uses at least two faster receivers for the downfield routes - play action slows the pass rush, but won’t hold it back forever. It requires a QB with a strong, accurate arm, which is one reason that Orton got the starting job for Denver.
The combined systems tend to either keep a TE in as a wing back or an F-back (The term H-back is also used, although Ted understandably hates it - It’s not that accurate and I’ve noticed that a lot of coaches are getting away from using it.) to improve the QB protection, allowing the longer passes to set up. He can swing out for a pass, stay in for protection or even swing back to take a handoff or pitch. Norv Turner has been fond of that variation over the years - his system also combines the Air Coryell with other attributes. Again, in doing so you can’t just lock down on the run or pass, which keeps the D off-balance.
TJ also noted that the Air Coryell Offense has four basic principles:
- Stretch the field
- Protect the passer
- Confuse the defense
- Run it down their throats.
The offensive line is usually composed of the biggest and/or meanest group of guys with good feet that you can find as to employ the power running game needed to pound away at defenses (yes, you can use power- and zone-blocking simultaneously on the same team). While the blocking varies, in Denver the line generally blocks in a zone scheme, meaning they block and hit anyone that comes into a given player’s zone and that the OL tends to move mostly in unison. The offense is also a passing offense, though, and the wide receivers (and, in Denver’s case, often the TEs) run intermediate-to-long-range routes, with swing, screen and outlet passes being handled mostly by the RBs underneath. In order to give those mid-to-longer routes time to develop, quarterback protection is at a premium. How do you maximize it?
- Motion - OL, TE, and/or WR
- Powerful line play
Three wide-receiver sets are also a staple of the Coryell system. In fact, the three-wide set was a Coryell staple when Don himself was calling it. Joe Gibbs, another Coryell-lineage coach, developed the bunch formation and added to it the three tight-end set, so there’s a lot of history here. For those who aren’t familiar with the background, Sid Gillman developed a multitude of new approaches to passing, including both vertical and horizontal movement, the second of which Bill Walsh and his risk-adverse preferences used to spread the field to win three Super Bowls (as others have since then with the same approach), and the vertical package of the system was honed by both Coryell and by Al Davis in Oakland, LA and Oakland again.
In other words, the offensive philosophy is not wedded to a specific personnel package or single requirement. The personnel package, is, rather, a specific instrument of attack. You can beat your opponent with pass-catching tight ends or speedy wide receivers. You can run the ball down their throats, swing out three TEs or send three WRs flying down the field to open the pass. It's simply a matter of preferences and degree - and having the best personnel for one or another of those options. What I loved most about Sid Gillman’s work was that he could adapt his systems to nearly anything in terms of player personnel. That’s also true of the EP.
While the Coryell offense is essentially a passing offense, one of the advantages combining it with the EP is that you can make the argument that the EP is a more wide-ranging system - it includes more running plays and concepts than just playing smashmouth, and it has a wide range of passing options. As noted, it’s been a smashmouth football game, a vertical passing system and/or both, and of the four principles listed by TJ, you won’t always use all four on all plays. Two that are essential to the system working, however, are to protect the QB and confuse the defense while you’re stretching the field and establishing the run. Given the Broncos' recent history in terms of protecting the QB (they often didn’t), gaining the extra options to keep your QB upright is just good sense.
Pass to Run, Run to Pass
There’s been a furor for years about the idea that you should either run to set up the pass or pass to set up the run, and sometimes the arguments about which is the better approach go on for days. However, there’s a middle road here, too - it’s more common to pass to set up the run nowadays, but you can run to set up the pass, too, and the EP can do it either way. You can slow the pass rush by running the ball, and you can open lanes for the run by passing the ball. Right now, the passing game is dominant in the NFL but it’s not always as simple as it sounds. If you show the defense that you’re going to pass, they have an advantage. If you show them pass but then surprise them by running the ball, the same kind of thing ensues in reverse and you have the advantage. You can lose the advantage that surprise can bring if you don’t have the right options ready for the right play, down and distance, so the system can get very complex over time.
Passing and Motion in the EP and Air Coryell Systems
The main way to handle protecting the QB within both of these systems was generally provided by motion and shifting - creating distractions and indecision on the part of the defense by using trapping and pulling linemen and by motioning pass receivers as well as by play action. Following the Coryell system backward over time, we see that Norv Turner had over 40 different motion combinations when he was with the Redskins. Mike Martz’s Greatest Show on Turf in 1999 with St. Louis was also known for its extensive numbers of combinations.
It’s an aspect of the EP that can’t be oversold - it’s essential, as defenses become more aggressive in trying to balance out the dominance of the passing game, to find ways to protect the QB. The formations of EP and Air Coryell help with that. The integration of an aggressive run game with an aggressive vertical passing game give you a very versatile approach. Over time, Denver will probably develop an increasingly large number of motion options, especially if they can get the TE position (mostly Daniel Fells and Julius Thomas) brought up to a high quality, in order to intersperse the TE motion with the OL, WR and even RB motion.
Despite the reputation as a smashmouth running approach, it’s worth repeating that the EP has frequently been part of the best passing games in existence - it was used as a base for the Rams in 1999 and for the Patriots' record-setting run in the 2007 season during which they scored 589 points and 75 touchdowns. Tom Brady led the NFL with a 117.2 passer rating – not another record, but close to Peyton Manning's 121.1 of 2004. Only one full-time AFC starter, Jacksonville's David Garrard, had fewer than Brady's eight interceptions that year, and Brady threw 253 more passes. The EP has a long and storied history of scoring a lot of points when the players and coaching is there. There’s no reason that Denver can’t do the same with it, given the time to build the team.
Former Jets, Patriots and Chiefs OC (and current Gators OC) Charlie Weis has used the EP and the West Coast Offense as overlapping systems, and on a stream-of-conscious level I noticed how easily you can do that while watching the Buffalo/Denver preseason game. At Notre Dame, Weis used the pass to set up the run via play-action passing, which is a classic aspect to the EP. He often used the short pass to set up the long pass, and sometimes the run to set up the pass. He may be a much better OC than a HC, but he understands how flexible the EP system is and some of the less well-known ways to apply it. I’m looking forward to seeing how Denver uses it in 2011 - it seems to suit them very well.
Denver has a very flexible offensive system this year that combines a strong running game and the vertical passing game in a way that Denver fans have rarely, if ever, seen. The combination of a smashmouth running game, an increase of pass protection with the vertical passing game, and a substantial offseason emphasis on problem-solving with regard to the worst of the offensive issues of the past two seasons should give Denver a much more effective attack in 2011.
Mike McCoy has combined with Dave Magazu on the OL, Clancy Barone on tight ends, Adam Gase on QBs and Tyke Tolbert on wide receivers to put together a combination of some of the best principles of the passing and running attacks. It’s based in a hybrid of the Erhardt-Perkins offense and the Air Coryell - not a new approach, per se, but an effective one that permits a wide range of offensive options including improving protection for the QBs, developing a more effective running game and improving the third-down and red-zone numbers for the team. The approach can ‘eat’ the clock or strike quickly. It can be changed and adapted for your specific personnel - a greater emphasis on the run if that’s working, the option of a deeper passing attack if your receivers have that talent (Denver is plush there) and improved QB protection with an emphasis on a pocket passing game.
Kyle Orton seems to love the system. Orton has gone so far as to say that he doesn’t think that a team can stop the offense for four quarters straight. In fairness, whether the defense has to is up to the defense - if you have to make up two touchdowns, you’re still going to use the passing game more. The combination of the Coryell and the EP just gives some options that wouldn’t otherwise exist by letting the offense mix in runs that could go for longer yardage as the defense either brings up the safety to try and stop the run or drops him into coverage to try and prevent the deep pass. If the safety drops off, the TE has an opening for a slant pass to defeat the Cover 2. If he comes up, the longer pass routes are easier to complete. If the defense has to spread out to stop the vertical game, the inside run becomes easier as it gains yardage. Converge on that, and the mid-level routes to the far edge of the flat open up, as do runs around the tackle, led by the opposite pulling guard.
It’s not the McDaniels version of the EP as some have feared. It’s got even more flexibility via its emphasis on two things - the stronger running game and a greater confidence in the vertical pass. Orton - mostly with Brandon Lloyd and Eric Decker, but Orton can use a wide variety of options - ran the vertical game well overall, last season. With a better running game, a more aggressively blocking OL, continually bettering receivers (including Julius Thomas, Daniel Fells, Matthew Willis and Demaryius Thomas this year alone) and a more straightforward playbook, the Broncos have an opportunity to show fans and other teams alike that they are ready to start making a move back into the level of play that fans once enjoyed in Broncos County. I’m looking forward to it.