The NFL boasts some of the best and brightest minds in football, but that doesn't mean the pro game isn't influenced by what high school and college teams are doing. The savviest coaches will borrow ideas from their brethren at the lower levels, especially if they catch sight of a concept that can help their top players make a bigger impact.
So I'm not surprised to see, as the 2014 season gets going, the adoption of the jet/fly sweep emerging as one of the hottest trends in the NFL. At a time where points are coveted at a premium, offensive coordinators are turning to a high school concept to give their most explosive playmakers additional opportunities to deliver big gains on the perimeter.
To break down the hottest offensive tactic in football, I took to the All-22 Coaches Film, training my eye on how teams are incorporating the jet sweep and fly sweep into their respective game plans. Here's my take on why more teams are turning to a strategy that is seen every Friday night across the country:
What is the jet sweep?
It's an outside running play designed to get a running back or wide receiver to the edge of the defense following "jet" motion. The original jet sweep is executed with the quarterback taking the snap from under center before wheeling around to hand the ball off to a running back or receiver motioning across the formation from a wide alignment. When executed properly, the jet sweep allows the team's speed guy to receive the handoff with a full head of steam, making it nearly impossible for the defense to keep him from turning the corner on the sweep.
From a schematic standpoint, the jet sweep can incorporate misdirection action in the backfield or add a halfback or fullback (in two-back sets) as a lead blocker around the corner. The traditional jet sweep puts a few extra blockers in front of the runner to outnumber the defense at the point of attack. It's a tactic that enables the offense to generate a big play in the running game on a simple outside handoff. As for incorporating misdirection action, the hope is that the counter action leads to hesitation on the second level (the linebackers), allowing the runner to turn the corner without facing resistance from a force defender, while the rest of the defense is left late in pursuit.
In their Week 1 win over the St. Louis Rams, the Minnesota Vikings cleverly used the jet sweep to help Pro Bowler Cordarrelle Patterson get loose on the perimeter. In the play depicted below, Minnesota is aligned in an ace-slot wing formation, with Patterson coming across the field in jet motion to receive a handoff. The tight end and wing back, meanwhile, will attempt to seal the edge, to give Patterson room to turn the corner. The wide receiver is taught to take the ball to the numbers before deciding whether to bounce or cut back against the pursuit of the defense. Patterson takes the handoff and heads to the corner while reading the block of his wingback (Kyle Rudolph). Notice how Matt Cassel executes a ball fake to Adrian Peterson in the opposite direction, to hold the defense for a second.
Later in the first quarter of Sunday's win, the Vikings returned to the jet sweep, but in a different formation. In the play depicted below, the offense is aligned in a straight ace formation, with Patterson motioning across the formation. He takes the handoff and heads around the corner, escorted by the tight end (Rhett Ellison), carrying the ball to the numbers before deciding whether to bounce outside or attack a cutback seam.
Patterson slithers through the crease, eluding an unblocked defender (Jo-Lonn Dunbar) en route to a 23-yard gain:
What's the difference between the jet sweep and the fly sweep?
The fly sweep is a variation on the jet sweep in which the offense is aligned in a shotgun formation and the receiver motions in front of the quarterback to receive the handoff or "volleyball" toss running around the end. Like the jet sweep, the fly is designed to get the ball into the hands of a speed guy on the move, to take advantage of his quickness and burst on a perimeter run. While most teams incorporate misdirection action with the inside-zone run, this play puts defenders in a bind, because it forces the defense to defend three options (wide receiver sweep, inside zone and quarterback keeper) at the point of attack.
Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has tinkered with the fly sweep as a way to take advantage of Percy Harvin on the perimeter. The 5-foot-11, 184-pound speedster is a former Pro Bowl kick returner with explosive running skills in the open field -- thus, he is ideally suited to take sweep handoffs and burst around the corner.
In the play depicted below, from the Seahawks' season-opening win over the Green Bay Packers, Seattle is aligned in a trips bunch formation, with Harvin at WR3. He comes in fly motion into the backfield to receive the handoff from quarterback Russell Wilson. Harvin takes the ball and races around right end, looking for a crease at the line of scrimmage, while tight end Zach Miller leads the way with a perfect block on the force defender (Morgan Burnett). Julius Peppers is left unblocked at the point of attack, but he's unable to make a play on Harvin, who dashes ahead for 13 yards:
In the play depicted below, taken from the same game, the Seahawks are again aligned in a trips bunch formation, with Harvin positioned at WR3. He comes in fly motion prior to the snap to execute the fly sweep heading to the right. Running back Marshawn Lynch will fake receiving a zone handoff to the left, with Wilson faking the QB keeper to the right. Miller will arc release on the force defender, leaving Nick Perry as the designated "read" defender.
Wilson hands the ball to Harvin heading to the right. Miller takes a jab step toward Perry before working upfield to latch onto the force defender (Burnett). With Perry fooled by the backfield action, he cannot make a play on Harvin around the corner. Miller kicks out Burnett, leaving an open alley for the nifty runner, who splits the seam for a 16-yard gain.
Why are more NFL teams running jet and fly sweeps?
Offensive coordinators want to maximize the ability of their most explosive players to post big gains on the perimeter, and the jet/fly sweep provides them with an additional opportunity to give those players a touch in space. Also, the misdirection action created by this sweep opens up a variety of complementary runs (zone-read) and passes (play-action vertical throws) that could lead to huge plays from other players on the perimeter. Considering most college football teams utilize some form of the spread-option game, it was only a matter of time before some of those elements popped up at the NFL level.
Who are some of the NFL's ideal jet/fly sweep ball carriers?
It's not a coincidence that some of the most dynamic kick returners in the league are being utilized on these sweeps. The open-field running skills displayed by such "elite" kick returners make them ideally suited to thrive with this tactic. After all, they share some of the same traits -- an ability to spot creases in the defense and avoid multiple tacklers -- as some of the most effective runners.
Thus, it's logical that Patterson, Harvin, DeSean Jackson, Dexter McCluster, De'Anthony Thomas and Brandin Cooks would be some of the guys who've received touches on jet/fly sweeps this season. When someone can take the ball the distance from anywhere on the field, it only makes sense to come up with more ways to get the ball in that person's hands.