It’s June, which means NFL teams are finishing up their Mandatory Minicamps. To fans, this means very little. Newspapers and sites like BTSC provide images of guys running sprints, lobbing passes and working their technique on bags and blocking sleds. We get a few sound bites about contract negotiations and the progress of draft picks. And occasionally (dreadfully), a report surfaces about a player who has blown out his knee. It’s ‘Football in Shorts’ in the infancy of summer.
All in all, things seem pretty uneventful, eh?
But to borrow from my four underachieving semesters of college French, au contraire.
For players, Minicamp might seem like little more than an opportunity to look good weaving in and out of cones or wearing a baseball cap backwards. But for coaches, it’s an essential period. Team building and player evaluation rank near the top of their priority lists during this time. The real value of Minicamp, though, is that it gives coaches an opportunity to do “Install.”
What is “Install,” exactly? And how do Mike Tomlin and Company do it in the Steelers’ pre-training-camp sessions?
Let’s take a look.
INSTALL. OR, “HOW DO I CONSTRUCT A MASSIVE PLAY CHART?”
Look at the photo of Mike McCarthy below. Who composed that play chart? Leo Tolstoy?That thing has binder rings, for God’s sake. Binder rings! Back in the days before wireless communication, Bill Parcells used to have a guy who followed him around on game day making sure no one tripped over the cord to his headset. McCarthy needs a guy to make sure no one gets knocked over by his play chart.
Why is McCarthy’s play chart so big? He can’t possibly call all of those plays in a single game. Does he need them all? Considering he has about eight seconds to find the call he wants and communicate it to the quarterback between plays, how does he know where everything is on the chart? How did his chart get this way? To answer these questions, let’s focus on what happens in June.
The images the public sees of guys weaving through cones is one phase of Minicamp. But the real work often takes place in a classroom, where coaches begin their Install. Install is exactly what it sounds like: the introduction of the core schemes and packages a team intends to employ throughout the season.
There are many ways to do an install, but most coaches prefer some version of the “whole-part-whole” philosophy. First, a concept is introduced to the entire team in the film room (whole). Second, the team breaks up into individual groups, QBs, offensive line, receivers, etc, to deconstruct that concept into its particulars (part). Finally, the concept is executed on the field in an 11-on-11 session (whole).
Remembering that Minicamp is still “Football in Shorts,” the emphasis in these team sessions is on execution, not physicality.
Let’s take a look at a specific concept and work through how it might be installed. One of my favorite all-time Steelers plays is the one-back counter. Under Ken Whisenhunt, this was called “34 Pike” and it’s remembered by most fans as the play Willie Parker took 75-yards to the house to open the second half against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Todd Haley used a lot of one-back counter during his time as offensive coordinator, and his successor, Randy Fichtner, ran it when he was the offensive coordinator (OC) at Memphis. I would expect the concept to remain an integral part of Pittsburgh’s offense.
If the Steelers want to install “34 Pike,” or whatever they’re calling the play now (more on that in a bit), they will likely start with the entire offense together in a classroom. They will diagram it on a big board, like this:
Fichtner, as the OC, will likely talk the entire room through the play. He will go through the offensive line “rules” (who blocks who), the running back’s aiming point, the stalk block responsibilities of the receivers and the quarterback’s need to fake in order to set up play-action (he may give a veteran QB like Ben Roethlisberger some options on when to check out of this play as well, or on what checks to consider).
Then, in order to accommodate various learning styles, he will show video of the Steelers running the play and talk it through some more. Later that day, the Steelers might drill the play in small groups on the practice field. The offensive line, for example, will go through the various ways to block counter-gap based on defensive fronts and alignments.
Here’s how we block a 3-4. Here’s what changes against a 4-3. Here’s how we handle a backer trying to run through the A-gap. Here’s how we block a low safety creating an 8-man box.
Getting even more particular, the guards, who are responsible for kicking out the edge defender, might rep how to block an edge who closes hard (spills) vs. one who holds the edge or gets upfield (cages). The H-backs might work on the footwork necessary to wrap into the hole to block the play-side linebacker. The running backs might work on cuts based on the techniques employed by the edge defenders and linebackers, when they should run inside, when it’s okay to bounce it to the edge. Meanwhile, the wide receivers coach might put his guys through a series of stalk-block drills while emphasizing the importance of covering up safeties to create explosive runs.
Finally, in the 11-on-11 team period, the Steelers will put it all together and run the concept as a unit against a “live” defense (I put “live” in quotes because, again, nothing is truly live in Minicamp). Installation in this fashion allows for the team to learn the concept as a whole, to practice the individual components of the play that will lead to its success, and then to execute it together. This is the first step towards the end goal of Willie Parker taking 34 Pike to the house in the Super Bowl.
BUILDING A “SYSTEM”
Think back to Mike McCarthy’s Chinese-restaurant-menu of a play sheet. If Minicamp is the beginning of building that monster, how do teams prioritize what to install? As a general rule, installation is based on the system a team wants to run.
A system, in football terms, is a package of plays that work together and complement one another. The Wing-T, for example, is a classic offensive system. It begins with a series of three plays, often called the “Buck” series. These plays - guard trap, sweep and waggle (play-action pass) - are run from the same formation and involve the same backfield action. High school defenses sometimes prepare for the Wing-T by having the scout team offense run it without a football, the reason being that Wing-T plays look so similar and involve so much deception that — if defenders look into the backfield to diagnose the play — they will be lost. Instead, they must read their keys (usually, the movement of the offensive linemen) to find the football.
The Buck series is effective because it has a main play (the trap) and two “constraint” plays (the sweep and play-action pass). Guard trap is an inside run to the fullback that forces linebackers to fill aggressively. Once they do so, sweep is a nice companion since the backfield action looks just like guard trap but the ball is actually given to the halfback, who attacks the edge. Sweep “constrains” the backers by reducing their ability to be overly-aggressive against the trap. Waggle works similarly as a bootleg pass off of the sweep. If the backside end starts chasing the sweep, the QB fakes to the halfback and attacks the edge the DE has vacated, where he has a run/pass option. The backside end is thus constrained by being unable to chase the sweep. Each play in the Buck series, then, looks like the one installed before it and serves the specific purpose of combating defensive aggressiveness. The rest of the Wing-T is constructed similarly. This is an offensive system.
No one runs the Wing-T at the pro level, of course. It’s built for smaller, quicker linemen and it doesn’t take advantage of speed in space (Guard Trap, however, was a favorite of Chuck Noll, who had been an undersized Wing-T guard himself. Noll included trap as a staple of the Steelers two-back run game with Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier in the 70s). Still, NFL coordinators (good ones, anyway) install their offenses as systems rather than as a collection of plays. The latter philosophy is what I like to call the “Madden Approach,” whereby coordinators put in plays simply because they like them regardless of how those plays fit into the broader scheme of a team’s offense. It’s a video game mentality that disregards personnel, scouting tendencies, the “expense” of a play (how much practice time do we need to get good at this vs how often will we actually use it?), etc. Most coaches might have a play or two they install that doesn’t necessarily fit with their system which they intend to use for a specific purpose, like the Eagles did with their “Philly Special” two-point conversion in the Super Bowl. Generally speaking, though, if you get into a particular formation or use a certain personnel group just to run one or two plays, pro defenses will sniff it out like bad fish.
How, then, are pro systems installed? Most NFL run games are predicated on the Inside Zone play (for the sake of brevity, I’ll simply say that flexibility and exploiting the nature of NFL defenses make Inside Zone extremely useful). Therefore, Inside Zone will likely go in first. From there, teams often install Outside Zone, a play that looks like Inside Zone but attacks the edge of a defense, and Counter, which also looks like Inside Zone but works back to the opposite side of the formation. The Steelers run all three. These run plays are complimentary because the first step of the offensive linemen and the running back look predominantly the same on each, and the latter two - Outside Zone and Counter - constrain defenses that overplay Inside Zone. Thus, when packaged together, they constitute a systematic approach to running the football.
What goes in next? Since Mini-Camp is not “live,” it is a great time to work the passing game. Undoubtedly, play-action passes off of the Inside Zone, Outside Zone and Counter runs will be added. The most important routes to rep this time of year, though, are timing routes. Timing routes are ones that require the quarterback to throw the football once he reaches a certain point in his drop. The Hitch. The Speed Out. The Slant. On routes like these, the QB will take a three or five step drop, anchor his back foot and release the ball. Often, the receiver is not yet out of his break when the ball is released. That’s what makes these throws tricky. They are not necessarily throws to a man but throws to an area (Fade routes should be included here as well). The reason the ball comes out before a receiver has made his break is because they are generally thrown against zone coverage. It is essential, then, that the QB release the speed out, for example, on his third step before the flat defender has a chance to undercut the route. Timing throws, as you might imagine, require an awful lot of repetition. In order for the football and the receiver to arrive at precisely the same spot at the exact same time, both receiver and QB must have their timing down to a science. This doesn’t happen overnight (especially with a new receiver like James Washington in the mix), so Mini-Camp is a great time to work things out.
The Steelers have likely installed their core run game and worked on their timing routes (and accompanying pass protections) by now. Next, Randy Fichtner may want to put in any new passing concepts he intends to incorporate into the offense. Having worked with Roethlisberger as the QB coach for several years, Fichtner knows his veteran QB’s strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, he also knows his preferences. Here is where the new OC can both put his stamp on the offense and accommodate his franchise QB. What did Roethlisberger want to do that Todd Haley would not allow him to? What new concepts? In a similar vein, what did Randy Fichtner want to do that Haley may have balked at? Will he scrap the myriad perimeter screens, a Haley staple, which can be expensive in terms of practice time because of their reliance on scheme recognition and perimeter blocking? With Martavis Bryant gone and James Washington likely to line up in his spot on the outside, will Fichtner spend Mini-Camp time on routes designed to build chemistry between Washington and Big Ben? Does Ben have a route concept he loves that Haley failed to prioritize? Now is the time for Fichtner to make these types of philosophical changes.
What about terminology? Is Fichtner changing the names of the play calls, or for the sake of cohesion will he keep Haley’s terminology in place? “34 Pike” is likely long gone as the play call for Counter. What is Fichtner calling it? Fichtner has expressed a fondness for “Code” plays, which are one-word calls no-huddle teams use to play at a fast tempo. A Code play might include an inside run, a quick passing concept to one side of the field and a one-on-one route to the opposite side. The QB will alert the team of the call by simply yelling out its name. “Georgia! Georgia!” Or “Bulldogs! Bulldogs!” The team will line up quickly, knowing that “Georgia” puts them in a specific formation with a specific play-package on a specific snap-count. The QB will then choose the run, the quick concept or the one-on-one route based on how the defense lines up. If Fichtner is going to use Code plays, or if he is going to change the terminology of the offense, he will drill the offense on those things now.
I’m focusing on offense here, but defenses do the same thing. Base defenses go in first, meaning the fronts and coverages that the Steelers anticipate lining up in on 1st and 10. Then, alternative fronts are added. Then blitz packages. Sub packages. Packages for special situations. The manner in which these are installed varies from staff to staff, but the idea is the same: begin with what you use and value most, and add the wrinkles from there.
OTHER ELEMENTS OF “INSTALL”
Plays aren’t the only element of an Install. An offense must install formations and personnel groups as well. Fichtner must prioritize his personnel packages based on probable usage and install them accordingly. The Steelers are a base 11 personnel team, which means they feature 1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs. A likely starting point of Mini-Camp install, then, will be 11 personnel formations. These include 2 x 2 sets, 3 x 1 sets and any motions that allow them to move the strength from one side of the field to another. Where Fichtner will turn from here is anyone’s guess. He has so many tools at his disposal that his options are tremendous. 10 personnel groups with four WRs? 12 personnel with two tight ends? What about a 21 package with the intriguing Jaylen Samuels as a hybrid RB/H-back/WR? How Fichtner prioritizes his groupings in Install will say a lot about his vision for the Steeler offense.
Then there is the question of tempo. Roethlisberger has made no bones about his preference for the no-huddle, and Fichtner was an up-tempo pioneer in his Memphis days. No-huddle isn’t just something you go to in the middle of a game to change things up, though. If you want to play a lot of no-huddle, you have to practice for it. The QB has to drill linemen into getting set quickly. The wide receivers have to hustle back from their routes and downfield blocks and get lined up on the ball. Since the QB is not calling the play in the huddle, signals must be communicated from the sideline to each position group. When a play is over, the player with the ball needs to be trained to hand it to an official so it can be set quickly rather than just flipping it onto the ground like players so often do. Coaches, too, must train themselves to trim their play calls. To play fast, substitutions must be minimized, shifts and motions must be eliminated and the cadence must be shortened. Dummy cadences must be added, too, so that the defense doesn’t figure out the snap count and start teeing off. An offense becomes simpler in the no-huddle, but it forces simplicity from the defense, too. The OC has to know exactly how to take advantage of that. Then there’s the conditioning factor. No-huddle requires an offense to be in great shape (I found it interesting that Mike Tomlin recently called for the Steelers to report to training camp in the best shape of their careers. Coincidence?). Mini-Camp should be used to train the offense properly if in fact we are going more up-tempo.
BACK TO THAT CALL SHEET...
So, to conclude, let’s go back to Mike McCarthy. How do we get from Minicamp, with its foundational plays, groupings and formations, to the call sheet version of War and Peace? The NFL season is a long one and NFL coaches are maniacal in their detail and preparation. They install the core in June and build deliberately from there. They add wrinkles to the core. They add wrinkles to their wrinkles. They put in red herrings to show one week in order to deceive an opponent three weeks down the road. They add or subtract based on player performance, or the effectiveness of certain groupings. Randy Fichtner might see the Steelers as a big 10 personnel team in June, but by November our performance might indicate we are better in 12p. All of these considerations go into a game plan, and then the play sheet gets constructed. Plays are listed on the sheet by grouping and formation. By down and distance. “Home Run” plays. Plays to get the ball to certain players (ex - Lev Bell isolated against a LB in coverage). Red zone plays. Plays to run when backed up in your own end. Plays to run from the hash. Plays for the 2:00 drill. Plays to run out the clock. Gadget plays. Plays against certain fronts. Cover-1 beaters. Cover-2 beaters. Cover 3, 4, 6. What to run vs Nickel or Dime. Two-point plays. And let’s not forget the “script,” the opening 10 to 15 (Bill Walsh said he scripted the first 30) plays of a game that an OC predetermines in order to see how the defense will align to certain formations or adjust to particular shifts and motions. All of these things go on the play chart in an effort to keep coordinators organized and efficient. The building blocks for all of it begin in Minicamp.
It is said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The Steelers 2018 season will be, for good or for bad, a journey for us all. The first steps are being taken as we speak, in film and meeting rooms, in small group sessions, in the periods we jokingly call “Football in Shorts.” Those first few steps can set the tone for the rest of the journey, however. Here’s hoping the Steelers are off on the right foot.