During the early part of every Eagles practice, the robotic voice that emanates from the speakers at the NovaCare Complex announces a period called RVA, or routes versus air.
Five quarterbacks in red jerseys stand side by side in the middle of the field. Wide receivers, tight ends and running backs set up in one of five lines – three to one side, two to the other. The balls are snapped simultaneously, the receivers run their routes, and the passes are delivered without any defenders.
During one of the reps, the No. 1 receiver (closest to the sideline) takes off on a slant, but turns around at about 5 yards and faces the quarterback. The No. 2 receiver runs a corner route – upfield and then angling towards the sideline. And the No. 3 man (closest to the formation) shuffles towards the sideline near the line of scrimmage, keeping his eyes on the QB the entire time.
It’s a common passing concept called the snag – one that is utilized by teams across the league on a weekly basis.
To break down how the Eagles use it, when it works and when it doesn’t, we called on our old friend Coach Flinn, who explains this stuff as well as anyone out there.
The most common coverage the Eagles faced in 2013 was Cover 1 – man coverage across the board with a single high safety.
Here, you see the three routes involved, along with the look of the defense.
“It’s an easy read for the quarterback,” Flinn said. “He’s always gonna read deep first, so we look at the corner route first. His back leg hits the ground on his drop, he looks corner. His feet move, he looks snag. He shuffles his feet again, he throws the ball to the flat. So it’s a hi-lo, look deep first, then make your read, then throw it to your checkdown in the flat.”
Against Cover 1, offenses want to throw away from the middle of the field where the deep safety is sitting. So the best chance to hit a big play on the corner route is against this exact coverage.
The other part about the snag concept against man coverage is that it can create a natural traffic jam.
“The other part of [the No. 1 WR’s] job is if it’s man, you’re also gonna snag the number three’s guy if he’s running into the flat,” Flinn said. “So anybody exiting the box… to cover the guy running the bubble or running the flat, you would get in that guy’s way if you thought it was man coverage.”
On this particular play, Jason Avant leaves the corner behind and runs the corner route away from the free safety. Michael Vick gets crushed, but delivers a beautiful ball on time for the touchdown.
“The standard thing we’ll do is we’ll go four times with the inside foot [before breaking out], which usually puts you at 10 yards, maybe a little bit deeper,” Flinn said, explaining the corner route. “And then if we recognize it’s man coverage or recognize it’s man pressure, if it’s no deep, man with no help, we let him speed it up to three times with your inside foot if we know there’s an extra rusher coming.
“My issue on all those routes is if you break that thing too short, your angle isn’t gonna be high enough to get the ball. So we always talk about get your full depth, give me at least 10 yards, come smoking out of your break, come flying out of there like the ball’s in the air and you’re running to go get a touchdown. That’s what should be happening.”
You can see the corner is trailing, and the safety has no chance of getting to Avant in time. The result is a touchdown.
Nick Foles’ first start of the season came in Week 6 against the Bucs, and the Eagles turned to the snag concept on multiple occasions against Tampa’s zone looks.
On this play, the Bucs are in quarter-quarter-half coverage. That means three deep defenders – the two to the bottom of the screen split one side of the field. The defender to the top of the screen is responsible for the other half.
Against this coverage, the corner route is not a great option because the quarter player closest to the sideline (in this case Darrelle Revis) will drop and take it away. Once Foles sees that, his next read is to the snag route – in this case being run by Avant.
“Our spacing between number one and two, which would be Avant and Cooper here, is about 7 yards,” Flinn said. “It looks about where they’re at just to give that corner [route] time to release, and you’re gonna angle on 45 [degrees] into 5 yards, end up in his stem.”
The other key element to this play is the zone-bubble action. The Eagles’ most popular packaged play is a zone run combined with a bubble screen. Off the snap, that’s exactly what this looks like, and take note that the run fake is to the opposite side of the three receivers. It’s one of Chip Kelly’s core principles: make the defense defend the entire width of the field, 53 1/3 yards.
As the play develops, you can see the corner route is not open. The underneath defender (No. 29) is drawn to DeSean Jackson, leaving an opening for Avant. Foles faces pressure, stands in the pocket and delivers the ball on target.
“The quarterback might hit you when you’re on the move – if it’s a blitz or something like that,” Flinn said, explaining the snag route. “More often than not, you’re gonna sprint, come to balance, stick your foot in the ground at 5 yards and show the quarterback your numbers.”
Once Avant sees the ball is coming, it’s catch-tuck-knife.
“Catch the ball, tuck the ball and then knife up the field,” Flinn explained. “We tell our guys in between the hashes, catch the ball and knife it. You’re not gonna do yourself much good running sideways.”
Another key point: Last year, many (included yours truly) talked about how good Foles was at looking off defenders. Flinn explained that a lot of times, that’s just the QB going through his reads. When he looks for something and it’s not there, it naturally moves the defenders.
“When you build the read this way, it helps the quarterback move defenders while making his reads,” he said. “It’s not just [you’re] gonna blatantly look off the other side of the field, come over here. It’s actually, ‘I’m reading this. I’m reading corner, then I’m coming back down.’
“The other thing too is when you do that, you’re building in a vertical shot every play. He checks that thing first every time. And then if it’s not there, then you take what they give you. It keeps the defense honest because it always has that option in there, which I think is a neat way to go about it.”
That was the one-word answer Kelly gave me when I asked if there are specific situations where he really likes to use tempo.
Can you share any of those?
“I don’t recall right now,” he said, before offering a little bit more of an explanation.
But one of the times Kelly likes to push it is after big plays. In the Eagles’ Week 17 win over the Cowboys last year, Foles found Brent Celek downfield for a 35-yard gain. From the time Celek was ruled down to the time the ball was snapped for the next play, only 21 seconds had elapsed off the clock.
The result? A confused Dallas defense and one of Foles’ easiest touchdown passes of the year.
It was once again the snag concept. The run fake moved defenders to the left, and the Cowboys sent a five-man pressure. Foles had a simple read: Hey, no one is covering Celek. He got the ball out quick, and the Eagles’ veteran tight end found the end zone from 14 yards out.
Wide receiver Josh Huff, an Oregon product, was a bit more revealing than Kelly when asked if his head coach liked to use tempo after big plays.
“Most definitely,” he said. “Any time you get a big gain, you want to break the defense’s back even more and break their will. So any time we get a big gain we’re gonna try to go after them even more. Because the big gain, you’ve got big linemen running downfield trying to get set. When they’re not set, that’s when we’re at our best.”
So when is the snag concept at its least effective? According to Flinn, it’s against Cover 2 when the defense has two safeties deep and five underneath defenders.
Here, the Saints actually drop eight into coverage.
“Why isn’t it great? It’s not super great because you have a curl defender automatically in Cover-2,” Flinn said, explaining that the snag is taken away. “So what’s your best throw? Your best throw here is usually a high angle corner in between the free safety and the hard shoulder corner. But that’s dropping the ball in the bucket there. It’s not a real high percentage deal.”
The key player is the cornerback at the bottom of the screen. If Foles can make him commit to the flat, he’ll have extra room to hit the corner route (or vice versa).
As Chris Brown of Smart Football explained:
As a general matter, against a Cover Two defense the quarterback will have a high/low read of the cornerback; if he sinks back he can throw it to the inside receiver in the flat; if the cornerback drops he will throw it to the corner route behind the cornerback.
On this particular play, Foles opted not to take a shot at the corner route and instead came back to Cooper, completing a 6-yard pass.
The snag concept is one that’s used on a weekly basis by teams around the league. Depending on the coverage, it can turn into a shot play or a relatively high percentage throw near the line of scrimmage.
As is the case with a lot of the offense, Kelly likes to often use simple concepts, but dress them up differently and add elements like zone/bubble action and tempo.
It always comes down to execution. So when the Eagles hear the voice announce RVA later this afternoon, they’ll line up, make sure their splits are just right, pay attention to detail on their routes and hope it all pays off once again when the games start in September.