At the start of training camp in July, Chip Kelly was asked about how Mark Sanchez was adapting to a new offensive scheme.
“A lot of things that all of us do, no matter where you’re coaching… it’s still four verticals,” he said. “We call it differently than the way Marty [Mornhinweg] called it, but they ran four verticals here at the Eagles. Marty runs four verticals when you watch the Jets tape. We run four verticals.”
Eagles offensive coaches mention four verticals often – usually when they’re trying to get the point across that they’re not doing anything all that innovative.
The passing concept is used around the league and really at every level of football. Quarterback G.J. Kinne says he remembers first learning it as a freshman in high school. Wide receiver Jeff Maehl says Oregon ran four verticals when he played for Kelly in college.
Once again, to help explain the concept, we called on our old friend Coach Flinn, along with some of the current Eagles players and coaches.
The basic idea is pretty much what it sounds like: four receivers spreading out and heading upfield.
“The vertical routes are usually gonna be run anywhere between 2 and 3 yards inside the numbers,” said Eagles defensive backs coach Todd Lyght. “And then the receivers on the outside want to be about 4 yards from the sideline, giving yourself enough space to move away from the defender and giving a little bit of a window for the quarterback to throw it to the outside and upfield arm of the receiver. Those are the lines that the offenses want to hit when they go four verticals.”
This first example we’ll take a look at is from the Chargers game last year.
Here, the Eagles have three receivers (trips) to the top of the screen and Brent Celek in-line to the bottom.
The concept works best against a single-high safety look like Cover 3, which is the coverage shown here.
“I’m pretty sure four verticals is one of the oldest plays in the book for any offense at any level,” Maehl said. “It’s so good, especially with single high, it’s hard to cover everyone. You’ve gotta kind of guess right because wherever that middle safety goes, one of the sides is gonna be open.”
Against Cover 3, the quarterback looks to the seams first.
“Single-high zone coverage, you’re gonna take a shot in the seams,” Flinn explained. “That’s your best throw. You’ve got one free safety in the middle of the field. You’ve got two guys spaced in the middle of the field.”
Added Kinne: “Seam to seam to your back [checkdown] unless you have an alerted matchup that you really like and you have a corner that’s not as fast as your receiver.”
Even though it’s zone coverage, in Cover 3, the outside corners have to stick with their respective wide receivers outside once they get downfield. The key concept here is setting up a 2-on-1 against the free safety. You can see DeSean Jackson is crossing midfield and headed towards the opposite seam. Riley Cooper, meanwhile, started out as the No. 2 receiver (second in from the sideline). He is going straight down the seam to the top of the screen.
The concept puts the free safety in a bind. If he commits to one of the seam routes, the other will be wide open.
“When you’re getting two guys going vertical, you can’t really lean to one or the other necessarily because as soon as you start leaning, the quarterback’s going the opposite way,” said Nate Allen. “So you’re kind of looking at what he’s doing and playing off him. Sometimes if you anticipate things, hopefully you guess right.”
As is the case with most of the Eagles’ shot plays, they incorporate play-action. That pulls the linebackers up and makes it easier for Jackson to climb over top of the underneath defenders without being jammed or re-routed.
“It’s standard stuff, but what works is it’s complementary with the run game,” explained Flinn. “You go into a game, you see a team that’s heavy one-back and heavy run, what a lot of defenses do is they say, ‘Alright, we’re gonna close the middle and we’re gonna play Cover 3 and make them throw the ball.’ So now you’re play-acting at a defense that’s lined up there to stop the run and you’re throwing the ball down the field. It’s a pretty natural progression.”
Jackson’s job is to climb over the linebackers and get his head around quickly.
“We tell our guys as soon as you get over top any underneath coverage, get your eyes around because you’re open to the quarterback,” Flinn said. “…A guy gets hit in the head once, he usually figures it out.”
This example is zone, but against man coverage, he would have the flexibility to change his route.
“Against man, the nature of that route changes,” Flinn said. “You turn it into a little bit more of a man separator, a straight line up and almost run like a post.”
On this particular play, Michael Vick found Jackson running free for a 41-yard gain.
A point we’ve made numerous times in this space is that the Eagles run a lot of the same concepts, but dress them up differently. Four verticals is another example. On this play against the Bears in Week 16, they are in 12 personnel (one RB, two TEs), with a receiver split out wide to each side.
“Chip does a really good job at creating space with the offense,” said Lyght. “I like the way that they manipulate the formations, but still run the same plays out of the different formations and different personnel sets. I think that what makes Chip really, really good is how he makes you defend the whole entire field. And if you don’t defend the whole entire field, then you’re gonna get exposed.”
You’ll notice a couple differences with the routes. Cooper, to the bottom of the screen, runs a comeback.
“We give ‘em a depth,” Flinn said. “If a guy zone turns, his back goes to the boundary, he’s way over top of you… then you can drop it into a comeback, or some teams just stop.”
The running back, meanwhile, provides a checkdown option.
The coverage on this play is once again Cover 3. The three deep defenders are highlighted. The free safety is put in a position of conflict with the two tight ends running down the seams.
“If you’re a middle defender… obviously it’s very difficult to cover all four of those verticals, but it can be done if you read the quarterback correctly, read the upfield shoulder of the quarterback, read the tilt, read the release of the quarterback’s shoulder and get a good break,” Lyght said.
“A lot of defenders who break out of the middle, the really great ones like the Ed Reeds and the guys that can really make a lot of plays on the ball, they always break at a high angle first and then adjust after they break the high angles. The average safeties and the ones that are just very good, they will break on a flat angle and then try to adjust their angles high later. But they’re not able to cover as much ground.”
Asked if it can be a lonely feeling having to account for two receivers on these plays, Nate Allen said: “It can be. But two verticals, if you’re in the post, you should be able to break when the ball’s in the air and make a play on it.”
Foles could have gone to either seam on this play. He chose to hit Brent Celek near the top of the screen. The cornerback to the top of the screen did a good job of breaking on the ball and actually forced a fumble, but not until after the pass was already completed.
Against man coverage with a single high safety, it’s all about the outside guys winning their one-on-one matchups.
“We’re throwing away from the free safety in Cover 1,” Flinn said. “If we throw a ball in the seam, that free safety can travel and help in Cover 1. If you throw it outside, that’s a true single, man on man coverage. We’re gonna take a shot there.”
Added Maehl: “I think every team in the National Football League runs it a lot just because it’s so effective. The only coverage that it’s really not the best is probably man to man, but even that, you can still have guys win on the outside and create big plays. It’s one of those plays that all over the league it’s used a lot.”
The Eagles rarely see two deep safeties, but four verticals can work against that look too. One of the receivers running down the seam, though, changes his route to get to open space.
“We don’t mind it against Cover 2,” Flinn said. “What you get against Cover 2 is we call a bender, or a guy running a post in between two safeties. Then you have an outside vertical. The outside throws are a little bit harder. You’ve got to throw in that difficult hole 18 to 22 yards by the sideline, in between the corner and safety. …Four verticals is never really dead. There’s some issues where guys have to adjust their routes, particularly the inside slots will change up what they’re doing against a two-deep defense. That can become a little bit hairy.”
The Eagles led the NFL with 80 pass plays of 20+ yards in 2013. It’s safe to assume that at least a handful of those this year will come off the four verticals concept.