NFL teams are making a terrible mistake at the goal line
Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz shatters the conventional wisdom about what an offense should do when it’s one or two yards from paydirt.
By Geoff Schwartz May 22, 2018, 11:07am EDT
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Analytics are now part of football. You can choose to ignore analytics like Jon Gruden claims he will, or you can embrace it like Howie Roseman of the Eagles.
I was hesitant to embrace analytics because it was mostly centered around football player grades. But without knowing the scheme, it’s hard to grade, especially at my favorite position, offensive line.
When I retired from the NFL and had more time and the willingness to read people who cover football, I found them using analytics as a tool to chart tendencies and measure efficiency. I started paying attention to the analytics, seeing how it played out on Sundays and beyond.
As football evolves and we’re able to chart tendencies, we must rethink how we look at certain situations. The norm of how plays are called, the way they’ve been called for years, has to adapt with new analytics.
One area of the game we need to rethink is what happens at the goal line.
The general theory for years was running in your jumbo package at the 1-yard line. The jumbo package can vary at times with who plays what position, but it’s three tight ends (sometime one or two of those are offensive lineman), one fullback and one running back.
The formation looks like this.
There are various runs and just a few passing routes from this formation. That’s sort of the point.
The offensive coaches are telling the opposing defense, “**** you, we can run the ball against any look, even if the defense knows it’s coming.” It’s the same message we get in the offensive line room. It sounds like an archaic way to view football, but it’s something offensive lineman take pride in. Run the ball into any look; we can get the job done.
However, this is where analytics should inform the way we think about the run game. There are stats that show us running the ball from jumbo inside the 2-yard line isn’t the best way to punch in a touchdown.
When we were joking about calling a game with a boatload of passes, one of my fellow linemen mentioned being in 10 personnel on the goal line and how that would drive us insane. It would. Our friend Warren Sharp, from sharpfootballstats.com, chimed in with stats from the last two seasons showing that running from jumbo personnel on the goal line isn’t as efficient as staying in 11 personnel in the same situation.
Here is that info from Sharp:
Goal-line TD rate
0 WRs on the field
1 WR on the field
100% (1 play)
100% (1 play)
2 WRs on the field
50% (2 plays)
100% (1 play)
3+ WRs on the field
50% (2 plays)
100% (2 plays)
New England TD rate for 0 WR vs. 1+ WR (RB runs from the 1- and 2-yard lines)
0 WR: 53 percent
1+ WR: 78 percent
NFL TD rate for running the ball on first down vs. second-fourth downs from 1+ WR formations:
First down: 44 percent
Second-fourth downs: 56 percent
The only time it makes sense to run the ball from jumbo is on first down, with a 50 percent success rate.
If you get stuffed on first or just get down there after a big play, it’s time to get into 11 personnel and get better matchups to run the ball.
When you game plan for an opponent, you pare down the entire playbook into plays that work for that week. You have a few goal-line runs and one goal-line pass you love, and maybe one more. But sometimes just one pass.
The general philosophy on the goal line in jumbo is well known. Run on first down, run or pass on second down, pass on third down, and then run on fourth down.
You pass on third down because passing on fourth down is obvious. You set up the goal-line passes by running the ball once or twice so the play action pass mimics the run action.
Lastly, you enter the game with one great goal line pass and a secondary one just in case. There aren’t many options for multiple pass plays. The jumbo personnel package is not designed for the pass.
As Warren’s data shows, conventional wisdom has it backwards. It’s better to run the ball from passing formations on second-fourth downs and pass from a run formation on first. Teams that run the ball with more than one wide receiver on second, third or fourth down, score 56 percent of the time, compared to less than 50 percent for jumbo formations.
Defenses expect the run. When you line up in a passing formation teams must honor the pass, otherwise the quarterback will check to a great matchup on the edge. Defenses in the red zone are vanilla so there isn’t much thinking on downs at the goal line. Lastly, you only need two yards. It hits quickly. Lineman don’t need to sustain their blocks for long.
If you are going to get into jumbo and run the football, there’s only one way to do it — the Patriot way.
If you want to run the ball successfully on the goal line, just copy the Patriots. They run the ball from personnel groupings and on downs where teams expect pass. They go against traditional football thoughts.
Coaches get too fancy on the goal line by trying to “fool” the defense. Not the Patriots. They’re the best at running the ball at the goal line because they understand where the best matchups are and they have the best goal-line run play of all time. It’s a single play they over and over again, never overthinking it.
The New England play is GL 38/39 Boss. It’s an outside zone with a fullback leading up on the edge player. It can go to the strong or weak side, depending on the defense.
It’s an excellent play because it can eat up anything the defense is trying to do. Cross dog? Eaten up. Out charge? It can be handled. And so on.
New England scored on versions of this same run in four straight games between Weeks 12 through 15. Here they are running it against Pittsburgh in the play’s most basic form.
Fast forward to the playoffs, and you’ll see what makes the Patriots so dang tough to play. They adjust and anticipate better than anyone else. They’re aware they scored multiple times last season on the same play.
In the divisional round, New England faced Tennessee and famed defensive mind **** Lebeau, who loves himself some middle cross dog on the goal line. Something that looks like this:
They are waiting for the outside zone, with the defensive line making an all out charge and the edge players where they are. So, New England runs a cutback play that’s designed to defeat the cross dog. It looks like zone to start for a second, and boom, it’s a cutback and a touchdown.
This is what New England does better than anyone else in jumbo personnel, and they’re even better on second down. I will say this data doesn’t show New England, or any other team, who tried to run on first down and got stuffed, and then tried to force it again. In New England’s case, having watched most of their film, they get to first-and-goal, run a play getting themselves down into the area where jumbo personnel is appropriate.
The final thing New England does well in this area of the field is tempo opponents using goal line runs with different personnel.
Against Jacksonville, in the AFC Championship, the Patriots ran a goal-line outside zone from 11 personnel.
Notice what happens here. Because of the formation, Jacksonville’s defense tries to line up in some semblance of a goal-line defense with their nickel personnel. No bueno for them; excellent for the Patriots. There’s no one to defend this play. Walk in touchdown.
That’s a lot to consume here, but remember this — stay in 11 personnel on the goal line. If you want to get into jumbo, run outside zone with it.