Controlling the Ball With the Pass
former San Francisco 49ers and Stanford Cardinal

My philosophy has been to control the ball with the forward pass. To do that we have to have versatility-versatility in the action and types of passes thrown by the quarterback.

Dropback Passes
We like the dropback pass. We use a three-step drop pattern, but more often we will use a five-step drop pattern of timed patterns down the field. From there we go to a seven-step drop. When our quarterback takes a seven-step drop, he's allowing the receivers time to maneuver down the field. Therefore, we will use a three-step drop pattern when we are throwing a quickout or hitch or slant which, by and large, the defense is allowing you to complete by their alignment or by their coverage.

The five-step drop pattern for the quarterback calls for a disciplined pattern by the receiver. He runs that pattern the same way every time. He doesn't maneuver to beat the defensive back.

Too often in college football, either the quarterback is standing there waiting for the receiver, or the receiver has broken before the quarterback can throw the ball. These are the biggest flaws you will see in the forward pass. Now when the receiver breaks before the ball can be thrown, the defensive back can adjust to the receiver. Any time the quarterback holds the ball waiting for the receiver to break, the defensive back sees it and breaks on the receiver. So the time pattern is vital.

Play-Action Passes
You can't just dropback pass. You have to be able to keep the defense from zeroing in on your approach. That's why the play pass is vital. By and large, the play-action pass will score the touchdown. The dropback pass will control the ball.

For play-action passing, we have certain blocking fundamentals that we use. We will show different backfield actions with basically the same offensive line blocking. We will go to the play pass as often as we can, especially as we get to the opponent's 25-yard line.

Action Pass
The third category of pass that most people use is what we call the action pass, where your quarterback moves outside. There are a couple of reasons for moving outside. One certainly is to avoid the inside pass rush. For a dropback passing team we'll sprint-out "waggle" as we call it-outside to avoid blitzers who approach straight up the field on us. The other advantage is to bring yourself closer to the potential receiver.

We'll get outside to throw the ball and get ourselves closer to the man we want to throw to. When you can get outside, the trajectory of the ball can be flatter because normally there isn't a man between you and the receiver.

The versatility also includes changing your formations. We continuously change receiver width and spacing. We seldom will line up our receiver with the same spacing on two or three plays in a row. If we want to throw the ball to the outside, we will reduce the split of the receiver. We need running room to the outside. We don't want the ball in the air very long. If we want to throw inside, we will extend the split of our receivers, so that there is more maneuvering room to the inside, and spread the defense. Our backs, as many teams know will cheat to get where they have to be. We know that if we throw to backs, the first thing on their mind is how to release out of the backfield. We are quite willing to move the man to get the release and sometimes telegraph what we are doing. We are quite willing to do that with the idea that when we want to break a given tendency, we simply line them up there and run something else.

We will vary the split of the receivers according to the pattern and the coverage and, of course, to add versatility. The biggest problem you will have in the forward pass is when you have to throw the ball a number of times and, with a very limited inventory, you begin to throw the same pattern over and over. You get into trouble.
The argument that you will throw the interception has to be qualified with how much you know about the forward passing game versus the running game. In our last game, our opponent fumbled five times, and we threw no interceptions. That might have been the difference in the game.

Play Selection
One of the factors involved with our success years ago with the Cincinnati Bengals was that we would begin to set a game plan for the opening of the game. We continued that at Stanford. In a given game, say, for instance, against Southern California, we ran the first 12 plays we had decided on in order. Of course, we ran out of lists because the first 12 worked and none worked after that. But the point is we went 12 plays in order, right down the line. We went eight straight games scoring the first time we had the ball. By the time we have completed 8 to 10 plays, we've forced the opponent to adjust to a number of things. We've kept him off balance with the type of thing we were doing, and we pretty much established in a given series what we would come to next.

That's a good approach to offensive football. It forces you to go into that game with a certain calmness. You know where you're going, rather than having to say, "What in the hell do we do now?" Occasionally planned plays don't work, but we keep going. We don't change; we don't worry about it. We try to create an effect on our opponent. The effect is that he feels he has to adjust. We present different looks and dilemmas. We run the ball right at him. We throw the ball over his head. Meanwhile, because we know what the play is, we readily see what their adjustments are. We try to get a line on their first down defenses, but we take it from there.

In Scoring Territory
I have seen many teams march the ball beautifully, but right around the 15-yard line, they are already warming up their placekicker, because right at that point defenses change, the field they can operate in changes, and suddenly their basic offense goes all to pieces.

My contention is that if we are on their 25, we're going for the end zone. Failing at that, we will kick a field goal. In an evenly matched game, I don't want to try to take the ball from their 25 to the goal line by trying to smash it through people, because three out of four times, you won't make it. Unless you are superior. Of course, if you are vastly superior it makes very little difference how you do it.

Why? First, every defensive coach in the country is going to his blitzes about right there. The pass coverage, by and large, will be man-to-man coverage. We know that if they don't blitz one down, they're going to blitz the next down. Automatically. They'll seldom blitz twice in a row but they'll blitz every other down. If we go a series where there haven't been blitzes on the first two downs, here comes the safety blitz on the third down. So we are looking, at that point, to get into the end zone.

By the style of our football, we'll have somebody to get the ball to a little bit late-just as an outlet to get 4 or 5 yards, to try to keep it. But from the 25 to the 10, we're going for the end zone.

Between our own 10-yard line and the opponent's 25, we operate our field offense. We know that on first down our ball-control passing is vital. By and large, on first-and-10 you'll get a 2-deep zone - zone-type defense. We can drop the ball off to a back late and still make 4 to 5 yards. Those 4 or 5 yards are as important to us as some other team making the same on an option play.

You often will see us run with the ball on second-and-lO, because we want 5 yards. If you run a basic running play, you can get your 5.

At third-and-5, we are right back with a ball-control pass, dumping to a back, and we're making it. If we can make 30 first downs a game, we'll win.

Short Yardage
We have standard passes to throw against a goalline defense. Too often people try to go in there and butt heads with good linebackers on the goal line. Too often they don't make it.
If we get inside that 5-yard line, half the time we are going to throw the ball. Now, if you're marching through somebody, you can just close your eyes and hand the ball off But when it's very competitive, that goal-line pass is vital. So we have a series of those. We never call them anywhere else on the field.

When we are around their 35-yard line in a short-yardage situation, if we don't see somebody standing deep down the middle, we're probably going to go for the six points.
To make it on third-and-1 we will often throw to a back out of the backfield. Third-and-3 is the toughest of all to make. We have a certain list of runs and a certain list of passes. When we have a third-and-3, we don't grope. We go to it.

Ball-Control Passing
Don't isolate throwing the forward pass to a given down and distance. If you are going to throw the ball, you must be willing to throw on first down, not a token pass hoping for the best, but a pass that is designed to get you a certain amount of yardage.

In our ball-control passing, we will use the five-step drop pattern on first down, because we know through the drilling of our quarterback, that we can get 4 or 5 dropping the ball off to a back, who is an outlet, or to a tight end. So we are quite willing to throw a ball-control pass on first down, and then go to our seven-step drop maneuvering pattern on third down. As you can see, most of our offense is based on ball-control passes, no matter what the situation. Figure 1 shows you a ball-control pass that Sid Gilman may have developed some time ago. It's one of the most effective forward passes we've used.

Red Right - 22 Z-In

22 Z-In
This is a five-step drop pattern. The quarterback takes five big steps and a hitch step and throws on time. The receiver splits 12 to 14 yards. The flanker releases inside for 5 to 6 yards and then bursts hard to the outside foot of the cornerback. What he wants to do is to get that cornerback on his heels. Then he'll turn in about three steps and catch the pass 12 yards deep.

The fullback runs what we call a scat pattern. He doesn't have any pickup, and he releases to the outside. He never catches the ball more than 2 yards past the line of scrimmage, most often right at the line of scrimmage. If the backer blitzes, he looks for the ball early.
Our tight end picks off the near end backer. He'll put his head past that man's shoulder, slow down, and make contact. He bounces off it and goes to the far guard position, turns and faces the quarterback, and watches his eyes because he's the last outlet.

The quarterback throws the ball related to the sky safety. If the safety gives ground, he'll throw to the fullback. If the safety flattens out, we'll throw in behind him, in this case to the flanker. If it's man-to-man, the flanker runs a man-to-man pattern trying to beat the corner. If it's man-to-man, the safety will often chase the tight end, and there will be a good throwing lane with the backer coming out on the fullback.

When we throw to the fullback the ball should arrive to him a foot in front of his number. If the fullback has to reach, he will take his eyes off the ball, slow down or break stride, and probably get nothing out of it.

Out Pattern
The out pattern is a timed pattern thrown from a five-step drop. On a timed pattern, a quarterback does not take a hitch step.

The receiver goes straight up the field as close to full speed as he can. At 10 yards he crosses over and breaks out. He catches the ball at 12 (see Figure 2). The SP doesn't care about the coverage, other than if they roll up, he runs a seam. He doesn't care where the defensive back is located, and he doesn't change his angle of release. He just runs the pattern.

When he catches it, he goes up the sideline. We tell our backs, 'you want the sideline." The reason is that only one man can tackle you at a time, and he often underestimates a ball-carrier along the sideline. What we are after on 22 Z-In is a 7- to 9-yard gain to the fullback, or a 12-yard gain to the flanker. The fullback gets it about two out of three times.
If the two primary receivers are covered, our quarterback will come back and look at the tight end. As soon as the tight end sees the quarterback's eyes, he slides laterally for the pass (see Figure 1).

We have several other options off our 22 action, depending on the defense. We have a Z-in with fullback motion, a circle-out with our flanker, and a Y-out with the tight end. The key to the pass is the fullback. He should average 7 to 8 yards a catch. That's what we mean by ball-control passing.

Red Right - 24 Double Square Out (OKIE)


The quarterback decides prior to the snap and just after the snap whether he's going to throw him the ball or not. The quarterback takes five quick steps. Notice I said five big steps in the Z in. Now that we're throwing out, the QB takes five quick steps. He can't lead the receiver with the pass because any time you lead a receiver who is running parallel to the ball, he'll never catch up to the ball.

Throw right at the man's hip. If you throw into his body, the defensive back doesn't have any way to get to it. What we are trying to get here is the defensive back giving ground this way and then losing lateral ground this way. That's on single coverage.

On this particular pattern both receivers do the same thing, but I would say most often the flanker gets it. The tight end takes an inside release, goes straight up the field, and runs a full speed crossing pattern, but never crosses the ball. The tight end on his basic crossing pattern is the one you go to on man-under defense. If a team is running man-under, that kind of an out is suicide. So if our quarterback sees inside-out coverage on wide receivers, reasonably close, his drop now goes right to the tight end; he's looking for the tight end to beat a man-under linebacker.

M Pattern
The backs play a key role. They check the backers on a blitz. After reading for the blitz, the back runs what we call an M pattern.

In the M pattern, the back moves 1 1/2 to 2 yards back from his blocking position. When he is 6 yards deep and 3 yards outside the offensive tackle, he turns upfield looking for the M pattern.

On the M pattern, the weak linebacker-some call him a defensive end-takes away the square out, we hold the ball, and pop it right off to the halfback (see Figure 2).

There's also a tight end option off the double square-out pattern. As you can see in Figure 2, when both middle linebackers cover backs to the outside, and blitz one man, this isolates our tight end on a backer. He has a good chance of beating the backer.

Hook Pattern
Now let's look at the seven-step drop pattern. This is one play that we've almost worn out.
On a seven-step drop pattern, our receivers will maneuver. We're going to run a blue left for us, a right, which is motion, and we're going to run a 79, which is weak flow pass protection. Now X is going to run a pattern on the weak side (see Figure 3).

Blue Right - 79 X-Hook


You vary the width of the receiver. He may be 1 yard split or he may be 12 yards split, depending on which linebacker we are trying to beat. X works up the field, gets past the man who has short coverage, and turns in. We tell him to get past the W and beat the M.

On this pattern we tell our receiver that he must go at least 12 yards and never more than 18 yards on the hook. Not because he can't get open, but because the quarterback can't wait that long to throw. A lot of it is predicated on pass rush. We say never less than 12, because we can't have a hook develop at 12 when our quarterback takes seven steps.

-1979 Proceedings. Coach Walsh was head coach at Stanford University.