Common football wisdom dictates that every team would like to have a big, strong, red zone target like Calvin Johnson or Anquan Boldin who can beat press coverage at the line, jump up and get the ball while outmuscling defensive backs.
There is another very effective way to throw the ball in the red zone, though, even if you have a diminutive wide receiver like Wes Welker: the stacked receiver formation. After studying New England Patriots past game film, you can see they do a great job of using the stacked receiver formation to best utilize the strengths of their undersized, yet extremely quick receivers.
Stacking the receivers gives the offense a couple of advantages. First, it allows the receiver set back in the stack to get a free release at the line of scrimmage without having to worry about trying to beat a jam by the defensive back. For a receiver like Welker, this is critical. The formation gives him space to use his quickness without allowing the defensive back to get his hands on him and be physical. Second, it can confuse the coverage responsibilities leading to easy touchdown completions.
The first example I’ll show is against the Ravens in the AFC Championship game last year. It’s 3rd and 1 in the second quarter and the Patriots come out with Brandon Lloyd and Welker split out to the right, and then move Welker in motion to stack behind Lloyd.
I’ve illustrated the routes below. The idea is for Lloyd to run right at the outside defensive back to give Welker a natural pick or rub route so that whichever defensive back has to cover him will have to fight though traffic to get to Welker, who is running an out breaking route. Any hesitation or confusion and Welker has the step he needs to score from this down and distance.
The Ravens outside defensive back goes with Lloyd and the inside defender reacts late to Welker’s route, giving the Pats an easy touchdown completion in the red zone.
Judging from the reactions of the Ravens defensive backs, my guess is they were supposed to switch on that route combo after Lloyd cut inside, but again, as I mentioned earlier, the motion and routes on this formation and play can cause confusion leading to scenes like this.
What is remarkable is that I’m sure the Ravens had to have seen this exact play on film (out of a different formation) because the Patriots ran it for a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 16 in almost the same situation.
This time it’s 3rd and 2 in the 4th quarter and Brady is under center. The Patriots line up Lloyd and Welker exactly as they do against the Ravens and use the same motion and route combinations.
I don’t believe the Jags attempted to switch this like the Ravens were going to. The inside defensive back just gets caught up in the wash by Lloyd’s route and his own teammate, giving Welker the separation for Brady to find him for a critical touchdown late in the game.
It’s a great design and play call for the type of personnel that the Patriots have. It shows that a team can be effective throwing the ball in the red zone with any wide receivers, no matter the size or strength disadvantage.