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Rick Dennison’s Buffalo Bills playbook analysis: Tight end throwback

This big pass to Charles Clay was the result of a layered play design

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

In the preseason, we broke down four key concepts from Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison’s playbook: Outside zone running, Inside zone running, Texas, Flanker Drive. The season has borne out what we expected to see from Dennison - following the blueprints used by Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak, he’s calling a run-heavy West Coast Offense. The offense relies heavily on personnel groupings that feature tight ends and fullbacks, and it uses play action and bootlegs for misdirection.

Earlier this year, it seemed like Tyrod Taylor was struggling to run Dennison’s offense, especially the quick passing concepts that came off of three step drops. To his credit, though, Dennison has made adjustments every week to the playbook, adding power runs, more deep drops, and more rollouts, in order to make Buffalo’s offensive personnel more comfortable.

Against the Atlanta Falcons, the Bills spent most of the first half scoreless. Trailing 3-0 in the second quarter, they suddenly delivered a huge play when Tyrod Taylor found Charles Clay on a tight end throwback deep in Atlanta territory. What made that play work? Let’s dig into the X’s and O’s to break down the concepts. There’s a lot going on.

The tight end throwback, diagrammed

Let’s look at the way we’ve drawn the play up. This playcall is a real mouthful: “Near Left Fake 18 HO QB Naked Left Comeback Deep Cross Y Throwback.”

The tight end throwback play Rick Dennison called on Sunday.

Near Left

In the near formation, the fullback lines up on the weak side of the formation behind the tackle. There are two receivers, a tight end, and a running back. The QB is under center with the halfback behind him, and the tight end is on the line of scrimmage. Charles Clay is lined up on the left side of the ball, making Left the strength of the formation.

Fake 18 HO

This is the first half of the protection call. The offensive line is going to block as if the playcall were “18 handoff” (an outside zone run to the right side), but this is going to be a playfake. One thing that’s noteworthy about this play as the Bills ran it: There were actually two fakes - first an inside handoff to fullback Patrick DiMarco, then a possible handoff or pitch to LeSean McCoy running to the outside.

QB Naked Left

The second half of the protection; the quarterback is going to make a “naked bootleg” to the left side of the ball. This has him roll out to the left side after faking the handoff. The term “naked” means that he won’t expect any protection in space on that side - the whole line is going to block to the right to completely sell the run action.


The first read for this play is the deep comeback to the Z receiver, Jordan Matthews. If the receiver is in off-coverage, the hope is that he has room to come back to the ball for a first down. If the defense is in Cover 2, and bringing a safety over the top, the goal is to fit the ball in between the defenders.

Deep Cross

The second read is Zay Jones running a deep crossing route. As this route comes across the field, it puts stress on any cornerbacks following in man coverage, and it has natural inflection points between zone defenders where a pass could be placed.

Y Throwback

This is a combination route for the backside of the play. The actual route structure is a shallow cross followed by a wheel route. The tight end begins by feigning a block, then jogs about three yards deep against the flow of the other receivers. He then starts a wheel route, turning upfield toward the sidelines. With the running back now sitting in the flat, this would create a high-low stress point on defenders even if they did account for the tight end. In the best case, he gets lost in traffic and is wide open.

On this play, the quarterback reads from left to right. Ideally, the comeback opens up in front of him for a first down. If that’s not open, he progresses to the crossing route, which should come open as it works across the middle. If neither of those options are appealing, or if the quarterback notices the defense sleeping, he can turn and throw back against the flow of the play to his tight end. Tight end throwbacks are extremely potent changeups that work well against NFL defenses, though they require your quarterback to manage the oncoming pass rush.

What do I love about this play? The layers of complexity that go into this design:

  • This play begins with not one, but two run fakes. The linebackers have to decide - do we attack the inside gaps, flow outside, or do we stay back in case of a pass?
  • Rolling out the quarterback gives him great sightlines and space to run if the defense is caught in man coverage. Imagine if the tight end were being covered by a safety in a Cover-1 look. With the Z receiver running 15 yards deep, it’s just Tyrod Taylor versus a defensive end in a wide-open space.
  • This play has two crossers running in opposite directions. That stresses the defenders horizontally (foundation of the west coast), forcing them to choose one or lose speed changing direction.
  • After the running back runs to the outside, he has two linemen in front of him. The Bills could use this design to open up a screen play. The Cleveland Browns ran a screen play following play action against the Cincinnati Bengals for a ten yard gain last week.
  • The halfback’s presence encourages the defenders to stay shallow, which opens up space for the tight end to work.

Let’s watch the play

Here’s the play, in animated GIF form. You may need to tap on the image to set it in motion.

Near Left Fake 18 HO QB Naked Left Comeback Deep Cross Y Throwback, diagrammed.
The defense uses five defenders to cover the left side of the field, making a large hole for Charles Clay to run into.

Tyrod Taylor takes the snap and fakes to Patrick DiMarco, then to LeSean McCoy. He rolls to the left side, but sees that Jordan Matthews is tightly covered by the cornerback. He also sees more defenders dropping into zone coverage, essentially triple covering Zay Jones. The free safety has also shaded to that side of the field.

Pass rushers are starting to come close as the protection breaks apart. Taylor runs back to the other side, spies Charles Clay running downfield, and throws a perfectly-placed deep ball. The presence of LeSean McCoy, with blockers in front, confuses safety Keanu Neal just enough to get him out of position for covering Clay’s wheel route.

Here’s how the play turned out on Sunday: