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Football University - The Bootleg Play

Happy Easter!

Since I can't send out candy to everyone, the next best thing I can do is send out some University goodies.  That's right, the course with no homework and tests is giving out free knowledge once again.  What's that you say?  We always do that?  Ok, today it's a bonus.  Two lessons in one.

We'll cover the bootleg play and variations (one of the signature plays of Denver), and we'll throw in an extra segment about further information on the defensive schemes Denver might employ this year.

So click on "read more" below to get the whole story, and I'll see you below the fold!

One of Denver's most exciting plays is called the bootleg.  You often hear the term, and you probably recognize the play when you see Jay Cutler roll out of the pocket and either make a spectacular play or get knocked on his butt.  Why does Denver run this play so much?  And why does it work or not work?  What is the difference between the "bootleg" and the "naked bootleg"?

I'm glad I asked!

As we know from last week, Denver will run the zone block scheme often during a game.  Denver will also run to the strong side (like most teams) more often than the weakside.  Opposing teams know this and prepare for it.  This being the NFL, the opposing teams are also ready for runs to the weakside.

So Denver likes to use what we call "misdirection".  Instead of just using brute force, Denver likes to use a little finesse.

In a bootleg play, Cutler (the QB) will do what we call a "play action".  Play action is simply acting like the play is a run, but throwing the ball instead.  Peyton Manning of the Colts is probably the master of play action.

Jay will act like he is handing the ball to his running back (perhaps Henry or Young) and that player takes off for the strongside (typicaly the right side, where we have a TE as an extra lineman).  To "sell" the play even more, the line will probably run block instead of pass block.  They may or may not zone block.

The defense sees the running play going to the strongside (as it has play after play after play through the game) and the guys in man coverage are pulled with their assignment to the strongside.  The guys in zone might break their zone to go after the run, or keep a zone that is away from where our play is really going.  The key is the weakside linebacker.  More on him later.

In the meantime, even the QB is moving to the strongside and then, you knew it, he breaks around and starts heading in the opposite direction!  At this point the defense is probably exposed to several pass threats.  One is the number two WR who probably faked a run play by stutter stepping before he took off for greener pastures down field.  Another may be the TE who breaks back late to give the QB another option.  The HB (who helped to sell the run) is now perhaps near the sideline, ready to bail out Cutler if he doesn't have a good option.

So one reason this play works for Denver is because it fits in well with our zone block runs to the strong side.  Houston uses the same system, and burned us last year with our own bootleg a few times.

But the value of the bootleg doesn't stop there!  Denver favors QBs with a strong arm and quick legs.  If Jay doesn't have a good pass option he doesn't have to throw away the ball.  He can keep running and pick up yards (since the defense is out of place).  And because of a strong arm, he can also make the throw to the strong side WR, a feat that most QBs can't do.

Elway was famous for many things, but one thing he was known for was the cross shoulder throw.  Imagine running to the right side of the field (and being right handed), but throwing the ball to theleft side of the field.  I myself can't do it.  The more power I put on the throw the more wild the throw is.  One of my favorite plays in Elway history was watching him run towards the strongside of the field, and hurling the ball down the opposite side of the field deep to a racing WR.  Not only did the ball get down the field, it was also on target.  Cutler looks to be this kind of guy.

Let's take a quick look at a bootleg.  I've oversimplified the play dynamics to make the information clearer for all of our readers.

In a regular bootleg, one or two players may stay back to protect the QB.  The LT or FB may pass block while everyone else sells the run.  But in the above picture, the QB is on his own.  This is how Denver likes to do it.  It is called the "naked bootleg" because we leave our QB with no protection.  We can do this because our QBs are expected to be fast, and we sell the strongside runs most of the game.  Either Jay completes a pss, or he races down the field for anywhere from eight to fifteen yards before stepping out of bounds or sliding.

There's just one catch.

The danger to the bootleg is the cunning defensive coordinator who tells his weakside linebacker to do one of several play busting manouvers.

  • Zone on the offensive side of the ball where the QB will end up,
  • Blitz wide and keep the blitz even if the play turns into a run (because it might not really be a run),
  • Keep the typical weakside zone no matter what play is happening.
The bad thing for the defense is that the WILL is not in on most plays, and Denver has taken 1/11th of the opposition away.  The good thing for the defense is that on the rare big play that Cutler rolls out he gets hammered by a big, ugly linebacker before he even gets started.  There is only a small window of perhaps a second to get the ball out or take a painful shot.  This is why the rocket arm is so valuable.

Sometimes the FS or even the #2 CB can fill the role of spoiler, but not so often.  The right DE (on the offense's left) is also a threat, and breaks up as many bootlegs as the WILL, but in his case it is more often skill than scheme.  It is not uncommon for the bootleg to be a success even while the DE is trying to run down the QB.

Remember that the bootleg can go in either direction too.  In my favorite Elway example the bootleg was selling weakside and played strongside.

That's the bootleg in a nutshell.  It is far more complicated than that, but I hope you have a little bit more in your football notebook than before.


Just a little update on the '08 defensive system outlook.  You'll recall that I wrote a University article awhile back predicting either a zone blitz or show blitz system, along with why I felt we would go in that direction.

There have been some developments since then, and with the draft we will have a big clue too.

First, Coach Shanahan recently said that he wants for the defensive to "go back" to playing Denver's style of football.  This can mean several things, but I see it as a clue that we will go back to an aggressive, blitzing based scheme.

Our FA pick-ups provide some clues too.  Have you noticed that our biggest area of need has not been fixed yet?  We have picked up some LBs, but no DTs.  So here's something fun to mull over:

Watch what Denver does in the draft at DT to get an idea of what kind of system Denver will run.  In particular, watch for size, speed, and 1 versus 2 gap history (see the University article in the archives for more on that).

One doubtful, but very facinating idea is that we are loaded at DE and at LB, and only really need to catch fire with one of our DT picks in the draft.  We call this a recipie for a 3-4 formation on most teams.  (That would also be a return to Denver's roots, but way back).  We could get a formation with either Winborn or Williams on the ROLB (the other at RILB), K2 at LILB, and B. Bailey at LOLB.

Don't get excited.  I still think it is doubtful.  But a big misunderstanding about 4-3 versus 3-4 is that coaches really prefer one or the other.  The truth is that any NFL coach can run either system indifferently.  The real issue is player availablity.  More and more it is easier to find LBs than quality DLs in the college ranks.  Denver is borderline for fitting a 3-4 scheme with personnel, and depending on their picks in the draft it may be looked at.  With one of our division rivals using zone blocking, I doubt we go to a Phillips 3-4 (old style Denver) with a 1 gap NT.  The PITT zone blitz or the NE Fairbanks/Bullough 2 gap 3-4 would be more likely.  But remember, I think this is an intersting scenario, and more possible than in the past, but still highly unlikely.

Getting away from the 3-4, another clue is our FA safety pick-ups.  We again have a box type safety and that leans us back to a 4-3, and again shores up the notion of a zone or show blitz system this fall.  The other safety is more of a coverage FS type, and doesn't figure in to any projections.

More updates on the defensive system projection as I get clues.  Trying to guess the defensive system we run in '08 is my big hobby while everyone else is busy predicting our draft.


That's another University article in the books.  I hope that you have picked something up.  

Remember that there are no questions too simple for our site.  If you want to learn something about how the game is played, ranging from youth football practice tips up to highschool tactics, I'm here to help.  If your question is about strategy or techniques I can usually help, but if not I can try to find the answer.  If you have a question about anything ranging from salary cap rules to team history, we have an excellent panel of experts who are members of the MHR family.

I hope you and your family has a terrific Easter holiday, and as always, I'm grateful for your time.