Let me tell you what my least favorite thing about Canada is. On March 14th, we had a blizzard here in Montreal and it was awful. Every school shut down, including the universities. When Montreal shuts down, you know some serious stuff went down. There were 300 people stuck on a highway for eight hours. EIGHT! The middle of March is not when a record snowfall is supposed to happen. What bugs me the most is that a couple weeks ago it was actually “warm”. I went out for lunch one day in just a long sleeve shirt. A week later it’s -20 degrees and I’m wearing long johns just to take the garbage out and then a week after that we have this blizzard. That’s the thing I hate the most about Canada. The winters here are atrocious. I can’t even begin to explain what it’s like to walk outside and have the wind slap your face when it’s below zero. It sucks.
My favorite thing about Canada is his offense. I’ve watched Pitt a few times now and I find the offense very interesting. Over the off-season, our dear leader, Billy, has gone over the some of the concepts involved in Canada’s Pitt offense. I’m going to focus more on the pre-snap shifts and motion that are ubiquitous with Canada’s system. One of the reasons that Canada has so much movement in his offense before the snap is to mess with the defense’s rules. He uses the defenses own guidelines against it. We’ll get into that later but I wanted to give a basic run down on some of these concepts first.
What is the difference between a motion and shift?
I think this is just semantics. They can be interchangeable terms. For this thread, we’re going to call a “motion” the act of a receiver moving pre-snap to another position and a “shift” as the act of a back or tight end moving pre-snap to another position. This is how I’ve always differentiated the two.
Why do we motion?
The most common reason why an offense would want to send a receiver across the formation is to check whether the defense is in man or zone.
Let’s take this basic 10 personnel, 2x2 formation:
If I send the Z receiver across the formation from left to right, there are a few ways the defense can react: The Weak Safety (WS) can run across the field chasing the Z. This would give offense the idea that the defense is in man coverage. Someone chasing another player across the field is a pretty big indicator that it’s man. Against the same Z-motion, the defense can rotate the Free Safety (FS) down over the Z (who is now in trips) and have the WS replace and become the FS.
By doing this rotation, the offense can’t really tell if it’s man or zone. The downside to this is that you may end up with matchups (in this case the FS vs. the Z) that you may not like.
You can also bump everyone down and have the Mike backer walk out of the box to play between (apex) the Z receiver and the the right tackle. The downside is that it puts the WS in the box as a linebacker and puts the Mike in coverage. This would be a pretty clear declaration that it’s zone.
Why do we shift?
If we’re talking about taking a back or a tight end and shifting them from inside the box to a receiver position, we can also get a man/zone read on the defense.
A shift like this is going to put the Will in conflict. If the Will chases the tailback (T) to the sideline, it’s most likely man coverage. A defense isn’t going to have a linebacker line up on the sideline and then play zone like he’s a corner. It’s a pretty big key. You see this in the NFL a lot.
When it comes to shifting within the box, it’s all about changing the strength of the formation and creating extra gaps.
If we send the tight end (Y) to go hang out with the left tackle, what is the defense going to do? The strength of the formation went from right to left. If you’re an “over” defense, like I used in this example, do you now shift everyone to the right to stay in over? Do you stay there in an “under” front. Who is now responsible for the new “D” gap that the tight end creates (the gap between him and the Z receiver)?
Changing the strength of the formation is interesting when it comes to how a defense is going to send pressure/blitz.
Below we have a pressure from the Sam.
If the tight end shifts to the other side, will the defense still want to send the Sam? Maybe, through film study, you don’t want to send pressure away from a tight end. Do you then call off your blitz whenever there is a shift or motion? That would be a little excessive. Does the Will pick up the pressure responsibility and come from the strong side. If you are going to be a team that is going to blitz based off the strength of the formation (rather than where the ball is), then you better be ready to adapt on the fly.
These are all questions that a defense has to answer. One of the ways that defenses have adapted to up tempo teams is to have formation checks. Instead of saying, “OK on this play we’re going to blitz the Sam”, they’re going to say, “OK, on this play we’re going to send this type of pressure to wherever the tight end is”. Checking to a certain coverage/blitz against “exotic” formations like empty or bunch has been around for a long time, but teams are starting to use this as a base way of calling their defense.
This is where Canada (the man, not the country) comes in. He does so many shifts and motions that the defense is constantly formation checking and it honestly gets confusing. I think it’s as simple as that. Here’s a good example:
Let’s just look at the weakside (leftside) front here. We have a defensive end in the C-Gap, linebacker No. 10 in the B-Gap and the nose in the A-Gap. Clemson is fine right now. And then Pitt starts moving people around.
This is after the first shift:
Still good on the left side that has now become the strong side. The right tackle is split out into the slot by the way.
And now another shift:
Check the left side again. Where’s the B-Gap defender? Clemson now has five box defenders to the center’s right and just two to his left.
Big gain for the running back.
Watch Clemson’s defense move around to try and match this.
Here’s another shift against Clemson:
3x2 set for Pittsburgh and if you look at the weak safety, he’s about to rotate to the middle of the field and strong safety is going to cover down on the #3 receiver. It’s a pretty good tell that most likely Clemson is in Cover 1 (man coverage with one deep safety).
It’s now become a 2x3 set for Pitt. The Clemson safety rotation now has to rotate back. The SS is now in the middle of the field and WS is back down.
Pitt brings the back into the backfield. They went from 3x2 empty to 2x3 empty to 11 personnel 2x2. Clemson hasn’t checked to anything different, they’re staying in Cover 1. Every time there’s movement you have to reassess what your responsibility is defensively. When you look at the still shot, it seems pretty obvious. The WS has the D-Gap plus the tight end in coverage, the Will has the B-Gap to the weak side of the field and the Mike has A-Gap to the field side. The two backers are probably going to “banjo” the RB in coverage. If he releases strong, the Mike has him and if he releases weak then the Will has him. Simple stuff but it’s happening so fast. Now, Canada adds misdirection through post-snap motion and the results are serious:
One of the interesting things for me is figuring out how all of that movement gets called from the sideline.
Let’s say I have this simple Inside Zone play with a slice motion by the Z receiver.
I would call this, “PISTOL TWINS Z-SLICE ZIPPI LEFT SAIL BACKSIDE SLANT”. That’s the way most teams verbalize their plays. It may sound like a lot but it’s just so every position group gets their concept. The receivers don’t care that it’s “Zippi”, they’re just waiting to hear their pass concept. In this case, “sail” and “slant”. Vice versa for the offensive line and running backs. The “Z-Slice” tells the Z receiver that he is doing a slice motion.
Matt Canada, however, has so much movement before the snap that you couldn’t realistically call every motion with a word or signal. I would imagine that Canada packages his shifts/motions. One word is going to tell the whole offense what formation to start in and then which motions/shifts to use to get into the final formation. Using the example above against Clemson, it’s possible that Canada merely says, for example, “TIGER ZORRO (outside zone) LEFT ”. Even crazier, I could see them calling one word to say everything.
According to folklore, the Patriots offense under Bill O’Brien were one of the first to amalgamate personnel, formation, movement and concepts under one word. They’d yell “TIGER” and everyone would know exactly what they’re doing from one word. Nowadays, everyone has these “NOW” plays where one word tells them everything. A team is going to go into a game with about five-to-ten “now” plays. Could Matt Canada’s offense be all “now” plays. It’s possible. I do feel like at least all the movement is done via one word.
Every week, we should see some new movement packages. I would imagine Canada spends a 10-20 minute period each practice repping this stuff without a defense. It’s like how a defense has the same period each practice on formation recognition.
It’s all a beautifully choreographed dance and I can’t wait to see the fellers in purple and gold running it in the fall.