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San Diego Chargers Film Study: Ken Whisenhunt and the Stack Formation

Jerome Watson looks through Ken Whisenhunt's offensive formations with the Arizona Cardinals to find clues on how the San Diego Chargers' new coaching staff might fix Philip Rivers and the offensive line.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Ever wonder why and how The Pittsburgh Steelers' smaller wide receivers always seemed to be wide open? Or how it was possible for Kurt Warner's Arizona Cardinals to have such a potent aerial attack without ever having elite tackles? I attribute a lot of it to Ken Whisenhunt and what he does out of the "Stack Formation".

By stacking Wide Receivers, whether mirrored on both sides or not, San Diego Chargers Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt looks to accomplish the following:

  • Protect the Quarterback:Quick and effective combination routes places the QB in a position to utilize instincts and get the ball out of his hands quickly.
  • Hide the Left Tackle: The Arizona Cardinals never had an elite left tackle under Ken Whisenhunt yet the Cardinals had a very solid aerial attack (when he had a capable QB). The key is to get the ball out of the QB's hands before the pass-rushers can get past the tackles.
  • Keep smaller WRs clean: The Stack formation allows smaller WRs, usually the one stacked, to get a free release off of line of scrimmage and the ball in their hands as soon as possible. Keeping them away from CBs that could jam them at the line helps them to be effective on every passing play.
  • Create a Headache: This passing offense puts consistent pressure on not only pass defenders but the man sending in the plays. The Stack stretchesthe defense both horizontally and vertically, causing the opposing Defensive Coordinator to guess often. It's why you see guys in Whisenhunt's offense wide open at times.

Film Study

Let's go back to the 2010 Wildcard Playoff matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers. Ken Whisenhunt put his "Stack" concepts on display versus Dom Capers' 'Psycho' 3-4 D, the #2 ranked defense at the time.


Stacked Right. This was early in the game, when the headache just began.

As you can see, that LB was reacting first. The DB actually told him the cross was coming. When reacted to the leak, Early Doucet slipped right behind him. Touchdown.

Ken Whisenhunt keeps his WRs clean. Was Doucet even touched? Was anyone watching Jeremy Bridges, the Left Tackle, there? He only needed to do just enough to protect the Quarterback. Seemed like 7 on 7 drills if you ask me.

The Stack Receivers are the obvious focus of this post, but be keep an eye on the secondary and linebacker play, as it changes drastically over the course of this post.


Gotta love Ken Whisenhunt. They just can't stop it. He leaked running back to opposite side of Stack. The DB did what he needed to do as he did on previous illustration. The issue for the defense was the how quick the ball came out.

Packers' Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers called the weakside OLB to cover the drag route (that Doucet had previously scored on), which is the main reason the defensive back jumped the leak. Unfortunately for Dom Capers, it was a hitch this time and the Packers playcall made that LB have to come from the sideline to make the play on his assignment. Had it been a drag call, it would've worked out well for the linebacker.

They're putting some serious pressure on the man upstairs. Kurt Warner and Jeremy Bridges were both protected. No Wide Receiver on the play was touched off of the line. The headache continues..


Good job, Bridges. Way to provide some backup for my argument. I think any tackle can block for the initial 3 seconds, the problem comes at 4-6 seconds where most are exposed (i.e. the 2012 San Diego Chargers Left Tackles in Norv Turner's Offense).

The playcall was a good one by Capers, but remember that the combo routes out of the Stack put entirely too much pressure on the pass defenders on the field. You can tell they are after the "drag" route again. What a perfect time to call same route at different depths/levels. The linebacker, as you can see, thought he was playing an area but everyone else covering a receiving option was in Man Cover 2.

Consistent pressure on the pass defenders, people. Get used to this. This is the future of the Chargers' offense.


I put this play in here to illustrate how Green Bay smartened up eventually.

They had solid coverage on the Post-Curl combo route on Stacked Side by keeping a man over the top and a man underneath to possibly undercut the the post ran by the 'Up' receiver (Larry Fitzgerald). It's a solid playcall by Capers; Finally getting the bracket they wanted, taking just four defenders to do.

Notice the Linebackers now inviting the crossing routes and Dom Capers keeping one LB on each side, just in case the "hitch" was run again. Warner overthrew his receiver. but really there wasn't anything there.

There was some danger there on the left side, though. Jeremy Bridges lost Clay Matthews on the spin move. Luckily, the ball gets out in 3 seconds, right? Because by the 4th one, as we spoke about earlier, the Quarterback would've been creamed.


For every action, there's a reaction. Ken Whisenhunt smirked after that previous defensive design by the Packers defense. If you look, he called TWO Flag routes by the 'Up' receivers to pull the safeties away from assisting in the middle. Note: If you go back to the stop that the Green Bay Defense got, Whisenhunt only called the Flag Route to one side, the safety on that side pursued it very well, the main reason why there wasn't anything there on that play.

The linebacker was good position for the crossing route, but with no over the top help, he had entirely too much ground to cover. Great recognition and perfect playcall by Ken Whisenhunt to give Steve Breaston the 'Slant and Go' nod here.

Final Word

Kurt Warner finished this contest 29-33, 379 yards, No Interceptions and sacked only once. Out of the 'Stack', Warner went 14-16, 2 Touchdowns and zero sacks. With effective wrinkles like this in the offense, I believe the Chargers offensive coaching staff when they say "Philip Rivers can be a 70% passer in this offense."