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Film Study: Mathews has Success with the Counter Play

For the second week in a row, we're going to take a look at a successful running play. This week, the Chargers use a nicely designed Counter to get Ryan Mathews some running room, and extend what became the offense's only scoring drive on Sunday.

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The Counter play is a staple for every running game playbook in football. It is a misdirection play, as the primary idea behind the play is to force the defense to move in the direction away from where the play is going.

In that sense, the Counter is another example of a constraint play (i.e. a play used to keep the defense honest), and this particular play is designed to punish the opponent for being overaggressive, and not maintaining discipline.

The Counter is usually identified by three key features:

  • The Offensive Line blocks in one direction.
  • The Running Back takes a few initial steps in the same direction as the offensive line, then turns the other direction.
  • There is usually an offensive lineman who pulls across the formation, who serves as a lead blocker.

The Chargers, however, add a nice wrinkle to this staple running play. The player who ends up "pulling" is not an offensive lineman. Rather, it's WR Eddie Royal, whose action looks initially like a jet sweep.

The Play: 15:00 remaining in the 2nd Quarter. 2nd and 6 Chargers at the New England 35 yard line.

The Chargers use "11" personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR). Here's a diagram of the play.

WK14 play diagram

Play Diagram

The Chargers' Offense, from left to right.

  • WR Keenan Allen (13)
  • WR Malcom Floyd (80).
  • WR Eddie Royal (11)
  • RB Ryan Mathews (24), behind Rivers
  • TE Ladarius Green (89).

The Patriots' Defense (from the defense's right to left).

  • Up Front: OLB Akeem Ayers (55), DT Chris Jones (94), DT Alan Branch (97), OLB Rob Ninkovich (50).
  • In the Middle: LB James Morris (52), LB Jamie Collins (91).
  • In the Secondary: CB Darrelle Revis (24), CB Brandon Browner (39), CB Kyle Arrington (25), FS Devin McCourty (32), SS Patrick Chung (23.)
  • The Patriots are running a 2-4-5 nickel defense by personnel. However, with both Ayers and Ninkovich lined up on the line of scrimmage, the look is closer to a 4-2-5.

Elements of the Play

Figure 1 shows the pre-snap business. Before the snap, you'll see Browner move into man-to-man coverage against Floyd, while Morris lines up in front of Mathews, behind the defensive line. The Patriots are showing a Cover 1 look with man-to-man coverage underneath it. The question mark is whether anyone comes on a blitz, which is shown by Collins as he moves towards the A gap between Watt and Troutman.


Figure 1

At the snap, Figure 2 shows Collins rushing through the A gap, on a blitz. He is chipped by Watt. Note that the offensive line is moving to their left, as is Rivers and Mathews. The only player moving to his right in the Chargers' offense at the point is Royal, who is sprinting across the formation, as though he is running a jet sweep.


Figure 2

At this point in Figure 3, you'll see Mathews has made a hard turn to his right, as Royal is crossing over the formation in front of him. Collins' blitz has been picked up by Troutman. Green is blocking Ninkovich out of the play, and Royal has become the lead blocker. His assignment is Chung. Also notice Watt - he appears to be in perfect position to block Morris.


Figure 3

In Figure 4, you'll see that Royal is in perfect position to block Chung, and give Mathews an option to bounce outside or cut back inside behind Green's block. However, Watt looks like he's missed the block on Morris, who's now free to make the tackle on Mathews in the hole for a short gain, or force Mathews to stretch his run to the sideline. Arrington has been trailing Royal, and is now in position to follow Morris to help with the tackle on Mathews.


Figure 4

Figure 5  - Look at this cutback by Mathews! This cut is perfect, as it sets up Watt to block Morris out of the play, and it causes Arrington to overrun the play. This creates a huge hole for Mathews to run through, and he only has to beat Jones (who got off Rinehart's block early) to get into the Patriots' secondary. The only man left to make the tackle is McCourty (who's 15 yards downfield), who brings Mathews down following a 17 yard gain.


Figure 5

Here's a GIF of the play:



This is the second week in a row where we've seen the Chargers take a conventional play, add a new wrinkle, and create space for Mathews to generate big yards downfield. The other thing I like is seeing Mathews do a good job of staying patient, seeing defenders, and setting up blockers to create running space.

Further, this was a creative play call where the Chargers built off a play they've used recently (the Jet Sweep to Royal), and dictated a favorable matchup by personnel, which took perfect advantage of the Patriots a) using a pass defense and b) playing aggressive.