Concepts and plays at all levels in football are very cyclical. Run a few of them, teams catch on, and then forget about them. Back in 2018, we had a pretty good football team at our local high school. Twice in the big rivalry game, and once in our round two playoff game, each team pulled off a weak side wheel route of varying degrees, whether it was pre snap motion, a brain fart by a player, etc. The following off season, we heard through the grapevine that all you had to do to beat us was “just run wheels on them”. That of course wasn’t the case, as we prepared for every conceivable possibility of a wheel route. The thing is, wheel routes aren’t run that often, but when they do they hit big.
Last Thursday night, the Bears got down to basics and continually ran wheel routes into the boundary for big gains at key moments. Whether this popped up on film during the week, or came from a heads up observation in the booth from QB coach John DeFillippo, the Bears continually went back to this play, of course dressing it up in different fashions. You can run the same concept out of a half dozen formations, or the use the same formation to run 6 different plays. It’s fun. For the Bears, all of the wheel routes however had the same precedent.
Wheels are commonly run to the boundary (where there is less grass) with the offensive strength to the field. Usually, the solo receiver clears out the area by running vertical, and one of the guys in trips at the least comes to the middle of the field to hold the safety from going over to the weak side.
*I am selecting these in order of the scheme, not by game chronology
The threat of a wheel
Jimmy Graham is the player isolated to the boundary, sort of like the Chiefs like to with Travis Kelce. Usually when you see the back to the weak side, a wheel can be very possible. If he is to the trips side, the possibility of a roll out increases, which you see way more in high school and some in college. The Bucs are in standard solo coverage where the weak corner has the island player(Graham) in man coverage. The safety over the top is responsible if the no 3 receiver (third from the sideline) heads his way. IF not, that weak safety can help with the island player. A-Rob heads over there and sits, occupying the safety. Graham ran a fade and made a great catch. In the NFL, where there are so many uniquely gifted players, you tend to see more isolation’s like the above. (Also of note, Montgomery runs more of an arrow route than a wheel, but the principle is still the same, pull the weak side backer out to the flat).
I thought picks were only for basketball (wink, wink)
The Bears are in 3×1 to the field. Before the snap, Montogmery came in from the far sideline into the backfield, pulling a defender with him, dictating man coverage. With the linebackers pumping the A gaps along with the man coverage behind it, it certainly seems like a blitz is on. The outside linebacker (58) near Robinson has blitz peel responsibilities off the edge, which means he is free to attach himself to the blitz, but if the back leaves, he has to stop and pick him up.
Robinson is now facing the QB is getting ready to “legally” set a pick on number 58, who has done well and peeled off to take Montgomery, and also is dead even with Montgomery out of the backfield. Unlike the pick and roll you see in basketball, where sometimes players switch, this isn’t common in the NFL, and it’s hard to do, especially the pace at which Montgomery is moving.
This is about ten yards downfield as Montgomery is about to catch a floating ball near the 30 yard line. You’ll notice Robinson’s man did come off him to chase the wheel down, but a second is all you need to spring it. This play needed man coverage to work, as if it were in zone, a corner would be sitting back and waiting about 15 yards deep. Also of note, you can see the safety on the edge of screen late getting over. His responsibility was number 3 vertical, or Jimmy Graham. You can see his giant ass near the 36 yard line, who ran a post sit, similar to Robinson on the above play. Again, picks are commonly called “rub routes” and are very common when teams run crossers or “mesh” routes, an old Air Raid staple. In fact, mesh routes are a pain for both zone and man coverage.
Last play, I promise.
This little diddy here is a common staple of the Air Raid. If you caught the Misssippi State LSU game when that QB dropped like 600 yards on LSU, they probably had meshes on nearly half their routes, out of all different formations. If you notice the Bears are in 2×2, it’s just that two of them are big ole tight ends tucked on the left side of the line. This forces the corners to come in, and safeties to come down, as a run to that side is possible. Given as though the guy (23) for Tampa looks quite small and he is responsible for setting the edge (good luck) for the defense, I’d think about that next time. (aren’t Tight Ends, just fun!?)
The point of the route is, look at where the Tight Ends run. Down field, and the hell away from the near sideline. Seems to be a good place to send Patterson on a wheel. On your left, Harris (86) is running a post, pulling a safety with him. In the middle, Graham and Mooney are wide the hell open as the Bucs have brought a 5 man pressure. The aforementioned #23 for Tampa had peel responsibilities, but isn’t going to catch up with Patterson.
Wrap it up
Just because the Bears ran tons of wheels on Thursday doesn’t mean every team will see it 5 times a game. They noticed a flaw, and got in formations that would put certain defenders with more than one responsibility in conflict. A giant part of playcalling is exploiting the defense in any area possible. Tampa will surely clean that up, but it may leave something else open. It’s up to the Bears brain trust now the Foles looks a little more comfortable, to let the offense get in a groove, and stop mixing in 127 minute formation and personnel groupings, and let it roll.