Pre-Snap Movements by an Offense: Trade, Motion and Shifting

6 Feb

motion (

The thing you will often see an offense use to confuse a defense is pre-snap movement — either a formation shift or a man in motion.  Coaches believe it is two things: fun and lethal.

On offense, coaches want to create the illusion that they’re very complex when in fact they’re very simple. They work their magic by running a few plays from a variety of formations or “looks” that they create through various pre-snap movements.

The thinking is that they will be difficult to defend and, at the same time, they won’t overload their offensive linemen or quarterback with too much to remember as the teaching remains the same each week.

For them, the benefits of pre-snap movements are as follows:

1. Simplifies the defense – It causes defenses to make multiple checks prior to the snap which can force them to play mostly base defense. This helps the offensive line.

2. Motion Causes Emotion – Movement makes defenses tentative because they’re not sure what will happen next.  For most defenders, it forces them to think, and when they’re thinking, they’re not as aggressive.

3. Prevents the defense from matching up their best defenders on our playmakers – By changing up where they line up their “go-to guys”, they prevent the defense from getting their best defenders on their biggest offensive threats.

4. Creates opportunities for our playmaker – Moving their playmakers around can create touches for them in a variety of ways. This is a way of making sure that their playmakers touch the ball enough in order for them to be successful.

5. Allows for Multiplicity – Movement will give them an opportunity to run their plays from a variety of formations and looks, which allow them to exploit a specific weakness in the defense.

6. Gain leverage on defenses – They can get an extra player to the point of attack by motioning or shifting. They can also get to unbalanced formations to cause problems for defenses.

Manipulating a defense is the main goal of any pre-snap movement, be it a trade, a man in motion, or a shift.  The idea is to “change the picture for the defense” before the ball is snapped and get them thinking because, as coaches know from experience, when a defense is thinking, it’s stinking.

As was mentioned before, there are three types of pre-snap movements:  a trade, a man in motion, and a shift.

A trade is when a player on the line of scrimmage moves from one end of a formation to the other prior to the snap.  The players are predominantly tight ends, but they can also be and often are h-backs or fullbacks.

Some teams will only trade these types of players to minimize what they have to learn and remember.  No other players have to learn the terminology used to run the schemes.

A trade — or, in the case of a tight end: a “Y-walk” because “Y” is the primary designator for a tight end — is used primarily by offenses to change the formation strength and create another gap for the defense to defend at the point of attack.

Defenses will generally react to a trade by sliding the front or flopping it.  When the defense slides, the defensive line is playing out of position which can be confusing if not simply uncomfortable.

But when they flop, they’re completely rotating their front.  They’re spending more time diagnosing an offense’s intentions than they are defending its scheme.  They’re thinking, so they’re stinking.

The second way to manipulate a defense — motion — is most often performed by a receiver or a running back.  The most common forms of motion are jet and flash motions which are full-speed motions by a receiver from one side of a formation to the other.

man in motion
(#15 is the man in motion. )

The use of jet motion causes hair-loss among defensive coordinators.  Because it sends a man full speed across a formation, it often draws a frenzy of attention from second and third level players on the defensive side of the ball.

More than anything else, it is a way to get the ball into a playmaker’s hands quickly, while his is running full speed.  It’s been a staple of the Wing T offense for some time, but is now routinely used in different spread offenses.

The most common adjustment to jet motion is for defenses to play either a man or zone schemes.  If it’s man, you will see defenders running across the formation to match the motion.  If it’s zone, the defense will simply rotate the coverage to the side of the jet motion which opens the backside to attack. However, because jet motion carries with it a “fear factor” that causes defenses to adjust, most will adjust by bringing a third level player, like a safety, down in coverage.

Flash motion is full-speed motion across a formation and is commonly used with unbalanced sets where the number one receiver runs the motion. Like jet motion, flash motion also gets the ball into a playmaker’s hands. The difference is that the offensive line blocks opposite the motion instead of with it.

This type of movement is used to get a numbers advantage on the perimeter. An unbalanced set already stresses a defense to account for leverage, now adding another player to the unbalanced side could be lethal.

Another form of motion is slash motion.  It’s used to get a player out of the backfield into a position as a slot or wide receiver to create one-on-one match ups with a defender.  Many times the match up is a mismatch in terms of speed and ability when you have a running back being covered by a linebacker.

The last form of motion is a shuffle or return motion.  This is where a player will start his motion from one side of the formation, move towards the center, then either return back to where he came from or continue to the other side of the formation.  It’s more of a square-shouldered movement and doesn’t have the explosiveness of jet or flash motion.

Unlike jet motion, shuffle motion doesn’t necessarily mean the motion man will end up on the other side of the formation.  Because of this, most defenses will not adjust to this movement.  If a defense does adjust it is usually by bumping a linebacker — meaning he mirrors the motion man.

Now a formation shift is similar to a trade, and will usually involve more than one player. Common shifts include personnel realigning shifting into bunch sets or shifting from spread sets to tight sets and vice versa. These are usually performed as soon as the QB gets under center.

The advantages of using pre-snap movement are as follows:

1. Gain a mismatch in personnel

The object is to get the best player on a lesser player. There are many ways to do this, but coaches have found that the best and easiest way is to motion the player from the backfield into the slot as a receiver . Defenses will have to adjust by “bumping” either a safety or a linebacker out to cover him. If a linebacker — which is what coaches most often see — then they have created the mismatch they seek to exploit.

Another way to create a mismatch is to motion the best player into the perimeter and get him the ball on a bubble screen or quick out and let him run with it.

bubble screen

2. Gain a leverage advantage on the perimeter:

These types of pre-snap movements will mainly consist of multi-player shifts, such as realigning to a bunch set in order to exploit the space it creates. These types of movements where the offense gets tight after being spread are good for plays that attack outside, in a defense’s perimeter where it is weakest. It forces the defense to cover the entire width of the field.

bunch (
(Bunch Set = the diamond-shaped grouping of players at the top of the formation)

3.  Identify coverage rotation.

Another reason to use pre-snap movement — most especially motion — is to determine if a defense is running man or zone coverage. Of course, there are other indicators to determine this such as the position and alignment of the cornerbacks, but running a full motion across the formation is  a sure-fire way to identify the type of pass coverage the defense is using.

If it’s a man-on-man concept, expect the defense to mirror the motion man’s movements. If the defense is in zone, you will see a deep safety drop down to pick up the motion man or a linebacker bump out of the front and into the perimeter.

If defenses start to be concerned with what an offense is presenting, they lose sight of their responsibilities. The mantra, “If they’re thinking, they’re stinking”, is true.  Pre-snap movement can accomplish this and is an effective way to counter a defense’s plan of attack and force them into mismatches that favor the offense.


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