SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Coach Kyle Shanahan saw the new wrinkle that his former assistant Mike McDaniel added to Miami’s offense by putting speedster Tyreek Hill in short motion at the snap and immediately added it to San Francisco’s offense added.
The opportunity to give a playmaker a run start was exactly the type of addition Shanahan wanted for Deebo Samuel and other playmakers on the 49ers’ offense, so he added it to his own playbook called “Cheat Motion.”
Why this name?
“I don’t know. It looks hard to stop guys like Tyreek and Deebo and stuff in one run,” Shanahan said. “That’s something that usually only happens in the CFL. So it’s cool to have them run sideways and still have a way to find, to hit them vertically.”
The use of pre-snap motion has increased across the NFL over the last decade, rising from a usage rate of just 37.5% of plays in 2014 to 54.6% so far this season, according to Sportradar.
Some of the most proficient and innovative offenses use it even more frequently, with McDaniel’s Dolphins getting the highest yardage in the league at 86.3% of plays, followed by 78.4% for Shanahan’s 49ers, 71.6% for Andy Reid’s defending champion Chiefs and 70.1% for Sean McVay’s Rams.
“It’s like a copycat league,” said Denver cornerback Patrick Surtain II. “But offenses implement the same concepts in different ways. So I just say that communication is key, you have to be on the same page. Because, you know, when you’re not on the same page, things get out of hand, and then things start to unravel and things get explosive.”
That’s exactly what the Dolphins did, best evidenced by the 70 points they scored against Surtain’s Broncos in Week 3, when they gained 726 yards in 71 plays.
Miami was incredibly effective. The Dolphins are averaging 8.1 yards per play when using the pre-snap motion, as it helped Tua Tagovailoa get the ball to his playmakers and give him more room to maneuver.
“I love the variety of movements, how it can do so many different things,” said fullback Alec Ingold. “We’re all on the move pretty much all the time, so I love being a part of it. … I think it’s a big part of our offense and I love the fact that we can do that and execute it while moving from side to side at full speed and then stretching a team vertically as well.”
McDaniel said it took some time for his players to get used to the system, as the team was plagued by 38 pre-snap penalties on offense last year, due in part to the many moving parts.
This season, the rate has been lowered with just 10 pre-snap penalties in the first seven games, four of which ended in a loss on Sunday in Philadelphia.
“If it becomes the norm, now guys are kind of uncomfortable if there’s no movement on a play,” McDaniel said. “You’re like, ‘Where’s the rest of the piece?’ But that requires the full commitment of everyone, including the offensive line, because you have to get used to the different types of snap counts that Tua uses to not only make some of these moves, but also make sure the defensive line can’t hit them at snap points and then vary the cadence. So everyone has a role to play and it’s something that takes a village to make happen.”
Teams have long used motion to help the quarterback determine whether the defense is in man or zone coverage based on whether a defender follows the player through the formation.
The motion players often reset on these plays, but the Dolphins prefer to snap the move with the motion player, often using the “cheat” motion. Instead of having a speedy player like Tyreek Hill sprint down the field before the snap, the Dolphins have him cover a much shorter distance on one side of the field.
While NFL rules do not allow a player to move forward at the snap, as in the Canadian Football League, even this short movement allows a player like Hill to reach his peak speed even sooner and run past defenders who are more likely to be on the stand on the wrong foot.
According to data from TruMedia and PFF, Miami has played 77% of its plays with a player in motion at the time of the snap. The Dolphins have scored 27 of their 31 offensive touchdowns with a player moving at the snap.
Shanahan said once the Dolphins had success with it early in the season, he saw more teams adding it every week — particularly in offenses similar to those in Miami and San Francisco.
“As a football nerd, it’s fun to see,” 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey said. “It’s exciting to see movements like this – movements and changes and different things that are just trying to make it easier for people to be in space.”
But not every team adapted the movement sequences so quickly.
Some of these offenses are more traditional – and often less successful – but there are also teams like the Eagles that have the lowest rate of movement but are still among the best offenses in the league.
One reason the Eagles don’t use it as often as other teams is that they like to increase the tempo, and sending players on the move slows that process. Philadelphia has played the most games this season with a no-huddle before the fourth quarter, forcing some teams to hurry up because they are in catch-up mode.
“Our philosophy is not to go from move to move,” coach Nick Sirianni said. “We can come out this week and get some exercise anywhere, and that’s what we’re going to do. I guess I’ll put it this way: If the best thing to do is to run 50 times to win, then we’ll do that. If the best thing to do is to run 50 times to win, then we’ll do that. If The best thing is to move every single play – that’s a little extreme – but we’ll do that too.”
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