It's interesting how we are all shaped by our football histories. Growing up and playing at Lamar Consolidated High School in Rosenberg, TX, we believed in a smash mouth, physical philosophy that had no peer. At least not in our area. We didn't care who you were, we were coming to knock your (bleep) in the dirt.
As with most physical teams, we had a limited offensive playbook. Isolation, veer option at times and a small bit of zone stuff highlighted our run game, but our passing game was damn near archaic. We had all of three routes, mainly out of the same formation.
However, what we ran worked, especially when we ran 18/19 sprint out #2 - the infamous curl/wheel. I don't know how many times we ran this route; heck, it was one of three that we had. I don't remember the other two, to be honest, but the wheel route was a staple in our offense, in particular when we were behind. But, it worked.
As football evolved from a 1950s passing game (which it felt like we used, but no complaints, it worked!) to the modern age, the wheel route stayed in vogue…it just got packaged in different ways.
One of those ways, the Pitt Panthers used to perfection on Saturday against the Virginia Tech Hokies. It was the same play package that Northern Iowa utilized to get back in the game against Wisconsin in the opening week of the season.
Pitt had a 21-10 lead and the Hokies had just given the Panthers a gift. On 3rd and 1, Virginia Tech's defense stopped QB Tino Sunseri on a QB sneak, but LB Bruce Taylor decided, erroneously of course, that he would slam Sunseri to the turf. That asinine decision cost the Hokies a 15 yard penalty after VT had forced fourth down and allowed the drive to continue.
The drive culminated on a 3rd and 5 inside the red zone, a definite must stop for the Hokies. Ironically, Taylor would be the focal point of this play as Pitt came out in what I call "Tech formation" (two tight ends with two wide receivers). In this case, as shown below, the Panthers came out in "Tech Tryps (y or TE trips) Left Gun", with RB Ray Graham offset to QB Tino Sunseri's right side.
The Hokies answered with cover one in the secondary. Inside safeties and linebackers would "banjo" or play inside/outside on crossing receivers. The free safety in the circle is playing free, assisting on the trips side, but Pitt knows immediately that the focus on this play is the aforementioned Taylor, The Mark as I labeled him below in the oval.
Number 1 WR to the top of the screen hitched up at the sticks, while TE Mike Shanahan #87 clears out the seam to draw the coverage. The #2 WR lets his TE clear then "digs" across the formation. Virginia Tech's linebacker #58 should have him on the "banjo"/bracket coverage. But, the linebacker gets lost and the crosser is wide open - see the oval. However, you can see QB Sunseri's eyes aren't on that crosser, whatsoever.
Sunseri's main read is to the bottom of the screen where he's got a clear out by the tight end and a wheel route by running back Ray Graham up the sideline. The clear out by the tight end acts like a natural pick route on the linebacker which frees up Graham that much more. As Graham sprints up the sideline on his wheel route, Taylor is a step or two slow to cover, which you can see below.
Taylor's late read put him in a tough spot, trailing Graham with no safety help to that side. All Graham has to do is ride the wheel, well, catch the ball of course and…
…cruise into the end zone.
Northern Iowa utilized the same concept against Wisconsin, as I mentioned above, in an almost identical manner. The inability to cover the RB out of the backfield almost cost the Badgers a win. This touchdown throw to Graham gave the Panthers a 28-10 lead en route to a 35-17 upset win over Virginia Tech.
I first saw this concept mastered by USC offensive coordinator and current Hawai'i head coach Norm Chow, who ran this concept with the great Reggie Bush out of the backfield. Ironically, Chow called the very same RB wheel to Bush against Virginia Tech in the opener in Washington DC in 2004 against a similar coverage. Sometimes, as I've found out, the best wheel routes are run by those with the best wheels - the running backs. I didn't know that back in the 1980s. I do now.