logoby Tyler Carter

In his first year on the job, San Francisco offensive coordinator Mike Martz is transitioning the 49ers to an “Air Coryell” offense, having previously used it in St. Louis (with spectacular results) and Detroit.  The system is named for Don Coryell, who first developed the complex, pass-happy (hence the “Air” epithet) offense at San Diego State and later refined it at the pro level with the Dan Fouts-led San Diego Chargers.  Martz was first exposed to it growing up at a nearby San Diego high school, and eventually his coaching pedigree would directly link to Coryell through the latter’s disciples, particularly Ernie Zampese (whom Martz served under as wide receivers coach during his first stint with the LA Rams) and Norv Turner (coached alongside Martz in LA and brought the latter onboard as quarterbacks coach at Washington).

So what is exactly is the “Air Coryell”?  Here’s a passage from an informative archived article from the San Diego Union-Tribune:

The passing emphasis.  The use of motion.  The many “packages,” some with four receivers, some with three, some with two running backs, some with one, some with none.  How receivers’ routes are numbered, which arguably was the most ingenious aspect of Coryell’s system.

The numbering system that Martz uses is ‘identical to Coryell’s’.  The article further elaborates:

To the routes, he assigned numbers from 1 through 9.  Simply by naming a formation and reciting three numbers, a quarterback can call a pass play.  On “989,” to offer an example, the receiver on the formation’s left would run a “9,” the receiver next to him an “8,” and the receiver on the right a “9.”

Joe Theismann, who orchestrated a derivative offense under Joe Gibbs (himself a Coryell minion), explains the value of numbered passing routes:

“If you have to go out and bring in a player, this offense is so much easier than any other to learn.  In the West Coast offense, there is a lot of memorization, so if you need to fill in with a guy, it is going to take him three weeks to a month to learn the offense.  With the offense Mike runs, if a guy can count from 1 to 9 and can figure out where the tight end is, he can be ready in a week.”

In light of his young (albeit talented) roster, 49er head coach Mike Nolan may have brought Martz and his “Air Coryell” on board for its simplicity alone; how fortunate for San Francisco that Detroit saw fit to can him (which isn’t exactly a resume-killer given the historical ineptitude of his concurrent GM, but I digress).  However this numbering system may facilitate his players assimilation of the playbook, Martz, a Civil War buff with ancestral ties to the Battle of Antietam, values this offense for strategic purposes.  Here’s an excerpt from Micheal Holley’s Patriot Reign:

“The Union Army was convinced that the Confederacy was twice the size it actually was,” he told the Detroit News. “A lot of it had to do with the movement of the troops and where they were attackingDeception is certainly some of what we do.  It keeps people back on their heels and gives us probably a little more credit for what we are.”

In an ideal Martz “Air Coryell” variant, the receivers can run a myriad combination of routes from a single formation.  Throw in multiple personnel groupings and motions and this can quickly become a nightmare for an opposing defense.  So how does a defensive-minded coach limit all the possibilities of this style of offense?  Here’s a snippet from Bill Belichick’s Monday morning press conference:

The bottom line was we were able to do a combination of things.  One was get ahead in the game and two [was] do a decent job against the running game.  Those two factors helped to push it toward a passing game and more of a one-dimensional game.  So we really only defended one thing and that helped us on third down and on fourth quarter, two minute situations.

Sound familiar?  It should, seeing as this was Belichick’s overall defensive strategy in Super Bowl XXXVI (the defensive game plan for which is in the Hall of Fame).  Later on in Patriot Reign, Holley explains how Marshall Faulk, one of the great all-around running backs in NFL history, was the linchpin to the Rams operation.  By chipping him with a lineman or linebacker while likewise being physical with the receivers, the Patriots disrupted St. Louis’s precisely timed route running such that the latter thrice turned the ball over and managed only 3 points entering the 4th quarter of that contest.

Needless to say, these 49ers aren’t at the level of the 2001 Rams.  But by getting ahead and stopping the run, the Patriots were able to limit the Rams offensive effectiveness for much of the 2nd and 3rd quarter.  In this week’s Turning Point, we’ll break down how the Patriot defense got off the field on three of those 3rd down situations:

After allowing a go-ahead touchdown ten minutes into the first quarter, New England managed a couple of first downs before stalling at midfield.  Although the ensuing punt landed for a touchback, a 49’ers false start penalty put them in a 1st and 15 hole, leading to the following 3rd and long situation:

Situation: 3-9-SF 21 (15:00)

San Francisco Formation: Ace 3 WR, Bruce slotted right

Personnel: WR 83 Battle, TE 85 Davis, LT 74 Staley, LG 68 Snyder, C 66 Heitmann, RG 69 Wragge, RT 65 Sims, WR 88 Bruce, WR 82 Johnson, QB 14 O’Sullivan, RB 21 Gore

New England Formation: Dime 1-4-6

Personnel: DL 97 Green, LOLB 50 Vrabel, LILB 59 Guyton, RILB 96 Thomas, ROLB/DL 58 Woods, CB 21 O’Neil, CB 24 Wilhite, S 36 Sanders, S 37 Harrison, S 31 Meriweather, CB 27 Hobbs

Play result: J.O’Sullivan pass incomplete deep right to I.Bruce.

Summary: Woods lined up as a down lineman next to Green for what was essentially a 2-3 front, but still a dime package (six defensive backs) nonetheless.  Prior to the snap, Thomas shifted around Woods to the outside while Meriweather (playing ‘situational safety’ as Gasper put it in this morning’s piece), started up near the linebackers (apparently shading Davis) but backed up a step or two.  On the 49er side, Johnson ran an underneath pattern (matched up against O’Neil) while Bruce and Battle both ran deep patterns against Hobbs and Wilhite, respectively.  Guyton appeared responsible for Gore, who initially stayed home as a pass-blocker before entering check down mode.  While O’Sullivan wasn’t particularly pressured, the coverage was tight with the exception of Bruce, who broke to the sideline.  O’Sullivan’s timing was slightly off however, and the underthrown pass went through Bruce’s  outstretched fingertips.

3rd and long + 3 wide receivers = extra (six) defensive backs.  Pretty simple math!  While this play won’t show up on any highlight reels, and a better-timed pass to Bruce might have gone for a first down, the Patriots nevertheless limited O’Sullivan’s options, and featured two rookies (Guyton and Wilhite) in doing so.

After the Rams punted, the Patriots gave the ball right back on a deep interception (another bomb intended for Moss).  On 3rd and 5 from their own 11, the 49ers came out in another Ace 3 WR formation using the same personnel, only positioned differently.  And while the success of Martz’s offense relies on deception, so do the defensive schemes of his opponent:

Situation: 3-5-SF 11 (11:55)

San Francisco Formation: Ace 3 WR, Johnson slotted right

Personnel: WR 88 Bruce, LT 74 Staley, LG 68 Snyder, C 66 Heitmann, RG 69 Wragge, RT 65 Sims, TE 85 Davis, WR 82 Johnson, WR 83 Battle, QB 14 O’Sullivan, RB 21 Gore

New England Formation: Dime 1-4-6

Personnel: DL 97 Green, LOLB 50 Vrabel, LILB 59 Guyton, RILB 96 Thomas, ROLB/DL 58 Woods, CB 21 O’Neil, CB 24 Wilhite, S 36 Sanders, S 37 Harrison, S 31 Meriweather, CB 27 Hobbs

Play result: J.O’Sullivan pass incomplete deep left to I.Bruce.

Summary: Green and Woods once again assumed 3 point stances flanked by Vrabel and Thomas, but this time Guyton, Meriweather and Harrison joined them at the line.  Though this gave the appearance of a sellout blitz, Guyton and Thomas dropped back into coverage after the snap, and since San Francisco had most of its pass blocking concentrated inside this allowed Harrison and Meriweather to come free off the overloaded edge.  Only Gore’s chip on Harrison (which also slowed Meriweather momentarily) saved his quarterback’s life; O’ Sullivan managed to scramble outside to heave a deep desperation pass, but it fell incomplete and the 49ers notched their second straight three-and-out possession.

As was the case in Super Bowl XXXVI, Belichick rarely blitzed but was effective when he chose to do so.  This play wouldn’t have had a chance even if the Patriots only sent one safety.  A pretty gutsy call that worked out in New England’s favor, therefore it’s tough to be too critical of San Francisco.

The Patriots scored a field goal on their next possession.  Clinging to a 4 point lead, the San Francisco offense were faced with their most manageable third down situation yet (1 yard to go) from their own 24:

Situation: 3-1-SF 24 (4:00)

San Francisco Formation: Weak I Twin TE, Keasey offset left

Personnel: WR 88 Bruce, LT 74 Staley, LG 68 Snyder, C 66 Heitmann, RG 69 Wragge, RT 65 Sims, OL/TE 64 Baas, TE 85 Davis, QB 14 O’Sullivan, FB 45 Keasey, RB 21 Gore

New England Formation: 4-4

Personnel: LDE 94 Warren, LDT 75 Wilfork, RDT 93 Seymour, RDE 97 Green, LOLB 50 Vrabel, LILB 54 Bruschi, RILB 51 Mayo, ROLB 96 Thomas, S 37 Harrison, S 36 Sanders, CB 21 O’Neil Hobbs

Play result: F.Gore right tackle to SF 23 for -1 yards

Summary: Initially offset left, Keasey went in motion up behind Davis, which the Patriots (correctly) surmised would be the hole that Gore would attempt to burst through.  Since Wragge served as a pulling guard on this play, this left Heitmann all alone to deal with Wilfork, and the latter shoved him a yard into the backfield before Gore even received the handoff.  The beleaguered running back managed to pick his way between Harrison and Vrabel (blocked by Keasey and Davis, respectively) before being swallowed up by Bruschi and Mayo for a 1 yard loss and yet another punt.

If an offense faced with a 3rd and short situation uses a personnel grouping with only a single wide receiver, chances are its a run call; this probability skyrockets in a Mike Martz-run offense.  The Patriots were so sure of a Gore rush that they countered with a 4-4 front (the first the author can recall during this young season).


While San Francisco’s offense was able to score three touchdowns (one of which was facilitated by very favorable field position following a turnover), New England achieved its two-fold goal of building an early lead and stopping the run.  This enabled the Patriot defense to primarily key on the pass, call in the appropriate personnel, and get off the field on third down (the only instance where San Francisco converted resulted from a New England penalty).  And boy was it reflected in the time of possession: from the end of the 1st quarter until the beginning of the 4th, the 49ers controlled the ball for a paltry 7:53.

San Diego, New England’s next opponent, also runs an “Air Coryell” variant, so it will be interesting to see if this strategy (and success) carries over.