Shredding Cover Two with a “Delayed Slant” from the Smash Concept

The old “smash” concept — with an inside receiver on a corner route behind a quick hitch by an outside receiver — remains one of the most versatile pass plays in football. It’s simple enough that any team, whether they are a run-first team or a passing team, an NFL team or a junior varsity team, can get great use out of it.

smash

Base concept

It is, of course, best against Cover Two: The purpose is to get a “high/low” vertical stretch on the cornerback.

I’ve also discussed ways to make the concept more useful: One is to use a backside “seam-read” or “divide” routeto threaten the deep safeties.

The other way to get more juice out of the concept is to have the outside receiver run something more like an option route than simply a quick hitch.

Against any coverage, his job is to push to five yards (against soft coverage, it’s a five step route — three big and two quick jab steps to throttle down) and turn his numbers back to the quarterback. And against zones, he just wants to find an open window in the zone coverage, whether it is outside the linebackers towards the sideline or just inside the first zone defender.

smasher

Finding the open window

Finally, against man coverage some teams like to have the outside receiver run a “whip” or “pivot” route, where they angle inside for five yards and then “whip” back to the sideline. If you are sprinting out to the concept, I like that, but the receiver has to make that read early and as a result he may give away the intention to the corner. And in any event, it’s not an easy throw from a straight dropback. But most of all, to me, the whole point of the smash is to hit the outside unless the defense overplays it, in which case you want to then work back inside. That’s why my favorite adjustment for the outside receiver in smash against man coverage is for him to simply turn it into a delayed slant route.

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Anatomy of a Beatdown: The key concepts Dana Holgorsen’s West Virginia Mountaineers used to crush Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl

I put together a short video showing and describing some of the key plays West Virginia used to crush Clemson. Of course, as big as these plays were, the turnovers and high tempo were probably just as important to WVU’s victory. But I still found these plays quite interesting and worth exploring, particularly how they fit together, as each base play had a counter (and sometimes a counter to the counter) mixed in the gameplan somewhere. As I always say, it’s not about how many plays you have, but how they fit together.

The last thing to note is I didn’t see a single concept that I hadn’t seen West Virginia run at some other point this season. It wasn’t an all-new gameplan; they just executed much better. If you want to learn more about Dana Holgorsen’s brand of the Airraid, you can read more here.

Dana Holgorsen’s West Virginia “Airraid” offense

Dana Holgorsen came to West Virginia to install his own brand of the Airraid offense, which was invented and developed by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. Their offense had been somewhat inconsistent all year, but 70 points — in the Orange Bowl — is pretty much how you draw it up. Below are some links giving a primer to an offense — and a coach, and a system – I’ve long been studying.

- I explained in detail the history, evolution, and development of Holgorsen’s own unique brand of the Airraid — with added emphasis on the run game and play-action — over at Grantland earlier this season.

- Holgorsen often says that the key to the offense is less about the schemes than how they practice. As explained here, he says his offense can be explained in three days (with obviously some refinement later on).

- Further, see here for a primer on how Texas Tech set up their practices under Mike Leach. Holgorsen used this same framework at West Virginia.

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Mike Leach: Pistol offense maven?

Mike Leach, now head coach at Washington State, has gone out and hired someone with a little pistol offense pedigree:

One interesting note from the hiring and firing that occupies college football fans for the better part of the holiday season is the hiring of former Nevada and UCLA assistant Jim Mastro by Washington State. Mastro is schooled in the pistol offense, a run-first attack known for cranking out 1,000 yard rushers with regularity. It seems incompatible with Leach’s pass-friendly Air Raid scheme, but it may not be as inharmonious a match as you might think.

Leach protege Dana Holgorsen has worked with integrating the pistol formation and other variants of the scheme into his sets at West Virginia and Oklahoma State. In order to keep his attack fresh and unpredictable in his return to coaching, Leach may be looking to do the same thing by going straight to one of the attack’s sources. It’s a fun tweak, but don’t worry, Cougar fans: Leach will still throw the daylights out of the ball, and then probably pass some more even after he’s all out of daylights, so to speak.

I think this is right: Don’t expect Leach to junk his Airraid anytime soon, though you may see more pistol. What’s interesting is that Leach has talked about the importance of the pistol, contrasting it with, say, the wildcat, which he didn’t think is a lasting change. Instead the pistol, says Leach, will have staying power as it “changes the angles” in the running game. You can see this in the clip below:

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New Grantland: The Case for Baylor’s Robert Griffin III

It’s up over at the Grantland Blog:

Robert Griffin III should win the Heisman Trophy. From Baylor’s first game this year, when he shredded Gary Patterson’s vaunted TCU defense for 359 yards and five touchdowns, Griffin has consistently been the best performer in college football. He’s only a couple yards shy of 4,000 for the season, he’s set an NCAA record for passing efficiency, and the former track star has rushed for 644 yards and nine touchdowns just for good measure. (Keep in mind “track star” isn’t just a way to say he’s fast; Griffin is literally a track champion.) Oh, sure, stats are stats — what matters is whether he’s a winner, right? Well, he won nine games at Baylor, a team that hasn’t done that since 1986. But is he clutch? Oh yeah, that. He’s clutch.

baylor

Read the whole thing.

Mike Leach is the new coach at Washington State: Rejoice and be glad

Raise your jolly rogers: Mike Leach is back. After two years of book-touring, suing ESPN, hosting talk-radio, and chillin’ in Key West, Leach is set to coach again in 2012, this time as head pirate in charge of the Washington State Cougars. History, connections, anecdote, and theories regarding the hire abound, but first thing first: It’s a great hire.

Back to business

I love Mike and I obviously can’t wait to see his offense back in action, but I was skeptical of the “fit” between Mike and some of the other schools whose name he was connected to. Big Ten schools tend to either like their coaches a certain way — a way not typical for Leach — or probably couldn’t afford him; SEC schools could afford him but the culture shock on both sides would be larger than I think people realized; and while Leach said he’d basically take any job, I don’t think he sat out for two years to coach a non-BCS conference school. Washington State, on the other hand, is, in my mind, perfect. It’s not perfect in the sense that the team has been struggling in recent years, but they’ve had winners there, and if Leach can get them to a bowl game in the next couple of years the perception will be that he’s been successful. Contrast this with, say, Ole Miss, where a bad game in week five and a couple of questionable calls (and trust me, there would be many calls that diehard SEC fans would not understand) and the pressure would be of an entirely different order.

Indeed, at Washington State Leach can essentially say he’s getting back to the tradition of guns blazing offense and great quarterbacking that defined the Cougars in the modern era. In 1987, Dennis Erickson brought his one-back offense to Pullman and engineered a big turnaround in his second season when they went 9-3, including an upset of then #1 ranked (and Troy Aikman led) UCLA. Erickson left for Miami the following season and was replaced by Mike Price, an Erickson one-back protégé (and actually a high school teammate of Erickson’s). Price led the Cougars to several successful seasons, most notably in 1992 when the team was quarterbacked by Drew Bledsoe and later two Rose Bowl seasons, 1997 when led by Ryan Leaf and 2002 when led by Jason Gesser. The 2002 squad shared the Pac-10 title with Pete Carroll’s Carson Palmer led Southern Cal team, and went to the Rose Bowl ahead of USC due to their head-to-head tiebreaker.

Although I don’t expect Leach to junk his Airraid for Erickson’s one-back offense, this history is important, at least to Leach. In his book Leach mentions that, had he not joined up with Hal Mumme and began running their twist on the BYU passing game, he would have run Dennis Erickson’s one-back three-step game, which was in fact what he’d been doing before he and Mumme got together. Further, after Mumme and Leach’s first season at Kentucky in 1997, they visited Mike Price and his staff at Washington State after their Rose Bowl season. There they picked up some information on formations and receiver screens. It may be irrelevant, but Mumme’s Airraid had always been a two-back offense, while in 1997 Washington State ran a ton of four-wides with one back. That personnel group and formation would later dominant Leach’s offense when he began running his own show.

But all this is important because it is possible to win at Washington State; from 2001 to 2003, the Cougars had three straight ten win seasons. It may be that the Pac-10/12 is much better top to bottom than it was then, but this is not as big of a rebuilding job as, say, Kentucky was when Mumme and Leach went there.

Building a staff. The most important job for Mike right now is to quickly and effectively put together a staff. Fans may expect Leach to arrive in Pullman and by sheer force of history and personality begin to tear up Pac-12 defenses, but the quality of assistants is extremely important. Historically, the assistants Leach has been around, both when he was an assistant himself and later as a head coach, have gone on to continued or increased success elsewhere as four or five have become D-1 head coaches and a number of others have gone on to become offensive coordinators. Further, Mike is a strange guy: he talks too long in meetings, can ramble when recruiting, was never known as a die-hard recruiter, and is very focused on certain things — his offense and his quarterbacks — and really needs others to take the lead in other matters.

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A couple of good pieces on Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon

One is a profile (or anti-profile), while the other includes excerpts of interviews with Big 12 cornerbacks who’ve had to face him. The latter touches on the points that make Blackmon maybe the best college wide receiver I’ve seen in some time: (1) that he is focused and goes hard on every play and seems to never get tired because he’s in fantastic condition and (2) that he is not as big as he plays — he’s listed at 6’1″, but is extremely physical and plays large.

When Holgorsen got to Oklahoma State, he was an underclassmen receiver who had just a few catches to his name. Indeed, they said that, coming out of spring practice, they thought Blackmon was probably only their third-best receiver. But the light went on for him and it’s been fireworks ever since. This season his average yards per catch is down because he’s such a marked player, but that’s helped open things up for his teammates as the receivers around him have been playing at a higher level (in their second year in the offense with Blackmon as fantastic role model). And of course, he and Weeden have the best connection in football, and when they throw that fade route it’s unstoppable — and gorgeous.

Can Tebow’s non-passing offense work in the NFL?

I particpated in this week’s Slate/Deadspin roundtable, and my topic was — wait for it — Tim Tebow:

In the last two weeks, in victories over Oakland and Kansas City, the Broncos ran for 299 yards and 244 yards. Meanwhile, the top rushing team in the NFL (the Philadelphia Eagles) averages merely 172 yards per game on the ground. Denver’s grind-it-out performance against the Chiefs on Sunday was especially surprising given that the Broncos’ top two running backs, Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, had to leave with injuries, and third-stringer Lance Ball gained only 96 yards. So how did the Broncos succeed? By mixing in traditional runs and college-style read plays, sometimes even using receiver Eddie Royal as a third option as a pitch man after he’d gone in motion.

Television football pundits often say this stuff can’t work for long in the NFL because pro defenses are too fast, and that they will just “load the box” and play “assignment” football against the reads and options. While there’s truth in this cliché, stopping Denver’s Tebow-ized offense is much more complicated than that. Football is governed as much by arithmetic as it is by physics. Though each side gets 11 guys, the defense “gains” a defender when Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers hands the ball off and does nothing but watch the running back. The Patriots and Packers can get away with this because they are a threat at any moment to fake a handoff and throw downfield. That’s why the base defense for most NFL teams includes two deep defenders, safeties who are a lot more useful at defending passes than they are at stopping the run.

Read the whole thing at Slate and Deadspin. Thanks to the guys at both spots for thinking of me for participating.

Combining quick passes, run plays and screens in the same play

Given that humans lack clairvoyance, there is no such thing as the perfect play-caller and thus much of the development in football strategy has centered on how to get into (or out of) a given play because the defense is well suited to defend the one that was called. Indeed, quarterbacks have called audibles at the line of scrimmage for decades, and a few years ago the hot idea was calling multiple plays in the huddle.

Let's not make this too complicated

Most famously, Peyton Manning was supposedly given three plays to choose from on every down, though this was likely a bit of hyperbole. Calling two plays in the huddle remains very common, however. The method for this is simple: Two plays are called in the huddle, and then at the line the quarterback either confirms the first play (usually by saying a color) or “killing” the first play which indicates that the second will be run (by saying “kill” at the line). For example, the quarterback might call “Red Right [formation] 24 Wham [run to the right] and 70 curl [pass play].” At the line he’ll either say the confirming word (i.e. “Black! Black!”) or will kill that play so they can run the pass play (i.e. “Kill! Kill!”).

That’s all well and good, but is still cumbersome and, most importantly, the defense can still make the offense wrong after the quarterback has made his decision at the line. Moreover, with the rise of no-huddle offenses, there aren’t as many opportunities to call multiple plays at the line and have the quarterback check into one or another. The name of the game for defenses is confusion and movement, and even at the lower levels you never know how a kid might react. Increasingly, the answer to this has been to package concepts together, such that the quarterback has different options depending on what the defense does after the snap. I previously discussed packaging quick passes with five-step or dropback passes together. This is a great concept, but is quarterback intensive: the quarterback has to look for the quick pass and then reset his feet with depth and then go through another progression — not something every quarterback can do.

The answer has been to combine plays but to simplify the reads for the quarterback. There are three main forms this concept can take: (1) a base run play with a simple pre-snap backside pass concept built in; (2) quick passes combined with a draw play; and (3) quick passes combined with a screen pass. I’ll discuss each in turn.

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Plays (I think) I saw West Virginia run against UConn

In the spirit of Paul Johnson, below are the scans of what I saw Dana Holgorsen’s offense do against UConn. Keep in mind that, despite the gaudy stats, UConn’s defensive line largely controlled if not dominated West Virginia’s front, so that may have affected the tactics.

Take the doodles with a grain of salt, however, as they are merely based on a review of the television broadcast.

Video and more doodles after the jump.

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