Grantland: How and why Jim Harbaugh eliminated sight-adjustments in the 49ers passing game to make it go

It’s up over at Grantland:

A key reason for this is that Harbaugh has made the passing game easier for Smith, particularly when it comes to beating the blitz. Of course, coaches often say they are “simplifying the playbook,” but Harbaugh has been able to do it coherently and in a way that actually aids his quarterback’s ability to succeed rather than simply removes options.

One reason for this is that many NFL plays simply duplicate each other; you only need so many ways to throw the same pass to the flat or run off tackle. You might as well perfect the plays you have rather than keep adding new ones every week. But Harbaugh has also changed the entire theory behind how Smith and his offense approach the blitz, and this is where Smith’s greatest improvement has come. That’s because Harbaugh eliminated “sight adjustments” from the 49ers playbook. Indeed, this change has been so successful that, according to Pro Football Focus, Smith’s completion percentage, quarterback rating, average yards per attempt, and touchdown-to-interception ratio against blitzes have all been much better than Smith’s historical averages, but also better than his performance on all other downs.

Read the whole thing. Video diagrams after the jump (and in the article).

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Attacking “Psycho” fronts and other blitz heavy defensive looks

When asked earlier this season how he would describe the current trend in modern defenses, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton summed it up in one word: “confusion.” While there are few truly “new” ideas in football, there is a near infinite number of ways to hide, disguise, or slightly vary those ideas. One increasingly popular idea in the NFL is the “psycho front“, which simply refers to a defense that has two, one or maybe even zero defensive linemen with their hands on the ground and tends to stack the line of scrimmage. This may mean the defense is bringing a heavy blitz — or it might not. Often, the defense will show this look and then back out of it into some kind of coverage.

The advantages of the pyscho are many, but the biggest key is that confusion Payton talked about: it’s difficult for the quarterback and offensive line to determine which of the potential rushers will blitz — other than through mind reading — and with so many of them there is a high likelihood that there will be an assignment bust. Further, although the defense might give away what deep coverage it is playing, it’s not clear what kind of underneath coverage it will be — man, zone, and if zone how many underneath? Two? Three? Four? These are real issues.

Of course, the psycho itself is just a spin on some scheme done before; the fact that a defensive lineman takes his hand off the ground doesn’t, by itself, change the defensive structure. Indeed, these same issues have been presented by NFL-style heavy blitz teams in the past. The problem presented in the image below is the same one as in the image above, as the defense shows a seven man defensive front while the offense has only the five linemen and one running back as pass protectors. If the offense uses some spread run game they can tilt the numbers slightly back to their favor, but it’s still a big issue.

So how do you attack these looks? Ultimately the offense will need the ability to protect and complete some passes downfield, but that’s not where I would begin. Below is a short list of ideas (in no particular order) to defeat these heavy or “psycho” fronts where the defense simultaneously threatens all-out man blitz, confusing zone blitz, and no blitz, all at once. Note that this is from the perspective of either a pro-style team or some kind of pass-first or pass-balanced spread team.

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Bobby Petrino’s shallow cross concept – concepts, routes, and protection

The shallow cross is, quite possibly, the best pass play in football: Almost any quarterback can complete it; almost any receiver can run it (though there is more nuance than maybe one might initially realize to a good shallow route); it is a way to get “speed in space” without requiring a big arm; it works against most all coverages; and throwing a few of these tends to open up big plays downfield as defenders creep up.

Score... heh heh heh...score...

I’ve discussed lots of variants of the shallow, but one of my favorites remains Bobby Petrino’s. I see Petrino’s version as essentially the meshing of a pro style approach with a college sensibility; the reads are simple but there are nuances built in so that it works against almost any coverage. Petrino moves his guys around a bit, but, the key feature is that unlike the Airraid guys, he has his runningback and his shallow going to the same side: the back runs a wheel route to pull the underneath coverage to the sideline and up the sideline, while the other two receivers run a post and a square-in, and on the backside the receiver runs a comeback. The base play looks like this:

 

shallow

The post and the wheel are “alert” routes, in that they aren’t part of the basic reads but the quarterback can look at them first if the defense gives it. The most famous example of hitting the wheel was the second play of the game last season against Alabama. Alabama came out in a quarters or split safety look, but there was some coverage bust (it’s hard to say exactly but it was probably the cornerback chasing the post route all the way inside, as shown in the video below).

More typically, the goal is to hit the shallow, as the read is shallow to square-in to comeback on the backside. (Note that some people have said all routes should be read high to low, including the shallow. Although I think that’s a good rule of thumb, that’s all it is: the shallow needs to be the read before the square-in.) Below is a diagram and clip of the same concept, except Petrino now has the square-in/dig and the shallow coming from the same side.

shallow

Here, Arkansas runs the shallow and the wheel to the short and tight side (short side of the field and where there is only a tight-end). The corner and safety drop deep, and the advantage of running the shallow to this side is the tight alignment brings the linebackers in, and the shallow ends up able to outflank those guys.

The read is the same though: Alert (post/wheel), shallow to square-in to comeback. I’ve covered all of this previously, but it’s worth mentioning again because don’t take my word for it: Ryan Mallett explained it all to Jon Gruden recently. Jump to the 2:05 mark. (My favorite part of this is when Mallett begins discussing the hot reads and Gruden’s eyes light up.)
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The “smash” route against man coverage

I have previously discussed the smash concept, where an outside receiver runs a short flat or “hitch” route while an inside receiver breaks to the corner. The play works well against cover two zones in particular because it puts the cornerback in a bind: if he plays the man in front of him he opens up a big are for the quarterback to throw the corner route behind him.

smash

One reason this play is useful, however, is because it does more than attack this zone aspect. Again man-to-man coverage the corner route is a very good option — so long as the throw is precise and the route is good. One reason for this is because many defenses who play man coverage use inside leverage to take away the quick slant passes that can gash them for big plays and are easy throws.

Cover 1 RobberMoreover, many man defenses use a deep free-safety or an inside “floater” or “robber” player whose job is simply to read the quarterback’s eyes. The advantage of the corner route is that the throw is away from all these inside defenders who can gum up a normal “who has beaten his man” read.

Finally, the fact that it is the inside receiver rather than the outside one who runs the corner route can get the offense some favorable matchups: Most defenses put their cornerbacks in man coverage on the outside receivers; the inside receivers are thus often guarded by safeties or linebackers or substitute “nickel back” players.

All of these advantages were on display in Penn State’s game against Michigan, as the Nittany Lions scored on the same smash concept from the same formation against the same coverage (indeed, same receiver) twice. Below is a diagram of their play, followed by video, courtesy of mgoblog.

1SMASHGIF

Below is the video:

You be the offensive coordinator/quarterback: Dealing with the blitz

In my most recent post for Dr Saturday I discussed some of Florida’s struggles on offense. The particular topic was some of Florida’s struggles in pass protection in all phases: accounting for potential rushers, sustaining the blocks, the receivers getting open on time, and the quarterback delivering the ball on time. In the post I showed what went wrong on the play, as the video below shows.

But it’s much easier to show what went wrong than it is to answer: What would you have done differently? Specifically, let’s say you are the OC who can signal a play in or you are the quarterback with a menu of checks and calls at the line. Your squad lines up in five wide, on third and goal (your team is leading), and the other team is showing a man blitz. Here’s what you see (the receivers are all covered down by guys showing man-to-man).

1_empty

You know they have at least a possible six guys to blitz against your five, if not more if they don’t cover down on one of the slots at the snap. Below is a diagram of the play Florida had called — a double smash concept. Note that the rule for the outside receiver’s in man is to convert the route to some kind of pivot route to the outside.

1_EMPTYSMASH

So what do you do here? Here is a non-exhaustive list of options. You make the call.

  1. Stick with the play as called. Although they have one more guy than you can block, your other guys should protect well, the QB should step up in the pocket, and throw the corner route (or another route) before the blitzer gets there. It was an execution problem.
  2. Call timeout. You can’t block all their guys, and have a bad playcall. Try again.
  3. Check to a short, three-step pass. Yes it is third and goal but better to throw a short completion with a chance to run it into the end zone.
  4. Check to a three step fade pass. You need to throw it into the end zone but don’t have time for any other play that gets it into the end zone.
  5. No need for a check, but the play should have a “sight-adjust” built in, where if the QB and receivers both read blitz they break off their route for a slant. Yes this read can get muddied against zone blitzes, but this is the right situation for it. Everyone should read this on the fly.
  6. Check the play to a receiver screen. Same philosophy as the short pass — get it to an athlete with some room to run, though this time with some blockers.
  7. Check to a quarterback trap or draw. You have an excellent runner at quarterback, why not use him? Yes it is third and long but you avoid the dangerous play, and if you block the trap or draw right and their defenders are too aggressive, you might score.
  8. Stay with the same playcall, but make a call to shift one of the split receivers in tight to be an extra blocker. Yes they can always blitz one more than you can block, but might as well put on a full six-man gap scheme and force the extra rusher to come from further away.
  9. Shift a receiver in to act as a runningback for a more advanced run play, like the speed option or a zone read. This is basically a full audible with a change of formation and playcall. Note that the defense could adjust too, given this opportunity.
  10. Some other option I haven’t listed.

Now, no team would give their quarterback this many options at the line, but most teams give their quarterback the ability to get into at least three of these. Some (like the sight-adjust) is either built into the offense or it isn’t.

So what is it? You make the call.

The slant concept: Iowa’s game winner

Iowa, a team that seems to thrive on dramatic finishes, pulled off one of the biggest of Kirk Ferentz’s tenure last weekend against Michigan State, as Ricky Stanzi threw a touchdown pass as time expired for the Hawkeye victory. The play itself was as simple as it gets: The old slant/shoot combination, which dates back at least as far back as Paul Brown’s teams. Bill Walsh of course made it even more famous, as his receivers frequently caught slant passes and took them for long touchdowns.

As you can see, it worked very well, as Michigan State played man coverage and went with an all-out blitz. Stanzi was able to deliver the ball before Michigan State’s unblocked defender (who came from Stanzi’s right) could get there. The slant’s quickness is one of its advantages.

In the play, Stanzi went to his single receiver — i.e. his split end — who had single, man coverage. But on the other side Iowa ran the same slant concept except with three receivers: The outermost guy ran a slant, the inside slot ran a slant as well, and the H-back, the innermost receiver, ran to the flat.

iowaslant

This leads to the other aspect of the play, the wrinkle that helped it succeed: The motion by the H-back/tight-end before the snap. He began on the left side of the formation and motioned across. Why was this relevant? Watch the clip above again. What did Michigan State do? A single defender followed the H-back across — a clear indicator that the defense was in man coverage. Knowing this, Stanzi knew that his backside receiver was one-on-one, and he went to him.

But what if they hadn’t reacted this way? Had Michigan State, rather than having a man follow the H-back instead “bumped across” so that a defender on the offense’s left merely repositioned slightly to account for the new receiver, this would have indicated that the play was zone. And unless the zone was very unbalanced to the single receiver, Stanzi would have no doubt looked to the three receiver side as a kind of flood for the zone. His read would have been the flat defender: if he widened for the tight-end in the flat, the slant should be open; if he hangs back then the tight-end ought to be open in the flat.

So Iowa won the game using one of the most basic plays in football, but they didn’t do it without a bit of knowledge about what they were getting into. Now, it bears noting that modern defenses can disguise their man or zone reactions to motion, but it remains a useful tool. It certainly was that for Iowa.

(H/t Brophy for the video.)

Carving up the Sooners: Y-sail with an “angle” tag

maxhall1A result as surprising and significant as BYU’s 14-13 upset of the Oklahoma Sooners does not come without storylines: Sam Bradford was knocked out of the game and all-star tight-end Jermaine Gresham did not play, and OU could only manage 13 points; BYU’s defense forced a field goal through a goal-line stand; and BYU overcame four turnovers (to only two by OU) to win the game in the waning minutes. All these were critical, but it is also clear that BYU could not have won the game without the efficient and calm (if not always smooth) performance from quarterback Max Hall, who threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns on 26 for 38 passing.

The performance was notable for the precise way Hall moved the Cougars up and down the field. If not for the turnovers (particularly the fumble before the half near the goal line), BYU could have potentially iced the game sooner. And, other than the two interceptions (both of which were not great), Hall did a wonderful job standing in against OU’s pressure-based defense and finding his open receivers. Other than a couple of plays, it was a game of steady completions, not long gains.

What is old is new. When Bronco Mendenhall took the job in Provo, he hired Robert Anae to coordinate his offense. Anae had up until then been the offensive line and running game coach for Mike Leach at Texas Tech, and he brought with him a modified version of Leach’s vaunted Airraid.  This was something of an homage to BYU years gone by, as the Airraid offense itself is a modified version of the offense LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow had run in Provo for years. Anae, who played for Edwards and Chow, has kept many of the concepts that make the offense go while dressing it up with more traditional sets — and a more traditional run game.

Good offense, better jacket.

Good offense, better jacket.

This experience with Leach also gave Anae some experience coaching against Bob Stoops’s OU defense, which is quite deadly and can swarm an unprepared team. Indeed, Stoops is willing to go completely unsound in his zone-blitzes; in the National Championship game against Florida, one of Tebow’s interceptions came on a play where the Sooners blitzed six guys and played an inadequate zone coverage. While there are holes in the zone, Stoops figures that it is not easy for the quarterback to identify these while multiple defenders are breathing down his neck — the chalkboard is one thing but the game is another. Thus the onus would be on Hall — and BYU’s line and runningbacks — to protect long enough to find the open receivers.

One concept common to both Leach and Anae’s offenses is called “Y-sail.” The basic idea is to run one man vertical, another on a 10-15 yard out, and another in the flat, to “high-low” read the defense. Check the link here from Trojan Football Analysis with a diagram and video from TTech.

Adjusting to win. But the value of all plays comes in their adjustments, and the most common adjustment for the Y-sail play is to tag the play with an “angle.” With this adjustment the receiver who normally goes to the flat begins like he is doing just that, but then he reverses field and “angles” back inside on a slant-type route. The reason this works is that the “sail” or “out route” typically pulls a defender upfield; the “angle” receiver runs right underneath him.

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