Did Cam Newton play in a “one read” passing offense at Auburn?

Trackemtigers asks whether Cam Newton played in a “one-read passing offense” at Auburn, something you keep hearing from the media. Most of the talking heads vaguely use this term, usually implying that Newton literally would look at one receiver and, if he was covered, instantly start running. This kind of confusion is understandable given that teaching quarterbacks where to throw the football both seems like a bit of an inscrutable black art — which takes years to master the often subconscious subtleties necessary to do well  — but also because there are simply many different ways to do it.

In the NFL, less running, more of this

Compounding this in Newton’s case is that almost all the attention on his offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s offense has been on the running game, while the passing game has received very little attention. This is not a surprise, given the dynamic and multifaceted run game Malzahn employs, and given that, especially with Cam, the run set up the pass. But it ignores the fact that Auburn led the nation in passing efficiency and threw for over 3,000 yards last season — we’re not talking about Paul Johnson’s flexbone here.

Indeed, Malzahn’s reputation as a high school coach was as an air-it-out guy, and in his first season at Tulsa in 2007, the Golden Hurricane were second in the country in passing yards with over 5,000, behind only pass-happy attacks from June Jones at Hawai’i and Mike Leach at Texas Tech. (They were also second in the nation in yards per attempt, behind only the Tebow-led Florida Gators.)

So Malzahn knows the pass, and Newton was obviously good at what he was asked to do. But what was that? I can only speculate on what specifics Cam was given, but I am familiar with Gus’s passing game and have a strong idea of how it was tailored to Cam Newton.

Gus, going back to Tulsa, uses progression reads, meaning his quarterbacks read the first receiver, to the second receiver, to the third receiver, and so on. That means that there’s no way Cam was given a “single read” — a single receiver to look at — or did Malzahn literally tell him to only look at one guy and to ignore everyone else? No to the first but, at least sometimes, yes to the second. This is because if there was one read it was not a single receiver, but a single defender.

For example, take the smash concept, a play that Gus has in his arsenal. The progression on the play is: corner route to hitch/underneath route, making it a two receiver progression (and a third if you have the runningback checking down over the middle). But you can also teach the play as a single receiver “key” read: Read the corner — if he stays with the hitch, throw the corner; if he drops for the corner, throw the hitch.

Thus in this case, it might not actually be inaccurate to say that Newton had only a “single read,” but it’s also a bit misleading. Indeed, many NFL quarterbacks only have a “single read” if this is the definition, though they might have some other read or key telling them which single read to focus on. But, while I think this “single read” was sometimes the case, I think more likely Gus used the progression read, giving Cam the typical suite of “reads”: one, two, three, throw-it-away/run.

Chris Petersen of Boise State once set forth his view of a quarterback’s development as follows:
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Smart Notes – Trick passes, Rich Rodriguez, Emory Bellard- 2/12/2011

This has already gone everywhere:

There are two lessons to this: (1) this kind of trickery doesn’t always translate well to actual playing time, and obviously playing quarterback requires a lot of skills beyond this sort of thing and (2) this is still great stuff, but, related to (1), the football being an extension of you is merely necessary rather than sufficient to be a great quarterback. You can see this latter point in basketball: if you ever visit an NBA or even college practice, you can see the players doing unreal things with the ball, but in a game, with the pressure on and defense, it’s much more difficult. That said, you can also take the lesson that it takes more than being able to throw a couple of nice passes in backyard football (or to hit a few shots at the local gym) to be great. The real thing is always harder than it looks.

- Emory Bellard has passed away. Bellard, father of the wishbone (he wanted to call it the “Y” offense), was the original from-high-school-to-the-big-leagues-with-a-wacky-offense guy:

Bellard was on Darrell Royal’s staff at Texas in 1968 when the Longhorns developed a formation with three running backs that came to be known as the wishbone.

He coached at Texas high schools for more than two decades and won three state titles. His success landed him on the Texas staff, and while other assistants relaxed during the summer before the 1968 season, Bellard was busy trying to figure out a way to utilize a strong group of running backs after Texas endured three straight mediocre seasons. (more…)

Packaging three-step and five-step passing concepts into the same play

Modern defenses are very, very good. Too good, in fact, for successful offenses to expect to be able to simply call some traditional play in the huddle — ye olde 24 Blast or 42 Boot Pass — and be able to simply line up and run it with any hope of sustained success. Not only are defenses sound, defensive coordinators and talented defenders have become masters of deception, and the game has increasingly become a mental as well as physical struggle.

I would've liked this concept

Fortunately, defenses aren’t yet — due to the immutable laws of arithmetic and geometry which apply with equal force on a football field — magical, meaning that all defenses always have weaknesses. The trick is to find them and, as Spurrier says, to put your kids in position to win. The goal is to try to tilt the advantage back to offenses. There are essentially three strategies:

  1. Line up in a formation and let a coach or a quarterback change the play. You see this whenever Peyton Manning or some other NFL guy audibles at the line (though his options have usually been narrowed to two or three before the snap), or when a no-huddle team lines up and looks to the sideline for guidance. The idea is that, while it is still pre-snap and the defense can still move, it has given away certian clues, including personnel and general structure.
  2. Use multiple formations and motions to confuse the defense or gain an advantage in numbers or leverage. This approach tries to turn the defense against itself by never giving the defense a chance to get settled or to identify what the offense may do. Moreover, sometimes the defense simply fails to adjust, and the offense gains some new advantage. The downside of this approach is it leaves little time and fewer clues for the offense to make adjustments, but the idea is that “motion causes emotion” (to use the old adage) and the offense has an advantage in that it knows where it is going. This is the method employed by Boise State.
  3. Give your players options on their assignments for after the snap. Just as it sounds, this is the principal governing all “option”-esque attacks. The macro idea here, pioneered by Tiger Ellison, is that backyard football is not played in a static, overly orchestrated way, and instead the natural inclination of kids to run around and make decisions on the fly — and so should it be in real football. This can manifest itself in different ways, from the triple option to the spread option to the passing game. Each play provides a superstructure but freedom within it. The idea is you don’t need much else, except for the players to begin adapting and making the rights reads. As said in Remember the Titans, “I run six plays. Split veer. It’s like Novocain. Give it time. It always works.”

A few years ago, it was possible to achieve unheard of success by designing a new play, or sometimes simply by joining the bandwagon and going spread, especially if you had better athletes. Now, the innovations are ones of communication and organization; much of the talk this season centered around Oregon’s fast-paced no-huddle, particularly its fascinating playcalling system. For now, most of the biggest schematic ideas have been hashed out and the question now is how to make it all work together. Packaging pass concepts together — i.e. putting different pass concepts, each designed to beat particular pass coverages or families of pass coverages, to each side of the play — is not new. But it is limited in its own way (more on those limits in a moment), and there are ways to incorporate more of the above ideas into a single concept. Moreover, when done correctly, it’s possible to continue to be multifariously (and deceptively) simple, by using the same handful of pass concepts in new ways.

Problems with the traditional approach of packaging pass concepts. Almost any coach trying to call a pass play, face buried in the Denny’s menu of the playcall sheet, is forced to answer that age old question: Will it be Cover 3 or Cover 2? (Or Cover 4 or man or a blitz, and so on.) The problem is that, no matter how good your pass it is, due to the particular horizontal or vertical stretch it uses, each pass play is better against certain coverages than others. At most, a play might be good against two defensive concepts, and certain plays — like snag — are handy utility plays to get completions against most coverages but that doesn’t mean that they literally work against everything. One potential solution is to “package” different concepts to each side, again with the traditional way being to put a “Cover 3 beater” to one side and a “Cover 2 beater” to the other. (If you want a refresher on basic pass coverages, check out this piece.)

Three problems, however, quickly present themselves with this simplistic answer:

  1. The quarterback only reads half the field, determined based solely on the alignment and movement of a couple of defenders. If the quarterback is either wrong or the receivers fail to get open, the play is essentially a bust.
  2. The side the quarterback throws to is usually determined based on the safeties (or sometimes the middle linebacker). It does not take into account blitzes. It’s possible to include anti-blitz solutions too, but this becomes yet a third read — that might be inconclusive.
  3. Typically, the pass concepts put to each side are effective against those defensive concepts, but they typically do a poor job of dealing with interior or floating defenders, who can turn a quarterback’s good read into an interception. Relatedly, the pass concept may not work at all against combination coverages or roll coverages, which can give false keys.

The third point is worth elaborating on briefly. Shown below is a typical “packaged” five-step drop combination: the curl/flat combination to one side with the smash or corner/flat combination to the other.

This play should work, as the quarterback ought to see that the defense only has one single safety and he thus looks to the left side, with the curl/flat combination. But the packaged pass concepts don’t do anything to control those interior players. The same would be the case if the defense lined up with two deep safeties and he worked the smash side, to his right. There are ways to solve this problem, but there’s an approach that solves (or at least greatly improves upon) all three issues raised above.

Three-step and five-step, together. The idea for this solution came from two sources: the old run and shoot “Read” play and the book, Concept Passing,” where Dan Gonzalez describes something similar. The broad idea is to achieve multiple things in one play-call, but to sequence it so that it all can actually be done by a high school or college kid. The run and shoot “read route” put a “quick” or three-step-esque (remember that the run and shoot used half-rollouts) to one side, while putting the old favorite, the “switch” to the backside. See below:

Against any kind of blitz or tight-man, the quarterback would deliver the ball to one of the outside receivers (typically the slot running to the flat) off his third-step. If the defense covered that, he would finish his drop, step up, and read the two backside receivers running the old switch, which was just a form of the “seam read” from four verticals but where the two receivers criss-crossed at the snap. In his book, Gonzalez describes a more pro-style application; here is my take on it.

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Smart Notes – Big 10, Holgorsen, Muschamp – 12/14/2010

Well that’s just disappointing. The new Big 10 logo:

ugh

Couple this logo with the new Big 10 division names — Leaders and Legends — and you have, well, yawn. The new championship trophy for the Big 10 will be called the “Staff-Paterno Championship Trophy,” and the trophy for best quarterback will be called the “Griese-Brees” trophy which, while appropriate (it honors two former Purdue QBs who went on to win Super Bowls), sounds strangely dirty. Brian and the mgoblog commenters have generally better division name ideas and logos.

2. Holgorsen, the search. Dana Holgorsen, orchestrator of Oklahoma State’s number one ranked offense, is rumored for a few different jobs. Florida fans are clamoring for him to join Muschamp’s staff at Florida, though this is based only on a few datapoints — i.e. that Muschamp’s defenses struggled at times with Leach’s Airraid at Texas Tech (where Holgorsen was a longtime assistant) and with Oklahoma State, and that Muschamp worked with an Airraid head coach previously in Chris Hatcher — but and not any actual sources. We do know that he interviewed for the head gig at Pittsburgh, and the talk now is that he will join West Virginia, either as offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting, or simply as head coach if Bill Stewart is shown the door after the bowl game.

Regardless of how all this plays out, we know one thing: Holgorsen’s offenses are good. In the last few years, first at Houston and then at Oklahoma State, he has taken the basic Airraid framework developed by Mike Leach and Hal Mumme (who Dana not only coached with but also played for at Iowa Wesleyan) and added his own stamp. I’ve discussed some of this previously, though there is much more to say (it will make a good summer project, which would be aided by the generous donation of game film — hint, hint). For now, I’d say the biggest overarching differences between Leach’s Airraid and Holgorsen’s offense are:

(A) Leach focuses on the Airraid staples, and makes a total commitment in his offense to the mesh play, which combines a high/low vertical stretch (a corner route over a runningback in the flat) with a horizontal stretch (two shallow crossing receivers and either runningbacks or receivers in the flats). This is a great play, but because the receivers show their intentions immediately at the snap, the play can be subject to pattern reading. Leach combats such tactics by “tagging” or altering specific receivers’ routes on the play while keeping the overall structure intact, Holgorsen instead generally prefers to build his passing game off of “vertical stems,” i.e. the receivers all begin their routes by releasing vertically and only show their intentions when they make their break. Now, this is not to say that Dana doesn’t use flat routes or crossing routes — staples of all modern passing games — but instead simply means that the basis for the offense comes from the vertical releases and the pressure this puts on the defense, and he prefers to save those adjustments for specific situations he can call out. Exhibit A in Holgorsen’s offense is four verticals, which he (along with then-fellow Texas Tech assistants Sonny Dykes (Louisiana Tech HC and former Arizona OC), Robert Anae (BYU OC), and Bill Bedenbough (Arizona co-offensive coordinator)) explains in depth in this coaching clinic article.

(B) Holgorsen is more patient than Leach, in that he is more willing to run than his mentor was. As he told Sports Illsustrated’s Andy Staples:

Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen couldn’t help but laugh this week as he created a composite of several dozen similar conversations that took place in the near-decade he spent as coach Mike Leach’s eye in the sky at Texas Tech. Leach would growl into his headset and ask why the Red Raiders’ quarterback took a sack or threw an incomplete pass or an interception.

Leach: “Who was open?”

Holgorsen: “Mike, I know you don’t want to hear this, but there wasn’t anybody open.”

Leach: “What do you mean there wasn’t anybody open?”

Holgorsen: “They dropped nine people and they double-covered all our guys. There was nobody open.”

Leach: “Well, how’d they get pressure on the quarterback?”

Holgorsen: “Well, because one guy can’t block one guy for seven seconds.”

Between games, Holgorsen would entreat Leach to call a few more running plays to keep the defense honest. Leach — who, to be fair, won an awful lot of games doing it his way — usually declined and kept right on calling passes….

“For so many years, I was scheming up plays, I was talking to Coach Leach, I was trying to find specific pass plays to run against a whole bunch of defenders — which gets tough at times,” said Holgorsen, who still calls Leach regularly to talk Xs and Os. “Having [RB Kendall Hunter] back there makes it easy to call plays, because you hand it to him, and he gets yards. Then if you’re not getting yards, there’s usually a pretty good reason for that.”

(C) Holgorsen is also less patient than Leach, however, because the (relatively, at least) greater willingness to run sets up more downfield throwing opportunities. Hal Mumme’s philosophy for the Airraid was “throw the ball short to people who score.” I think Dana Holgorsen’s philosophy has been shortened to simply “score.” This makes sense, too, because there’s good evidence that it’s better to go for chunks of yardage — explosive pass plays — than to simply try and dink and dunk it down the field. Now, in the early days of the spread the dink and dunk was an exceptional strategy, because defenses were unprepared and five yard completions, through the miracle of yards-after-the-catch, often turned into ten- or twenty-yard gains, but now it’s not so easy. Thus, the ability to use aggressively schemed pass plays with misdirection — play-action, fake screens, action passes, etc — is the hallmark of the best passing offenses: Holgorsen’s, Gus Malzahn’s (Auburn), Chris Petersen’s (Boise), and Bobby Petrino’s (Arkansas).

Ultimately though, there are more similarities than differences and, as Holgorsen says (see the video clip below where he talks philosophy), the common thread unifying all the best “Airraid teams” is the way they practice: simple assignments, with specific, football focused drills that allow their players to get maximum repetitions. Many teams preach this but the Airraid guys have figured out to how make practice really work; and really, there is no other way to be successful than to start with how you practice.

3. Muschamp, boom. Florida has hired former LSU/Auburn/Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, and I found out about it in much the same way as most of the national media did: because Tim Tebow tweeted it (apparently from the Heisman ceremony?):

This is a good, if risky, hire. The reality is if you’re hiring a new head coach you are essentially left with two types of candidates: the Nothing But Upside, Wow He’s Fiery/Smart/Personable, But He’s Never Been a Head Coach and the He Seems Fine and Has Head Coaching Experience But Why Is He Available? Occasionally a guy emerges who seems to have it all — like Urban Meyer when he went to Florida originally — but as we’ve seen problems can still emerge there and Florida didn’t exactly get to time it’s choice, as Meyer forced its hand.

How all this ends up is anyone’s guess — and a lot will depend on what kind of offensive staff Muschamp brings to Gainesville — but for now enjoy a couple of good Muschamp stories, courtesy of Chris Hatcher, who was head coach at Valdosta St. while Muschamp served as defensive coordinator (as told to Spencer Hall):

By the way, Chris Hatcher, once you catch him, is happy to tell stories about Muschamp, the new Texas defensive coordinator. There are a few. He once called Hatcher four hours after practice to rage about non-contact whistles costing his players sacks in practice. He also watched Muschamp coach a whole game wearing a makeshift turban made of athletic tape and a headset.

“Third game of our career. We’re playing Southern Arkansas, and we just signed a deal with CSS TV. We’re the first I-AA game they broadcast. I look down the sideline before the game, and a grad assistant is putting pre-wrap around Muschamp’s head. His headset had been smashed to pieces on the plane ride, and he had to find a way to keep his headset on, so he had it taped to his head. He looked like The Red Badge of Courage.”

Hatcher is laughing out loud as he says this, but wants me to make sure Muschamp gets the props, as well.

“Please include this in the article, though: He may the best football coach I’ve ever coached with. He has a knack for getting his kids to play so hard for him. The best, by far, at his job.”

Done. But just try to picture Muschamp without a tape turban this fall after reading that.

4. Quick hits.

- New Miami coach Al Golden works out to the Final Countdown.

- Cam Newton does Letterman’s Top Ten.

- Gus Malzahn deals the Commodore a blow.

- Hunter S. Thompson, Conan O’Brien, guns and hard liquor. (h/t EDSBS.)

- Josh Heupel, former Mike Leach protégé and National Championship winning QB at Oklahoma, will be the new OU playcaller. Showing that the holy grail in college football right now appears to be the quest to get the success of Mike Leach’s offense without the baggage of Mike Leach with it.

- The Times reviews a new book about Jim Thorpe. Key quote:

In contrast, and perhaps not surprisingly for the author of a highly praised biography of Burt Lancaster, who played Thorpe in the 1951 film “Jim Thorpe — All American,” the book’s second half, which covers Thorpe’s spotty film career, brims with life in its depiction of Hollywood during the 1930s and ’40s. Thorpe existed on the fringes of the studio system, trading on his name and playing mainly small roles as an Indian, but he was also not afraid of anonymous manual labor, as when he hired on with Standard Oil to paint things like gas stations and trucks. “Can’t keep the wife and the kids in food on ancient glory,” he told a sportswriter in 1930, when he was 42. …

…Drink and profligacy speeded his business failures and estranged him from his relatives. His plight wasn’t helped by the string of bars he invested in or was hired to appear at, like the Sports Club in Los Angeles, “a small, dimly lit bar and grill on a noise-ridden street,” as described by the journalist Al Stump, who produced what Buford calls “a haunting portrait” of the man: “He was weak, pliable, irresponsible and sometimes unruly, and he contributed to his own downfall.” He was also “the embodiment of this country’s eternal treatment of the vanishing Indian . . . under­paid, exploited, stripped of his medals, his records and his pride.”

Sean Payton breaks down his Super Bowl script

From the New Orleans Times-Picuyane, via reader Justin. Sean Payton discusses several plays, including four verticals and stick.

Below is a diagram of the second play the Saints run in the video above. The second video in the series (which is the more informative of the two videos) can be found after the jump.

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Tressel’s new calling: Ball control . . . passing?

Buckeye Football Analysis recently broke down Ohio State’s tactics in their Rose Bowl win over Oregon. The verdict? The Tresseller rose above his reputation as football dinosaur and outschemed famed schemer, Chip Kelly. Specifically, Tressel channeled his inner Bill Walsh by having Pryor use a lot of ball control passes, including one play Buckeye Football Analysis highlighted in particular, namely a packaged combination of “snag” to one side and “double-slants” to the other.

Packaged concepts” refers to the fact that Tressel has put different route combinations to either side: To the left he has put the double-slant combination, while to the right he has the snag combo. As BFA points out: “First, it was part of the quick passing game so it allowed Pryor to throw before the blitz came. Second, putting these routes to each side actually provided three coverage beaters.”

One of these was a simple man-blitz beater in the slants: If Oregon blitzed and played man, Pryor could immediately throw the slant. Indeed, he could do this against regular man coverage too, as he did in the clip below.

Against zones, Pryor had a few options. One was to simply hit the slants again if that’s what the defense gave him by its alignment. He does this effectively below:

Another would be to work the “snag” combo. The snag is a variant of the smash, where one point is to get a high-low with the corner route and the flat route (except now the flat is controlled by the runningback), with the added dimension of an outside receiver running the “snag” route — a one-step slant where he settles inside at 5-6 yards. This gives you a “triangle” stretch, where you have both a high/low read (corner to RB in the flat) and a horizontal read from inside to outside (snag route to the RB in the flat).

And the best part for Pryor is that these are all quick, immediate routes that (a) give him options against the blitz, and (b) provide controlled passes against zones too as the receivers settle in the voids. I don’t have any video of OSU throwing the snag side, but here is an example of the Steelers using the play to win the Super Bowl, and some Airraid/Mike Leach based cut-ups of their snag play, Y-corner (which is actually basically the same, with snag to one side and a form of double-slants to the other).

So the final question is, how does Pryor read this and know where to go? I don’t know what keys Tressel is giving Pryor, so I can only say how I would teach it. Note that both the snag combo and the double slants are both designed to attack either (a) man coverage or (b) two-deep zones, so the main key you’d give your quarterback — go one way if there is one deep safety or another if there are two — is out. This doesn’t mean it’s poorly designed, it’s just a different goal. (This is how most pro teams package snag as well.) Instead you probably give the quarterback a pre-snap key along the lines of: “go to the snag side unless…,” where the unless includes (1) a man-blitz or other man coverage where you have a good matchup (see the first video), or where the defense is just giving you the slant by alignment (the second video). From there the QB can make a judgment on whether he likes the snag or the slants based on the alignment of the linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties. Another possibility, though one I probably wouldn’t use, would be to read the middle linebacker and choose whether to go to the snag side or the double slant side based on where he went. That would give you a good key on those two routes, but I wouldn’t use it because it doesn’t tell you much about the corner/flat combo or the outside slant to the other side.

Two final thoughts. One, unless it is a blitz and the quarterback can’t get it out (hence the slants), the snag is the more versatile combo as, even if the defense is in a three-deep type coverage, the “snag” receiver can usually find an open spot and get you five to six yards as an outlet. And, finally, there is a final advanced technique you could use that I plan on expanding on in the future. It is the packaged three-step and five-step combination. Basically, you put a three step drop combo to one side with a five-step to the other. The QB can look to the three step side first — which should be open versus a particular coverage as well as a blitz, as sort of an automatic hot route — then, if that’s not there, the quarterback would reset his feet for depth and swing his eyes to look for the five-step combo; here, the snag (though whether snag is three-step or five-step depends on what depth you run the receivers’ routes at). In the future I will talk about how to package this and even let the quarterback pick the three-step combination at the line.

But that is all for a later post. For now, viva la Tresselball.

That’s what I call a shootout

Back in 1990 — before the spread offense had been invented, so we’re told — Houston beat TCU 56-35 in one of the greatest aerial duels of all time. TCU’s quarterback, Matt Vogler, threw for 690 yards and five touchdowns on 44 of 79 passes. Houston’s David Klingler countered with 563 yards and seven touchdowns on 36 of 53 passing (with four interceptions). Of course, Klingler was running John Jenkins’s brand of the run and shoot. Below are the scoring drives from the first half (hat tip to Football Mastery for the vids):

See below the jump for the second half clips:
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Smart Football Super Bowl Preview: Manning vs. Brees

Give the media two weeks before the Super Bowl and they will find every weird angle to take to fill the void: Who has the best food (uh, not Indianapolis); what U.S. Presidents are like what Super Bowl (In a matchup between Super Bowl III, with Broadway Joe, against Thomas Jefferson, the third President, Jefferson won because he “wanted it more.”); and opinion from every blustery ex-player and coach that can be found. But now that the game is here, there’s one aspect that absolutely is at the top of my list: The game features arguably the two best quarterbacks in the league who run undoubtedly the best — and most interesting offenses.

Colts

The show Peyton runs is amazing not only because of its effectiveness, but also because of its simplicity. Indeed, in all but specialty situations they have basically two personnel groups — two wide receivers, two tight-ends, and one running back and three wide receivers, one tight-end and one running back — and they have run the same few plays for the last decade. They rarely shift and instead rely on Peyton to get them to the line and find the appropriate play.

The theory for all this is simple. Although a defense has some options and disguise some things, there are only so many things a defense can do: they might be able to disguise press or loose coverage, or rotate the secondary or send an unexpected blitzer, but they can’t move a cornerback from one side of the field to the other after the snap, and there might be blitzers but there are only so many candidates. As a result Peyton gets his team to the line and surveys the defense. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore typically sends in three plays: two passes and a run or two runs and a pass, and Peyton makes his choice among those three options. Typically, Manning gets the ball snapped with under six seconds left on the play clock; he both wants to take his time surveying the defense and limit late shifts before the snap.

And Manning’s menu of plays are both simple and have been constant for a decade. For runs, he basically has three choices: outside zone (the most common), inside zone, and draw (there are a few others mixed in as well). Believe it or not, the run game comes basically verbatim from what the University of Colorado did in the early 1990s (except for the option runs, of course) — football is not as complicated as people think.

For the passing game, on early downs they run a lot of play-action, where the goal is either to beat the defense deep (through post routes and go routes) or to hit a deep void with a deep crossing route or corner. (The deep crossing route concept is described here.) Another go-to concept is three-verticals, though Manning likes to look for the inside slight off play-action as a quick throw right behind the linebackers. (Video below courtesy of Brophy.)

Play-action from under center:

Play-action from shotgun:

On passing downs and when Peyton is in the shotgun, you’ll see most of the traditional routes that other teams run, but far and away his favorite is the “levels” play. It’s almost idiotically simple — the inside receiver runs a ten-yard in route (often Dallas Clark) while the outside receiver (Reggie Wayne, most typically) runs a five yard in-route. Typically the linebacker runs with the slot and the quick five yarder is open, but once he’s hit that a few times Manning will hit the inside square-in for an easy first down.

levels

I’ve described the “levels” concept (with video) previously here. Below is another diagram showing what typically happens with the coverage:

ds
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Texas vs. ‘Bama: Smart Football in review

Apologies for not posting more about this game (and for lack of posting in general — factors beyond my control), but tonight’s matchup involves two teams that I’ve written much about.

On the one side you have Nick Saban’s Alabama squad. On offense, the run game that propelled Mark Ingram to the Heisman trophy involves basically five or six run plays: inside zone, outside zone, power, counter, and sometimes a draw and sometimes a toss play. But it’s the defense that makes ‘Bama go. Of course, I’ve previously written about Saban and his strategies and philosophy:

Saban has been coaching defense – and coaching it quite well – for decades. But there is no question that the defining period of his coaching career was 1991-1994, when he was Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. Just knowing that tells you a great deal about Saban’s defense: he (primarily) uses the 3-4; he’s very aggressive, especially on passing downs; he wants to stop the run on first and second down; he’s not afraid to mix up schemes, coverages, blitzes, and looks of all kinds; and, most importantly, he is intense and attentive to detail, which is the hallmark of any great defensive coach.

…One thing that distinguishes Saban is that he uses pattern-reading in almost all of his coverages, including the traditional Cover 3, whereas many coaches only let certain defenders pattern read or only use it with certain defenses like Cover 4. Sounds a lot like Belichick, no?**

On the other side is Texas and their great quarterback, Colt McCoy. McCoy, who will deservedly be considered one of the great quarterbacks of all time, did not have an overly impressive year. He had some good games but few of those came against top flight opponents. He’ll have to carry the load for Texas, which is something I think a now relatively pressure free McCoy can do. I have previously written about McCoy’s pass game too:

Colt McCoy, University of Texas’s record-setting triggerman (and Heisman hopeful), is known for one thing above all else: his astounding accuracy. . . .

Texas’s favorite route concept, by far, is something known as the “two-man” game, known in some coaching circles as the “stick concept.” Texas runs their a little different, but they also use it a great deal; it’s their number one concept by far. . . .

This concept has been Texas’s go-to route since Mack Brown and Greg Davis arrived. Everyone from Major Applewhite, to Chris Simms, to Vince Young and now McCoy have been asked to master the play.

The concept itself is simple enough…. It can be run from really any formation — any set with at least two receivers to one side — but Texas favors it from sets with at least three receivers, as the diagram below shows. This way the outside receiver can run deep. He serves both as an option on the fade route against single-coverage, but primarily he draws the defense away. And, from a formation and personnel standpoint, he typically draws the other team’s cornerback, allowing the two inside receivers to work against inferior pass defenders — the linebackers, safeties, and nickel backs.

The “two-man” concept itself has one receiver run immediately to the flat, while another bursts upfield to a depth of about eight yards — slightly deeper than most other teams run the route. He can then turn inside or outside depending on where the coverage is pressuring him. He wants to find the crease in the zone and to find the window that gets created as the flat defender widens for the other receiver on the “shoot” route to the flat. Against man coverage, he can break back to the sideline….

…[I]n watching Colt, I see a lot of parrallels with another guy known for his accuracy: Drew Brees. Both have underrated athleticism, both are smart, and both can stick the ball on the receiver, exactly where they want to. That is something that cannot be taught, and it should continue to serve Colt well.

It will be fascinating to see who comes out on top tonight.

**FN: During the Big 12 title game Jesse Palmer kept saying that Nebraska was “pattern reading” Texas’s routes and therefore defeating them. Some bloggers picked up the trail, but although true that Bo Pellini uses some pattern reading, this was not the reason they lost. They lost because Nebraska could blow up pass and run plays with a couple of linemen (Suh!) and swarm everyone else. Texas’s pass game understands pattern reading and is as well prepared for it as you can reasonably be. There are criticisms of Greg Davis but I’m not sure this is one of them.

Houston and the “stick” passing concept

“Stick” or “y-stick” is one of the most recent passing concepts to have gone totally viral such that basically every passing team uses it — it’s only about twenty to twenty-five years old. Everyone has their spin on the play, but basically it is a quick, three-step route play, where the offense puts the flat defender in a bind by sending one receiver to the flat while another hooks up or “sticks it” at five to six yards. Below is a good video showing the concept and showing an example of the Houston Cougars running it.

Note that it looks like Tulane is in man coverage, though it is the defensive end who drops off to cover the running back. In any event, stick also serves as a very good zone beater, as well being a great, quick zone play.