Disclaimer: Some of y'all might remember that I did something like this a few years back. Some of the points wound up holding up, some didn't. This time around we're going to focus solely on the passing game, and besides I didn't exactly get into them that much this spring, specifically because I was still researching. There's a bit of analysis, a bit of speculation, and yes, a bit of hope in here. But I feel pretty comfortable in the theories and notes herein. You will have to bear with me, and use some imagination and patience on some of the diagrams. A lot of these plays maybe diagrammed out of spread formations, but are designed to be adjusted to almost any set.
If I could describe the LSU quarterback situation over the last 3-4 seasons in a single animated sequence, it would be something like this...
We could make it work. Sure, one couldn't throw a screen pass, the other couldn't check down over the middle and neither could move beyond a secondary read, but its okay we can make it work! The amazing thing is LSU kind of did. If anything, it's a little impressive when you see what quarterback issues have done at schools like Texas or Florida, or the way they contributed to the declines of powerhouses like Florida State and Miami. Twenty-four wins the last two seasons, all the while "trying to make it work" at quarterback.
I'm not going to tell you that Zach Mettenberger is going to throw for 30 touchdowns. I'm not going to tell you he'll be all-conference or a Heisman candidate or any of that type of hyperbole. But I can tell you with confidence that he'll at least represent improvement. A quarterback that can process the type of concept-based passing game that Steve Kragthorpe likes to use. One that can read a defense, anticipate a throw and go through progressions. I can't promise tremendous accuracy or sterling decision making (I feel good about these things, but I'm not going to promise them), but I feel good about hitting those bare-minimum benchmarks.
Now, over the last two years I've written a couple of pieces on the offensive philosophies and schematics of opposing offensive coaches like Gus Malzahn, Chip Kelly and Dana Holgorsen, and while I've talked in some generalities about LSU's offense and some of the concepts, I've never really been able to get into some specifics. Part of that was the limitations of the quarterbacks -- why talk about a passing game the coaches obviously want to hide? And part of it was that I just couldn't really tell you that much based on Kragthorpe's background. He was raised in the classic West Coast Offense of Lavell Edwards and Norm Chow but he's also spent time in the NFL around an old Run-and-Shoot specialist in Kevin Gilbride. And of course from Les Miles you get some classic Ehrhardt-Perkins concepts with a little one-back Scott Linehan style out of Greg Studrawa. And that seems like a lot going on until I got a little more into the study of the passing game in particular. On a tip from Chris Brown, I picked up a copy of the book "Concept Passing: Teaching the Modern Passing Game" by Dan Gonzalez.
It's a relatively short read -- just about 200 pages -- but make no mistake, it's very much a textbook on the passing game and reads like one. If you're interested, it's more research-intensive than entertaining. Gonzalez is a former University of Texas walk-on that went on to coach at Abilene Christian and various high schools across the state, where he developed a reputation as a passing-game guru. He now mostly works as a consultant for various staffs, clinics along with some personal coaching.
The biggest takeaway about the overall approach is that the modern passing game does a little bit of everything. There are elements in the book of the Air Raid, the West Coast Offense, and every style that has had its era of success. That should surprise no one, as coaches in general are nothing if not copycats. As often as NFL teams love to cast "college offenses" as things that simply won't work in "the league," they damn sure aren't shy about using their ideas. As often as you'll see these concepts on Friday night or Saturday afternoon, you'll also see them on Sunday and Monday nights from coaches like Mike Martz, Andy Reid, Sean Payton or Bill Belicheck, albeit with the kind of extra wrinkles you can teach to professionals who can spend as many hours as necessary learning them during the week. Among Gonzalez' influences and acknowledgements are John Mackovic, Greg Davis, Todd Dodge and yes, Steve Kragthorpe.
This began as one post, but as I kept typing and saw the word count creeping closer to the four-to-five-thousand-word mark, I figured we'd be better off splitting things up. Part one will deal with the basic structure of the offense and how it adjusts to LSU, along with two of the concepts that make the heaviest use of them. Part two will round out the other concepts I've observed with some conclusions.
To start with, this offense is built around a quarterback's rhythm. When his back foot hits the last step of his drop, he should have his eyes on his first option and be ready to throw. If covered, he hitches his shoulders up and goes to option two and so on through his outlet, or protection receiver. As Gonzalez notes:
It should be noted that the passer is to anticipate "pulling the trigger" each time his eyes and feet move; in other words, he should be of the mindset that he will throw to this route until he cannot. An analogy is a hitter in baseball starting his swing with every pitch and then not swinging if the pitch was not to his liking.
Another feature to each concept is an "advantage receiver," or a player that will automatically be open if the defense takes away the core design of the play. This way if the defense does manage to anticipate the strategy, they'll be made to pay for pressing too much towards on area or player.
Additionally, the plays are designed to work out of multiple formations and personnel groups, although it encourages the use of all five eligible receivers as often as possible. This is an important principle, but it must be balanced with protection. In fact quarterbacks are to be taught the ins and outs and strengths and weaknesses of the protections (this also includes the various run-actions, which are essentially another form of quarterback protection) before the pattern systems are installed. The hope is that if the passer understands where his blockers are and where the defense will be coming from, he can then keep his eyes on his targets at the snap. This principle in particular seemed to be utterly absent from Gary Crowton's offense at LSU.
Gonzalez outlines nine specific concepts in his specific teachings. Of those, I've been able to identify five that LSU has run, either last season or in the Spring Game last month. It doesn't include specific plays like screens, but a lot of them can be used with play-action techniques as well as moving pocket tactics like roll-outs, waggles and bootlegs that help change the launch position on the field in relation to the defense. It also goes without saying that without an actual copy of the playbook, I have only limited detail on the specifics of how LSU deploys these, as well as things like terminology, etc...
Before we get into the specifics of the individual concepts and packages, we'll start with some of the structural "tags" of the offense. The plays themselves will be pretty basic and familiar, but the individual tags are how you customize a specific play to attack a specific opponent, or to best take advantage of your own talent.
Gonzalez explains the idea in a fantastic Smart Football article here. The general idea behind concept passing is designing plays that cause specific reactions in a defense. You move, they respondand then you counter their counter. That's where tags come in, to take advantage of however an opponent is defending your primary concept. Here are a couple of basic frontside tags. Most of the names make sense when you think about it. There are more in the book but here are some of the principle ones that work with the concepts we'll get into.
*Ed. Note: The diagrams are slightly off because they're scans from the book. I tried to find images already on the web as often as I could.
Switch: Self-explanatory. The No. 1 receiver and the closet slot man swap routes.
Basic: More of an at-the-line-of-scrimmage call, this allows the quarterback to check out of a tag and tells the receivers to run the basic concept.
Replace: Typically called with vertical routes, this calls for an outside receiver to convert from a streak to a drag route while the running back runs a seam or a streak out of the backfield behind him.
Pin: Outside receiver runs a post, inside slot receiver an in.
Pop: Outside receiver runs a post, slot runs a pivot (slant in slightly before breaking out).
Square: Outside receiver runs a 16-yard in, slot runs an 8-to-10-yard in with a speed (or rounded) cut.
Cube: Three in-routes, a five-yard one (with the option to change to a hitch) from the outside receiver, a 16-yard one from the slot and another 8-to-10-yard one with a speed cut from the next closest receiver (or tight end).
Here's a diagram that shows the last four together:
Burst: The slot receiver runs a "seam-read," which means a seam route with the option to cut to a post or in at the 12-yard mark.
Fin: Outside receiver runs a five-yard in, slot runs a "quick seam-read," which breaks at eight yards instead of 12.
Dolphin: Think "double-fin." The outside receiver runs a five-yard in (with a hitch option), as does the slot, while the next nearest receiver (or tight end) runs a quick-seam.
Backside tags apply to the backside of a formation or play, which can sometimes refer to where the quarterback's eyes go first, not just the strong and weak sides of a formation. They're great for filling in the voids in zone coverage.
Slide: Outside WR cuts inside to the seam, breaks off at 13 yards and reads the linebacker (and either sits down or moves inside) while the inside receiver breaks outside to run a normal streak pattern.
Baxter: This is for use on the backside of a three-WR look, and it stands for "back and X slide, tight-end replace." So the WR runs cuts in for slide as the back streaks behind him, and the tight end takes the back's place as the protection receiver (or outlet).
Spot: This is entirely a "read" tag and calls for the receivers to make a decision based on coverage. The outside receiver will slant in and either continues inside or cuts back out based on the coverage.
Texas: Tight end runs a drag to get underneath the weakside linebacker, while the backside receiver slants deep behind him and either squats or continues in.
Cruise: Tagged receiver moves his split in to the formation two yards and then runs a drag route while the closest receiver or TE runs a corner.
The concepts identified by Gonzalez that I've observed in LSU's repertoire are: vertical, quick, drag, three-level and the two-man game concepts.
We'll start with one of the more blank-canvas-type concepts, vertical, which should look pretty familiar given that it's basically the "four verticals" concept we've discussed in the Air Raid.
Yeah, I know nothing about LSU's offense the last few years has screamed Air Raid, but every passing team, even ones that don't fit the profile of a spread passing team use some variation of an all-streaks or all-vertical play. Sometimes it's out of a two- or three-receiver look, but the rules are more or less the same. The difference is that with an Air Raid team, a concept like this is a way of life, in the same way that the option is just a play for some people and the core concept for Paul Johnson's Georgia Tech team.
The Z receiver in the above diagram runs the route that will be the table-setter here, as the seam-reader. Simply put, he will read the defender head up on him and take the highest angle allowed, be it a slant at six yards, a post or in at 13 or a straight seam route. He should be looking for the ball as soon as he clears any underneath defenders and must cross the face of any defender that plays him head-up in a soft man look. The adjustment might seem complex, but it can be as simple as dictating which cut is run versus which coverage, though film study is important here and the receiver needs to know what he's seeing, and not guessing.
The tight end or other free-releasing inside receiver's job is to get to the opposite hash mark of the seam-reader on a locked seam route. Above we see him doing it from the right side of the formation, but that can vary based on alignment.
The outside receivers will align to the outside edge of the numbers on the field side (wide side of the field) or seven yards from the sideline on the boundary. Both will explode off the line towards the outside shoulder of the cornerback and run a streak. At 15 yards, if the coverage is still giving cushion, such as in cover three or quarters, they can cut off their routes and comeback towards the sideline (the frontside receiver can come inside so long as he doesn't invade the space of the seam-reader). The back here will block and release into a drag route towards the boundary.
The quarterback will take a three-step drop out of the shotgun here, deeper from under center, depending on the number of players in to protect. His first read will be the deep safety, and his depth should tell the QB whether the locked seam will be open as he drops. If the safety has the locked seam covered, the quarterback should have one-on-one with the backside receiver. If the defense takes away the seam with underneath coverage, the quarterback hitches his feet and looks frontside at the seam-reader or outside-wideout. If the strongside linebacker/defensive back drops into his throwing lane, check down to the running back.
Two of the most common tags associated with deep routes are Switch and Replace, mainly because they can create rubs (if we're being honest, rubs are just picks) for receivers versus man coverage. Replace can also let a coordinator get creative when it comes to getting the ball to a back or receiver. Below I diagrammed (rather crudely) a few variations of the concept out of sets we know LSU uses, including some uses of play-action, motion, bootleg protection and the switch/replace tags.
The name comes from not only the depth of the routes, but also the fact that this is three-step throw designed to come out quick. Obviously, this is one of the most basic general concepts -- all receivers run five-yard curl routs, while the back blocks and releases into a flare route out of the backfield. Most offenses just label plays like this "curls" or "all-curls." The basic design is that from the spread the spacing of your receivers will create gaps and throwing lanes. And outside receivers are given the freedom to run a 10-yard fade-stop route if they get press coverage at the line.
But make no mistake; this concept is where tags come into heavy use. Gonzalez dubs the version above Houston, and the other principal variations have city names as well (again, no idea what Kragthorpe and LSU like to use as terminology here):
Seattle (sometimes called slant-arrow)
The beauty of this style is that you can install the base concept in spring practice or fall camp, and then rep the specific combinations of it for specific gameplans. A foundation that can be easily built upon, just like with other offenses we've discussed. The thought also applies to the various tags and such. Below we have a play out of a basic two-TE set that combines the Seattle and Fin tags on either side of the field.
For the quarterback the reads are fairly basic and usually predicated on the flat defender, be it a corner, linebacker or nickel/dime back, usually in "if A, then B" fashion. For example, with Oakland, if the corner is in the flat covering the speed out, the quarterback throws the fade, which if timed correctly should be right in between the corner-safety hole. With Seattle, if the linebacker/DB drifts into the far flat, the throwing lane to the slant will be open. But if he drops into position on the slant the corner should be sufficiently rubbed off for the inside receiver to be open in the flat. In the above diagram, the X receiver's five-yard in should also create room for the running back's flare route against most defenses.
The advantage of this concept versus man-to-man coverage is obvious. Versus zone, the goal is to try and isolate one defender with two receivers as often as possible.