Part 2: Concepts (Part 1 here)
Here, we'll review a couple of the well-known constants to the Air Coryell style, as well as a few that LSU has either used in the past or showed this spring.
This is one of the Coryell concepts that has stood the test of time. A simple grouping of short and intermediate throws with a single deep option to try and push the safeties back. It gets more interesting with the way things evolved. The post, originally designated for the F, or fullback, became the matchup position. Coryell used it for his teams' matchup nightmare, Kellen Winslow, via the backfield, the slot or other off-set tight end spots, depending on where the advantage presented itself. The position has evolved far beyond the F-fullback designation. Some 20 years later, Mike Martz would do the same with Marshall Faulk, a gifted downfield receiver despite being a 5-10 running back. A few years later, Cameron brought the play back to San Diego with a new superstar tight end, Antonio Gates.
Here are a few more images of the play out of other sets, showing the different twists people brought to the design. It's important to note that X,Y, Z, F, etc...can change from playbook to playbook and don't always mean the exact same positions. In Turner's 96 Redskins playbook slot guys are often designated F despite not actually playing fullback. So the pro-set formation you see above can easily translate to a three- or four-receiver formation.
Note: Some of these pictures are hand-drawn, poorly, and some are courtesy the "Playmaker Pro" program, and in the interest of brevity/laziness, I didn't illustrate every single one fully, so if you're wondering why the backs are doing on a particular play...just use your imagination.
This is the play that put Aikman-to-Irvin on the map and set up a lot of short touchdown runs for Emmitt Smith in the early 90s. It's a pure man-to-man coverage beater that attacks the deep safety with the post/dig combination. Whichever receiver that safety tries to bracket, the other will be one-on-one. It's a relatively simple read, but it puts a premium on timing and the receivers getting inside position on their cornerbacks.
Quarterbacks liked to call it the "Bang 8" because it that's how it was supposed to hit. The quarterback gets to the fifth step of his drop right as the X receiver breaks to the post. If he's inside of his corner as he should be, he'll either be wide open or covered by the safety, leaving the Z open on his intermediate cross. Five steps, bang. Playaction can always be added for defenses that rely more on zone coverage, and occasionally the 8 and the 4 are swapped. The Cowboys were a big fan of that due to the attention Irvin tended to draw and No. 2 receiver Alvin Harper's speed.
Here we see how the central post-dig concept can also fit in with others like the popular "mesh" Air-Raid play as well, plus an overload formation to one side of the field.
Here, the Y- attacks the deep middle to set up the comebacks outside. Versus a single-high safety, the result will be one-on-one matchups for the X- and Z-receivers. If there's two high safeties, the Y- can either try to split them down the middle, or at least occupy one to create a one-on-one on one side or the other. And with a quick play-fake, you can help suck up the linebackers to create a better throwing lane for the tight end. And of course, it also really helps if you have a true seam-stretching tight end.
Time to get a little dirty. Cop a feel. Get to second base (no, YOU mix metaphors). That is to say, take the top off the defense. Receivers and the tight end attack down the field, with the idea being that at least two of them will get into one-on-one situations. The quarterback reads the deep safety first, and then picks the best matchup and throws to the first open guy he sees. For zone-heavy defenses, it's easy to couple this concept with a shallow crosses or curls that can take advantage of the defenders getting pulled back by the deeper routes.
So How's This Fit LSU?
How does all of this change things for Zach Mettenberger & Co.? Well, based on what we know from the spring, Cameron has already begun to change how the team practices, and brought the Coryell terminology. There's been a lot of talk of some no-huddle looks and some new looks like the pistol formation, etc..., but I'll try to reserve judgment on that until I know more definitively.
But a big part of why Cameron is such a good fit for LSU is that overall, the general shift in offensive philosophy is not all that dramatic. Cameron and coaches of his ilk want to run for power and create down big plays in the passing game off of that. So if you're in the "ZOMG NO MORE TOSS-LEAD!" crowd, you're likely to be disappointed (also, IT'S NOT A FREAKIN' LEAD PLAY IT'S A POWER PLAY). And while the execution has been lacking at times, that, in general, is what LSU has attempted to do. In fact, a number of the passing concepts I identified in last year's prospectus, throughout the last two seasons, and in April's spring game, are very typical to a Coryell-style attack. The terminology for them might change, but the central ideas, the reads, the routes, etc..., won't.
Also known as the Flood or Three-Level concept, this play should look pretty familiar, as its one that we've talked about a bunch of times and something that LSU had a lot of success with last season, including a few of Mettenberger's touchdown passes. It works out of a lot of different personnel groups, both base and spread sets, and is designed to stretch a zone defense vertically to create positive matchups -- either by forcing one defender to account for two receivers, or by essentially creating man-to-man situations.
This is done by running a deep, intermediate and short receiver all into one third of the field, be it outside of either hash mark or in between them. The reads were covered in last year's prospectus, and they don't really change that much in Cameron's style. The Z-receiver runs a post or a streak, with the idea being to push back at least one, if not two deep defenders. The Y- runs an out at eight yards, free to sit down in any coverage hole he can find, with a back, tight end or some other free-releasing receiver running into the flat.
Versus two- or three-deep zone defenses, this will either put the flat defender in a bind and force him to choose between the Y- or the flat receiver; or basically force a curl-area defender or the outside corner to single up on the Y- or the Z-. And of course, if the defense overloads the front side of the concept, it'll put the X- in a one-on-one situation versus a corner or safety.
This concept applies to some other variations as well.
Same principles, slightly different execution, with a slot receiver taking the top off the defense (snicker) with a choice route, or a basic deep option route that can break to the post or the corner depending on where the open space is. Z- runs a comeback, Y- goes to the flat where the underneath defenders are again, in a bind due to the room the deep route creates. Mettenberger had a lot of success with this play against Alabama last season, and also threw a 79-yard touchdown to Odell Beckham Jr. on the choice route in the Spring Game.
There are also variants of this play that are designed to stretch the defense down the middle, as you'll see on the list below.
Note: the top-left pic above is obviously showing a play-action variation on this concept.
459 Horizontal Stretch
Same route numbered route combination but coupled with an out from a slot receiver designed to stretch the defense horizontally, similar to the 2-man, or Y-stick concept. Z- pushes his man deep and create room for the slot man, while the Y- runs his stick route, free to cut outside if it helps create situation. The idea being that each route from the outside-in creates room for the next guy on the front side. Quarterback reads the play by scanning inside-out quickly, so that if the outside deep route is open, he'll know quickly. Once again, with a backside dig if the defense overcompensates.
This got a lot of play in the spring game, suggesting a level of comfort from Mettenberger and the other QBs.
Mettenberger hit Dillon Gordon for a 15-yard score on this play, and it's a great red-zone call because most teams love zone in that area of the field with the safeties split to help the corners. Frankly, it's easier to trust the linebackers covering a tight end when they just won't have to get too deep, and the back of the endzone helps in that regard. When you have taller tight ends like Gordon or Logan Stokes (6-6 and 6-5), the QB can simply zip it high where either his guy can make the catch or the pass sails out of bounds.
And if one of the safeties hug the inside, the quarterback just aims for the back pylon to that side and sees if he can hit the corner. Ideally, he should have some idea whether he's throwing inside or out before the snap.
Not much to explain here, it's a pretty simple play-action concept that LSU used a couple times in the spring game. Fake the outside zone run one way, bootleg the QB away from it with an intermediate cross (for this play the 2-route is just a bit deeper to try and get behind the linebackers) and a comeback on the play side. The tight end can always release into the flat as a dump-off, or, it's also easy for the running back to turn his fake into a wheel route up the backside sideline. Easy in-game adjustments. But for the most part, this is one of those "it's there or throw it away" type of plays. But they also keep a defense on its toes on obvious run downs.
Like I said, a big part of why Cameron should mesh well with the current LSU coaching staff is that stylistically, any changes aren't going to be radical, and again, they don't need to be. The vibe this spring seemed more focused on the basics, like the route structure and terminology, while Cameron and the players felt each other out. He made it very clear he wanted to see what Mettenberger and the offense did well first, and then fit things around that. Between that, and Les Miles' desire to show as little as possible in public, should tell you both while the spring game was so vanilla and why the quarterbacks called their own plays. Once you know what concepts bring the most comfort and familiarity, you have a good idea of where to build out from. Things like new formations (pistol), no-huddle and any spread running packages to utilize Anthony Jennings won't become evident until the fur starts to fly in the fall.
If there's a clear-cut goal to watch for, it's more offensive efficiency. First-down yards-per-play. Passing yards-per-attempt and completion percentage. Third-down and red-zone conversion rates. Those little stats are what lead to the big stats that everybody wants to see, namely higher point and total offense totals.
I still believe the offense is not as far away as some want to think. Mettenberger was an improvement over [QBs redacted], and gameplanning, by and large, wasn't horrible in 2012. The Tigers scored points on their first or second possession of almost every game, which indicates that the staff usually came in with a good idea of what they wanted to try and do. They just got lost in the flow of the game too many times. Good playcalling is about understanding an offense's strengths and weaknesses and how they fit to the opponent amidst the changing circumstances of a game. And LSU struggled with the last part of that equation too many times last season. Cameron's arrival will not mean that LSU will never call another bad play ever again. But he does bring another voice to the table. One that Les Miles brought to town with something specific in mind, and one with some pretty strong credentials. It's going to be exciting to watch.