Starting Small: A Prospectus For the 2014 LSU Passing Game

Al Messerschmidt

A look at what Cam Cameron might be thinking about as he rebuilds the LSU offense.

We've talked about the 2013 LSU offense from a lot of angles. What we thought it would be. What it was. And now we face a rebuilding year. Cam Cameron's going to have to earn that hefty paycheck, right? Especially with a starting quarterback that will either A) be a true sophomore with a single start in which he played poorly or B) a true freshmen that has been on campus for six months.

How much production is LSU replacing again?

  • 81 percent of total yardage (4,794/5,893)
  • 67 percent of total touchdowns (41/67)
  • 94 percent of passing yardage (3,082/3,263)
  • 95 percent of passing touchdowns (22/23)
  • 70 percent of rushing yardage (1,845/2,630)
  • 54 percent of rushing touchdowns (20/37)
  • 83 percent of receptions (170/205)
  • 84 percent of receiving yardage (2,748/3,263)
  • 86 percent of receiving touchdowns (20/23)

Yikes. But for all of the numbers that we exulted from last season, one matters more than any other: 57.1. LSU's insane third-down conversion percentage. Points, yards, all great. But the most important quality the Tigers had in 2013 was that they were incredibly efficient. On top of the nation's best third-down rate, LSU punted just three times a game and turned two-thirds of their red-zone opportunities into touchdowns.

That kind of drive efficiency is the bedrock of strong offenses. Big plays are awesome and LSU's 88 plays of 20 yards or more, the fifth-highest total in the country, were hugely important. But if you do the little things well it almost always translates to the big, flashy numbers. Converting third-down and red-zone opportunities is the easiest way to turn 400-plus yards a game into 30-40 points.

Now, all that said, I feel pretty comfortable in predicting that LSU will NOT convert 57 percent on third down in 2014. In a given season, maybe 10 teams will even top the 50 percent mark. So there's still quite a lot of room for the Tigers to find ways to string drives together.

For starters, increase rushing production on first down. LSU ran the ball on 68 percent of first downs in 2013, at 4.86 yards per carry -- a three-year low. Now, the Tigers did average an outstanding 16 yards per pass completion, but that was one of the fantastic features of last year's offense: having the SEC's best receiving tandem and a senior quarterback. LSU used two backs and at least one or two tight ends (aka 21 or 22 personnel) on 66 percent of their plays last season. They could line up in the I-formation, put Odell Beckham Jr. and/or Jarvis Landry outside, and with Jeremy Hill in the backfield defenses had two choices: bring a safety into the box and try to cover the receivers one-on-one, or keep a safety back and give LSU a numbers advantage in the running game. That also creates a perfect environment to take shots down the field with play-action, especially with a quarterback that is smart enough to orchestrate it all.

While LSU won't have that same luxury in 2014, they will have another way to create mismatches with spread formations. There may not be the singular threats that Beckham, Landry or Hill were, but with Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, and Desean Smith in addition to the running game, Cameron can still force the defenses into mismatches either against receivers individually or in the running game. Spread the field, and the defense still has to make that same choice -- cover everybody one-on-one with an extra man in the box, or keep the safeties deep and allow a very good, very experienced offensive line to have a numbers advantage. And that numbers advantage only increases with a quarterback that can run the ball himself.

Now that isn't to say that LSU will become a spread team. That's never going to be this program's identity. The I-formation will still be a huge part of this offense, but I doubt it accounts for two-thirds of the offensive sets again.

That's also going to put an onus on those young quarterbacks to keep the defense honest with their arms. In 2013, Mettenberger's ability to make plays down the field made up for the fact that first-down was arguably his worst. He only completed 63.6 percent of his passes, compared to 66 and 65 on second and third and also threw four of his eight interceptions on that down. Chances are, neither Jennings nor Harris will have that kind of accuracy on what are typically low-percentage throws, and Cameron will have to be very measured in how often he asks them to attempt those type of passes.

Which brings us to a topic that I've talked about often in the last few months: managing a passing attack to help out a young, inexperienced passer.

It's not really that difficult of a concept -- it was probably the single most frustrating thing about the Gary Crowton Era here in Baton Rouge. Teams do it all the time. Alabama has won national championships doing it with green quarterbacks like Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron, and experienced coordinators with pro-style backgrounds, like Norm Chow, Al Borges (looking at the overall span of his career and not his Michigan failure), Mark Richt, Paul Chryst, Bobby Petrino, Jim McElwain, and David Cutcliffe have been doing it for years. Using easier, higher-percentage throws early on, a quarterback can find his rhythm and build his confidence while the defense is kept off balance, creating better opportunities to take shots down field later on.

It didn't quite work out, but Cameron employed this strategy in the Outback Bowl. In the first quarter, Jennings passes charted as follows:

  • A designed rollout throw to Jeremy Hill on a short curl route
  • Stick route to Jarvis Landry
  • A play-action bootleg that was thrown away
  • Sack on third-and-seven
  • Play-action waggle to Connor Neighbors
  • Stick route to Jarvis Landry
  • A tailback screen to Alfred Blue.

By and large, Jennings handled this load well enough, and in the second quarter Cameron opened things up and let him try a few more throws down the field. Unfortunately, Jennings misfired on those passes, and badly overthrew a crossing route for an interception, but that doesn't mean that Cameron didn't have the right idea.

There are a lot of ways to accomplish this. One of the most obvious ways to do this is with the screen game. That's something LSU has struggled with, but could rebound this season with Jeff Grimes' emphasis on a leaner, quicker offensive line and more spread looks. Plus, Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard have some experience in the passing game, and Leonard Fournette had some 600 yards receiving as a senior, so he's not exactly foreign to catching the ball either.

But using last year as a reference, look for roll-out and waggle plays off of play-action. LSU didn't use those very often last season, because it wasn't exactly Mettenberger's forte, especially with an unblocked defensive end. Still, it was very effective at times.



It's a great way to get the ball to a runner in space or, in short-yardage situations, a constraint to the power running game that can catch the defense off guard a bit. It can also work with H-back tight ends, especially in motion. It's not something you can live on, but with clever planning it can keep a defense off balance early on.

This style of pass also brings up something we've talked about before, the idea of a "one read" passing concept. Most people associate this idea with quarterbacks like Cam Newton or Michael Vick. The idea of "if the first receiver isn't there, take off and run." And sometimes that's the case, be it on a designed roll or bootleg play designed to put the quarterback on the edge, or in the case of a guy like Newton, where the quarterback is that explosive of a running threat.

But "one read" concepts are just as common in the typical pro-style passing game, particularly at the college level. Coaches like Norm Chow love to simplify reads for their quarterbacks by breaking the field down by half or even down to an area like the flat. We talked about this previously when LSU played Washington in 2012:

We'd be lying if we said we sat up in the box and knew what coverages were being run. What we try to do is take a portion of the football field, the weak flat for example, and we will attack that until we can figure out what the defense's intentions are. Then we try to attack the coverage that we see. It is very difficult to cover the whole field. We are not going to try to fool anybody. We are going to take little portions of the field and try to attack them until the defense declares what it intends to do.
-- Norm Chow

When you wonder why quarterbacks in pro-style systems that are incredibly efficient, seem to have all of the tools but aren't necessarily great NFL prospects, it's because what they're running, complex though it may seem, is actually quite simple. Examples being most of the USC quarterbacks of the last 15 years or a guy like A.J. McCarron. They're rarely reading the whole field or making that many adjustments to the called play, that's just hid by scheme and the talent level of their teammates.

The slant and the stick route are probably two of the most important routes here. LSU used the latter of those extensively last year -- it was arguably Jarvis Landry's best route. It's essentially an option route, where the receiver breaks right or left at about six or seven yards, turning away from the coverage and finding the open space. Cameron employed this early against Iowa through what we've identified as a horizontal stretch concept.

Levels_medium_medium

via assets.sbnation.com

The trips formation overloads the defense on one side, the outside go route pushes the safety back and the curl/flat area defender will have to choose which inside man he wants to shadow in zone coverage. Therefore, the quarterback simply has to read that defender and throw away from him. If the defense tries to cover all three, it simply creates a man-to-man situation.

LSU didn't use the slant quite as much last year. Why? I can't really say, but it's such a ubiquitous route in pro-style offenses because you can use it to attack almost every type of coverage. Off, press or shades inside or out. The most important key is for the wide receiver to "win inside." That is to say, make sure he forces the cornerback to turn his shoulder and open his hips to the quarterback, so that the receiver can get underneath on the break. Here's a tutorial on attacking different leverages from the corner.


The other great thing about the slant is that it can create combinations that isolate a single defender easily. One great example is the slant/arrow concept.

Quick_seattle_medium

via assets.sbnation.com

Outside man runs a slant, while an inside receiver, be from the slot or tight end position, runs an "arrow," or a flat route angled slightly up the field. The combination attacks the closest outside defender. See the below diagram for an example.

Slant-arrow_medium

via latitudefootball.files.wordpress.com

The weakside defender marked "W" here can be an outside linebacker or a nickel/dime corner, but either way how he breaks will determine the throw here. If he drops into the curl/flat area in zone, the quarterback just throws the underneath arrow for a short gain. If he breaks to the flat, there will be a clear throwing lane to the slant right behind his head.

The double-slant concept is another Chow favorite, a classic BYU concept that has been timeless.

Slide3_jpg_medium

via cdn1.sbnation.com

(The Only Colors has a fantastic piece on some of the concepts Michigan State used last season.)

It's the same principle and isolates the same defender, only with two slant routes instead of one. Quarterback reads the nearest outside man in coverage and throws the slant with the best lane. It's only "one read," because he's only reading one man, even though there are two receivers involved.

Here's an example of Sparty using it for an easy completion.


The Only Colors referenced another simplified concept that Cameron tried out very early in the Outback Bowl:

Hill motions to the outside of Landry, and the two run what is known as a "Smash" concept. Basically, a corner route run on top of a curl.

Eihmjv4_medium

The smash is a great zone beater because it puts the pressure on the play-side corner and safety, and forces them to cover one route or the other one-on-one. In LSU's case it worked in multiple ways: Hill's motion forces the defense to declare the coverage pre-snap; plus, the addition of the designed roll-out isolates the concept in Jennings' eyes and puts him on the edge in case there's an opportunity to pick up yards with his legs. Now, Iowa runs a pressure right into Jennings role, disrupting the timing, plus Hill slips on the wet turf and can't quite get his hands on the ball, but again the concept is sound.

Smash is an easy way to attack cover two, because the cornerback should be held by the curl route. If the slot receiver runs his route correctly he'll challenge the safety on the hash and push him straight back, allowing him to break to the corner and create some separation. That also creates a safe throw for the quarterback -- if the ball is thrown high and outside, either the receiver will be able to get to it or it will sail out of bounds.

Of course versus cover three, the inside man should still push the coverage back enough to create a safe throw on the curl.

Conclusion

This is not meant to serve as any sort of panacea of what LSU will run in the passing game in 2014. The central tenants of the offense won't change. Spread formations, pistol, some option -- LSU is still going to run the football and attack down the field off of play-action.

What these plays offer are a way for the offense to keep defenses off balance early on, to create more room for what should still be an outstanding running game. From there the quarterback finds his comfort zone, and that opens the big-play opportunities down the field. LSU might not average 10 yards per pass attempt on third down again in 2014, but if they can increase their completion percentage and slightly improve in the running game, they should be in position to again convert third downs at a nice rate, string drives together, and have another damn strong, balanced attack.

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