If there is one thing that I’ve learned as I’ve studied offensive perspectives in football over the last few years, it’s that creativity, while a buzzword that fans tend to dwell on, is an overrated quality.
Sure, it’s great when a coach has that perfect play call that catches the defense completely unaware, but that’s a tactic. It’s not a strategy that can be sustained. The best offenses focus on simple concepts and grow out from there.
At its core, Matt Canada’s offense focuses on running the football and creating explosive plays in the passing game. The creativity comes in the motions and shifts that we’ve discussed, but the purpose of those tactics are largely to expose the defense and create matchups in a way that assist with the central strategy. And when something works, he’ll stick with it – see our previous posts on Canada’s use of the shovel-pass and jet-sweep last season at Pitt.
The running game will be heavy on the inside and outside zone plays, and the window dressing will add some really interesting twists to the play-action passing game. But overall, Canada’s air attack is the same type of conceptual approach that most teams, including LSU under previous leadership, use.
To refresh, the idea of a passing concept is a particular route combination that is designed to influence a defense in a particular way. Sometimes that involves isolating a particular defender or matchup, and sometimes that involves stretching a secondary in a particular way.
There are several types of stretch concepts, mostly vertical or horizontal, designed to create space in a secondary in one of those two directions. But when coaches like Bill Walsh and Don Coryell began to develop what we consider the modern passing game, they began to focus more on what we call “triangle” stretches; three routes spaced in an area of the field, usually at a short, intermediate and deep length in a way that combine aspects of the horizontal and vertical stretches.
Chris Brown wrote the original primer on this concept back in 2011, which I strongly recommend reading.
Triangle stretches have a unique versatility against multiple types of zone coverage, usually by flooding an area with enough targets to either put one defender into conflict, or isolate each of them on a receiver, and in effect, create man-coverage. If a defense overloads the play-side, the concept can be packaged with a basic man-to-man coverage beater like a deep cross, post or comeback route to the other side of the field. As we’ll detail, a lot of coordinators like to package zone-beaters to one side with man on the other, so the quarterback has multiple options based on the defensive look.
These plays are all largely ubiquitous across the sport at every level, and LSU’s run them under every coordinator in the last few years. Here, we’ll discuss some of Canada’s favorites and how he’s implemented them.
The “spot,” or “snag” concept is sometimes called “triangle” in playbooks, and is the most basic stretch play, as you can see in the above diagram. An in-breaking curl, corner route and flat route form the three points, and the quarterback reads it outside-in, short-to-deep. Even with three receivers in the area, it’s a basic if/then kind of read. If the flat is covered, the curl or corner will likely be open.
Spot is versatile in that it fits a ton of formations and personnel groupings, play-action included. LSU had its share of success with this concept last season once Danny Etling took over at QB. Here’s an example of Etling hitting Foster Moreau for a big play versus Texas A&M.
From 11 personnel, D.J. Chark motions to a strong-side bunch with Moreau and Colin Jeter, then runs to the flat. The play-action holds the defense on a blitz and Moreau gets free release into open space.
Watching 2016 Pitt clips, Spot was easily one of the most common plays called, and it’s a natural combination with the aforementioned jet sweep motion. And of course, he also found a way to package it with the shovel option.
The shovel provides another constraint to the defense against edge pressure, and the motion can create a free release and a very easy throw. It also helps if you have a great space player, like Pitt’s Quadree Henderson.
Here, we see another call in which Nathan Peterman scrambles for the first on third-and-four, although he misses a possible touchdown on the corner.
Here are a few more looks from Canada’s time at Northern Illinois:
The “Stick” concept, also popularly known as Y-Stick, straightens out the triangle a little bit.
A vertical release outside takes the top off the defense, a quick out or flat route stretches the defense to the sideline, and creates space for the “stick” route, a seven-yard curl that will break away from the nearest defender, to the left or right. Here, the quarterback reads inside out, looking for the stick first. If he’s covered, chances are the next out he has is running to green grass.
Stick is usually associated with the Air Raid, but it works out of any set where you can put three targets to a side, with backs and tight ends. But for the quick game it’s great out of a trips receiver look.
Both of these examples also show the play packaged with a man beater on the back side, which can also help when an offense moves fast. It’s essentially two different play-calls that work versus either man or zone and with personnel that can be easily manipulated by formation. Our next concept remains popular for that reason as well.
Named for the inside, out-breaking option route that ultimately sets the table, “Y-Sail” is also known as a flood concept. It’s a great example to illustrate how the Air Raid, at its heart, still draws back on classic pro-style passing concepts.
The most memorable example of this play from an LSU perspective is the game winner from the Arkansas game in 2013, when freshman Anthony Jennings found Travin Dural for a 49-yard touchdown in the final minutes.
It’s probably appropriate for the rest of Jennings’ tenure here that this isn’t, typically, how the sail concept works. The outside receiver runs a go route, mostly to stretch the coverage. The quarterback will decide between the sail and flat routes based on how the curl-area defender reacts. If he drops into the intermediate throwing lane, the flat should be open. If he plays the shorter route, the sail will be open. The play does put a little more emphasis on the tagged receiver making the correct read – he’ll either curl, or break to the sideline or the corner based on the nearest defender and the open space.
In the LSU example, the call was designed to take advantage of the extra attention Arkansas was paying to Jarvis Landry. He suggested the play-call on the sideline and instructed Jennings to stare him down in hopes of drawing the deep safety. That, plus a fantastic route from Juice allowed Dural to have a one-on-one matchup and he just ran by the corner. Typically, the deep route is a “glance” read: the quarterback will give it a look to see if there’s no safety and a good matchup, but will largely focus on the intermediate and short options.
Sail fits almost every formation/personnel grouping, but like the others here, it can be easily packaged with a man-coverage concept on the back side. Brown, back when Grantland was still a thing, does a great job of detailing how the New England Patriots were using it out of base personnel in multiple formations when using tempo.
Here, we see Canada’s NIU offense working Sail off of play-action, out of a diamond formation with the two upbacks running the sail and flat routes.
Here, we see it with the jet sweep motion at NC State for a very easy completion.
Which brings us back to the jet motion, as previously discussed. It’s the kind of simple constraint that can help both running and passing games, especially with concepts that feature a target in the flat. A wheel route into the boundary could also work in some of these concepts as well, especially with a deeper drop for the quarterback drop.
Much like his approach to the running game, Canada’s style of passing isn’t completely foreign from what LSU fans are used to. But it could be a lot of fun to watch how his little twists and variations on it develop over the coming year.