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Breaking Down Denbrock Part 1: Passing Game

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Part 1 of 3 of a look at LSU’s new offensive coordinator

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NCAA Football: Cincinnati at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

So LSU has made a very Brian Kelly hire at OC. It’s not the direction I’d have gone, but it’s squarely in the realm of “fine,” which has really been Brian Kelly’s MO on offense for his entire recent career. I have some major hangups with this offense.

They don’t use NEARLY enough play-action, which puts a lot of processing stress on the QB (one of the lowest PA rates in the country, even lower than 2021 LSU), they don’t use enough bunches, stacks, or condensed alignments to scheme releases against man coverage (take a look at Georgia, Tennessee, the Rams, or Ole Miss for examples on building systems and concepts around that), they are a bit too dependent on inside zone for the modern game (see North Carolina for a more gap-scheme heavy approach, Baylor for a wide-zone driven approach, or Liam Coen’s Kentucky for an approach that does everything frequently and well), they don’t attack the 3rd level in the RPO game as much as I’d like to see (see 2019 LSU, Ole Miss, Western Michigan, Kent State, and North Carolina), and they throw WAY too many goal-line fades. Denbrock’s offense is one I really would have absolutely loved in 2015, bearing some similarities to very good offenses of that age. That said, this ain’t the NFL, where change takes multiple years. College football changes like lightning.

That said, this isn’t a bad offense. It’s coherent, which is more than we could say for last year’s approach. The very spread-out nature of their player alignments is dangerous if you don’t have multiple high-end 1 v 1 route winners, as it’s harder to scheme releases/play routes off each other, but LSU often recruits those kinda guys. The concepts are a bit standard but not terrible and it is a cohesive system with answers for things. Clearly, it can perform well, as it was one of college football’s better units last year. If LSU fills it with high-end talent, which is required to compete regardless, this offense can perform at a high level.

Let’s take a look at the passing game.

Dropback Passing

My biggest hangup with this offense is that it just doesn’t use nearly enough play-action. Play-action is becoming more and more of a critical element for the operation of modern passing games. In addition to preying on favorable looks and putting defenders in significant conflict, it makes the QB’s life dramatically easier by clearing up the picture, defining reads, and scheming open easy looks. For Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder, play-action constituted only 25.1% of dropbacks per PFF. For comparison, that is LESS than Max Johnson a year ago, who played in offense very low on PA, and dramatically lower than the ideal set by the likes of Ole Miss’ Matt Corral at 60.4%, Kent State’s Dustin Crum at 54.5%, or Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker at 54.0%. That doesn’t even include RPOs, which these offenses run at an incredibly high rate as well. The point I’m trying to make is that modern offenses have figured out how to generate massive returns in the passing game while making the QB process very, very little. All you need in those offenses is a somewhat talented pure thrower of the football, and that isn’t that hard to scout or find. As a result, these “superspread” offenses, as coined by PFF’s Seth Galina, have nerfed their offenses for the QB and ensure high-end production in the passing game despite very flawed QBs (Cough, Drew Lock).

It isn’t just these Heupel/Briles tree “superspread” offenses that do this; Steve Sarkisian has managed to merge the Lane Kiffin-Mike Locksley Alabama RPO game with some Kyle Shanahan play-action elements that he picked up in the NFL to ease the burden on the QB in an RPO, PA heavy system. That said, despite the dropback-heavy nature of the offense, it isn’t as insanely demanding as offenses like the air raid or Texas A&M’s full-on NFL offense. It uses RPOs, the concepts are good and not too complex, and it can absolutely work at a good level if LSU gets the players it needs. That last point is something LSU needs to do regardless of any system. Let’s take a look at some of the concepts used

Spacing

One of Denbrock’s favorite concepts is spacing, which is an NFL staple. Here it is in Kyle Shanahan’s playbook. The idea is to flood the underneath zones and put the zone defenders in horizontal conflict. It is effective against both cover 3 and quarters (or Tampa 2 to the over-the-ball route, as in the second gif), as those structures have 4 and 3 defenders underneath respectively, with 5 routes. The read for Denbrock seems to be the middle linebacker. If he opens to one side you work the concept to the other side, as the outside-most defender there will be in curl/flat conflict. It may also be progression-based, going over-the-ball to curl to flat. I’m not entirely sure since they shake out the same way, just a different way of approaching it. Without their playbook, I can’t be sure.

Inside the Pylon

You can really see that idea play out when you look at the zone structure in quarters. That middle linebacker opens to one side, the outside linebacker is conflicted between curl and flat. If he stays on the over-the-ball route, both OLBs are. The idea of this concept is to space out the underneath zones and create the horizontal conflict underneath that 3 or 4-deep coverages are weak against.

Snag

Snag is the other major element of Mike Denbrock’s quick game. This is an answer against cover 2 and to a lesser extent, cover 1, but is a versatile concept. Against cover 2, the QB can throw the corner route behind the CB who is defending the flat. If the CB deepens and takes the corner route, you have the curl/flat defender in conflict between, well, the curl and the flat. Think about it like spacing but with a corner route instead of an over the ball route. Against man coverage, you can force the linebacker to match the running back fast into the flat which can be tough (second gif, for instance), and can get you some free yards.

Switch-Out

Against man coverage, one of their answers is to simply run a switch release-out concept between the 2 and 3 receivers from a 3x1 set. This is an answer for Denbrock when he knows a team is going to play man coverage. There are coverages like Nick Saban’s “zeke” that are meant to handle this (inside defender takes the inside route from 2 or 3, the outside defender takes the outside route from 2 or 3), but against cover 1 it has given them some success.

Kelly Mesh

Niners Nation

Denbrock isn’t a huge mesh guy, running really only 2 variations, and only 1 with any frequency. The variation used is the now ubiquitous “Kelly mesh.” Popularized by now-UCLA head coach Chip Kelly, this variant of mesh involves a quick wheel, or “rail” route from the running back, an over-the-ball sit route, and the two crossers that constitute mesh. On the backside, you can put a dig route, an alert fade, a go route, pretty much whatever you want to tag. This is good against man coverage of course, as the shallow crossers create a natural rub. Additionally, the man defender on the running back has to really fly out there to get the rail route, which is thrown quickly. Air Raid legend and Houston HC Dana Holgorsen noted in a clinic on mesh once that linebackers very, very often fail to get out quick enough.

Special+Dagger

Sean Payton, Twitter

One of Mike Denbrock’s favorite concepts, both in the dropback game and play-action is this special+dagger concept. The picture above, of Sean Payton’s “All Go Special X Shallow” concept (run by 2019 LSU as well) shows what a “special” route is. It is a middle read route by the number 3 receiver in 3x1, very often paired with a shallow cross by the number 1 to the front-side, often in a tight split. The idea here is to put in conflict the cornerback in single-high. If he stays shallow with the X receiver or nub TE, there’s a chasm of space behind him, see below:

Against Cover 3, you can take advantage of a rule known as “3 up is 3.” This rule means (seen executed really well in the gif v Houston there) that the weak hook defender has to carry the number 3 receiver downfield. If your number 3 is fast and the hook is...not, you can get something like this:

What Denbrock does, which I like, is put dagger (vertical route with a dig breaking underneath) behind it. This is a good 2 high beater, making this a good anytime call for explosive plays in the pass game. In the play-action section, there is a good example of the concept getting the dig open against quarters. Here, the dig gets open against a cover 3 concept where the apex defender runs with the vertical route by number 2, creating space for the dig underneath it. The Green Bay Packers and HC Matt LaFleur (my favorite NFL offense before they traded Davante Adams) produce a lot on this concept at the NFL level.

4 Verts

Another of their favorite dropback concepts is standard 4 verts. They will sometimes run it in cool ways, but the most often way they run it is just straight up off of dropback. 4 verts is versatile, with route conversions like benders in the middle and stops on the outside if the receiver can’t get vertical on their defender. 4 verts is particularly good against spot dropping, true zone cover 3, as it is weak in the seams (see above). I think against modern defenses, you have to dress 4 verts up or run it differently for it to be as effective as it once was. Quarters is rapidly becoming a dominant defensive structure, and it is very effective against dropback 4 verts. With the 4 deep defenders capping vertical routes and the underneath defenders getting depth to squeeze any bent route conversions by the inside receivers, it can be stopped. What some teams do, like Tennessee under Josh Heupel, for instance, is run it on play-action to suck the 2nd level defenders up, throwing benders behind them to slot receivers in rhythm. Additionally, against cover 1 or cover 3, to scheme up open receivers instead of relying on sideline go ball shots or difficult seam throws, teams will dress it up.

Here is Ole Miss running it on play-action in what amounts to an over and a seam wheel off switch release. Filthy when the defender has to pick up the switch and carry him vertically in the seam. 4 verts has to be much more dressed up in the modern-day than just a spread-out, 3 or 4 open set with receivers running verts.

Here it is against cover 1. The sideline shot is really only favorable if your receiver is elite AND your QB is deadly accurate. That’s a low percentage shot. Ole Miss, for comparison again, with bunches, switch releases, running backs in the seam, wheel routes, etc, dresses up the same general concept of 4 vertical routes in a way that gives the QB easier throws for big gains. 4 verts has to be adapted to stay explosive.

Another of Denbrock’s most utilized passing concept is the air-raid style of Y cross. You have the go ball, the out-breaking route in the flat, the crosser, and the backside dig. The out-breaking route is designed to keep the flat defender from being able to sink and squeeze the crossing route. Below you can see Ridder working through the progression to the backside dig. This is another good all-purpose call, but is particularly effective against cover 3.

PLAY ACTION

As stated earlier, this offense doesn’t use play-action nearly as much as I’d like, so I’ll mostly be looking at concepts I really liked that I wished they would use more, with the exception of 989, Mills, and double post, which they use pretty frequently.

This is something I hope becomes a fixture next season. This concept is a comeback route from the nub TE, a high cross from the number 3 receiver, and a post from the number 2. The coverage looks to be busted here but this is filthy against cover 3 particularly, while also being useful against quarters. The formation here is trips nub, which is really difficult to deal with in single high alignments. The problem for defenses is that the corner has to be in the run fit because of the nub alignment. In single high, this is a serious problem because he also is responsible for carrying the nubbed TE vertically. He is thus, in a ton of conflict and susceptible to play action. If the MOF safety shades over to take him, that post from number 2 is wide open. If he doesn’t and stays deep middle, the corner is in a bind between the comeback route there and the high cross. The high cross + post or double post (pretty similar in structure) is one of Denbrock’s favorite PA concepts, and he puts it with other routes around it to dress it up. It’s very effective against quarters provided the frontside safety is held by a route, as you can put the backside safety in a bind. If he runs with the first post, it creates a ton of space for the other. Trips nub is a major weapon in a modern offense, and I hope Mike Denbrock makes this formation, and concepts like this out of it, a major fixture of the offense.

A favorite PA concept of Denbrock is Mills. The idea of a Mills concept is simple, a post behind a dig puts a half field or quarters safety in conflict. If he stays deep to take the post, throw the dig, and vice versa. The fade route to the other side holds the boundary safety and keeps him from foxing the backside Mills post. The post runner can employ what looks like a “jerk stem” to influence the corner outside and create inside leverage to run into space. Here it is against quarter-quarter-half, which is cover 2 (CB in flat, half field safety) to one side, and quarters to the other. Mills is being run to the quarters side. With elite speed and talent at WR, this should be an effective fixture.

Another of their favorite PA concepts is “989.” 989 is a very simple concept, it is 2 vertical read routes on the outside and a middle read route inside. The outside receivers can either go vertical (the default), or stop their route and come back if they can’t get vertical leverage. The inside receiver will run a post between the safeties against 2 high and bend his route into more of a deep over against single high. This is a favorite of the Bucs, as it takes advantage of elite vertical threats/ball winners on the outside, but requires a really accurate QB to take full advantage of, as these windows can be tight. 2019 LSU generated so many of its highlights on this play, and it is now the go-to shot play of the Bengals

Very familiar sight for LSU fans

I only saw this concept once or twice but I hope it becomes a fixture, it’s just a great way to scheme open an explosive play that’s easy on the QB.

Here is their double post concept, mentioned earlier, against cover 0 on Max Protection. I like double post.

This is the same “Special+Dagger” concept I mentioned in the dropback section, just off a play fake. The second gif shows how the intermediate middle is opened by quarters. The field safety has to account for number 2 vertically, and the linebacker is pulled out of the window by the shallow from the weak side. By the time the field apex (first defender inside the corner) is able to find the dig route, it’s past him and into space. This does require the QB be able to read those 2nd level defenders and throw with good timing and anticipation.

Lastly, another PA concept I saw a few times was Giant. This was Joe Burrow’s favorite concept at LSU, and I wrote about it here. It’s a great, versatile concept that, if you can hold those underneath defenders (or even suck up a safety or 2, PA is good for that), is a great anytime call against a lot of back-end shells. Hope to see a lot of it.


So that’s a breakdown of the most featured elements of the passing game, along with some that I just liked and would love to see more of next season. The next two parts will feature the run game and RPOs respectively.