The quarterback position has always been defined by the mental difficulty it places on its inhabitants. Synonymous with the position are images of laser-minded technicians seeing into the matrix, making sense of a mass of bodies, and finding their targets on time. Raw processing after the snap is probably the hardest thing a (talented) quarterback has to do. Reading defender positioning and leverage, working through a progression, and simultaneously evading rushers requires incredible mental precision and reactivity.
What if there were another way, at least at the college level? Introducing the Action Offense. The “Action Offense” isn’t itself a specific system, but a broad set of offenses unified only in their use of heavy amounts of backfield action (play-action and RPOs) as the bedrock of their offense. Within this umbrella label, there are multiple specific systems (ie the Heupel/Briles offense), but any offense that gives their QB a high percentage of attempts with backfield action, any offense that uses PA and RPOs as the foundation of their passing game, qualifies. So, while Western Michigan and Steve Sarkisian at Texas, for example, may not be running the Briles offense, they are still running what I would label an “action offense” because they center their offense around RPOs and Play-Action. In these offenses, the QB’s processing burden is greatly reduced, often only having to make a simple read with a clear picture. So while a talented thrower is still needed for the downfield play-action portion, you do not need an advanced processor. Talented throwers you can find much more easily. Advanced QB processing at the college level is a fairly rare trait, but raw throwing ability is far less rare. It isn’t hard for big programs to find high-end pure throwers in the portal or in the High School ranks. It’s also a far easier quality to project and translate from level to level.
The most processing burden is carried on straight drop-back reps when defenders are not placed into run/pass conflict. This allows them to commit to their coverage responsibility, which creates a dirtier picture for the QB and a more difficult read. Additionally, spread offenses that put 4-5 in a dropback concept give the QB a lot to work through without heavy protection keeping them clean. Additionally, straight dropback forces your OL into true pass sets and allows the defenders to commit to rushing the passer, leading to a greater threat of pressure. More dropback-heavy offenses will also require the QB to work the middle of the field with a dirty picture in front of him, which requires incredibly precise technique. You have to read defender leverage and positioning right or you risk throwing to a linebacker. Windows close quicker there too, so your timing has to be perfect and you have to react and throw with anticipation. All of this while looking at a bunch of bodies. In those situations, your QB’s process is sped-up and strained. Action offenses like North Carolina, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Arkansas, Western Michigan, Kent State, and Texas are able to minimize the post-snap process of the QB, allowing them to keep things simple, and allowing their pure throwing talent to shine through. That’s not to say they NEVER run straight dropback concepts, it’s just not the basis of their passing game.
In short, the idea is that the use of backfield action (PA and RPOs) can simplify the post-snap picture for the QB, which can help ensure production from the position and allow talented throwers to minimize the thinking/reacting and maximize the pure throwing.
How does this pertain to LSU? Well, incoming OC Mike Denbrock’s offense places a lot on the QB. As I mentioned in a previous piece about the passing game, Denbrock’s last QB only had the benefit of play-action on 25% of his dropbacks (per PFF), which is awfully low for the modern college game. Additionally, Mike Denbrock described his RPO philosophy in the following way:
As I’ll describe below, that isn’t how offenses like UNC look at RPOs. Offenses like UNC package quick game concepts into run schemes in an effort to make the defense defend a run scheme and a (relatively) robust pass concept (not just a single route) at the same time. The benefit here is that the QB only has to make a simple pre-snap read and then post-snap, when the bullets are flying, read a single defender and throw. It’s much easier than making him work a full quick game concept on straight dropback, as you’ll see below in the “RPO” section. That is definitely not to say that these offenses don’t use RPOs to run the ball better, they definitely have the effect of making their run games explosive, but they are more robust route-wise and pass concept-oriented than Mike Denbrock tends to prefer.
Additionally, LSU has a QB on the roster in the mold of Sam Howell and Matt Corral. Those guys are both extremely gifted throwers of the football but are limited in their ability to make difficult reads. Their offenses make it so that they infrequently have to make them and allow them to just be great throwers. The result has been some pretty robust production. Which QB on LSU’s roster has talent that has wowed his coaches, while they’ve expressed pause about his decision-making in the fray? That’s right, Garrett Nussmeier. From what coaches have said, from reports, from game tape, and from the spring game, it’s pretty clear that Garrett Nussmeier is overwhelmingly the most talented pure thrower on this roster. The hang-up with him, and the thing that gives them pause from banking on his exorbitant upside, is his decision-making.
But, that’s only a hang-up if you allow it to be one.
Sadly, you can’t just throw deep on every play. As fun as it would be, your passing game has to be based to a degree on the quick and intermediate. Usually, that will make up more than half of what you do in the passing game, simply because deep shot plays are too low-percentage to be your entire offense. Traditionally, offenses will have a fairly robust quick-game arsenal to deal with off-coverage broadly, deal with quarters shells, deal with cover 3, and more. The problem is that quick and intermediate passing on straight dropback can be pretty tough for the QB mentally, especially when done in the middle of the field. It requires quick processing of rapidly shifting pictures. You have to be able to throw with anticipation, perfect timing, and correctly read leveraging and positioning of defenders who, on straight dropback, are allowed to just drop right into passing windows without worrying about their run fit.
As you see in the clip above from the Super Bowl, the defenders are able to constrict the windows and massively reduce the QB’s margin for error in read, timing, and accuracy. Additionally, these concepts often put 4-5 routes in the concept, which gives the QB a lot to process. In total, it requires advanced QB technique to really work these kinds of quick, straight dropback concepts.
However, some college offenses have begun to replace dropback quick-game altogether. What they’ve begun doing is packaging quick game concepts into run schemes as RPOs. Instead of the normal 5 routes in a quick game concept, there are usually now just 3. Often this takes the form of a free access route to one side and a quick concept off of a key to the other. Sometimes the free access route is better against one coverage shell while the concept to the other side is better against another, which allows you to plan for multiple different looks. The idea behind this is that it puts defenders into major run-pass conflict, forcing the defense to defend a quick concept and a run scheme with sufficient numbers. This also has the effect of simplifying the read for the QB. It depends on how teams teach their QBs to read it, but usually, all they will have to read after the snap is a single defender instead of the multiple they’d have to account for in a dropback concept. This makes quick game more accessible to QBs mentally and puts the defense in even more conflict than they otherwise would be.
This serves as the bedrock of these kinds of offenses. In this section, I will break down what this looks like in practice.
Often, the QB can just take a free access route to the single receiver side. He gets off coverage so he makes the simple, easy decision to just flip the speed out.
So here, they have an Ohio concept (vertical route by 1 with an out route by 2) to the field and a slant to the boundary. The slant is better to hit against cover 3 and the ohio concept is good to work against quarters. The QB sees a quarters shell pre-snap so he decides to work the read to the field, which is field overhang defender (the SAM backer here). If he enters the fit, throw the out. If he covers the out, give the ball. If it were a cover 3 look pre-snap, I suspect the give/throw read would be the WILL or something to that effect.
The defense is in irreconcilable conflict here between defending the routes in the concept and being gap-sound against the run. For the QB, it eliminates any complex post-snap processing, you just have to read a single guy and throw. Additionally, the conflict creates a clearer picture.
This is the same Ohio concept to the field, but with a comeback route to the boundary. The comeback is really good against cover 3. The SAM backer is clearly going to rush given his positioning/angle and the safety’s positioning right behind him, so Howell knows it is going to be cover 3. This places the WILL linebacker (boundary inside linebacker here) in conflict between defending the flat and fitting the run. In off Cover 3, the cushion of the corner leaves you vulnerable to these comeback routes. A lot of times the defense will buzz the linebacker here into the flat to defend that weakness and squeeze the route. Here, he is in conflict because if he does that, he’s out of the fit and the defense is out-gapped in the run scheme. He stays in the fit, so Howell just throws the comeback.
A quick, easy read for the QB, and a ton of conflict for the defense.
Here, against Wake Forest, a slant-flat concept (one of the most ubiquitous quick game concept, is paired by UNC with counter. The WILL linebacker is in conflict here. If he drops into the slant window, the pullers give the offense numbers to the play-side and the D can’t properly fit counter. The flat defender runs out with the flat route, but if he stayed in the slant window the QB can adjust and throw the flat. That’s more processing than you want the QB to have to do but usually, he’s just able to throw the slant in rhythm.
These offenses, like Ole Miss here, will also often spread out the alignment of their slot receivers a lot to increase conflict. They love to run these stop routes from the slot where they read the strong linebacker. The wide alignment of the slot cleans up the picture and puts the defender in a greater area of conflict. It forces them to declare their intentions a bit. If he lines up over the slot, he’s too far from the formation to really fit the run as anything but a force defender, if he lines up inside to fit the run, he’s too far to make a play on the route. Even here you see him try to move to cover the route but he can’t get there. The read for the QB is just the field side inside linebacker here. If he steps to fit Miss’ outside zone scheme to the boundary, he opens up the window to throw to the vacated curl window. The read and picture for the QB is really easy.
Additionally, RPOs can be used to attack the intermediate areas, as well as put 3rd level defenders in conflict. The X glance RPO structure, where the X receiver runs a glance, or skinny post, is a popular way for modern, QB assistive offenses (like Western Michigan here, one of my favorites) to attack quarters coverage shells. In quarters, the safety away from the passing strength is often in the run fit. He’s the conflict player, so the QB reads him. If he collapses into the fit, you throw the glance route behind him, often for a pretty big play. I’m not sure if that’s the exact defensive assignment here, but this is sorta what it tends to look like broadly.
It is often paired with a 1 high beating concept to the 2 receiver side to account for different things, like in Alabama’s “popsicle.” (Disclaimer, they do not refer here to the boundary wide receiver as the X, I, and many people do) See below:
The defense has to account for all this while fitting the run against a 6 man blocking scheme. All the while, the post-snap read for the QB is very simple.
Another way to attack the intermediate areas with the RPO is on a glance route from the slot. The read I believe is just the overhang defender to the slot side. It’s a good way to use the intermediate middle without putting too making the QB read it out on straight dropback. It’s a simple read and a simple rhythm throw.
Play-Action is the other side of the coin for these offenses. While RPOs largely replace quick game, play-action is often used when you want to attack the intermediate middle of the field while clearing up the look for your QB in that area. The idea is that you can suck the second-level defenders into the run fit, taking them out of passing windows and making it a clean picture. Additionally, PA is used in these systems when teams start playing tight man coverage to take away the RPO structures that offenses will hit the whole game if you let them. When this is the case, you want to use PA to stress man assignments down the field. Make a guy cover your talented receiver on a deep crosser, hit them with double moves to punish them in man, and more to that effect. While the processing burden remains low for the QB, this is where it becomes important to have a talented thrower of the football and elite receivers who can reliably separate against man coverage. Even with that, it still produces easy reads for the QB. Below I’ll look at some concepts teams use to put this into practice.
Ole Miss is running something somewhat similar to Kyle Shanahan’s “hiccup.” This concept is a high corner-post paired with a medium depth crossing route. Meant to be run against single-high coverages, the concept puts the safety in conflict. If he stays shallow on the crossing route, you can throw the post behind his head and vice versa. The read is thus pretty simple for the QB. The double move action of the corner post makes this an effective concept against man coverage. Additionally, crossing routes are effective against man coverage if you have a talented receiver that is difficult to stay with across the field.
Here you see the same offense running a similar concept against Cover 3. This is more similar to Kyle Shanahan’s “Rage” concept because the crossing route is much deeper. The backfield action holds the second-level defenders in place and takes them out of position to squeeze the window on the deep crosser, making it wide open. Again, the read is the safety. These post-over concepts and their many variations are extremely effective for when the defense brings that extra guy into the box to play single high to defend your run game or gets into single-high man coverage to close off your RPO game.
-Slant Wheel Flat +Slot fade on alert
-Slot fades are often a good shot you can take on alert to exploit a good matchup, with the safety on the opposite hash here, Howell knows he has one on one with no vertical help. The receiver gets separation vertically and Howell makes a good throw.
-Slot fades are good to tag against man coverage if you have a guy who can separate deep and a really accurate downfield thrower. Here they have a slant/wheel/flat to one side and the slot fade to the other. I’m not sure what the QB’s overall read is, but I think he’s given the option to take the slot fade on alert if he likes the matchup and alignment. With the safety on the opposite hash, the slot defender has no help over the top. If you have a good vertical threat, this is a dangerous situation for the defense and one you want to exploit. Slot fades do require a talented pure thrower though, one who has the accuracy to put the ball over a shoulder, perfectly in stride...
Possibly Ole Miss’ most effective play-action concept is the post/wheel/flat. This concept puts 2nd level defenders who may have to carry a wheel vertically in conflict. The post runs off the corner to create space for it. This concept is great against single high alignments but is pretty versatile. It’s not a hard read for the QB, the route distribution creates a natural progression for the eyes and it’s outside the numbers, so there isn’t likely to be a ton of traffic. Additionally, the concept often gets wide open, especially when run off of tempo and motion like this, which is standard procedure for Ole Miss.
Here is a great variation of 4 verticals that is killer against middle-of-the-field closed coverages. It works somewhat similar to the post/wheel concept in terms of stressing assignments and scheming open explosive plays. The perimeter play fake pulls the outside defenders into conflict between the seam and their run assignment. The action looks initially like the number 3 receiver is arcing to block which sells the play fake that much more. The ball goes in the seam behind them. This is good against MOFC (single high) coverages where the seams are vulnerable, the conflict created by the play-action makes it a less difficult read and throw for the QB by opening up the window.
Lastly, another cool 4 verts variation, this time from UNC. It’s a delayed release from the TE, who releases outside and settles into the void behind the 2nd level defenders sucked up by play-fake. It creates an easy read and throw, hitting quick before the 2nd level defenders can recover, also attacking the vulnerable seams in NCSU’s cover 3.
Production from the QB position is imperative, it always has been. Offenses have ways to make things easy on the QB mentally by minimizing the amount of raw, post-snap processing they have to do. In doing this, they eliminate the requirement for the rarest, most advanced qualities in a college QB.
TLDR, you don’t need a Joe Burrow to put up big numbers if you design your offense around RPOs and Play Action, you just need a Sam Howell or a Matt Corral (or a Garrett Nussmeier). While those don’t necessarily grow on trees (lots of raw arm talent between the two), they are far more common (and replaceable) than a Joe Burrow, Bryce Young-style mental technician. In short, they're pretty obtainable for a big program in this day and age. LSU has one in the building already. If you’re minimizing the mental burden on your QB, you can comfortably play the most talented thrower and enjoy the fruits of fielding high-end arm talent.