Growing the passing game

Thoughts about passing offense.

I mentioned in my first post that I am an offense guy.  Really, to expand upon that, I am very interested in the passing game. I think our passing game can find another gear this year, and be very dangerous, maybe as dangerous as it was during the Super Bowl years.

You hear a lot about the West Coast Offense which was popularized by Bill Walsh with the 49ers in the 1980s.  It came to be used at a time when 3-4 defenses were used by nearly every team in the league, and it was designed specifically to beat the 3-4.  By employing quick 3 and 5 step drops, rollouts, timing routes, and liberal use of the Tight End running the seam of the defense, it created good matchups against the comparatively lesser team speed of a 3-4.  It's essentially designed to work more horizontally than vertically.  You hear the Shanahan offense referred to as a West Coast offense, but I don't consider that to be very accurate.

The other major passing game innovator was Sid Gillman, before I was ever born.  He coached the Chargers from 1960 until 1971.  He favored a vertical passing game, with 7 step drops and downfield routes.  His offense was ironically also referred to as a West Coast offense at that time.  Devotees of this vertical style included Don (Air) Coryell, Joe Gibbs, Al Davis, Chuck Noll, Dick Vermeil, and Ernie Zampese.  The Cowboys have always featured this approach since at least the late 1980s, and you see the Chargers favoring it currently, as Norv Turner grew up in it.  The vertical passing structure tends to succeed against 4-3 defenses, because pass protection is less confusing against a 4-3, allowing for deeper drops by the QB.

It's pretty hard to typecast the Broncos' passing game as being one or the other over the last 13 years.  If there is a continuum between vertical and horizontal, the offense has found itself in different places on that continuum at different times, depending on personnel.  During the latter Elway years, the offense was about 85% vertical.  Under Brian Griese it was closer to 65% vertical, and with Jake Plummer at QB, it was 90% horizontal.  He struggled from the pocket,and flourished on the move, as we all remember.

The passing game has been much more vertical with the ascendancy of Jay Cutler.  Having what is definitely one of the two strongest arms in the league (along with JaMarcus Russell) is helpful in this structure.  You can clearly see how much more comfortable Jay is in the pocket than Jake the Snake was.  I'd like to see a deep threat emerge this season to play on the left side of the offense this season.  Just a player that free safeties would need to half-respect deep would open up the bread-and-butter stuff with Marshall and Scheffler.

I think Dallas has the best-conceived vertical game.  That's a credit to Jason Garrett, in only his first year as a coordinator.  Did you catch any Cowboys' games last season, and wonder to yourself, how in the world can Jason Witten always be open when he repeatedly kills the other team?  The answer is that a defense has to respect the running game of Marion Barber, which puts it in a lot of man-to-man coverage schemes, and that's coupled with a very smart design of the vertical passing game.

I'll describe it with personnel you know well.  Picture the Broncos in a balanced singleback set, with Stokley flanked wide to the left and Graham tight left.  On the right are Scheffler and Marshall, and straight behind Jay is Selvin Young.  Against this personnel grouping, you'll see a base defensive package 99% of the time.  If you get a nickel or dime, you audible to a run with Young and make the defense put base personnel on the field.

Once you have a base defense, you're in business.  The key is Scheffler and Marshall on the right (a very good facsimile of Witten and Owens in the Dallas design.)  Those two are isolated against 3 players, presumably a strongside linebacker, a strong safety, and a left cornerback.  You can't double team both of them.  Most of the time, the double would go with Marshall, and you have Scheffler singled up on a linebacker.  If the free safety (coming from the left hashmark) drops into a cover-one look in center field, you also have single coverage on Stokley and Graham to the left.  If he doesn't, Scheffler might score after easily beating the linebacker.  The first read is the free safety, therefore; does he drop to the middle, and how far over does he get?  The second read is to determine which player got the double team on the right.  By the time Jay reaches his launch point, he knows where to go with the ball, and that receiver is in position to do something really productive with it.

Now, I know what you're thinking.  The defense could play Cover 2 to limit their exposure. That's a fair point.  You can often spot that pre-snap, and you just have to audible and run them out of it. Gash the defense for enough 5 to 8 yard runs, and they'll man up.  You can also choose to methodically beat a Cover 2 in the seams, and with Stokley and Scheffler, particularly, you have a couple of guys with the ability to do so.  That's what Bill Walsh invented option routes for, after all, to take what a defense gives you.

If you can picture this, you understand how Jason Witten always get so open, and you understand how TO gets vertical down the sideline against single coverage from time-to-time, and other times he's busting 18 yard deep ins in front of a safety who was thinking about following Witten outside and took a false step.  You understand how a totally marginal player like Patrick Crayton makes big plays against single coverage.  You're starting to picture what this could look like, and you like how it looks.

You would incorporate more of a horizontal look against a hard-blitzing team like the Chargers and get your athletes in space against theirs.  With Jay Cutler, we now finally have a guy who can be very effective, however he is needed to play in a given game or situation.

Originally posted at MHR

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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