Preview: Duke's Offensive Creativity

Duke has reached the ACC Championship Game with a 10-2 record on a combination of grit and maximizing their talent. We look at how David Cutcliffe's staff has managed to get the most out of his personnel.

Last week's win against North Carolina represented yet another instance in which Duke won a game they really should have lost this year, given that North Carolina is the more talented team and outgained the Blue Devils on a per-play basis.

Duke, however, has consistently made the most of their opportunities all year, as illustrated by their success in the red zone. Duke's overall red zone score percentage is a fairly average 84.62% (good for 53rd nationally), but their touchdown percentage is a robust 69.23% (25th) and they entered the UNC game with the remarkable distinction of having a 100% touchdown percentage in goal-to-go situations on the year.

Duke has a pair of quality quarterbacks in Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette, with the former being the better passer and the latter serving as more of a run threat, especially in the red zone, and both quarterbacks are obviously well schooled under Cutcliffe. Their offense is remarkably balanced; they don't do anything at an elite level, but they're good across the board.

Duke's approach so far this year has been to use flexible personnel packages taking advantage of several big bodies who can line up at either tight end or wide receiver in Issac Blakeney (6'6, 235), Braxton Deaver (6'5, 240), and David Reeves (6'5, 250). The Devils like to move these players around to create mismatches and numbers advantages in much the same way the New England Patriots and Stanford Cardinal have done the past few years.

Duke uses an unusually wide variety of packages in the running game to give an experienced but not especially big and physical offensive line leverage at the point of attack for a trio of decent backs, meaning the defensive front has to be especially disciplined to avoid getting gashed. Receiver Jamison Crowder (5'9, 175) is Duke's one major game-changer. Crowder is an explosive player who understands coverages and how to run routes and has provided numerous big plays for the Devils so far this year.

An early touchdown by Crowder against UNC illustrates just how Duke has maximized their opportunities on the year by getting favorable matchups for their best playmakers. This touchdown came on the heels of two penalties by the Blue Devils that had backed them up into a long-yardage situation in the red zone, a situation that should heavily favor the defense and result in no worse than a field goal.

Instead, Duke came out with an especially well-designed play reflecting a thorough understanding of the Tar Heel defense's tendencies and personnel and creating an advantageous matchup.

The basic play is drawn up above, and it's designed to go to Crowder all the way. Duke is in 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back) but with a nice twist to create a mismatch: tight end/jumbo WR Blakeney is slotted to the left, while Crowder is lined up at the tight end spot in order to get him isolated on a linebacker. The Duke staff rightly guessed that UNC would not match its personnel to get the Ram (nickel corner) on the weak side against Crowder here, creating a potential mismatch at each spot.

UNC is in man-under or match coverage with two deep safeties over the top, one of the most popular coverage options in the red zone at any level. The corners are free to play aggressively on the outside while the linebackers play inside-out and protect the middle of the field, with the safeties taking away anything vertical with the aim being to force the quarterback to throw underneath.

Duke, however, knows Carolina's tendencies here and has called a personnel/play package specifically designed to beat this coverage, with a seam/speed out combo to the left side and a "Y-Shake" combo to the short side.

The seam on the wide side occupies the safety to that side, isolating Crowder on linebacker Travis Hughes with safety Tre Boston over the top. Boston's responsibility is to read the releases of the two receivers to his side, staying over top of whichever player goes vertical. He will also have been schooled all week on Duke's most common route combinations in this situation to help him read the route more quickly.

Boston (red circle above) is initially in textbook position as he reads the outside receiver's release (blue circle) while Hughes shows good technique walling off the dig route. At this point, Boston is almost certainly reading a "smash concept" (also one of Jimbo Fisher's favorite concepts) based on the outside receiver's route combined with the vertical release on the inside. Boston expects what you see in the picture below, and you can see his hips begin to turn to the outside.

The Y-Shake, however, is designed to look exactly like a smash until the last second, when the inside receiver breaks inside rather than to the corner. Boston turns to cover the corner route at exactly the moment Crowder plants inside, taking advantage of Boston's understanding of Duke's previous tendencies—and Boston's tendency to get overaggressive.

Duke quarterback Anthony Boone knows he has what he wants as soon as Boston's hips turn outside, as Hughes is helpless against Crowder's speed to the back of the end zone without help over the top, leaving a large passing window in the middle of the field against one of the quickest receivers in the country.

This was terrific design by Duke in terms of understanding (and manipulating) defensive tendencies, creating an advantageous matchup, and breaking their own smash concept tendency to shake the safety help. This is an excellent example of how Duke has managed to squeeze as many points as possible out of an offense that doesn't often have the athletic advantage across the board. All you need is one advantage if you can isolate it, and the Blue Devils do as good a job of that as anyone in the country.

Unfortunately for Duke, this iteration of the Florida State defense doesn't have any glaring personnel or schematic weaknesses that would seem vulnerable to this kind of smoke mirror show. For example, in the above example, Crowder would have wound up isolated on linebacker Telvin Smith or perhaps Nate Andrews in the Money role, each of whom is a terrific coverage player much more likely to be able to close out on Crowder and prevent the big passing window over the middle. Smith has already done just that on a similar concept against Clemson's Sammy Watkins in the slot earlier this year, illustrating just how athletic he is for a linebacker.

That said, I do expect Duke to come out swinging, pulling every lever they possibly can to probe FSU's defense for potential weaknesses along these lines. I just don't think they'll find a whole lot, especially given the difficulty they're likely to have blocking the Seminole defensive front. Nevertheless, Duke's combination of jumbo pass catchers and the explosive Crowder along with a crafty rushing attack should provide the Noles with a good look at the sort of things they'd see in the national championship game, whether against Ohio State, Missouri, or Auburn.

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