Understanding Gary Kubiak's West Coast Offense Variant: Passing Game

Fans hear phrases and terminology like the "West Coast Offense" and the "Zone Blocking Scheme" but many don't fully understand what it all means and how it works. The Broncos will be utilizing both in 2016. Doc Bear breaks down exactly what the WCO endeavors to accomplish and the nuts and bolts—starting with the passing game.

We have yet to seen Gary Kubiak’s scheme in full bloom in Denver, due to last year’s Manning factor. That’s not all bad—it did lead to a Super Bowl Championship.

Yet, unless it’s changed from his usual West Coast Offense variant, the system is going to be predicated on certain things, including zone runs, a moving pocket, play-action and half-field reads (often involving crossing patterns). Today, let’s talk about the WCO and the passing game.

When I talk about half-field reads, it’s about the way the play is designed. The WCO traditionally likes to split the field. Half will only contain decoy receivers.

The other half is where the ball will go, which reduces the progression the QB has to read. Bill Walsh, the founder of the WCO, believed that the head coach was the conductor. To him, the players operated only under his direction.

That included the quarterback. In an era when QBs often called their own plays, Bill and Joe Montana frequently butted heads on this, but Walsh held his ground. One outcome was the split-field approach, which reduced the number of reads in the progression. That can help out the QBs on the 2016 Denver Broncos.

Another approach of Walsh’s has become a part of every team’s passing repertoire. Timing routes have been around since at least the 1950’s, when Sid Gillman was using them.

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1688030-5-areas-von-miller-can-im... Walsh elevated them to an art form. Once again, they were plays that took away the need for decision-making of the QB. The QB’s job was to know his receiver and to throw the ball where the wide receiver would be to make the catch.

It takes hours of constant repetition between QB and WR to make this work well. Walsh would sneak his QB, and a couple of receivers at night, and go to a vacant field, throwing for hours to learn each other’s quirks. Properly thrown, timing routes are nearly impossible to stop. Expect to see a lot of them in Kubiak’s WCO.

The focus on crossing routes—often in a high/low pattern—helped clear out the secondary and showed the coach/QB exactly where an opening would be found. Since the high/low routes often clear the middle of the field, Walsh then went with a tight end, as Sid Gillman recommended.

If none was there, an outlet receiver would be available. We’ll talk about that below.

Some things about the offense will be very different from 2015. Here are some concepts to watch for.

1. More zone runs: inside, outside and full stretch

2. Moving pocket: bootlegs, rollouts and called QB runs

3. Play-action: best used when the run has established itself, it also creates enough time to throw deep, something that the WCO isn’t known for but uses.  

4. Half-field reads: minimizing QB decisions

5. Crossing patterns: rub routes and high/lows.

6. The long handoff: short passes substituting for short yardage runs

7. Yards after the catch: that’s how you build yardage when you predominantly throw short

8. Everyone blocks: if you don’t have the ball and you’re not a QB, you need to find someone to hit.

9. PTSRTW: Pass to score, run to win.

Mike Shanahan was an expert on No. 9 in the late 1990’s. His focus was on building a lead with the pass in the early going, then running out the clock. Many playoff teams have high totals of rushing yards.

Some fans mistakenly consider them ‘running teams’. They do run enough to permit play-action passes to work well, but it’s the second half, with the lead, where they pile up rushing yardage.

Walsh believed in using different levels and patterns for his passing game to pile up points in the first half. If that was successful, he moved to running out the clock. Denver, under Mike Shanahan, used this approach in the 1997 and 1998 Super Bowl years.

Although the YouTube video that once featured a retrospective called ‘Denver’s Greatest Hits’ was taken down, one play from it stood out. Because I can't show you, I'll describe it in detail. One play in particular illustrated several of the WCO principles and gave a great look at both John Elway and Howard Griffith. I’ve had quite a few questions on the WCO’s use of the fullback, so let’s go over the key points.

It’s 3rd-&-4. Elway receives the snap, the line buckles and he is quickly ducking and dodging defenders until he gets a split second free. That second lets him find Howard Griffith—who we hope will be replaced by rookie Andy Janovich—in his proper role as the outlet receiver. All modern systems use outlet receivers, but only a few still use a fullback. 

Denver did, and they now will again. Griffith, after throwing two blocks of his own, breaks free, slides to the right flat and catches the outlet pass. He gets a monster block from Shannon Sharpe, which sets him up for a nice gain.

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1684356-film-room-the-shed-maneuv... This play sounds simple. It is, but it shows several things that are easily missed. One that isn’t missed is that the WCO requires a QB with good mobility. He’s going to scramble, roll out, bootleg, naked bootleg and go with scripted QB runs.

When your fullback can block effectively and then slide free to the flat, it’s much easier to get first down yardage anywhere from 3rd-&-2 to 3rd-&-6. Depending on the defensive look, that can take some time to unfold, so quality blocking (or good dodging) becomes essential.

Juwan Thompson looks to be a backup FB and RB. Andy Janovich should be taking on the lion’s share of blocking, due to his greater size. Thompson has to rely on his technique, but he’s shown a knack for the role. Kapri Bibbs has improved his own blocking and is taking a solid run at stealing Ronnie Hillman’s spot this year.

This short-pass principle demonstrated in the Elway-to-Griffith play became known as the ‘long hand-off’. Walsh used short passes as many coaches used the short run. If Griffith catches the pass and is tackled, it’s a short gain but was enough for the first down. But another WCO principle was demonstrated on this play via a monster block by Shannon Sharpe.

Because the WCO is essentially based in a horizontal (as opposed to vertical) system, those ‘dink and dunk’ passes were designed to produce more yards after the catch. Using rub routes (cross-field routes that require a cornerback to move aside from one receiver, giving a cushion to his assignment) is one approach.

Using your WRs and TEs to block is another. Nearly every pass is designed to have one or more blockers for the WR/TE receiver. That affects which players you’re most likely to keep each year.

Achieving success with this approach requires good blocking wide receivers and TEs. Bennie "Beano" Fowler is 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds of muscle. He blocks well, catches well and is impressing in training camp.

Demaryius Thomas, the 6-foot-3, 229-pound monster of Denver’s receivers, blocks like he’s that big. Cody Latimer, if he sticks, is 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. He also blocks extremely well.

It’s a requirement for most Denver WRs. Otherwise, the WR needs good special teams play, very high catch percentages, red zone production or some other visible option that keeps him in the coaches’ eyes and on the field.

Next, we’ll look into how the WCO uses the rushing game. See you then!

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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