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On a team devoid of consistent playmakers at the wide receiver position, the addition of Josh Gordon would be a welcome sight. In his last full season as a Cleveland Brown (2013) the Houston Texas native recorded 87 receptions for 1,646 yards (averaging 18.9 yards per reception) and scored nine touchdowns. During Weeks 12 and 13 he became the first wide receiver in NFL history to record back-to-back 200-yard receiving games. Gordon quickly tempered expectation for the 2014 season with an arrest for driving while impaired before training camp started, resulting in a suspension-fueled season that saw him appear in only five games, recording 24 receptions for 303 yards.
Hours after the end of the 2014 regular season, Gordon again violated the NFL’s Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse and was suspended for the entirety of the 2015 season. Gordon’s status remains unanswered as the league must first approve his reinstatement by March 20, a large roadblock for a player with a documented history of substance abuse violations dating back to his college days.
Gordon’s physical talent is undeniable, standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 225 pounds. He is outstanding at using his large frame to box out defensive backs in his routes and at the catch point and utilizing great hands and leaping ability to consistently win the ball. His outstanding straight-line and change-of-direction speed makes him a threat to break for an explosive gain or touchdown every time he touches the ball. When on the field and engaged, Gordon can be a top-five NFL receiver, although his constant suspensions have prevented him from putting up stats with any consistency (aside from his 2013 season) over his sort-of four-year career.
Should Gordon be reinstated by the league and move forward with the support of the Browns’ front office, the receiver is poised to put up more monster numbers in an offense tailor-made for his strengths as a pass-catcher. Hue Jackson already has experience utilizing an elite wide receiver—five-time Pro Bowl selection A.J. Green—in his vertical Air Coryell-based offense; Gordon would seamlessly integrate into this playmaking role. Let’s look at the tape to project how Gordon would fill Green’s shoes as his Cleveland clone.
As an Air Coryell disciple, Jackson relies on a power-run game and intermediate/vertical pass concepts to move the ball downfield. The tight end plays a prominent role in Jackson’s version of the offense, particularly in the red zone where Jackson likes to create personnel mismatches by forcing the defense to cover his big men with smaller defensive backs. At the wide receiver position, the most dangerous player generally (though not always) aligns as a split end or ‘X’ receiver.
Before diving into the film, lets looks at the differences between a split end (X receiver) and flanker (Z receiver).
The split end is generally the furthest receiver from the tight end in the offensive formation. Because the split end lines up on the line of scrimmage, he must align opposite an inline tight end as both cannot be on the line of scrimmage on the same side. Because the split end is fixed to the line of scrimmage he cannot motion pre-snap and is always in position to be pressed by the cornerback, should the defense elect to do so.
The flanker is found on the same side of the field as the inline tight end, aligned two-three yards off the line of scrimmage to ensure the tight end is eligible (again the offense cannot have two skill position players on the line of scrimmage on the same side of the formation. Because the flanker is off the line of scrimmage, he can be motioned pre-snap and is able to avoid most press coverage.
The most-productive split ends have elite physical characteristics, as they must use size and speed to beat the threat of press coverage every snap. Green and Gordon have both excelled at the X because they possess elite height, length, bulk, speed, and route running skills.
Let's start our film study by looking at how both Green and Gordon have been utilized on the backside of 3x1 formations (three receivers to one side of the formation).
Smart offensive coaches will look for and exploit plus-personnel matchups wherever they find them. A simple way to force man coverage on an elite wide receiver is to align him to the backside (away from the srength of the offensive formation) and run isolation routes (specific routes like a slant or fade in which the ball will be thrown to the targeted receiver). Notice in the image below how much room Green has to work with by aligning outside the numbers away from the formation's strength. The cornerback must play press coverage to disrupt the route's timing as the single-hi safety is located one-yard inside the left hash, making over-the-top help against a vertical route very difficult. In addition, if Green where to catch a quick-game route like a slant or hitch and break a tackle, there is nothing but green grass between the ball and the end zone.
True to his Air Coryell roots, Jackson loves to attack downfield with nine routes from Trips/Trey alignments. In middle-of-the-field closed coverage like Cover 1 and Cover 3 the free safety must cover half the field to make a play on the ball, effectivley taking himself out of the play. Let's watch Green run a backside nine route against Seattle.
The Seahawks have checked to a Cover 3 adjustment to three receivers know as 'Mable", forcing the backside cornerback to play with MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) technique. Against an outside release the corner wants to jam with his left and pin the receiver to the near sideline. Green creates a free release at the line of scrimmage by using an 'in-out' move (fake inside then release outside) that prevents the corner from jamming and staying on top of the route. Green stacks (pulls in front of the cornerback) by the 40-yard line, allowing Dalton to loft the ball up for an easy pass-catch. Green uses his open field shakes to cut across the safety's face to take it in for six.
Lets look at another example of Jackson using the 'X' receiver to create a postivie matchup. In the clip below the Bengals align with a bunch formation to the field (wide-side), forcing the single deep safety to play between the hashes. This alignment effectively prevents the safety from impacting any vertical routes up the sideline as he simpley has too much distance to cover.
At the snap the quarterback looks to the let side of the field towards the bunch route concept although he is likely using his eyes to manipulate the safety, forcing him to sit in the middle of the field. Green again uses an 'in-out' release to escape the corner's jam, taking a hard inside step with a shoulder shake to sell an inside-breaking route. The corner takes a slight step inside, all the room a receiver of Green'scaliber needs to cross his face and bend his route towards the sideline. The corner does a decent job staying on his hip, although he looks back for the ball too soon which creates the bit of seperation Green needs to pluck the ball out of the air.
In addition to the iso vertical routes Jackson runs to his 'X' on the backside of trips/trey, he will often utilize routes from the 3-step game that create opportunities for YAC (Yards After Catch). Backside slants and hitches create outstanding opportunities for explosive plays as they are high-percentage throws targeting parts of the field with lots of space to work in after the catch. After hitting a few backisde short-game routes on a cornerback, they become susceptible to double moves (as we will see later) like a sluggo (slant-and-go) or hitch-and-go as they look to jump routes.
In the clip below we see Gordon running a backside slant with the tailback running a flat route to widen WILL (weakside linebacker), opening the slant window.
Green uses a slight outside stem on his second step (watch his right foot) to sell the outside-breaking route, forcing the defensive back to accelerate his side-shuffle, allowing Green to break across his face. The tailback's flat route creates a throwing window for the slant, allowing Dalton to thread the needle between the cornerback and MIKE (middle linebacker). Green does the rest, squeezing the pass and running through contact for an extra seven yards.
Gordon has a proven track record playing the 'X' role in former offensive coordinator Norv Turner's Air Coryell-based scheme, allowing us to predict his fit in Jackson's system.
Like Green, Gordon was often aligned to the backside of 3x1 formations to create plust matchups against a single cornerback likely playing man coverage.
In the clips below Turner uses a trips alignment with his Nos. 2 and 3 receivers (receivers are counted outside-to-in) 'stacked' to slow the Bill's pattern-matching coverage reads. Gordon is left over a corner playing single-coverage in what appears to be a Cover 4 'Solo' check. In contrast with the single-hi coverages we looked at in previous clips, the Bills are playing a two-deep look here. This could impact Gordon's route as a half-field safety should be able to make a play on a vertical sideline route. Jackson prevents over-the-top help by stressing the weakside safety's coverage rules.
In 'Solo' the weakside safety is responible for any vertical routes by the #3 recevier in trips. He will 'poach' the route by reading the receiver's release at the line of scrimmage. If the receiver runs a vertical route (as he does in this case running a seam), the safety must pick him in the middle of the field.
Before looking at Gordon's catch, focus on the tight end's route down the right hash. Next, move your eyes to the weakside (top of the screen) safety. You should see the defender move his eyes to the three-receier side at the snap and open towards the seam as he reads the tight end's vertical route. This route has cleared out the corner's deep help on Gordon.
The cornerback aligns over Gordon is a press position, but opens his hips at the snap using a zone turn (back to the sideline), allowing Gordon to easily gain his outside release. The defender does a good job using a baseball turn to flip his hips towards the sideline and cuts off the route stem with his body, but appears to look back for the ball too early. This creates just enough room for Gordon to make the catch on a nicely-thrown ball.
In our next iso-based clip we'll look at Gordon's 2013 80-yard touchdown reception against the New England Patriots.
The offense is aligned with a flanker, tight end, and wing player to the field, with Gordon aligned in his usual split end spot at the top of the screen. The defense is in Cover 0 behind a blitz, leaving Gordon in true single coverage as the defense has no deep safety (the deep safety has the tight end). A slant or hitch could easily go the distance here as Gordon has only one man to beat.
The cornerback's technique in this coverage is to play with inside leverage (the defender's outside foot over the offesnive player's inside foot) to prevent the receiver from crossing his face into the middle of the field. Force an outside release and pin the receive to the sideline as a boundary. Ideally the defensive back will get a jam at the line of scrimmage. How does Gordon get into the middle of the field so easily?
Focus on the defensive back at the snap. Rather than holding his ground and attempting a jam at the line of scrimmage, for unknown reasons he backpedals and makes a man turn towards the sideline, giving up the middle of the field. This is poor technique.
If aligned on the line of scrimmage the defensive back must press to disrupt the route. Backpedaling and opening the hips from this depth simply isn't an option as the receiver will quicly break down the cornerback's cushion and turn him around. If the corner doesn't want to press, he should play a 'flat-foot read' technique, aligning 7 yards off the line of scrimmage and 'reading' the wide receiver through the three-step game before opening the hips.
Because the defender does nothing to disrupt Gordon's release at the line of scrimmage and turns away from the route stem, Gordon easily crosses his face to catch the slant and outruns the defender for an explosive score.
We'll finish with a double-move out of a single-receiver surface.
The offense is aligned in a trey seat (two receivers and one tight end) to the field, with Gordon in the split end spot. The defense is in a Cover 3 shell, with three deep and four underneath defenders. The corner's cardinal Cover 3 rule is to not get beat deep. Get depth in the drop and carry anything vertical; the underneath defenders will handle the short and intermediate routes.
Remember the slant Gordon housed in the previous clips? This sets up double moves like the sluggo (slant-and-go) or hitch-n-go because defenders try to jump to the quick routes to prevent YAC. Let's examine how Gordon sets up a defender for a long touchdwon using a stutter-n-go.
Cover 3 defenders in a non-press position (the Seahawks consistently play press-bail in thier base Cover 3) should be 6-7 yards off the ball with the eyes in the backfield. At the snap the defender will make a zone turn (back to the sideline) and side shuffle downfield.with the eyes moving between the threats to his side of the field.
The defensive back gets decent depth in his drop, but Gordon breaks off a beautiful stutter-n-go move in conjunction with a slgiht pump fake by the quarterback. The cornreback breaks on double move, and again the free safety is not in position to play a vertical throw as he must focus his attention on the three-receiver side, preventing him from offering any deep help
As we saw in previous clips, Turner and Jackson want to get the ball into their playmakers hands via personnel matchups created by formation and alignment. Both coaches will also use a variety of pass concepts, or combinations of routes that work together to beat man and/or zone coverage, to get the ball to their start receivers in open space. A noteworthy concept shows up on tape is the classic Air Raid 'Mesh'.
Mesh is a very flexible concept that works well against both man and zone coverages. The concept gets its name from two shallow routes that come from opposite sides of the formation, crossing in the middle of the field to screen (think a pick in basketball) the defenders. The crossers should pass close enough to slap hands in order to maximize the chance a defender is picked. Coaches run variety of vertical routes with the outside receivers, oftentimes posts, seams, deep digs, or fades. The tailback generally runs a flat or wheel route to widen the linebackers, creating throwing windows for the shallow.
As you can see from the image above (taking from Bob Stoops' 1999 Oklahoma playbook), the concept features a clear progression read with option routes to be converted verse zone coverage. The quarterback will generally read the progression against man coverage by 'peeking' at the vertical route, then moving to the same-side shallow to the back-side-shallow. Good coaches will look for opportunties to specifically target the wheel route if a linebacker takes the tailback in coverage.
The crossing routes require both the quarterback and receivers to read man or zone coverage. Against man the receivers will run across the field at full-speed, flairing upfield between the hash mark and numbers. Against zone the receivers will throttle down in the first hole they see after executing the mesh. To execute the route combo against zone the quarterback and receivers must read the zone coverage and anticipate the hole correctly.
Lets look at an example of Jackson's version of the Mesh from the 2015 season.
Because the quarterback wants to target the routes on the left-side of the field, Green is brought from the opposite side of the formation. The Pro Bowler aligns in a 'nasty' split (tight to the core formation) in order to cut down the distance he must cover on his crossing route.
It's impossible to know the exact progression without seeing the playbook, but the concept is likely read one of two ways.
- If the combo is read as a true progression the quarterback likely peeks the wheel route, moves to the vertical route in the seam, then comes down to the shallow.
- Conversly, the route may have been designed as a single read targeting Green on the shallow, much like he was targeted to the backside of the route concepts broken down in the first part of the article.
Focus on the mesh by the tight end and Green near the right hash at the 20-yard line. Although Green does not sit the route down facing zone coverage, the tailback wheel widens the underneath defender while the Z receiver (located on the left of the formation) clears out the seam/hook, creating a huge void in which Green makes the catch and gains an extra 12 yards of YAC.
Turner ran a variety of shallow concepts during his single season as offensive coordinator (2013). Like Jackson in 2015, Mesh was a Turner-favorite based on the tape.
Gordon is located at the top of the screen in the split end position. Like Green in the example before, he uses a 'nasty' split to reduce the distance he must cover crossing the field. The complimentary routes to the mesh are a 10-yard dig from the Z and a wheel from the running back, with the quarterback likely reading the routes:
- Shallow from the X
Watch the two shallows cross a the 18-yard line just inside the left hash. You can clearly see the separation created as Gordon's man is forced to alter his path in order to avoid the tight end. The dig and wheel clear out the defenders to that side, allowing Gordon to catch the ball in stride and pick up another 12 yards.
We see another example of Mesh defeating man coverage in the 2013 Kansas City game.
The crossing routes are beautifully-executed by Gordon and the slot receiver, with Gordon's defender coming under the opposite route to avoid a collision. The deep routes by the Z receiver and tight end have cleared out any defenders near the catch point, allowing Gordon to rumble for another 40-yards after making the catch.
Note: In Part II we will focus on three-receiver route concepts, wide receiver screens, and red zone route.