Browns-Falcons Xs & Os: The Pass Game

For the second consecutive week, the first-team offense generated explosive scoring plays through the air despite limited possessions. Join the Orange and Brown Report in The Watercooler as we break down quarterback Robert Griffin's III's two touchdown passes, analyze simple progressions, and look at pass protection gone wrong.

Wide receiver Terrelle Pryor hauled in his second 40-plus yard touchdown reception in as many games, with Gary Barnidge getting in on the action as well before making way for the second and third units. With quarterback Robert Griffin III at the helm, the passing unit has now accounted for three touchdowns in just over two quarters of play. Despite major issues with third down conversions, the first team is humming.

While the intermediate and short passing game has been disappointing at times (particularly the wide receiver screen package), the offense has shown the ability to vertically challenge defenses by exploiting personnel mismatches using size and speed.

After the offense opened the game with a three-and-out possession the unit responded with a multi first down drive, culminating with a  50-yard RGIII to Terrelle Pryor touchdown reception off of the ‘4 Verticals’ pass concept.

4 Verticals was popularized by the Sid Gilman/Don Coryell San Diego Chargers offense of the late 70’s and early 80's. The play name leaves little to the imagination; using four eligible receivers from a variety of alignments and personnel groupings, the offense attacks downfield using a combination of fade, seam, and/or post routes. The route concept is very flexible. Teams will run 4 Verts outs of a variety of personnel groupings and formations. The concept design will subtly change based on the coverage shell.

The outside routes are generally run as “9’s”, although they may be converted to posts. The inside routes are run through the seams, with the receiver often bending the route inside against split-safety coverage.  The primary goal is to split both safeties against two-man coverage or freeze the safety against one-man.

After the game quarterback Robert Griffin III told reporters that he was instructed to target Pryor’s route, taking all reads out of the concept. The most important aspect of the play (aside from Pryor’s separation) was the necessity of manipulating the middle of the field (MOF) safety by looking away from the intended route.

RGIII does a good job freezing the safety with his eyes before unloading a 50-yard dime that Pryor catches in stride for six points.

Pryor does a great job as he wins the outside release, prevents the cornerback from squeezing him into the sideline, and subtly using his hand as he stacks the receiver (passes him by and gets on his back) to create extra separation.

The cornerback (Desmond Trufant) does not help his case by looking back for the way too early, increasing the separation and ensuring Pryor will not face a contested catch. The defender should read the receiver’s eyes (they will get VERY big as he tracks the approaching ball, wait for the pass-catchers hands to go up, and “rake the pocket” while getting the head around. The defender knew he was beat and panicked.

The offense hit their next explosive play on a mirrored ‘Switch’ concept out of the Empty formation Jackson has shown several times through two games.

The wide receivers and tight ends will switch areas, using a post and wheel route to cross each other as they push vertical. The concept is very versatile, as it effectively beats Cover 3, Cover 4, and man. The reads change based on the coverage shell; against man the quarterback wants to find a mismatch pre-snap, but must not lock-in on the match-up as the rub action between the two routes may create a better throw.

Again, RGIII was likely told to target Barnidge if the defense gave him the look Jackson wanted, in this case a safety in man coverage.

The Pro Bowl tight end runs a solid wheel route against tight coverage, but RGIII shows beautiful ball placement to hit Barnidge in stride. The post-snap technique does not require any explanation here. Barnidge ran a great route, the safety covered the route effectively, and RGIII hit his route runner in the break basket. Great execution all around.

Our next series of plays shows two simple progressions the fifth-year quarterback ran through, with one resulting in a completed pass and the other resulting in a 12-yard scramble

Late in the first quarter the offense aligned in a bunch formation, placing three receivers in close proximity to the right side while placing a single receiver to the left. The concept appears to be a spacing play using curl and flat routes to horizontally stretch the defense.

The Falcons disguise their Cover 3 shell pre-snap as they show a “hard” corner in press position at the bottom of the screen.  The quarterback wants to work his strong-side spacing if possible, although the Cover 3 shell is able to account for the route distribution.

After eliminating Barnidge from the progression, RGIII moves on to the weakside Curl/Flat combo, a classic Cover 3 beater. The curl/flat defender will determine where the ball goes from here. If he widens with the tailback’s flat route, the curl route should open as the vacated linebacker creates a large throwing window. If the curl/flat defender drops to cushion the curl route, the flat route will hit outside.

RGIII clearly peeks his primary (Barnidge) before working across the field to his curl/flat routes. Because the linebacker widens to play the tailback’s route, rookie Rashard Higgins’ curl route becomes an easy throw against an outside-leveraged cornerback.

The rookie hauls in the accurate ball and takes an extra 2-3 yard after the catch, a promising sign for a team that will need several playmakers to make up for defensive deficiencies.

The second play did not result in a throw, but did showcase his ability to read multiple receivers, albeit against vanilla coverage.

On first and ten the offense dialed up a play action ‘Flood’ concept out of a heavy formation, pulling a tackle and guard to false key the defense before running three routes away from the run action.

The flood concept can be found in most offensive coordinator’s toolboxes at all levels of football. The routes may differ coach-to-coach, but the design remains consistent. The offense will use three receivers to run a short, intermediate, and vertical route. The concept is a zone -coverage killer as it creates vertical and horizontal stretches on the pass defense, while limiting the quarterback to reading a narrow part of the field.

Jackson’s concept integrates a drag route, deep comeback, and flat route in order to create a three-receiver triangle that can be easily read by the quarterback.

The progression looks to be:

  1. Drag route by Barnidge
  2. Comeback by the #1 receiver
  3. Flat route by the second tight end

So why does RGIII pull the ball down and run for the first down?

Focus on Barnidge as he clears the line of scrimmage. His legs become tangled with a defender, leading to a fall that prevents him from running his route.

Because a progression read is sequential and requires exact timing, RGIII must move on to his second route as Barnidge is not where he is expected to be. The comeback appears to be covered (it was run out of the screen so it is hard to tell) and the flat is blanketed, so RGIII uses his legs.

Some do quarterbacks have the vision and experience to see Barnidge work his way back into the drag route. RGIII might have noticed Barnidge, but he has been rigorously coached to protect the ball at all costs. The coaching staff probably wanted him to pull the ball and run there with the caveat that he must protect is body.

Our final example looks at a breakdown in pass protection, as the offensive unit takes a sack on first down midway through the second quarter.

Jackson has sent in another passing concept run off play action, using what appears to be a post, dig, and flat route.

The offense fakes “Split Zone” using the fullback’s motion to give the appearance of a block on the EMLOS. The fullback’s backfield flow is vital to the play as the offense uses “slide” protection, moving the offensive line so each lineman is responsible for the gap to his right. The arcing fullback will complete the six-man protection by picking up the C-gap.

Let’s see what happens.

The fullback wants to cut the right defensive end as the defender will jump when he reads pass, likely batting down the ball if the flat route is targeted. Because the back is unable to hit this block, the defender has an easy run to RGIII who must eat the ball due to good coverage.

Up next. Run defense, run defense, run defense….


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