With Carson Wentz’s first-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, evaluators will be looking towards the FCS for other talents, and they won’t have to look long. Wentz’s former opponent Montana has a quarterback of their own who is poised for a breakout year, and he has an innovative coach to help him along. Mark Schofield examines the Bob Stitt offense in Montana to see what we can look forward to with quarterback Brady Gustafson this season.
Having covered how Bob Stitt’s Montana Grizzlies offense attacks a defense horizontally with the running and passing game, we can now look at how the Griz stretch the field in the deeper passing attack. Stitt’s offense gives the quarterback every chance to succeed. As he told Bill Connelly of SB Nation, “This system is so quarterback-friendly, I think it would thrive at any level. I try to take the responsibility of the protections and checking plays away from the QB — he just has to make a good decision based on what the defense is doing. He may have four options based on one run play.”
This plays out in the passing game as well. Stitt’s passing designs typically include four components: A man-beating route, a zone-beating route, a shallow route, and a deep route. So on a given play the QB simply needs to verify the coverage, and then he knows where to go with the football. As with any system there are exceptions, but it is a very quarterback-friendly design.
For a contrast, when looking through some old playbooks from other systems, you find plays where if a quarterback faces a particular coverage, the play as designed won’t work. Take this example from Steve Spurrier’s 2000 Florida Gators playbook:
On this dual wheels concept, Spurrier noted that if the QB saw Cover 2 or any combination coverage, he needed to get out of the play. The play design would not work against those schemes. But for Stitt’s offense, since every play has those four components, the QB should always have at least one option regardless of the defense.
Let’s examine some of these options in action.
Triangle Passing Designs
Like many offenses, Stitt’s incorporates some familiar concepts into the passing game. However, he adds his own twist to these designs, giving the defense different looks while proving the quarterback with the friendly read structures as outlined. We can start with the triangle elements of the passing game. As described by Chris Brown, route structures such as the spot or snag concept can be termed triangle passing plays because of how they space out the receivers in the play. But where the spot concept incorporates a corner route, a snag route, and a flat route to create the spacing, Stitt’s triangle designs use different routes to create the same spacing.
On their first offensive play against North Dakota State in the season opener, the Grizzlies line up with quarterback Brady Gustafson in the shotgun and 11 offensive personnel, using dual slot formations. The Bison have their 4-3 defense aligned in a Cover 2 look, with both cornerbacks set in off alignment and both outside linebackers walked outside toward the slot receivers:
NDSU drops into a Tampa 2 coverage scheme, and Montana attacks the defense with this triangle design:
Two of the three triangle elements mirror the spot concept exactly. The slot WR cuts inside and settles underneath on the snag route, while the running back immediately runs a quick flat route to the outside. But where one might expect the third, deeper receiver to run a corner route, instead he cuts inside on a curl, settling into a deeper zone in front of the playside safety. Gustafson makes a very quick decision here and throws the snag route:
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He releases the ball well before either the flat route or the curl route receivers even make their breaks, but there’s no reason to wait. As the defense reacts to the play, the middle linebacker drops to the intermediate zone between the safeties, synonymous with Tampa 2. The outside linebacker drops as well, not as deep as the MLB but he is still five yards deeper than the slot receiver who makes the reception. This is a good, quick decision from the QB because while the flat route comes open later — as does the curl — he quickly delivers the ball to his target before the coverage has a chance to break on the snag route. Getting the football out quickly has the added benefit of attempting to exploit a potential mismatch: a slot WR on an OLB. The receiver has time to try and evade the bigger defender, and although the linebacker makes a tackle, one missed tackle on a similar play could lead to big yardage.
Here’s another way that Stitt gets three receivers in the triangle, this time using a different formation and route combination. Later in the game the Grizzlies face a 1st and 10 on their own 35-yard line. They line up with Gustafson in the shotgun and 11 personnel on the field, this time using trips formation to the left with a single receiver split to the right. NDSU has its 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game, and the Bison show man coverage before the snap:
Notice the cornerbacks: both are aligned facing their receivers square-up, with the weakside CB in press alignment. At the snap the defense runs Cover 2 Man Under. Here we get to see how the “man, zone, shallow, deep” aspect of Stitt’s offense comes to life:
The single receiver runs a curl route while the running back releases to the flat along the right sideline. So far, these two routes match the previous design. But Stitt gets the third receiver into the “snag” spot and into the triangle from the other side of the field, by having him run a shallow route across the formation. In addition, this is the “man” route in the design, as the tight end has the opportunity to simply run away from the MLB covering him on the crossing route:
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Linebacker M.J. Stumpf (#41) makes a great play on the ball to break up the pass, but this play is run exactly how it should be and Gustafson makes the right decision. Once he verifies man coverage underneath, his best option is that crosser, with the tight end trying to outrun the linebacker across the field. The outside linebacker has the flat route covered (with help from the sideline) and the cornerback stays on the curl route with safety help. While it goes down as an incompletion, Gustafson made the right read on this play.
Another design that Stitt incorporated into the Montana passing game is a staple of Air Raid offenses: the mesh concept. Dating back to the LaVell Edwards days at Brigham Young University, this design has been utilized in pro and college offenses for years. It involves two crossing routes meeting around five to eight yards downfield and is typically run out of a 2 x 2 formation. Given that the Grizzlies routinely align in dual slot formations, this is a good design for them to implement. The other two receivers typically run deeper routes, either a straight go, a post, or a corner.
On this first example Montana faces a 1st and 10 against South Dakota State in the opening round of the 2015 Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs. The Griz line up with Gustafson in the shotgun and 11 personnel aligned in a trio formation to the left with a single receiver split to the right. The Jackrabbits’ 4-2-5 nickel defense shows Cover 6 before the snap, with the weakside CB aligned in press alignment and the strongside CB showing off man positioning:
The Grizzlies run the mesh concept here with a beautiful design. The two crossing receivers are the single WR split to the right and the #2 receiver coming from the trips. The creative element Stitt brings to this play is that the wing TE runs a corner route, coming from the strongside of the formation to the weakside:
Setting this play in motion, Gustafson takes the snap and looks at his first two reads, the crossing mesh receivers. The SLB stays on the vertical release from the wing TE, and the slot corner stays on the #2 receiver as he crosses toward the middle of the field. The weakside CB drops off into zone coverage on the outside third of the field, as the WLB then picks up the single receiver crossing over the middle of the field:
Here’s where the idea of “throwing to grass” comes in, as we view what Gustafson saw when he pulled the trigger. The WLB has started to squat on the mesh routes, and is in position to now assume coverage of the receiver coming from the other side of the field. But the slot cornerback is still in trail position on the #2 receiver coming from the trips, and that area of the field is wide open since the outside trips receiver ran a vertical route:
You may also notice that the weakside safety is now in the picture, running right past the wing TE’s corner route and breaking on the mesh receivers. The Jackrabbits are in a Cover 3 Sky combination coverage here, and the strong safety is breaking on the underneath routes. Gustafson throws to one of the mesh receivers (the WR coming from the single side of the formation), making the correct decision given the information available. However, the safety does an incredible job chasing this down from behind:
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Two things to note: First, Gustafson again makes the right read and decision here, and does his job. This is simply a well-executed play by the safety crashing down and then chasing this play from behind. But in the process, the safety runs right by that corner route from the wing TE. It’s easy to imagine that corner route working away from the flow of the play as an option for the offense.
Shallow and Hunt
Another concept that Stitt’s offense runs is the shallow / hunt design, which incorporates some elements from the previous two plays as well as some elements from the Y-Cross design. This route concept contains a shallow crossing route, such as the open we saw on the second triangle example, and pairs it with a deeper crossing route, such as the core element of the Y-Cross design from Air Raid systems. The slight difference comes in how these routes are utilized. As previously indicated, Stitt wants a route on each play to beat man coverage, and another route to beat zone coverage. In this case the shallow route is designed to beat man, while the hunt route looks to beat zone.
As you can see, that underneath shallow route is identical to the shallow from the previous triangle example. This is a perfect design to beat man coverage, as the WR can simply run at and then away from an underneath defender. So when the QB confirms man coverage, he knows he has at least one route ready to beat the defense. But should he see zone, that’s when the deeper crossing route — the “hunt” route — comes into play. That receiver makes his break and if he sees zone coverage, he simply comes over the middle looking for the first soft area to sit down in and make himself available.
This “hunt” route has been an element of Purdue University’s offense for the past few years. Here is an example of the Boilermakers’ “search” concept, with the H receiver running this hunt route:
As Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell said in a 2015 coaching clinic about the “search” receiver: “He runs the route at 14 yards. At that point he takes the first window of opportunity that comes open. It truly is a search route in that once he gets to 14 yards, he is going to search for the first opportunity that opens up and he is going to take it.” If he sees zone, that opportunity will come by settling down. But if he sees man coverage, “he can turn it into a dig route.”
Stitt’s wrinkle is to combine the shallow man-beater with the “hunt” route, which is a zone-beater. Here’s how it looks on film. Against SDSU the Grizzlies face a 1st and 10 on their own 13-yard line, and line up with three receivers to the left and a single receiver to the right. The single receiver runs the shallow route, while the wing TE runs the search, breaking over the middle at a depth of 14 yards:
Montana catches the Jackrabbits in man coverage here, so Gustafson knows exactly where to go with the football:
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With the vertical releases from the other three receivers, we see how this opens up a nice window for the shallow route.
Here’s an example of the route being run against zone coverage. In their season-opener against NDSU, Montana faces a 1st and 10 on their own 14-yard line. The Griz align with trips to the right and a single receiver to the left, and use this play:
Again, the single receiver runs the shallow route. Prior to the snap the weakside CB is in press alignment, an indication of man coverage. But at the snap the Bison drop into zone. Gustafson takes the snap and quickly throws the shallow route, which is swallowed up for a short gain. But look at the deeper crossing route, in particular how that looks to break open against the zone coverage:
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Some more patience here and Montana might have had a big play.
On both these two concepts, the mesh and the shallow / hunt, don’t think for a second that the vertical routes are just for show and the defense can sleep on them. As a threshold matter, the vertical routes are often blitz / hot-read looks for the quarterback. This, coupled with how Stitt likes to utilize the back-shoulder throw, are also weapons at the QB’s disposal. So if the quarterback sees a blitz, he immediately looks for one of the boundary receivers and throws a vertical route, as we’ll see in the final part of this series. But if the QB gets to the line of scrimmage and sees a good matchup on the outside, in either of these concepts, he has the ability to check those routes first and take a shot. Here is a perfect example.
Against the Jackrabbits in the FCS playoffs, Montana faces a 2nd and 6 on the SDSU 26-yard line. Gustafson stands in the shotgun with 10 personnel on the field, using dual slot formations. The defense uses a 3-3-5 alignment, and shows Cover 2 at the snap with two high safeties:
Montana uses the shallow / hunt design on this play. The boundary receiver to the left comes across on the shallow while the slot WR to the right runs the hunt route. The slot receiver to the left and the outside receiver to the right both release vertically:
The CB over the outside receiver is in press coverage, aligned across from Ellis Henderson (#7). Gustafson sees this, and takes advantage:
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The Jackrabbits rotate this coverage from a Cover 2 look to Cover 1, with man coverage on the single receiver. Henderson gets an outside release and beats the CB up the sideline. The QB drops in a decent throw, and the Grizzlies are on the board again. This is just one example of how those multiple route options can work together, giving the QB the ability to exploit the coverage or a one-on-one matchup.
Having covered some of the intermediate concepts that Montana employs, as well as how the individual routes fit together and how deeper routes can be used on these plays, we will turn to the vertical passing game in the final piece of this series, to show how Stitt and Gustafson push the football downfield.