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 near the line of scrimmage and in the intermediate passing game, we can turn our eyes to how Stitt’s quarterbacks attack the secondary using the coach’s vertical concepts. As we’ve already noted in the first two parts of this series, many route concepts in this scheme include vertical routes along the boundaries. On each snap the quarterback is free to peek at these routes, and if he spots a favorable matchup or coverage he can take his shot with the deep ball. For opposing cornerbacks, this means there are no easy plays.
In addition, these vertical routes on the outside work as hot reads for the quarterback. When the QB sees a blitz, rather than the more common approach of looking for a quick route over the middle or out of the backfield, he flashes his eyes to the boundary and attacks vertically. On this example, the Griz face a 1st and 10 on their own 36-yard line, midway through the second quarter of their season-opener against North Dakota State. Brady Gustafson stands in the shotgun and Montana has three receivers to the right, with Jamaal Jones (#6) split wide to the left. The Bison defense aligns using 4-2-5 personnel, and they show two high safeties before the snap:
Here is what the offense runs on the play:
To the three receiver side, Montana employs a drive concept, with one receiver running a deep dig while another comes over the middle on a shallow route. The third receiver runs a corner route, breaking away from the flow of the play. But upon seeing the secondary rotate to Cover 1, Gustafson now knows he has man coverage to the boundary, with the safety rotating over to cover the single receiver to the left. Jones releases vertically, and Gustafson gets rid of the football quickly against the blitz, throwing the straight go route to the single WR:
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The play was initially ruled an incompletion, but upon review it was overturned, as Jones was able to get a foot down in bounds. This is a good example of how Montana uses vertical routes along the sideline as blitz reads. As a quarterback, you want to be blitzed, because it often gives you a chance to exploit a favorable matchup or hole in the coverage. Stitt builds that into his offense, giving the QB the option to throw deep on these plays and take advantage of opportunities downfield. Here, although the play is designed to attack the middle of the defense, Gustafson again has the opportunity to throw deep when he sees the blitz, and a favorable matchup.
Vertical routes are a staple of the modern passing game, and you can see offenses run three verticals, four verticals, or all go concepts whether you are watching on Friday night, Saturday afternoon, or Monday night. Stitt’s offense is no exception. Initially, the threat of the fly sweep can be used to distract the coverage, and work three vertical routes behind a peeking linebacker. On this snap against NDSU, the Bison are in Tampa 2 coverage, meaning middle linebacker Nick DeLuca (#49) is required to turn toward the eventual three receiver side and get vertical at the snap to try and cover the intermediate zone in the middle of the field, to help the two-deep safeties:
The Griz use fly motion here, with the left slot WR coming across the formation before the snap. They run three vertical routes on the play. Watch as the combination of fly motion, with a potential inside zone run, stresses the MLB:
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DeLuca is a step late getting into his zone drop, which allows the slot WR to run a seam route attacking that zone between the two deep safeties. With additional vertical routes on each side of the formation to the outside, the deep defenders widen. And with the MLB a step late, he can’t prevent the big completion.
Because of the near-legendary status of the fly sweep, Stitt and his offense can use the threat of that play to set up other opportunities in both the running and passing game.
But even without the window dressing provided by the motion, Montana can get receivers open deep using a combination of vertical routes. On this play against South Dakota State, they use three deep routes, consisting of vertical routes along each boundary and a post route from the tight end:
The Jackrabbits show Cover 2 before the snap, but their 3-3-5 defense rotates to a Cover 1 Robber scheme at the snap. But notice the positioning of the strongside safety. Because he has three receivers to his side of the field, he walks outside toward the hashmark, and aligns with inside leverage in relation to the middle trips receiver. At the snap he drops straight back, while the weakside safety crashes down toward the line of scrimmage. So when the TE releases on his post and gets behind the linebackers, the safety is in a bad position to help:
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Pre-snap alignment from the offense creates opportunity. By positioning three receivers to one side, Stitt forces the defense (specifically the safety) to widen. This in turn gives the TE a path to a big play on his post route.
Here’s another example of three vertical routes leading to a big play, again helped by formation. Late in the game against NDSU and facing a do-or-die fourth down, Gustafson stands alone in the shotgun with 10 personnel in the game in a 3X1 alignment, with the trips formation to the left side of the field. The Bison have a 4-2-5 nickel in the game showing a single-high safety look: The other safety cheats down and shadows the trips side of the formation. Both linebackers show blitz, one in the A Gap and the other outside the left tackle:
Tampa 2 requires the linebacker to recognize any vertical route from the No. 3 ‒ or inside ‒ receiver and run with that route. On this play, that’s exactly what the Griz implement. They initially show a bubble screen to the trips, with the No. 2 (middle) receiver floating to the sideline on the screen action, while the other two receivers run vertical routes:
Redshirt-freshman Reese Carlson (#85) is the No. 3 receiver on this play and he runs a vertical seam route. Sophomore Tre Dempsey (#3) is the safety shaded to the trips alignment, and as he drops into his zone, he tries to split the difference between the two vertical routes.
Junior linebacker MJ Stumpf (#41) attempts to run with Carlson and get under the seam route, but Gustafson has just enough room to drop in a perfectly-placed throw:
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From this angle you can see Stumpf recognize the vertical route and turn to run with it, but the throw is just over the LB’s outstretched right arm:
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Stumpf plays this as well as he can, but the formation creates opportunity, here in the form of getting a wide receiver matched up on a middle linebacker while running a vertical route.
Three Verticals Plus Shallow
If the defense is continually beaten with these three vertical concepts, and starts to sag its coverage deep in response, Stitt is not without recourse. He likes to pair a single shallow route with these three vertical designs, to give the quarterback an option underneath and create a high-low situation against the linebackers.
On this play against Eastern Washington, the Griz line up with 11 offensive personnel, with three receivers to the left and a single receiver split to the right. The Eagles align their 4-2-5 defense with a Cover 6 look, but rotate to Cover 3 Cloud at the snap:
Montana runs three vertical routes from the trips side of the formation, with the outside and inside trips receivers running posts. The middle receiver runs a wheel route, working toward the boundary and then breaking vertically. From the weakside of the formation, the single receiver runs a shallow crosser:
As the play unfolds, the shallow crossing route catches the eyes of the linebackers, and with three vertical routes coming toward them, the playside cornerback and the free safety are forced to maintain depth. This opens up the middle of the field for both post routes:
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When I say “opens up the middle of the field for both post routes,” I truly mean open:
You can imagine what would happen if those linebackers got deep after the snap to help on the dual posts — that shallow route breaks wide open over the middle, and the Griz have an opportunity for a big catch-and-run play in the passing game. Again, the beauty of Stitt’s design is that big play opportunities exist against any coverage or scheme, without having to change the play at the line of scrimmage. This design is yet one more example.
Here’s one final variation of this design, from the game against NDSU. Facing 1st and 10, Gustafson stands in the shotgun with 10 personnel on the field, with trips to the left and a single receiver split right. The Bison 4-2-5 defense shows Cover 6 pre-snap, with the weakside CB in press alignment while the strongside safety is 10 yards deep across from the outside trips receiver:
The running back flares in motion before the play, toward the three-receiver side of the formation. At the snap he and the middle trips WR run mirrored bubble routes, while the other two receivers release vertically. But from the weakside the lone WR comes over the middle on a shallow route. We previously outlined how Stitt incorporates routes to beat both man and zone coverage into a given play, and that design unfolds on this play. The Bison rotate their coverage to Cover 1, and the weakside cornerback blitzes:
At the snap Gustafson checks the outside trips route, which is a straight go. But with the CB to that side giving 10 yards of cushion at the snap, the go option is taken away. So the QB immediately comes off that route and comes to his man-beater, the shallow route coming from the weakside:
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Gustafson places the pass perfectly, but it is dropped. However, you can see how the design works and is run to perfection. The route from the single WR takes him away from the rotating safety, and he has a step on the coverage. With the rest of the defense pulled either deep (by the dual vertical routes) or stretched toward the sideline (from the dual bubbles) there is room to run after the catch for the shallow.
Backside Bang 8
A final vertical concept to cover is yet one more example of how the offensive formation can dictate a response from the defense, and create opportunity in the passing game. As we have seen throughout this three-part series, the Griz employ only a few different formations, and use 3X1 sets a great deal. If the defense starts to over-rotate or slide toward the three receiver side of the field, the weakside bang 8 route can exploit this shift. This is a very quick post route — often called a skinny post — that looks to attack not deep over the middle, but on the outside, between the numbers and the hashmark.
Here is this in action. The Griz face a 4th and 6 early in the second quarter on the NDSU 36-yard line. With Gustafson in the shotgun they align with trips to the right and a single receiver to the left. Now, look at the Bison 4-2-5 nickel defense:
The Bison show two high safeties before the play, and walk both linebackers toward the trips. The weakside linebacker aligns across from the RB, on the right side of the offensive formation. The strongside linebacker walks outside as well, and aligns with inside leverage on the inside trips receiver, as does the strongside safety. This gives the defense five defenders on the right side of the offense.
On the backside, Jones is able to get inside leverage on the CB by giving him a jab step to the outside and getting the defender to commit to the sideline, before cutting underneath him and getting good position between the CB and the quarterback. But the final element of this play — in addition to the pre-snap alignment and the route from Jones — are the eyes of the QB. At the snap Gustafson flashes his eyes toward the trips side of the field. Even with five defenders toward the trips side of the field, the weakside safety sees the QB looking that way, and can’t help but take a few steps in that direction:
That creates the perfect throwing window for the bang 8 route. Gustafson immediately comes to Jones on his left, and throws a perfectly timed and placed pass that hits the receiver who is right between the numbers and the hashmark:
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The weakside safety recovers and makes the tackle, but not before the Griz have the football inside the Bison 10-yard line.
The beauty of the Stitt offense is that it seems to have an answer for every defense, every coverage, and every situation. Of course, this is not always the case, as teams have found ways to slow down this offense and limit its scoring potential. But as Stitt, Gustafson, and the Griz prepare for year two in this system, the future is bright. When all the elements of the offense, from the fly motion and sweep concepts, to the screen concepts, as well as the passing game are put together, they add up to a dangerous combination for most defenses to face on a given Saturday.