The UCLA Bruins had an uncharacteristically poor season in 2016, going just 4-8 with a 2-7 Pac-12 record for their first losing season under head coach Jim Mora. Star quarterback Josh Rosen appeared in just six games before an injury against Arizona State ended his season. Rosen has been the Bruins offense through his two years on campus, as they are the only two seasons in Mora’s career where the offense has averaged more pass attempts than rush attempts. With Rosen poised to return to full health in 2017, expect big production for the UCLA passing game under newly-hired offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who joins the Bruins after serving the last two seasons as the passing game coordinator for the University of Michigan. Fisch brings an under-center, drop-back passing game to UCLA, similar to the one they used in 2016.
I want to look at two of UCLA’s passing concepts, how Rosen succeeds within their structure, and why Fisch should keep them in the playbook in 2017 after running similar designs in Ann Arbor. The first, a shallow cross concept, involves receivers getting vertical to clear the flat for an underneath crossing receiver. The second is a deep comeback route to the playside of bootlegs. Rosen consistently succeeded on these plays last year, while Fisch was a big proponent of both at Michigan. They should provide a basis for UCLA’s drop-back game in 2017, and beyond.
Shallow Cross Concept
UCLA’s shallow cross concept was a simple way to get a receiver open in the flats, utilizing hi-lo principles like those of the NCAA concept, with more focus on creating space for the underneath receiver (using traffic and “rubs”) rather than a true hi-lo read for the quarterback. The goal is for two receivers on the playside to get downfield and clear the flat for a crossing route underneath, and then transitioning into blockers downfield while the cross has space down the sideline to run.
It’s actually incredibly similar to a punt return play known as a wall concept, where blockers get along the edge and turn to the middle of the field to create a “wall” or “tunnel” along the sidelines for the ball carrier to run free.
Here is a basic design UCLA will use on their shallow cross concept, with the two receivers on the left running vertically and the slot receiver on the right running a drag route underneath into the vacated flat.
The beauty of this design for UCLA is that it’s an ideal man beater, with strengths against zone coverage as well. The inside route from the playside is often a dig or stop route, causing traffic in the middle of the field. This can then act as a rub against the shallow crosser’s man, leaving him free in the flat. Additionally, against zone, the receiver running the crossing route can settle in the middle of the field into a seam in the zone, or they can also rely on the inside dig/stop route to hold up the flat defender from getting to their zone.
An example of UCLA using the shallow cross can be seen from their game against the BYU Cougars, halfway through the third quarter on a 3rd and 9. UCLA will show 11 offensive personnel with inverted slot formations to both sides of the field. BYU counters with 3-4 base personnel, showing Cover 2 presnap.
The left slot receiver, Darren Andrews (#7), will run the shallow cross about 2 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile the slot receiver on the right, tight end Austin Roberts (#88), will run a stop route just past the first down marker, showing a vertical release before stopping right at the linebackers’ depth to interfere with their pursuit of Andrews. The right split end, Kenneth Walker III (#10), will run a go route against the corner opposite him before blocking him for Andrews.
The Cougars appear to run Cover 2 Man, with the outside corners taking the split ends in coverage, and the playside linebacker taking Roberts. However, no one follows Andrews across the field and the busted coverage leaves him free to make an uncontested catch.
Quarterback Josh Rosen does an excellent job here, as he sells the vertical routes by Roberts and Walker III with his eyes, keeping them away from Andrews on the crosser. At the last second, he turns and locates the slot receiver then hits him in stride.
Andrews makes the catch and is able to turn upfield down the “wall” created along the sidelines by Roberts and Walker III. The blocks downfield open up a lane for him to make it all the way to the endzone for what ends up being the game-winning touchdown.
This second example comes from UCLA’s game against the Stanford Cardinal. Here, the basic premise is the same on the shallow cross, but the routes on the playside are a bit different. Lined up in 13 personnel with about nine minutes remaining in the game, UCLA has one tight end isolated to the right, two inline tight ends and a Z receiver on the left, with Rosen under center and a running back behind him.
The isolated tight end on the right, Nate Iese (#11), will run the shallow cross across the formation. Meanwhile, the inner tight end on the left, Caleb Wilson (#81) will run a 6-yard hook route into the middle of the field, with the sole purpose of disrupting the pursuit of any linebackers toward Iese. Roberts is the left wingback next to Wilson, and he’ll run a wheel route deep along the sidelines to help clear space for Iese. Finally, Walker III is the only receiver on the field, and he’ll run a go route along the left sideline.
Stanford shows man coverage in the defensive backfield and confirms that look post snap with a Cover 1 look.
Wilson’s route to the middle of the field does exactly what it is intended to do, as he collides with both linebacker Bobby Okereke (#20) who is tasked with covering him, and cornerback Alameen Murphy (#23) who is following Iese on the crosser. Iese is able to get free underneath as a result.
Rosen once again sells the deep routes with his eyes, focusing on Walker III running the go route and Roberts running the wheel before throwing it to Iese. The tight end makes the catch and turns it upfield for a 16-yard gain.
The shallow cross was one of the more common passing concepts for UCLA with Rosen under center in 2016, but a new offensive coordinator takes the helm in 2017 and the offense will obviously undergo some changes. For Bruins fans though, there is some relief as there are multiple examples of new OC Jedd Fisch running the same play with Michigan in 2016, such as this one against Colorado:
The shallow crossing concept is a basic design that gives Rosen a high percentage throw with the chance for serious yards after the catch when run well. Rosen’s eye discipline to keep defenders out of the flat, as well as his pocket awareness to avoid potential pressure while the route concept develops, both bode well for future big plays off the shallow cross.
Max Comeback off a Play Action Bootleg
The second foundational passing concept in the UCLA Bruins offense is a max comeback route on a play action bootleg. It’s a design that requires timing, arm strength, and placement as the wide receiver more often than not has a very small window to make a play on the ball between the cornerback and the sideline.
The first example of UCLA’s max comeback off a play action bootleg is from their game BYU once again. Late in the third quarter on a 2nd and 10 near midfield, UCLA will fake an outside zone run to the boundary side of the field and boot Rosen to the field side. They have 21 personnel on the field, with a pro formation to the left, an offset i-formation with the fullback shaded to the right, and a lone wide receiver split to the right. BYU counters with base 3-4 personnel that is showing Cover 2 at first, but the weak side safety appears to be cheating down a bit, signaling a possible roll to Cover 3 at the snap.
BYU does indeed roll to Cover 3, which means the strong side safety will take the deep middle third and the corners will take deep third responsibilities to either side of him. The outside linebacker dropped to the edge will have contain responsibilities against a possible bootleg from Rosen like the one on this play.
Rosen will sell the fake incredibly well with his shoulders and head, a trait of Rosen’s that Matt Waldman did a great breakdown of. Then, he’ll begin the bootleg toward the wide side of the field, where wide receiver Darren Andrews (#7) is running the max comeback.
The outside linebacker tasked with outside contain, however, is not fooled by Rosen’s fake and does an excellent job maintaining outside leverage against the quarterback. Rosen is unable to fool Tomasi Laulile (#48), then, and is forced to throw from midfield rather than closer to the sideline. Rosen is more than up to the task though, throwing the ball 22 yards from the middle of the field to the sideline – all off his back foot. The timing between Rosen and Andrews mesh perfectly, and the throw is complete for a first down.
The second example of the max comeback off a bootleg is from the Stanford game. Midway through the second quarter and using 11 personnel in a pro left, slot right under center look, UCLA will again fake outside zone to the right while running the max comeback to the left, this time to Ishmael Adams (#1).
The advantage of this design comes from the flow of the other receivers. If Adams is unable to get open on the comeback or the corner closes before Rosen is ready to throw, the other receivers are all flowing toward the playside. Iese, the playside tight, is selling a zone block before releasing to the flat while Andrews (#7) runs a deep crossing route from the right slot.
However, the timing matches up well once again for Rosen and the receiver, as the sophomore quarterback places the ball beautifully for Adams in stride along the sidelines. First down UCLA.
The even more impressive thing about both of these throws beyond the placement, velocity, and timing? They’re both thrown while rolling to his left, making them far more difficult for the right-handed QB. He is forced to either stop and reset his feet to transition quickly into a passer (as in the first example), or contort and throw across his body while maintaining accuracy and velocity (as in the second example). He is able to both equally impressively.
The last thing to look at here is how Michigan ran a similar concept in 2016. On this play, Michigan will run a similar design to the last UCLA example, though they use 12 personnel. Quarterback Wilton Speight will fake a toss to the left, and the outside receiver on the right will run a deep comeback route. Just like the above example, the playside tight end (Jake Butt (#88)) for Michigan will leak out to the flat as a checkdown option for the QB. The difference here for Michigan is the backside wide receiver Amara Darboh (#82), who will motion in toward the line presnap before following Speight on the boot as another flat option.
Speight fakes the toss and boots to his right, eyes watching for the break of the outside receiver.
He decides against testing the deep ball, instead dumping it off to Darboh in the flat, who is able to turn the corner and gain 9 yards.
These two passing concepts for UCLA should continue to provide the foundation of their passing offense with Josh Rosen. Once he leaves for the NFL, expect variations to take over but the basic principles to remain the same. For even though Rosen’s successor may not have the same natural arm talent to fit some of the max comeback throws into tight windows, they could still hit the shallow cross concept or a flat route off a bootleg like Speight in the above play. Once consistency and health return to the QB room for UCLA, expect big things out of their passing game.