Louisiana State University featured a potent rushing attack in the 2015 season, that featured some interesting wrinkles. However, if they are going to compete in their conference, then they will need to move the ball more effectively through the air. Mark Schofield covers the LSU play-action passing game to show how the Tigers can reach the next level in 2016.
It is no secret that the strength of the Louisiana State University offense is their running game. Junior tailback Leonard Fournette is a preseason Heisman candidate and looks to build upon a strong 2015 season. Last year Fournette carried the football 300 times for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns, an average of 6.5 yards per carry. A scarier thought is that Fournette might not be the most talented running back on the roster; sophomore RB Derrius Guice notched 445 yards on only 51 carries last season, for a whopping 8.5 yard per attempt. When you consider that the Tigers also return starting center Ethan Pocic, starting left guard William Clapp, and right guard Josh Boutte (who started the season opener) it is a safe bet that LSU will feature the running game heavily in 2016.
But if the Tigers want to fulfill the promise afforded by a roster that returns 17 starters and knock the Alabama Crimson Tide off the top spot in the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division, they will need to improve in the passing game. Senior quarterback Brandon Harris returns and has a duo of talented receivers to target in the passing game: Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre.
Given the prowess of the Tigers’ rushing attack, their best means of attacking a defense through the air should stem from the timely use of play action.
To effectively draw in a defensive front through a play fake, however, takes more than Harris simply carrying out a good fake to either Fournette or Guice. To truly sell the run, it takes the entire offensive unit to show run, to convince defenders that the football will stay on the ground. Defenders up front often key not on the quarterback or the football to make their run/pass read, but rather on the linemen up front. For example, a linebacker might read first the movements of the center and the guard to determine whether a running play is coming, or if the quarterback is going to take to the skies.
Therefore, on play-action plays, the offensive line needs to show the defense some “run keys” to truly convince the defense a running play is coming.
Here is the LSU ground game in action, running one of their staples: the lead toss play. Pay particular attention to the orchestrated movement of the guys up front:
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Off the snap the line fires in unison to the right, and each lineman shows the defense their left shoulder. This is a run key for the defense, showing them that a zone running play is coming their way.
Now let’s look at this play against Mississippi State. Harris (#6) is under center and the Tigers have 21 personnel on the field, lined up in an i-formation with slot to the right, with Dural inside and Dupre split wide to the right. The Bulldogs counter with their base 3-4 defense:
LSU fakes an outside zone play here, and the offensive line does an incredible job of selling the run and showing their run keys to the defensive front:
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Harris comes out of the fake and executes a deep drop before hitting Dural on a deep post pattern for the touchdown. LSU is aided by the fact that one of the defenders in the secondary slips and falls, allowing the receiver to break free, but the orchestrated movement up front sells the run action. Here’s a look from behind the offense – pay attention not only to the offensive line as a whole, but especially to Boutte (#76), the right guard:
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The offensive linemen all fire out to their left at the snap, using a big lead step with their left feet. Watching Boutte, you can see the lead step, followed by an abbreviated second step with right foot, ever so slightly forward. If this were a true zone running play, Boutte’s second step would be a crossover step with that right foot. But instead he cuts that step short, which puts him into position to anchor against the pass rush. Those first two steps are enough to show the defense the run, and set up the big play in the passing game.
This next play is a similar look against Alabama. Facing 1st and 10 on their own 32-yard line, the Tigers lineup with Harris under center and 21 offensive personnel in the game, again in an i-formation, this time with slot to the left. The Crimson Tide defense uses 4-2-5 nickel personnel and they show two-high safeties, with the cornerback over the outside receiver in press coverage:
LSU shows zone run to the left side, with Harris taking the snap and opening to his left to meet Fournette in the backfield behind left tackle. As with the previous example, the QB takes the handoff and has these routes to choose from:
The offensive line does a great job of selling the zone run here, flowing in concert to their left at the snap. This convinces linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton (#20) that the running play is coming, and he flows forward toward the line of scrimmage, as does fellow linebacker Reggie Ragland (#19) and weakside cornerback Marlon Humphrey (#26). These three players recover eventually, but it still opens up a big throwing window in the intermediate area of the field, which is exactly where Harris chooses to attack:
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Dupre runs a well-executed out pattern, selling cornerback Cyrus Jones (#6) on an in-route before breaking outside. Harris hits him right along the sideline for a first down. Again, the movement of the guys up front works to influence the second level defenders, this time opening up a throwing lane in the intermediate area of the field.
This next play is a great example of not only how technique up front can influence play action, but also how an offense can use motion to get the defense to tip their hand as to the coverage and make things just a bit easier for the signal-caller. Here the Tigers face a 1st and 10 near midfield – a prime position to try a play-action pass. Using 21 personnel they line up with Harris under center and slot formation to the left, with an offset i-formation in the backfield with the fullback staggered behind the right guard. The Florida Gators have their base 3-4 defense on the field.
Prior to the snap, Dural comes in motion from left to right. Cornerback Jalen Tabor (#31) trails him across the formation. This signals to Harris that man coverage is in effect for this play. But first, the play-action element of the play:
LSU shows the Gators a split zone design here, with Harris taking the snap and opening to his left before meeting RB Darrel Williams (#34) behind the LT. The QB keeps the football and rolls back to his right. Up front, the offensive line also opens to their left to show the outside zone design, while fullback Bry’Kiethon Mouton (#47) works to the backside to seal off the edge defender. Meanwhile, the receivers execute a sail concept, with Dupre releasing vertically on a go route, while Dural then works back across the formation on a crossing route. After carrying out the fake, Williams releases into the flat.
The Gators run Cover 1 Robber here, and as with the previous plays, you can see how the linebackers and safety Keanu Neal (#42) read run at first, given the movement of the offensive line:
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Harris has all the time in the world to throw and, with Dupre clearing out the sideline with his vertical route (and drawing two defenders), the outside is open for the crosser from Dupre with Tabor trailing him. With Neal and the linebackers drawn forward due to the run simulation, there is a big window for the QB to find his receiver.
With such a potent rushing attack, the Tigers will again rely heavily on Fournette and Guice to carry the load in 2016. But to climb to the top of the mountain that is the SEC West, they will need a balanced attack that stresses a defense both horizontally and vertically. Given how well they can sell defenses on the run, their play-action passing game might just be the key to the top of the mountain.