Through the first six games in his NFL career, rookie quarterback Jameis Winston is off to a solid start. While he has thrown seven interceptions and displayed some of the concerns that surrounded him in college, the QB has also displayed some poise in the pocket and the ability to function in a high level offense where he is asked to make full field reads and work through progressions.
One of the ways offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has aided his young signal-caller in learning the Tampa Bay passing concepts is by using route combinations from tight slot formations to free up space for the receivers, giving Winston some easier reads in the passing game.
Tight Slot Formations and the Slant/Flat Concept
The slant/flat concept is a basic route combination that you can see on Sunday afternoons or on Friday nights. This is typically run out of a 2×2 formation, with the outside receiver running a slant route while the inside receiver runs a quick out to the flat. Typically the outside receiver will use a wide split, starting the play on or at the bottom of the numbers, to give him room as he cuts inside on the slant route. The quarterback uses a three-step drop and reads the defender over the inside receiver. If that defender squats into a zone, the QB can throw quickly to the flat route, making sure not to lead him directly into the outside defender. But if the inside defender turns to run with the flat route, that opens a passing lane for the slant route inside.
Tampa Bay likes to bring the two slot receivers together into a tight alignment. Rather than spread the receivers out before the snap to create space, they use the closer formation to create advantageous angles for their receivers. They also use a similar concept on the backside of these plays, the curl/flat combination.
Here is this route design in action. On this play the Buccaneers face 3rd and 21 on their own 45-yard line. They line up with 11 offensive personnel, Jameis Winston in the shotgun, and a 2×2 formation. On the backside they employ a standard slot alignment and run the curl/slant combination: The outside receiver is lined up on the bottom of the numbers to give him space when he cuts inside on the slant, while the slot WR splits the difference between the receiver and the left tackle. Playside, Vincent Jackson (#83) and tight end Cameron Brate (#84) are in a tight slot formation, with the TE to the inside and Jackson aligned on the top of the numbers:
Winston’s key is linebacker Thomas Davis (#58), who lines up over Brate before the snap. If the LB settles into an underneath zone, he will take away the slant route from Jackson and the QB needs to look outside to the tight end. But as the QB drops, he sees the playside cornerback dropping deep. This means Davis is responsible for that outside flat zone, and he will break with Brate on the flat route, freeing Jackson on the slant:
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Davis waits as long as possible before cutting with the TE outside, but Winston reads this perfectly and delivers the football to Jackson who nearly picks up the first down. Look at this image from the moment Winston releases the ball:
The quarterback, understanding the coverage and the play scheme, completes this pass with a nice anticipation throw. He knows Davis will vacate, so he is confident in his read and decision.
Another example, this time run against Cover 1 coverage, comes as Tampa Bay faces 3rd and 8 on their own 21-yard line midway through the 4th quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The offense again lines up with an 11 group, but empty the backfield in a 3×2 set. The trips side of the formation is the backside for this play, and the outside two receivers execute the curl/flat combination while TE Brandon Myers (#82) runs a second curl route.
Playside, Jackson and running back Doug Martin are in a tight slot. The RB is inside while the WR aligns on the bottom of the numbers. With the football on the left hashmark, Jackson’s pre-snap alignment keeps him tight to the formation:
With man coverage, Winston knows before the play that linebacker Jordan Tripp (#58) will turn to run with Martin on the flat route. But the quarterback also needs to be aware of LB Thurston Armbrister (#57) whose responsibility in Cover 1 is to take away underneath routes such as crossing patterns ‒ or a slant. Should Winston throw the slant route to Jackson, he needs to be sure the pass will stick between the 8 and the 3 on the receiver’s chest, and not between the 5 and the 7 of Armbrister’s:
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Winston fits this throw into the tight window, around the linebacker, and into Jackson’s arms for a big third-down conversion. The end zone camera gives a good view at how the quarterback manipulates the linebacker:
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Armbrister slides toward the trips at the snap, but this glance freezes the linebacker near the curl route, creating enough room for Winston to get the ball into Jackson on the slant.
Tight Slot and the Divide Variation
While Tampa Bay uses the slant/flat combination out of a tight slot look to pick up yardage in the three-step passing game, they also use this alignment to attack a defense at the intermediate and vertical levels using a variation of the divide concept. Two plays from their narrow loss to Washington bear this concept out.
The offense faces 2nd and 14 on their own 45-yard line with Winston in the shotgun and 12 offensive personnel. They use a tight slot to the right and TE Luke Stocker (#88) aligned as a fullback, with the quarterback and Martin. Washington has their base 3-4 defense in the game, using Cover 3 in the secondary. On the right, Mike Evans (#13) and Donteea Dye (#17) are in a tight slot alignment, with Evans to the outside. They both release vertically from this tight formation, before splitting:
Dye cuts over the middle of the field on a post, while Evans sells a corner route before putting on the brakes, and settling into a deep curl route. This gives him separation on the outside:
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This play illustrates how the deep curl route is a dangerous play against Cover 3 for a defense. Without any help over the top, the cornerback needs to respect the deep vertical threat, and must be wary of a double-move, slowing his ability to react to the curl.
Earlier in this game, Tampa Bay lines up for a 1st and 10 on the Washington 40-yard line. They use the same personnel grouping and formation as on the previous play, only this time the tight slot is on the left, with Evans outside and Jackson inside on the right. Once more the defense is in their base 3-4 with Cover 3 in the secondary:
Cornerback Will Blackmon (#41) is caught looking in the backfield when Evans makes his move to the outside, giving the WR separation. Winston takes a shot:
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The long touchdown strike gives the Buccaneers an early lead.
Typically, when an offense runs the divide route combination they employ a standard slot alignment and the inside receiver reads the middle of the field. Should he find the middle of the field “open,” such as against Cover 2 or Cover 4, he runs the post route aiming for the inside shoulder of the playside safety, trying to get across his face and between the defender and the quarterback. But should the slot WR see the middle of the field closed then he runs a vertical seam route.
But from Tampa’s tight slot alignment, the slot WR cannot continue vertically, because of his close proximity to the outside receiver. So the Bucs use the slot receiver’s post route to stress the single-high safety, holding him in the middle of the field and giving the outside receiver room to make plays.
The continued growth and development of Winston at the professional level is fascinating to watch. These slight little tweaks to basic passing concepts from Koetter give the rookie quarterback easy reads to make plays, while still tasking him with manipulating defenders with his eyes and executing anticipation throws. By customizing the offense, Koetter is making his QBs development an incremental process, and this, along with the many plays the QB has made this season, should have Tampa Bay fans excited about the present ‒ and the future.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.