Stanford’s Red Zone Passing Game

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]In previewing the Pac-12 for the upcoming season, I expected to write about the Stanford rushing game. Bryce Love, the speedy Heisman contender, is the obvious strength and focal point of the Stanford offense. Given the recent turnover at QB for the Cardinal as well, the passing game was certainly less of a focus for me. However, with the graduation of Ryan Burns and transfer of Keller Chryst, the QB position has stabilized with KJ Costello at the helm. In addition, one of the more interesting stats I found this offseason was the ability of the Stanford passing game in the red zone. They were tied for fourth in the FBS for red zone passing touchdowns with 22, behind only Oklahoma, Memphis, and Washington State. For a team with a back like Love, that number was certainly surprising. Plus, when you account for the fact that Stanford was 128th out of 130 teams in terms of plays per game last season, this number indicates a well planned and executed red zone passing game, rather than merely a volume based attack to rack up scores.

The other thing I found interesting when researching the Stanford offense, and this is courtesy of Phil Steele’s absolutely outstanding college football preview, is that Stanford has 13 receivers that are 6’2’’ or taller. When you watch their offense, a lot of the plays they make and touchdowns they score are predicated on leveraging that stat to the fullest degree. Height isn’t a skill, alone it means relatively little. But combined with the athletic ability, high pointing ability, hand-eye coordination, and route running of many of the wide receivers and tight ends on the Stanford offense, height is absolutely a weapon.

There were three main “base designs/concepts” that Stanford implemented, in varying forms, on offense in the red zone. Of course, they utilized plenty of other plays, but the ones that found the most success were the fade route, the flat-7 smash concept, and their goalline play action slam release play.

Fade Route

The fade route is one of the more common goal line passing calls at the college and pro levels of football. It’s relatively low risk, as their are very few interceptions off of fades. With the height of the Stanford receivers, they almost always will try a fade or two near the goal line.

A great example of a fade route from Stanford comes from their win against the Oregon Ducks. They come out in 12 personnel on the three yard line, facing a third and goal. Oregon counters with their base 3-4 defense. Stanford will split one of their tight ends out wide, to the strong side of the formation, with a slot formation on the backside. They’ll run fades to all three receivers, with TE Dalton Schultz (#9) staying in to pass block.

The tight end split out to the left is freshman Colby Parkinson (#84), a former number one tight end recruit for Stanford. Lined up in press man coverage across from Parkinson is CB Deommodore Lenior (#15). Parkinson is 6’7’’ and 240 pounds. Lenior is…. not.

The 5’11’’ Lenior plays the route well at first, getting hands established on Parkinson and turning his head to locate the ball. However, the size and length advantage of Parkinson becomes clear once the ball is in the air, as he’s able to get a hand to Lenior’s chest and box him out.

Lenior keeps playing physical and looks to disrupt the catch point, and does an admiral job, but Parkinson’s size is simply too much for the smaller corner. It’s a Stanford touchdown.

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Now, this would be easy to paint as Stanford simply relying on a bigger player to do something with the ball in the air. And at it’s core, that’s kind of true! Parkinson is simply far bigger than Lenior and that’s why quarterback Keller Chryst (#10) chooses that fade route of the three to target pre-snap.

However.

There’s more that goes into that call. As I mentioned before, the Ducks are in base 3-4 personnel. They’re aligned in an okie front, with a 0-technique nose tackle and two 5-technique defensive ends. Both inside linebackers are aligned off the ball over the guards, while the outside linebackers are a few steps outside the outermost blockers on each side. A safety is in the box over Schultz.

So why does this matter? This is an 8 man box near the goaline against 6 blockers. Box counts are different near the goal line, of course, because the margin for success is different. Normally, a 3 yard run isn’t considered successful, but that’s a touchdown in this situation. Safeties, like Nick Pickett (#16) in this situation, can play in the box and still play man coverage or drop into “deeper” zones because the depth of the plays are condensed.

The reason the defensive front really matters to this play, is based on how they covered Parkinson. Since the Cardinal offense has 12 personnel, the Ducks need base personnel to prevent power running inside. But, with a tight end split out wide, the Ducks have a decision to make.

They can send a corner or safety out to cover Parkinson on a potential fade. That leaves both inside linebackers in the box to stop any run call the offense might dial up. It also puts a more athletic player in coverage outside against more complex routes. But, as we saw here, it also leaves them open to a much larger player taking advantage of a defensive back on a fade route.

The flip side of this would be the Ducks sending a linebacker out with Parkinson. Linebackers are bigger and more able to play toe to toe with a behemoth like Parkinson. But, that leaves them exposed both on more complex routes where linebackers have less experience out wide, as well as it drops a run stopper out of the box in a key short yardage play.

I’m not privy to the play call/offensive philosophy here, of course. But, if it were my offense, I’d have coached my QB to audible to an inside run if the defense decided to send a linebacker into coverage while leaving a safety in the box. For a team that prides itself on power running and a strong offensive line, I’d trust my guys up front to knock back a smaller defensive box and gain a few yards for a score.

All this to say, the Stanford fade is not simply them forcing the ball to tall players and hoping for the best. The fade is well executed and the Stanford receivers are the key to that, but it also takes advantage of however the defense attempts to defend them near the goal line.

Flat-7 Smash Concept

The Flat-7 is a simple variation of the traditional smash concept (which you can read about in that link to Mark Schofield’s excellent break down of the concept in our Glossary). A smash concept is a corner route (7 route) and hitch/curl route combination on one side. It’s designed to create a high/low conflict on the cornerback to that side.

The Flat-7 simply replaces the curl route with a flat route underneath, but the goal of the play is the same. On a high low concept (of any kind) you want to put a defender in conflict.

Stanford utilized the Flat-7 look in the red zone and generally paired it with some pocket/QB movement. In general, this took the form of a sprint out, where the QB would move towards the route combo behind the offensive line, who moved the pocket there as well.

We’ll look at another touchdown against Oregon on this play, again from 12 personnel. The Cardinal offense has both tight ends to the left of the formation, with an inverted slot formation on the right. The outside receiver motions in to a stack formation pre-snap.

Chryst will roll to the right on this play, while WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside (#19) runs the corner route and Trenton Irwin (#2) runs a quick flat route underneath. Oregon’s defenders will essentially man up from the receivers across them.

Here’s the offensive playart:

This play creates a simple and reduced read structure for the quarterback. He’s rolling towards the two routes, which essentially eliminates the back three defenders from the play. Chryst works from low to high on this play, reading Irwin’s route before working up to the 7 route from Arcega-Whiteside.

Chryst moves to his right and the line does a great job protecting him. He checks the flat route first, but it’s pretty well covered by Deommodore Lenior (#15). He then works up to the corner route just as Arcega-Whiteside makes his break. Chryst makes a solid throw, but it’s a great catch by Arcega-Whiteside on a bit of a low ball for a touchdown.

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The Flat-7 concept was a pretty common call for Stanford in the red zone. With how restricted space gets in the red zone, the concept (combined with moving the QB) does a nice job of creating horizontal space and eliminating defenders from the play.

Play Action Slam Release

The slam release is something I’ve written about before, both in the ITP glossary and in analyzing how Boston College utilized it to upset Florida State. Because Stanford has such a strong power run game, especially in short yardage scenarios (where all the blockers will often line up in four point stances), defenses often will not expect a pass play from a formation like this:

Stanford had a lot of success in the red zone from a look like the above one by implementing a hard play action fake and releasing a tight end into a flat route off a block. Sometimes they’d run a post route going one way and a shallow crosser from the tight end instead.

This example comes from Stanford’s game against the USC Trojans. Here, Stanford faces a 1st and goal from the ¾ yard line while trailing by 7 early in the second quarter. Stanford comes out in, uh… heavy personnel.

It’s technically 23 personnel, with 2 backs and 3 tight ends in the game. Most blockers are aligned in 4 point stances to get low and maximize leverage on a quick dive play.

Stanford will instead run a play action slam release, with a naked bootleg towards the tight end releasing to the flat on the left.

Tight end Dalton Schultz will sell a run block, evening dropping quite low to out-leverage the defensive end.

However, he then scrambles to his left after making contact with the defender, and gets horizontal into the large swath of space in the end zone. Chryst boots to his left after the play fake and flips the ball over the two defenders to the wide open Schultz for an easy score.

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This play is just about indefensible, as defenders have to commit fully to stopping the run given how the offense is aligned. If a defender plays on his heels, he’s going to get blown back off the ball by these low offensive linemen on the 90% of times Stanford does run the ball here. The edge defender does a really nice job of recognizing the play fake and closing on Chryst here, but it simply isn’t enough to prevent the tying score.

Conclusion

One other play that I didn’t break down in the article but I found interesting combined a few of the concepts mentioned above, namely the Flat-7 concept and fade route. It was also a really impressive play from QB Keller Chryst, who is now a Tennessee Volunteer (grad transfer). I did an audio break down below on twitter:

Stanford’s red zone offense is built to take advantage of some of the things their offense is built around. Height advantages for their wide receivers and tight ends, and defenses selling out to stop their lethal run game. With the fade route, Flat-7 concept, and slam release in their back pocket, expect more success through the air for the Cardinal in the red zone.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @DBRyan_Dukarm. Check out the rest of his work here, including his look at what Chip Kelly’s run game will look like at UCLA and his study of what effect making a pre-draft visit has on being drafted.

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