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Throwing and Catching in Traffic: Attacking Linebackers with the Pass

Linebackers already have a hard time with run and pass responsibilities. This is how Malzahn makes it even worse. Seventh in a series on the Tiger passing game. Previously: Coverages, Routes, Smash, Wheel Route, Four Verts, and Comebacks

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In the past four posts, we've mostly seen how Auburn attacks corners and safeties in zone coverage. What about the linebackers? What if they're playing man-to-man? How does Gus Malzahn put them in conflict?

Two routes that travel through the linebackers' territory are the Drag route and the Basic route, Malzahn's term for a 10 yard Dig or Square In. These routes can be combined in several ways to overload that area five to ten yards downfield between the hashes and get guys open on the run. And speedy slot receivers being chased by typically slower linebackers can mean lots of yards after the catch.


One way to defeat man coverage is to get receivers crossing paths horizontally and a great way to do that is with a concept called Mesh. Receivers to either side both run Drag routes through the heart of the defense.


The inside receivers...

The 3-man runs a Drag route by running across the field no deeper than five yards. In fact, his initial aiming point is the heels of the defensive line. He should look for the other Drag route and run just under him as they cross, practically touching shoulders. It is the 3-man's responsibility to make the routes close.

The 5-man also runs a Drag route but his aiming point is six yards past the line of scrimmage on the opposite hash. If the defense is playing man, the he will keep running through and expect the ball as the other Drag route likely slowed down a pursuing defender. If the defense is playing zone, the 5-man should settle down in an open zone between the linebackers and the flat defender.

The other receivers...

The 9-man's job is to run a Dig route 15 yards down field. Against certain coverages, this route combined with the 5-man's drag can provide the quarterback with a read similar to the Post-Flat concept.

The 2-man can have one of several responsibilities. Sometimes, as shown in the diagram above, he is asked to run a deep Post to simply draw defenders away while also being ready with a quick Hitch should the defense blitz. Other times, he can help the quarterback diagnose the defensive coverage by going in motion, as we'll see later.

The 4-man goes through his typical checkdown routine, reading the defense for a blitz and then running through the line, but he will settle more in the middle of the defense where the two slot receivers have likely drawn all the defenders away.

The quarterback...

There are a couple of progressions for the quarterback to go through depending on the coverage the defense uses. If they show zone coverage, like Cover 3, the progression is the 9-man to the 5-man to the tailback (Dig-Drag-Checkdown). The quarterback reads the flat defender just like he was running Post-Flat, as shown in the diagram below.


But what sets the Mesh concept apart is its effect on man-to-man defenses like Cover 1 as shown in the first diagram. The quarterback's progression is the 3-man to the 5-man to the 9-man. With all of the traffic in the middle, one of the Drag route runners is likely to outrun his defender. Because the routes run so close to each other, one can actually "rub" the defender off the other. And if both defenders are are able to stick with their assignments from one side of the play to the other, an open window to the Dig route should open up down the middle.

In Tulsa's 2008 game with New Mexico, Malzahn put the 2-man in motion to loop around behind the quarterback. (This is called orbit motion or Utah motion.) This pre-snap movement gave the quarterback a clue that the defense was playing a man coverage and also caused the entire defense to shift toward the boundary. While the boundary slot receiver zipped through the defense toward the wide open field, the defender assigned to him retreated before giving chase. He never quite recovered as he has to go over the top of two other defenders and an official.

So if the opponent is playing man defense, Mesh is a great call. Plus, it has a built-in route combo for defeating zone coverage by attacking the corner. But if Auburn wants to specifically put the middle linebacker in conflict, it's time to call for the Drive concept.

Drive or Shallow

While Mesh works well against outside linebackers in man coverage, the Drive concept is designed to put a receiver in front of and behind the Mike linebacker. This is accomplished by shortening the Dig route, moving it closer to the formation, and pairing it with a Drag from the same side. It is also called Shallow (though there are subtle differences between the two).

Drive 3x1

The "Drive" receivers...

The 3-man runs the same Drag route he did with Mesh, but there's no other receiver to rub. Instead, he runs right at the middle linebacker and crosses right in front of his face without getting further than 6 yards past the line of scrimmage.

The 5-man runs the Basic route similar to the 9-man's Dig route with Mesh, but five yards shorter and closer to the formation. This route will take him just over the top of the linebackers. He must get an outside release so that the adjuster (the Sam linebacker in this case) widens with him and creates more space inside. Then, at 10 yards, he cuts inside and stays on the move if the adjuster is following him. If the backers are playing zone, he settles in an open window behind them and waits for the ball.

The other receivers...

Depending on the formation, the other receivers can do a number of things to draw defenders away or simply take easy yards. In a 3x1 formation, as shown above, the 2-man runs a Go/Skinny Post to draw defenders away or take advantage of a busted coverage. Meanwhile, the 9-man actually gets a route signaled to him from the play caller or quarterback, usually a Hitch or Comeback if the corner is soft or a Go if the corner is playing tight.

In a 2x2 formation, the Drive receivers come from the same side, so the other two can run another route combo altogether. A common choice is to run the Verticals concept with those two receivers, just like they do when the other side uses Comebacks. This concept clears out any defenders from that side of the field which can allow passes to the Drag or Basic routes to rack up yards after the catch.

Drive 2x2

The 4-man still stays back for pass protection and leaves the backfield to provide a checkdown, but rather than run through the line and go left or right based on the coverage, he swings out from behind the line to the side the Drive routes started.

The quarterback...

Unlike most other plays which look for deep throws first and settle for shorter ones, the quarterback's progression in Drive is short to long. The passer reads the second linebacker inside of the Basic route, the Mike linebacker in this case. If the Drag comes open underneath, the quarterback takes the easy yards. If the Mike chases the Drag, the Basic should open up behind him, assuming that receiver was able to beat his man back inside.

In last year's Iron Bowl, Auburn converted a second and long with the Drive concept. The defender matched up with the Basic route was actually in position to prevent it from cutting inside, but the receiver was able to force his way through and make a difficult catch.

Auburn also has a version of this play where the Basic and Drag come from opposite directions. This changes a few details of the play, particularly the route the tailback runs, but the underlying concept of vertically stretching the middle linebacker remains the same.

But sometimes a two-level stretch isn't enough. For example, the free safety could be defending the zone the Basic route runs through while the middle linebacker defends against the Drag. Something similar could happen to the other vertical stretch plays we've discussed like Smash or Post-Flat. If so, Malzahn has a whole series of three-level stretches to flood any third of the field. I'll break some of those plays down in the next post, but you may have already heard of one of them. Little Rock.