So far, every passing concept we've discussed that stretches defenses vertically has been a simple high/low read. The quarterback reads one defender and throws to a receiver either behind or in front of said defender. Obviously this works well most of the time or those plays wouldn't be in the playbook. But defenses won't allow one defender to get picked on throughout the game. Eventually, another defender will move in to equalize the numbers. What was 2-on-1 in favor of the offense becomes 2-on-2 with no open receivers.
For example, Drive picks on the middle linebacker by running a Drag in front of him and a Dig behind him. Whichever receiver isn't covered by the linebacker should be open. Unless a safety starts to cover the Dig, that is. Then, the middle linebacker can freely take the Drag and suddenly neither receiver is an option.
That's where three-level stretches come in. Gus Malzahn basically adds a deep route over the top of some basic high/low concepts to occupy the deep safety and give the offense a 3-on-2 advantage. A well known example of this is called the NCAA concept.
NCAA, so called because "everyone in the NCAA runs it", is similar to Drive with a Drag route or some other short option and a Dig route downfield, but it also includes a deep Post route over top. At Tulsa, and as recently as the 2013 season at Auburn, this was known as Little Rock. Gus Malzahn broke this play down himself for the SEC Network, but the video is no longer available. *single tear*
The primary receivers...
The 5-man's job is to run a home run Post route. He runs straight down field and breaks inside once he "steps on the toes" of the corner. Limiting that space removes any cushion the defender could use to react to the route changing direction.
The 9-man's job is to run the 15-yard Dig route. Against a zone defense, he can expect the ball right out of his break. If he doesn't get the ball there, he should continue across the field to the next hole in the defense's coverage.
The short route of the NCAA concept can come in a few variations. One option is to let the running back's checkdown serve as the short option, as shown in the diagram above. Another option is the use the same Drag route used in the Drive concept.
The other receivers...
Auburn can call for this concept with several different pre-snap motions and formations. One of Gus' favorites is motioning the 2-man behind the backfield, known as Orbit or Utah motion. This gives the quarterback another player to show play action with and can therefore draw certain defenders up field. It also gives the other routes time to develop.
The 3-man often runs a speed out not only because the first few steps mimic his blocking path for play action, but also because he is the hot route should the defense blitz.
Assuming that blitz never comes, the quarterback first reads the safeties. Particularly against single high coverages, the read is simple. If the Post gets behind the safety, the quarterback hits the Post. Otherwise, he hits the Dig in front of the safety. And if a linebacker has retreated to cover the Dig, the Drag or Checkdown will be open.
In Tulsa's 2008 game with Rice, the Owls played a peculiar defense that initially looked like Cover 3, but the safety came down to chase the Drag route. With the middle of the field empty, the obvious choice was to go over the top.
Earlier in the year, Central Arkansas used what looked like three safeties. All three stayed deep, but the key was the one in the middle. Because he helped defend the deep Post, the Dig came open underneath for almost 20 yards.
Y-Sail and Y-Cross
While the NCAA concept targets the middle of the field, two other concepts can attack the sidelines with the same three-level stretch. One, known in Air Raid playbooks as Y-Sail, uses a Go route to clear out the defense for the Flag-Flat concept. (Malzahn's 5-man would be called "Y" in more traditional playbooks and Sail is an Air Raid version of the Flag route. Thus, Y-Sail.) Don't let the phrase "Air Raid" fool you into thinking only Mike Leach and his disciples use this play. Plenty of teams use it, including Urban Meyer at Ohio State.
Malzahn called for this play against Marshall in 2008. While the outside receiver ran straight downfield and took a defender with him, the back and the slot receiver ran what looked just like the Flag-Flat concept. The flat defender clearly took the short route, making the read and throw all too easy.
The other, known in Air Raid offenses as as Y-Cross, also has one route clear the defense and another occupy the flat, but a Crossing route from the backside serves as the as the intermediate option. It is so similar to the NCAA concept that Malzahn actually just calls it Little Rock 56. (The NCAA play with the 5-man running a 6-route.)
The primary receivers...
The 9-man's job is to run the Go and take the safety with him. If the safety sits or notices the Crossing route coming his way, the 9-man should turn convert his route into a Home Run Post. With his man beat and the ball coming his way, this adjustment makes the pass a little easier.
The 5-man's job is to run the Crossing route, going under the Sam linebacker and over the Mike. This should help him avoid route-altering traffic in the middle. After all, the crossing route takes some time to get across the field, so any delays are unacceptable. It also prevents the forward-facing, zone-playing Mike from seeing the play develop.
The 2-man's job is to use Utah motion to get to the other side of the field and present the quarterback with the short option. He should also show a play fake with the quarterback on his way through the backfield.
The other receivers...
Again, the remaining eligible receivers could be set up to do lots of things, but they are commonly used solely for pass protection. Since the routes of Y-Cross take time to develop, it is important that the quarterback is given enough time to find the open man.
Even though the routes are now basically along the sideline, the quarterback's reads in NCAA and Y-Cross aren't much different. He first reads the playside safety to see if the home run ball is available. If not, the Crossing route should be running into a vacated zone. If a defender has the Crossing route covered, then the swing route is probably uncovered.
You can see just how similar Y-Cross and Y-Sail are by watching this play from Tulsa's 2008 game with North Texas. The long route pulled a corner downfield and the motion through the backfield occupied the flat defender. The 5-man from the other side was wide open once he cleared the linebackers. In fact, the closest defender to the catch was the middle linebacker, who didn't even see the route go behind him.
A lot of the plays we've covered before are good against certain zone defenses but not others. For example, Post-Flat is great against Cover 3, but not so good against Cover 2. Floods, however, are very effective against nearly any pure zone coverage. Look at the diagrams here. Do you see any with three levels of coverage? No, you don't. So they have no way of defending three routes stacked vertically.
Of course, opponents aren't going to play a vanilla zone coverage if Auburn keeps hitting them with flood routes. So Malzahn has other ways to get this three-man stretch. One way is to show play action to one side of the field and let the quarterback and receivers flood the other side. Another is to use those three receivers to form a horizontal and vertical stretch at the same time. We'll cover both methods next week as this series ends just before the 2015 season begins.