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Attacking the Flat Defender: Part 1

One of the simplest ways to attack a defense is to pick on a cornerback. Third in a series explaining the Tiger passing offense. Previously: Reading the Coverage, the Route Tree

As seen in the last post, Auburn's receivers have to learn a lot of routes, but just having a bunch of paths up and down the field jammed into a playbook does not make an effective passing offense. Those routes must be used in combinations that are designed to find weaknesses in the various defenses the offense will face. With as few as two receivers or as many as five, these "route combos" or "concepts" attack in three specific ways.

First, pass concepts can attack man coverages by using option routes and rub routes. As previously discussed, option routes allow for the receiver to change his route based solely on the the position of his defender. Rub routes are legitimate paths that also just so happen to get in the way of another receiver's defender.

Second, route combos can stretch a defense horizontally. As you might recall, Cover 2 has two deep safeties and five more defenders playing zone underneath. If three or more receivers reach the safeties' level, one defender will be stuck between two pass targets and someone will be open. This horizontal stretch can also be used closer to the line of scrimmage.

Finally, they can stretch a defense vertically. Some concepts are designed so that one defender has a receiver in front of him and another behind him, but he can't cover both. The quarterback simply throws to the one not defended.


We'll take a look at examples of the first two later, but an almost universal concept that uses the vertical stretch is known as Smash. Smash is a two-route combo to one side of the field. The #1 receiver (counting outside in) runs a Hitch and the #2 receiver runs a Flag. (Hmmm. Smash. Hulk Smash. The Incredible Hulk? Hmmm.)

Smash Diagram

The progression is high to low, meaning the preferred throw is to the Flag, but if it's not open, the quarterback looks for the Hitch. And the read is simple. Watch the flat defender. Either the cornerback or the adjuster (the weakside linebacker in the diagram) will be responsible for the flat depending on the defense's coverage. If the flat defender stays in the flat, the Flag route should open up behind him. If the flat defender retreats to stay in front of the #2 receiver, the Hitch should be open.

During the last drive in the 2013 game against Mississippi State, the Bulldog safeties were playing very deep and the corners were playing very tight. This allowed the slot receivers to find open space with the Flag route.

GIFs are now hosted by gfycat. They should be smaller files that load faster. You can also click them to open them in another tab and then pause them, reverse them, or even slow them down. But they don't wait for you to mouse over to start like they used to. Feedback encouraged!

Two games earlier, Washington State's corner dropped back to defend a deep zone. When the nickelback chased the slot receiver downfield, the Hitch was left wide open.

Smash is so popular, you can find a detailed breakdown on numerous sites and blogs. In fact, ATVS just contributed to the effort a few weeks ago. So I'll leave some of the details of Smash to others, but the same high-low read is used with other route combos and one of them in particular is a great place to start digging into Auburn's playbook.

The Flag-Flat Combo

The Flag-Flat concept sends the #1 receiver on the Flag route while the #2 receiver runs to the flat on a Speed Out. During Malzahn's time at Tulsa, it was known as 27/97 (the 2-man or 9-man running a 7-route) and Washington. (Flags? Washington? Get it?) Don't worry about giving away secrets. The name has surely been changed over the last seven years.

Flag-Flat vs soft corner

The play side receivers...

The 9-man's job is to get open near the sideline at 15-25 yards downfield depending on how the cornerback is playing him. If the corner is soft, the receiver will actually add the Dino stem to the route. After 10 yards, the receiver will break inside toward the corner's inside shoulder and show a skinny post route. This should get the corner's hips turned inside as he prepares to give chase toward the middle of the field. However, after just three steps,the 9-man will break back inside on the flag route which should get the corner twisted up. It also gives the receiver more room inside to run the Flag route. If the defender has enough cushion to recover from the fake, the receiver will break the flag route off and run more of a deep comeback.

You can see just how open a receiver can get by faking inside in this clip from Tulsa's 2008 game vs. North Texas.

If the corner is playing tight, sometimes called press coverage, the 9-man will push hard inside to avoid being forced along the sideline. Remember, Cover 2 corners can make it tough to get deep and a receiver shoved closer to the sideline can't run a flag route without going straight out of bounds. If the defense was actually in Cover 2, there should be a wide open zone along the sideline about 20 yards downfield. The receiver will cut to the corner after 12 yards and let the quarterback throw him open.

Flag-Flat vs hard corner

The 3-man's job is not only to get into the flat but also show run action. Since the H-back would typically be blocking the Will linebacker in a run play, his path during a play action pass play should start that direction, too. After four yards downfield, the 3-man will roll outside but stay flat and aim for the sideline just five yards downfield.

With just a few seconds before halftime in the 2010 SEC Championship Game, the Gamecocks' defense was understandably sending plenty of defenders deep. But the outside linebacker just let the slot receiver get open near the sideline without any trouble, allowing Cam to throw a Hail Mary touchdown to Darvin Adams as time expired on the next play.

The 4-man's job is to sell the play action and provide a check down for the quarterback if neither of the previous two receivers get open. When the back runs behind a zone blocking offensive line, he is reading the defense to find the best path to daylight. When the back is faking a run as he in this play, he must also make reads, not only to prevent giving the fake away, but also to tell whether he needs to stay back and help in pass protection. If no blitzers come, he will replace the Will linebacker four yards down field. After all, if neither the Flag or the Flat is open, it's probably because the Will left the box on his way toward the sideline.

The backside receivers...

Typically, the boundary is the play side, but that doesn't mean the receivers to the field can take the play off. They might mirror the play side combo, as shown in the Smash diagram and GIFs. This allows the quarterback to decide which side has a higher chance to succeed based on the defense's pre-snap position. The backside receivers might also run a completely different route combo, many of which will be discussed in future posts. Or, as shown in the two Flag-Flat diagrams, they might run routes that influence other defenders and give the play side concept a better chance of success, or, if totally misplayed by the secondary, give the offense a shot at a home run ball.

For example, in the two Flag-Flat diagrams, the 2-man's job is to influence the play side deep safety. By running a deep Post, the safety is pulled back toward the middle of the field. He cannot commit to defending the other sideline where the 9-man is running his Flag route. If the safety ignores him, though, and especially if the other safety expands toward the other sideline, the 2-man should expect a deep ball down the middle.

The 5-man's job is to simply look for a home run ball. He will run a skinny Post or a Go route. He won't get the ball thrown his way often, but if the defense is caught sleeping, he has to be ready. Plus, his route ensures the backside safety can't easily cover the 2-man's deep Post.

The quarterback...

Though sometimes used with the quarterback rolling out of the pocket, the Flag-Flat combo is usually a three step drop passing play, meaning the quarterback should take three steps back after receiving the snap. This gives the receivers time to run down field and gives the passer time to read the defense.

The read and progression are the same as they are for Smash. The quarterback reads the flat defender and then looks to throw to the Flag first, the Speed Out second, and the check down last. In the case of a blitz from the play side, the passer should skip the first read and throw to the 3-man early. This is an example of a hot read, a built-in route adjustment to counter blitzes.

When and where to use this play...

This is one of Gus Malzahn's most useful plays. It can be used out of many different formations since it only requires two real receivers. Sure, the receiver running the Flag must be closer to the formation than normal to make room for the his cut outside, but the Speed Out can be run by a slot receiver, a tight end, or an H-back.

It's great against Cover 2, but it can work well against Cover 3 and Cover 4, too. The home run ball can be added to the backside if it's time to take a shot from 25-35 yards away from the end zone. It's good for converting third and medium since the throw to the flat or the checkdown is a pretty easy way to get five yards and it's good for getting out of bounds to stop the clock during a two-minute drive since both routes end near the sideline.

All in all, these two plays use basic routes that make for easy reads for the quarterback. But they are not the only ways to attack that flat defender. In part 2, we'll see that Auburn can get the same results with an easier pass for the quarterback and even attack further downfield with the same setup once the defense gives that flat defender some help.