In Gus Malzahn's first press conference as Auburn's head coach, he said, "We will have a fast paced offense... We will run the football... We're a run, play action team." True to his word, nearly every pass concept I've covered is paired with at least a token fake to the running back. More often than not, that running back continues downfield after the fake and provides a checkdown for the passer should the defense have the primary reads covered.
In those cases, the flow of the run is in the direction of the pass play. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as that checkdown is in the quarterback's line of sight. But any shift by the defense toward this flow is also toward the play's route combo. To combat this, Auburn's offense has several plays designed to take advantage of this reaction, all categorized in the playbook as "Nakeds".
Lots of different names are used for plays in which the quarterback immediately leaves the pocket. Rollouts, sprint-outs, waggles, bootlegs. Each name describes a slightly different way of getting the quarterback on the move, but that's not important here. What is important is to know that Malzahn's offense uses these types of plays quite a lot. For example, it was the preferred way to run Smash and the Smoke Draw in 2013.
Notice how Nick Marshall had two blockers in that Smash play. There was no real play action and the defense knew which side of the field was being targeted.
That's where naked bootlegs come in. Bootlegs are plays with a strong play action element to one side and a flood of receivers to the other. Naked bootlegs (or just Nakeds, as Gus calls them) are the same, but no lineman or back blocks for the quarterback as he rolls out of the pocket, leaving him exposed, or "naked".
Every base run play, and even a few more specialized ones, can be used with nakeds. Inside Zone, Power, Counter, Buck Sweep, Speed Sweep, Split Zone and Zone Read can all be used as the play action component to a bootleg. Add in a few different formations and this series of plays can take on a lot of different looks. So instead of trying to break down all the variations, these are some basic rules for how Auburn runs a naked bootleg.
Three receivers always flood one side of the field, with two starting on the play side and another coming from the back side, much like they do in Y-Cross, though the routes are a bit different. The three receivers will give the quarterback deep, intermediate, and short options. The deep route could be a Go, HR Post, or a Deep Comeback, the intermediate route is almost always a Crossing route, and the short route is either a back running into the flat or a slot receiver running a Slam route/Q-route.
In all nakeds, the backside receiver runs the Crossing route. If there are two receivers backside, the one outside always runs a HR Post.
Finally, as already mentioned, the play action flows away from the receivers' flood. This is as important for the offensive line as it is for the running back. The line should block down or pull around as if they are actually running Power, Counter or the Buck Sweep while the quarterback and receivers run the other way. The whole line should use double teams on the defensive line as if they are actually running Inside Zone one way while the ball goes the other.
The quarterback's progression is actually the opposite of the other floods in the offense. Because the passer is on the run and needs to get rid of the ball quickly, the reads are from low to high. By his fifth step, the quarterback should know if the short throw is open.
In the 2013 SEC Championship Game, Auburn used a speed sweep fake one direction while Ricardo Louis ran into the flat the other direction. All three linebackers flowed toward the run fake, so Marshall was able to quickly find Louis for a nice gain. Notice how Marshall throws the ball on his fifth step.
If the short route is covered, the progression continues. In most naked plays, the next option is the Crossing route after seven steps, followed by the deep Go or Comeback after nine steps. If the quarterback gets to 10 steps, he is coached to become a threat with his legs and make a play.
Some plays include a "clear out" receiver to the flood side in addition to the deep route. In those cases, the deep option is always the Deep Comeback, but it becomes the second option in the progression. The Crossing or Drag route from the other side becomes the third read and the quarterback can expect it to open late, trailing behind defenders giving chase to all the action to the playside.
In the 2010 National Championship Game, Auburn ran a naked away from sweep motion, but few Oregon players fell for the fake. As Cam Newton ran toward the sideline, none of his receivers were getting open until one defender decided to force the issue and chase the quarterback. On his ninth step, Cam found Darvin Adams as his third option and threw for a first down.
Other than just being another bootleg, that play introduces another technique offenses can use in the passing game. Up to this point, all passing concepts we've discussed have either stretched defenses vertically or horizontally. Now, notice how the Deep Comeback and the Slam route formed a vertical stretch for the defense, but the Slam route and the Crossing route formed a horizontal stretch. Using three receivers to form this triangle is a great way to attack multiple defenses with one concept. And one play in particular adds another technique to help that triangle defeat man coverage, too.
The Snag concept (also known as Spot) may be the closest thing to the Holy Grail of passing concepts. It has both a horizontal and a vertical stretch for picking on zone coverages, plus a route distribution that mimics Mesh to defeat man coverages.
The 3-man's route is simple. He immediately runs to the flat on a Speed Out. He should look to run just behind the 2-man on his way toward the sideline. The 5-man runs a Flag route, turning inside at a 45 degree angle after about 10 yards downfield. These two receivers are really just running the Flag-Flat combo.
The 2-man runs the Snag route, and if his route gives the concept it's name, you know it's important. He runs toward the middle of the field at a 45 degree angle until he gets in line with the 5-man's path, usually five yards past the line of scrimmage. This spacing is key because his route paired with the speed out provides a horizontal stretch similar to that of the All-Curl play. But more important is his, umm, "interaction" with the flat defender. It's not really a pick play, but Malzahn coaches the 2-man to "snag" the flat defender, preventing him from chasing after the Speed Out.
The other eligible receivers can do different things based on the formation. Since this is not a naked bootleg run with play action, the running back will often swing out in front of the quarterback to give him a little more protection. The backside receiver can run the same crossing route as he would on nakeds, or, if he's a true tight end, he can stay in line to block.
Though this play can be used against various zone and man defenses, the quarterback's progression is the same each time. The first read is the Speed Out, just like that of the naked bootlegs. Against man coverages, the Snag route has likely given the Speed Out some space, but the pass needs to be made before the defenders recover.
The second read is the Flag route over the top, and the third read is the Snag route itself.
If the defense is playing zone instead of man, the vertical and horizontal stretches come into play. Against Cover 2, the Flag-Flat combo of the 3-man and 5-man is ideal as the flat defender can't cover one receiver in front and one behind him. Against Cover 3 and Cover 4, the horizontal spacing of the Speed Out and Snag should get someone open. Both Cover 3 and Cover 4 have plenty of open zones underneath for these two routes to attack.
We all hope to see Jeremy Johnson light up secondaries all season. One, that will mean Auburn is scoring lots of points and winning lots of games. Two, it will be new and interesting compared to the run-heavy offenses of the last two years. With that in mind, I felt like I really needed to get fans (myself included) up to speed on what the passing game might look like. At least the basics, anyway.
Over the summer, Bruce Feldman asked Gus when his offense became something people "had no answers for," specifically mentioning how well it worked against Missouri in 2013. Gus went straight back to high school, where he said he started running four base run concepts and six base pass concepts, perfecting them against various defenses so that he always had "answers". (Listen here at the 51:00 mark.)
Malzahn still uses four base concepts today. Inside Zone, Power, Counter, and the Buck Sweep.
I tried to distill the passing game into six base concepts, but that proved to be hard to do. I think I'm close with 1) high/low reads of the flat defender, 2) Four Verts, 3) spacing underneath, 4) high/low reads over the middle, 5) floods, and 6) nakeds/rollouts. Maybe this season will provide some clarity.
Regardless, now that we've been introduced to the basics, I hope to see lots and lots of it on game days and I hope to recognize any wrinkles Auburn uses this season to make them more effective. If I see anything interesting, I'll be sure to share. Feel free to do the same.
Just like I said in the last article of last year's series, I learn a lot from writing these articles and I hope you learn some things by reading them. And with that, I'm finally ready for the season to begin. War Eagle!