One of the major talking points during spring practice was how Auburn’s offense would feature more passes to the running backs. I was curious how big of a change that might be and what type of receiving numbers RBs have put up for Gus Malzahn the past few years. Here’s what it looks like:
Last season was actually the most receptions a running back has had in Malzahn’s offense since he was named head coach in 2013. Roc’s performance in 2015 is really the closest Auburn has come to having a real threat out of the backfield in the passing game. Now compare those numbers to what Chip Lindsey’s RBs have put up the past 3 seasons.
Bit of a difference eh? Kalen Ballage even had two 100 yard receiving games last season for the Sun Devils. It’s clear Lindsey believes that running backs should play a bigger role in the passing game, so how exactly has he done that in the past? Let’s take a look.
Attacking the Flats
Honestly, Lindsey doesn’t do anything too wild or innovative when it comes to getting running backs the ball in space. The majority of receptions are made on flat or swing routes. If “flat route” or “swing route” seems like foreign language to you, here’s a very nice graphic showing the route trees for running backs
By hitting these type of routes (flat & swing), an offense clears space over the middle for both interior runs or passes over the middle to wideouts. It also forces linebackers and safeties to come up and make tackles on backs in space. The swing route is his favorite way of getting backs involved. Below is a good example:
Facing a 3rd & long, Southern Miss comes out in 20 personnel (2 running backs, 0 tight ends) and has a RB on either side of the QB. Don’t be surprised if you see this look a bunch in 2017 as Lindsey likes to get both of his running backs on the field. It appears, to my amateur eye, that Texas State is running Cover 3 Cloud, which means the two safeties and the field CB are dropping back to cover the deep part of the field while the boundary CB, nickel CB and linebackers play underneath. It’s hard to tell all the routes being run due to the camera angle but it appears the two outside WRs are running go routes and the slot is running a 10 yard out. The outside WR on the field side takes the CB with him deep while the slot draws the nickel outside with his route. This leaves the flat wide open as the Bobcat LB has no hope of covering that much ground and Southern Miss’s QB, Nick Mullens, drops it off to his running back, Jalen Richard, for a long gain.
Lindsey loves attaching swing routes for the RBs to his passing concepts as a check down option for his QB. In the play above, Mullens looks deep first, then to the out and finally down to the flat. Using the RB as a weapon out of the backfield gives the offense just one more option to use as a counter punch. Texas State actually does a great job covering all three WRs and the other RB out of the backfield but there’s no way the Bobcat strongside backer can cover enough ground to reach Richard. A nice block later and this play goes from good to great.
Sometimes though Lindsey will call a play specifically to go to the RB in the flat like the play below:
The Sun Devils come out in a 3x1 look with the trips (three wide receivers) to the top of the screen. Oregon has one deep safety with the rest of their DBs matched up on Arizona State WRs. However, the field side DBs are playing pretty far off the WRs to guard against the deep ball and be able to jump any shorter routes. Lindsey takes advantage of the wide open flat and uses it as opportunity to get the ball into the hands of his talented tailback. The WRs aren’t running routes but instead get up field and block for the back while Kalen Ballage (#7) slides out in the flat, makes the easy catch and gets up field for a nice gain.
This is a great example of an offense taking what a defense is giving them. The Ducks are concerned about getting beat over the top early in the game and so have basically surrendered the flat. Lindsey uses that as a chance to get his talented back in space for a big play. That’s some of the easiest 10+ yards an offense is going to get and is a great way of forcing defenses to move up which in turn can open up the deep strike.
A final way Lindsey uses his running backs to attack the flat that I wanted to highlight is a personal favorite. When I was taking a look at Auburn’s Sugar Bowl opponent Oklahoma last December, I fell in love with a certain play Sooners’ OC Lincoln Riley ran a bunch. He would put both Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon in the backfield. The Sooners would run zone one direction, typically with Perine, while the other back would, usually Mixon, would cross over to the other flat. The QB would read where the backside defender is going and either would give it or pull it and dump it to off to the other RB in the flat. So I was pretty darn happy when I saw this same concept being used by Lindsey at Arizona State last year:
This is a run pass option. The QB is reading the outside backside defender in the box, in this case the near side DE. If he chases the zone play, which he does, then the QB pulls it and throws to the other back in the flat. If that backside defender had stayed, then the QB would have given it. Now imagine Kamryn Pettway running the zone one way with Kerryon Johnson sliding out in the flat the other way. That would be some fun football to watch. Lincoln Riley also adds a third wrinkle where the QB can rise up and throw the deep ball which could be something we see as well in 2017.
Lindsey was an Air Raid guy the majority of his high school coaching career. You still see plenty of those concepts in his offense today but matched with a power running attack. In an Air Raid system, screens are used at times as a run game replacement. Now Lindsey runs the ball plenty, so it isn’t like he is using them to replace a rushing attack but he definitely likes to use the screen game as an addition to his power rushing attack. Many of them are quick, bubble or tunnel screens to wide receivers. However, he also likes to use his backs some as well like in the play below:
Again the Sun Devils come out in a 3x1 look, this time with the trips to the near side. This is a quick hitting screen used to counterattack a blitzing Duck defense. The right side of the OL releases and the QB does a great job of getting rid of the ball while getting hit. His OL don’t exactly give the greatest of effort but Ballage is still able to turn this into a nice gain out of the backfield.
A lot of the time, however, Lindsey likes to package his screens with play action. Often he will fake a screen one way and throw one to the other side:
The QB play fakes the ball to the RB, then looks to the far sideline where the WRs are showing a quick screen. The Southern Miss QB then spins and hits his back in the flat for a nice gain. Nebraska is sending one extra man on this play and that helps clear the field for a big pickup. The MLB actually does a great job reading this play but the WR does a great job crack blocking him and taking him out of the play.
This type of concept isn’t new to Auburn’s offense. Malzahn has done some similar things in the past but it seems like Lindsey runs it with a bit more frequency. He especially likes to use it against a blitzing or aggressive defense.
Is there anything more beautiful than a perfectly executed wheel route? Wheel routes are nothing new to Auburn’s offense though AU hasn’t run them as much as in the past. Seriously, go back and watch that 2010 offense and it feels like every third pass play had a wheel concept to it.
A lot of the times though wheel routes are slow developing. Usually there’s some kind of play action or misdirection to get the defense looking one way while the man on the wheel route tries to slip by for a big gain. Gus loves to run them off speed sweep action and then convert the sweep into a wheel. Something I saw Lindsey do that I really liked was use a much quicker developing wheel route concept:
That’s a 3-5 step drop for the QB and the ball’s out. Southern Miss is in a 2x2 look with the near side WRs running in breaking routes that open up the sideline for the RB. The near side slot WR is running a seam route which occupies the slot CB and deep safety while the outside WR runs a quick sit down route. In the process, he picks the LB who is responsible for the RB out of the backfield, opening a wide enough window for the QB to hit the back for a nice gain.
What I like about this play is it doesn’t involve some long, drawn out play fake where the OL has to hold up for a few seconds. Instead, the QB takes a relatively quick drop and gets the ball out to his target in a hurry. At times Malzahn’s passing offense relies too much on slow, developing play action concepts so it’s refreshing to see some quicker drop back passes.
Lindsey also has a little wild in him as well. If you were hoping those 1-2 random, tricky type of play calls might be going away now that Gus is no longer calling the plays, think again. Lindsey isn’t afraid to dial up some interesting plays that when they hit will have you calling him a genius and when they inevitably don’t will have fans calling for heads. But when they do work, man it’s fun to see....
Auburn hasn’t always done a great job of getting their athletes in space in recent seasons. A guy like Kerryon Johnson can handle running between the tackles but where he can really do damage is out on the perimeter. Using him and Kam Martin out of the backfield as receiving threats is a great way of utilizing their strengths while also softening up the middle for big Kam Pettway and bringing opposing defense closer to the line for deep shots. Because of that and Lindsey’s willingness to throw to his running backs, I think Johnson has a great shot at being an X-factor in this offense in 2017. Don’t be shocked if KJ puts up a 30-40 rec season and gives defenses one more problem to solve when this offense is on the field.