Phil Longo's Air Raid: An analysis of Ole Miss' new passing attack
Note: This is the first part of a two-part series on new Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Long. This content focuses on Long's passing game concepts, while part two will look at the run game and other variables including run-pass options.
By the time Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze stepped to the podium on December 16 most fans had already seen the names, read the stats and tweeted/posted their opinions of new offensive coordinator Phil Longo.
What will he run? Can an FCS guy from Sam Houston State get it done in the SEC? Will Freeze let him call plays? Will he pull the starting quarterback when we gets near the red zone?
While there are many questions that remain unanswered, Freeze and Longo have done their part to answer some of the early questions. Longo will call plays, and articles have included the gaudy statistics of Longo’s offense at Sam Houston State. A deeper look into Longo’s career shows that he has been successful at every level of football that he has coached and that he has produced solid offenses at each stop. Ole Miss should be no different.
As a high school coach, I make it a priority to study different schemes each offseason. I pay attention to trends and watch them work their way through high school, college, and the NFL. The truth is, football is a simple game. Sure, the skill level changes, and so do the intricacies and depth of the play books, but the heart of every good scheme that you find on any level of football is rooted in an X’s and O’s canon that consist proven schemes that have stood the test of time.
Remember the trap play that you ran in high school? Chances are pretty good that your favorite NFL team ran that same play last weekend. The more you study the game of football, the more you understand that everything is borrowed. Like anything else, the plays do evolve (more on that later), but at their core, they remain the same.
So, why are some coaches praised as being innovators?
Great players make great coaches, let’s make that clear up front. But, all things even, effective coordinators are the ones that understand how to structure and implement a system. I actually started studying Longo and his system back in mid-September.
Everything that I have seen on Coach Longo and his offense prove to me that he understands structure and implementation. What I like most, is that Longo understands how to take certain staples of offensive football and blend them with his own vision, and the talent on his roster, to make his offense an efficient unit year-in and year-out.
I have never met him, and I certainly haven’t been sitting in install meetings, but I do have enough knowledge of his offense to provide some insight as to what the Ole Miss offense will look like next fall.
THE ROOTS OF THE SYSTEM
Longo typically associates his offense with the “Air Raid” that was made famous by Hal Mumme and his staff at the University of Kentucky before seeing its branches spread with Mike Leach, Chris Hatcher, Sonny Dykes, Tony Franklin and Dana Holgorsen. Each of those guys, all of whom worked under Mumme at either Valdosta State and/or Kentucky, has gone on to coordinate successful offenses all over college football.
The majority of the drop-back-passing game will rely on six to seven concepts that are very much rooted in Air Raid concepts. Many of these concepts are very common among offenses throughout the country. Where Longo seems to differ from most Air Raid disciples, as well as many other coaches, is how he teaches and structures his concepts and philosophies.
Longo teaches his skill players to look for open grass and to attack the natural void left in the defense. He places quite a bit of responsibility on the wide receivers in his offense to read the coverage and react to what is developing in front of them. Receivers have to chase space and find voids versus zone defenses. Versus man-to-man coverages, the onus is on the receivers to create separation.
The receivers in this offense have a good bit of freedom to adjust to what they see and react accordingly. In essence, unless the wide receiver runs directly into a deep safety then he is always going to be right. The quarterback is responsible for recognizing what adjustment the receiver has made and put the ball into the space that the wide receiver is attacking.
This teaching starts with an understanding of leverage and conflict. Wide receivers are expected to understand which defenders are in a position to take them out of their route stem, thus effecting the concept for the quarterback and other receivers. This likely starts by teaching the receivers to recognize the shell of the defense.
Structurally, a defense that is playing with 2-high safeties will typically play a Middle of the Field Open (MOFO) coverage. Defenses that play with 1-high safety will typically play a Middle of the Field Closed (MOFC) coverage. Most defenses at the FBS level will employ some form of a rotation coverage that starts with a MOFO look and then moves players on the snap of the ball and ends as a MOFC coverage with a deep safety in the middle of the field.
Longo and his wide receiver coach will teach the receivers to recognize the indicators that the pre-snap look will be changing. Things like depth, leverage and eyes can tip off coverage principles and schemes. Well-schooled receivers can then attack the coverage based on what they are seeing. In other words, the same play may look differently based on what the defense does and how it plays its coverage.
THE SNAG CONCEPT
One of the staples of the Longo offense will be what many call the SNAG, SCAT, or TRIANGLE concept. This concept provides a great example of how the leverage of the defense will determine the routes by the wide receivers.
The standard teaching progression for quarterback is to read from the Corner (1), to the Snag (2), to the Swing (2). Most passing plays are designed to either be a vertical stretch or a horizontal stretch of the defense. This concept actually provides both. There is a vertical stretch, or high-low, on the Corner in any version of Cover 2. There is also a horizontal stretch on the alley defender.
By teaching his receivers to read leverage and depth, Longo will be teaching his playmakers to adjust their routes in a way that will either benefit themselves or one of their teammates. For example, versus a Cover 2 defense that likes to play an aggressive press or squat technique, the Slot WR that is running the Corner Route will be able to identify the high safety over the top of the route and expect a low shelf underneath his route because of the pressed corner to his side. This tells him that he can bend his route and work to the open grass between him and the sideline.
The defense could also show the same 2-high shell but play a sink technique with the cornerback, thus raising the shelf of the underneath player that can threaten the Corner Route. In this scenario the slot receiver will likely keep the stem of his route HIGH and not bend his route in an attempt to hill the corner deeper.
In doing this, the slot receiver knows that he is unlikely to get the ball, but he has to understand that if he can get on top of the corner and create separation with the higher angle of the route that he is still giving the quarterback some grass to work the ball into. If he reads it incorrectly and bends his route like he does versus a pressed corner then the quarterback will left out to dry because the defender can essentially defend both the deep route and the shallow route.
On the flip side, the quarterback has to be able to recognize the same thing. If the cornerback squats and plays aggressively on the outside receiver, he will likely take the shot on the corner route. If the quarterback sees a corner that is playing off of the LOS a bit more and then the QB is more likely to work the horizontal stretch on the alley defender. He will likely key the cornerback, or the grass behind him, during his drop to assure that he is sinking. Once he recognizes that the cornerback is in fact dropping for depth, he will then come underneath and work the horizontal stretch.
The concept doesn’t change much when teams run a MOFC coverage. The wide receivers will look for their same keys and adjust accordingly. If the cornerback is late getting depth the slot receiver will keep his angle high. If the cornerback bails early and has capped the route then the slot receiver my bend his route like he would versus a squat corner.
The other routes in the concept have the same intricacies and details that make the concept work. In the SNAG concept the outside wide receiver is running the snag route. To effectively run this route the receiver will be taught to read the hip of the alley defender.
This could come in the form of an outside linebacker, a safety, or a nickel back of some kind. Unless the alley player is in man-to-man coverage, he is likely to do one of two things once he recognizes pass. He will either expand and look to collision the outside receivers route or he will get depth and try to collision the vertical release of the slot receiver while keeping everything else in front of him.
If the defender expands towards the outside WR he will try to capture the inside shoulder of the alley defender and settle up immediately. If the outside receiver drifts inside he is in danger of running into an inside defender that is pushing out for his route. The SNAG route has to settle down before that inside defender can rotate over.
If the defender drops with depth then the outside receiver will snag up in front, or just around, of the defender. Again, the outside receiver has to be conscious of the inside defender that is working inside out towards his route.
The alley defender could also turn towards the outside receiver, sit at the receiver’s depth, and work to “WALL” or collision the route to prevent it from getting inside of him. Most coaches then teach that outside receiver to adjust his SNAG route by pivoting back to the outside and working away from the defender.
The third receiver in the concept, whether he comes from the backfield or the slot, must do his part to get width and work the horizontal stretch of the alley defender. Many quarterback coaches teach their QB’s that if the cornerback chases the SNAG route by the outside receiver that the ball should immediately go to the FLAT route. The player running the route MUST get his head around as soon as possible to look for the football.
If the defense overloads the front side of the formation and the quarterback doesn’t like his pre-snap read on the concept side of the play then he has to have something to work to on the backside of the concept. Many of the original Air Raid staples are full-field reads that have complimentary backside routes.
From what I have seen, Longo seems to prefer using backside tags on plays that are typically half-field reads, like the Snag Concept. I recognized a few different tags in my film study, but the most consistent tag seemed to be one of my personal favorites. I am not sure what Coach Longo calls this tag, but I call it HIDE. HIDE is an adaptation of the LEVELS concept that Peyton Manning, and a host of other quarterbacks, have used to slice up zone coverage for years.
This tag popped up several times on film for the games that I watched. One major advantage of this tag is that it is safe versus any coverage. Again, by placing some responsibility on the receiver, the offense is able to take advantage of the coverage structure to find openings in the zone.
In this tag, the slot receiver is going to run a HOOK or DIG route that works behind the alley defender and look for grass underneath the safety. He will look to settle in the window and expect that the quarterback sees the same open grass that he does.
This usually seems to happen at a depth of about 10-12 yards. The outside receiver will run a shorter route. The outside receiver will read the hip of the alley defender and push vertical to around five yards. If the alley defender sits or drops with depth then the outside receiver will hitch up and look for the football. If the alley defender widens then the outside receiver will convert his route and work to capture the grass inside of the alley defender.
THE STICK CONCEPT
Another popular concept that can be seen all over the game film for Longo’s Sam Houston State offense is the STICK concept. This concept is one of the most universal concepts in all of football. The play design can integrated in to almost any formation and personnel grouping and can be used against almost any coverage structure. This level of versatility makes it popular for coaches all around the country.
Well-designed offenses are not only versatile, they are also problematic. Coaches that understand how to put defensive players in conflict can find ways to move the ball consistently. The STICK concept is typically used to put a box defender in conflict, often asking a linebacker that is accustom to being a run first player to expand and defend a quick pass. This can be done by formation and also by using RPO’s (more on RPO in Part 2).
Either way, offenses use the STICK concept to attack those defenders. Coach Longo seems to like using STICK, as well as other concepts, on early down and distance situations to keep the offense on schedule with the chains. The key receiver in the STICK concept is the Slot Receiver, and the key defender is often going to be an inside linebacker. Imagine a speedy receiver like Van Jefferson working a route in space versus an inside linebacker. Do you like the matchup?
So does Longo.
While the play often designed for the slot receiver, the action start with the outside receiver. Depending on how you want to attack the coverage, the outside receiver will run some type of vertical route (fade, dig, or out) that should raise the shelf of the cornerback. In the diagram below, the receiver has been assigned a fade route, the most common assignment on this scheme. Many coaches teach this as a M.O.R. route (meaning = Must Outside Release). The outside release forces the cornerback to sink and expand so as not to leave a Cover 2 safety hanging out to dry. The outside receiver is usually only a viable option on this play if you have man-to-man coverage and a favorable matchup. Some coaches will teach their quarterback to look for the outside receiver in the window between a squat corner and the safety, but the ability of cornerbacks to press and bail at the snap of the ball has forced many quarterbacks to move away from the route versus zone coverages.
The STICK route by the slot receiver is the make or break route of this concept (Y in the diagram below). The slot receiver is to work a 5 yard vertical stem and then win to the inside of the alley defender. He has to capture the grass inside of that alley defender and show his numbers to the quarterback. Much like on the SNAG route detailed earlier, the receiver running the STICK route has to make sure that he doesn’t run into the inside linebacker that is expanding out.
The quarterback has an easy read on the STICK concept. The alley defender (the “S” in the above diagram) is placed in conflict by the flat route from the running back. If the alley defender hugs the STICK route and sits on the Y, the quarterback has to see the grass outside that the running back is working to and get him the ball immediately. If the alley defender (“S”) widens to take the running back and the defense tries to defend the stick concept with the inside linebacker (“M”) then the ball has to be thrown to the stick route at the top of the quarterback’s drop.
If the defense is using a front structure that allows them to cheat the inside linebacker’s alignment over to take away the STICK route, the offense can then use TAGS on the backside to combat the defensive adjustment. In our review of the SNAG concept we looked at the HIDE tag that Longo likes on the backside of the concept. Many coaches, including Coach Longo, seem to prefer DOUBLE SLANT on the backside of the STICK concept. If the defense overplays the concept side, the offense can then go backside to take advantage of the void left between the backside defender and the quickly expanding Mike Linebacker.
Outside of the 2X2 formation that I have focused on so far, Longo will utilize other formation to run the same concepts. The STICK concept can be run from 3X1 sets or from 2X1 a set with two running backs. From a 3X1 formation, the swing route by the running back is often replaced by a speed out from the slot receiver, again placing the alley defender in conflict.
THE FLOOD CONCEPT
In my review of the offense I kept noticing subtle tweaks to what looked like traditional Air Raid staples. Probably the most intriguing tweak that I discovered was Longo’s variation of the FLOOD concept. The FLOOD concept gets its name honestly. The idea is that you flood one zone of the field with routes and force defenders to level off and declare who they are going to defend.
In the traditional version of the concept you have three levels of routes. The outside receiver runs a vertical route that is designed to serve as a protection route. The vertical forces the defense to “cap” the route to prevent the big play. Whether the defense chooses to do so with a safety or a corner doesn’t matter. If they don’t cap the route, you throw the route. If (when) they cap the route you work a high-low read on the underneath defender.
Well-coached defenders that understand depth and leverage can make it difficult to earn big yard on the flood concept. If your flat defender plays with sufficient depth you can force the underneath throw and really limit the gain of the offense. Longo has adapted the route structure to negate the defenses ability to defend the concept the same way.
In Longo’s version of the FLOOD route, the protection route on the outside remains the same, but there is a clear shift in how he uses the inside receivers. While the traditional FLOOD concept will occasionally switch the roles of the slot receivers, Longo seems to prefer using the #3 wide receiver (3rd from the sideline) to run the Out Route. Instead of sending his other slot receiver to the flat to high-low the flat defender, Longo sends his #2 wide receiver (“H” in the diagram below) on what most coaches call a HUNT or SEARCH route.
In this version of the FLOOD concept, the alley defender (“S”) is placed in conflict with the route combination that he sees in front of him. If he chases the search route from the #2 wide receiver he opens up the out route behind him. There is open grass in front of the safety and, even if the cornerback sits, grass between the breakpoint of the out route and the cornerback.
If the alley defender (“S”) sits or widens to the flat, the player running the Search Route has to read the hip of the inside linebacker (“M”). If the linebacker lifts (drops deep) then the slot receiver likely looks to flatten out to avoid the big hit. If the linebacker sits or expands without getting much depth then the slot receiver seems to adjust his route more vertical to attack the grass behind the inside linebacker.
Again, there are a multitude of routes that Longo can tag backside of the FLOOD concept. In the games that I broke down Longo seems to prefer using another search route on the backside of the concept as well. This tag can be very effective versus a defense that is really widening or deepening the Mike LB to the concept side.
It creates a natural void on the backside. Many coaches that have their quarterbacks read defenders will simply use a R.A.M. read (meaning to Read Away from Mike) to dictate which side the quarterback will go with the football.
Since Longo prefers for his receivers and quarterbacks to look for and attack grass, the quarterback likely bases the start of his progression off of the cushion given to the Single wide receiver (“L”) or the alignment of linebackers inside the tackle box.
This is far from a complete review of the offense that Longo will be bringing to Ole Miss. This doesn’t even cover the scope of his passing game. There are plenty of other concepts (Shallow, Y- Cross, Four Verts, Mesh, etc.) that appear to be in his playbook, but this is a good start when trying to understand what you will be looking at in the fall of 2017.
Tomorrow I intend to provide some insight on Longo’s run game and the quick passing tags that he packages with those runs.
Note from the Author:
Whether you know very little about the X’s and O’s of football or whether you know more than me, I hope that you enjoyed this article. I don’t pretend to be a guru and I certainly do not pretend to know everything that there is to know about Longo’s offense.
If you have any additional questions about the offense please feel free to ask. Also, don’t be afraid to give me a follow on Twitter (@petedeweese) for some occasional Ole Miss analysis, comments, and snark.