How the run game and RPOs factor into Phil Longo's Air Raid offense
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This is part two of a multiple-story presentation on new Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo's Air Raid attack. This content focuses on the run game, short passes and RPOs. Make sure to see part one for a more general look at how Longo's teams attack opponents through the air.
While it is easy to hear “Air Raid” and think back on Mike Leach throwing the ball 70 times a game as the head coach at Texas Tech, or Tim Couch setting records as he and Craig Yeast torched SEC secondary after SEC secondary, the offense has evolved over time.
Shea Patterson and his receivers will still have plenty of opportunities to post prolific passing numbers, but so will the Ole Miss running backs. Even pass-happy Air Raid coordinators like Leach and Tony Franklin, who many of you may remember for his ill-fated attempt at bringing his variation of the Air Raid offense to Tommy Tuberville’s Auburn squad, have begun to find more balance in their play-calling.
While many Air Raid coordinators are showing more and more balance, Phil Longo may be on the forefront of this trend. Ole Miss will not look like Auburn or Arkansas next season, but I do expect to see Ole Miss run the ball efficiently and effectively under Longo.
If you watched Longo’s final game at Sam Houston State (against a very good JMU team that is playing for a national title next week) you might have been a little worried about what the Ole Miss running game will look like. Personally, I think that the Rebel run game will look a bit different than what you saw on ESPN2.
I think that the Ole Miss run game will look more like the 2014 and 2015 Sam Houston offenses than the 2016 version. Longo’s starting QB in 2016, Jeremiah Briscoe, was more of a pocket passer than a runner. His primary starter the two years before, Jared Johnson, ran for over 1,600 yards during his time with Longo, including his 2014 season when he fell just shy of 1,000 yards rushing.
Johnson was a graduate transfer to UTSA this season and when he left Sam Houston State, so did many of the QB reads in Longo’s running game. With mobile quarterbacks, I expect to see many of those reads come back into the game plan at Ole Miss. Patterson has certainly proven athletic enough to execute the read schemes if needed.
Before I start breaking down the top run schemes that I have seen on film, I want to take a minute and talk about overall structure again. Longo’s team at Sam Houston did utilize different personnel groupings, but majority of the film that I watched showed his offense in 10 and 20P formations.
When I say 10P or 20P, the numbers speak to the number of running backs and tight ends in the personnel grouping. Ten Personnel, or 10P, equates to one running back and four wide receivers. Twenty personnel gives the offense two running backs, and three wide receivers. In Longo’s offense, his 20P sets typically use one true running back and a TE or H-back as the second player in the backfield. He will, at times, utilize two tailbacks in the backfield together.
In his 10P package, Longo primarily utilizes 2 sets. He uses the standard 2X2 formation as well as a 3X1 formation, both of which are very common.
In his 20P package, Longo tends to use his tight end as more of an H-Back than as a true in-line tight end. He will use the tight end much in the same way that Ole Miss fans have seen Hugh Freeze and Dan Werner utilize them in the running game in the past few seasons. At this risk of being Captain Obvious, Longo would love to have Evan Engram back.
Engram would allow Longo to bounce back and forth from 1-back to 2-back formations without changing personnel. That talent, or something close, may still exist on the Ole Miss roster, but it remains an unproven commodity at this point. Regardless of whether or not one of the young tight ends can handle that load, Longo will look to one of them to serve as a lead blocker in his 2-Back formations.
Fans will see the H-back lineup in a few different backfield alignments, but majority of the time he seems to line up on the outside hip of the offensive tackle. He will align both to the passing strength and away, thus recreating the same formation structure as 10P while adding an extra hat to the box for the run game but still forcing the defense to maintain the coverage principles that they need to defend each look.
Overall the scheme shows a balance of runs that utilize both zone and gap blocking schemes. I will try to focus one some of the top runs from both personnel groupings. Many of the formations, plays, and over all schemes that you see will look similar to what you have grown accustom to from an Ole Miss offense, but there are clear wrinkles and strategies that will make it much different for defensive coordinators next season.
Opening the Package
One thing that Ole Miss fans have seen over the past few seasons under Freeze are passing plays that look like they were supposed to be, or could have been, run plays. These are known as “Packaged” plays, or RPOs (Run Pass Options), where the quarterback uses a pre-snap or post-snap read to determine whether or not to hand the ball off or let it fly.
RPOs have become a big part of college football and have been gaining popularity in the NFL and high school levels the past few seasons. RPOs have also become a big talking point amongst both coaches and officials. Many defensive coordinators have called foul when the quarterback is completing passes seven yards downfield to a wide receiver that is at the same depth as a run-blocking offensive lineman.
As officials have shifted their focus, and the yellow flags have begun to fly more often, offenses are having a more difficult time of making down the field throws on RPOs. The result is that many RPOs have come full circle. Offenses went from packaging run plays with bubble screens and quick slants to pairing them with deeper developing routes.
Many offenses have now reverted back to quicker passes and screens to alleviate the risk of linemen being called downfield. One of the most popular RPOs of the Freeze offense has been the Power/Post RPO.
In this scheme the offensive line blocks a traditional power scheme while the quarterback reads a second or third level defender. If the defender attacks to fit the run play then the quarterback will replace him with the football via a receiver on a post route.
While Longo could possibly keep this scheme in the playbook, as it has been good to the Rebels, I would expect to see more pre-snap RPOs than post-snap RPOs. Staying true to the “Find Grass” mantra in his passing game, Longo seems to apply the same rules to his RPOs.
Many of the run schemes that I watched from the Sam Houston State 2015 and 2016 seasons had complimentary pass routes tagged with them. This gives the quarterback a place to go with the football when the defense loads the box to stop the run.
10 Personnel Run Game/RPOs
Longo uses his 3X1 formation for both his run and pass schemes. This formation has been a popular RPO formation for coaches at all levels because it somewhat limits the menu for defensive coordinators and gets them into a handful of likely checks and blitzes that the offense has game planned for (or can easily adjust too).
Any time that an offense puts three receivers, or more, to one side of the formation the defense has to decide how they want to cover them. There are three primary options that every defense carries in their package.
All three can be exploited with simple adjustments by Longo or with good decision making be the quarterback. The defense can choose to remain in a zone that places a soft 3 over 3 with at least one defender deeper than 7 yards from the line of scrimmage.
The defense can tighten all three defenders and play some version of man to man.
Or the defense can play some version of 4 over 3.
All three responses and alignments by the defense have weaknesses that an offense can exploit if they are sound and can execute. Playing a soft 3 over 3 gives the offense an advantage to the trips side. Longo like to use a bubble tag to the front-side of his 3X1 run game versus this soft look. With the safety deep, this soft 3 over 3 essentially becomes a 2 over 3 situation and is an advantage for the offense.
If the defense tightens the secondary and goes to a more aggressive 3 over 3 look, then the defense has now become susceptible to the run game, especially with an athletic quarterback. If the defense chooses to play with five run defenders in the tackle box the offense can hand the ball off and account for each of the box defenders with an offensive lineman.
If the defense chooses to play with 6 box defenders then the quarterback read game will now become more important. By reading one of the down linemen, the offense has the ability to account for all 6 box defenders in the scheme.
This also brings us to the next phase of many RPO schemes: The Gift. An elite defense with elite athletes on the perimeter has the ability to walk their defensive backs and linebackers up to the line of scrimmage to take away quick passes to the receivers.
When Alabama rolled out the “Press 11” defense in the 1993 Sugar Bowl against Dennis Erickson’s Miami Hurricanes it held one of the nation’s top offenses to 13 points and picked-off Gino Torretta three times. Fortunately, not many defenses have the ability to do this on every snap.
Knowing this, offensive coordinators have built “Gift” routes into their RPO and quick game schemes. The theory is as simple as it sounds. Is the defense giving me that route? If so, take the Gift.
The most common gift route is probably just a quick hitch into the boundary. For many defenses, the weakest point in their structure is the boundary flats. Because Offensive Coordinators like Longo make running to grass such a priority, defenses tend to secure numbers to the wide side of the field so that they do not give up big plays.
Defensive Coordinators are willing to avoid the boundary flats because that is the one area of the field where good pursuit and sound tackling should, in theory, limit the offense to a minimal gain. Offenses often combat this in two different ways: they put the strength of the formation into the boundary (F.T.B.) or they put Gift routes into the boundary (with the passing strength of the formation into the field). I have seen Longo do both on film, though the gift route is the more prominent of the two.
Using the same 3X1 formation, Longo will put a gift route into the boundary. If the defense uses 6 box defenders then the quarterback has a chance to throw the Gift. If the corner is soft, the Gift is open. If the corner is pressed, run the football or look to the screen on the other side.
When you put all of these components together you have an RPO that gives the quarterback three options.
Proper execution (and talent) allow the offense to stick with Longo’s mantra and run to grass in each phase of the offense. If the defense is going to load the box then Ole Miss will look to throw the ball. If the defense gives the Rebels a numbers advantage in the box then the Rebels will run the football. From his 10P groupings, I would expect to see Longo use Inside Zone, Stretch, and quarterback draw to attack defenses.
20 Personnel Run Game/RPOs
As mentioned, Longo likes to use his tight end as a blocker in the offensive backfield. This personnel grouping, and the schemes employed, will be similar to what you have seen from the Ole Miss run game in the past. Many of the schemes will be reminiscent of the Auburn offense uses as well. His primary gap-scheme run play seems to be traditional POWER. In this scheme the tight end will be used to kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage while the backside offensive guard pulls around to block the front side linebacker.
One advantage of the POWER scheme is the potential for a double team at the point of attack versus an EVEN front with 4 down lineman. Regardless of front, POWER is one of the most utilized run schemes in offenses throughout the country.
Another popular run scheme from this personnel grouping is INSIDE ZONE. Offensive coaches like zone blocking because it is a versatile scheme that has easy wrinkles that can cause fits for the defense. Running INSIDE ZONE from 20P allows you to insert the H-back in different ways that can alter the fits of the defense.
In other words, the offense can install and rep one run scheme with the offensive line and tag the H-Back with different responsibilities that essentially create a different run-fit for the defense. One of the first wrinkles of INSIDE ZONE that you will see from Longo will be what I call ZONE SLICE (also known as SPLIT ZONE).
In this scheme the offensive line will execute their Zone blocking responsibilities. Many fans are accustomed to hearing the term ZONE READ these days. Television announcers love to point out ZONE READ when broadcasting a game (though they are often wrong). The idea is that the offensive line doesn’t block one defensive end and the quarterback reads that player to decide whether or not to hand-off or keep the football.
Carrying ZONE READ and ZONE SLICE in your playbook serves as a way to put the defensive end in conflict (conflict creates confusion and confusion slows defenders down). On ZONE SLICE the offensive line will execute the same blocking scheme as INSIDE ZONE. The difference is the H-back. Instead of reading the defensive end, the offense will block him with the H-back. To the defensive end the play looks like ZONE READ (diagrammed earlier as ZONE CHOICE). He recognizes the down block and sees the same mesh in the backfield between the running back and the quarterback.
Most defenses utilize a mix of two principles to defend ZONE READ. They either ask the defensive end to “SLOW PLAY” or “FEATHER” the ZONE while the linebacker inserts to his inside gap for the running back or they utilize a “SCRAPE/EXCHANGE” technique that ask the defensive end to squeeze to the running back while the linebacker scrapes outside to replace the defensive and take the quarterback if he keeps the ball.
If the defense is asking the defensive end to SQUEEZE and tackle the running back then the ZONE SLICE play can be very effective if you successfully kick out the defensive end with the H-back because the B-Gap is now vacated by the scraping linebacker.
If the defensive end does a good job of squeezing the down block he will likely try to SPILL the kick-out block. Spilling, or wrong-arming, the block is when the defender takes on the inside shoulder of the pulling offensive player so that he can try to claim the inside gap and force the ball to bounce to the outside and into a waiting defender. Coach Longo will counter this action with what I call ZONE LOAD.
Again, the offensive line will execute the same blocking scheme as they do on ZONE READ and ZONE SLICE. Now, instead of the H-back coming across the formation and blocking the defensive end, he will slip past the end and work to the 2nd level defender. The quarterback will read the end just like he does on ZONE READ. If the emd squeezes to the running back, the quarterback will pull the ball and follow the block of the H-back.
Much like we discussed with the 10P run game and RPOs, Longo will use different RPO tags with his 20P run game as well. He seems to have a handful of tags that he uses quite a bit to attack different defensive structures and the leverage of outside defenders. Again, this is designed to give the offense a chance to always be right.
One of the first ones that I noticed on film was a simple HITCH tag on his run game. Much like the thought process with the GIFT concept described earlier, the quarterback will look for soft coverage and make a pre-snap decision to hand the ball off or get it out of his hand to a receiver.
When is this likely to happen? If the defense chooses to load the box with seven defenders to stop the run they will likely go to some version of a 1-high MOFC coverage. If they choose to play Cover 3 then the cushion will likely be there for the HITCH route.
If the defense remains in a 2-high MOFO shell then the offense should have a numbers advantage in the box. If the quarterback doesn’t like what he sees, there are still tags designed to attack these defensive alignments too. Longo can use a DOUBLE SLANT tag or a SLANT/BUBBLE tag to place the alley defender in conflict.
The addition of these multiple tags allows Longo to aid his run game against aggressive defenses that are focused on stopping the run. In my mind, Longo’s tags are more diverse than what Ole Miss fans are accustom to seeing from Freeze’s offense the past few seasons. I believe that this system has simple adjustments that allow the offense to respond to what the defense is doing. In no way does this mean that he will always be right, or that the play will always work, but I do think that his system is versatile enough to attack SEC defenses.
One of my favorite things about Longo’s offense is how he uses play-action passes on virtually any down and distance. Much of this play-action is set up off of his ZONE SLICE play-scheme. The scheme allows the offense to protect with quarterback with seven blockers. This is one way that I expect to see Longo get DK Metcalf, AJ Brown, and his other playmakers down the field for big plays.
Overall, I appreciate the way that Longo called the games that I watched. He utilizes tempo, personnel groupings, formation and play design to effectively stress the defense. I cannot guarantee you record setting numbers or even long-term success from Longo and the Ole Miss offense, but I do think that this offense will grow under Longo.
Longo clearly likes to throw the football, but I also think that we will see a greater commitment to running the football. While I didn’t have the time or resources to specifically analyze Sam Houston State’s Red Zone offense, I did like what I saw from Coach Longo in the limited Red Zone snaps that I watched. His efficiency numbers speak for themselves.
I understand that some people are concerned about how Longo’s offense will translate to the SEC where he will, in theory, be facing better coaches and, most certainly, face better players.
First of all, Longo will not only be facing better players, but he will be coaching them too. Plug the current Ole Miss receiving corps into this offense and it should only get better. From a coaching standpoint, he will see some great defensive coaches, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that coming from FCS means that Longo can’t coach.
In his press conference where he announced Longo, Coach Freeze (whose history we all know) referenced Joe Moorehead as an example of successful coordinators making the leap to FBS. Moorehead left Fordham for Happy Valley and has sparked the turnaround for James Franklin’s Nittany Lions.
Note from the author: First off, a big thank you to Chase Parham, Neal McCready, and the Rivals network for granting me this opportunity. It started as an idea that I expressed on Twitter and evolved into this. I hope that you enjoyed the articles. If you are a casual fan that wants to learn more of the X’s & O’s of the game I certainly encourage you to do just that. There are plenty of resources out there.
It is understandable that passionate fans are critical of coaches. Sometimes the criticism is deserved, sometimes it is not. Anyone that has followed me on Twitter can likely trace some of my criticism back for years.
That said, the more educated that you become on the topic, the more valid your criticism becomes. Enjoy football for what it is, a game. I just hope that you understand that football is a complicated game with many more intricacies than what you often think that you see playing out in front of you.
On another note, I’m hoping to find the time this spring or summer to make it to Oxford and actually learn some of the offense from Longo. I am also excited to see what Wesley McGriff will bring to the table. I’ve sat in the room with McGriff as he worked to recruit a five-Star and that player’s family. I fully understand the job that he will do on that front and I can think of few better.
I also believe that he has a clear understanding of the defensive principles necessary to build a solid unit on that side of the ball. Again, I cannot promise that the Ole Miss defense will rise to one of the top units in the country, but I do believe that if McGriff is surrounded by the right staff and given an opportunity to recruit the type of players that it takes to be successful in the league that we will see the Ole Miss defense improve leaps and bounds next fall.