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Tom Herman Offense Preview Part 2: Passing Game

Ryan Bridges

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As fun as the Herman run game is, I have even more fun watching the passing attack. I pointed out in last year's Sterlin Gilbert breakdown that, outside of the screen and quick game, "most of [the routes] are just running straight ahead to different depths." The new offense will be radically different.

There are still RPOs and quick screens, but if you were one of those fans clamoring for some passes over the middle this past season, get ready to be excited. There will also now be bootlegs and sprintouts. And my favorite new addition: TRIANGLES. Triangles everywhere. 


I didn't see nearly as many RPOs as I expected at either Ohio State or Houston, but it makes sense that they may run more of them at Texas. The general idea of the RPO is to punish the defense's overhang players for focusing too much on the run and not honoring the threat of the pass to the outside. If the offense has a credible runner at quarterback, it can use the read-option to eliminate an in-the-box defender and just block that overaggressive overhang player. Texas probably won't have that option next season, so they'll need the RPOs.



Here's another version using a Flash Screen to the outside. With the strong safety in a deep-half zone and the Mike linebacker lined up in an apex position and so focused on the run, the offense has a 3-on-2 advantage for the screen.


When safeties start creeping into the box, the offense can attack the cornerbacks, who, lacking safety help, are playing off coverage. They do this with hitches or quick outs. In this example, the hitch is paired with Power-O. 



We've seen the Flash Screen already. Houston also ran a fair bit of Bubble Screens and Tunnel Screens.


Texas ran Flash and Bubble screens in 2016, but I don't think they ran Tunnel Screens. I also don't recall Flare Screens.




It's the same principle as the Bubble Screen but it uses the running back instead of a slot receiver. It's another way to keep the defense from crowding the box, because if it does, it risks getting outflanked on a play like this.

I didn't see any Conventional Screens in any of the 12 games I watched. Texas toyed with one in the Cal game last year but it almost got Buechele killed, and it seems like they threw out that page of the playbook then and there.

There are some other quick passes Ohio State and Houston ran, especially H Option.


The gist of it is that the slot receiver runs a few yards and turns around, or if he has to, runs away from the nearest defender. If you've ever watched the Patriots, you've seen it a jillion times.

This play also gives us our first look at another cool change to the offense: the protections. Herman will frequently pull guards on play-action passes. This is really hard on linebackers because not only is it one more key telling them it's a run play, but it also tells them they need to follow the puller (if it were a run, he'd be adding another gap to the frontside). 


As I said, Texas will throw over the middle next year. We'll see a deep crossing route later, and of course they throw some posts, but their favorite way to attack the short and intermediate middle is a concept called Follow Pivot. 


The inverted alignment of the two receivers on the left — the slot is on the line of scrimmage — all but guarantees a rub for any inside-breaking route by the outermost receiver. That means the near inside linebacker is the only player who can defend the snag/pivot route. If he sits on that route, however, the follow (dig) route should come open behind him.

No gif for this one, but they'll also often combine the Follow concept with Mesh (and the dig route with the drag coming from the other side is called Drive... football is silly).



Anyway, that's enough of that. 


So those were high/low reads on the inside; here's a high/low read on the outside.


This is the play Collin Johnson scored his two touchdowns with against Texas Tech. It can be run from trips, as it was here and on those CJ TDs, or twins, and the outside receiver can run an in route or a hitch. With so much field to cover, it's difficult for the defense to eliminate the corner route unless the outside defender (highlighted) drops into a deep zone. (And if he does that, the in/hitch route should be open.) In other words, the offense is attacking that defender with a high/low read. If the defense is in man, as it is in this example and was in the Texas Tech game, the corner route is a big problem.

Here's an example of what it can look like from a twins set.


See how difficult it is to defend both routes? An interesting aside from the first play against Michigan State is that you can see the safety thinks the slot receiver is going to run a dig route like in the Follow concept from before. The pivot route by the outside receiver helps sell it. And with the corner in man coverage on the pivot route, the safety's hesitation means he doesn't have a chance to defend the corner route.


We just had an example of how the concepts build off one another, but this part is really cool. The Snag concept could take up a whole article, but I'll try to keep it brief. It's a three-route concept with a corner route, a flat route and a snag route. Together, the routes form a triangle, which works as both a Cover 2 beater (recall the Smash concept from before, with a high/low read on the cornerback) and a Cover 3 beater (the snag and flat stretch the curl/flat defender horizontally). Take a look.


The cornerback (1) bails, which theoretically means he will be in position to cover the corner route. This tells the quarterback to get his eyes to the curl/flat defender (2). He gets rubbed here (more on that in the next example), otherwise he probably would have been in position to take away the flat route. In that case, the receiver running the snag route would have the freedom to try to find space against the inside linebacker. Failing that, this particular play is a sprintout, meaning the quarterback can keep it and get some easy yardage.

The flat route isn't the only potential spot for a rub, though.


If the defense isn't going to pass off routes, it's hard to defend this concept with man coverage. Herman loves running it in the red zone and other short-yardage situations.

The best part about it, though, is that you can arrive at it in a variety ways. Say you want to take a deep shot off a double move, for example.


Initially this looks like Power Read, with the pulling guard and everything. But then the outside receiver breaks back outside to the corner and the slot, who has been acting like he's trying to seal the linebacker for the Power Read, turns to the quarterback. The cornerback plays disciplined and takes away the corner route, so the quarterback works back to the snag/flat and eventually finds the snag open.

It gets a lot more complicated, though. Well, it's complicated for the defense. That's the beauty of it: With a subtle adjustment, the offense presents a completely different look, but very little changes for the quarterback.


The Power-O play-fake holds the linebackers, and then the Mesh concept attacks them. But look closer and you'll notice that the corner route, flat route and drag from the boundary form... a triangle. The cornerback bails and the curl/flat defender covers the flat route, but with the help of a rub, the drag route — playing the part of the snag — comes open.

Here's a different look: a Smash concept with the tight end running an out route.


It attacks the same parts of the field, but only the corner route is the same. 

Let's do one more and then move on.


Power Read play-fake followed by a naked bootleg. Again, the routes change but the outcome (and read) is the same. The boot action benefits a running quarterback, but it also helps to shorten the throw, so look for Texas to do the same since they lack a big-armed quarterback. You can see, though, how the offense can construct literally a dozen different iterations of this concept, and the quarterback doesn't have to learn anything new. 




If Herman wants to go a little deeper downfield, a favorite is the Sail concept, a three-level vertical stretch to the outside.


The outside receiver runs a go or skinny post, the second receiver runs a deep speed out and the third receiver heads to the flat. It's extremely difficult for the defense to account for all three levels.

But this is another example of a concept the offense can build upon with minimal effort.


They fake Split Zone and then flood the weakside with routes at three different levels. The boundary receiver gets the corner all turned around and the deep middle safety doesn't get over to help.

And once that's established, the offense can come back with a devastating counterpunch.


And thus concludes our breakdown of the Tom Herman passing attack. It's radically different from what Texas was doing in 2016, but like the run game, it's much less complicated than it appears.

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