Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What to expect from the Rams offense in 2009

So, the Rams have said two things about there offense for 2009. First, everything is going to be built around Steven Jackson. Second, we are going to have a West Coast Style offense, featuring short passes. One fellow at work immediately tried to declare a contradiction here. I see none.

First, let's get something straight: The West Coast offense is not about the Quarterback. The West Coast Offense is about your running back. In every famous implementation of the West Coast offense, there has been a medium-power back with good hands, who takes swing passes, dump offs, shallow crosses, skinny posts, and quick slants. He is the workhorse. He gets the yards and the points. He makes the chains move. This running back is the absolute key to the West Coast offense.

Do I have any examples? How about Roger Craig, Rickie Waters, Edgar Bennett, Dorsey Leavens, Michael Westbrook, Icky Woods, and a guy named Terrel Davis. Do you recognize these names? QBs like Montana, Young and Farve may have won MVP awards for their work in this scheme, but it is the West Coast back that drags the football team to victory.

The second thing you have to understand is that the West Coast in not a high-flying or high scoring aerial circus attack. You throw east and west, not north and south. It is the continuation of the run by other means. You use a short pass like a long hand-off, and you allow your running back to pick through a stretched field. You use this short passing game to setup the long pass.

When the offense is played correctly, the wide receivers often sprint for the endzone. This forces the Corners and Safeties to run deep in coverage. Then, when the QB dumps the ball of to a fellow like Craig or Leavens or Davis, you force the secondary to sprint back to the line of scrimmage and make a tackle against a larger and more powerful back who has a head of steam. After doing this some 12 or 14 times, the Corners are tired and bruised. This is when you go deep.

There are several other important aspects to this offense which you should know. First, there are four pass catching routes that constitute the bread n' butter of this scheme. They are:
  1. Quick slant
  2. Shallow cross
  3. Swing pass
  4. Dump off
There are other plays such as the flanker screen, the screen pass and the naked bootleg, but these are less often seen. What is truly critical to know about pass routes in the West Coast is that all the receivers are supposed to run adaptive option routes. They are supposed to adjust depth and pattern to hit weaknesses in the defense. Success here is predicated on the Wide Receiver's ability to read a defense correctly and find the weak spot in the zone. Often times, receivers are coached to find that seam and simple "Sit down" in that spot. The QB is trained to look for his squatting receiver and pitch it to him quick.

The system of adaptive option routes is brutally difficult to cover when the QB and the WRs are good. Ronnie Lott described a conversation he had with George Siefert in 1981 where the two of them were eyeballing what the offense was doing. Both Lott and Siefert admitted they were glad they didn't have to play against that offense. It is difficult to be everywhere at once. When the offense is committed to hitting you where you ain't on every play, you are in for a rough ride.

The problem is that you need smart receivers who can read a defense according to rules, and you need a smart Quarterback who will read the defense according to those rules. They need to read the same way and come to the same conclusions. If they don't read accurately and in sync, the quarterback throws one way and the receiver runs another. In the best case scenario, the result is an incomplete pass. In the worst case scenario, you have an interception return for a touchdown. Just ask Brett Farve.

Bill Walsh used to say that you needed to keep the same QB and WR crew together for three years in the West Coast before it would begin to bear fruit. This is because it takes time for these guys to get the hang of the adaptive option routes, establish communication, and get a good predictive feel of each other.

It should be noted that Coach Scott Linehan attempted to implement something like the West Coast back in 2006. Bulger & Holt really didn't like it. Bulger made a lot of mistakes. Because he was a weak willed coach, Linehan seemed to give up on it. Now here we go again. For Bulger this is year 3 in the West Coast. However, he has not been with this crew of receivers--whoever that turns out to be--for 3 years. We would expect mistakes and problems as a result of this. However, he should just dump off the ball to Steven Jackson as much as possible.

Steven Jackson is the main reason to be excited about this offense. I already recounted the one and only time I ever saw us use the West Coast (2006 vs 49ers in St. Louis) and Jackson performed perfectly in the role of Roger Craig. He was spot on. You want to talk about a guy with more than medium power, medium speed, and medium hands? Jackson has all that. He is an almost perfect type of West Coast back. He can beat the hell out a lot of defensive backs, opening the deeper passing lanes. He should be able to control the ball and the clock if we pass it too him more than we hand it to him.

It also should be noted that the 49ers scored more TDs in the redzone on the naked bootleg than any other single play. With a mobile southpaw like Steve Young or Michael Vick, this play is almost unstoppable at the goal line. You start all the motion flowing right with a fake Packer Sweep, then the QB comes back against the flow with no blocker in front with the option to pass or run. Usually, there is only one defender in the zone (the backside safety or linebacker). You put this one defender in a no win situation. If he fades back to cover the TE, the quarterback waltzes into the Endzone. If he charges up to take the QB, the QB pitches the ball to the TE and you have a touchdown. The only hope is that he can stay in the middle and jump high enough to knock the pass down. It doesn't happen very often.

Bulger would look kind of funny running the naked bootleg.

The next factor is what I like to call the Wyche Wrinkle. Sam Wyche invented the K-Gun. Forget what Marv Levy and Jim Kelly say. Wyche decided to put Boomer Esiason into the shotgun, and run the West Coast at a quick time pace. He did this all game long. The Bengals would be in their 2-minute offense for three out of four drives. I sure hope we do this. This was a devastating offense. When you run adaptive routes at a quick-time pace from the shotgun, you will wear out a pass rush. They will be sucking air like a moefoe. This is a deadly attack, and I would love to see the Rams run it this year.

The next factor is what I call the Shanahan Slant. Shanahan added two things to the West Coast. First, he perfected a very simple running attack. Second, he scripted his first 15 plays from scrimmage. Since the pass routes were adaptive anyhow, you need not worry about running the wrong play in the wrong down and distance situation, as you execute the script.

Shanahan's running attack is adaptive, just like the rest of the West Coast. It relies on zone blocking. What is zone blocking? It is the simplest possible blocking scheme in the world for an offensive line. You give each man a zone to block. Whosoever is in your zone, this is the man you bury. Easy right? It doesn't really matter what the Baltimore Ravens do with their chaos front. When the ball is snapped, each defender will be in some one's zone. Offensive linemen like this scheme. It is so simple a caveman can do it, but it is also pretty close to fool-proof.

Zone blocking schemes are often called elephants on parade by defenders, as a derogatory comment. Why? Because they usually slant to the left or the right. They try to get the motion of the line going right or left. The running back also begins his run in that direction, but then cuts back in the other direction. He starts down hill with the flow, and makes one scheduled cutback. It's up to him to beat the guys in front of him. Most defenders will be pushed out of the way, and headed in the other direction. Most running backs like this scheme. We'll see how Steven Jackson likes it.

Finally, all of this short shit, dink 'n dunk, nickle 'n dime, continuation of the run by other means, ball-control passing leads defenses to ignore the long-ball. They usually defend a 40 yards box against a good West Coast team. The 40 yard box is divided into a red zone (up to 20 yards from the line of scrimmage) and a yellow zone (20-40 yards from the line of scrimmage). Defenses presume that almost all the action is going to take place in the red zone. They play hard man-on-press coverage in this zone. They guard the yellow zone with a soft zone coverage. They will concede the pass in this zone, if the receiver is willing to loose a few teeth. The soft zone is notorious for producing massive hits and major collisions. They ignore most receivers past this 40 yard box. They believe you have no intention of going long.

If this is the case, and you have no intention of going long, you are in for a frustrating day. If the enemy has good talented folks on defense, you are going to get the hell beaten out of you. It is absolutely imperative that you make a defense pay for playing a strict 40 yard box against you. You do that by throwing a 45 yard plus bomb effectively. You must burn them deep each and every time the opportunity presents itself. The bomb is now a necessary supplement to the West Coast. You must throw the bomb, or you cannot force a defense out of its 40 yard box.

So if I were running our West Coast, the Rams would do the following:
  1. Script the first 15 plays. These 15 plays would be executed no matter what.
  2. Throw the ball to Steven Jackson 3 times for each 2 times we hand it to him.
  3. Zone block on running plays, slanting right or left. Jackson will begin his run in this direction, and then cut back.
  4. When passing, the focus is on short routes not more than 20 yards from scrimmage. Expect the quick slant, the shallow cross, the skinny post, the swing pass, and the dump off. Flanker screens are also good.
  5. The receivers and the QB must read the defense and predict the same adaptive option route in each situation.
  6. Receivers will be instructed to find the deadspot in the zone and "Sit Down". This means turning to face the QB and present their hands indicating "I'm open, hit me!"
  7. Run the no-huddle offense several times per game from the shotgun.
  8. Maybe we'll run a few naked bootlegs to the right from the 2 or 3 yard line.