The Stafford Offense: Slant/Stick Series, 2 of 3

For the first part of this series, see The Stafford Offense: Slant/Stick Series, 1 of 3.

Guaranteed Yards

The hitch route is an extremely short route where a receiver bursts off the line to trick the defensive cover man into thinking there's a deep vertical to cover and then abruptly stops. This puts the backpedaling defender in bad position, having to change direction to get back to the receiver. The longer it takes for the cover man to react and reverse his momentum, the better the separation will be; this is very similar to the curl routes we looked at way back at the beginning of the Stafford Offense series, but quicker acting. The hitch is run around 5 yards instead of the 10-12 yards a curl would be run, and is so easy to execute it is sometimes regarded as "guaranteed five yards" when thrown.

The hitch is also the shallow component of the venerable smash concept. As an article on the hitch concept by Dan Ellis for X&O Labs points out, any play featuring a hitch route as a primary read is considered a very high percentage play and excellent on first or second down to stay on schedule:

With the Hitch Concept, our goal is to get the ball out of the QBs hand as quickly as possible and to win first down. Like any offensive coordinator, we want to get into 2nd down and short and keep the playbook wide open. Short passing game on first down is a great way to do it, especially if defenses are playing the run with a middle closed coverage (Cover 1 or 3).

Along with the quick slant we saw in part 1 of this series, the hitch provides a second alert option to keep the entire width of the field in play even if it is not a primary read. If the defense wants to load the box against the run or take away the middle of the field against a slant or quick post, an outside hitch can take free yards on the perimeter.

Here's Keith Grabowski on the evolution of the use of the quick game:

In just about every offense, the quick passing game represents a portion of the offensive attack that is employed. It’s a high percentage passing game that takes what most defenses will initially allow. For most defenses, the philosophy is to allow a short pass and rally to it and make the tackle. Furthermore, it minimizes protection issues as the ball is usually out in 1.5 seconds or less.
Over time though, how I have incorporated the quick passing game has evolved. Defensive coordinators are smart. They know they aren’t going to allow you to go down the field with 6 and 7-yard completions, and that much of a pure quick game play relies on making a pre-snap decision to one side or the other. Once the play starts, the quarterback has one option – throw to the side which he picked based on his pre-snap keys.

Smoke if you got Soft Corners

Grabowski thinks the quick game routes should be incorporated as parts of plays, but not necessarily as the primary read. It is nice to have quick elements like hitch or slant routes in the play design because it creates opportunities:

The choice an offense has is to allow a conversion, develop and practice a check system based on a key defender, or package the quick with something else to allow a simple read that maintains a full field attack rather than limiting the quarterback to his half field, pre-snap decision which is necessary with pure quick game calls.

That last part is crucial: when the Lions look to hit something quick in the passing game, it cannot be the only option Stafford has available. It should be one of several options built into the play that Stafford can check to and exploit when he sees an opening. This is what Chris Brown is talking about in his description of smoke or look passes packaged with run plays:

But also common and useful is the "smoke" concept or "look" pass. This is a one-step hitch by the receiver where he simply turns his numbers back to the quarterback. For everyone else, the play is a run, but if the defense gives that receiver an excessive cushion — and the flat defender is located inside the box looking for the run — the quarterback simply throws it to wide receiver.

Remember those slant throws against the Bills we saw last time? That's exactly what was happening - Stafford spots loose coverage and works out a quick throw to his outside receiver, but to everyone else on the field for Detroit, it's a run play.

From the shotgun, the only wrinkle is that the timing on "smoke" or "look" is a bit different. In that case a one-step slant by the outside receiver or even a full five-yard hitch work very well. In any event, it’s key to help control the backside of the play and as Bobby Bowden used to say: inside, you gotta beat ten guys to score; on the outside, you just have to beat one.

As mentioned earlier, this is a nice way to steal free yards the defense leaves sitting out there. An alert quick hitch is particularly good on first or second down to keep the offense on schedule to move the sticks (emphasis added):

Another tag is an Alert for the hitch. This can be used in on schedule situations (1st&10, 2nd Medium, 3rd Medium/Short). The goal of an alert call is to throw the hitch. The alert tag tells the QB he can throw the hitch if there is space.
The QB makes a pre-snap read of the field side coverage. If the corner is soft and there is space to throw the hitch the QB can throw the hitch. If throwing the hitch, the QB will not take a 5 step drop and will instead throw with 3 step tempo and footwork. If there is no space or if the QB is unsure, the QB will use the normal footwork and route progression.

Look versus Pressure

Loading the box against the run or taking away the F Option by Riddick or crossing routes by Tate and TJ are not the only reasons a defense will clog the middle between the hashes with bodies: they might also be loading up to blitz. Up top, Keith Grabowski said the quick game "minimizes protection issues as the ball is usually out in 1.5 seconds or less." (I've also seen a spread offense manual that says 1.9 seconds - see p.22-23) That's a massive benefit, especially when you consider the problems across the offensive line last year.

2014 Minnesota, 3Q (6:17). 2nd and 8 on the Minnesota 27.

Down 14-10 and driving near the red zone, the Lions are behind schedule to move the sticks and hopefully take a shot at the end zone. Lined up in a heavy 21 personnel grouping, 45 FB Jed Collins starts way outside the formation at the bottom but gets waved inside by Stafford to provide blitz pickup. Detroit is running a spacing all hitch play with 15 WR Golden Tate wide left, 35 HB Joique Bell to Stafford's left in the gun, 87 TE Brandon Pettigrew flexed right, and 81 WR Calvin Johnson split right.

Minnesota counters with base 43 personnel and show blitz. In fact, they are sending the house on a zero blitz with both 50 LB Gerald Hodges and 54 MLB Jasper Brinkley crowding the middle. 52 LB Chad Greenway, who would have covered Collins, reads that his man is being held to block and also joins the rush. The secondary mans up across the board: 24 CB Captain Munnerlyn on Tate, 22 FS Harrison Smith on Bell, 34 SS Andrew Sendejo on Pettigrew inside, and 29 Xavier Rhodes on Calvin.

Check the presnap alignment above and see how backed off Rhodes is from Calvin. Stafford and Bell read the blitz and point out what's going on. Seeing there is no safety help over the top, Stafford knows the coverage defenders must play loose and not give up big plays. Rhodes is already giving Calvin a monstrous 10 yard cushion, and will not aggressively close the gap because blowing a tackle against Megatron means a touchdown.

Calvin gets the ball on a five yard hitch with so much space he is able to turn upfield and lean into the tackle for 8 yards and a first down. To get a sense of how fast this alert throw allows Stafford to get the ball out, let's go to the view from behind the tackle box:

Look versus Eight Man Front

2015 Denver, 2Q (13:32). 2nd and 4 at the Detroit 27.

Let's return to the idea of using the quick game alert throw as a tool for Stafford to set up advantageous situations for the Lions. Consider this first half play by the Lions, who are in a standard I Formation with Bell as the deep setback; this is Lombardi telegraphing to the defense he is on schedule and wants to run the ball. Denver counters by loading up the box, playing loose Man Free Cover 1 across the board on Calvin, Ebron, and Moore with 26 FS Darian Stewart in deep centerfield.

The call is Weak Iso to the left B gap between 72 LG Laken Tomlinson and 71 LT Riley Reiff. 46 FB Michael Burton would lead block for 35 HB Joique Bell to pound opposite where 85 TE Eric Ebron motioned to. The thing is, Stafford can count - he sees the Broncos have an 8 man box against the predictable run heavy formation the offense is in. He can also see how far 21 CB Aqib Talib is playing off Calvin at the top of the screen and knows he has a gimme first down waiting on the backside.

In that case a one-step slant by the outside receiver or even a full five-yard hitch work very well. In any event, it’s key to help control the backside of the play and as Bobby Bowden used to say: inside, you gotta beat ten guys to score; on the outside, you just have to beat one.

Stafford throws to Calvin less than 2 seconds after the snap for 6 yards to move the sticks.

2015 Denver, 4Q (11:00). 2nd and 4 at the Denver 49.

Down 14-12 with the ball near midfield in the 4th quarter, the Lions again face 2nd and 4 and go to a heavy I Formation Weak Iso call. This time it is flipped with Ebron and Calvin both lined up on the left and Moore tight to the formation on the right. Otherwise, it is exactly the same call that we saw above.

Defensively, the Broncos again loaded up inside against the run in a Cover 0 look. Talib at the bottom of the screen is on an island with Calvin and backed way off because he has no deep help. Again, Stafford sees the numbers disadvantage for the called run and throws the alert hitch to Calvin.

Too easy. Calvin picks up 5 yards and a first down. Stafford gets rid of the ball so fast that 54 LB Brandon Marshall comes unblocked to Stafford's face and is still unable to get there in time to disrupt the throw.

Next Time: Faking the Quick Game to Spread the Defense

Most of the alert hitch throws by Stafford in the past were to Calvin, which made sense because the alert should go to your best one on one matchup. There was simply no one on one matchup that could have possibly been better, regardless of who the defender opposite Calvin was. But this is primarily a tactic that depends on Matthew Stafford making a good presnap read against the defensive formation and call, not having a Calvin Johnson. It is a way for Stafford to punish the defense for overcommitting between the tackles and leaving a receiver with too much cushion, Calvin or otherwise.

What would it look like if we threw the alert to say, an uncovered Golden Tate?

You know who else could be the alert hitch target now that Calvin is retired? That guy we signed in free agency. Check out this article about two wide receivers that had monster games on the same weekend in October 2013.

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