Just like every human is unique by its fingerprint, every offense is unique due to its tendencies. Tendencies are built off of calls made at a specific point in a game, based on either the clock, down, distance, or a combination of the three. They become your bread and butter. One of the more obvious tendencies for the Hokies in the last few years was running the smash concept in the red zone - a.k.a throw it up to Bucky. Fuente's offense was no different. We talked about his ability to put his team in manageable situations where they could move the chains without falling behind them in my last piece, which gave him more flexibility in what to call. Defenses had a hard time keeping up with that. There were still a plethora of plays which showed up on tape over and over again which could be considered Fuente's bread and butter.
The first one, which we've covered in great detail, is the screen game. You can read all about it in my first piece. Screens to either wide receivers or tailbacks will be a major part of the offense this year. But we all know that screens don't make up an entire playbook. Fuente combined those screens with a number of downfield passing concepts to attack every level of the field. There were a couple that really stood out, especially while using play-action to suck the linebackers down to open up the middle of the field. One of those was the over route, typically run by the slot receiver.
This play, however, isn't run by the slot receiver. The Tigers come out in a 3 x 1 set with the TE as the lone receiver on the boundary side. The play incorporates a play-action off a fake jet sweep for misdirection. The whole point of that is to get the linebackers flowing laterally the wrong way while sneaking a receiver on an over route behind the linebackers in the opposite direction. It doesn't matter which coverage the defense is in. As soon as they take that first step in the wrong direction, it's pretty much over - pun intended. The two receivers on the field side are simple vertical clear-out routes to give the TE space to operate. Fuente adds a bootleg to this play to get Paxton Lynch out of the pocket with clear sight of the coverage without being bothered by the pass rush.
The jet sweep action successfully fools the Cincinnati LBs. They take multiple steps in the wrong direction and let the TE get a clean release. He is wide open in this shot, and Paxton Lynch should be delivering the football right now to him in stride, but he waits for some reason. The bootleg really allows Lynch to take his time and survey the field - there's isn't a defender within about 7 yards of him. The Memphis QB finally hits his TE for a diving grab for the first down.
If the linebackers aren't fooled by the misdirection, then the play becomes a simple high-low read for the QB as the RB runs a flat pattern in front of Lynch. If the over route is blanketed, then the QB has the option to dump it off for at least a few yards, possibly more if the back can create something out of nothing. And if all else fails, Lynch can use his legs as a last resort.
We've seen Fuente break some tendencies on plays where the defense is being overaggressive to take away a specific target or concept (ex. fake receiver screen). He also puts a twist on this play. As soon as the receiver sees his man start to break on the crossing route (although it's more of a post on this example), the receiver sticks his foot in the ground and goes back towards the sideline, changing it to a scissors concept with a post-corner combination. The defender slips and Lynch finds him wide open for the easy big gain. Mind you, they run this play not only in the same game, but the same quarter. If you're a CB, your head has got to be spinning.
Beautiful tendency breaker with superior playcalling. In Blacksburg, I think the results can be just as good with Bucky Hodges, or even a guy like Cam Phillips running into space on the crosser or on the fake over.
Another route combination which I saw plenty of was the post-wheel concept. This is a play used by nearly every team in the NFL. The Packers use it constantly to throw the back-shoulder to Jordy Nelson. Instead of following through on the wheel route, Fuente liked to have his receiver cut off his route and turn it into a comeback. For a cornerback, this goes against your instinct which is to run with the wheel route down the field.
This play is almost exclusively run with the Y and Z receivers on the field. They run a switch concept - the outside receiver takes an inside release and the slot receiver patiently takes an outside release. The purpose of this is to create a natural rub so the primary read - the wheel route - has some separation to work with. The cornerback can't get a good jam and stick with the receiver for the entirety of the route. Another thing to notice with this play is that Fuente moves the pocket for Lynch. More on that in a bit.
The slot defender has to maneuver around the natural pick being set by the Z receiver running a slant. Because of that, there's about 3-4 yards of separation where the defensive back is completely out of position and the receiver can set him up for the comeback route. The defender actually runs towards the slot receiver as if he's ready to carry the wheel route down the field, but that's where implementing the comeback instead comes in handy.
Back to the rollout by Lynch for a second. The sprint right action for Lynch on this play does two things. First, it eliminates backside pressure. Once the ball is snapped, the line immediately turns their hips away from the playside to take on any extra blitzers that could get to Lynch before he delivers the ball. Any playside blitzers will be in Lynch's view so he can avoid them if necessary. On this play, Lynch ends up with a clear view of the play without any defenders in his sightline. Secondly, it simply makes this an easier throw. If Lynch were to make this throw standing in the same spot where he started the play, there would be almost no margin for error. A deep out to the field side is one of, if not the toughest throw in football. Once you factor in tight coverage, it's an impossible throw to make. But once Lynch gets into open space, he has a better angle and doesn't have to sacrifice velocity for accuracy since it's a shorter throw. He sets his feet and delivers on time to keep the chains moving in what was probably Fuente's signature win during his time at Memphis. It's another example of how Fuente will lessen the burden on his players and put them in the best possible position to succeed.
We've talked in detail about Memphis' third down success rate, and the "Mesh" concept was a big reason why. It allowed the offense to play to it's strengths especially when it was faced with a third and manageable situation (3rd and < 5). It's effective against bump-and-run and zone coverage, but it's mainly used to create traffic and separation on underneath routes to get receivers open with room to run. The Hokies ran this plenty last year, although they didn't see great results. But the important thing is it won't be a foreign concept to the players.
This play against Houston is a great example of what this play can do against zone coverage. Three Memphis receivers run drags across the middle of the field, while Z receiver on the field side runs a hook route about 10 yards downfield. The RB is also an option on this play, running a flat route. Usually when this route concept is called, the running back can also run a wheel route if he gets matched up with a slower linebacker on him. Travon could be an absolute weapon if Fuente chooses to implement him in the pass game like I think he will. The thing to keep your eye on is the three drags coming across the middle.
The two drags on the field side occupy the linebackers in their underneath zones, which leaves a hole in the coverage that opens up on that side of the field. The linebacker from Houston (#41 - Steven Taylor) sees the RB going into the flat and begins to drive hard on it. That leaves just enough space in behind Taylor for Memphis receiver Phil Mayhue to make the catch and turn upfield.
Against zone coverage, it's important for the receiver to sit in the hole instead of keep running through to give the QB time and a lane to throw. Mayhue does a good job of it here, slowing down on his route once he finds that bit of space. Paxton Lynch does a great job of being patient in the pocket and letting his receiver uncover instead of taking off and scrambling.
Mayhue sits in that small pocket of space then lowers his shoulders nicely to scoot past the marker. First down Memphis.
Again, this is Fuente playing to his offense's strengths. His skill position players were very good when they had the ball in their hands. Fuente gets his receiver the ball with a tiny bit of space around him and the receiver is able to make something of it to keep the chains moving. That's what you want to see from your coach. Replacing Mayhue with Isaiah Ford or Cam Phillips on this play will almost certainly result in a first down, if not more due their quickness and similar YAC ability. We'll likely see plenty of this concept in the fall.
If the defenders are overeager to jump the underneath drag routes, it's still possible to beat the coverage. When the first-level defenders move up to take away the shallow crossers, that leaves space in behind them for the hook route the Z receiver in the last example to get open. Let's look at an example of this taking place.
This play is the exact same play call from the exact same formation as the one I broke down above. It's a 3 x 1 formation with three drags coming over the middle, the running back going into the flat, and the Z receiver running a hook. It's even a similar situation (3rd and 6).
Cincinnati sees the initial drag routes and recognizes this play. Four underneath defenders stay within 7 yards of the line of scrimmage before the ball is thrown, but by then it is too late for any of them to recover. The Z receiver sits in the space in front of the deep defender but behind the underneath linebackers (apologies for the blurriness).
The four underneath defenders are caught behind the play, focusing too much on the drags underneath. Lynch makes the right read, getting the ball to his target on time and on the money. Miller even has enough room to try and salvage YAC but gets swarmed after making a couple moves. Even when the defense anticipates the play correctly, the offense still has an opportunity to out-execute them which is part of a great offense system.
The defense must play the offense honestly without getting overaggressive. They would rather give up the short completion and make the tackle, but we saw in the other play that six yards is often good enough to keep the offense humming along and in rhythm. Here's another example of the defense cheating up on the shallow crossers while getting burned by the hook route:
There are so many moving parts on this play, and there can be congestion if routes aren't run with the proper depth or spacing. It's important for the entire offense to recognize the depth the underneath defenders get on their drops so they know who's getting the ball. As usual, the majority of the responsibility falls on the quarterback. He can't be late throwing an underneath drag, otherwise it's six points going the other way, but he also has to be able to manipulate the defense with his eyes. Lynch did a good job on the plays above to keep his eyes underneath before throwing downfield which helped create the space behind them for the hook route to get open.
I haven't really mentioned specific formations Fuente favored, but the Tosser concept was run consistently from an Empty 3 x 2 set with a triple bunch of WRs with a wide split on the boundary side. Tosser is basically a double slant concept. The inside receiver on the weakside takes his man away from the play leaving the outside receiver space to get open on his in-cut. Memphis absolutely torched Cincinnati with this play.
While this example isn't out of an empty set, it still shows what this concept is all about. Like "Mesh", it gets receivers in space with the ability to pick up YAC. As you've probably noticed, that's a theme with the plays Fuente called at Memphis.
The slot receiver and the Z receiver both run slants, although the Z makes his in-cut slightly later than the slot's to ensure that there is space for him to operate. Remember when looking at the quick out route earlier in this piece how Lynch saw the CB playing off-coverage? That pre-snap read gave him the green light to make that throw, and it's the same idea here. The slot receiver has oodles of space to get open on the quick slant, so Lynch doesn't even have to go to his second read. All he has to do is put enough velocity on the throw to beat the underneath linebacker to the spot and it's an easy first down inside the Red Zone.
On this next play, Paxton goes to his second read and gets the ball to his outside receiver. Fuente uses motion to create the empty 3 x 2 set in which this concept was so effective. Interestingly, there is a WR screen being set up on the bunch side after the motion occurs should Lynch see something there that he likes, but on this play he decides to go to the opposite side of the field. Since Lynch had been hitting his slot receiver on the slant all day, Cincy decides to play press across the board.
This gives Lynch the indicator to hit his outside receiver this time, as you can see all the space he has to work with to get open on the slant. The receiver does an excellent job beating the press to give Lynch an easy throw, then turning upfield for the first down.
If your receivers are on the same page and execute like this, it makes the quarterback's life that much easier.
The player who made the catch was Tevin Jones, a 6-2, 225 pound stronghammer at the receiver position. Bigger guys can manhandle smaller corners, which makes them more desirable on the outside on this play. I could see Fuente putting Bucky Hodges, or maybe even Devin Wilson at that spot. Both have length, size, and decent quickness in order to get open on this pattern.
The empty set was not only used on this play, but used plenty throughout. It did a few things that made the Tigers. The first thing it did was spread the defense out. Yes, it's obvious given that it is a spread offense - but the Tigers' receivers had much more room to work with and they could overload defenses with their speed and quickness. It also gave Lynch some extra running room if Fuente called a QB draw due to a lighter box - we'll touch on that some other time, since it's a pretty big portion of the playbook.
This obviously isn't an encyclopedia of Fuente's entire playbook. One of the best stats I could find about the Tigers' aerial attack in 2015 was that 52% of Paxton Lynch's targets were either bubble screens, out routes, hitches, and gos. The above concepts aren't fancy, never-before-seen patterns that no one has ever run. They're fairly basic, yet still require pre-snap and post-snap reads, so there is a bit of complexity to the system. This group of plays should be a foundation of what we can expect to see from the Hokies' aerial attack this year.
Again, if you haven't check out my first breakdown, you can find that here.