Dolphins fans were excited early in the offseason once it was announced that the team would be hiring new Offensive Coordinator Bill Lazor because he came from the coaching staff of the high-scoring Philadelphia Eagles. Specific details about Lazor's system on offense have slowly trickled in since then. Besides Tempo, beat reporters have written that Lazor's offense would emphasize player versatility (in particular, increased use of running backs as receivers) as well as more use of pre-snap shifts/motion, option routes, and plays in which 5 players run routes. While several play concepts were retained from the Mike Sherman-led West Coast Offense of the past 2 seasons, Lazor had hinted his offense would include plays from other systems. Conveniently enough, the very first play of preseason demonstrated all of those characteristics, which is why I've decided to break down the play as we wait for the Dolphins to announce the final roster cut downs.
As a side note, I've typed up a very basic introduction of coverage schemes that can be found here. Those of you who can tell the difference between cover 4 and cover 6 without any trouble won't gain much by reading it, but fans who are still learning the game will hopefully find that to be an accessible introduction to how NFL defenses attempt to stop modern day passing offenses.
For the first drive of the preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons, Damian Williams, Rishard Matthews, and Brandon Gibson were the starting trio of wide receivers because both Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline sat out the that game, and Dion Sims was the starting tight end with Charles Clay sidelined by injury. For those who had better things to do on a Friday night than watch a week 1 preseason game, you can click here for a free video of the Dolphins' entire first drive hosted on NFL.com.
I've included an animated gif of the first play, slowed down to make it easier to see what's happening from before the snap up until the ball is on its way to Lamar Miller:
After the catch, Miller plows ahead, and the play gains a total of 5 yards.
Out of all the plays on that drive, I've picked the first play despite the relatively meager gain of 5 yards because that first play embodies many of the principles of Lazor's offense that I discussed previously. The specific play is called the Y-95 Cross. Here's what the play looks like:
That play is considered a staple of the "Air Raid" offense made famous at Texas Tech by Mike Leach. Leach is currently the head coach of the Washington State Cougars, and fans of college football probably have heard more than a few mentions of the Air Raid offense due to other prominent programs like Texas A&M (with coach Kevin Sumlin) using the offense and scoring a lot of points. The general features are a QB in shotgun, 1 running back who is frequently asked to run routes, and either 4 wide receivers or 3 wide receivers plus 1 tight end on most plays. In particular, the scheme tends to ask 3 receivers to line up on the same side of the field (nicknamed "trips formation.") Lazor's use of a play from the Air Raid offense is a sneak peak into how diverse this offense could be once the regular season starts. While the Y-95 Cross led to a boring result in this instance, this play could be the one that generates big gains in the future.
So first, the play begins with a pre-snap shift of tight end Dion Sims (in red), as shown below in 3 screenshots. I apologize for the less than stellar views, but the All-22 film isn't available until the regular season starts, so I'm stuck using the broadcast views. You can click on each screen shot to open a higher resolution view in a new window.
What this shift does is strongly suggest the defense is in zone coverage because no individual defender "tracks" Sims across the field as he moves. Neither linebacker (yellow and blue arrows) moves in parallel with Sims. The defense's behavior hints that no defender is strictly assigned to Sims, so the defense is likely playing a zone defense in which coverage assignments are areas of the field, not specific players on offense.
I use words like "suggest," "likely," and "hint" because some teams run a mix of man and zone coverages on the same play to try to confuse quarterbacks, so the shift doesn't "prove" that every defender is playing zone. Still, based on what Tannehill has seen so far before the ball is snapped, his "best guess" is that the defense is playing zone. The Y-95 Cross has a lot of option-routes that alter what receivers will do based on whether the defense is playing man or zone defense. By tipping Tannehill off to the fact that the defense is probably in zone, Tannehill knows pre-snap where his receiving targets "should" be running. Tannehill's mental image of the play goes from the cluster of arrows in the first image to this more simple one:
After the ball is snapped, you see in the screenshot below that both boundary cornerbacks (yellow) drop back deep into coverage, as one deep safety (not shown) drops back into the middle of the field (light blue) and the other safety (purple) moves forward towards the shallow middle of the field.
That's behavior consistent with a cover-3 shell. The other defenders drop into zones rather than closely tracking individual players, suggesting it's a traditional cover-3 with every defender playing zone. In addition, no player is blitzing, so Tannehill knows at this point that the slot receiver will be running the deeper crossing route.
(Move your mouse over the image above to begin the animation of a Cover-3 shell with zone underneath, which is excellent at stopping deep passes because 2 cornerbacks and a safety drop deep. However, it is vulnerable to shorter passes towards the outside, especially to pass catchers in the areas defended by the linebackers because linebackers are not as good in coverage as safeties and cornerbacks)
First Option - No blitz, vs. zone
Tannehill's first option is the Y-receiver (slot), who will most often be Gibson once the regular season starts, though I'm excited to see Jarvis Landry in this role due to the high yards-after-catch potential of this route against man-defenses. The priority in this spot is a receiver who is willing to act as a bailout in the event of a blitz by making a catch in the middle after a quick route but who also can exploit single coverage by generating yards after the catch if the defense doesn't blitz to force a quick throw. Dolphins receivers with the toughness and tackle-breaking ability to fit this role include Gibson, Matthews, and Landry. The Falcons defense was playing zone, and the "shallow" defenders were backpedaling downfield rather than aggressively trying to prevent shorter throws, so Tannehill was correct to decide against targeting the slot receiver in the intermediate middle of the field (route shown in white in screen shot above). It would've been tough for Tannehill to get the ball over the shallow linebacker and short of the deep defensive backs given how aggressively the linebacker was dropping back (orange arrow).
Tannehill quickly moves to his 2nd option, which is the wide receiver on the left boundary who runs the deepest route. This receiver is always asked to stretch the defense vertically, so Mike Wallace is a great option for this role, and both Brian Hartline and Damian Williams (assuming he makes the team) are decent alternatives. This route has an "option" built in - if more than 1 safety is playing deep, this receiver's job is to run along the sideline to stretch the defense horizontally in addition to vertically. This receiver creates space in the middle if there are 2 safeties deep by forcing one safety to abandon the area between the hash marks and move laterally to defend the sideline.
If there's only 1 safety deep, and the defense is playing man coverage, then this boundary receiver will run a "skinny post" route to force the deep safety to make a difficult choice. If the safety commits to this boundary receiver who is running downfield and towards the middle, then the left intermediate portion of the field is completely cleared out by this deep route. That happens because left boundary cornerback will be chasing this receiver towards the middle as the deep safety tries to stay further downfield than the receiver. With the left boundary cornerback and single deep safety occupied in the deep middle of the field, the slot receiver who is running the crossing route towards vulnerable the left sideline will likely be wide open without safety help nearby.
However, if the deep safety doesn't commit to this boundary receiver, then Tannehill can target the deep threat receiver as he runs towards the deep middle, which is away from the boundary cornerback in man coverage. This a big play if Tannehill hits the receiver in stride without any safeties nearby. For those with concerns about Tannehill's deep ball accuracy, the good news is that a deep throw closer to the middle of the field is "easier" than the deep sideline throws we saw Tannehill attempting last year when targeting Wallace because the ball has to cover less distance. On throws the down the middle, the ball mostly travels vertically (downfield), rather than having to cover distance both vertically (downfield) and horizontally (towards the sideline).
The Falcons were playing a very conservative cover-3 that seeks to prevent deep passes while allowing shorter completions, so Tannehill correctly decided not to target this receiver. The boundary cornerback and free safety (both offscreen) were likely in good position to make a play on the ball if Tannehill had targeted the boundary receiver because both are assigned to stay deep. Tannehill quickly abandoned this option and moved onto his third option.
Tannehill's third option was the running back, who runs a short route out of the backfield instead of blocking. Tannehill chose this pass because Lamar Miller found an opening in the zone defense and stopped running to make himself an easy, stationary target. If it were man coverage, Miller would continue running to the sideline to gain separation. This 3-yard throw was the correct option because the linebacker who would normally guard this zone was nearly 10 yards downfield and trying to prevent a deeper pass to the slot receiver running the crossing route. That linebacker (near the hash marks) only stopped tracking the slot receiver once Tannehill began his throw to Miller, so the slot receiver was never open until Tannehill started his throwing motion.
Against a particularly aggressive linebacker playing zone, Tannehill could try to pump-fake in the direction of Miller to "trick" the linebacker into abandoning his drop back, which would allow Tannehill to try to hit the slot receiver in the space between the shallow linebackers and the deep defensive backs. However, the Falcons defenders didn't seem particularly interested in stopping shorter throws, based on the fact that the "shallowest" defenders are 7 to 10 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage. To provide a frame of reference, you can see the depth of "shallowest" defenders is within 3 yards of the first down (10-yard) marker on the sideline. The pump fake meanwhile forces the quarterback to continue holding onto the ball a bit longer as he resets to attempt an actual throw, so it increases the risk of a sack.
Once Wallace is in the lineup on the left side of the field, the gap between the defensive backs and the linebacker will be bigger, so don't be surprised if Gibson or Landry get big catches in that gap created in the left intermediate portion of the field, with Miller/Moreno occupying the shallow defender and Wallace drawing coverage deep.
Rest of the Options
Tannehill's probable 4th option was the other boundary receiver, who runs a longer-developing route. This is a route that could lead to a receiver like Hartline or Williams getting a deep completion depending on the behavior of the safeties and if pass protection holds up. Aggressive defenses that roll a safety to Wallace and seek to contest shorter throws to the slot receiver and running back are more likely to allow a deep completion on the side of the field opposite Wallace, particularly if Hartline or Williams has time to complete his route.
If all 4 players previously described have been covered, the tight end is the final bailout option. He initially tries to find anyone to block, and if it's not a blitz, he then begins a delayed route to the outside. This should be an easy completion to gain a few yards against a defense that does a good job in covering the first 4 options. Against a blitz, the tight end will stay in to help block, and Tannehill will need to get the ball out quickly.
After all that work, gaining 5 yards on a checkdown to a running back may seem anticlimatic, but it gets the offense positive yards. Negative yardage plays are death to high tempo offenses. Lazor has repeatedly said one of the specific areas he's focusing on with Tannehill is faster decision-making. The ideal would be for Tannehill to not make any mistakes, but no quarterback is perfect. Given that reality, Lazor would strongly prefer that Tannehill make the "mistake" of checking it down too early in a play to either an RB or TE after going through his progressions quickly rather than Tannehill taking a sack after waiting too long for a wide receiver to get open against tight coverage. As an offensive coordinator, Lazor can still be creative if it's 2nd and 5 or 3rd and 5 after Tannehill checks it down.
However, if Tannehill is sacked, and it's either 2nd and 17 or 3rd and 17, Lazor has to consider making substitutions to improve pass blocking at running back and tight end. When the offense makes substitutions, by rule, the ball cannot be snapped until the defense has a chance to make substitutions. Substitutions prevent the offense from beginning the next play quickly. Because running the ball isn't an option on 3rd and long, playaction is also off the table. Therefore, all the "fun stuff" of Lazor's offense - versatility, tempo, play-action - go out the window after negative plays. Given that focus on avoiding negative plays, Tannehill throwing to Miller was a perfectly defensible decision given the type of coverage being played. Miller had plenty of space due to the slot receiver's crossing route drawing the nearest linebacker downfield, and that allowed Miller to get a couple of yards after the catch.
So the Lazor offense is going to look "dink and dunk" at times when Tannehill takes what the defense "gives" him. However, defenses will eventually get frustrated by short completions, and they will take them away by challenging the shorter throws. When defenses do that, Tannehill has to get the ball to one of 3 wide receivers running deeper routes. Against cover-3, this play was "boring," but against cover-1, this exact playcall could easily lead to a 20+ yard gain by one of 3 wide receivers if the defense isn't blitzing. If the defense does send extra defenders on a blitz, the slot receiver will be getting the ball in space early in the play and will be in a position to generate yards after the catch with fewer defenders nearby to attempt a tackle.
The most important lesson is that while this play has plenty of "highlight reel" potential with 3 receivers running 15+ yard routes, the smart decision was ultimately a short gain because of the game situation and the coverage being used by the defense. First down and 10 in the first quarter is not the time for the quarterback to force throws into deep coverage, and Tannehill calmly went through his reads and hit the first open player. It's not always satisfying to see the quarterback settle for a 5 yard gain, but in my next breakdown, I'll go over what happens when a quarterback decides to try for a big play, even against unfavorable coverage and even when the game situation doesn't demand an aggressive throw.
Hint - It ends poorly.