New feature for this year. Every Wednesday, we’ll take a look at a core offensive concept that Nebraska uses to put points up on the board. Sometimes it’ll be a running play, sometimes it’ll be a passing play. It may even be a trick play depending on what the Huskers offense calls the previous weeks.
This week, it’s one of Danny Langsdorf’s favorite concepts: the Slot Fade. And with J.D. Spieman finally coming online for the Huskers after a redshirt year, you can expect Nebraska to use this concept frequently in 2017.
Nebraska uses the Slot Fade concept in a variety of different plays, a couple of which we’ve talked about in the past. Today we’ll take a deeper dive into the concept and why it works, along with how it matches up with Nebraska’s 2017 personnel.
What It Is
Slot Fade is as simple as it sounds. Put a WR in the slot, and let him work the Fade route down the the field and toward the sideline:
In this version of Slot Fade, Nebraska uses a 6-man protection with the X receiver (usually Stanley Morgan) on a Corner route and the Z receiver (usually De’Mornay Pierson-El) on a delayed breaking inside route. The running back initially adds to the protection before leaking out late as a check down option.
Nebraska will also run this by moving the Y receiver (tight end) over to the other side and running a Divide route off the Slot Fade to attack a Cover 2 safety. The Z receiver’s route can be a number of things depending on the cornerback’s leverage, but all of them are short routes designed to get the cornerback to sit early in coverage. Frequently, it’s a Hitch route.
Why It Works
Though interior defensive backs are often thought of as inferior to a team’s two starting cornerbacks, in reality they often have the toughest job on the field against 3-WR sets. Whereas cornerbacks can rely on the sidelines to narrow down the routes they’ll see from a receiver, nickelbacks and other interior defensive backs must be able to defend two-way routes from slot receivers. Inside, outside, and vertical, nickelbacks have to be able to defend it all.
And while offenses historically made it easier on defenses by placing their best wide receivers only outside against a defense’s best cornerbacks, most modern offenses have ways to get their best receivers in the slot, through alignment or motion, to take advantage of these two-way options. Pittsburgh in particular loves the Slot Fade concept to get Antonio Brown the ball against overmatched defensive backs.
Structurally, the best time to run Slot Fade is against single high coverages. Think Cover 1 or Cover 3:
In Cover 1 and Cover 3, your free safety is responsible for the middle third of the field between the hash marks. This puts him in a bind on two vertical routes, as he must decide which vertical route to assist. And once he chooses, he typically leaves the other route in a one-on-one match up. The delayed inside breaking route from the Z receiver is designed to get the cornerback to sit down on the route. If he does, it creates more space for the slot receiver to work into down the field without getting pinched by the cornerback.
For Nebraska, the two keys to this play are the quarterback and the slot WR. Because the FS has to cover so much ground in support, the QB can use his eyes to direct the free safety to one side of the field before throwing back to the other vertical route. This is what announcers mean when they discuss QBs controlling safeties with their eyes. Look early in the pass drop to the X receiver’s route before throwing to the slot WR. Or look the FS to the slot WR before throwing the Corner route to the X receiver. Either way, a QB that stares down his throw is going to kill the play because it gives the FS a head start on the throw. Alternatively, a QB that can look off the safety creates a big play waiting to happen because there is no one to help after the catch is made.
The slot WR also needs to be able to get vertical off any jam at the line of scrimmage and understand how to leverage the Fade route based on the free safety’s alignment. Ideally, the slot WR works not only down field but subtly to the sideline. This creates space for his QB to throw the ball over the outside shoulder and away from the FS coming over in support:
As you see in the clip above, though Tennessee is playing Cover 0 with no middle-of-the-field safety, the #3 wide receiver works down the field and outside the numbers by the time the ball gets to him.
If the slot WR runs the route properly with a properly thrown ball, it creates a ton of space for your slot WR to head to the end zone. If the slot WR is too narrow or the QB doesn’t locate the ball on the outside shoulder, the ball ends up too close to the middle of the field and opens up the slot WR to a big hit from the FS. Or worse, an interception headed the other way.
Does It Work With Nebraska’s Personnel?
Absolutely, and in fact Nebraska in 2017 has the perfect personnel to run it. Lee is an accurate, big-armed QB that understands how to move safeties with his eyes. It’s one of offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf’s emphasized coaching points, and you can be sure Lee will be well versed in the importance of controlling safeties with his eyes.
And on the outside, J.D. Spielman is an ideal athlete for the slot fade. He’s quick enough off the line of scrimmage to get away from press coverage but also fast enough to get vertical as well to create space away from the FS. Additionally, he’s got great body control, an essential ingredient for working away from the safety while trying to make difficult catches over the outside shoulder. And though Tyjon Lindsey is lining up primarily on the outside, don’t be surprised if they find ways to motion him inside to the slot to work the Slot Fade concept.
Be on the lookout early for this, as Nebraska wants to create vertical passing plays this year with their new toys at QB and WR. Slot Fade will be a big part of that, and it’s a concept that can produce a ton of points and yards if done right.