Concept Wednesday: The Jet Sweep

After a few days of moping, at some point you have to turn the page.  We’re doing that now as Concept Wednesday slips in just under the midnight buzzer.  During Tim Beck’s four-year run as offensive coordinator, Nebraska WRs had a total of 32 carries, many of which came on reverses or other traditional WR run plays.  Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf matched that in his first year, dialing up 32 carries for his WRs in 2015.

So this week, it’s the Jet Sweep, perhaps the most notable aspect of Mike Riley’s offense though he still tries to convince us it’s called the Fly Sweep.  We’ll take a look not only at the sweep itself, but also how Nebraska uses the Jet motion through companion plays even when the WR doesn’t end up with the ball.

What It Is

By now, every Nebraska fan knows what the Jet Sweep is.  Wide receiver runs in motion parallel to the line of scrimmage and takes a direct handoff from the QB:

Spielman Jet Sweep.gif

What Nebraska fans may not know yet is why we run it.  Jet Sweep is one of those simple concepts to install that has numerous benefits for an offense.  That’s why Nick Satan Saban fawned about adding it to Alabama’s arsenal last year despite 5-star personnel doing just fine without it.

Jet adds several plusses to the running game alone.  First, we go back to real estate and math.  Jet allows you to force the defense to defend the entire width of the field immediately at the snap.  That means no stacking the interior box with extra defenders to defend your base inside runs.  And for Nebraska, inside zone is a staple run.  Jet helps them protect it by moving defenders to the perimeter rather than between the hashes.  Second, Jet gets your best playmakers the ball in space.  WRs are typically the fastest guys on the team, and giving them the ball around the edge in 1-on-1 match ups can occasionally turn things into a track meet to the goal line.  Third, at least in theory, there should be very little need for blocking from the interior offensive line.  Because the play hits the outside so fast, you don’t typically need to fully block people between the B gaps.  Instead, target the C gap and out, and let your OL chip and then work up to cut off backside pursuit from the LBs and DBs.  You actually see Matt Farniok do just that on the clip above.

Yet Jet’s benefits aren’t limited to just the running game.  If done right, you can use Jet motion to create routes from the motion man that pair into your existing concepts.  Think the Spacing concept we’ve seen Nebraska run in the past.  Jet also forces the defense to tip its hand in the secondary or risk being outleveraged on the run.  If the defense is in man coverage, you typically see that defender run with the Jet motion across the field.  If not, as the above clip shows, you don’t see a defender carry the Jet motion man past the ball.  Finally, Jet creates vertical play action options down the field for the other receivers.  A blown coverage from a safety eyeing the Jet man can result in a free receiver running wide open down the seam.

Why It Works

Nebraska’s best “space” players in 2017 are their wide receivers.  JD Spielman and De’Mornay Pierson-El have already shown explosiveness in the open field.  In the tackle-and-chase modern game, it’s as simple as it sounds.  Get them the ball headed to the perimeter and let them break a tackle.  That’s why it SHOULD work.

So, with that said, the immediate question is “Why hasn’t that worked as well this year”?  Easy question with a complicated answer.  Nebraska has run 5 Jet sweeps this season for 29 yards.  But 24 of those yards came against Arkansas State on two carries.  In the last two games, Nebraska hasn’t hit a Jet Sweep for more than 4 yards, and one actually lost 6.   For now, let’s forget about Nebraska and just focus on how defenses have tweaked how they defend Nebraska’s Jet plays in 2017. 

Simply put, Nebraska is seeing a lot more blitzes against their Jet motion than they did in 2015 and 2016.  Why?  Because modern defenses have started to transition to blitzing to formation or to motion rather than traditional down-and-distance blitzes.  The old method of blitzing was simple: look up at the scoreboard, find the down and distance, and if it’s a likely passing situation, then you can dial up a blitz.  But that simplicity also led to predictability for offenses.  Get in a passing situation and you better start preparing for the blitz.  Though it never fully tipped things in the offense’s favor, traditional down-and-distance blitzing at least left them prepared to find answers for the blitz.

To remove that predictability, defensive coordinators are now starting to call blitzes based on formation.  This is the defense’s response to RPOs and packaged offensive plays. Rather than being exclusively concerned about down and distance, the call goes into the defense with multiple options, one of which is a blitz to a specific formation.  Then the defense can either execute the blitz call if the offense lines up in that formation or kill it if the offense lines up in something else.  

Most often, the decision points are based on where the RB lines up or the distribution of receivers on the field.  RB to the field versus to the boundary, 2×2 sets from the receivers versus 3×1 sets.  Certain blitzes just don’t work when an offense puts 3 WRs to one side of the field or lines up the RB to the boundary.  Blitzing to formation allows the defensive coordinator to attack certain blitz-friendly formations while having an answer if the offense comes out in a different formation that isn’t friendly to the blitz. 

But defenses can also package blitzes to motion, and that’s what Nebraska is seeing right now.  In other words, when Nebraska shows Jet motion, defenses check into a blitz to bring pressure as the Jet man takes the hand off.  Sometimes this is edge pressure directly in his face, other times it’s middle pressure.  If there is no Jet motion, the defense goes with the play as called.  Here, you can see Northern Illinois blitz to motion the first time Nebraska went with Jet on Saturday:

Jet Blitz to Motion.gif

The initial alert goes up from the CB over Pierson-El as he goes in Jet motion.  The safeties start to rock, with one dropping down into the box and the other pursuing Pierson-El on the Jet.  The LBs start to come with pressure as well, and the offensive line gets confused trying to figure out who is coming and from where.

Although the Huskers only ran the Jet sweep twice on Saturday, they ran Jet motion 5 times in the game.  All 5 times Northern Illinois brought pressure.  That’s not coincidence.  It’s blitzing to motion:

Jet Screen Fail.gif

This is one of Nebraska’s companion plays to the Jet Sweep, a RB Slip Screen going away from the Jet man.  The idea is to get the defense so focused on the Jet Sweep they forget about the RB slipping out the back side.  But just like they did all game, Northern Illinois blitzes to Jet motion, causing confusion among the offensive line and allowing the blitzing safety to hit home before the screen sets up.

How do you combat blitzing to Jet motion without going completely away from it?  There are a couple of things you can do.  One, make sure that your offensive line communicates and everyone understands in advance how to deal with various pressures to Jet motion.  Because the more defenders the defense sends at the line of scrimmage, the fewer they have to help tackle your Jet player down the field if he breaks one open.  And if you happen to dial up a play action pass off Jet, it’s one on one match ups deep in the secondary.

Second, create disguise for the Jet motion so the defense can’t check to the blitz as fast.  Late defensive checks frequently equal blown assignments.  Nebraska has tried this wrinkle in 2017 by making Jet motion look like another type of motion they run.  Nebraska runs a lot of short motion with their receivers where the receiver starts in motion from his normal wide spot but stops short on the same side of the field.  It looks like this in action. 

To mimic that short motion, they’ve started running Jet Delay motion.  Look at JD Spielman’s motion up above, in which he takes a few steps and pauses as if he’s stopping before hitting the gas again.  Compare that with what Jet looked like in 2016:

Reilly Jet 2016.gif

Much different initial look for the defense, though it’s probably not working as well as Nebraska would like. 

Does It Work With Nebraska’s Personnel?

Finally, we reach a much closer call than previous Concept Wednesdays.  When you see Spielman, Pierson-El and newcomer Tyjon Lindsey, you think Jet Sweep is a natural fit for them.  Small guys in space usually equal big gains.

But with how defenses have blitzed to Nebraska’s Jet motion, it becomes a much closer call with an offensive line struggling to get the calls right.  If you can’t pick up the initial pressure by getting everyone blocked, too often you end up with a Jet Sweep man who has nowhere to go.  Even worse, your companion plays to Jet Sweep–inside zone, screens, vertical shots–also fail because you end up with blitzers headed quickly to the backfield.  When that happens, it’s time to close up shop on the Jet series and figure something else out.

So can the Huskers get it fixed?  Probably not in the next game or two, though I hope it looks much cleaner by the season’s end.  Nebraska is breaking in a new QB and a new center, not an ideal combination when it comes to getting line calls right.  But Big 10 football is the place for solutions, not excuses, and so they have to find a way to fix it fast. 

In my opinion, that fix might be starting Michael Decker at center instead of Cole Conrad.  Conrad came into the program as an offensive tackle, and by all accounts, the kid works his butt off.  He bailed out Nebraska last year when he came in and played tackle during a serious injury pinch.  But this year, it’s just not happening for the offensive line communication, and you have to wonder how much of that traces back to Conrad trying to move to center without any experience playing it in college.  Meanwhile, Decker has been a center from the moment he hit Lincoln after playing guard in high school.

With that, keep an eye not only on who is playing center this weekend, but also on what the defense does when you see Jet motion.  If the answer is blitz to motion, Nebraska needs to find a better solution than they did last week.

On Friday, I’ll pump out our first Charting Checkup for the year.  If you weren’t around last year, Charting looks at Nebraska’s personnel and playcalling tendencies to see what trends are happening in the offense.  This year, it’s not a every week feature, but we’ll catch up on how Nebraska’s first three games in 2017 reveal a different offense than they ran in 2016.  In some ways, substantially so.


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