Concept Wednesday: Saints Play Action

For the first Concept Wednesday of the Scott Frost era, we’re going to look at one of Frost’s favorite vertical passing concepts: Saints.  Saints is yet another play in the Frost playbook that can be traced directly to Chip Kelly.  It was  Kelly’s preferred vertical concept in Philadelphia and San Francisco, and I expect it will feature heavily in UCLA’s offense as long as Kelly is in Los Angeles.  Saints is also responsible for several of UCF’s explosive plays in 2016 and 2017, as Frost used his speed at the skill positions to kill defenses down the field with one-on-one matchups.

For now, let’s take a look at the core Saints concept and then a variation Frost ran in the Spring Game that led to Jaevon McQuitty’s first touchdown in a Husker uniform.  

What It Is

Saints is a three-vertical play action pass based off the Huskers’ zone run look:

Saints Core.jpg

The blocking up front looks like a standard zone run, and the Huskers can block inside or outside zone depending on what they’ve used most in the game.  But this is pure play action, as the RB makes an initial run fake before running a flat route.  If he gets pressure from that side, he’ll abandon the route and look to pick up any blitzer unaccounted for by the offensive line.  If the defense is particularly adept at rushing the passer, you will also see the offensive line convert this into straight pass drops rather than giving a zone run look.

To the RB’s side, there are two primary receivers.  This can be a combination of a TE and WR or a slot WR with another WR outside of him.  The #1 WR (labeled “S” above) will run a skinny post that may convert depending on coverage.  If he gets soft coverage and can’t get on top of the CB with the post, he can convert the route to a comeback after initially breaking to the post.  The #2 WR to the same side (labeled “Y”) will also run a route that converts depending on the coverage.  If he gets a single-high safety that closes the middle of the field, the #2 WR will run a deep crossing route.  If he gets two-high safeties and the middle of the field is open, he will stay vertical and split the safeties’ coverage drops.

On the other side of the field, you’ll get a high-low combination from two WRs.  The most typical route combination is the one seen above, a go route from the #1 WR (labeled “X”) and a bubble from #2 (labeled “Z”) underneath him.  This is designed to vertically stretch the CB.  If the CB sinks with X, the ball goes to Z.  If the CB triggers down on Z, the ball is thrown to X in the hole before the FS can widen.  You will also see Frost run this with a quick out from Z rather than a bubble, which is just another way to get into the high-low combination.

The QB’s progression works from the high/low side back to the two-vertical side.  The first read is the CB on the high-low stretch; the QB will throw off him to X or Z if possible.  If not, the QB will work back to Y as the next read.  If he’s covered, the QB will work back to S on the post.  Finally, the RB acts as a checkdown if everyone fails to get open.  Z is the hot route if the offense gets a blitz with more defenders than they can block.

Here’s how it plays out on the field:

UCF Saints.gif

Why It Works

Given that it’s Chip Kelly’s favorite passing concept, Saints must have a multitude of ways to win for the offense.  And it does.  First, for good zone running teams, it takes advantage of a defense’s natural tendency to overreact after getting gashed a few times on the ground.  Whether it’s spinning safeties toward the run or simply an overeager safety sticking his eyes into the backfield, Saints puts two verticals on the side most likely to be distorted by the play action.

Second, because of its non-mirrored route combinations, Saints provides the offense with an answer for nearly every coverage it will see.  Ideally, the offense wants Cover 4 against Saints.  The play action zone run will frequently hold the backside OLB, leaving Z open in the flat on the bubble for an easy throw.  If not, the offense still has two potential winners on the other side of the field running two verticals.  The TE will be running against a safety playing with outside leverage, and the #1 WR to that side will be doing the same against the CB.  UCF’s athletic TE Jordan Akins was a mismatch nightmare on this concept in 2017 against Cover 4.  It’s virtually an impossible cover to play a post or deep cross from outside leverage.

Against middle-of-the-field closed coverage like Cover 1 and Cover 3, Saints is nearly as effective.  Against Cover 3, the middle of the field safety is in a bind trying to play the middle of the TE crossing in front of him and the backside skinny post from #1 on the same side.  With an accurate QB, this is a losing battle for the defense.  Versus Cover 1, the defense will most often spin the safeties toward the side where the run fake is headed.  This leaves the TE singled up against a SS with a run fake coming at the defender.  That’s usually enough to get the TE two or three steps necessary to get open.  If not, you’ve got the CBs on islands against the WRs running vertical and a middle of the field safety who cannot help because he’s being held in between the hashes by the TE crossing.

Finally, though not a great matchup, Saints works against Cover 2 as well.  The high-low creates an immediate hole shot opportunity for the QB.  And if the defense doesn’t properly space the apex defender out to the slot WR running the bubble, this can put the CB in a bind.  If the defense properly spaces the play, however, the TE is still splitting safeties with an inside LB trying to carry him vertical.  If the run fake is good, this can get the TE open and headed straight to the end zone.  The #1 WR to the TE side is often wasted, as the SS will top him vertically and convert the route into a comeback.  That said, Cover 2 is a rare look against a Kelly/Frost offense because of the QB run threat and the emphasis on running the football.

Does It Work With Nebraska’s Personnel?

We’re going to find out.  UCF had an insane amount of speed at its skill positions in 2017 that made this concept work.  Akins as the TE crosser, Adrian Killins in the backfield on the run fake, Dredrick Snelson, Tre’Quan Smith, Otis Anderson, Gabriel Davis, Marlon Williams, etc. on the outside, and an accurate trigger man in McKenzie Milton.  That’s about ideal for the Saints concept.

At least now, Nebraska doesn’t have that type of weaponry to win vertically.  Nevertheless, we know that Frost believes in this concept and will use it with the Huskers.  Why?  He ran a Saints variant to spring Jaevon McQuitty for the second passing touchdown of the Spring Game:


There are lot of nice things about this play.  First, knowing that defenses will have keyed in on the base Saints concept after watching UCF’s 2017 tape, Frost tweaks it just a touch:


He flips the RB to the other side of the formation before motioning him out on the flat route.  This avoids the Saints tell from the RB’s initial alignment.  And faced with 3rd and 10, Frost drops what would be a meaningless zone play fake and instead motions the RB, pulling the LBs out and creating space for the TE to freely release through them.  The route combinations otherwise remain the same as the core Saints look.  On the other side, Frost has Lindsey run the speed out instead of the bubble, again understanding the down and distance eradicates any bait the bubble might otherwise set for the CB.

Second, and the most impressive, is Martinez’s tight progression.  Most true freshmen at this stage are still trying to figure out which side they’re supposed to read first.  Forget the next level of timing the footwork to the routes or even working to the third progression.  Martinez, however, isn’t most true freshmen.  He perfectly marries his feet to the progression, first reading the high/low, bouncing to the cross, and then delivering the ball to McQuitty on the backside post with no wasted steps. 

Plays like this are one reason I think Martinez will end up winning the starting job in 2018.  He’s an obvious threat in the running game, but he has a level of sophistication in the passing game far beyond his meager experience.  Based on what we saw in the Spring Game, it looks like the Huskers’ offense is in good hands for the next four years, both from the man calling plays and the guy on the field making them go.  Saints will be a big part of that relationship.

6 thoughts on “Concept Wednesday: Saints Play Action

  1. Just another Sker fan

    I can’t really tell play design just by looking like you may be able to do, but did any of the other QB’s run this “Saints” play during the Spring game? Just wondering if there was maybe a comparison or “grade” on how each QB handled that play.

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