The NFL might be facing a changing of the guard at the QB position. Veterans like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger are still playing at high levels but are walking down fairways on the back nine of their careers.
But fear not, fans of the passing game, as some young quarterbacks are more than ready to pick up the baton. Two of them, Houston's Deshaun Watson and Philadelphia's Carson Wentz, were off to very strong starts — with Wentz playing like an MVP — before their seasons were cut short because of knee injuries.
In this piece we will look at some route concepts that aided their strong starts, as well as highlight some other play designs that can help continue their development so they can take their place among the NFL's next great quarterbacks.
Watson and the Yankee Concept
We start by talking about Watson, coach Bill O’Brien, the Yankee Concept and the 2017 Houston Texans. At its core, this play is a maximum protection, play-action design with an over route and a deeper post route. On this play against the Patriots, the Texans run the scheme out of an I-formation using '21' personnel:
This is your more typical look at the Yankee Concept, a run action out of an offset I-formation, not a lot of window dressing here from Houston.
Now the issue for an offensive coordinator, or an offensive-minded head coach like O’Brien, is one of eye candy. Eventually, defenses are going to catch onto these designs. So how can you make the secondary think before the play, while keeping everything basically the same for the quarterback from a read progression standpoint? This is what you want to do for a young passer like Watson: Keep the basic progression the same, but do it in ways to confuse the defense, and not your signal-caller.
Against the Seattle Seahawks, the Texans faced a 1st-and-10 midway through the first quarter with the football on Houston's 39-yard line. They line up with Watson (#4) in the shotgun and '11' offensive personnel on the field. TE Ryan Griffin (#84) is in the backfield to the left of Watson, and RB Lamar Miller (#26) is also in the backfield, to the right of the quarterback. Two receivers are in a slot to the left with Will Fuller V (#15) spilt alone to the left.
On this play, Griffin blocks across the formation as Miller and Watson carry out a run fake. WR Bruce Ellington (#12) cuts back toward his original side of the field on a swing route. Watson carries out a run fake with his running back and then fakes a pass to Ellington on the swing route. All of that? Window dressing for the Yankee Concept. Fuller runs the deep post, WR DeAndre Hopkins (#10) runs the over route. Watch as linebacker K.J. Wright (#50) gets caught up looking at the window dressing before scrambling to cover Hopkins, who runs right past him:
The end zone camera has a great look at how the fakes in the backfield slow the defense at the second and third levels:
Later in the game, the Texans returned to this concept:
Again, we see the run fake, the fake swing route to the receiver, and the Yankee Concept downfield. Another aspect to this design for the Texans, and mobile quarterbacks in general, is how the routes anticipate a quarterback who breaks the pocket. Here, Fuller is running the deep over route. When Watson feels the pocket break down around him and rolls to the right, he has a receiver working across the field with him. Should Watson have rolled to his left, Hopkins was coming across the field to that sideline. This is an added wrinkle/benefit to this concept for teams with mobile QBs.
Again, the two central elements of the route design — the post route and the over route — are incorporated into the play. All Watson needs to remember is his read progression: Look at the post, come down to the over route. Whether it's used out of a standard run formation or with all the crazy fakes in the backfield, the read for the QB is the exact same. It is up to the offensive coordinator or head coach to come up with the eye candy to confuse the defense. That’s his job, whereas it’s the quarterback’s job to make the throw. You can expect to see much more of this in the year ahead, as the Texans look to build off the early success of their young signal-caller.
Improving the Eye Work
Although Watson’s rookie season was impressive in many respects, there are always areas to improve. One area of focus for Watson should be in how he uses his eyes. It is common for younger quarterbacks to lock onto targets at the start of a play, especially in third downs or in the red zone, when your natural inclination is to make sure of each throw and not make a mistake. But with NFL defenders reading them from head to toe in an effort to determine their intentions, quarterbacks have to be careful.
This was noticeable from Watson’s first NFL start.
Midway through the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals with the game locked in a scoreless tie, the Texans face a 2nd-and-5 on their own 37-yard line. Watson stands alone in the shotgun with '11' offensive personnel on the field. The offense has slot formation to the left, with Hopkins (#10) outside and RB Tyler Ervin (#34) in the slot. Three receivers align to the right, with practice-squad player Evan Baylis (#81) in a wing position. The Bengals have their 4-2-5 nickel defense on the field, and pre-snap, they show a single-high safety look:
Houston runs a dual-concept on this play, using a Tosser concept to the slot side of the field, and Stick to the trips look:
Now let’s step into Watson’s mind for a second, remembering that playing quarterback is hard and there is a ton of information you need to process before and during every single snap. Looking at the defense, this is a single-high look, suggesting Cover 1. That suggestion is given a bit more evidence by the lone safety, who aligns shaded to the three-receiver side of the formation, as well as the two linebackers, who show blitz. But those are not the only cues available to Watson. Look at the other four defensive backs. Each of them is in a zone stance, hips toward the middle of the field, eyes locked on the quarterback. These are zone-coverage cues for the quarterback:
The football is in the middle of the field. With two different passing concepts called, you might expect the quarterback to take the easier throw to the short side of the field based on this look, provided the football was on one of the hash marks. But now, things are equal, so the quarterback should try and attack a zone coverage look with the best concept. This is often termed “best look” or “best side” in playbook parlance. The Stick concept to the right side would give some good options. Trying to throw Tosser against a zone look might pose some problems.
But since Watson is thinking Cover 1 right now, he comes to the Tosser and tries to throw the outside slant route, because he sees the off coverage pre-snap as well as the potential blitzers. So as the play begins, he flashes his eyes right to Hopkins:
As you can see, problems are developing already. The playside linebacker Nick Vigil (#59) is not blitzing, but he is dropping into a hook zone, where he can cover the inside slant from Ervin. Hopkins will run his outside slant route, but he will in effect be bracketed by Jones from the outside and slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard (#21). As you can see, Dennard is simply reading Watson’s eyes … which take him right to the football:
From the end zone angle, you can see how Watson looks directly at Hopkins, and misses all the other information he needs to make the right decision here:
Coming out of Clemson, one of Watson's positive traits was his ability to identify situations pre-snap and exploit them post-snap. However, things in the NFL are not always what they seem, and he’ll need to get faster with his reads and better with his eyes to avoid more mistakes like this. One way to do this is to rely on route concepts and designs that work the middle of the field more, which help to disguise the quarterback’s field of vision. That is where the Yankee concept comes into play. Routes that are crossing over the middle like that help to condense the area the QB is reading, and make it tougher for a defender to truly get a bead on what the quarterback is looking at. O’Brien started to do more of this as Watson’s starts piled up, and here is another example of a design I’d expect to see early and often from Houston:
On this play against the Titans, Watson is able to deliver on a TD throw on this crossers concept. Now, this play did cause a bit of a debate over whether Watson locked onto his target early in the play, but because of the route design, it is hard for those on the outside looking in (with the benefit of replays and slot motion to boot) to tell. But watching the defenders, you can see how Watson’s eyes work and field of vision turned around the Titans’ players in the secondary, leading to the score. To me, it looks as if Watson looks first at the crossing route from Hopkins working right to left, and comes to Fuller late on his crossing route coming from left to right. That seems to be confirmed by the replay/end zone angle. But whether it was the route design or Watson’s eyes, the play-side cornerback stays on Hopkins a bit too long, freeing up Fuller for the score.
Obviously, the Texans cannot rely on crossing routes and the Yankee Concept alone, they’ll need to use other plays, and Watson will need to continue his development. But plays like this are concepts that will help him along as he enters his second season.
Wentz and the Slot-Fade
Many columns were dedicated to the Philadelphia Eagles’ usage of run/pass option concepts last season, and while they did play a part in their run to the Super Bowl, RPOs were not the only concepts that propelled the Eagles to the post-season and Wentz to an MVP-like campaign. Drawing on route designs from various schools of football thought, including the Air Raid and the West Coast philosophies, Doug Pederson, Frank Reich and John DeFilippo certainlly accelerated the development of the No. 2 overall pick in 2016.
But they also went back to school with Wentz, as we’ll see in a moment.
Philadelphia made use of the slot-fade concept throughout the 2017 season, particularly when Wentz was on the field. This is a scheme to get a vertical shot down the field, often with an advantageous matchup.
The first example comes from Philadelphia’s trip out west to take on the Los Angeles Chargers. Facing a third-and-3 on their opening drive, the Eagles line up with Wentz (#11) in the shotgun and '11' offensive personnel on the field. The Chargers show blitz up front and Cover 1 in the secondary. Here is the route concept:
Nelson Agholor (#13) runs the slot-fade route here, while the Eagles use a pivot route and a smoke route to that side of the field as well. Backside, Alshon Jeffery (#17) runs a quick route while the running back releases to the flat, giving Wentz a slant/flat, West Coast combination on the backside.
The main player that Wentz needs to worry about is the free safety. Given the trips formation, that defender should shade to Agholor’s side of the field. But with Jeffery weak-side, Tre Boston (#33) is understandably concerned about that side of the field too. Wentz just needs to freeze Boston for a second, which should free up the fade to Agholor.
That’s exactly what he does:
Wentz holds Boston in the middle of the field for a step, which gets Agholor the space he needs on the fade. The quarterback drops in a perfect throw, and the Eagles are in business. Looking at it from the end zone camera, you can see Wentz peek at Jeffery, Boston shuffle his feet to that side of the field, and the QB then drop in the throw:
This is actually a good design to keep in mind for Watson. As we just discussed, an area where Watson needs to improve is in using his eyes and not locking on to defenders. Crossing routes can help, for sure, but a play like this forces him to move defenders, and it can help develop that aspect of his game.
Here is a similar usage of the slot-fade concept, this time in the red zone to TE Trey Burton (#88). Again, the Eagles have three receivers to the left, and use a smoke/fade/pivot combination. Backside, they run a Smash Concept. This time, they have '12' offensive personnel on the field. The Arizona Cardinals show Cover 1 on this play, but here, Wentz is not worried too much about moving the free safety. In the red zone, the play will happen quicker, so Wentz just needs to make sure Burton gets a step on Deone Bucannon (#20).
Burton holds up his end of the bargain. (Also, watch Torrey Smith (#82) at the bottom of the screen start the celebrating early):
Once more, Wentz drops in a perfect ball for the score, and the Eagles are up early.
At the start of this section, I mentioned that the Eagles’ offensive staff went back to school with Wentz on this design. Now it’s time for some old North Dakota State footage. Wentz’s ability on this design should not really be a surprise to anyone. Back when he was in college, the slot-fade was one of his go-to plays. In a comeback victory over the University of Northern Iowa, Wentz audibled to this play to close off a late-game drive to beat the visiting Panthers:
In a big moment at NDSU, Wentz dials up this concept. So his success running it in the NFL is understandable, and yet another lesson for NFL head coaches and offensive coordinators. Familiarity breeds success, so give a young QB familiar passing concepts and you can expect success.
Similar to Watson, Wentz still has room for improvement, even after a season that put him firmly into the MVP discussion before his injury. One of the knocks on Wentz prior to his selection in the 2016 NFL draft was his processing and play speed. Would he be able to speed up his mind and internal clock to transition from the FCS into the much faster pace of the NFL?
Route concepts such as the slot-fade have made it easier for him to undergo this transition. But as we can see on this play against the Los Angeles Rams, there are still times when Wentz needs to be faster with the football — and with his decisions.
It's third-and-5 on Philadelphia’s opening drive of the game. With the football on the left hashmark, the Eagles put three receivers to the right, with Agholor the middle receiver. He runs an option route out of the slot, while Smith runs a vertical route on the outside. TE Brent Celek (#87) aligns in the wing and helps in pass protection.
As Wentz takes his drop, his eyes immediately come to Agholor in the slot. He makes up his mind very quickly in the play that the option route from Agholor is the route he wants to throw. The decision is understandable, as the Eagles get a Cover 2 Man Under coverage scheme from the Rams. That will give the defense safety help over the top of Smith’s vertical route, but it will also isolate Agholor on an island inside against the slot defender.
But the problem is... Wentz hesitates. His delay as he waits for Agholor to make his break allows the slot defender to click and close on the route, and he gets his hands into the pocket of the receiver, tipping the pass to the outside cornerback who, again, because of the delay, has rotated over and is in position for the interception.
The broadcast replay has a great view of this in action:
If Wentz is faster with his decision, and gets the ball out quicker, the Eagles probably do not turn the ball over there.
On some designs, Wentz does seem faster with his eyes and with his mind. When Pederson gives him dual half-field reads, that forces Wentz to work through the options faster, often resulting in him getting the ball out of his hands quicker, on time and in rhythm. This is a prime example, from Philadelphia’s Week 12 game against the Chicago Bears. Facing a third-and-8, the Eagles put Wentz in the shotgun and align in a 2x2 formation.
This play has a different route concept to each side of the field for Wentz to choose from. On the left side, the receivers run an in/out combination, with the outside receiver breaking toward the boundary and the slot receiver cutting inside, with both routes coming at a depth of five yards. On the right side of the field, Philadelphia runs a two-man flood concept, with the tight end running to the flat and Jeffery running a deep out pattern.
Wentz first wants to go to the left side of the formation and throw the in route to his slot — in part because of the slot defender blitzing on the play — but the Bears do a great job of rotating the safety down in coverage over the slot receiver, and with the rotation of the middle linebacker over as well, Chicago has that route bracketed. So, Wentz immediately flips his field of vision and throws the deep out route to Jeffery:
Now contrast that play from Wentz with the play against the Rams, and you can see the difference in processing speed and decision-making. More plays like that from Wentz in 2018 will go a long way toward continuing his upward trend of development.
How well Wentz and Watson play in 2018 will be dependent in part on their health, with both players coming back from ACL surgeries. But provided they are healthy, there are route concepts — such as these — that will help them continue to enjoy success, as well as enhance their development as passers. Fans of both teams should be optimistic about what they see from their young quarterbacks in the year to come.