Jake Locker and Maximizing the Vertical Game

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 18: Jake Locker #10 of the Tennessee Titans throws a pass during the NFL game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 18, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

A little less than a year ago, Jake Locker polarized this fan base on draft day. What a difference a year makes. Today, Jake is the poster boy for the bright future of the Titans organization. In a cliche and hyperbolic sense, he embodies hope for the franchise. Even better, a lot of that optimism stems from live game performance. I've seen with my own eyes what this kid is capable of in a real, meaningful, NFL football game. It was phenomenal. Not without imperfection, but more than enough to breath life into an organization that's clearly in rebuilding mode.

The interesting thing to me is the stark contrast of the offense when Locker came into the game. Many of the concepts are the same, but one was always front and center: The Vertical Game. Hasselbeck is clearly a West Coast guy that excels in the quick game. I don't want to take too much away from his deep ball, as he has flashed an arm at times. It's just not his strongsuit. The opposite appears to be true for Locker, who clearly excels in that department. And, all was on full display when Locker would come into action. None of this is to say that Locker can't work in a West Coast offense. It's evident that the deep ball comes naturally to him, though. This alone makes one wonder just how much of his talents may have been wasted in his final years of college by constantly forcing that square peg into a round hole. No less, we don't seem to have that problem in Tennessee as Old Man Palmer has showed no hesitations in letting Jake cut the deep ball loose.

Today, we'll look at why these simple concepts can be so effective, and how the team can work to improve the situation through free agency, the draft, and adding Kenny Britt to the mix. This won't be a piece that dives into specific players we can acquire. It's more about what we need out of the receiver positions to really make this offense hum.

The Vertical Game

First, let's start with the basic concept of the vertical game. We've got an excellent resource for this: Chris Palmer's old playbook. Let's take at a couple of pages from Palmer's playbook.

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Palmer's playbook is written in packages. Within those packages, a basic set of rules are outlined that govern playcalling assignments, blocking, hot routes, and, in this case, a seam read.

For the purpose of this article, we're going to be interested in the "22 man" call from the second page above. This is the traditional verticals play. All receivers get vertical, with the exception of one of the inside receivers which, pre snap, is on a seam read route.

From Palmer's Playbook, he keeps this premise simple:

Seam Read

No one in the middle take the middle. Someone in the middle stay through the seam.

In the past, we've discussed MOFO (Middle of the field open) and MOFC (Middle of the field closed). This is what Palmer's talking about above. The inside receiver who's on the seam read is working to identify where the safeties are on the play.

The diagram above helps show what typically would happen in a MOFC situation. In the top image, the defense is in a Cover 3 look. That is, the outside corners are responsible for the outside 1/3s of the field, and the FS takes the middle 1/3. For the purposes of this illustration, assume that the outside receivers are also running vertical routes as well. It doesn't really matter in the X's/O's sense, because they have adequate depth to put pressure on the outside defender, but it's not traditional verticals either. Back to the point, in the case of MOFC, we've got two inside receivers running up the seams. Pre-snap, let's say that the Z has been given the seam read option. Well, you can see what happens here. The FS shows his hand that he's the only one over the top, signaling that the Z continue up the seam. Once the receiver gets to the secondary, it's just a numbers game. 2 receivers. 1 defender. The outside cover guys are occupied with the outside receivers. From here, it's on the QB to make a judgement call and deliver the ball accurately, and for the receiver to catch the ball, which is in traffic a lot of the time.

If it's MOFO, you've typically got one safety responsible for either side of the field (unless they are in Quarters in which case they are each responsible for their middle 1/4). So, sticking with the example above, the Z is going to read the safety, and note that he's not occupying the middle of the field. Once the receiver gets adequate depth, he's going to plant his foot in the ground and "get skinny" just to the inside of safety over the top of him. It's a skinny post because it doesn't take as dramatic of an angle as a traditional post which would potentially give the opposite safety a chance to make a play on the ball. At the same time, the other inside receiver continues his seam route, which keeps pressure on that opposing safety. From here, it's on the QB to deliver the ball into a tight window between both safeties, and sometimes above the underneath defender.

You can see an example of this from the Saints game below. Though, in this example, Cook doesn't continue with the vertical route, instead breaking it off for a deep-middle dig.

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From the image above, you can see the precision needed to make this throw. The read is easy. The throw against freaky athletic NFL safeties? Not at all.

The above is just a basic overview of the vertical game, but, as you can imagine, there are a number of wrinkles that can be thrown into the mix. Entire books are written on the subject. Because it's such a cursory overview, feel free to ask questions for clarification in the comments, and I'll answer best I can.

Kenny Britt and Nate Washington

For those that haven't read it, go read Chris Brown's article on Victor Cruz. From that article:

Mouse Davis organized Ellison's insights into the offense the Oilers ran 40 years later, and he did so by combining Brown's military approach with Ellison's free-flowing game. Each pass play was designed with the rigor of Brown's battle plans, but instead of a single assignment, each wide receiver was given a decision tree. If the play was "go," the slot receiver might run deep; he might stop and turn back to the quarterback after about eight yards; he might run 10 or 12 yards and then break across the field; or he might go deep, but instead of going straight he'd run diagonally upfield. Ultimately, the decision didn't really belong to the receiver. Just like backyard football, it depended on the defense. Just as Ellison taught, while a receiver might have a variety of different assignments on a given play, he is ultimately given one overarching, all-encompassing command: Get open.

....

Examples of these run-and-shoot concepts abound in the Giants' game plans. Cruz reads the defense on almost every pass play, and the Giants' favorite passing formation is a variant on the run-and-shoot's Choice concept, with Hakeem Nicks as a single backside receiver with multiple route options while three receivers to the other side run a different formation. This forces defenses to pick their poison: Guard Nicks one-on-one and Manning will throw to him all day, just as Warren Moon once did with guys like Haywood Jeffires. If the defense sends additional players to Nicks' side, space opens up for the run game inside or for the other receivers, just as it did for Cruz on his 99-yard touchdown against the Jets. For a dead offense, that's pretty good.

I point this article out because I think there are some interesting parallels between the Titans and the Giants. Three jump out at me. Cruz and Washington both have similar skill sets, and excel in the slot and up the seam. Similarly, Britt and Nicks are cut from a similar mold. Neither are necessarily large physically in the way of a Megatron or Fitzgerald, but both play a big aggressive style of football and excel in the deep passing game. Last, and maybe most importantly, Chris Palmer and Kevin Gilbride are cut from the same cloth. Palmer coached under Gilbride in Houston. Palmer later succeeded Gilbride as Offensive Coordinator under Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville. And, just two years ago, Palmer was working under Gilbride again in New York when he was the Giants QB Coach. So, many of the things mentioned in the post above can also be applied to the Titans offense, albeit with different personnel.

Back to the point at hand, the exciting thing for Titans fans has to be that all these flashes we saw from Locker came in the absence of Kenny Britt, who began the year as arguably the best (statistically) receiver in the NFL. Consider also that when Locker was in the game (and in general) the Titans liked sticking Nate in the slot. And, for good reason. Like Cruz, Nate does a beautiful job of working in space and making tough, contested catches, many times bracing for contact immediately after the reception. All these are good things, but how much is being left on the table? If Nate and Locker are producing like this with DWill and Hawkins on the outside, what would happen with our own Hakeem Nicks equivilant (Kenny Britt) on the outside?

Before we get to that, let's first briefly point out why this is specific to a Locker led offense, and not Hasselbeck. The best and worst asset of Hasselbeck's (and, yes, that is possible) is his ability to get the ball out quickly to the first open receiver. He has that ever ticking internal clock. Something that's a quality of most good QB's, but especially west coast quarterbacks. Combine this with a below average mobility, and you come up with a guy that's not only unaccustomed to waiting on a slower developing vertical route, but also not equipped to buy time with his feet when the pocket breaks down.

Jake Locker doesn't have these problems. He's years ahead of his age in terms of pocket presence and mobility. Locker is consistently fluid in the pocket, especially on these slower developing routes. In fact, you can see this on display in the above image of the throw to Washington. Further, at times Locker seems to be even more precise on throws over 20 yards than he does on the short intermediate stuff. While that's a mixed bag in terms of what we want out of our future quarterback, there's no doubt that it's an asset in the vertical game.

With that established, let's take a peek into the future. As pointed out above, the amazing thing about Washington's production late in the year is the cast around him. Because, for my money, I'm keying on Washington in the passing game and giving some cushion to Hawk and Williams. While Washington wasn't consistently getting doubled or bracketed, there's no doubt that he was receiving plenty of attention from opposing defenses. With Kenny back, this becomes increasingly difficult. If Britt can make Kerry Collins look like a competent QB, just think what he could do with Locker.

No, really. Pause for a minute and let that settle in.

Running a two man combination of Vertical and Seam Read with Britt and Washington, respectively, does a couple of things for the offense:

1. It keeps the reads simple for Locker. The keys are about as easy as they come.

2. The deep ball is the strong suit of Locker, Britt, and Washington. This is what really makes this exciting. The theory behind vertical concepts is pretty elementary, but when executed to perfection it's still extremely dangerous. One could argue that it's one of the most powerful concepts in football when run correctly. And, maybe even the best part, this isn't some harebrained idea that I'm preaching to the coaching staff. They are already running it effectively, in the absence of the best personnel!

The fundamental principal of the vertical game is putting deep secondary defenders in a bind. I wouldn't want to take too much from Hawkins and Williams, who played admirably in spots last year. But, in terms of putting strain on a defender, the task of a safety covering Washington and Britt seems much more daunting. Think of it this way, with just Washington in we were probably running at 50% of potential output. Add Britt, and we're creeping up to 75% output. Washington and Britt alone is an extremely dangerous combination, yet we haven't even discussed the other side of the field. With Nate in the slot, Britt at split end, what about the flanker and Cook on the other side of the field?

First, Cook. He finally seemed to get it at the end of last year. While I still think there's plenty of potential there, at least we finally saw some good production out of him late in the year. With another full offseason to digest the offense, you have to hope that he begins to consistently produce in real games the way he does in practices every pre-season. Even if he's not an every down guy, he presents plenty of problems up the seam and over the middle, which is exceedingly valuable out of a tight end in the vertical game. Seldom are there tight ends capable of outrunning an NFL secondary, but Cook is one of them. And, while that's not a pre-req for a tight end running a seam route, it's certainly more threatening.

We're still missing a piece on the outside, though. I like Damian Williams and all. I'm just not sold that he's the long term answer. The thing that could really make this offense sing is a legitimate speedster on the outside. Think Torrey Smith or Mike Wallace. If it's a one trick pony, that's fine. But, a guy that really threatens deep on the outside makes this offense a nightmare for opposing defenses. Maybe that's a guy in the draft like Kendall Wright. Maybe it's some available in free agency like Eddie Royal or Ted Ginn. Whoever it is, this staff would be wise to take that into serious consideration when looking at possible acquisitions this offseason.

There's a lot to soak in here. The point to take home here is that the future is bright as it relates to the vertical aspects of our passing game. Not only that, but there's room for improvement. In a game that's becoming more passing oriented by the day, that is something to be very excited about as a Titans fan.

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