Now that Matt LaFleur is the Titans new offensive coordinator, I wanted to take a look at some offenses that he has been a part of to get some hints about what he might do here in Tennessee. LaFleur has never been a playcaller and has never served as the top offensive mind for a team before so a lot of this is projection based on the systems he has worked in previously. His entire NFL career has been spent working with Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay and I think it is safe to assume that LaFleur’s offense will borrow a lot of principles from what we’ve seen from his mentors in Washington, Atlanta, and Los Angeles while mixing in some concepts that he feels will mesh well with Marcus Mariota and the rest of the Titans personnel.
I went back and watched games from the 2012 Redskins, 2016 Falcons, and 2017 Rams to get a sense of how this offense operated. What I found was a lot of what I expected to find based on these guys coming from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree, but you could also see an evolution from year to year as the Falcons and Rams both added new wrinkles and variations as they continued to evolve and adapt to their talent and the ever-changing landscape of NFL defenses.
LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach in Washington between 2010 and 2013 as part of a staff led by head coach Mike Shanahan. Mike’s son, Kyle, was the offensive coordinator and Sean McVay was the tight ends coach at that time making up an incredible group of offensive coaches all together at the same time. I chose the 2012 season because that was Robert Griffin III’s only healthy season under this staff and I wanted to see what the offense looked like with a truly mobile quarterback — apologies to Matt Ryan and Jared Goff.
What I found was an offense that looked a lot like a typical Shanahan offense — outside zone runs, lots of play action, bootlegs, and west coast route concepts — combined with elements from Art Briles’ Baylor offense that Griffin had run in college — bubble screens, RPO’s, zone read, pistol formations. There are several good articles that highlight some of modifications the Shanahan’s made to fit RG3 during that season. The most encouraging thing about this for Titans fans is that LaFleur has been a part of a staff that learned to adapt their system on the fly to fit what their quarterback did best. Some of those concepts may be brought back out with Mariota in 2018.
The single biggest staple of Washington’s run offense under Shanahan were outside and inside zone runs. They were, by far, their most popular run call and it was the foundation off which a lot of their offense was based. Here are a few examples from various games I went back and watched.
This is an outside zone from an unbalanced heavy formation. You can see the left tackle and left guard sprinting out laterally to try and create an edge for Alfred Morris to turn the corner.
Here is an inside zone run. You’ll see the right guard help the center get the nose tackle pinned and then work up to the second level to pick off the inside linebacker. Meanwhile, the right tackle and tight ends are zone blocking to their right.
The general idea of zone blocking is, obviously, to allow linemen to block an area instead of blocking a man. That means that assignments are allowed to be more flexible based on the alignment of the defense. It also often involves all members of the line moving laterally in concert. This movement does a couple things. First, it tends to reduce quick penetration from the defense as defenders are taught to scrape with the flow of the linemen rather than getting up field to reduce cutback lanes. Second, it allows the running back to pick and choose his hole rather than running to a predetermined spot.
Zone blocking also has some beneficial side effects in the passing game. The play below is a favorite of mine. Washington sells the inside zone run to the left and then bootleg Griffin back to the right with the two tight ends and back side receiver flooding the right side of the field. It results in a short, easy completion to the tight end for the first down.
The reason play action works so well with zone blocking is due, in large part, to the NFL’s rules about ineligible receivers down field. Ineligible receivers — usually linemen — are not allowed to go more than 1 yard down field on a passing play. That can become problematic with power or man blocking because linemen typically fire off down field at the snap. On play action, those players risk a penalty for going down field if they fire off like they normally would on a run call. That leads to more opportunities for small tells that can tip a defense off to play action. However, in zone blocking the linemen step laterally at the snap on run plays which allows them to make play action look exactly like a run up front.
Here is another bootleg concept from the 2012 Redskins. This time they give an outside zone look out of the pistol — a favorite of theirs with RG3 — and then bring the tight end across the field on a deep crosser. Deep crossing routes, particularly off play action, are another staple of these offenses that we will see a good bit. The bootleg is a perfect counter to the outside zone run because it punishes the back side defensive end for crashing down on cutback lanes too hard.
Another popular run concept for this Washington team was the quick toss sweep. Here’s a look at that. Nothing groundbreaking here, but you can see more zone blocking again. The Shanahan’s also have always had a great affinity for fullbacks so it will be interesting to see if the Titans go back to carrying one or if they decide to use H-backs instead like McVay and LaFleur did in LA. Notice the boot action after Griffin makes the pitch to try to slow the pursuit from the backside defenders.
The last run concept that showed up pretty frequently for the Redskins was the read option. It’s a play that Titans fans are already familiar with from the past couple years with Mariota. When healthy, Mariota was an absolute master of this play. Again, this is a play that complements zone blocking well and continues to torment the backside end. I would expect this to remain a part of the Titans offense. We saw it’s potential in Kansas City and I would expect LaFleur to build counters and wrinkles around it to amplify its effectiveness.
The biggest buzzword in the NFL right now is “RPO” thanks to the Eagles offense and Cris Collinsworth. RPO’s will likely be a part of the Titans offense next year as well. The Redskins borrowed it from the Baylor playbook when working with RG3 and Mariota has used it in his time both at Oregon and with the Titans to great effect. Here is an example from 2012. Griffin sells the read option, pulls it and fires a dart to the wide receiver on the slant. You can see all the linebackers and the crashing safety are completely taken out of coverage due to the read action.
Another calling card of this group of coaches is the screen game. All of these teams had excellent screens designed in to their offense for both the running backs and the wide receivers. Despite a couple memorable screens — what’s up Jags — the Titans have not really excelled running these plays over the past couple years. I would expect it to be more of an emphasis in 2018.
I’ll save some of the passing concepts for the Falcons and Rams sections simply because the video quality from 2016 and 2017 was much better, but this gives you an idea of what the Redskins looked like with Mike Shanahan (HC), Kyle Shanahan (OC), Sean McVay (TEs), and Matt LaFleur (QBs) all on board. The 2012 Redskins finished the season ranked 1st in rushing yards, 5th in total yards, and 4th in points scored.
The 2016 Falcons featured Kyle Shanahan once again as the offensive coordinator and playcaller with Matt LaFleur as the quarterbacks coach. Many of the elements from the Redskins offense we looked at above show up again here.
We can start again with the outside zone run. Here is the Falcons version. Very similar to the ones I saw with the Redskins, although Atlanta didn’t use it quite as often.
This next play will probably look pretty familiar as well. It’s a variation of the same play action bootleg pass that we saw in Washington, but this time they scrape the H-back underneath the line to get him wide open in the flat. Once again, the zone blocking helps set this up.
Another attachment to the outside zone that has been added over the years is this WR screen on the backside. This is just one version of several WR screens that these coaches have used.
This offense uses its backs in the passing game quite a bit. In Atlanta and LA they had excellent pass catching backs so that surely contributed to their usage, but I would expect the backs to be used more often as pass catchers here than we have seen the last couple years.
Here is a good example of a nice design from Atlanta. They flood the right side of the field with receivers, drawing the majority of the defense that direction while Matt Ryan also does a nice job of selling it quickly with his eyes during his drop. The running back, Devonta Freeman makes a jab step and then swings out left. The key to this play is the left tackle though. He pass sets for just a moment and then releases down field — legal in this case because the pass is thrown behind the line of scrimmage — to pick off the middle linebacker who is responsible for covering Freeman.
Despite Matt Ryan’s relative lack of mobility, the Falcons still used some zone read. They particularly liked to spread out the defense and run this play near the goal line. Here is a good example. Ryan very rarely kept these, but he did just enough to slow down the end he’s reading and give, in this case, Tevin Coleman a seam to the end zone.
That covers the staples of the running game and screen game, so let’s take a look at some of the popular west coast passing concepts that these offenses use. One of the most popular calls from both Shanahan and McVay in the passing game is a very simple one, but it was effective. This is an easy 3-step drop for the quarterback with a defined half-field read. The receivers and tight ends are all running simple 5-yard outs. Once Ryan sees the cornerback covering Julio Jones open his hips inside, he knows he’s got an easy completion. This call was typically made at least once per game. They used all kinds of different personnel sets and motions to dress it up, but the design was the same and it was usually pretty effective.
Here is another common concept in the passing game. I know this as a trail shake, but the play is designed to work to one of two players: the slot receiver lined up tight to the right of the line or the H-back. The slot receiver runs a quick slant while the H-back runs an angle route out of the backfield right behind him. The Saints are in man coverage here so it becomes a question of which player wins his route, but against zone this combo can also be effective as the slant pulls the middle linebacker away from the middle while the angle route comes in right behind him. The Eagles used this play to convert a big 3rd down in the Super Bowl last weekend and I would imagine you would see it in Tennessee next year.
One of the simple things that I’m most excited about seeing in this offense is choice routes. Choice routes are basically option routes, but the idea is that you put a receiver in a position to choose the direction he wants to take and beat the defender one on one. On the play below, slot receiver Nick Williams has a choice route. The Falcons caught the Rams trying to cover him with a safety and used this play to take advantage of the mismatch. At the top of his stem, Williams can take the route inside for a slant or outside for a quick out. He puts a great move on the safety and is wide open. Unfortunately for the Falcons, Devonta Freeman whiffs on his blitz pickup and the pressure forces Ryan’s pass too high for his receiver, but the concept is something I saw a lot in both Atlanta and LA’s offenses.
We all remember the prolific 2016 Falcons offense. It finished 5th in rushing yards, 3rd in passing yards, 2nd in total yards, and 1st in points scored, averaging a staggering 33.75 points per game on their way to an NFC Championship and nearly a Super Bowl victory. It was one of the best offenses in recent memory.
A few takeaways from Sharp Football Stats about the 2016 offense:
- The Falcons passed on just 58% of their offensive snaps which was 11th lowest in the NFL.
- They lined up in 11 personnel (1 back, 1 tight end) just 45% of the time which was fewer than all but 3 other NFL teams (the 2016 Titans were one of those three teams at 42%).
- They lined up in 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 tight end) 24% of the time, 2nd highest in the NFL. Fullback Patrick DiMarco was a staple of this team and they used him as a pass catcher out of the backfield frequently.
That brings us to the 2017 Rams, the first year for Matt LaFleur as an offensive coordinator and also his only NFL season separated from Shanahan. While he wasn’t the playcaller in LA and we know that McVay had a large hand in the design of the offense overall, LaFleur has been credited with a lot of the week-to-week gameplanning in the Rams offense. If you were to put the most weight on any one of these seasons with regards to what the Titans offense might look like, this one would be my suggestion.
The Rams offense built on a lot of the concepts we’ve seen before. Again, I saw a running game built largely off of zone blocking concepts like this play here against Mike Vrabel’s defense.
I saw some zone read again despite a less-than-dynamic athlete at quarterback.
I also saw many of the same passing concepts that we saw above. Here is the 4 outs look we saw in Atlanta.
And here is another choice route concept. This time Cooper Kupp takes the out option. Can’t you just imagine Taywan Taylor roasting nickel corners and safeties on these looks?
Here is the same play again in the same game — both Shanahan and McVay showed tendencies to run the same play back to back at times when things were working — but this time the Texans defense is ready. They clamp down on the choice route with a robber safety so Goff is forced to go to his second read which is a pivot route from the tight end. The passing attacks always have their reads nicely layered and you can tell that timing is emphasized in each play call.
Here’s another look at the trail shake concept we saw in Atlanta. On the first example the defense was in man, but here you can see how it really works against zone coverage. The combination of routes puts stress on both the outside corner and the linebacker dropping back in the middle. The linebacker has to account for Gerald Everett running the shallow cross right in front of him while the outside corner has to carry Robert Woods’ sideline route for a moment. However, Kupp is always the target here and you can see the nuance in his route again with the slight delay, then running straight at the corner before snapping back inside for the pass. The result is another easy 3rd down pickup for Jared Goff.
But the best thing about LA’s offense is that so much of their design was based off other plays. It seemed like every play was a counter to another. Here is an example. This is another pet play of all these offenses: the play action deep cross. The Titans ran this extensively last season as well.
However, this is where the Rams offense gets tricky. This play is exactly the same. The jet sweep action, the fake handoff to Gurley and the down field combination of the clear out and deep crosser. But this time they sneak Gurley and a couple linemen out the back for a screen.
Here’s another great example of misdirection. The Rams ran a lot of plays with this “orbit action” design where a receiver loops around like he’s going to get a reverse. They included that action on running plays and passing plays. Sometimes they would run the actual reverse, but then they added this wrinkle. Robert Woods runs like he’s going around to create the orbit action look and then peels back to catch a swing pass. You can see the slot corner and the strong safety both sprint to the left to follow where they think Woods is heading and take themselves completely out of the play.
Another concept that the Rams were outstanding with in 2017 is rub routes. This team ran rubs better and more often than any other team in the league in my opinion. They were creative with them too. Here is a rub from a stack alignment on a 3rd and short. Sammy Watkins runs his man back in to the path of Kupp’s man which gives him space at the sticks. In this case Goff makes a poor throw, but the design is very good. Watch Kupp delay just for a beat at the snap to allow the correct spacing between him and Watkins when he breaks outside. Little things like that are important to the design of a play like this and you can see the Rams staff coaches the details.
Here’s another rub route. This is more of your classic mesh concept with two receivers running shallow crosses from opposite sides to try and pick off defenders. The Colts corner at the bottom of the screen tries to pass Kupp off to a robber safety in the middle of the field, but he reacts too late to get the angle and the Rams pick up an easy 3rd down conversion.
Another classic west coast route combination is a high-low or “levels” route concept involving multiple receivers running routes that end up parallel to the line of scrimmage at different depths. The idea is that you stack these routes on top of each other to stretch the defense vertically and give the quarterback multiple options in the same line of sight. Here is one example of this from the Rams. This is a 2nd and 10 situation so Goff opts to take the safe 5-6 yard gain from the shallow crosser, but he also could have had a shot at the first down if he had waited on the tight end who came open late on the deeper cross. This is something you are almost certain to see the Titans use at points next year.
This next west coast concept is something the Rams featured a TON in 2017. They are basically running a deep crosser with a deep dig. These are particularly effective against zone coverage as you are trying to get the dig in between the linebackers and the safeties as the Rams do here (although Woods can’t come up with the catch).
The last thing I want to highlight here is the focus on matchups. We saw above where the Falcons and Rams found some matchups they liked with their slot wide receivers against safeties and slot corners and they attacked those matchups by getting them in one on one situations and giving their guy a choice route.
Here, we see another example of the Rams scheming a specific matchup and attacking it. Here they line up with trips right and their athletic rookie tight end Gerald Everett split left. The Colts put linebacker Jon Bostic in man coverage against Everett which is an advantage for the Rams. Once Goff sees the trips side safety walk down, he knows he has Everett one on one with no safety help and he goes right at him. Everett ends up making a great catch for a big gain. I would imagine Matt LaFleur will be looking for opportunities to do similar things with Delanie Walker this fall. Walker — even at age 34 — is one of the league’s biggest matchup problems. Too strong for corners and too fast for linebackers, he often draws bracket coverage and bends defenses in his direction. That is a huge weapon for a skilled offensive mind like Matt LaFleur.
Similar to the Falcons 2016 offense the Rams offense dominated in 2017, finishing 8th in rushing yards, 10th in passing yards, 10th in total yards, and 1st in points scored — it’s pretty impressive that LaFleur has been a part of the top scoring offense in the NFL for two straight years now. The Rams performance was even more impressive in light of the fact that they finished 31st, 31st, 32nd, and 32nd in the NFL in those same four categories in 2016.
Again, here are some more stats that I found at Sharp Football:
- The Rams passed the ball on just 56% of snaps which was 11th lowest in the NFL, the exact same spot the 2016 Falcons were ranked.
- Opposite of the Falcons though, were their personnel groupings. The 2017 Rams featured 11 personnel on a whopping 81% of their offensive snaps — good for most in the NFL with the next closest team being the Lions at 74% — and they never used a fullback. Though they did opt to use their tight ends as H-backs from time to time. This sharp change in personnel usage from their previous stops shows that McVay and LaFleur are — say it with me now — WILLING TO CHANGE THEIR SYSTEM TO FIT THEIR PERSONNEL!!!
What to expect from the 2018 Titans offense
Everything about this offense is speculation at this point. As I mentioned at the top, this is Matt LaFleur’s first time as the top offensive mind for an NFL team and his first time as a playcaller. However, I think his 10 years of experience working with Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay will show through in some of the core principles of this offense. The first hint we got was the hiring of offensive line coach Keith Carter who worked with LaFleur under Shanahan in Atlanta. Those teams heavily featured zone blocking principles and I expect that to be the route they take here as well.
I think we will also see west coast passing concepts heavily featured in the passing game along with a healthy dose of both wide receiver and running back screens. The concepts that I highlighted above were all concepts that showed up very frequently in the tape that I watched and I think it is a safe assumption to think that we will see all of that in some form or fashion from the 2018 Titans.
However, I think Matt LaFleur will want to adapt those concepts and add some others that fit the personnel for this team. If there has been one theme of all the interviews with the coaching staff over the last few weeks, it’s that they believe that the game is about the players, not the plays. They want to design plays to specifically highlight the strengths of their personnel. That approach is music to the ears of Titans fans after watching the previous staff remain fixated on a philosophy that didn’t fit their roster for far too long.
I think it is probably a little optimistic to think that LaFleur might run his streak of top ranked scoring offenses to three years, but then again who would have pegged the 2017 Rams to be the most prolific offense in the NFL? I think this offensive style meshes beautifully with Marcus Mariota’s skill set and the personnel of this team. They can still be a strong running team — none of these offenses were anywhere near the top of the league in pass attempts — but they should be a far more effective in the passing game under LaFleur. I’m extremely excited to see what this team can look like in 2018.