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Strategy Session: Wrinkles in Sean Gleeson’s Offense Part 1

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What will the new offensive coordinator do to get the most out of his Scarlet personnel?

Kansas v Oklahoma State
Gleeson has shown an ability to be on the cutting edge.
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The Rutgers Football team returned to campus for workouts this week. One of the most critical individuals to the program’s on field gameday success in 2020 is Sean Gleeson, the 11th different offensive coordinator in as many seasons on the banks. It has not been since current Penn State offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarocca was calling plays that the same person completed two seasons in the same role for the Scarlet Knights, but that streak needs to end.

There are many reasons that streak should end, the most optimistic being that Gleeson has proven very, very good at his job during his previous two stops. If he can have half as much success at RU, everyone in the fan base would probably take it in a heartbeat. I watched a lot of film of Gleeson’s offense prior to the positional reviews to try and get a feel for what to expect from the current Rutgers Football team personnel. Since then I have watched even more. Videos of entire games, specific plays, highlights, instructional videos, philosophical videos, interviews, all of it. The end result ... I have a loose understanding at best of what to expect outside of Greg Schiano’s original statement that Rutgers will “spread people out.” So just to re-iterate to those returning from their nuclear fallout bunkers ... Rutgers does not plan to run a pro-style offense as they did under Schiano the first time around.

There is a general confidence that Gleeson has a flexible offensive mind who will take advantage of his best players better than most of the previous RU OCs failed to do. At Princeton in 2017 and 2018, Sean ran all sorts of formations (aka “sets” per Chris Ash vernacular). For example one season the Tigers ran a lot of two quarterback sets (which is something most of us have only done in Madden) and a heavy running back platoon. On the flipside last year with the Cowboys, Gleeson was able to add his own spin on Oklahoma State Head Coach Mike Gundy’s Air Raid without compromising what they had been running in previous years, a great sign of his versatility and flexibility as a coach. The team used one QB and one RB exclusively with the running back (Chuba Hubbard) leading the nation in rushing.

What could this mean in Piscataway? Most likely, expect two primary families of formations, commonly known as personnel groupings, neither of which have ZERO backs. For those who regularly read this blog, you know I ABHOR five wide receiver sets unless you have an experienced, superstar at QB that Rutgers has never had ... since Frank Burns was a PLAYER. And trying to run a pro-style against the behemoths of the Big Ten East is not exactly something Rutgers is ready to do anytime soon.

As sad as it is for me to admit, the days of the true fullback (i.e. Jim Brown) are two generations gone and the days of the pure blocking fullback (Lorenzo Neal) are also now gone. So most teams at the college and pro level employ a hybrid type player who most often lines up at tight end, but occasionally goes in motion as a de facto fullback or splits wide as a flexed receiver. Teams call this all different kinds of names (Oklahoma State calls it “the Cowboy”) and I don’t know what Rutgers will call it, but for simplicity, I’m going to call it an “H-back”. So think of the H-back position group as the sum of the tight ends and fullbacks on the roster.

Family 1: 11 personnel. Three wide receivers, one H-back, one running back.

Family 2: 12 personnel. Two wide receivers, two H-backs, one running back.

Grouping 1: 11 personnel.

Let’s start with 11 personnel since this is the most common in the NFL nowadays and really the only personnel grouping the New York Jets use under Head Coach Adam Gase. For many of our readers, you are all too familiar with this philosophy, but I have good news for you ... Gleeson is the opposite end of the stubborn spectrum compared to Gase and most of the others who put all their eggs in this basket. In fact, quite the opposite. Princeton’s greatest strengths as an offense, including two seasons under Gleeson and last season under now Rutgers offensive line coach Andrew Aurich, is how they not only take what the defense gives them, they trick the defense into doing what they want the defense to do. With proper preparation they know how a defense will handle a certain formation, motion, etc, they isolate that and do the opposite of what the defense expects.

In the tweet below you can see what at first may look like a four receiver set, but the slot man to the right is actually a flexed tight end. I love this play so much because it highlights so many elements that make it difficult on a defense. Pre-snap, the defense always makes a call to be on the same page with one another which they consider the “strong-side.”

  1. Alignment: As a defender this is the most obvious strength call I have ever seen because the back and three receivers are all to the quarterback’s throwing side, toward the top of the screen. Therefore, if the offense has studied the opponent film enough, they know almost exactly how the defense will line up against them. As a result, the offense can feel more confident that by sending someone in motion, the pre-snap reads with either be confirmed OR proven wrong.
  2. Assignment: The quarterback may not be sure what exact coverage the defense will run, but in the red zone, some defenses run exclusively man to man. Others may play a Cover 1 or in only very long passing situations, a Cover 2. The situation in this example is 3rd and 11 from the 11 yard line so the defense could be in any of the above. However, by knowing which side is the strong side, the quarterback has an easier read and has a pretty good guess this is a cover 1 (one defender in the middle of the field playing zone, the other men in coverage man up one on one). Sending a wide receiver in motion and observing that defenders are passing him off from one to another means this is man coverage underneath rather than a total zone scheme.
  3. Technique: The offense knows that with the jet sweep action, someone on defense needs to hold their position to set the edge on the bottom of the screen. At the same time, the quarterback could run a sweep to the right himself, so some defender on that side also will be frozen with run responsibilities. With the defenders playing off to avoid getting beat in the end zone on 3rd and long, this is a perfect opportunity for the ball to go toward the short side of the field, top of the screen, the opposite of the defense’s expectation that an offense wants to get players “in space.”

It turns into a dream scenario for the offense, even better than they could have anticipated, as the left defensive end drops into coverage in a zone blitz. As a result, the pass is slightly behind the to outside receiver, but he has plenty of time to see it to his hands, turn, and then accelerate. This also gives more than ample time for the flexed tight end, running back, and a pulling offensive lineman to get excellent angles for their blocks. In the end, the ball carrier who usually needs to make one man miss, only needs to read his blockers properly to get into the end zone.

BONUS #1: If your team has a superstar wide receiver split so wide left with a cushion this big, you might be able to fire a quick hitter out to the receiver at the bottom and he can make one man miss en route to a touchdown.

BONUS #2: All the offensive linemen in the box need to do is not “whiff” on their man. The ball is out of the quarterback’s hand less than two seconds after the snap. Even with an unblocked man blitzing off the defense’s right edge, he does not have time to pressure the QB.

In short, the offense created a “phone booth” on the narrow side of the field where they had a numbers advantage and could capitalize on forcing the defense to adjust to them. The tight end and offensive lineman who are outside the tackle box have a huge size and blocking experience advantage to block safeties in the seam. By running this play to the boundary side of the field, it gives the faster defensive backs less space to simply run around the blockers and make a play. This is a 3rd and long yet the offense completely outfoxed the defense for the conversion.

Grouping 2: 12 personnel.

With Family 2, “12 personnel”, you can leverage more traditional two-back pro set looks, but more often that not in the modern day, one tight end plays the strong side, while the other can move in motion to the backfield or all the way across the formation and the defense needs to be ready for it. The team to best study with 12 personnel is the Atlanta Falcons who have had a top offense in the NFL running the highest percentage of their plays out of this formation despite a below average at best offensive line for the last decade. Rutgers faces similar limitations with their offensive line, so a deep group of fullbacks and tight ends which Rutgers is in the process of replenishing could offset that.

In the tweet below, you can see a third and medium inside the red zone, but this particular play could be called in any situation. In fact, a first down conversion would be more likely elsewhere on the field against a high safety look although less likely to end in a touchdown.

Alignment: The first thing to bear in mind when running 12 personnel is whether the defense will prefer a standard seven man front OR if they will stay in the new normal “nickel” with five defensive backs on the field. Columbia here comes out with eight men in the box including their strong safety to protect against the run as it appears one of the two H-backs is actually a 6th offensive lineman, trusting their top side corner in man to man coverage if required while the bottom side corner has help to his inside from the safety who is playing Cover 1.

Assignment: Princeton accepts this at face value and elects NOT to put anyone in motion. The outside linebacker to the top of the screen does a good job showing blitz but dropping off to help if the top side receiver cuts inside to protect against a quick slant that would be almost impossible for the corner to defend against without getting a jam at the line. Offensively, the entire offensive line blocks down to the left, meaning they simply create a wall and move in unison to make it look like a zone run play to the left. The quarterback and running back sell that a run play is coming with a good play action fake that has proven statistically time and time again to be less related to actual success running the ball and more related to how deceptive the fake is. Columbia appears in decent position to defend as the two men in coverage on the short side of the field know one will take the inside and the other the outside. Toward the bottom of the screen, three players have coverage jobs and are positioned to handle if three players come into their areas.

Technique: This is where things flip to Princeton’s advantage. The linebackers read run-first as most of us are still taught especially since they assume run against six offensive linemen, but do not properly pass off the receiver coming from the top of the screen who is wide open on a crossing route and should have gotten the ball wide open at the left hash mark as soon as he crossed behind the middle linebacker. Perhaps the quarterback thought the referee was a defender OR that his man couldn’t possibly have been that wide open. With a mobile quarterback, not to be confused with elite running quarterback, a bootleg to his right causes the defenders to immediately run back in that direction once they see the running back did not take the initial handoff. Still, Columbia’s left defensive end who has responsibility to set the edge is in decent position albeit without the cavalry behind him. By this point, only one defender still thinks the running back has the ball while all others are flowing back to the middle. You can’t see it, but the bottom side receiver has sucked both the corner and the free safety out of the picture so the offense is playing ten players versus nine on screen.

This is when an experienced, well-coached quarterback who can read how the defensive players are angled and moving can just throw the ball to open space. In this example, he throws the ball to the sideline and allows the running back on a wheel route to run under it. It looks WAY too easy.

Honestly, if the Rutgers defense looked this badly on a play in college, the head coach and likely defensive coordinator would say we soiled the linens. To be fair to Columbia, I can totally understand why the defenders reacted in this way. Princeton completely tricked Columbia into having multiple defenders not actually covering anybody and in no position to make a tackle at all. It was a well drawn up play to scheme a man open that even with average at best execution ends up tying the game. The ball should have gone to the corner of the end zone, but instead the back needs to make a nice play to secure the ball thrown slightly behind him in his hands all the while keeping his feet in bounds.

This play was so well designed, even with the quarterback missing his first open man, then making a far from perfect throw, it still worked.

The Air Raid influence

With so much success in just two seasons at Princeton, Gleeson accepted the offensive coordinator job at Oklahoma State in 2019. During the one season in Stillwater, Gleeson worked alongside Air Raid disciple turned legend Mike Gundy. Gundy acknowledged others on the staff could have stepped into the vacant OC role, but told 247 “I just felt in this case, we needed a guy to come in from the outside with a few new ideas.” It turned out to be a wonderful fusion on the offensive side of the ball and a growth opportunity for Gleeson that he will bring to the banks in 2020.

Finding film specifically breaking down the Gundy version of the Air Raid is difficult, but one of the basics that makes it difficult to stop are that all three levels of the defense are attacked in the same line of sight for the quarterback. This makes his pre-snap and post-snap reads easier. To be able to have any level of success with the Air Raid, one route concept that has to be mastered by quarterback and receivers is the shallow cross. In the hands of an amateur these are dangerous passes into traffic that could be batted down or intercepted by defensive linemen and linebackers. For a well trained quarterback with good vision, they are devastating because of the yards after the catch that can be produced if a receiver emerges from a crowded area into open space. If a team can master the shallow crossing route, then that starts to open up the second level of a defense and then if you complete those, downfield receivers will be much more wide open than you would normally see.

What I saw from Sean Gleeson’s interpretation of the Air Raid offense was the same concepts that are normally run by Gundy, Mike Leach, Dana Holgorsen, etc but with personnel sets different than simply four wide receivers. For an SB Nation breakdown of Kliff Kingsbury’s version, click here. This Gleeson flavor added a wrinkle of doubt to defenders that they had to be more respectful of a potential physical run play that often provided just that little bit of extra space in a tight window for a quarterback to throw to.

In Part 2, I will discuss the two quarterback set and how the current quarterbacks on the roster could be utilized. In addition, as tight ends need to become even more versatile than ever in accepting more and more H-back responsibilities, this is an opportunity for a position group that was maligned in 2019. You can read Part 2 here.