Norm Chow on the Passing Game

Bumped. GO BRUINS. -N

I read the transcript of this AFCA presentation by Coach Chow about BYU's old passing game awhile back, but as I've been looking over tapes of the 2009 season (didn't have a lot of time during the football season but now I've got too much time) I figured it would be a good idea to go back and take a look at what Coach Chow's done in the past.

From the AFCA presentation, here are Chow's basic tenets of the passing game.

1. Protect the QB. No surprise here as Chow is a former lineman, and it all starts up front. We've had problems with this in the last two seasons, as last season we were giving up about 2 sacks a game, although my gut feeling is that we were better than in 2008. Chow is a believer in making sure you have enough guys staying in to protect. Last season we seemed to often err on the side of caution in this regard - there were many times when we had more blockers than rushers - although there were also times when we had the number advantage but we were just flat out beat. The TE, backs, and QB also have to be a factor in protection. Keep in mind the defense can always potentially rush one more player than the offense can block (10 blockers + QB vs. 11 rushers) so the QB has to be smart enough to figure out who the potential unblocked defender will be and throw hot.

2. Control the ball with the pass. Doesn't mean you pass 50 times a game, although Chow's BYU offenses were pass-first. They had a fairly limited running game that was mostly draws, counters, and traps to use when the defense was selling out against the pass. If they drop 8 and rush 3 then you have to be able to run and force the defense to play you honest, so you can go back to the pass. Last season it seemed that Chow shifted more towards the run to maintain possession, especially towards the end of the year when Chane Moline got a lot more touches - carrying the ball as well as in the short passing game.

3. Maintain balance with the run and the pass. You have to be able to do both...I don't think anyone would argue that.

4. Take what the defense gives you. I really like this quote by Coach Chow, and I think that this is the most important thing for any coach to remember:

We’d be lying if we said we sat up in the box and knew what coverages were being run. What we try to do is take a portion of the football field, the weak flat for example, and we will attack that until we can figure out what the defense’s intentions are. Then we try to attack the coverage that we see. It is very difficult to cover the whole field. We are not going to try to fool anybody. We are going to take little portions of the field and try to attack them until the defense declares what it intends to do.

You can't know everything that the defense is going to do. It would be foolish to think that you can figure out exactly what the defense is doing and attack their weaknesses. All you can really do is focus on the small, manageable things and break up the field into portions to attack. 

You can line up in a certain look, such as two receivers to a side, and see how the defense reacts to that - do they flip a corner over, do they bump a LB out, do they drop a safety down? How do they react to routes over the middle by the receivers? You poke and probe to see what they intend to do - this is the purpose of scripting plays at the beginning of a game - and see how they react. If you notice that the safety and underneath defenders are very aggressive on the shallow cross, then you run drive, with a shallow cross and a 12-yard dig route over top in the space that was vacated by the safety. You are only attacking that area with a vertical stretch of the safety. Your QB may peek backside to see if he has a favorable one-on-one matchup, then he will read the drive concept, then he will dump it off to the back for three yards or scramble if things do not look good.

5. Keep it simple. Doesn't necessarily mean simple plays, but simple assignments as well. There's such thing as being multiple and complex to keep the defense guessing, and there's being multiple and complex to keep your own players guessing. As with the point above, you don't want your QB standing back there and trying to figure out every aspect of the defensive coverage - that's not practical. All you really need to do is focus on the area of the field that you're attacking. I think it serves you better to be able to do a handful of things and do them well. Chow: 

A few years ago, I was talking to a former NFL coach who has since retired. He said, "What is the comfort level of your quarterback in a critical situation? Third and four situation, what is the comfort level...Simply, how many throws does your quarterback feel confident making when it is third and four and you have to make the first down?" I said, "Maybe seven or eight." Then I turned and asked him, "What about you and your quarterback?" He said, "Two." This is an NFL coach coaching an NFL quarterback. That has always stayed with me. We really feel strongly that we need to KISS our offense.

You still present a complex offense to the defense by running the same concepts but changing personnel groupings, formations, motions, and by tagging a play (changing one route from the base concept). With all the possible permutations, an offense that features only a handful of passing concepts can appear to have hundreds of different plays. 

One of the plays we seemed to like last season was a package of double slants and a horizontal and vertical stretch on the other side with a deep route, some kind of curl route to attack the LBs, and a flat route to widen out the flat defender. UCLA ran this out of a few different looks and there are a few different ways that you can accomplish the stretch to the trips side but they are all essentially doing the same thing. You can also "tag" a receiver with a different route if you find the defense is getting jumpy and "cheating" to take away the base concept. For example, if they are jumping curl/flat (the top-left play) then you tag the flat route into a wheel (top-right play). Below are some more variations. I was too lazy to redo the formations but you can run this concept out of many different alignments with and without motion.


Double Slants

Double slants is a very common and simple concept - you have two receivers who are both running slants and you are attacking the #2 defender inside. He can only defend one of the slant routes, and you throw to the other one. The inside man is attacking the inside shoulder of the #2 defender, who is the read key. If the inside WR is able to get inside and underneath the #2 defender, the ball goes to him. If the #2 defender jumps inside to take away the inside WR slant, then the outside slant should be open. You are not worrying about where the deep safety goes as he cannot hurt you - you are just reading #2 and throwing opposite of his break. Sounds simple, but things get more confusing when the defense starts to anticipate this and play games, like dropping linemen into coverage to make it tough on the QB. This is when it's time to start playing games yourself and mixing things up. If they can anticipate double slants and drop a DE into the passing lane then you have to be able to mix it up and present that same look while instead running it right at him. 

Note that this is a read not a progression - the difference is that in a read, the QB is making a pre-snap decision based on the alignment of the defense where he decides which side to throw to. Once he figures that, he is throwing based on the actions of one defender - the offense will attack this defender with two players (in this case, the #2 defender) and the QB will decide who to throw it to based on this read key. The read can only take away one threat and the ball will go to the other. The QB is not making a progression and going through all 5 eligible receivers on the field. If there is a pass breakup or an interception, you will hear announcers saying that the QB did a bad job of not looking off the coverage or whatever, but he is supposed to be look at the read and making his decision. This is generally used in the short passing game as it is a very fast and simple read (if A, then throw to A, if B, then throw to B, otherwise dump it to the back or run). Usually when this is broken up it is because the read key gave a fuzzy read, like stepping inside and then breaking outside, or the QB hesitated. The ball should be out before a defender can break on the QB's eyes.

As Coach Chow said - you can't look at the whole field and figure out everything the defense is doing. You just have to pick your portion of the field, figure out what they are doing there, and attack it. The QB's only job is to make the pre-snap read to decide which side of the field to throw to (usually based on whether it is 1-high or 2-high safeties), make a post-snap read to confirm, look at the read key, look out for defense doing anything screwy (this is the toughest part), and throw. It is part of the 3-step game to control the ball, a simple read for the QB, and a concept that only attacks a portion of the field.

Horizontal, Vertical, and Oblique Stretch

Double slants is a horizontal stretch of the #2 defender - he has to choose to defend the inside or outside route. Teams can also accomplish this by running route combos such as all-curls, drag/swing, double outs, or snag (more on this below) which all use the same principles - stretch a zone so that a defender has to cover two receivers. Teams also use vertical stretches such as smash (corner/hitch), curl/flat, or drive (12-yard dig route and a shallow cross) where a defender is put into a bind and must choose to defend either the high or low option. 



The concept of the oblique stretch is something that is usually tied to Norm Chow. It is just a combination of a vertical and horizontal stretch so it is tougher to defend. In the presentation linked above Chow calls it "creating triangles". You can have your vertical stretch from the image above, the high-low read on the CB with a corner route and a hitch. However, you can also slant the curl more towards the middle of the field and swing a back out to force the defense to spread out and create more room underneath. UCLA seemed to like to run this stretch closer to the middle of the field to force the defense to cover from hash to sideline, so we usually had the TE run the corner and motioned the WR inside or had him release inside and attack the LBs like below - creating the oblique stretch.


I don't know what UCLA calls it but if I know it as "snag" (see below). If it is 2-deep, then most teams will choose to throw the double slants to the left, since that is a good concept against cover 2. Otherwise, the flat route and the curl horizontally stretch the underneath zones. If the SLB flies out to the flat then the WR on the curl should be open. Even if MLB slides over to help, he will have poor leverage. If the SLB picks up the curl, then the flat should be open. If the CB drops down to the flat, then the corner route should be open. More often than not this play will go to the back in the flat since defenses generally defend from deep to short and from middle to outside. That is a 3-4 yard gain with the chance for more, which is as good as a run (remember, keeping possession with the passing game). If the defense begins to play the flat aggressively, then the snag (curl over the middle) should come open. If they play 2-deep and have 5 underneath, then double slants should be the pre-snap read; otherwise the corner route should have a shot if the TE can get outside of the safety.

Below are clips of double slants as well as some other horizontal, vertical, and oblique stretches.

There are many variations to this general concept (high-low-oblique), and it definitely isn't unique to Chow. Here is a video of Ohio State running this same play during the Rose Bowl, known as a "snag" route. This appeared to be one of Ohio State's favorite plays against Oregon in the Rose Bowl. You are still attacking the defense in a similar fashion as in the UCLA play diagrammed above - a deep route to draw off coverage vertically and take the top off, a flat route to widen out the underneath defenders, and a WR running over the middle to find a hole in the zone and settle. There is a triangle on the right side of this play diagram as well. Just because you change the alignments and receivers doesn't mean you are doing something completely different.

Below is a diagram of "snag" run to both sides, which is known as "scat", which is in the video above around the 2:03 mark against Washington. The TE releases outside and runs up the sideline to draw the deep coverage, while the back swings out into the flat to draw a LB. The WR stems inside to the hole vacated by the LB, curls up, and catches the pass. The receivers all attack the same areas of the field, they are just taking different roads to get there.


This is a high percentage play and a fairly simple read for the QB - the MLB has to declare a side and the QB can throw opposite of him. Most defenses will cover the streak, so either the snag or the flat should be open. This play was a favorite of NC State QB Phillip Rivers, who Norm Chow coached for one season. Rivers set all kinds of records throwing it. Below is some video of BYU and NC State running the double snag, using some of the same principles I went over above. In the video you don't see Rivers looking around the whole field - he picks a side, and throws based off a read key. The video is grainy but it appears as if he is making a post-snap read of the MLB's drop, peeking at the streak deep, and then throwing opposite of the MLB. It's a simple read and a decisive throw, and something that you need to rep over and over to get down. Rivers put up some huge numbers running this and similar concepts at NC State. Hopefully we see this kind of play from a Chow-coached QB in Bruin Blue someday.

Video courtesy of Brophyfootball

Packaging Concepts

The reason you package concepts like this together is that it gives you flexibility against different coverages. Generally the QB will throw double slants against 2-high and the high-low or the high-low-oblique against a 1-high. Other teams will have the QB determine this based on the MLB, and throw to the side that he steps away from. These are both fairly simple concepts that attack portions of the field. They should also be quick and high-percentage passes to limit sacks and help maintain possession of the ball, which Chow emphasized.

There are two plays in that video of the UCLA offense above that stood out to me. The first was near the 1:30 mark, where Kevin Prince had two curl routes to his left, sort of a snag look. It was a 3-man route with a streak backside. Temple rushed only 3 (we protected with 7) and they dropped 8 (2 deep and 6 under). Prince essentially had a 2-man route against 6 underneath and did the smart thing, tuck it and run on 3rd-and-4, and came up about half a yard short. We ended up punting it but I'd take that over a likely incomplete and possible interception inside our own 20. I don't know the specifics but from where I'm sitting that seems like a heads-up play by a young QB.

The second play was at the end, when we had a the 3-man game to the right and a swing and a streak to the left. Prince looked at the stretch to the right, didn't like what he saw, and dumped the ball off to the back in the flat. Although it was incomplete, that is still a good throw to make if you aren't confident in your frontside read. Chow, from an article on his QB reads:

"If we made a mistake and the defense is not running man coverage, and are playing zone and we are running crossing routes, we tell the QB to look at the back on the two receiver side (the TE side) and turn his shoulders and throw to the back in the flat. We want to throw it 3 yards and get 3 more on the run. We have to look at the crossing receivers and, if they are covered, throw to the backs."

That's how you maintain possession with the passing game, and I'd imagine it's one of the toughest things to teach QBs, who always want to sling the ball downfield and go for the big play - to check down to the back or tuck it and run. That is how you avoid bad throws and dig yourself into a hole with 2nd-and-10 or 3rd-and-10. If you get a murky read or an unexpected look and the throw may only give you a 50% chance of a completion, better to dump it off to the back in the flat and pick up the easy three. This goes back to Chow's points of controlling the ball with the pass, keeping things simple, and taking what the defense gives up.

<em>This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.</em>

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