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The Northwestern Offense: The Passing Game

This is the final installment of the offense series. Unfortunately, TV angles make tracking receiver routes extremely difficult. What I will do here, then, is to look at a couple of concepts that Northwestern likes and discuss the theory behind the passing game as I understand it.

A Word on Protections

For the most part, Northwestern uses 5 and 6 man protection schemes for the simple reason that most formations only offer a maximum of 6 blockers. I don't have anything more detailed than that on the details of the schemes; if you are an offensive line junkie, I apologize.

Major Concepts: Smash

Last season, the NU passing game was heavily focused on the inside receivers for the simple reason that the three most talented receivers (Ebert, Colter, and Dunsmore) were all either inside receivers or superbacks. One of the most useful concepts in a situation like this is smash. The core of the concept is a two receiver combination, with an outside receiver running a hitch (sometimes with the option to break inside against man coverage) and an inside receiver running a corner over him. For example:


Northwestern has two receivers and a tight end to the left. The corner is going to come from the inside receiver.


The outside receiver is no longer in frame, but you can see the inside receiver breaking towards the corner at the bottom of the screen.


The defense was in man coverage, so the outside receiver has worked across the field. The inside receiver is about to catch a touchdown.

As these images show, smash can work extremely well against man coverage. Because it is a two-man combination, it can be run out of any formation in Northwestern's playbook and can be combined with a variety of backside routes.


I'm not sure what to call this next concept, nor am I entirely sure what the routes look like in the playbook. It is the play I highlighted here.


This is an empty backfield with a third receiver off the screen to the offensive right.


Now you can see the vertical release of the outside receiver.


Now you see the combination: the inside receiver straight down the seam clears the top, the outside receiver breaks in at about 10 yards, and the middle receiver runs a whip route, initially breaking inside before reversing his path to the outside. The middle receiver's route could be predetermined, but it also might be an option route. The overall idea is fairly simple: a zone defense that drops to take away the in route should leave an easy throw underneath, while one that takes away the underneath throw will open windows to get the ball to the outside receiver. Against man, both receivers have a chance to get open.

Note that the concept appears to be mirrored: the inside receiver to the left also runs a whip route, and the outside receiver to that side is probably on a 10-yard in. This is one of the common theories of pass play design; I think that it is the dominant way that Northwestern runs passes out of balanced formations.


This is another way of pushing an inside receiver vertical.


The inside receivers are going to head straight down the field, while the outside receivers turn to face the quarterback at about 5 yards.


The idea here is to attract a lot of attention with the two seam routes which should result in the defense leaving the hitches alone. On this play, however, the defense didn't drop fast enough to shut down the deep throw:


This is another mirrored concept. It is worth noting that the start of this play looks quite similar to smash to the defense, making the two natural complements.

Shallow Cross

While I don't have any images on hand, Northwestern used the common shallow cross concept; Kain Colter picked up a few big plays against Nebraska running the shallow. Both common forms of the concept involve running two receivers across the field, one shallow and another deep; they differ in whether the offense brings the deeper cross from the same side as the shallow or the opposite side. I am not sure which of these Northwestern prefers. The concept can use any receiver on the shallow cross; I would look for Kyle Prater running these as a way to get him easy touches.

Vertical Passes and Play Action

One disadvantage of the spread is that it limits a team's ability to run slow-developing deep plays. Northwestern did sometimes use play-action with 3-verticals with great success, but compared to a pro-style offense the spread is always going to be limited by a lack of play-action options and a limited selection of protections. This makes hitting big plays off of base passes more important than for a team that can go to a 7 or 8 man protection and let receivers work deep.


For a spread team, the modern Northwestern offense has a fairly limited set of screens. Bubble screens are a consistent part of the offense, but neither running back screens nor "true" receiver screens (screens where linemen try to get to the perimeter to lead) are a major part of the offense. This puts great pressure on the quarterback to recognize blitzes and make plays against them.

A Bit of Theory

The plays above are far from comprehensive; they are instead concepts that I saw repeatedly and have the resources to discuss. One thing worth noting about the Northwestern pass offense, however, is its strong emphasis on attacking the perimeter. Even the shallow cross is really designed to attack the flat opposite where the receiver starts his route. We should expect to see this approach continue, with short and intermediate throws to the outside forming the core of the passing offense, attempting to exploit defenses that overemphasize guarding the middle of the field. This is a complement to the run game, which primarily attacks between the tackles.

Where we likely will see changes this season is in the mix of receivers and concepts. Kyle Prater is an exciting prospect, offering the kind of raw physical talent that we are not used to seeing. He is a natural choice for an outside receiver position (though this preseason depth chart has him in the mix as a Y receiver, Jeremy Ebert's old position). If he or another receiver emerges on the outside, expect to see the offense adjust to give them more chances with the ball. If that depth chart is accurate regarding which players are up for which receiver positions (as opposed to the order, which is alphabetical), we should expect to see the inside receivers emphasized again this season.