Many words have been written about the Stanford Cardinal and their ability to run the football. Some of them were even written in this very space. But with the lingering injury to Bryce Love limiting his effectiveness, the Cardinal have had to rely a bit more on the passing game this season. They are no Air Raid team, by any stretch of the imagination, but they are nonetheless efficient when they put the ball in the air. Their offense is predicated on a vertical passing scheme that can be just as devastating as their running game. We’ll take a look at a couple examples of how Stanford’s passing game exploits the natural spaces created in a couple common defensive schemes.
3rd and 23? Sounds like an I-formation down to me.
Stanford is decidedly not an Air Raid team, as is abundantly clear. However, there are some Air Raid-esque principles at play in their vertical passing game. To whit, stretching the field horizontally to create seams which their receivers and tight ends can then exploit. In this case, USC is playing Cover 4, which means a split safety look. Stanford counters with three receivers running verticals—the two outside receivers pulling the safeties a step or two off the hashes to help over the top based on down and distance. This opens up the middle of the field for the tight end running vertical. He gets the linebacker with man carry responsibility on him twisted around (probably an inside/outside option on the route here) and runs into and through the void created naturally by the defensive call. It’s a simple play perfectly executed, as you would expect from Stanford and David Shaw.
In the above play, Stanford ran three receivers at four defenders, the middle receiver exploiting the space between the two safeties. In the next play, Stanford is going to flip that and send four receivers on vertical stems at three deep defenders, again in the hopes of exploiting the space in between defenders. But in this case they also have JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who is good at catching the football.
Just to note, there is a receiver and a defensive back just off the screen at the top. I am assuming he runs a vertical, mirroring Arcega-Whiteside’s route on the bottom. The tight end and the slot receiver both run hitches at about ten yards. So it’s not a vertical route as such, but it’s a vertical stem. Colby Parkinson is the tight end, and he curls up inside the the hook/curl defender for USC. Underneath the Cover 3 (or Cover 1 man concept, possibly) Clancy Pendergast has a combo coverage on Parkinson in this case, so while it looks like he comes open, it’s not a clean read as the outside linebacker/nickel defender trails him in man coverage. The slot receiver at the top of the screen never really separates from his coverage either. But the two hitch routes also serve the purpose of holding the safety in the middle of the field, allowing the receivers on the outside to demand single coverage from the cornerbacks.
I don’t know that any of that really matters in this case because it seems like Stanford quarterback KJ Costello only has eyes for Arcega-Whiteside anyway. Which isn’t a bad way to operate. The big receiver gets on the corner’s toes, beats him outside, and runs past him to get open. He does close a little more of the space in the alley than I would like, if I’m a Stanford coach and I’m nitpicking. It forces a little tighter throw from Costello. But Arcega-Whiteside has his defender beaten enough that it’s still a relatively easy pitch and catch.
What it comes down to is whether there’s a safety in the middle of the field (Cover 1/3) or not (Cover 2/4). If there is, four vertical stem routes are the better play. If there is not, then three verticals with the tight end/slot receiver splitting the deep safeties is a better. Four beats three and three beats two. Football is easy.
The vertical passing game has been an important part of Stanford’s offense since Jim Harbaugh righted the ship over a decade ago, though it has always played second (or third or fourth) fiddle to the run game. With the struggles in the run game in 2018, in large part due to the injury to Bryce Love, the passing game has been elevated to the forefront. Stanford will never be a primarily passing team under David Shaw. But if Stanford wants to win on Saturday night against Wazzu, they are going to have to beat the Cougar defense through the air. JJ Arcega-Whiteside, a potential first-round pick in the NFL draft, gives them a threat on the outside that can win consistently, both by taking the top off the defense and by outmuscling a defender for the ball. In the interior, Trent Irwin at the slot receiver, as well as Colby Parkinson and the other twenty-four tight ends on Stanford’s roster, will occupy safeties in the middle of field and make some plays of their own.
For the Cougar defense, the mindset still has to be to take away the run game first. Stanford’s offense wants to stay on schedule and ahead of the chains as much as possible, and they are only going to deviate so much from the formula that makes them successful. So we should see a heavy box look for most of the night from Tracy Claeys. That’s going to leave our secondary in some one-on-one match-ups against the Stanford receivers. It will be up to the secondary to make plays and limit the effectiveness of Stanford’s passing game.