What To Expect From New Offensive Coordinator Matt LaFleur
This is a guest post by Timothy Barnes, Arkansas graduate and founder of Two Tone Blue. If you are interested in writing for RPO email firstname.lastname@example.org
After the firing of Mike Mularkey, and the subsequent hire of Mike Vrabel, the new head coach took his time deciding who he wanted to be his offensive coordinator. After rumblings about possibly hiring Ohio State’s Co-Offensive Coordinator Ryan Day, Vrabel settled on a fellow coach that interviewed for the Titans vacant head coaching position, Matt LaFleur.
Coming from the Los Angeles Rams, LaFleur was overshadowed by the Rams phenom head coach Sean McVay. Despite his position as offensive coordinator in Los Angeles, LaFleur yielded play calling duties to the former Redskins offensive coordinator. However, LaFleur played an important role in developing the offense scheme, game planning week to week, and most importantly, improving Jared Goff. Now, with the blessing of McVay, he will have the chance to call plays for the first time in his career in Nashville. Combine this, with the chance to work with a special talent in Marcus Mariota, and LaFleur has the chance to really make a name for himself. So how will he do it? You’re about to find out.
Basic Staples of the Offense
The new Titans coaching staff has stressed that they will adjust their scheme to fit the players, not the other way around. Which after nearly three full years of a Mike Mularkey coached team, is welcome news. However, we can still expect that Matt LaFleur will bring certain concepts and ideas that will be run regardless of who the quarterback is. The difference between him, and the previous coaching staff, is that LaFleur will make adjustments to the staples he brings, to get the best out of the personnel he has on offense.
Having coached under Kyle Shanahan in both Houston and Atlanta, and under McVay in Los Angeles, we can assume that Matt LaFleur will be running an offense with basic West Coast principles at its core. The main pillars of passing in the West Coast offense involves short to intermediate throws, that involve the running backs and tight ends, along with the wide receivers. Expect to see plenty of bootlegs, curl/flat concepts, hi-lo concepts, and rhythm and timing throws from 3 and 5 step drops.
Running the ball, this type of West Coast offense normally uses a zone blocking scheme. Here is where things could get tricky with the Titans offensive line. Besides Taylor Lewan, the Titans offensive line isn’t the most athletic bunch, and are built to be used in a power running game. This is where LaFleur will have to get creative as he will need to find ways to move the ball on the ground, even if the Titans aren’t built to be a zone running team.
Combine these passing and running principles with RPO’s where Marcus Mariota excels, and LaFluer has the chance to build a truly multiple offense that can beat defenses in a variety of ways. Below are examples of the concepts I have mentioned, to give you an idea on film of what the offense might look like next year.
Bootlegs are all about misdirection and fooling the defense. By faking a run one way and rolling out the other, the offense tries to take advantage of a defense that is flowing one way, by throwing it the opposite way. The Rams had success with these types of plays all year, taking advantage of having an excellent offensive line and stud running back.
They used these bootlegs to generate easy throws for a young quarterback that had the possibility to pick up large chunks of yardage. This is something I imagine the Titans will adopt immediately. I cannot think of a single instance from the previous year in which the team ran a bootleg, and when you have a quarterback with Mariota’s skill set, that’s unfathomable. Here is an example of bootleg the Rams used against the 49ers on Thursday Night Football way back in Week 3.
Curl/Flat concepts are some of the oldest in the West Coast Offense playbook. I remember running them as a wide receiver at my high school way back when. The purpose is to stress the defense horizontally, forcing one player to try and cover two zones.
In this route combination, the quarterback reads a player, normally a linebacker, to see where they are going to throw the ball. As the concept says, one player runs a deep curl, the other runs a route into the flat. If the linebacker, who is responsible for the curl to flat, stays with the curl, the quarterback can hit the receiver in the flat, giving the ball to a playmaker in space. If the linebacker moves to cover the flat defender, the receiver running the curl runs his route to the spot vacated by the linebacker, and the quarterback has a huge window to make an easy throw. Without extra help, it’s almost impossible to stop. Here is an example of the Rams running it against the Falcons in this year's playoffs. The linebacker moves toward the flat route too quickly, and Goff hits Sammy Watkins on the curl for a chunk gain.
The purpose of a Hi-Lo concept is to stretch the defense vertically. You place two or three receivers at different levels, vertically up the field, and force the defense to choose which players they are going to defend.
A perfect example of a Hi-Lo concept is the “Smash.” It is a two-man route concept where one receiver runs a hitch route and the other runs a corner route. Used mainly to defeat Cover 2, the quarterback reads the cornerback. If he drops to cover the corner route, he throws the short hitch. If he stays shallow with the hitch route, he throws it over the cornerbacks head to the corner route.
Unfortunately for Titans fans, we witnessed a perfect example of the “Smash Concept,” on Cooper Kupp’s touchdown catch back in Week 16. Despite playing man to man, and not the Cover 2 the play is designed to beat, the Rams took advantage of Brice McCain matched up on Kupp in the slot for an easy TD.
Rhythm and Timing Throws
Finally, plenty of the passing offense will be predicated on quick throws out of 3 and 5 step drops. The key to success on these types of throws involves considerable repetition and practice, as it requires all receivers and the quarterback be on the same page. However, once on the same page, this kind of passing offense can become a well-oiled machine that can sustain and finish drives on offense.
Former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky discussed this, and other things pertaining to the Titans offense next year, with Paul Kuharsky on Midday 180 during the week before the Super Bowl. You can check out that video here. Also, here is a quick example of Goff hitting one of these “timing” throws at the top of his 3 step drop.
Zone Blocking Scheme
While talk of the passing game and seeing what Marcus Mariota may be able to do this season will keep us talking all offseason, there remains another aspect to this offense. In his press conference this week, LaFleur, referring to his offense, saying, “the foundation really starts with our running game and how we tie the passing game to our running game.” In doing so, LaFleur will be able to keep defenses off balance and guessing. So what can we expect to see in the running game?
The Los Angeles Rams running game was built around a zone running scheme. Last year, the Titans running game with Mularkey was built around a power running scheme. So what’s the difference? To keep it simple, when you think of power running schemes, think of offensive linemen, tight ends, and fullbacks being proactive. Before the play is run, the blockers know who they are going to block based on the defensive formation. For example, the center and right guard know they will double team the nose tackle, the right tackle knows he will block down on the defensive tackle, and the tight end knows he has to try and kick out the defensive end to create a hole for the running back. In a power run scheme, regardless of how the defense lines up, players have clear blocking assignments.
Things are different in a zone blocking scheme. When teams use a zone blocking scheme, the blockers are more reactive. Instead of being assigned certain players to block, they are assigned certain areas to block. It doesn’t matter if it is a defensive end, linebacker, or defensive back, if a player comes into your designated area, you block him. This type of blocking scheme is perfect for a supremely athletic running back Todd Gurley. It allows him to let the play develop, spot a crease, make one cut, and get upfield. I have questions about whether or not a player like Derrick Henry, who takes time to get to full speed, and sometimes has issues with his vision, could succeed in a zone blocking scheme.
This is where LaFleur will have to get creative. In the modern NFL, teams use both power and zone blocking schemes. The Titans offensive line, excluding uber athletic Taylor Lewan, are built for a power run scheme. So, while LaFleur may ideally want to run a zone blocking scheme, he has to understand the personnel he has and make adjustments. That being said, I still expect the Titans to implement significantly more zone runs this coming season. Now that we know what the offense is going to look like, let’s take a look at how Matt LaFleur will get the most out of his offensive centerpiece, Marcus Mariota.
How LaFleur Will Help Marcus Mariota
It’s no secret that the main reason Mike Mularkey is no longer the head coach of the Tennessee Titans is due to Mariota’s regression this year. Having obtained the job by selling Amy Adams Strunk on the idea of building the franchise around, and protecting, the Hawaiian quarterback, Mularkey did neither. Now, the soon to be fourth-year quarterback will have the opportunity to learn and improve under a coach that has consistently improved the level of play of each and every quarterback he has coached.
The building blocks of the two’s relationship will begin with improving Mariota’s fundamentals and mechanics this offseason. While last offseason’s rehab from a broken ankle hindered the quarterback’s ability to work on his mechanics, his injury shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame. When he entered the draft in 2015, there were some concerns about his fundamentals as a quarterback. NFL draft expert Lance Zierlein mentioned things like, “needs to improve resetting feet when maneuvering pocket,” “needs to bring hips through throws to increase zip into tight windows.”
NFL analyst Greg Cosell has been critical of Mariota’s fundamental issues at times as well. Just this year, he talked about how Mariota will throw off balance, creating velocity and accuracy issues. Other times he fails to drop straight back when he passes, veering off of his midline, and creates his own pressure. This is not meant to be overly critical of Marcus. We’ve seen how important he is to the team, but there are fundamental and mechanical issues that need to be addressed. And here’s the good news, all the issues mentioned above are fixable. LaFleur directly addressed this in his press conference this week saying, “We’re going to be extremely detailed with his fundamentals and his footwork, because I think that leads to more consistent quarterback play.” This is excellent news for Titans fans because a more consistent Mariota means are more consistent and explosive offense.
Outside of improving his mechanics as a quarterback, I would expect LaFluer to make life easier for Mariota in games as well. LaFleur wants his quarterback comfortable, stating in his press conference when discussing Marcus, “if there’s something you don’t feel comfortable doing, I want you to tell me.” This seems to go against the previous coaching staff, who seemed hell-bent on doing things their way, regardless of whether or not Mariota was comfortable with the decisions.
One way LaFleur may try to make Mariota more comfortable is by using concepts where the quarterback has had consistent success. One such thing is play action passing. Mariota had the league’s highest passer rating and yards per attempt on play action passes, yet the Titans only used play action on 21% of passes, good for 15th in the league. The Rams, on the other hand, were a completely different story. According to Football Outsiders, they led the league in play action, using it on 28% of their passes. This isn’t just a Sean McVay thing either. When LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach in Atlanta in 2016, yep, you guessed it, the Falcons led the NFL in play action too. They used it on 27% of their passing plays. Combine LaFleur’s propensity for play action, and Mariota’s ability to throw when using it, and I would bet that it will be a focal point of the passing offense.
Finally, there’s one last way I expect LaFleur to help Mariota. Unfortunately, Mariota had the worst quarterback rating of all 30 qualifying quarterbacks when throwing into tight windows. A tight window is where there is less than one yard of separation between the receiver and the defensive back. There are, however, reasons to be optimistic. In 2017, Jared Goff only threw into tight windows 14% of the time, good for fifth lowest in the league. LaFleur helped design an offense that generated easier throws into bigger windows for his young quarterback. Whether it be through play action, misdirection, or formation, LaFleur made life easier for his quarterback, not requiring a perfect throw every time the team needed a first down or a touchdown. This would be a welcome sight for Titans fans who felt that Marcus had to be nearly perfect on every throw just to keep the offense on schedule.
This Is Not the End All Be All
I believe the ideas I have brought before you all today will make up a decent amount of the Titans offense. However, it’s not this simple. Compared to the coaches in the NFL, my football knowledge remains minimal. The offense is, and will be, much more complex than what I have described today. These principles are just the fundamentals upon which everything else will be built upon. And with a football mind like LaFleur’s, rest assured that the Titans offense will remain innovative, diversified, and truly multiple.
Combined with his ability as a game planner and scheme developer, LaFleur has no qualms with taking brilliant ideas from other teams. The NFL is considered a copycat league for a reason, and the Rams were one of the main culprits. Here is a perfect example. This play is Kareem Hunt’s 78- yard receiving touchdown from Kansas City’s Week 1 demolition of the Patriots.
The play is run out of 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end) and is essentially a four verticals. The slot receiver comes in motion and fakes a jet sweep. The two outside receivers release on their vertical routes, along with the tight end who runs his vertical route while crossing the field. Then, the running back releases from the backfield, normally covered by a linebacker, and runs his route vertically. It’s a huge mismatch, and if running back can exploit this, there is a huge gain to be had.
Now, here comes the fun. The very next week, Week 2, the Patriots run the same exact play against the Saints.
Same formation, same personnel, not quite the same result, but still a big play. As we head into Week 4, the Rams played the Cowboys, and lo and behold the offensive minds in Los Angeles liked the play so much they took it for themselves.
With a running back like Todd Gurley, it worked just as well as the Chiefs and even better than the Patriots.
With offensive minds brilliant enough to create a system that sustains success, and humble enough to use plays they didn’t come up with to supplement that success, the Titans seem to be in great hands. I, for one, am looking forward to the Matt LaFleur Era in Tennessee.
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