Robert Anae had a really impressive first year as the NC State offensive coordinator. While things got off to a rocky start, the amount of redesign the unit went through during the final five games was impressive, and Anae did a bang-up job building this thing around the strengths of his players. It was a pretty diverse offense that was particularly creative in the run game and sought to keep things simpler in the passing game. We're going to look at six concepts that were leveraged by Anae to achieve such a thing.
The slide RPO
The slide RPO is one of the hottest concepts in football right now. Some variation of this is in the playbook for most teams, State most certainly included. State ran variations of the slide route a lot in 2023, sometimes as a true RPO and sometimes as a pure play action boot. First, let's look at the RPO.
What is it?
The slide RPO is essentially an extension of the zone read, a concept most people are familiar with. If you're not, zone read is a zone run where the quarterback reads the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOL) post-snap and pulls the ball should that player crash down on the run. This is the first component of the slide RPO as well, but the RPO part comes from a second read the QB makes should he pull the ball.
The play actually sets up like split zone with the H coming across the formation, but instead of blocking the end man, he slips by him into the flat. Should the end man crash underneath him and the QB keeps the ball, the QB then has a second read on the outside linebacker. If the H has the linebacker outleveraged in the flat because the linebacker worked toward the front side of the play, the QB can simply toss it into the flat. If the LB stays out with the H, the QB should be able to run inside of him. It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the C-gap. It's basically modern triple option, and you can even add a fourth option by tagging downfield routes on the outside.
How State runs it
Here is State running it to open the Virginia game.
Watch the end man on the line of scrimmage for Virginia (number 82). He doesn't necessarily crash toward the ball, but he gets far enough inside that Armstrong pulls it and gets outside of him, and then the read transitions to the outside linebacker. The linebacker is waaaaay inside, so this is a super easy read for Armstrong.
This did not generate explosive plays. It wasn’t in the playbook to do that. It did have a very high success rate, though, and was a call of choice on first down quite a bit. In addition to it just being a really effective play, it made a lot of sense for this team because if the reads dictated it, State got to Armstrong’s legs, which is a plus, or it got to Pennix in the flat, which is a plus for State because he’s a much better athlete than your average H.
Here’s an example where State runs this play, but it ends in a handoff.
The end stays wide, so it ends up looking just like a standard zone read, but you can see Pennix cross the formation and slip the block to initiate the slide route before he works up the field to block instead.
Slide route PA flood
We just mentioned that State ran this slide route concept as an RPO and a pure play action. The pure play action was similar in appearance but different in structure. It had no run element, and the slide route was an underneath read as part of a flood concept that the Pack would get to with a releasing TE and either a wide receiver or a second TE/H.
The play action for these was often jet motion from Concepcion. Defenses really respected this for obvious reasons. The best example of this is from the Miami game. Watch how much flow KC’s motion creates. Miami is so committed to protecting the edge that it has no chance to pick these routes up. This is stealing.
GT Counter Read Bash
State’s run playbook was very diverse. It had power, counter, and zone elements, and it was a pretty big fan of down G in short yardage situations. GT counter and GH counter were popular, and State liked to invert the read with this play in a concept called bash.
What is it?
GT - Guard/Tackle
Counter - pullers work across the formation and execute kick out and drive blocks on the frontside of the play while the rest of the line down blocks away from the point of attack to create as big of a hole as possible.
Read - QB reads EMOL and pulls the ball if he crashes toward the running back
Bash - Inversion of the traditional roles in the mesh of a read run. The QB is the primary who will run the counter run, and the “pull” read becomes the handoff to the RB who will get outside on the back side should the EMOL crash.
How State runs it
With Armstrong being such a tough runner who could finish runs with impressive power, it made more sense to have him between the tackles. Bash was a useful concept for State because it allowed them to get their most physical runner between the tackles.
State would sometimes run this out of two-back sets like the one you see above, and the second back would become a lead blocker should Armstrong give the ball. Let's look at the above play.
The EMOL stays high, so Armstrong pulls the ball out of Concepcion's gut and runs the counter. Tim McKay is the pulling guard, and he executes the kickout block. Anthony Belton is the pulling tackle who is the lead blocker here. He actually misses the block on the linebacker, but Armstrong stiff arms him and beats him anyway. The quarterback was very good at running in traffic, and that's why State liked the inverted read plays known as bash.
Here's one more.
The EMOL (number 82) stays out, so Armstrong pulls the ball down and follows McKay who is the pulling tackle.
RB mesh traffic is one of the hottest goal line concepts in football right now, and State's version of it produced two touchdowns for the Pack this year.
What is it?
This is a man-coverage attacking concept that forces the defender responsible for the running back or receiver to fight through a ton a traffic to avoid being outleveraged. It's a rub route concept that in this case has two in-breaking routes and a corner route coming from the 3 in a 3x1 and a motion from the other side running under the traffic. There are lots of different ways to organize this, but the goal is the same; create a mess of bodies and force a coverage responsibility to wade through them.
How State ran it
State would initiate this from some type of motion for KC. Defenses really needed to communicate well here because you were not recovering if you were a step slow against Concepcion. A lot of times, defenses will try to switch this route off in order to not get caught by the traffic. Clemson does that here, but fails in a spectacular fashion.
Note that the defender originally covering KC ends up taking the corner route and switches responsibilities. Clemson switches this off, but the guy who becomes responsible for KC gets knocked down by his buddy. Clemson had this understood enough to switch but it works anyway because there is so much traffic and so much ground to cover.
Here, the Hokies do not try to switch this and that also goes very poorly.
Number 34 gets caught up in the traffic and KC is way outside of him by the time he catches the ball.
HOSS was a popular passing concept for State because it did a good job blending free yards with the possibility of explosive plays.
What is it?
HOSS is a passing concept that stands for Hitches Outside Slot Seams. It’s run out of a 2x2 set where the outside receivers run shallow hitches and the inside receivers run go routes down the seam. It was made famous by Tom Brady, and State used it in 2023 to combine opportunities for easy completions with chances for explosives should the coverage shake out.
How State runs it
The most prominent usage of this for State was at Virginia Tech, where it ran HOSS several times for a number of “free yards” completions and one long touchdown. The Hokies played a good bit of quarters coverage in that game, and the outside hitches in HOSS allowed State to take advantage of the soft corners
It’s a relatively easy read for Armstrong, and it doesn’t ask him to stand in the pocket and go through a progression. These types of things made him more comfortable as a passer. Most of the time, he saw the off-coverage on the outside and the two-high looks neutralizing the seam routes, and he took the free yards. Also, zoom goes the random lady's forehead.
Armstrong did throw the seam route twice in the Virginia Tech game, once for a touchdown and once for an incompletion. Here's the touchdown.
Virginia Tech is going to roll into a cover 3 defense from a two-high safety shell pre-snap, a coverage called cover 3 buzz. With two seam routes and one safety in the middle of the field, the safety is in a terrible spot. You can actually see that both seam routes are open. Armstrong identifies the wrinkle post-snap and throws the seam route opposite the roll of the remaining safety for a touchdown.
Earlier, we talked about flood concepts as something State ran out of play action. A sail concept is a type of flood concept that State installed with a QB sprint out to try and create an easier set of reads for Armstrong while also making it easier for him to run.
What is it?
A sail concept is a three-route combination that includes a go route, a mid-depth route, and an underneath route. The idea is to create a high-low read on the flat defender. Zone coverages in football have two levels in almost every scenario, so flood concepts like sail are designed to create a numbers advantage by stacking three routes in an area of the field covered by two defenders. It's a math problem that's fundamental to every zone-beating passing concept.
With sail, the go route carries the top of the zone down the field. This route is almost never thrown. Its purpose is to remove the deep zone defender from the play. When you layer in a route on top and underneath the underneath zone, the flat defender, often a linebacker, can only cover one of these guys. If he sinks toward the route behind him, the quarterback throws to the flat. If he rises toward the flat, the quarterback can drop the ball in over his head.
How State runs it
The first appearance of this with a sprint out was against Wake Forest. The pocket movement made it easy to tuck and run if things broke down, and it's only a half-field read. Anae really worked to stop putting so much pressure on Armstrong's arm, and this was part of that.
The majority of these concepts see the underneath route get thrown. Defenses would rather force that and rally and tackle. State hits the higher route here though. That's Juice Vereen, Dacari Collins, and Keyon Lesane as your 1, 2, and 3 receivers. Vereen runs the go. Lesane runs kind of a shallow sit route, and the flat defender for Wake widens and takes Lesane. Armstrong hits Collins over his head. It's the sail concept at work (a random side note, sail is my second favorite passing concept behind Mills. Mills rocks).