Damned If You Do: Why Cole Beasley’s Options Have Defenders in Fits

07/30/2020
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If there was one area that Bills quarterback Josh Allen improved in, it was in the short area of the field — those passes that are thrown between 0-9 yards — and a lot of that credit should be thrown Cole Beasley’s way. Beasley’s ability to read leverage, paired with his short-area quickness, allows him to quickly uncover for his QB in the short passing game. Beasley reeled in 71 receptions for 822 yards and six touchdowns in his first season in Buffalo. Fifty-two receptions, 495 yards, and three of his touchdowns were from 0-9 yards, per Pro Football Focus (PFF).

This means that 36% of Josh Allen’s yardage production and 50% of the touchdown production in the short area came from Beasley. If you narrow that down even further, 322 of Allen’s 729 yards from 0-9 yards in the middle of the field came via passes to the diminutive receiver.

Beasley was such an asset to Allen in this area because of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s installation of option routes and concepts — routes that allowed Beasley to change his route based on the leverage of the defender. These are plays where Allen and Beasley aren’t just reading the number of safeties deep, but rather, they are focused on a specific defender to exploit and they are going to attack their leverage.

Consider routes like ‘Return’ or ‘Juke’ routes. As you can see in the Coaching Points (CP), Beasley will change his route based on the type of coverage, i.e. man vs. zone. So generally, he will sit and show his numbers to the quarterback if the defense drops into zone. But if it’s man coverage or he’s “matched” by a defender, then he will sell the under/crossing route and then return back outside.

Beasley was very familiar with this route concept because he essentially made his name in the league running it over the years in Dallas.

Daboll loved to utilize these option routes from 3×1 or empty set formations with Beasley in the slot to the trips side of the formation.

 

These kinds of sets spread the defense out and allow Allen and Beasley to identify which defender they were going to exploit. But in order to exploit that defender, the duo had to be on the same page on the route Beasley would be running.

Versus Zone Coverage

These sorts of route concepts take a lot of reps to build the rapport and trust in each other, and early in the year the duo was slightly off. In the first game of the year, Allen and Beasley read the Tampa 2 zone.

The underneath defenders are all dropping to their zones, which tells Beasley to curl or ‘sit.’

It appears as if Beasley may have run the route a tad past 4-yards. The throw is low but likely still catchable. Unfortunately, the ball careens up into the air into the linebacker’s hands for a pick-six.

You see a similar play here against the Patriots. The Pats drop into a Tampa 2 coverage with the middle linebacker dropping to his area, so Beasley sits.

Defenses are tasked with confusing quarterbacks, making coverages look one way pre-snap then changing it post-snap. Washington does that here by going to an Inverted Cover 2 post-snap, but it doesn’t fool Beasley or Allen.

The slot defender drops out into the deep half and the safety drops into the middle of the field. This works out in the Bills’ favor because now Beasley has nobody outside of him aside from the corner, and the linebacker, who is the wall defender, has zero chance of covering Beasley on this option route.

So regardless of the disguise and rotation post-snap, Allen and Beasley both know who they are exploiting. Beasley makes it look like he is running an under route, but then he pivots and shows his eyes to Allen, letting him know he is ready for the ball. This is a five-man route concept that essentially gets Beasley an isolation route over the middle of the field. It’s brilliant.

Versus Man Coverage

If we flash back to the Jets game, Allen and Beasley recognize the blitz and man coverage and connect for a first down. To the top of the screen, a linebacker is walked out on FB Patrick DiMarco, which identifies as man coverage.

Generally, in this play concept Beasley is the hot route, so if there is pressure and Allen has to get rid of it, Beasley has to recognize that and become the outlet. He does that here by shortening the depth of the route and pivoting away from the man-defender. Beasley pivots away from the defender because he is taught on ‘Return’ or ‘Juke’ routes that if it’s man coverage, “beat him inside or outside off his technique.” It’s an easy pitch-and-catch when defenses want to play man coverage because the routes run by the receivers running the slot fade and stop routes outside (Hoss Concept) are spacing the field, which gives Beasley space to operate.

 

Against the Titans, Daboll sent out a dual return route concept like the one below.

On 3rd-and-10, the Titans put their sticky corner, Adoree Jackson, on Beasley in the slot.

On the snap, Beasley releases inside as the Titans drop eight into coverage. Jackson has inside leverage on Beasley, so he works to maintain that leverage and Beasley exploits it.

He plants and accelerates back out wide away from Jackson, catches it, then turns it back inside for the first down.

Versus Match Coverage

The Bills ran a similar play in the Wild Card game against the Texans, but the home team shows a slightly different coverage.

Pre-snap, it looks like quarters coverage with two safeties deep, the corners in off and soft coverage, and slot defenders playing with inside leverage. This means that they are protecting deep and forcing the three linebackers to cover a lot of ground underneath.

21 personnel vs. Base defense

On the snap, the underneath defenders “matched” the routes run by the slot receivers, which put Beasley one-on-one with a linebacker.

Beasley now goes to work by attacking the linebacker’s leverage. The linebacker is heavily inside, so Beasley knows he is going to be pivoting back out wide, but he adds some spice to his route. He uses his eyes and leverages the route stem to the linebacker’s outside shoulder to make him think he is planting to run a shallow crossing route.

This gets the defender to drive hard on the would-be crossing route. Beasley then drops his center of gravity and pivots back out wide and is wide open.

Allen is forced to extend the play because the pocket collapses, but the route was so good that Beasley was still wide open and progressing in the same direction that Allen was scrambling to.

Juke Route

There were only a handful of times where the coverage or leverage of the defense dictated Beasley to convert the route over the middle on a true ‘Juke’ route. One of those times was against the Ravens. With 38 seconds left in the half and the Bills faced with a 3rd-and-long situation, the Ravens concede the middle of the field, and it opens up right for Beasley on a ‘Juke’ route.

The route is wide open thanks to the defensive strategy, but also thanks to Beasley’s craft. He changes the speed or pace of the route and uses his eyes to hold Marlon Humphrey before continuing across the middle.

These option routes were only a portion of the read-type routes that the Bills ran in 2019. But what is exciting about 2020 is that new addition Stefon Diggs is also one of the best in the league on these kinds of routes. Now, it may take some time for Diggs and Allen to get on the same page, but once they do, these concepts will take off. They should lead to some easy completions for Allen thanks to routes, plays, and the abilities of the weapons on offense.

Allen improved his throwing in the short area from 2018 to 2019:

Short (0-9 yds)

And even more so in the short to the intermediate area (0-19 yds) thanks to these option routes:

Short to intermediate area (0-19 yds)

It allowed him and Beasley to “be right” more times than not in areas of the field that you need to process the coverage quickly and throw in rhythm. Having a weapon like Beasley that can control the middle of the field and consistently bring in high-percentage passes also allowed the offense to get more one-on-one looks for weapons on the outside. This worked out specifically for John Brown, who had a career year.

Look for Daboll to continue utilizing these option routes like the Return and Juke route, plays he took from his time with the Patriots. They are a fantastic complement to any route combination. They can be the primary option when teams want to play zone or man, or they can be the third option late in a QB’s progression because of the time it needs to develop. So Daboll can have Allen read high-to-low (deep to short) and if nothing shows, Allen can just find Beasley late.

With the weapons that General Manager Brandon Beane added, these routes will be even more prevalent, especially if opposing defenses play as much man coverage as they did in 2019. The question is whether opposing defenses can continue to play man coverage with the weapons the Bills now have, and on routes like these?? Let the chess match begin…

 

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