In this age of the spread offense, the LSU Tigers are a throwback to a previous era. LSU primarily wants to line up in the I-formation behind a big, physical line, and run right at the defense.
No play better epitomizes this philosophy than LSU's lead toss play. Traditionally, when offenses toss the football it is to run an outside sweep. Not so with LSU. The Tigers' lead toss is effectively an isolation play. LSU will toss with the offensive line blocking inside zone or power. In either case the Tigers are seeking to create double teams at the point of attack. From there, LSU's 270-pound fullback J.C. Copeland executes a lead block on the play side linebacker to lead 235-pound tailback Jeremy Hill off-tackle.
In other words, philosophically the Tigers’ are seeking to mass bodies at the point of attack to overwhelm the opposition. The purpose of tossing the football is simply to get the tailback the ball as deep as possible so that he can use his vision to pick through the holes opened up front.
But that is not all there is to the Tigers' offense. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has revitalized LSU's passing game, and with it, quarterback Zach Mettenberger's career. Cameron has added three components to complement the LSU run game. First, the Tigers employ an effective screen game, with middle screens to the tailback as well as bubble screens to the slot wide receivers.
Second, the Tigers use the quick passing game, primarily in the form of double slants or stick routes. LSU likes to utilize the quick game in third and short or medium down and distances.
Third, and most importantly, Cameron has installed a vertical passing game that utilizes the skills of Mettenberger and LSU's talented receiving corps led by Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Specifically, LSU's downfield passing game is built upon vertical stems. That means that all routes begin with the receivers running directly downfield – as opposed to a crossing route, for instance. The foundational play is all vertical routes. As it sounds, the receivers split the field into thirds or fourths and each run vertically.
But Cameron works multiple concepts off the vertical stem. The simplest is deep comeback routes. Often this is a post-snap read by Mettenberg and the wide receivers based upon how the corners are covering the vertical route. The outside wide receivers push hard vertically but then turn back to the quarterback on the outside. Mettenberger aims for the back shoulder and throws it high and outside prior to the receivers' break, preventing the cornerback from adjusting.
Cameron includes other combinations off the initial vertical push, particularly from a "twins" pre-snap alignment, meaning that the two wide receivers align to the same side with one in the slot. Two favorite combinations are double out routes and "Houston." Just as it sounds, double out route involve both receivers breaking outside at different yardages, with the outside receiver running a deep out and the inside receiver breaking out at a shorter yardage. Houston is a route combination to defeat cover 4. It can be run either from twins or a base alignment. The inside receiver runs a vertical seam route, with the outside receiver and running back run a curl flat combination. The goal is to hold the cover 4 safety with the seam route, creating a 2 on 1 hi/lo vertical stretch on the cornerback.
The vertical nature of the Tigers' passing offense is well suited to Mettenberger and his wide receivers. Big and strong in the pocket, Mettenberger can make any throw and is able to deliver the back shoulder comeback throw on a line. Landry and Beckham, Jr. are both physical receivers who do an excellent job going up to high point the football. This allows Mettenberger to deliver throws to the duo when they seem otherwise covered, putting the football high to a spot where only they can go up and elevate to make the catch.
Bringing in Cameron's vertical passing tree provided Les Miles an additional benefit. It provides the LSU offense a scheme well equipped to respond to LSU’s rival Alabama, specifically Nick Saban’s pattern matching principles. From a schematic perspective, pattern matching is Saban's most lasting contribution to football. Pattern matching is the equivalent of a matchup zone defense in basketball, with the defensive back playing man coverage within their zone.
If the wide receivers run downfield it will look like man coverage. But if the wide receivers cross, the defensive back will pass the receiver off to his teammate, picking up the receiver that is sure to appear in his zone, The backs distribute the pass patterns amongst themselves by reading the receivers initial steps and identifying typical route combinations. Patterns such as shallow crossing routes can be the easiest to read because wide receivers immediately break in one direction.
Compare that to Cameron’s vertical stems. To a defensive back, every route looks like the receiver is running downfield up and until the receiver breaks into his route.
One area where the Tigers may have an advantage against the Crimson Tide is in utilizing these deep outside routes. Alabama will likely play ample amounts of cover 1 (man with a free safety) to provide an additional defender in the box against the LSU run game, leaving their corners in man coverage. The Crimson Tide utilized a similar formula against Texas A & M. But Alabama has struggled to identify a corner opposite Deion Belue, starting four different players at the position. Texas A & M was able to exploit this matchup with receiver Mike Evans downfield early and often, allowing him to go up and make plays.
LSU has two similar big and physical receivers in Beckham and Landry, and a quarterback who can deliver them the football in those spots, providing Cameron a blueprint against the Crimson Tide. From there, the LSU offense must play mistake free. Despite his improvements Mettenberger is still prone to making poor decisions and turning the football over, something LSU cannot afford Saturday.
Ultimately, however, LSU's chances may come down to whether their young defense can hold up and get a few stops. Given the talent for both offenses, this edition of the Alabama and LSU rivalry may very well be a higher scoring contest then the classics of recent years.