Every Play Counts
An in-depth look at a specific player or unit on every single play of the previous game

Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

By Michael David Smith

Carnell "Cadillac" Williams is one of the NFL's best stories, a rookie from Auburn who has gained 434 yards in his first three games, more than any other rookie in the history of the league. After running 37 times in Sunday's 17-16 win against the Packers he has 88 carries on the season. A Tampa Tribune headline after the game read, "Gruden Won't Ease Up On Cadillac's Load," but that's ridiculous. If Bucs coach Jon Gruden keeps Williams running at this rate, he'll end the season with 469 carries, which would shatter both the NFL record and Williams' body.

As much as Gruden loves feeding Williams the rock, he won't turn away from the passing game any time soon. And that passing game is one of the most meticulously designed and strategically employed in football. This week I looked at every passing play Tampa Bay used against Green Bay to determine what Gruden does and why he's successful.

Tampa Bay's first drive demonstrated the way Gruden's offense uses formations with three receivers clustered together to create mismatches, often getting the primary receiver matched up against the weak link of the opposing team's defense. In the Packers' case, the weak link is rookie fifth-round draft pick Michael Hawkins, and the Bucs targeted him on both of the key passes on their opening drive, which resulted in a touchdown. Facing a third-and-10 at the Green Bay 37-yard line, wide receiver Michael Clayton lined up split to the right, with tight end Alex Smith and flanker Edell Shepherd also on the right of the formation. Brian Griese knew that Smith would release down the middle of the field, and the crossing pattern of Clayton to the inside and Shepherd to the outside would create one-on-one coverage with Hawkins on Clayton. That is a huge mismatch, and Clayton slanted inside, grabbed the Griese pass and gained 18 yards.

After four straight Williams runs, the Bucs were down to the Packers' 5-yard line. Joey Galloway lined up wide to the right with Ike Hilliard on his inside in the slot. A play fake to Williams kept the Packers' linebackers close, and Hilliard's presence inside kept the safety there. That meant one-on-one coverage for Hawkins on Galloway. Griese rolled to the right, where Hawkins was stuck: He could maintain coverage on Galloway and let Griese run in for a touchdown, or he could pressure Griese and leave Galloway alone in the end zone. He chose the latter, and Griese easily tossed the ball to Galloway for the touchdown. Gruden knew the Packers had to respect Williams' presence on the fake and Hilliard's inside route, and that isolated Hawkins in the end zone.

Gruden's offense always passes well out of run-oriented formations. On second-and-10 with 1:33 left in the first quarter, the Bucs had only one receiver, Clayton, on the field. He was split to the left. Fullback Mike Alstott was in front of Williams in the backfield, and two tight ends, Becht and Smith, were on the right. It looked like your standard power run to the right, and Becht helped sell the play fake by starting with a wham block on Green Bay defensive tackle Grady Jackson. But after the initial block, Becht reversed direction and was left open in the flat for a nine-yard gain.

My favorite part of the play was watching Clayton. He lined up split to the left and knew it was going to be a short pass to the right. In that situation, a lot of receivers just take the play off. Not Clayton. He hustled all the way to the right sideline just in time to deliver a vicious block to linebacker Na'il Diggs, who was pursuing Becht. Wide receivers aren't supposed to be able to obliterate linebackers like that, but Clayton did it.

That pass went to the tight end, but Gruden is so good at getting his receivers matched up with linebackers over the middle that he rarely has much use for passes to the tight end. The 39 balls Ken Dilger caught last year were the most ever by a tight end on a Gruden-coached team. And although he wasn't the primary threat against the Packers, Clayton is the perfect fit for a coach who likes to send his receivers over the middle. Clayton is incredibly tough going over the middle, and on running plays he's not afraid to crack back on a linebacker or defensive end. As great as Hines Ward and Rod Smith are, watch Clayton closely and you'll see that he's the best blocking receiver in football.

The Packers' best defensive back is Al Harris, and on Sunday the Bucs usually avoided him, throwing to the receiver Harris covered only four times. Because Harris focused mostly on Clayton, the Bucs didn't go to him as often as they might have liked. But they made up for it with consistent mismatches on Galloway, who had two touchdowns and three other catches for 16, 10, and 12 yards.

Galloway's second touchdown was the epitome of a mismatch, with linebacker Nick Barnett covering him. Griese had plenty of time with Green Bay rushing only its four linemen. Tampa Bay overloaded the right side with the bunch formation, with Galloway as the outside receiver, Williams aligned to the right in the backfield, and Becht at tight end. Clustering three receivers so tightly makes the defense struggle to keep track of who covers whom, and when Williams and Becht ran routes to the right, they drew Packers cornerback Ahmad Carroll and safety Mark Roman to the outside with them. That left Barnett in coverage when Galloway ran a post pattern. There's absolutely no chance of Barnett keeping up with Galloway one-on-one, and Griese found him in the end zone. It's a safe bet that every defensive coordinator who takes on Tampa Bay this year will look for ways to avoid such mismatches.

In addition to passing to his receivers over the middle, Gruden has a fondness for passing to running backs. In Gruden's three full seasons in Tampa Bay, Michael Pittman has caught 41, 75, and 59 passes. In Oakland, Charlie Garner caught 72 passes in 2001. At Auburn, Williams was known as a pure runner, while his teammate Ronnie Brown (now with the Dolphins) was seen as the superior pass-catcher. Williams has only one catch, for zero yards so far. Gruden might just keep Williams focused on running and instead use Michael Pittman more as a receiver out of the backfield. Pittman is a good receiver who comes in on third-and-long, sometimes aligning as a receiver when Williams is in the backfield. Gruden loves sending Pittman out on wheel routes, first running out of the backfield parallel to the line of scrimmage, then turning up the sideline, almost always drawing a linebacker in coverage. Most linebackers can't keep up with Pittman.

Alert readers will now want to know why, if the scheme is so good, Tampa Bay's passing game hasn't been anything special in the Gruden years. The answer, frankly, is quarterback talent -- or lack thereof. Remember what Brian Griese looked like in Miami? He had Dolphins fans praying for the health of Jay Fiedler. Remember the difference between Brad Johnson 2001 and Brad Johnson 2002? The arrival of Gruden allowed Johnson to nearly double his touchdowns, while halving his interceptions and sacks. Gruden always makes bad quarterbacks look good -- if you don't believe that, ask a Philadelphia Eagles fan who thought Bobby Hoying was the quarterback of the future when Gruden was the Eagles' offensive coordinator in 1997. With Gruden, Hoying threw 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. The next year, without Gruden, Hoying threw zero touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Although Griese's stints in Denver and Miami ended badly, he's a good fit for Gruden. His weaknesses -- mobility, arm strength -- are concealed by a scheme that requires few seven-step drops or deep passes. His top attribute -- the thorough understanding of the game that comes from being raised by a Hall of Fame quarterback -- is perfect in Gruden's complex offense, which requires quarterbacks to make sight adjustments based on defensive alignments.

Gruden received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at Green Bay when he ran on the field to protest a bad call. Physically, that might be the closest he's been to the action since he was a college quarterback at Dayton. But with his offensive strategy, no coach in the NFL has a greater impact on what goes on between the sidelines.

Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing Contact Us.


14 comments, Last at 01 Oct 2005, 12:12am

1 Re: Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

I was going to say something about Cadillac's durability problems, but then I actually looked stuff up. I remembered him as being injury-prone, and that's not quite true: he missed a few games as a freshman (ankle sprain, broken clavicle) and was limited in several other games by them, and as a sophomore he broke his leg and missed six games. At that point he was labeled 'fragile' and the impression stuck with me. But lo and behold - he had back-to-back years of playing every game, and is Auburn's career rushing attempts leader. I really didn't see that coming.

So I agree that Gruden does a tremendous job of getting mismatches. And I was thinking about this earlier as it relates to college football. It was pointed during one game that overmatched schools used a lot of 'isolation' plays, trying to get their best receiver matched up one-on-one, and getting everyone away from him and just throwing it up for grabs to that side. The theory was that while a bad team might not be able to compete 11-on-11 with a good one, their best athlete very well could compete 1-on-1. So instead of Central Michigan trying to beat USC, limit it to CMU's best player trying to beat USC's corner. It's still not the best bet, but at least they'd have a puncher's chance (in theory). What's interesting is, this tactic has been picked up by the bigger schools as well - you'll see teams like USC put one guy alone on the wide side, clear everyone else over to the other, and let the best man win.

So I was thinking, why couldn't NFL teams do this? Granted, the narrower hashmarks make it tougher to get pure isolation, but it could be done. Imagine if the Raiders have the ball on the right hash. They come out with a bunch formation left. Then everyone shifts to the right side, except Moss. What does the defense do? If you leave 2 guys over there with Moss (or even just shade over a safety), there's a numbers mismatch on the other side. If you don't, you have Moss completely isolated on your corner. How many teams have a corner they'd be comfortable with in that matchup?

You do see this kind of thing primarily in one place - around the goal line. Usually they clear out one side, throw a fade or jump ball, and trust the receiver to win that battle. But I'm thinking, if you trust him to win around the goal line, why not use it all over the rest of the field?

I'm rambling, so let me close by saying it's a nice article, and I'm sure to watch for this more when watching TB this year. I wonder about Gruden's apparent lack of TE interest, whether it's just from a lack of talent - I'm sure if he had someone like Gates, he'd find some ways to make it work.

Oh, and do you have any suggestions for how such mismatches could have been avoided? On the Galloway TD, the LB could have stuck with the TE, although playing man-to-man against a bunch is just asking for picks, both legal and the ones that never get called anyway. If they went to an extra DB they'd be more vulnerable to a run. It's late, I'm done.

2 Re: Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

Nice. To be honest I was kind of disappointed by last week's EPC, but this is reminding me that I was only disappointed because I'm used to seeing great articles like this. Bravo.

4 Re: Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

hey MDS, sort of off topic, but still: did anyone comment on this nugget from deadspin.com last week? :
"Suggested questions for today’s ESPN SportsNation chatters …
• 11 a.m. NFL with Michael Smith: Wait, my bad, I thought you were Michael David Smith, from Football Outsiders. You know, the interesting one. You must get that a lot."

Nice piece this week, btw

5 Re: Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

This was good. I Particularly liked the breakdown of the routes WRs were running. Unfortunately, we don't see Tampa until week 6 in the UK, so I can't watch it for myself until then.

6 Re: Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

Re Trogdor,
"I wonder about Gruden’s apparent lack of TE interest, whether it’s just from a lack of talent - I’m sure if he had someone like Gates, he’d find some ways to make it work." In his second year with the Raiders (1999) he did use Rickey Dudley quite a lot, to the point where he had the second highest tight end DPAR and highest DVOA. The year after that he declined pretty dramatically. I don't know whether that's because Gruden phased him out or because Dudley was lazy. It's ironic you mention Gates because when Dudley was coming out of college I thought he was going to be the player Gates is now except about twice as good. D'oh.

7 Re: Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

I think Gruden is easily one of the best XO's coaches in the league. During their superbowl run he called some simply amazing games. It helps that he had players execute, but he made it easy on them offensively. At least that's my opinion.

8 Re: Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

James #5 ("Unfortunately, we don’t see Tampa until week 6 in the UK")

The UK folks actually tell you in advance?! In Israel, we see the Cyprus station's schedule on Tusaday and the Israeli station when they agree to tell us, which may be a day or an hour before gametime.

I'm jealous.

9 Re: Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

Israel, I feel your pain. I know what sunday games Sky will be showing up to ( and including) Week 9. In Week 10, we, the veiwers get to pick the two games we would like to see.

Beyond week 10 I don't know, but this is a good thing. Sky choose their late-season games to ensure that we get meaningful games late on and not 5-9 AFC teams in Week 16.

The Uk TV schedule until Week 9 is:

Houston Texans @ Cincinnati Bengals
NY Jets @ Baltimore

New England Patriots @ Atlanta Falcons
Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys

Miami Dolphins @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NY Jets @ Buffalo Bills

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals
Buffalo Bills @ Oakland Raiders

Washington Redskins @ NY Giants
Kansas City Chiefs @ San Diego Chargers

Carolina Panthers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Green Bay Packers

After last weeks injuries, the two NYJ games don't look so entertaining.

Er, just to keep this post vaguely on topic, I get two opportunities to watch the Tampa O, Week 6 and Week 9.

10 Re: Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

Nice Article.

I could picture every play like it was being shown with a telestrater.

That being said, it's amazing how many NFL coaches are too dumb to accomplish what Gruden does.

It doesn't take rocket science does it?

I guess the NFL coaches have so much to be responsible for that being good with x's and o's as well as working an 80hr a week job is considered icing on the cake.

11 Re: Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

One of the biggest advantages I see to having an O like Gruden's is that it doesn't take a superstar to run. You can run it with mediocre (not average) "skill" position players. You can get good matchups even if you have one fast but small WR and another that is tall with good jumping but not so fast. You can isolate the fast WR against a slower corner, or the tall against a short, fast corner. This is in direct contrast to the offense that Minnesota ran until this year, which pretty much depended on the threat offered by Moss and Culpepper.

re: 10

I wouldn't say that most coaches are too dumb to figure out X's and O's. It looks easy to us after Gruden had already figured it out and we can sit in our chairs and say "look how he isolated X against Y", but I think far fewer of us could come up with a gameplan to do this on our own.

12 Re: Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

Cadillac has more rushing yards in his first 3 games than any other back did in the history of the game.

Does anyone know if he also has more carries than any other back in their first 3 games?

13 Re: Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

I was chatting on the phone with a friend of mine last Sunday, and both of us had the Tampa game on. We were talking about something entirely unrelated to football, but as soon as Galloway caught his first TD, we both just stopped and said "Now that's what a bootleg is supposed to look like". It really was a thing of beauty. Denver, probably the #1 bootleg team in the nation, had another doozy on that Rod Smith TD against KC. Pretty much the exact same play, exact same result.

I always really enjoyed watching the Denver/Oakland matchups when Gruden was in town. I think Shanny and Gruden are the two best offensive X-and-O coaches in the entire NFL, and the Oakland-Denver games were all just a chessmatch of who each team could get matched up against whom. Really elegant football.

14 Re: Every Play Counts: Jon Gruden’s Passing Attack

re no. 11

Respectfully disagree.

There are roughly 10,000 armchair coaches out there that could x and o as well if not better since it is actually a little like chess.

But maybe 1 of those guys could gain the respect of the players/organization/fans, teach the basics, make good snap decisions during games.

If you find someone who can do both then you've found yourself a coach.