Peeking into the Playbook: Willie Taggart and the Art of Creating Space Inside Scoring Range
Creativity matters most when the conditions are least favorable. In football, the closer an offense gets toward the end zone, the less field they have to work with and the more difficult it becomes to find space to score. There is a unique value in players, coaches or teams who can consistently succeed in finishing off drives from within the opposing 10-yard line. An offense can march down the field as often as they please, but without consistently putting up six points on the board instead of three, an offense will fall flat.
Last year’s Florida State squad was a reminder that converting red zone opportunities matter. Under Jimbo Fisher, the Seminole offense had become stale and lacking in adaptation, which often reared its head in the red zone. 13 of Florida State’s 48 red zone trips in 2017 resulted in field goals. For a program that can recruit as well as Florida State, there is no reason for a quarter of their red zone trips to have resulted in just three points, even with a backup quarterback behind center.
Florida State fans will not have to worry about coming up short in the red zone anymore. New head coach Willie Taggart, a native Floridian, is a red zone connoisseur. More specifically, Taggart understands how to create advantages for his offenses inside the opposing 10-yard line. Taggart’s offense at Oregon last year featured a number of unique concepts and wrinkles that enabled them to convert 44 of their 56 red zone trips into touchdowns, despite playing with a backup quarterback for about half the season.
Wide trips and quads stack formations are Taggart’s most notorious looks. In splitting out three or four wide receivers well wide of the formation, the defense has to respect the numbers and speed, which forces the defense keep lighter personnel packages on the field and completely remove a handful of defenders away from the run box. The offense can then more easily run the ball against a lighter run box that does not have the heft that a proper goal line formation would. Sprinkle on top a read-option for the quarterback and now the defense no longer has a good way to get a box advantage without sacrificing numbers on the perimeter.
Oregon is in a quads formation with three wide receivers stacked out wide near the sideline. Two Nebraska defensive backs are lined up directly over the stack and another makes his way over just before the snap. In turn, Nebraska has just four defenders toward the play side (left) in the run box. Oregon can match all four defenders with three blockers (tight end, left tackle, left guard) and a read key on the edge defender. As the play unfolds, the tight end and left tackle get enough push past the line of scrimmage to give the running back a crease to trudge through for a touchdown.
There is nothing groundbreaking about what Taggart is doing here. Taggart is simply removing weight and numbers out of the run box to more easily allow for the small amount of push necessary to punch in a score near the goal line. If you are going to run the ball anyway, it only makes sense to do so by creating as many advantages as possible instead of coming out in 22 or 23 personnel and hoping to run straight through the entire opposing defense.
In addition to creating lighter boxes inside the 10-yard line, Taggart likes to utilize the quarterback as a runner or at least as a run threat. RPOs and read options of all sorts are part of Taggart’s red zone offense. Even if the quarterback himself rarely keeps the ball on read plays, having the threat there and “blocking” a defender with a read key is valuable.
Taggart’s most creative way of running with the quarterback is his use of counter. The play can be a read or a straight up keep by the quarterback, but either way, it is effective in evening out box numbers and pulling two blockers to lead the way through an even or favorable run box.
This time around, Oregon is in an empty trips formation with running back Royce Freeman split off to the weak side of the formation. As the ball is snapped, Freeman comes across the formation for a fake handoff to the left, while the left tackle and left guard pull around the right side of the formation to lead the way for quarterback Justin Herbert. The motion gets multiple Arizona State defenders to bite and widen out toward Freeman. The space created by the fake to Freeman allow Oregon’s offensive line to crack open the Arizona State defense down the middle and give Herbert a way to the end zone. Herbert has to do his fair share to muscle across the goal line, but that is as good as it gets with regards to manufacturing room to run inside the 10-yard line.
Oregon’s run game inside the 10-yard line was incredibly diverse and effective under Taggart. Counter, inside zone, outside zone, power; you name it, Taggart’s offense found a number of creative ways to pull off all sorts of run concepts. The passing game, however, was much less diverse and called far less often. By and large, Taggart’s passing offense inside the 10-yard line consisted of RPO bubble, rollout flood, and slot fade/wheel.
RPO bubble and rollout flood concepts are not anything groundbreaking and Taggart’s spin on them was not particularly different. Some of his sprint out flood concepts out of two back formations were interesting, but that is about it. Where Taggart’s intuition kicked in was slot fade/wheel concepts.
A vast majority of fade plays in the red zone are 1-vs-1 scenarios to a wide receiver lined up out wide. The wide receiver ends up pinched on the sideline, meaning the quarterback either throws the ball high or wide enough for the ball to end up only where the wide receiver can catch it or where it will fall incomplete with no harm done. Taggart has a different idea, though. Rather than pinch the wide receiver on the sideline, Taggart figures he might as well expand the area to which the fade/wheel route can be run and allow for more flexibility on the route and throw.
(Timestamps 1:48 and 1:35)
These two plays are effectively the same. To the play side (right side on both plays), the slot wide receiver runs a wheel route while the outside receiver runs a deep square-in. In theory, the outside receiver will bring the outside defensive back with him and open up space on the sideline and in the back corner of the end zone. The slot receiver now has more room to work with than on a traditional fade route. With the extra room, the receiver can better adjust his route based on the defender.
In the first play, the slot defender hesitates early in the play and gives the slot receiver the green light to find the back of the end zone. Herbert also notices the defender’s alignment properly and throws over the top of him so as to allow the receiver to run under the ball in the back of the end zone. Conversely, the second clip features the slot defender showing clear intent to cap the fade/wheel route vertically. The defender does not want to lose over the top. Both the slot receiver and Herbert recognize the defender’s intent and adjust their route and throw, respectively. Herbert is able to hit his target on his back shoulder for another Oregon touchdown.
Granted, Florida State may not have comparable success on this play because Herbert was absolute money on the concept. With that being said, regardless of quarterback, the concept does more to free up the fade/wheel receiver than a traditional goal line fade route would. This concept alone should turn a few of Florida State’s failed scoring drives from last season into touchdowns this season.
As is the case any time a coach changes jobs, Taggart will have to initially adapt the scheme to the players. Oregon had the luxury of good, athletic quarterback in Herbert who could throw as well as he could threaten on the ground. Florida State starting quarterback Deondre Francois is not the same rushing threat Herbert is. That is not to say Francois cannot run, but there is no reason to believe Taggart will run more with the quarterback now than he did at Oregon.
Florida State is also more equipped to run 20 and 21 personnel formations with a fullback or H-back. At Oregon, Taggart had more receivers at his disposal and could more often go to wide open formations. Again, the entire composition of Taggart’s offense will not change, but there is likely to be more of a focus on counter, power and short play action rollout concepts as result of tighter formations and two-back sets. Surely, Taggart will recruit in the Oregon model over the next few years, but getting a full team in his vision will take time. For now, Taggart will get the most out of the talent at hand, just as he has always done.
The days of boring and ultimately disappointing Florida State offenses are over. Taggart will bring a fresh perspective to the offense that will be faster, more entertaining, and better at finishing out drives by putting six points on the board. After years of bouncing around from school to school, Taggart is finally home and ready to help the ‘Noles return to their former glory.