ItP - PSU's Quick Underneath Passing Game (Breakdown Sports Exclusive)

With a true freshman QB, Penn State has really simplified their offense to help him adjust to the speed of defenses. With these adjustments he has looked like a very good QB for such a young player. PSU looks to rely more on the inside zone than they did a year ago , and they’ll throw a tunnel or bubble screen on almost any down and distance to keep the defense honest against them, but what I want to discuss today is how they attack the short zones, and then when they catch defenses peaking, how they attack with 4 vertical receivers to keep the defense on their heals.


This is perhaps the easiest play schematically that there is. However, execution is key to its success. The key is for the receiver to run at the defender’s leverage point. This is to get into his body in an attempt to turn him or continue to maintain cushion on you. At about 6 yards the receiver plants on his outside foot and works back to the ball. The ball is placed away from the defender, so if the defender jumps outside, the ball should be throw toward the receiver’s inside, upfield shoulder and the receiver should box out. If the defender jumps inside, the ball should be thrown to the back shoulder so that the receiver can seamlessly turn, catch, and try to make some yards.

On the outside they’ll often attempt to run a bit deeper route so that their levels are different. Here, it is fundamental that the receiver first sell the streak. Aiming at the defender’s outside shoulder, he needs to turn him, as this is a longer pass for the QB. At the break, he must drop his shoulders and sink his hips for 3 or 4 steps, then break back at 45 degrees, accelerating out of the break. He continues to work back to the football if the ball is late so that the defender can’t undercut the route.

Option Route

On the underneath option route, the outside receivers are going to run simple out routes. What this means is that they’ll attack the corners outside shoulder in an effort to get him to turn away from the ball and break no less than parallel to the LOS. Work back to the ball if it’s late.

The inside receiver will then run an option route based on the defense. This means he can essentially run an out route, a hitch route, or an in, depending on how the defense leverages him. Say for instance, it’s cover 2 and a defender has inside leverage on him in the slot. He will option into an out route to pick on the flat defender, who likely has voided his zone to take the out route outside.

If the defender is playing soft, likely because he has help from a LB inside, then the receiver will sit in the void with a hitch route. If the defense is tighter, then it’s less likely there is help inside. On the receiver’s turn he’ll take his eyes inside, scan for open grass, box out his defender, and go to the clearest opening.

Basically, this is a easy way to get a favorable match-up on the inside receiver and let him work in a lot of open areas.

Here's what it looks like against two different coverage styles on each side of the green line. Pink Boxes are first read, outlined box is second read.


Based on the hitch route concept and option route concept, the underneath defenders will start to play a little more forward. Any sort of hesitation by the receiver, to them, will look like they are about to break and they will try to jump. What this does is leave a large void behind them. The depth of the next level dictates how the seam receivers run their routes.

This isn’t your 4 vertical no matter what style routes. Yes, the outside receivers will stick with their vertical motion and attempt to beat the corners with speed. If safeties help outside then the #2 receiver should be sticking with his seam route and it should be easy pickings there.

If the safety stays over top of the #2, in many offenses the #2 will continue to carry his vertical route, but PSU will sit in the soft spot between zones with the idea that it’ll still force the safety to choose his spot (only if the underneath defender isn't carrying him). Where this really helps is cover 4 or cover 3, where a safety will be over the top of the #2, but it doesn’t force the #2 to read the safety and outside defender to understand how to adjust his route. His only read is if there is a safety over the top, and run/sit in open grass. Here's a look against cover 6, which is essentially cover 4 to one side and cover 2 to the other side, so you can see how the #2 receiver adjusts to someone playing over the top of him.

What this does is give PSU’s QB easy reads and allows him to use his arm strength and accuracy to get the ball out quickly as to avoid pressure. It can be defended, yes, and it’s not the only thing the Nittany Lions run, but it’s a nice starting point that can get them back on track when behind the chains or pick up a 3rd and medium. And defenses still have to respect getting beat over the top and the run game because of the way the receivers attack the DBs. While it’s far from where O’Brien wants to end up, it is a very nice starting point that gets them moving in the correct direction.


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