Consider using these plays from the University of Memphis passing game

By Ted Nguyen | Posted 3/2/2018

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The University of Memphis football team’s offense ranked fourth in the nation in total yards in 2017 with 6,719 yards and averaged 532.1 yards per game. Head coach Mike Norvell runs one of the more interesting offenses in the country. He had a few exceptional athletes including quarterback Riley Ferguson and wide receiver Anthony Miller, but the Tigers’ offensive success was predicated on creativity, aggression, and synchronicity.

Memphis didn’t run a dink-and-dunk offense. The Tigers attacked defenses vertically with well-designed pass concepts. Ferguson, who is expected to be drafted in the NFL this year, had a big arm and wasn’t shy about throwing the ball downfield. Let’s take a look at a few of their pass plays that you could add to your playbook.

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Slot fade with RB seam

The slot fade is as popular as ever. Rather than throwing a fade to the outside receiver, who is closer to the sideline and has less space to work with, targeting the slot is much more difficult to defend because of all of the space that the slot has to work with.

Against quarters coverage, it’s also effective because offenses could potentially match up one of their better receivers against a safety. Memphis runs its slot fade concept with a running back seam — giving the quarterback yet another option.

The running back seam also makes this coverage effective against cover-2 because it stresses the safety with two vertical routes in his deep half.


The defense was in a regular cover-1, so Ferguson looked for his best matchup, which was Miller in the right slot. The defensive back assigned to Miller was slightly off him, so Miller brought the line of scrimmage to him, gave him a move, and bursted downfield on the fade. Ferguson dropped an absolute dime for the big play.

Double post out of trips

Another way of getting of taking advantage of the slot receiver/safety matchup against quarters is to run the No. 2 receiver on a post. However, the trick is to isolate the matchup by taking away help.


Memphis does this by running the No. 1 receiver on a short “in” route to keep the corner close to the line of scrimmage and could keep the attention of underneath defenders.

The No. 3 receiver ran a post at a more shallow angle. The free safety followed him, which opened a void in the deep middle of the field. It’s a touch throw to make, but once again Ferguson threw a perfect pass to Miller, who made a remarkable adjustment and catch.

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Pistol tight end throwback

The tight end throwback is a really tricky play for a defense to defend because it messes with their rules. To defend boot, defenders will usually have “boot rules,” which, to put simply, is to get more pass coverage toward the side of the boot by having defenders quickly bump their zones toward that side. The theory is that quarterbacks will almost throw to the side they are booting away from.


In Norvell’s version of the tight end throwback, the running back that initially fakes the stretch left runs a wheel route. The tight end initially blocks the end on the side where Ferguson is booting toward before running a crossing route away from the bootside. The key to this play working is the backside guard’s (left) pull toward the right. He has to block the defensive end who cut loose after the tight end went on his route. This buys time for the quarterback to gather himself to make the throw across the grain

The tight end crossing route was wide open and Ferguson hit him. The back should have been farther ahead of the tight end for better spacing, but he did a good job of becoming a lead blocker after the tight end cauht the ball.

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Shallow cross with fade/wheel/swing

There are many, many pass concepts that stress the flat defender. Most of them involve two- man route combinations into the flat area, but Norvell does so with a vertical, wheel, and swing.


The defense was in a version of cover-3 that requires the flat defender to run the No. 2 if he runs a vertical route. The tight end is the No. 2 receiver and rans a deep dig route. The flat defender had to respect the tight end’s vertical stem and dropped far back. The flat defender saw the running back coming out of the backfield and he has to run with the wheel.

All this action left the H-back wide open in the flat, and Ferguson found him for an easy and nice gain on the play.

This play also included a shallow cross on the backside and Ferguson likely had the option of working that concept depending on what type of coverage the defense is in.

The screen game

Norvell’s screen game is explosive. It’s quite similar to Sean McVay’s screen game with the Los Angeles Rams. Norvell doesn’t do anything completely different, but the small tweaks he uses make all the difference.

On top of that, the Memphis players are extremely well-coached and execute at a high level. The timing of how the screens develops is impeccable. The offensive line does a good job of releasing to the second level right on time and blocks well in space. The pass-catchers on screens are good at setting up and following their blocks. Perhaps, it’s the fundamentals that are truly the secret to the screen game working.

Empty 2-tunnel screen


The Memphis offense was an empty formation with the three receiver side toward the field. The defense is in a quarters defense. The defensive back over the No. 2 receiver (Miller) is reading Miller and his eyes are on him. When the ball is snapped, Miller doesn’t move. It’s unclear whether this is done on purpose, but it works because the defensive back is frozen, which buys time for the No. 3 receiver to block him.

The tackle on the screen side tossed the defensive end out of the way and created a convoy with the guard and center. Miller did a great job of being patient and popped out of traffic when his blocks were set up.

Fly sweep PA slip screen from under center

This screen is one the Rams used with great success all throughout the 2017 season. Norvell runs it from under center and from shotgun.


The offense was in a tight formation with a tight end and wing to the right and twins to the left. Ferguson motioned the Z receiver over for the fly sweep fake. The tight end and wing arced out to the perimeter to block, which made the fake more believable. The next fake was to the running back toward the left.

The last part of the deception came when Ferguson pulls the ball back like it was a play action fake. The defensive line went for the bait and rushed him hard. The two guards and center release right as the back turned around for the pass. This sort of timing takes a lot of practice to get done but when it's done right, it's so difficult for the defense to read.

Another important detail is the play of the receiver to the left of the formation. Watch how he pushed hard vertically to hold the corner before making a hard cut inside to block the flat defender. By doing this, he delayed the corner for the offensive linemen to have more time to release. This creates a favorable blocking angle on the flat defender.


When Memphis runs this play from shotgun, the formation is slightly different, but all the same elements are there. There’s the fake fly sweep with arc block, fake to the back, before dropping back and throwing to him with the two guards and center leading the way.

It’s an extremely hard play for linebackers to diagnose with all of the fakes. It takes time to practice this sort of precision, but based on McVay’s and Norvell’s success running the screens, it's definitely worth the time investment.

Follow Ted Nguyen on Twitter at @FB_FilmAnalysis

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