Midway through the first quarter on Saturday, Tanner Lee lunged back as if to hand-off to tailback Tre Bryant on a routine Inside Zone Weak play, before reversing out, setting up, and unfurling an aerial shot that must’ve been tracked through the air by 90,000 eyes with the same awe and admiration that Francis Scott Key regarded the rocket’s red glare.
By the time the aerial had completed its trajectory, it fell perfectly into the hands of Stanley Morgan Jr. This opening salvo of the Tanner Lee experience was a thing of beauty, a pass that if we’re being honest, eludes the memory of having been completed on Tom Osborne field by the team we’re all partial to.
This play is one of Nebraska’s favorite play-action passes, an Inside Zone play fake, paired with Nebraska’s favorite route concept, the Sail concept; a One Back Spread and Air Raid staple that confounds defenses and is apt to change on the fly as defenses try to adjust within the aerial chess match of the passing game.
The Sail concept is conceptually defined as a strongside flood concept that looks to occupy all three levels of defensive coverage, the deep 1/3, the out area along the sideline, and the flat. The actual routes can differ in the Sail concept, but route distributions will always look to occupy those three zones to further stress defensive coverage.
You’re probably curious why this concept is named as such. That’s because the route of the #2 receiver, which can be either a slot receiver or a tight end, looks like a ship’s sail with its potential route conversions depending on coverage.
From a trips formation the route distributions will typically look as such:
Nebraska has rarely, if ever, run this formation from trips, however. Instead, the Sail concept has been utilized out of 2x2 sets, with the tailback running the flat route after the play fake. In the 2016 Music City Bowl, Nebraska utilized the same exact Inside Zone play-action pass with the Sail concept, although this time out of the Pistol formation to Cethan Carter running the Sail as the #2 receiver.
With a single post safety on the play, Stanley Morgan runs converts the vertical to a skinny post to open up room underneath for the Sail route. Carter goes out an outside release in order to widen the coverage out before “stacking” him, playing over the top of the defender in man coverage. Devine Ozigbo runs the flat route to hold any underneath defenders after his initial play fake.
Now that we know what the Sail concept looks like, we’ll take a look at the Stan the Man’s touchdown from Saturday and once again marvel at the beauty of a pass that it was.
Arkansas State comes out in split field coverage which automatically calls for the #1 receiver, Stanley, to maintain his vertical go route. Underneath, tight end Tyler Hoppes runs the Sail, pulling the safety up to the Sail route as it appears that Weak Safety is responsible for #2, as the corner has #1 as his route is vertical.
The frontside linebacker (FSLB) expands with Tre Bryant after initially biting on the play fake, as he is also the curl/flat defender underneath, as he bends back to the curl/flat area to defend Bryant’s flat route.
With split field coverage, Arkansas State’s safeties operate independently of one another, leaving one-on-one match-ups on the Sail side, with Stanley Morgan Jr. exploiting his cover man downfield.
Away from the Sail, the backside receivers can run a multitude of tagged routes, most up to the preferences that differ on a coordinator to coordinator basis. In the Husker offense, Nebraska likes to run its #2 weak, the in-line TE, on a check release, staying in for pass pro before releasing on a delayed route. The #1 weak will typically run a post route, which will be a home run if defenses begin to aggressively defending the Sail concept or if the safety to that side triggers down hard on the run.
The Huskers like this call to the boundary due to the fact that most times defenses are rotating coverage back to the field because there are a greater multitude of routes, both vertical and horizontal to defend against to the field.
In the case of the clip from last season’s Music City Bowl, Tennessee aligns to the Husker formation with the strong safety aligned closer to the box, away from the Sail side. When zones ‘kick’ over to the field, openings, or holes, in the zone will appear for an open man. Against man coverage, there is no defined zone to settle into, hence why receivers need to keep running, to exploit a potential mismatch.
With Nebraska’s affinity for the Sail concept, I foresee many more big plays this season off of the Sail concept, perhaps maybe from some looks we haven’t seen yet.