Go Inside the Offensive Mind of Coach Koetter
Editor's Note: X&O Labs' Senior Research Manager Mike Kuchar was granted exclusive access to Dirk Koetter to discuss his four verticals. This interview took place during the summer of 2011. Coach Koetter is now the Offensive Coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons.
Entering his 30th year in coaching, Dirk Koetter has coached at all levels of football - from high school to the pros. Now as the offensive coordinator of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, and having mentored the likes of Andrew Walter and Dave Garrard, his name is well respected among QB coaches in the league. This season he’ll get his crack at working with the Jaguars first round draft pick Blaine Gabbert.
This past week Coach Koetter spoke exclusively with X&O Labs’ senior research manager, Mike Kuchar, as part of our new Q&A series. As an active reader of X&O Labs’ research reports, Koetter shared his thoughts on offensive play-calling, designing the pass game and some new wrinkles on the four vertical concept.
As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post in our ‘Comments’ section below this interview.
Mike Kuchar (MK): How many different types of pass concepts (play-actions, boots, shots, etc.) will you typically enter a game plan with? How might this change from week to week based on your opponent?
Dirk Koetter (DK): Concepts and actions can overlap. Within each action you have concepts. You have to have a quick game, a three, five and seven step drop back, and a couple ways to move the pocket like sprint out or bootleg. You have to have some hard play action where you’re selling the run then you have to have some basic play action with protection. That is a starting point every week for us. We have a game plan process that doesn’t change. We try to feature those things every week but certain types of blitzing defense can alter that. Certain teams will only blitz you to the field or boundary or certain blitzes can hurt a certain action. So you might stay away from that action for that particular week.
MK: What are your thoughts on developing routes to attack certain coverages? Is it more productive to design universal routes that are solid against all coverages?
DK: That’s a dilemma for most coaches. We all have our favorite cover two beaters, cover three beaters or man beaters. Then what if it isn’t what you get? We do both. We have cover beaters and we have all purpose routes. The important thing to consider is how are you giving your QB answers? How are you teaching your QB to determine or recognize coverage? When you have defensive coordinators that mix up their coverages, now you can’t just break out your man-beaters. Are you going to give your QB the option to change the play based on a check with me system or based on a package? Are you going to do something at the line of scrimmage, like run a motion, to determine man or zone? Or, are you going to have something that beats certain coverage on one side and something universal on the other side? Those are hard questions that need to be weighed every week and we do all of those things.
MK: When designing a passing game at your level, is it more important to design routes based on the skill set of your receivers or to use universal route structures, and continue to coach your players on how to run them?
DK: At the NFL level your pass game is more universal than anywhere else because there is a lot of tried and proven route combinations that almost every team in the NFL runs. Most teams run similar offenses with similar players. At the college and high school level you have a lot more variation in style and more of a discrepancy in talent and skill. In the NFL everyone is good. You have a tendency to be more slanted to what your players do at the lower levels. The best coaches out there, no matter what level they are coaching, can adjust to their player’s strengths.
MK: Many coaches preach getting their players the ball, but is there a specific chart or sheet that you use on game day to break it down into percentages for each player?
DK: We do this in the off-season. When you’re in the room game planning, every position coach is fighting for his guys so you try to break it up by the amount of plays in the game. So if there are 64 plays in an NFL game, we’re going to run the ball X amount of times. If you’re a balanced offense, like we strive to be, that means you’re running the ball half the time. So now you’re left with 32 snaps in the passing game. Those can get used up pretty fast. So you need to make sure you allot the specific plays for each player you want to get the ball to. As far as balance on who touches the ball, I’m not overly concerned with that specifically, as long as the QB is making good decisions based on what the defense does. You can’t be afraid to feed your stud, I got that from Dan Henning, but you also want to reward your role players.
MK: You’ve coached at all levels of football. What was the biggest adjustment you had to make when you starting coaching in the NFL?
DK: The higher level you go, the more difficult it is to lock someone into coverage. When I was a college and high school coach, I always thought that having the hash marks closer together in the NFL would be a huge advantage to the offense because you’re closer to the middle of the field. But really what I’ve learned is having those hashes closer makes it way more difficult to determine coverage because defenses can disguise those safeties. They won’t move until the last second. The higher the level, the more schemes you have. You have combination coverages, split field coverages (where there is man on one side and a zone concept on the other). You have these trap coverages now, where they are zone blitzing you and trying to trap your hot receiver. Your route concepts can be beat in three ways: by coverage, by protection or by individual breakdowns. Those are the kinds of things you need to break down every week.
MK: How do you design your pass concepts? Do you use a number system or a concept system? Which do you feel is easier to adjust as a coach or to comprehend as a player?
DK: We use both numbers and concepts. I’m a concept oriented guy. I think concepts benefit you because you can plug different guys into different formations into different personnel groups and if they understand the concept it gives you more flexibility. But, I also think there is a place for a route tree and a number system. We primarily only use our number system on mirrored routes and the quick game. The number system restricts you because it doesn’t allow you to cover all the combinations you want to use so you have to get into so many tags that eventually you’re calling everybody’s route. In route concepts, one word can describe anything. In my experience, most kids can visualize one word concepts better. If someone gets hurt and you have to move people around, it helps you. That’s why, in my opinion, words or concept systems are better in the long run.
MK: What has been the most productive horizontal stretch pass concept that you have used throughout your career?
DK: I look at the concept of four verticals to be a horizontal stretch route. I look at a vertical stretch as three levels: you’re stretching the defense high, intermediate and low. Four verticals don’t really do that. They call it four verticals. Whoever came up with that based it on what the offensive guys are doing. It stretches the field horizontally. Number one, we have a whole bunch of ways to tag it and change it. It’s more complicated than four guys running down the field. In its purist form, if you’re running four verticals against a three deep zone you’re working a horizontal stretch against a free safety. Or if you’re running a four vertical concept against a two deep zone you’re going two on one on the half field safety. That is a horizontal stretch on a safety. When people think about horizontal stretch they think a curl/flat concept. But a curl/flat concept is too easily defeated by a two deep, five under coverage. It’s not my favorite. There would be a place for it, but it’s not my favorite. What I like about a four vertical package, based on how you tweak it, you could give your QB an answer against any coverage. The weakness of it is that you need to be in five or six man protection. There’s no way you can get four verticals protecting with seven or eight.
MK: You can’t go to a clinic these days without seeing at least a handful of speakers addressing the four vertical pass game. What is it about the scheme that has made it so en-vogue lately?
DK: To me, it’s something that has been around for over 15 years now. Depending on your level of competition, your conference affiliation and the part of the country you live, it’s really not that new. Where I’m at, it’s probably more out of vogue, and done by guys who only truly believe in it. From an offensive coach’s standpoint, you get the ball to your playmakers running down the field vertically. It’s the perfect formula for an explosive play. It’s not like you’re in 2x2 and you’re throwing quick outs to the outside and stick routes to the inside. You might complete that concept 67 percent of the time, but you’re only getting six yard plays. However, you may complete four verticals 48 percent of the time but you’re getting 18 yard gains, those are the kinds of plays I like better. I don’t like to work hard for four yard gains.
MK: What tweaks or adjustments in the four vertical passing game have you incorporated to make it more effective?
DK: How you change the benders and what you do with the guys on the outside have had the most impact on the route. We rarely have the outside players on "goes." We’ve incorporated a stop pattern or a read stop pattern. We’ve been doing a ton of different things with Maurice Jones Drew at the running back position. We release him over the ball, we chip him out (help on a defensive end), and we release him and run him on an angle route.
MK: How often are you getting that remaining back out on routes? It’s great clinic talk to have him matched up on a middle linebacker (Mike), but it seems offensives rarely get the time needed on protection for that.
DK: Some teams in the NFL do, and they do a great job of that. We have more success when we release him to a side and have him chip his way out off of blocking their best pass rusher. We get him on a leak route, by "leaking" out over the original alignment of the offensive tackle. This way you can’t get him caught up in the traffic. We call it a leak option (Diagram 1) where as he chips off the end, if he’s not manned up, he will show his numbers to the QB and leak slowly to the perimeter. It takes too long for him to find a way through the A or B gap, push up to six yards and turn around and sit down. If he just leaks or drifts, it’s much easier to find. Plus you hit him on the move with him facing the defense. So your chance for a bigger gain is better.
If the Mike will match the RB like some quarters teams do, then we give that back the option to push up and break off of him (Diagram 2). It should always be a win for the offense, with our tailback on their Mike, as long as you give the QB time.
If you’re having issues with protecting, get into a 3x1 or a 2x2 set, protect with five and free release the back. New Orleans did it from empty with Reggie Bush when they won the Super Bowl. Bush would run the crossing route in the middle of the field (Diagram 3). Your Mike LB is isolated on Bush. That would get people out of quarters fast. It’s taking some coaches a long time to realize how important that player is. On many teams, that’s your best offensive player, so to have him just standing there doing nothing with a vertical concept is non-productive. So why not use him as a weapon?
MK: That’s interesting, because many teams will run a quarters concept when they anticipate four verticals.
DK: Quarters would be a good coverage if a defense knew you would be in a four vertical package. But that’s where you get into tweaking what you do with your outside receivers. If you’re seeing quarters coverage against a four vertical concept, it means your outside receivers are one-on-one without much help underneath and your tailback is one-on-one with the Mike. So you still have some decent answers. Like I said, the vertical game would not be the first thing I drew up if I knew I was getting quarters but it certainly wouldn’t stop me from running the play.
MK: Is getting the ball to your outside receivers an automatic adjustment for you in quarters, or will you still try to attack the middle of the field vs.quarters safeties?
DK: If they are a good quarters team, whether they are a 4-3 or in nickel coverage, they will try to re-route your inside receivers with their outside linebackers. They have safeties essentially playing man over the top. I’m not a big believer that you can hit your benders against quarters coverage. Anything can be done, and I’ve seen it done. But I think that’s a low percentage play. I think the percentage play against quarters in four verticals is you’re working your outside guys on some kind of stops or lock stops. If you’re seeing quarters with off coverage, any kind of out-breaking route or a comeback or stop route at 15 yards is like a pitch and catch. The other thing is if the outside backers are trying to re-route number two and run underneath number one, that Mike linebacker has a ton of room he has to cover with the back.
MK: Coach, it’s been a pleasure working with you and thank you for being an X&O Labs subscriber.
DK: Thank you. At the Jaguars, we’re enjoying what you are doing for the coaching community. Keep up the good work.
Researchers’ Note: You are reading the summary version of the Dirk Koetter interview. To access the full version of this interview – including Coach Koetter's additional diagrams – please CLICK HERE.
If you have questions or comments, please post in the ‘Comments’ section below.