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The people’s guide to Joe Burrow

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With a bonus mini guide to Clyde Edwards-Helaire!

LSU’s been so successful on offense in 2019 that people fast-forwarded straight to the jokes.

“Where’s the fullback?” “LSU finally brought their offense out of the stone age.” “LSU continues to employ the same coach responsible for that offense, and didn’t even take him out of the booth or remove his title as offensive coordinator.”

That last one isn’t a jab, because that’s what LSU actually did. Remember that no one will ever make up anything funnier than reality, and that I have never told a joke.

Skipping straight to the jokes is cheating, though. It means bypassing the amazement of seeing LSU actually run an offense from the 21st century. The Tigers somehow stayed a reliable second or third in the SEC West for over a decade with the 1985 NFL’s finest offense. They ran on first down most of the time, asked their quarterbacks to turn their backs to the defense on play-action, and rarely used a quick passing game. Receivers stayed in the same alignments on every play. Punts happened, and happened frequently.

Yet, there stands LSU’s 2019 offense, a thing of terror and wonder not just because it’s so strange to watch the Tigers actually embrace scoring, but for the insane numbers it produces. LSU is second in the nation in points, trailing only Ohio State, cruising through the 2019 regular season at a clip of 48.7 points per game. Quarterback Joe Burrow averages 363 yards a game. Those yards don’t rely on throwing short and watching his receivers get yards after the catch: Burrow’s attempts go 10.9 yards each, and into the endzone more frequently than any quarterback in the nation. Anthony Gordon of Washington State is the only quarterback with more touchdown passes than Burrow, but his 45 TDs came on 645 attempts. Burrow threw one fewer touchdown in the regular season than Gordon, and did it on just 401 passing attempts.

Joe Burrow sometimes struggled to complete half of his passes in 2018. In 2019, he found a touchdown one out of every ten times he threw the ball.

How did LSU accomplish this, exactly, after years of offense being an unspectacular placeholder for the LSU defense?

They started revamping the LSU offense last year. A training-wheels version of a revamp, at least, began in earnest in 2018. LSU began working more shotgun into the playbook. They played around with run-pass options. It ended up looking a lot like every other LSU offense on the scoreboard, especially against Alabama in a 29-0 loss, but the stunning results in 2019 didn’t come completely out of nowhere.

They hired a finisher. Think of LSU’s offensive progress like something from every home improvement reality show you’ve ever seen. Someone wanted crown molding. Someone decided to save money by doing it and the drywall themselves. That same someone screwed it up, realized they lacked the skills and knowledge to pull it off, and had to pay someone else to come in and properly finish the job.

LSU’s offense midway through 2018 was that failed home improvement project. After getting shutout by Alabama, Ed Orgeron and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger abandoned half-measures and decided to run an actual, live spread offense in 2019. More importantly, they hired someone else to do it: the Saints’ Joe Brady, whose relatively thin resume as a coach under Sean Payton and Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead was bolstered by actually knowing what a modern passing game looked like.

LSU now does a lot of little things that make a lot of sense. That finisher they hired? He added a lot of little details that make all the difference in the final product.

LSU’s always had amazing skill players, but never a system to exploit all of them at once. That’s seemingly fixed now, all in so many simple ways other spread offenses use to make life easier on everyone but the opposing defense.

The running backs, for instance, still get the ball a lot on first down. They just touch it through the passing game in space now, often on swing passes, flat routes away from traffic in the middle of the field. LSU’s best receivers get moved around to maximize matchups, frequently working from the slot against slower linebackers or safeties. Play-action happens on any down now, because Joe Brady understands that “establishing the run” is a lie, and also because Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a recognized threat the second he steps onto the field.

The short passing game is especially important. It’s nothing revolutionary, standard stuff taken straight from any NFL playbook. But with Burrow getting the ball out faster to his receivers, making protections easier for the offensive line, and finding his rhythm almost immediately? It doesn’t need to be, especially with defenses struggling to tackle LSU’s stable of dynamic receivers one-on-one.

That short-to-intermediate passing game causes fits for the opponent. If the defense comes up to press, it opens up the deep passing game and clears up run lanes for the backs. If they fall back, then the defense gets diced to pieces with underneath and crossing routes.

The options for a defense are bad in all directions. Individually, LSU’s receivers are already better than your defensive backs. When paired up in very mean route combinations, they become a plague.

Burrow probably could have thrown to either receiver at the top of the screen. Both were open on the play because there are no good choices for someone trying to defend LSU. There is only quick death vs. slow dying. Choose one, or have the choice made for you.

NOTE: LSU may choose both for you, as they did for Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and several other teams this year who got long scoring drives, short scoring drives, and everything in between.

The LSU offense now runs through Burrow...

That sentence made no sense a year ago, when Burrow could struggle to hit more than 50% of his passes in a game. Yet in 2019, with only a marginal increase in the total number of passes attempted — LSU is only attempting a little under four more passes per game than they did in 2018 — Burrow has become the most accurate passer in college football.

That trend towards accuracy started with LSU’s last four games of 2018, when Burrow was above 60% in every game. 2019, though, has been in another category altogether. Playing in the shotgun almost exclusively, Burrow is completing 78% of his passes. That kind of number usually comes with an offense calling a ton of bubble screens, but LSU isn’t doing that, exactly. They’re hitting short-to-intermediate passes on key downs, taking what defenses give them, and then turning those into longer gains in space.

This is Joe Burrow doing very smart things on 3rd down

Joe Brady’s offensive tweaks have helped, sure. Those easier throws matter beyond moving the sticks, getting Burrow into a rhythm with short completions.

The effect of passing on first down confidently and repeatedly goes well beyond establishing rhythm, though. LSU might have only tipped the scales towards the pass a little, but in doing so went from 91st in the country in pass/run ratio in 2018 to 28th. The margins matter immensely here, because it’s not like LSU started throwing fifty passes a game. Instead, they made passing a priority, changed their playcall sequencing, and decided getting eight yards on first down through the air was better than getting two on the ground.

They’ve done all of this without sacrificing the quality of the run game. 2018 Caveman LSU and 2019 Sexy Death Valkyrie LSU should end up around the same in terms of rushing yardage, around 2200 yards in 13 games at the current pace. The shocking thing for a casual bystander may be how passing more on first down made the run game so much better in terms of moving the chains. 2019 LSU is second in the nation in total first downs, a wild improvement over 2018 when the Tigers were 39th in that category. LSU gained 129 first downs running the ball in the bad old days of 2018. Passing more overall, the 2019 Tigers already have 121 rushing first downs this season, and should eclipse that easily by the year’s end. Utterly shocking news: A three yard run has much more value on 2nd and 2 than it does on first and ten!

Put another way: LSU made the pieces of their offense fit, and made both the run and pass games better in the process. Add in Burrow being video-game, flag-football genius accurate when he’s facing the defense the whole time, and LSU’s success was already cooked and ready by the first snap of the season.

...but the most important option on every play for LSU is Clyde Edwards-Helaire

Height: 5’9”. Shadow cast: Like he’s at least twenty feet tall. It is so hard to overstate how important Edwards-Helaire is to LSU’s offensive success, and specifically to Burrow’s improvement and effectiveness overall. His 1200 yards rushing make going play-action on any down a reality, and allow Burrow to take short completions on first down without worrying too much about moving the chains on the next downs.

In the receiving game, Edwards-Helaire is a pesky nightmare. Out of the backfield as an outlet receiver, he can embarrass linebackers and nickelbacks by turning one yard catches into first downs.

He’s not just an outlet receiver, though. He hits angle routes into the open field against slower defenders and makes them pay with the B-button.

...and can head downfield as a receiving threat with shocking ease. Behold! Edwards-Helaire looks like he’s been playing in the slot for years.

LSU’s offensive line has been so good in 2019 that they haven’t even needed Edwards-Helaire to pass-protect that often. That’s probably good for everyone, both because Edwards-Helaire is such an asset as a receiver, and because people tend to start flying when he picks up blitzes.

LSU did something most other teams only say they will do: putting their players in a position to succeed. The most dramatic difference to the eye — besides watching Burrow gun his way down the field like the second coming of Johnny Manziel — is the space the receivers have for LSU in this scheme. Ja’Marr Chase would be a problem in any offense, and in any situation. Get him manned up in a spread with a QB who can throw a back shoulder fade? Evil, just pure evil.

Getting the ball to Chase, though, is at its best a team effort, and is done most dangerously when teams fear Justin Jefferson or tight end Thaddeus Moss catching the ball underneath. Jefferson already gets plenty of attention all by himself, challenging defensive backs to keep up with him for the length of the field on crossing routes.

So if LSU’s number one receiver Chase can already get a long way to wide open by himself, then scheme can make him downright lonely back there. Put in a quick play-action fake and run routes combos designed to confuse the safeties, and Ja’Marr Chase gets so open he can jog to the endzone.

LSU did all this, and still has the one thing they really couldn’t screw up while retooling the offense. Sometimes, Burrow still does that thing he could always do: pull off huge plays under pressure when LSU needs them most.

This is Joe Burrow turning a tight one-score game into a two-score victory with one play

So far, that combination has equaled complete misery for defenses. Compare their work so far to the 2018 offense, when receivers often worked with blanket coverage thanks to predictable play-calling and nothing in the scheme to help them get separation. It is a world of difference, especially when the short passing game lets them work fast off slants and quick outs to shake free and turn small receptions into big gains.

In summary: LSU’s offense now plays a lot like their defense does. For years, the LSU defense has prided itself on having dynamic players working in a system that allowed them to flourish off quick decision-making. It only took 15 years or so, but LSU finally decided to go out and get an offense to match.

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