This week, Texas coach Mack Brown pointed out that packaged plays — where a team has a run and pass play programmed into the same playcall — were used at all levels of football, and had become common. But that hasn't always been the case. And here, I'm going to talk specifically about stick/draw, a play that Oklahoma State — and the Longhorns' next opponent, West Virginia — runs quite a bit that packages the "stick" passing concept with that of a standard halfback draw.
First, let's talk about the stick. The general stick concept has two components. First, an inside receiver or tight end runs a "stick" route, essentially a short "run straight and sit down between six-to-eight yards downfield in an opening" route. The second component is an arrow or short out route, and is run either by another inside receiver, or at times, a running back. The goal is to make the outside linebacker choose who's open. If he flows to the out route, you hit the stick. If he sits on the stick, you hit the out. It's a high percentage completion, particularly against zone coverage.
The stick itself is a highly effective play. But what Oklahoma State will do is pair a run-of-the-mill halfback draw alongside it. The quarterback reads the stick, and then, if it's covered or isn't there, he hands the ball off to the running back.
Here's a diagram of the stick/draw, with huge thanks to SmartFootball.com.
Chris Brown, author of SmartFootball.com and must-read The Essential Smart Football, said the stick/draw is a concept that current West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen ran at Houston, though Brown first noticed it when Holgorsen manned the offense at Oklahoma State.
"Honestly, I saw it early on but wasn't sure it was what I thought — you could see Brandon Weeden throwing the stick route while the line blocked draw, and the receivers running stick when he handed off, but I didn't know for sure it was a true "packaged play" read until Holgorsen did a chalk-talk diagram with Dave Ubben of ESPN breaking it down back in 2010," Brown said.
The stick-draw was just the beginning. Another play included packaging a run with a screen pass, among other concepts.
"In addition to stick/draw, while at Oklahoma State Holgorsen began simply tagging various downfield routes for outside receivers on running plays and giving the quarterback the option of where to go with the ball," Brown said. "He said they initially used the concept in the red zone, but expanded it over the course of the season to be used anywhere on the field. [Current OSU offensive coordinator Todd] Monken continued that last season, packaging a screen or a downfield pass — or both — with almost every single run play."
The result was the proliferation of packaged plays that Texas fans will see on Saturday, and again next week. But what challenges do those packaged plays place on the defense?
"The big thing it does is it builds the constraints and counters right into the play," Brown said. "As the legendary Homer Smith said, it's constraints and counters that make plays work. As Smith, former offensive coordinator for UCLA and Alabama put it:
'Every primary backfield action needs to threaten all 11 defenders. What a primary play needs is good counter plays. Every defender needs to be worried about the ball coming to his area – on a throwback screen, a reverse, a play-action pass, or whatever – as a play begins.
"What makes a defender good is something to read. If he can say to himself something like, 'As soon as that quarterback makes that half-assed fake, I’m going to find the tight end coming across and try to get an interception,' if he can read initially and react accurately, he can play over his head. Counters, not mirrored primary plays, keep defenders from reading and jumping on plays.'
"The packaged plays just builds all that stuff right in, so that the quarterback can make any of the defenders pay, put them in conflict, and reduce the need for the offensive coordinator to be perfect in calling the right play at the right time," Brown continued. "That is an overrated skill."
The primary defensive strategy, according to Brown, is "just to play honest."
"There's a logic to these plays that's hard to argue with; a big reason that offensive numbers have been going up in recent years is that defenses can't cheat to take advantage of obvious weaknesses on offense, and can't rely on just winning the guessing game," Brown said. "But on the other hand there's nothing magic about them, and if you can stuff the run with numbers or handle a receiver one-on-one, there's nothing in a packaged play that magically makes you unable to do that. Although the packaged plays make sure you can't just play the run and ignore the pass or vice-versa, you can still create your game plan and execute it.
"We've all seen these teams shut down before," Brown said. "And even more importantly, especially for a defense like [Texas defensive coordinator Manny] Diaz's, the defense can still disrupt these sorts of plays and force the quarterback -- and receivers, and offensive line -- to make decisions both quickly and while getting hit."
Watch Tyrann Mathieu blow up a screen pass packaged with a run against West Virginia last year.
Brown said that defending packaged plays is somewhat like playing the option: "You have to play assignment football, and specifically smart assignment football given that the opposing coaches know how to switch it up to expose your assignments if they are predictable, and if you play passively they will read your defenders and make them wrong, every time.
"As a result your defense has to play aggressively, carrying out their assignments as fast as possible: if you have the screen, blow up the screen; if you have the quarterback, blow up the quarterback; if you have the B gap, dominate the B gap; if you're in man coverage, shut your guy down," Brown said. "If you don't, it'll be a long day, but if you do, you can really frustrate the other team. As always, good defense comes down to playing fast, and doing your job."