After losing its top two wide receivers — DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon — in free agency, Washington has questions to answer regarding the direction of its offense. While the team did add big name free agent Terrelle Pryor, Redskins coach Jay Gruden pointed out that Washington retained the biggest part of its offense.
“The offense runs through Jordan, quite frankly,” Gruden said at the recent NFL owners meeting. Indeed, the tight end is the key to Washington’s offense. His ability as a receiver makes him a matchup nightmare. He’s too quick for linebackers and safeties, too big for most corners. His route running rivals that of the league’s top wide receivers, while his elusiveness after the catch is like that of a running back.
But Reed’s value is more than just his ability. It’s the way Washington uses him creatively in a variety of different formations and route combinations that makes the offense work so well.
One of the most common ways Washington uses Reed is to isolate him on one side of the field, with three wide receivers lined up on the opposite side. From this type of look, the defense is almost forced to declare its intent before the snap. With three receivers overloaded on one side of the field and Reed isolated on the other, the defense has to bring all three cornerbacks to the receiver side and use a linebacker or safety on Reed out wide if they want to play man coverage. If they leave corners on both sides of the field, the offense gets a big indicator before the snap that it’s zone coverage.
Obviously, having a strong indication of man or zone coverage before the snap is a huge advantage for the quarterback. Washington takes maximum advantage of this by splitting the quarterback’s read depending on the coverage. If he gets man coverage as expected by the alignment, Kirk Cousins can work to his right, where Reed is a tough match for any safety to cover man-to-man. If he gets zone coverage, then Cousins can work to his left, where Jamison Crowder and the since-departed DeSean Jackson combine in the slot with a zone coverage beater. Crowder’s corner route and Jackson’s over route put stress on a deep half safety in any zone coverage.
The Cowboys do try to disguise their coverage a little bit, rotating their safeties from two-deep to cover-one robber, with one deep safety and another in the hole underneath. But all that means is that Reed is completely on an island against Cowboys safety Byron Jones. Jones is about as good as any safety in the league in man coverage, but Reed is too good even for him. He gets an outside release but doesn’t stray too far from the boundary, giving Cousins room to work with. Cousins delivers a throw only Reed can make a play on and Reed comes up with a fantastic one-handed catch.
Washington will run a variety of different route combinations from this look. Often in short-yardage situations, they’ll run a simple slant-flat combination with Reed running the slant and running back Chris Thompson working to the flat. Cousins will work to that side if the defense plays man coverage, but will have a zone-beating concept, such as a double-stick on the back side, if the defense plays zone.
But isolating Reed to one side isn’t the only way Washington uses him. Another common occurrence is stacking him with Crowder in the slot. The two will then run a route combination where one beats man coverage while the other beats zone. This was particularly evident in Washington’s win over Green Bay this season.
Here, the Packers show a blitz, with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and nickel defender Micah Hyde both rolled up near the line if scrimmage. But Green Bay actually drops back into a basic Tampa-two zone coverage. Reed and Crowder share a route combination designed to get at least one of them open. Crowder runs straight down the middle of the field, with the intent of splitting any two-deep safety coverages while Reed runs a dig route in the vacated space behind Crowder.
Crowder sprints down the middle of the field, which forces the mike (middle) linebacker, who has to sink to split the safeties, to turn and run with him. That vacates a big hole in the middle of the field for Reed to break into. Cousins does a good job avoiding pressure and finding Reed in the middle of the field for a big gain.
Later in the same game, both teams showed the exact same look.
This time, however, the Packers decide to send the blitz instead of just showing it. Both Clinton-Dix and Hyde blitz, leaving two linebackers in man coverage against Reed and Crowder, who run the same route combination.
With the Packers playing man instead of zone, Cousins knows he can go to Crowder instead of Reed. Crowder easily runs past the linebacker in coverage and makes a good catch before being tackled just short of the end zone.
Washington can also use this look to isolate Reed against a single defender, regardless of the defensive coverage.
It’s a similar look for Washington, with Reed and Crowder stacked in the slot. But this time, Crowder runs a standard underneath crossing route, where he reads the coverage and sits down in a hole against a zone or keeps running against man. Meanwhile, Reed runs what appears to be an option route, where Reed reads the defense and then makes the decision to break inside or outside depending on the coverage.
The Packers run a two-deep zone coverage, which is usually designed to protect coverage defenders and keep everything in front of them. However, Crowder’s route takes the attention of the inside zone defender, leaving nickel defender Micah Hyde isolated against Reed. Reed has a two-way go against Hyde, squaring him up before making a lethal cut inside. Cousins waits for Reed to pick his choice on the route and then pulls the trigger on an easy completion for a first down and more.
Another way Washington makes use of Reed is by sending him in motion before the snap. Like when they isolate him on one side of the field; motioning Reed can force the defense to reveal its hand and give the offense a clue to its intent.
Out of the huddle, Reed lines up to the left as part of a bunch trips formation. But he soon motions to the right of the formation, stacking with Pierre Garcon. With this motion, the defense either has to have a man follow him, which would indicate man coverage, or rotate their defensive backs, indicating zone coverage. The Giants do the latter, rotating three defensive backs, tipping off Kirk Cousins that they are in zone coverage.
Washington then can use a simple corner-flat route combination, which is designed to beat a two-deep zone coverage.
Thanks to the pre-snap motion, Cousins knows he is likely facing zone coverage. He checks the deep safety just after the snap to check if he works to the middle of the field or stays part of a two-deep zone. The safety stays where he is, so Cousins knows he can work the corner-flat side of the field. Cousins then does an excellent job selling a pump fake to Reed underneath in the flat, getting the outside corner to bite up and create more space in behind him on the corner route to Garcon. Cousins delivers an excellent pass to Garcon that the safety had no chance in preventing.
While Washington will certainly miss Garcon and Jackson, the offense clearly runs through Jordan Reed. Reed’s exceptional ability as a receiver from the tight end position makes him the biggest threat in this offense. The creative use of formations, pre-snap motion and route combinations, to go alongside Reed’s ability, dictate a lot of what the defense can do. That makes the reads for the quarterback much easier than they would be in an offense without Reed.