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A different kind of offense, and why it may have more juice than anyone thinks it will

Can Scott Turner pull off a little magic?

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NFL: Washington Football Team-Training Camp Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I haven’t written as many articles this off-season as I usually do. That’s been in part because, without pre-season games, it’s hard to have much to say, and in part because the pandemic has changed how I do my (real) job. As it turns out, teaching eight university classes per week online is a lot more time-devouring than doing it face-to-face.

But in the limited amount of writing I’ve done here on Hogs Haven this off-season, I’ve suggested a few times that the Football Team is likely to have a different look on offense this year, and that it may help cover for the lack of depth at offensive skill positions by deploying resources differently.

For example, in the absence of any great pass-catching tight ends, I think we may see that position used for more reliable blocking than we’ve seen from Jay Gruden teams in recent seasons, with targets thrown at tight ends perhaps less frequently and big-plays to TEs less of a possibility, but TEs still integral to the offense in the passing game. Logan Thomas may be in a position to finally establish himself as a legitimate NFL player.

Thanks to an excellent early off-season analysis by Mark Bullock, formerly of Hogs Haven and the Washington Post and currently of the Athletic, we can expect the Scott Turner offense to be based on pre-snap movement, repeated jet sweep motion and a lot of misdirection. This should allow the team to create mismatches and cause defensive hesitation as the opposition attempts to work out the assignment puzzle in the few moments before the snap. This should be an advantage, especially early in the season when defensive coordinators haven’t seen what Turner has in mind.

Something I talked about soon after Turner was hired, but not so much in recent weeks, is the possibility for two-back sets, which the coaches mentioned often in early discussions about what to expect from the new look team. Of course, Gruden never saw a two-back set that he liked. For Bill Callahan, a two-back set meant putting a linebacker in front of Adrian Peterson on a short yardage or goal-line play.

So, I imagine a lot of people who think of a two-back set in their minds may think strictly of a power running formation. Having watched other NFL teams, other fans might have a broader definition of a two-back set that might pair an inside runner like Peterson with a stretch outside zone runner or receiving threat of the Chris Thompson variety.

But if Riverboat Ron’s coaching staff commits all the way to, say, five running backs, and makes up the roster spots by limiting the number of wide receivers and tight ends they carry, then Scott Turner could have the capability to completely change the look of the offense by utilizing his running back combinations.

The running backs, if used in a certain way, can help make up for limited options at TE & WR. Imagine putting two backs on the field, for example, like Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic.

Pre-snap, you line up, say, with Gibson and McKissic both behind the QB, with Steven Sims Jr. on the left side of the formation. A moment after the defense aligns, McKissic shifts to the slot on the left; before the snap, Sims starts a jet sweep motion, running right across the formation.

The defense has a lot of work to do. They have to cover Terry McLaurin on the right side, the threat of Sims coming across the formation on a jet sweep (is he covered by a safety, LB or CB?), and McKissic possibly in a mismatch in the slot against a LB. If there’s a good mismatch in the passing game, Haskins should have an easy throw to someone. Sims on the jet sweep is a threat, and Haskins could always hand the ball off to Gibson for a between-the-tackles run while the defense is chasing all the speedy receiving threats.

If the offense is designed so that a series of plays all look similar and are run from similar formations, it is likely to create hesitation in the defense. In effect, the scheme makes use of the specific roster to highlight its strengths and mask its weaknesses, and to create an advantage by slowing down the reactions of the defense or misdirecting defensive players who continue to play fast.

Of course, the personnel packages and designs would have almost endless options. Bring in Hale Hentges or Jeremy Sprinkle as an in-line tight end and stack both Peyton Barber and Peterson in the backfield, or line up a TE in front of one of them as a FB, and it looks like a completely different offense.

Ron Rivera talked about this a bit on Saturday:

We’re talking about situational football. The playbook is what the playbook is. There is a group of plays for the position. Guys that are in those positions. Those are the guys that we have mapped out and said, ‘OK, this is a pool of plays for that position.’ Whether we call that position the X to Z, the F, the Y, the U or the H, those are the plays that are for it.

Now, when [RB] J.D. [McKissic] comes in the game in situational football, there is a set for his specific position.

With guys like Steven Sims and the tight end position with Logan [Thomas], or [WR] Terry [McLaurin], there’s plays that are designed for that[player at that] position. When those guys are specifically in that position, you’ll see those plays.

Every NFL coach does this — it’s not something created by Rivera or Turner — but I get the sense that the 2020 offense that we see on the field from the Washington team is going to be a dramatic change from what we saw from Jay Gruden, who seemed to do pretty well when he had Kirk Cousins and Jordan Reed, but seemed to struggle when he had to adapt to different rosters.

Prior to the 2012 season, NFL analysts predicted that RG3 would struggle because he wasn’t a traditional pocket passer, he had a small-school running back starting due to injury, and no elite receivers in the offense. The Shanahans, father and son, surprised the NFL by implementing the pistol formation, running zone-read options and limiting Griffin’s responsibility to reading half the field when passing. Alfred Morris ended up with 1,600+ yards and Griffin won offensive rookie of the year honors. Pierre Garcon, who had been the 3rd or 4th receiving option in Indianapolis, sparked a successful career of making tough catches again and again in Washington. That 2012 offense was successful because no one was ready for it, and it was tailored to the players on the roster. I’ll never forget the stunning opening week victory in the New Orleans Superdome when the Redskins simply steamrolled Drew Brees and the Saints.

I see 2020 as a similar opportunity with a totally different roster and coaching staff implementing a totally different type of offense. What will be similar, I think, is the inability of opposing teams to predict and plan for the offense, and the commitment from the young offensive coordinator to adapt his scheme to the personnel.

If the WFT runs a totally standard NFL offense, then they are clearly underpowered at the skill positions of TE and WR. But if the coaching staff is doing what I suspect they are, and implementing a scheme designed to optimize what they have — and they have a stable of skilled running backs with different strengths and styles —- then I think there’s a chance that they could surprise a lot of people.

The big challenge would remain the offensive line, but if Geron Christian Sr. has made the progress expected of him when he was drafted and can hold down the LT position, then the team really only needs one player (Martin, Scweitzer, Ismael, Garnett, Charles or Pierschbacher) to step up at LG. When I think of it that way, I feel a lot better.

In any event, two weeks from today, the Washington Football Team will host the Philadelphia Eagles at the normal time of 1 p.m. Let’s hope we have a little of the magic left in the storeroom that the franchise used on the Saints to open the 2012 season.

It’s just possible that they do.