Matt Barkley and USC’s “Sluggo Seam” Play
The Heisman Trophy is won on the field, but that hasn’t stopped Southern Cal quarterback Matt Barkley from going about his campaign a bit differently. Instead of just sending out awkwardly filmed DVDs to Heisman voters, Barkley has gone the high-tech route with ploys like designing an iPhone app and answering questions on Reddit.
Along with giving USC’s director of social media something to do, the Reddit Q&A also elicited some information we might not normally get from the Heisman favorite. One intrepid Reddit user was particularly helpful when asking Barkley what his favorite play was. “Be honest,” MrShift4 admonished. “None of this ‘spreading the ball to my teammates’ stuff.” So Barkley was, replying: “Solo Personel [sic]. ‘Z Mo to Trouble Right 82 Stay Sluggo Z Win.’ On Two. TD.”
To understand Barkley’s answer, it’s necessary to understand USC’s offense. When Pete Carroll took the head-coaching job at USC, he hired longtime BYU assistant coach Norm Chow as his offensive coordinator. Carroll wanted the vaunted passing offense the Cougars had used for decades to topple superior foes and develop future NFL quarterbacks like Jim McMahon and Steve Young. To go along with that philosophy, Carroll also wanted to incorporate some of the latest NFL schemes, and his two young offensive assistants — former BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian and a young Lane Kiffin — were assigned the job of bringing those ideas to USC.
Kiffin in particular relished this task, spending long hours in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers film room with Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. Gruden was a student of the West Coast offense, the pass-first, timing-based offense designed by former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh. Kiffin absorbed everything he could about Gruden’s brand of the West Coast offense, and quickly USC’s coaches began meshing some of the latest NFL concepts with the core of their offense. After Chow left USC, Kiffin became co-offensive coordinator along with Sarkisian, before leaving to become head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee, and finally returning Southern Cal. During this time, Kiffin built a somewhat sordid reputation off the field, but on it, he continued to tinker with his offense.
Among the plays Kiffin took from Gruden was one of the oldest, most reliable West Coast offense concepts: “sluggo seam,” or, as Kiffin and Barkley refer to it, “82 stay sluggo Z win.” Sluggo seam has long been one of the best home-run passes in the West Coast offense, so it is no surprise that Barkley would adopt the play as his own personal favorite.
Setting aside the personnel and formation Barkley lays out (the play can be run from various formations) the key parts of the play call are “82 stay,” “sluggo,” and “Z win.”
“Stay” tells the tight end that he must stay in and pass protect. “82” tells the offense that they are “slide” or “gap” protection, which means each lineman is responsible for blocking whichever defender might show up in his specific area.
“Sluggo” is more interesting. It’s the old Bill Walsh term for a “slant-and-go,” and here, it’s the quarterback’s first read. The receiver sprints off the line for three steps and breaks inside for a couple more before bursting vertically up the field. The outside receiver on the multiple-receiver side simply runs a six-yard stop route, and, along with the running back, serves as an outlet for Barkley.
“Z win” is what Kiffin and Barkley call the West Coast “seam” or “seam read” route. The slot receiver runs 10 to 12 yards and then has a choice: If there is one safety playing center field in the middle, the receiver stays in the seam and gets directly vertical; if there are two deep safeties, the receiver splits the two of them down the middle. In other words, he must get open — or “win” — deep.
Barkley takes a three-step drop and pump fakes to the slant. If the sluggo receiver is open after breaking back up the field, Barkley will toss him the ball up the sideline for a big play. But more often than not, the defense overreacts not only to the pump fake but also to the second part of the route. This opens up the “Z win” on the backside. Let’s look at an example of exactly that.
This is a play from USC’s game against Oregon last season. After the snap, Barkley drops back and looks to his left for the sluggo route, which Oregon covers.
The play works exactly as intended. Oregon’s defense — known for being fast and aggressive — overreacts to the sluggo and Barkley’s pump fake, and this opens plenty of space on the backside for USC’s great receiver, Robert Woods, to exploit.
His first read covered, Barkley shifts, resets his feet, and turns to look for Woods on the win route. With Woods winning, Barkley lets it fly.
Good execution only looks easy, and this is no different. The pump fake and Woods’s combination of speed and technique allowed him to get inside leverage, but a completion still needed a well-placed ball and great catch. Here’s the play in real time.
Fortunately for Kiffin — and all coaches — schemes look much smarter when the line gives time, the quarterback throws an accurate ball, and the best receiver in the country goes up and makes a fantastic catch. This is why Southern Cal will be so difficult to stop this year. And if Barkley does win the Heisman, it’ll be because USC completed a few sluggo seams along the way.