Near the end of LSU’s first possession last Saturday, a screen developed outside Texas’ red zone.
Quarterback Joe Burrow gathered the ball as junior running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire sprinted to his left. Two wide receivers and one tight end blocked downfield.
Burrow threw a pass to Edwards-Helaire. The blocks deteriorated. Texas tackled Edwards-Helaire after a short gain.
Texas blitzed the next play — third-and-5 — forcing Burrow to dump the ball toward Edwards-Helaire in the flat. It bounced off the running back’s hands, incomplete. LSU kicked a field goal.
Beginning with those two passes, Burrow targeted LSU’s running backs nine times against the Longhorns. He went 6-for-9, but the completions gained 18 yards, an average of 3 yards per reception.
The Tigers tried a combination of swing routes, screens and check downs with their running backs. Only one pass gained more than 5 yards, and though LSU’s offense emerged from the win viewed as an explosive force, the Tigers want to improve how they use their running backs in the passing game.
“We need to do better,” coach Ed Orgeron said.
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As LSU installed its new offense this year with passing game coordinator Joe Brady, it took concepts from the New Orleans Saints. The Tigers wanted to use their running backs like Alvin Kamara, forcing defenders to adjust in a split-second. Coaches repeated the phrase “speed in space” throughout the offseason.
During preseason practice, LSU’s running backs drilled route concepts based on coverage. They sprinted against man defense and stopped in gaps versus zone. Edwards-Helaire watched Kamara’s film on his phone.
The new approach worked in LSU's season opener. The Tigers completed 12 of 12 passes to their running backs for 102 yards. All five running backs who played against Georgia Southern caught at least one pass. One of the game’s highlights came when freshman John Emery caught a ball in the flat, juked his defender and gained 17 yards.
A week later, LSU’s offense didn’t succeed when throwing to its running backs. Edwards-Helaire gained six yards on one reception and four yards on another. The rest of the targets either fell incomplete or gained less than 4 yards.
“Those swing routes were not very good,” Orgeron said. “There were some checks off some blitzes, so we didn't get what we wanted there.”
Through two games, the majority of LSU’s attempts to its running backs — 12 of 21 — have come on first down. The Tigers have abandoned power running, opting instead for a scheme that forces defenses to guess how they will use their running backs.
LSU has already thrown the ball to its running backs at a higher rate than last season. Edwards-Helaire caught 11 passes — seven percent of his touches — as a sophomore. This year, 25 percent of his touches (eight receptions) have come as a receiver.
Ed Orgeron said he will never forget Joe Burrow's third-and-17 throw to beat Texas.
“(Defenses) have to figure out where the backs are going to come out,” Burrow said. “If I can get it out to the back and get 4 yards, it's the same as running the ball 4 yards on first down. That's a great play.”
Though LSU gained 573 total yards and scored 45 points against Texas, the Tigers believe they can get better on offense. Pass protection needs to improve, Orgeron said, and LSU has not called many screens or draws.
There’s another level to LSU’s offense the Tigers have not reached, Orgeron said, and part of it is consistently incorporating running backs into the passing game. The Tigers did that against Georgia Southern. They did not at Texas.
“There's a lot of routes we're not running yet, but obviously, we're going to continue to grow in this offense,” Orgeron said. “We have some backs that are very good out of the backfield, especially John Emery on some routes.
“You're going to continue to see that growth, but we're not where we want to be yet.”