Kansas safety Mike Lee gets to take all the credit for the runback.
After pulling down a second-quarter interception in KU’s 55-14 victory over Rutgers on Saturday, Lee showed off receiver-like skills, juking to break three tackles on his way to a 31-yard touchdown return and the No. 6 spot on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10.
The assist for the actual interception, though, should go to KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen and the Jayhawks’ defensive coaches, who took advantage of Rutgers freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski’s inexperience with an interesting and unexpected defensive look.
(For help with this story, I consulted a Division I assistant coach to get his thoughts.)
The wide-angle shot gives us the best view at what’s going on.
KU is using a defensive subpackage here on second-and-8. Kyron Johnson, a fast player who is used primarily as a pass-rushing specialist, is on the field standing up at the top of the screen.
At the snap, this appears to be a standard Cover 3, meaning three defensive backs take the deep thirds, with four other defenders splitting up the short quarters of the field.
Let’s explain what Sitkowski’s reads are here. With this route combination, his progressions are likely the skinny route, then the over, then the dig.
And against Cover 3, Sitkowski’s first read — the skinny post — should have a chance to be open. If his receiver cuts in front of the deep defender here, there should be an opportunity to stick this ball in.
But a quick look at the screenshot above shows that’s not the case. The top receiver has a defender over the top and underneath him.
So what’s going on? Some trickery from KU.
You have to watch both Johnson and Lee to see it. At the snap, on a typical Cover 3, Lee would take the flat routes toward the top of the screen, while Rutgers would expect Johnson to rush the passer.
Instead, Johnson becomes a pass defender, dropping to take the flat routes. That leaves Lee as a “robber,” meaning he’s able to read the quarterback’s eyes without a strict zone responsibility.
And this confuses Sitkowski.
When he wants to throw the skinny post (his first option), he can’t because Lee is in front of the route. Because this is all happening in a split-second, Sitkowski likely believes that Lee will follow the receiver on the deep route, which will leave his No. 2 option open on the over.
Though he’s not getting much of a pass rush, Sitkowski panics a bit. He fires to his second progression without giving it much of a look, believing based on his read it’s going to be open.
It’s not. Lee is there as the unexpected “robber,” able to read Sitkowski’s eyes to jump his second option.
A more experienced quarterback might have taken his time here. The correct play was to the third progression, with the dig route opening up over the middle of the field.
It’s a creative call by KU either way. Many times a robber is stationed on the wide side of the field, and KU has Lee to the short side here. The call also leaves KU light in the box, meaning a potential run could go for big yardage.
The Jayhawks seem to know a tendency here, though. The defensive call appears to be made based off a Rutgers pattern seen on previous film, with KU’s coaches expecting the type of call (pass) and route combination that would put Lee in a spot to make this difficult on Sitkowski.
This might also be a good example of what is possible when a team has more experienced players. Defensive subpackages can get complicated and can be effective, but only if a coach is comfortable that his players know what to do with their base defense.
For Bowen, this has to be considered a luxury. KU returned the fourth-most production on defense of any team in the nation this year, which likely means he has more leeway to be imaginative while still feeling good about his guys’ understanding of the calls.
It worked here. Bowen and his staff dialed up a unique coverage, putting a pass rusher in coverage while letting a safety roam freely.
The 32-yard interception return? That was all Lee. But all that happened in the seconds before — a series of events that led to a young quarterback throwing directly to a defender — is part of a deeper game within the game.
And the kudos for that goes to KU’s prepared coaching staff.