Jan 312015
 

Like last year, I’ve been asked to give an hour long presentation at the Brøndby IF Super Bowl party. Rather than attempt to adapt those notes into traditional post, I’ve decided to post them in their original bullet point form, which is probably the quickest way to convey the information. I was asked to start with a discussion of the evaluation process for quarterbacks and the developments of that position. Afterwards, I discuss the matchups between the offensive and defensive units of the Seahawks and Patriots (less lengthy notes, as I will use film for much of that portion of the presentation). As I state in the presentation, I hope that these notes will make the game more interesting by illuminating sometimes hidden aspects of the game:

  • Quarterback Position
    • I’ve been asked to talk about the quarterback position – how do you evaluate it and what do you look for in a quarterback, why are the players drafted where they are drafted, and how has the position developed – through the lens of Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Johnny Manziel
    • Probably the hardest position to evaluate in all of sports – why?
      • My theory is that growth and development are never a sure thing in the NFL.
      • The NFL is so fast and complex that you can almost never know how a player will adjust – it isn’t book smarts/pure intelligence, it is the ability to scan the entire field and anticipate with the correct timing and take in large amounts of information on the fly – you won’t know if they will develop until they do – there are some predictors, like success at the college level, intelligence, accuracy, etc – but a quarterback is never sure to develop beyond where they currently are, and it is hard to now where they are when they are playing in college (so many factors, like the offense they played in, the talent around them, the level of competition, etc).
        • If a QB is 75% of the way there during their rookie season, there is no guarantee that they will even get to 80% – Andy Dalton might be an example
        • Other times, a QB goes from 75% to 85% to 100% – Peyton Manning had a rough rookie season, but kept improving and improving.
        • Colin Kaepernick probably started at 50% pro style offense refinement as far as what he was asked to do in college in a run/option heavy offense, 100/100 potential when he came into the league.         Sat for a year, worked hard, jumped to maybe 80/100 refinement, plus all of that great athleticism, presence, competitiveness, intelligence, etc. But most will say that he stalled in 2014 at 80/100 on the refinement scale. Can he make the leap and bust that plateau? Hard to predict.
      • Tom Brady is a great example of difficulty in evaluation. When he was at Michigan, there was a more physically talented quarterback there – Drew Henson. He threw harder, ran faster, was a better athlete – basketball star and drafted high in baseball. In college, if they were throwing a curl route, the ball might have gotten there at the same time. BUT Brady may have been more aware of other routes and anticipated that throw, and released the ball a split second before Henson would have.         Henson may have been more locked in on that one route, and thrown the ball a split second later – but it got there at the same time because his arm was stronger, and it probably looked more impressive.
        • As a talent evaluator, that makes it tough.         As an NFL coach you look at Brady coming out of Michigan and think – he isn’t a great athlete, he isn’t going to be able to scramble, his arm isn’t amazing, he isn’t very well built…many evaluators thought he fit the mold as a backup at best.
        • But sometimes (and this is what evaluators seem to be shifting their opinion on), being able to do less makes you better.         Brady couldn’t run, he didn’t have the Jay Cutler rocket arm, he couldn’t out muscle guys like Cam Newton can – his only chance was to develop as a true pocket quarterback – so he was forced to, his back was against the wall – either he developed as a pro style QB, or he failed. He had no chance to find success in the NFL because of other physical traits.
        • Henson was kind of the opposite. He could do everything. He got a $17 million baseball contract. His back wasn’t against the wall – he didn’t just have to be a pocket quarterback. He made it to the big leagues in baseball briefly, played a few years in the NFL, but his career never took off. Maybe if he couldn’t play baseball, and if he wasn’t such a good athlete, and if he couldn’t have thrown as hard, he would have been forced to develop like Tom Brady. Or…maybe he wouldn’t have developed in that way, anyways (almost no one develops into a Tom Brady level quarterback).         This is why predicting success is so difficult.
        • Back to that curl route example – The way Brady does it computes better for the NFL, obviously. Arm strength IS very important, but Brady has enough.         In the NFL, all of those other factors play more of a role. In that example, over the course of time, Brady has made the NFL throw – the quarterback who didn’t see the whole field may have missed something else open, or his lack of anticipation may have allowed a faster defender to get in the throwing lane. Over time, the quarterback who can see the field and process the information and throw with the correct anticipation, touch, and accuracy, will far outperform the rocket armed quarterback.
      • Similar evaluation with Aaron Rodgers v Alex Smith
        • Rodgers was kind of skinny, not imposing, not an amazing athlete, arm wasn’t thought to be sensational.
        • Smith was thought to be the entire package by many scouts – bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, easier to coach than Rodgers.
        • I thought it was an obvious choice for Rodgers – quick release, great feel for the game and pocket presence – but the NFL is tempted by the “prototypical quarterback” – which is big, strong, fast, throw hard, etc. Especially with the #1 overall pick.
        • Smith was not a finished/refined product – came from a spread system – took him time to become a solid NFL QB.
        • Rodgers was a finished product in a pro system and had time to sit behind Favre – not many QBs get this anymore
          • But many evaluators thought he would fail because other Tedford quarterbacks failed
          • Similar draft profile in recent years was Teddy Bridgewater – slipped in the draft because of his slight build and lack of great athleticism or arm strength, but showed an accurate arm and the ability to process information in a pro style offense in college, and a good enough athlete to evade pressure.
            • His rookie season was good…but, as stated above, my opinion is that it is almost impossible to predict improvement in a QB.
      • Russell Wilson:
        • First round talent, had everything except for height. It is that simple – if he were a few inches taller, he would have been a top pick.
      • But it is important to note that I am not saying that there is a way to accurately find a great NFL quarterback – my point is that it is nearly impossible to predict and therefore has an enormous failure rate. This is not to downplay the importance of scouts and that some scouts are not great quarterback evaluators – but history has shown that the failure rate is extremely high.
        • If you look at what I said above, you’d be looking for a pocket quarterback with success and refinement in a pro style offense in college – guys who fit that bill include Joey Harrington and Matt Leinart – they just couldn’t do it in the NFL.
      • Best bet to find a QB who is successful: build the team around him, which will give whoever you choose the best chance to succeed.
    • Developments in the position
      • An argument that seems to be gaining steam among NFL evaluators is that an extremely mobile quarterback cannot also be a great pocket passer. The argument is that a pocket passer must have been a pocket passer for all his life, with his back against the wall like Tom Brady, in order to be great. Arguably, there is only one great QB who went from a running quarterback to a GREAT pocket quarterback – Steve Young. Russell Wilson is looking to change that perception – even though he was never exactly a “running” quarterback – he played in pro style offenses prior to the NFL – but the Seahawks currently ask him to run plenty of zone read plays and play action passing – he isn’t yet a great pocket quarterback (even though he executes exactly what Seattle asks of him – the offense just isn’t based on pocket passing to the extent of most NFL offenses).
      • Trend of previous 15 or 16 years: look for the QB who has it all. The player who was thought to revolutionize the position was Michael Vick. Strong arm, as electric as a ball carrier as anyone in the league – the idea was that he could kill you with his legs or from the pocket. This is what the quarterback of the 21st century was going to play like.
      • In most cases, it hasn’t quite worked out. Also important to note that the fail rate for first round quarterbacks was very high overall – so it is not as if drafting a pure pocket quarterback is close to a sure thing (as is probably obvious by this point in the presentation).
      • Here is a list of first round quarterbacks since Michael Vick who were thought to come from that mold – great athlete, great arm, came from a non-pro style offense
        • Michael Vick – “the future” – solid/electric NFL career, but never developed into a consistent/dependable pocket quarterback.
        • Ben Roethlisberger – played wide receiver until his senior season of high school, was mostly recruited as a tight end, but has developed until a multiple Pro Bowl, Super Bowl winning QB. Not entirely applicable to this list as he was never known as a running quarterback, and also important to note that he – like Russell Wilson – led his team to a Super Bowl championship early in his career on a run heavy team. Roethlisberger eventually developed into a pocket passer with great pocket awareness and similar evasion/improvisation skills to Wilson.
        • Alex Smith (arguably) – not a freak athlete like Vick, but a terrific one who came from Urban Meyer’s spread and had to be molded into a pocket QB – he did develop into a solid quarterback, but it took time.
        • Vince Young – some would argue that he was the most physically dominant quarterback in college football history his senior season and took over a Rose Bowl national championship against a USC team filled with NFL talent – looked promising early in his career, but failed to develop into an NFL caliber quarterback.
        • Tim Tebow – amazing athlete, failed to develop into an NFL caliber quarterback (a complicated issue – there are still people who make the argument that he could have succeeded if the offense had been built around his talents).
        • Andrew Luck – exceptional athlete and star NFL QB was always a pass first pocket QB despite his running ability – not entirely applicable to this group, but is a great athlete who was able to focus on becoming a great pocket QB.
        • Cam Newton – jury is still out on whether he will develop into a true pocket QB (or whether it is necessary). Has been successful and has won while developing into a pocket quarterback in an offense that takes advantage of his athleticism.
        • Jake Locker – great athlete so far has disappointed as a pocket quarterback – injuries have played a role.
        • Robert Griffin III – great rookie season, but fundamentals regressed since then – dropped very low in 2014, but still has a chance to regain form. Needs to rebuild fundamentals to have a chance – intelligence and great accuracy (when fundamentals are there) give him a chance.         Injuries may force him to do so (and thus could be beneficial to his development as a pocket QB – if he makes it).
        • Ryan Tannehill – jury is still out on the former WR, though looks to be a starting caliber QB in offense that takes advantage of his legs (uses the zone read in a similar fashion to Seattle).
        • Johnny Manziel – Incomplete, but did not look good his rookie season. Failed to win starting job and looked overwhelmed in few appearances.         Manic, amazing improvisational quarterback in college, strong arm – but can he fit into an NFL offense? His best chance seems to be to develop the maturity and game of Russell Wilson (their skill set in terms of size, athleticism, and arm strength is similar), or be used in an offense similar to what he ran in college. Manziel’s ratings would probably be: refinement 50/100, “magic/improvisational” potential (this is the argument that most people had for drafting him) 100/100 – unclear if that refinement will increase.
        • Notable non-first round quarterbacks:
          • Colin Kaepernick – similar to Newton, shows star potential and big game winning ability, but the jury is still out on whether he can develop into a traditional pocket QB.           Amazing athletic specimen (speed/arm strength combo among the best ever). Great work ethic, intelligence – but even work ethic and intelligence and talent do not guarantee ability to develop as a pocket passer.
          • Russell Wilson – has thrived and won a Super Bowl while in a run first offense with a dominant defense. Intelligent, smart with the ball, great arm and improvisational qualities – great pocket presence and footwork.           Refined pocket quarterback skills (also, like Luck, developed as a pocket QB) but has not yet been asked to be a high volume NFL pocket passer.
      • Trend that I believe is starting in the NFL: back to traditional pocket QBs. Speed may be seen as a detriment – the thought being that if the QB could run in college and high school, they did not have to develop the same kind of pocket passing/footwork/read the field skills as other QBs.
        • The interesting thing: more and more colleges are using spread systems with dual threat quarterbacks, and thus, while demand for pocket quarterbacks may be increasing, the supply has been decreasing for years.
          • From a college coach’s perspective, it is much easier to find an athlete with a good arm at QB (who may lack traditional pocket skills) than a traditional pocket QB (high schools are also moving away from pocket QBs)
    • Why are they drafted where they are drafted?
      • Take everything I just said into account – the trends in what coaches want to see out of a quarterback, the quarterbacks who are successful in the NFL, etc.
      • NFL teams are looking for a prototype at the top of the draft:
        • Tall, well built, strong arm, accurate arm, smart, competitive, great footwork, evidence of ability to scan entire field, success in an NFL style offense, mobility, maturity
      • This prototype rarely exists. The most prototypical prospect in recent memory was Andrew Luck: he was at least above average in all of those categories.
      • As noted, the trend may shift to placing less value on mobility.
      • Many great quarterbacks do not fit the prototype.         Tom Brady slipped because he was not well built, was not a mobile quarterback, was not considered to have above average arm strength, and to some extent because Drew Henson cut into his playing time.
      • Russell Wilson slipped because he is short. A short QB is not a prototypical QB – if he were 6’3”, he’d have been a high first round pick – he has everything else.
      • Aaron Rodgers slipped because the 49ers thought he was arrogant, and perhaps because he has a slight build. He played for a coach (Jeff Tedford) who had produced several first round QBs who failed in the NFL – Rodgers was penalized for this. Some scouts felt that he was a “system” QB who got flustered under pressure and wasn’t enough of an athlete to evade it.
      • It is an inexact science with a high fail rate.         The Patriots look like geniuses because they drafted Tom Brady, but in reality, they passed on him 6 times in the draft.
      • Which brings us to another issue that we do not have time to fully explore: even in the NFL, is it the system (Wilson in an offense that plays to his strengths and is supported by an all time great defense, Brady in a creative, talented franchise, had time to sit behind a good NFL QB). In other words, the eternal question is: would we be talking about these two players if they had been drafted by the Bills, or Raiders, or Jaguars, Browns, or any of the other number of teams who have struggled to find a quarterback for years – or is the reason why those teams are not relevant because they could not draft a Russell Wilson or Tom Brady caliber QB?         It is a long debate, but something to think about.
      • This upcoming draft, another tough decision.
        • Jameis Winston is very close to the prototype for an NFL quarterback prospect, but he has shown major red flags in immaturity and off field decision making.
        • Mariota has zero off field issues/question marks and has many prototypical features, but did not play in an NFL style offense and thus his ability as an NFL pocket QB is a bigger projection – unless the Eagles trade to get him, where his former college coach (Chip Kelly) will know how to take advantage of what he brings to the table.
  • Seahawks offense
    • Ball control – they’ve made their money by relying on their defense, running the ball, and making a few big plays each game, often at key times.
  • Patriots defense
    • Very good defense. Talent across the board, Revis is probably the best cover cornerback of the past 10 years.
    • Belichick is a versatile coach and therefore difficult to predict, but is consistent in molding his strategy to take away the strength of the opposing offense.
      • For that reason, I suspect that he will seek first to stop the Seahawks zone read, their most potent weapon
      • He has cornerbacks that match up well with Seattle wide receivers, thus freeing more defenders to focus on run defense.
      • Many coaches like a 1 high safety look in this situation, because it frees 8 men in the box to play the run.
      • I like 2 high safeties with press corners – we Monarchs have run the option for a few years with success, and the 2 safety teams give us more schematic problems – it is hard to block the safeties, and the cornerbacks can help build a wall across the front.         We look forward to teams who want to load 8 or 9 players into the box and play man coverage, because (as long as the personnel is relatively equal) we feel that we will create big plays as there is no real 3rd level of defense. That style of defense is more boom or bust – we’ve had times where we exploited it, and other times when it gave us trouble…but when it was the latter, usually because we had injuries or were otherwise outmanned, anyways.
        • Downside of 2 high safeties is fewer players devoted to Marshawn Lynch on traditional runs, which is problematic (and why the zone read and Seattle present problems to opposing defenses)
    • Show examples of Revis making a good play – patience is combined with his elite athleticism, range, and instincts
      • Quarter 3 – interception and pass breakup pretty close together
  • Patriots offense
    • Very good offense, versatile
    • Like their defense, Belichick will mold it to attack the weakness of the opposing defense.
    • The problem is, it is hard to identify the Seahawks weakness
      • They have great DBs and a great front, often with 8 in the box (base cover 3) to take away the run.
    • One thing that is possible, because the Seahawks are a zone heavy team, is to get your players matched up on the defenders that you want them matched up against
      • Seattle rarely swaps cornerbacks (though they did play more man coverage against the Packers)
      • Look for Belichick to use Gronkowski in creative ways to try to isolate him in a favorable matchup – he is always creative with Gronk and Gronk is his most dangerous weapon.
    • The Patriots might look to the Chargers film
      • The Chargers beat the Seahawks by taking advantage of their great tight end – Antonio Gates. They often did this with trips formations. Trips formations force the defense to either compensate to the trips side and leave a favorable matchup on the one receiver side, or help with the one receiver side and give away numbers to the trips side.
        • This is a way that the Patriots may look to get Gronkowski in favorable matchups.
    • Gronkowski quarter 3 touchdown
      • Trips away from him – can get Gronk isolated away from Sherman
      • Simple slant, but Gronk is so big and athletic, the pass is perfect, hard to defend
      • Blount TD 3rd quarter – good solid football, line up and pound you – bodies on bodies up front, Blount finishes with authority – a big back who runs with power
        • Shows that the Patriots are a rare offense that can really shift identities from week to week – one week they are rushing for a ton of yards in an old school power/traditional NFL offense, the next week they are basically running a spread offense.
    • Patriots have versatile players to create personnel problems for defense
      • I.e. with Vereen and Gronkowski in the game, no telling if they will align in a traditional running formation or in a 5 wide spread
        • Though, as further explained below, the Seahawks are a simple defense that doesn’t really care what the opposition does – they will adjust and not be caught off guard.
    • Simplicity of Seahawks defense makes it less likely to be fooled by eligible/ineligible tactics
      • The Seahawks are in base so often that they can focus entirely on any exotic looks
  • Seahawks defense
    • Best unit on the field – an all time great defense
    • Execution defense – they do not run a ton of stuff, they just do what they do really well
      • Quarterbacks like Brady and Manning are so great because they can figure out exactly what a defense is doing – the defense tries to outsmart them and those quarterbacks pick them apart
        • But that doesn’t matter against the Seahawks.         Brady says: “I know what you are doing.” The Seahawks say: “So what? Try to beat us.” That is what happened last year with the Broncos in the Super Bowl and the Seahawks dominated (and people forget, the Broncos were an all time great offense going into that game).
    • THE SIMPLICITY OF THE SEAHAWKS DEFENSE IS A HUGE POSITIVE!!!!!
      • It is common to think that more complex is better.         But the simplicity of the Seattle defense allows them to play faster, execute better, and adjust to anything the offense sends at them. They are much less likely to be “caught” in the “wrong” defense than complicated defenses.
    • Brady has, in the past, struggled against teams who can effectively rush the passer with their defensive line (i.e. do not have to bring pressure) – think of Giants teams in the Super Bowl, who were built upon the foundation of their defensive lines.
      • Seahawks are such a team – their defensive line is versatile, fast, and dynamic – and they don’t even have all of their best players – great scheme and talent to meet that scheme.
    • Linebackers are also terrific – tons of speed – Wagner is one of the best in the game.
    • Richard Sherman interception first Packers drive – coach’s film
      • Amazing patience, technique, intelligence, closing speed, meets the ball at the highest point, great body control
        • Quarterbacks need to be kind of machines when processing information, if the receiver has good leverage, the QB is machine-like in processing that information and taking advantage – but Sherman can recover with his rare size/athleticism combination for the position.
        • This is why he is so great and such a great fit for the defense
      • Also shows their base cover 3
    • 1st quarter stop of Eddie Lacy on second drive (4th play)
      • Shows why Earl Thomas is so great – cornerback speed, fills exceptionally fast and hits for keeps – closest player in the NFL these days to Ronnie Lott – Lott started as a cornerback – Thomas has that kind of speed and range as well – not to mention the intensity and hitting ability.
      • Seahawks do not stay blocked and this is why they are great against the run – it isn’t because of a magical scheme – they play fast and don’t stay blocked and fly to the ball (cliché, but true for them)
      • The Packers had a chance to put the game away early, but the Seattle D stood tall and kept the Seahawks in the game
    • If you like defense, this really is one of the best of all time to watch
  • Final notes
    • Miscellaneous factors
      • Deflategate
        • I’m not going to spend much time on it, but yes, throwing and hanging on to a deflated ball can provide an advantage.
        • We do not know the facts of the case, so we can’t know the effect it will have on the Patriots – if they really have been using deflated balls for years, this could hurt them – you never want your first experience with a “new” ball to be in a big game. If this was a one time thing/accidental, it may have zero effect on the Patriots. We do not know the facts
      • Odd statistic: the Seahawks have not beaten a team with a healthy starting quarterback and which ended with a winning record since week three.
        • Very obscure sounding statistic, but also crazy how well their schedule played out – they played some bad teams, played the Cardinals a few times with injured quarterbacks, the 49ers were down this season, Rodgers was hurt in their playoff game. The last time they played against a winning team with a healthy starting QB was the Chiefs – loss. Their record against winning record teams with healthy starting QBs: 2-3 (wins in week 1 v Packers and week 3 v Broncos, losses to Chiefs, Cowboys, and Chargers…also a loss to Rams).
          • They have been dominant on defense, but this is the best argument against them. The Patriots are the best test they’ve faced since those early season games.
          • They are – no doubt – one of the best defenses of all time, and of course had no control over their schedule – they have knocked down everything in front of them down the stretch of the season.
          • If they were to lose, this will probably be a statistic people will point to in hindsight. If they win, it was meaningless.
    • Seahawks have the best unit on the field (defense), but the Patriots have a very good offense and defense. Seahawks offense serves the team well – ball control, great running back, underrated wide receivers (perhaps because of perception because they weren’t drafted high), quarterback who has made many big plays in key moments…but is less consistent than the other units in the game.
      • The great matchup is all time great Brady against all time great Seattle defense…BUT…it is very intriguing to see how Belichick will try to take away the zone read, and if Seattle can either defeat that strategy or generate offense in other ways. I think everyone who came here tonight knew that Brady v the Seattle defense was the all time great matchup, but hopefully now you can see why the Seattle offense v Patriots defense matchup is also intriguing.
Jan 202015
 

Don’t listen to the talking heads who say otherwise. The zone read is not dead.

Common, uninformed, regurgitated, and recycled arguments regarding option football in the NFL are as follows: it is a gimmick that cannot last, the speed of NFL defenses is too much for it, and NFL defensive coordinators are too smart to allow it to succeed.

The continued success of option concepts in the NFL proves such arguments to be ignorant.

The 2014/15 Seattle Seahawks are the latest example. Doubters still existed (or, perhaps more accurately, overlooked Seattle’s reliance on the zone read) even after Russell Wilson ran for 849 yards (16th in the league) on 7.2 yards per carry, Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,306 yards (4th in the league), and the Seahawks led the NFL in rushing by more than 400 yards en route to a 12-4 record and the #1 seed in the NFC.

The zone read is built on solid fundamentals – it is a zone run with a quarterback “read” of a designated defender on the backside, which either “blocks” the option key by forcing him to respect the quarterback run, or opens a running lane for the quarterback if the defender chases the running back. In equation form, zone read = zone run + quarterback option to run. If you believe that the zone run is here to stay (and you should, as it has thrived in the NFL for decades), there is no reason that the zone read should not also function well with appropriate quarterbacks (i.e., those with speed). See here for a more in depth discussion of the simplicity and fundamentals behind the zone read.

The Seahawks’ comeback victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game should leave no doubt that the zone read will continue to be a successful NFL scheme.

Both of the Seahawks’ final regulation touchdowns came on the zone read – the first by Russell Wilson, the next by Marshawn Lynch. They leaned heavily on variations of the play down the stretch, incorporating the complimentary waggle pass (see here for an in depth description of the waggle concept).

If the zone read were a “gimmick” that NFL defenses could easily solve, the Packers were the one team who should have solved the problem by this point. Two seasons ago, the Packers were thrashed by Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers’ option attack (see here to differentiate between the “read option” and the veer scheme) in being eliminated from the playoffs.  Last season, they fell to those same 49ers at home in the playoffs.  Kaepernick ran for a total of 279 yards in those two games (181 and 98, respectively).  And here the Packers were again, with years to “solve” the option game, giving up two option touchdowns in under a minute as the Seahawks went to their zone read in the biggest moments and with the clock winding down.

Lynch goes for 14 yards on the first play of the drive. The option key plays it well, square to the line, ready to play Wilson and help with Lynch, but is ultimately "blocked" by the threat of Wilson running.

Lynch goes for 14 yards on the first play of the drive. The option key plays it well, square to the line, ready to play Wilson and help with Lynch, but is ultimately “blocked” by the threat of Wilson running.

The Seahawks have bodies on bodies, allowing Lynch to exploit a crease up the middle.

The Seahawks have bodies on bodies, allowing Lynch to exploit a crease up the middle.

Later in the drive, Wilson makes a questionable (unless it was a designed handoff or he was reading the defensive back) read (the option key's shoulders are turned perpendicular to the line, meaning that he cannot react to a Wilson keep, and can chase Lynch from behind).  Because the zone read is based on solid fundamentals, however, Lynch stills gains four yards.  Wilson's incorrect read became a traditional inside zone play (and any option coach will tell you that they do not expect their quarterbacks to be perfect on their reads; 75% is excellent.  The shotgun alignment, which provides the quarterback with more space for his read than a traditional under center veer scheme, should increase the quarterback's "good read" percentage).

Later in the drive, Wilson makes a questionable (unless it was a designed handoff or he was reading the defensive back) read (the option key’s shoulders are turned perpendicular to the line, meaning that he cannot react to a Wilson keep, and can chase Lynch from behind). Because the zone read is based on solid fundamentals, however, Lynch stills gains four yards. Wilson’s incorrect read became a traditional inside zone play (and any option coach will tell you that they do not expect their quarterbacks to be perfect on their reads; 75% is excellent. The shotgun alignment, which provides the quarterback with more space for his read than a traditional under center veer scheme, should increase the quarterback’s “good read” percentage).

 On third and goal, Wilson makes the correct read: two defenders have their shoulders turned perpendicular to the line, so Wilson keeps and glides into the end zone with ease.


On third and goal, Wilson makes the correct read: two defenders have their shoulders turned perpendicular to the line, so Wilson keeps and glides into the end zone with ease.

Easy path to the end zone.

Easy path to the end zone.

After a successful onside kick, the Seahawks start where they left off, with the zone read.  Here, Julius Peppers - one of the best defensive ends in NFL history - doesn't play it poorly.  He shuffles down the line with his shoulders parallel to the line, giving him the chance to play both options.  But his momentum down the line is too much.  Wilson keeps, starting the drive with a 15 yard gain.  Imagine how many talking heads would scoff at the notion of an NFL team starting a make or break, NFC Championship, two minute drill drive, with only one timeout remaining, with an option run.

After a successful onside kick, the Seahawks start where they left off, with the zone read. Here, Julius Peppers – one of the best defensive ends in NFL history – doesn’t play it poorly. He shuffles down the line with his shoulders parallel to the line, giving him the chance to play both options. But his momentum down the line is too much. Wilson keeps, starting the drive with a 15 yard gain. Imagine how many talking heads would scoff at the notion of an NFL team starting a make or break, NFC Championship, two minute drill drive, with only one timeout remaining, with an option run.

Wilson exploits the wide open space.

Wilson exploits the wide open space.

On the next play, the Seahawks - not surprisingly - went to the zone read again.  Here, the Packers play it perfectly - note how every front 7 player has his shoulders square to the line, the option key muddying Wilson's read while having the ability to react to either option.  Lynch still gains 3 on the play.

On the next play, the Seahawks – not surprisingly – went to the zone read again. Here, the Packers play it perfectly – note how every front 7 player has his shoulders square to the line, the option key muddying Wilson’s read while having the ability to react to either option. Lynch still gains 3 on the play.

Two plays later, the Seahawks go to - you guessed it - the zone read.  Note all of the Green Bay eyes on Wilson as he carries out his fake.  Lynch exploits the ensuing opening for a 24 yard touchdown run.

Two plays later, the Seahawks go to – you guessed it – the zone read. Note all of the Green Bay eyes on Wilson as he carries out his fake. Lynch exploits the ensuing opening for a 24 yard touchdown run.

Lynch breaks through the line with daylight ahead...

Lynch breaks through the line with daylight ahead…

Lynch is able to turn and walk backwards into the end zone.

Lynch is able to turn and walk backwards into the end zone.

Think about it: a 2 minute drill in the NFC championship game, and the Seahawks needed 4 plays to complete a go ahead touchdown. 3 of those 4 plays were zone reads. The Seahawks acted like a Madden player who found an unstoppable play, going to it repeatedly, even in hurry up situations.

On their opening drive to win overtime, care to guess what concept the Seahawks featured? 4 of the 6 plays were zone read or built off of the zone read, and, arguably, the success of the zone read led to the 0 safety alignment that left the middle of the field open for a perfect Russell Wilson throw to Jermaine Kearse.

On the first play of the drive, the Packers played the zone read well, the option key again eying Wilson with patience (but, again, this is also the purpose of the zone read, as Wilson has essentially "blocked" the defender). The play became a traditional zone run, and Lynch gains 4 yards.

On the first play of the drive, the Packers played the zone read well, the option key again eying Wilson with patience (but, again, this is also the purpose of the zone read, as Wilson has essentially “blocked” the defender). The play became a traditional zone run, and Lynch gains 4 yards.

Finally, we see the complimentary zone read pass, the waggle (you can read much more about how this concept fits into a zone read scheme here).  Notice how Wilson, Lynch, and the line appear the same to the defense as they do on a zone read play.  We can see the defense inching up in respect of the run, while Baldwin is hidden behind the line as he crosses towards the right flat.

Finally, we see the complimentary zone read pass, the waggle. Notice how Wilson, Lynch, and the line appear the same to the defense as they do on a zone read play. We can see the defense inching up in respect of the run, while Baldwin is hidden behind the line as he crosses towards the right flat.

Wilson lofts the ball to Baldwin as the defense struggles to catch up.  Baldwin goes for 10 yards on the play.

Wilson lofts the ball to Baldwin as the defense struggles to catch up. Baldwin goes for 10 yards on the play.

On the third play of the drive, the Seahawks again go to the zone read.  The Packers play it well, and Lynch gains 4 yards.

On the third play of the drive, the Seahawks again go to the zone read. The Packers play it well, and Lynch gains 4 yards.

Next, the Seahawks go back to the waggle concept.  The Packers play good defense again, and Wilson is sacked by Peppers for a 1 yard loss.  This was the final appearance of the zone read or a zone read concept in the game (which would be over in two plays), but the effect of the Seahawks running game played a large role in the finish.

Next, the Seahawks go back to the waggle concept. The Packers play good defense again, and Wilson is sacked by Peppers for a 1 yard loss. This was the final appearance of the zone read or a zone read concept in the game (which would be over in two plays), but the effect of the Seahawks running game played a large role in the finish.

On first down after a 35 yard pass to Doug Baldwin, the Seahawks substitute heavy personnel into the game - two tight ends, a fullback (who shifts to a wide receiver position on the left), a running back, and a lone receiver - Kearse.  The Packers - expecting a run and responding to the heavy personnel - react by bringing both safeties into the box.  They align with 9 defenders within 6 yards of the ball, leaving both cornerbacks with no deep help.  The center of the field is vacated, and in that void Wilson sees victory.

On first down after a 35 yard pass to Doug Baldwin, the Seahawks substitute heavy personnel into the game – two tight ends, a fullback (who shifts to a wide receiver position on the left), a running back, and a lone receiver – Kearse. The Packers – expecting a run and responding to the heavy personnel – react by bringing both safeties into the box. They align with 9 defenders within 6 yards of the ball, leaving both cornerbacks with no deep help. The center of the field is vacated, and in that void Wilson sees victory.

No help in the middle, a perfect throw by Wilson, and a great catch by Kearse equals victory over good man coverage.

No help in the middle, a perfect throw by Wilson, and a great catch by Kearse equals victory over good man coverage.

The Seahawks are going to their second straight Super Bowl on the strength of their zone read game. The Packers are going home for the third straight season at the hands of a zone read centric team.

The zone read is not a magic bullet. It is good, fundamentally sound football.

The zone read is alive and well, and it is here to stay.

Jan 032015
 

The Dallas Cowboys run game has vaulted them into the playoffs, providing a strong offensive identity for a team that has struggled to break into the elite ranks of the NFL. This run game is nothing revolutionary; to the contrary, it is a simple, zone based scheme. NFL fans often view the word “simple” as an insult – with the apparent conventional thinking being that an offense must be complex and a coach must vary his schemes every week in order to confound defenses. While there is truth to the notion that game planning and varied schematics are essential in the NFL, the 2014 Cowboys achieved success by investing in their offensive line and getting great at their base schemes, and using those base schemes over and over again to open large holes for DeMarco Murray, who led the NFL in rushing by almost 500 yards.

The first thing to note is that – as mentioned above – the Cowboys have invested heavily in their offensive line with high draft picks, and it has paid off. Their line as a unit is agile, smart, and does a great job of sustaining blocks. The second thing to note, however, is that they do not – as a general rule – blow the opposition off the ball. Covering up the defense – aka getting bodies on bodies and taking defenders where the defenders want to go – is more important to their success than is drive blocking those defenders down the field. As illustrated below in their week 14 game against the Chicago Bears, in which Murray ran for his season high of 179 yards, the Cowboys’ offensive linemen took great angles, prevented penetration, were patient with their blocks, and therefore opened numerous creases for Murray and the Cowboys to exploit. It wasn’t rocket science; it was great, sustainable execution.

As Murray receives the inside zone hand off, his line covers up the Chicago defensive line

As Murray receives the inside zone handoff, his line covers up the Chicago defensive line

The Bears haven't been blown off the ball, but a wide running lane opens up as Cowboys blockers stay engaged to defenders.  Murray goes for 8 yards on the play.

The Bears haven’t been blown off the ball, but a wide running lane opens as Cowboys blockers stay engaged to defenders. Murray goes for 8 yards on the play.

Joseph Randle takes the outside zone handoff.  The angles are flatter on the outside zone, but the result is the same: Cowboys blockers engaged with Bears defenders.

Joseph Randle takes the outside zone handoff. The angles are flatter on the outside zone, but the result is the same: Cowboys blockers engaged with Bears defenders.

Once again, a crease develops as Cowboys offensive linemen stay engaged on their blocks, and Randle exploits it for a 17 yard touchdown run.

Once again, a crease develops as Cowboys offensive linemen stay engaged on their blocks, and Randle exploits it for a 17 yard touchdown run.

One of the best plays in the Cowboys run game has been their counter, which has become an essential (and prolific) compliment to their zone game.  Their counter resembles a classic pin and pull scheme, with both guards pulling as the remaining blockers pin down the defenders shaded to the right.  Murray and Tony Romo simulate their initial footwork of the Cowboy zone package to set up the counter.

One of the best plays in the Cowboys run game has been their counter, which has become an essential (and prolific) compliment to their zone game. Their counter resembles a classic pin and pull scheme, with both guards pulling to the left as the remaining blockers pin down the defenders to the right. Murray and Tony Romo simulate their initial footwork of the Cowboy zone package to set up the counter.

Pulling guard Ronald Leary's crushing block highlights another Cowboys victory at the point of attack. Solid offensive line execution and linebacker over-pursuit opens a massive cutback lane, which Murray exploits for a 40 yard gain.

Pulling guard Ronald Leary’s crushing block highlights another Cowboys victory at the point of attack. Solid offensive line execution and linebacker over-pursuit opens a massive cutback lane, which Murray exploits for a 40 yard gain.

Another look at the Cowboys inside zone.  A strong run game is often most damaging late in the game, and there is no exception here.  Again, the Cowboys cover up the Bears front as Murray receives the ball.

Another look at the Cowboys inside zone. A strong run game is often most damaging late in the game, and there is no exception on this play. Again, the Cowboys cover up the Bears front as Murray receives the handoff.

Murray prods the hole with patience, and then explodes through another crease forged by his athletic offensive line for a 26 yard gain.

Murray prods the hole with patience, and then explodes through another crease forged by his athletic offensive line for a 26 yard gain.

A great, physical run game does not have to mean blowing the defense off the ball. Intelligence does not have to mean complexity. The Cowboys have based their offensive attack on a few plays that they execute well, once again proving that – even at the highest level of the sport – execution is the most important factor in achieving success. Obviously, they are not as simple as a Pop Warner team. They use a variety of formations and motions and shifts as well as their complimentary passing game to aid in running the ball. But, at their core, they share an important similarity with many lower level powerhouses: they are great at a few things, and everything else builds form there.

Nov 082014
 

Many coaches and fans believe that a man pass coverage scheme leads to better run defense. This is because – the thinking goes – primary run defenders are given more freedom to attack the run with aggressiveness, while primary pass defenders focus on covering receivers. If the defensive coordinator is willing to play with limited help over the top, it also allows the defense to load the box to stop the run. For example, in a common “man free” scheme against a traditional two wide receiver set, the two cornerbacks lock up the wide receivers and the safety plays over the top, while the remaining 8 defenders can play close to the line to stop the run.

Such thinking has extended to defend spread offenses. Against a “spread to run” opponent, one strategy is to lock in man coverage on the receivers to take away quick patterns, while giving your team a numerical advantage inside the box. Because of this numbers advantage, the defense can be aggressive with run fits, blitzes, and stunts. The numbers advantage can often be achieved even while keeping two safeties on the field, because of pattern matching principles, which allow outside linebackers to stay closer to the box and safeties to play the run more aggressively (further explained below).

Man coverage principles can, however, weaken a run defense.

The primary reason is because it is very difficult for a defender to play man coverage and maintain proper run discipline and pursuit. With responsibility focused on a receiver, a defender is much more likely to be run out of a play by a receiver simulating a pass pattern. Edge defenders will have difficulty preventing the ball from being run outside when they also have to defend routes that take them inside. The offense can also more easily manipulate defensive alignment in order to break contain. For example, a trips formation to one side with a tight end on the other side may lead to only a linebacker standing between the offense and the sideline on the tight end side of the field. If the offense can break that contain (against a linebacker instead of a defensive back), they have a big play on their hands.

Enter California and their prolific offensive coordinator, Tony Franklin, against the Oregon State Beavers. Oregon State under Mike Riley is and continues to be one of the most sound and well coached programs in the country, consistently fielding rugged, overachieving teams. They came into the game with a strong pass defense that seemed to match up well against Cal’s powerful air attack. In this game, however, their man principles hurt their ability to stop Cal’s running game.

As one can see below, Oregon State lines up in a two safety shell against Cal’s four wide receiver (2×2) offensive set. The outside linebackers split the distance between the #2 receivers (the 2nd receiver from the outside) and the offensive tackles. The safeties play inside shade of the #2 receivers, while the cornerbacks line up in press coverage on the wide receivers.

What is not clear is whether the Beavers are playing true man coverage, or pattern matching principles. Pattern matching is a method by which particular defenders lock in man coverage against certain offensive patterns, while playing zone against others. For example, a typical pattern matching scheme is for the outside linebackers to cover any short out route by a #2 receiver in man coverage, while they would re-route any vertical stem by the #2 receiver, and then look to help in the flat. The safety would cover any vertical route (more than 7-10 yards) by #2, while the CB would cover any vertical route by #1. In many ways, pattern matching combines the best of both zone and man coverage – nobody has to cover every pattern, so they can be more aggressive against the run, while maintaining the benefits of man coverage against the pass. Teams such as Michigan State (which bases out of a 2 safety, cover 4 pattern matching defense) and the Seattle Seahawks (a primary 1 high safety [Earl Thomas, perhaps the best safety in the game], cover 3 defense) have built dominating defenses on such principles (see http://www.totalamericanfootball.com/improving-cornerback-play-with-cover-3-and-cover-4-press-the-rise-of-richard-sherman-darqueze-dennard-the-seattle-seahawks-and-the-michigan-state-spartans/ for an in depth explanation of how such principles aid cornerback play). Michigan State’s defense has – in particular – taken the coaching world by storm. Simply put, the Spartans have laid out a blueprint that allows safeties and linebackers to play the run aggressively (thus effectively creating a 9 man box) while having less fear of being burned in the passing game, because they do not have to cover every pattern by a particular receiver. The Spartans defenders are terrific at reading run or pass and reacting accordingly. Unfortunately for the Beavers, even if they were using such a pattern matching scheme (it is unclear if they were), they were much too quick to jump into man principles on any particular play against Cal.  Franklin exploited this over-zealousness on many occasions, both on run/pass neutral downs and on obvious passing downs.

Whether or not the Beavers were playing man or a pattern matching zone on this play, their defenders locked in on receivers in man coverage as soon as those receivers ran their routes. When Cal ran the ball, Oregon State was left with little support.

Oregon State is lined up in a typical 2 safety shell, with safeties on the inside shade of the #2 receivers, OLBs splitting the distance between #2 and the offensive tackle, and the cornerbacks in press coverage.  With the outside linebackers so close to the box, Oregon State would appear to have a numbers advantage against the run.  Their front seven remains close to the ball (though both OLBs are slightly outside the box), while Cal only has 5 offensive linemen to block the interior, with no lead backs or tight ends to help counterbalance the Oregon State front.

Oregon State is lined up in a 2 safety shell, with safeties on the inside shade of the #2 receivers, outside linebackers splitting the distance between #2 and the offensive tackle, and the cornerbacks in press coverage. With the outside linebackers so close to the box, Oregon State would appear to have a numbers advantage against the run. Their front seven remains close to the ball (though both outside linebackers are slightly outside the box), while Cal only has 5 offensive linemen to block the interior, with no lead backs or tight ends to help counterbalance the Oregon State front.

Cal quarterback Jared Goff turns and immediately hands to running back Daniel Lasco.  There is no pass fake from the backfield action (though Goff does fake setting up for a pass after he hands the ball to Lasco).

Cal quarterback Jared Goff turns and immediately hands to running back Daniel Lasco. There is no initial pass fake from the backfield action (though Goff does fake setting up for a pass after he hands the ball to Lasco).

After the ball is handed off, we see that the Beavers have already lost both CBs.  Both have their backs turned, defending pass patterns.  Even worse, their playside outside linebacker has turned his back to the ball, and is covering a slot receiver on a quick out route.  Both safeties are eyeing the slot receivers.

After the ball is handed off, we see that the Beavers have already lost both cornerbacks. Both have their backs turned, defending pass patterns. Even worse, their playside outside linebacker has turned his back to the ball, and is covering a slot receiver on a quick out route. Both safeties are eying the slot receivers.

As Lasco reaches the line of scrimmage, the Beavers have lost their advantage.  The playside outside linebacker is almost beyond the hash marks, still chasing the quick out route.  The playside safety IS outside the hash marks, most likely looking to help with the vertical route being run by receiver #1 to his side.  Both cornerbacks are completely removed from the play, as is the weakside safety, who is also likely to be helping with the vertical route by his #1.

As Lasco reaches the line of scrimmage, the Beavers have lost their advantage. The playside outside linebacker is almost beyond the hash marks, still chasing the quick out route. The playside safety IS outside the hash marks, most likely looking to help with the vertical route being run by receiver #1 to his side. Both cornerbacks are completely removed from the play, as is the weakside safety, who is also likely to be helping with the vertical route by his #1.

Notice that the Cal offensive line hasn't manhandled anybody - they simply put bodies on bodies.  The Oregon State middle linebacker has filled his gap decently well - but there is no help from the playside linebacker or safety to squeeze the play, and Lasco easily scoots outside.  No support means that nothing is squeezed to the middle of the field, effectively rendering meaningless any pursuit from the Oregon State front.

Notice that the Cal offensive line hasn’t manhandled anybody – they simply put bodies on bodies. The Oregon State middle linebacker has filled his gap decently well – but there is no help from the playside outside linebacker or safety to squeeze the play, and Lasco easily scoots outside. No support means that nothing is squeezed to the middle of the field, effectively rendering meaningless any pursuit from the Oregon State front.

Lasco heads towards the secondary.  The playside safety has now reacted, but - as with his middle linebacker - he has no help from his opposite safety, allowing Lasco to veer easily away from his pursuit.

Lasco heads towards the secondary. The playside safety has now reacted, but – as with his middle linebacker – he has no help from his opposite safety, allowing Lasco to veer easily away from his pursuit.

As Lasco cruises into the end zone, neither the backside safety nor the backside cornerback has come into view - both have been occupied by the #1 receiver.

As Lasco cruises into the end zone, neither the backside safety nor the backside cornerback has come into view – both have been occupied by the #1 receiver.

Every defense has its weakness. This post is not meant to say that man coverage and man principles cannot produce great defensive football. The aim of the post is to point out a (perhaps) hidden weakness in man coverage that many fans and coaches do not consider.

See the video here:

http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=espn:11807066

Jul 042014
 

The counter sweep is not a common play, but for decades the Nebraska Cornhuskers used it as a primary weapon to power their prolific run game.

The counter sweep is closely related to the counter trey, which became – and remains – a staple in the run game. The blocking schemes look identical at the start of the play, but differ at one key point.

In the counter trey, the pulling guard attempts to kick out the defensive end. The tackle (or sometimes a back) cuts inside of this block to lead the play.

In the counter sweep, the pulling guard “log” blocks the defensive end. This means that – rather than kick the end out – the guard attempts to pin him to the inside. The tackle’s path is deeper in the backfield than on the counter trey, and he goes outside of the guard’s block, looking to lead the play wide and down the field.

The counter trey is a power, off tackle run. The counter action by the backfield seeks to draw the defense in the wrong direction for a split second, which is then exploited by power and numbers at the point of attack.

The counter sweep also attempts to influence the defense to the wrong side of the field, but the play seeks to get the ball carrier as far as possible from the interior of the line.

This resulted in consistent big plays for Nebraska. Of course, Nebraska was also one of the most physical teams in the country, often employing the best offensive lines and the most talented backs. The defense needed to react hard to the play side, and Nebraska exploited that fact by caving in the other side of the line with power, and leading the play with swift, disciplined pulling linemen who were followed by backs who could outrun everyone to the sideline.

While most teams won’t enjoy such advantages, it is surprising that the counter sweep is not employed more often, if nothing more than as a compliment to the counter trey. The two plays go hand in hand. Not surprisingly, Nebraska used a play they called “counter trap” to compliment the counter sweep. Their counter trap featured the guard kicking out the end, and the guard cutting inside of his block – just like the counter trey.

The counter sweep adjustment – at the least – should be installed, to account for a block down step down defensive end. Such an end can be almost impossible to uproot with a kick out block, but is very easy to log block. The tackle and ball carrier should be able to read this block and run to the outside, thus – in effect – executing the famous Nebraska counter sweep.

For video of the Nebraska counter sweep:

For more analysis and video (including the Nebraska counter trap), visit trojanfootballanalysis.com:

http://trojanfootballanalysis.com/?p=55

Jun 192014
 

The trend towards pass first offensive football has generally led to a decrease in run game intricacy. Spread and pass first teams have found that they can put up high point totals with only a few simple run blocking schemes. This approach is sound – with focus on the passing game, the simplified run game means that high levels of execution can be attained on the few blocking schemes that are in the playbook.

This does mean that some concepts of the past have been largely lost. The following play exemplifies the lost art of the complex run game, a tackle trap on a top nose guard (Tony Casillas), intended to make that nose guard’s life difficult while opening a sizeable hole and utilizing angles across the line of scrimmage.

The blocking scheme: Right tackle blocks down on star MLB Brian Bosworth.  Right guard pulls and looks for work. Center posts on star nose guard Tony Casillas, then walls off the defensive tackle.  Left guard goes for the other MLB.  The left tackle pulls and traps Casillas, while the fullback walls the other defensive tackle to the outside.

The blocking scheme: TE walls off the outside.  Right tackle blocks down on star MLB Brian Bosworth. Right guard pulls and looks for work downfield. Center posts on star nose guard Tony Casillas, then walls off the defensive tackle. Left guard goes for the other MLB. The left tackle pulls and traps Casillas, while the fullback walls the other defensive tackle to the outside.

The blocks take advantage of angles, including the smashing trap on Casillas.

The blocks take advantage of angles, including the smashing trap on Casillas.

Casillas is sent to the turf as running back Jacque Robinson (father of NBA star Nate) exploits a wide running lane.

Casillas is sent to the turf as running back Jacque Robinson (father of NBA star Nate) exploits a wide running lane.

Robinson is untouched into the defensive backfield.

Robinson is untouched into the defensive backfield.

Robinson finally faces impact at the goalline.

Robinson finally faces impact at the goalline.

Often, the best offensive system is the one that goes against contemporary trends. Increasingly, teams are finding that the spread offense is not a magic bullet. While the many variations of the spread ARE sound football, defenses are now built to stop them, and those offenses lack the novelty that once made them so difficult to defend.

Perhaps those defenses – built to stop the spread passing game and various zone running schemes – are now susceptible to a return to power running. The Stanford Cardinal under Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, as well as the San Francisco 49ers under Harbaugh, have capitalized by building swift, powerful lines and incorporating complex run schemes and jumbo personnel packages. Once a staple, those schemes are now the novelty while the spread offense thrives. While mastering the execution of a run game complete with powers and counters and traps and whams and isolations can be difficult, it is more than possible with proper commitment.

The play:

May 272014
 

Perhaps the most explosive running play in the modern era of football is the veer triple option. From the time that Bill Yeoman’s Houston Cougars broke records with the play in the 1960s until the present day – peaking with the 49ers scoring 3 touchdowns in the 2012 NFC championship while using a variation of the scheme – it continues to rack up yards.

But related concepts appeared even before Yeoman’s day. Don Faurot may, in fact, have been the originator of the triple option, using it to power his Split-T Missouri backfield to great success in the 1940s. The video below displays the basic concepts that would power all future veer schemes: not blocking certain defenders in order to gain more blocking downfield and to give the offense a 3 on 2 or 2 on 1 advantage, similar to the fast breaks in basketball that influenced Faurot’s innovation. The footage – slowed due to the cameras of the time – shows the unblocked defenders steaming into the backfield while the dive back rushes ahead or the quarterback pitches behind (and notice the underhanded “pitch”).

Faurot coached the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks during the World War II years, where he had an assistant coach named Bud Wilkinson. Wilkinson took the Split-T (and it’s signature option) with him to Oklahoma. There, the offense powered the Sooners to a 47-game winning streak from 1953 to 1957, an NCAA Division I record that still stands today.

The following video shows the 1955 Oklahoma Sooners season highlights:

Bill Yeoman invented the veer offense at Houston in 1964. His offense went on to lead the nation in offense for three straight years, and led the country in scoring in 1968. For anyone looking to implement the veer, the 1968 playbook remains a masterpiece. There is no better source for understanding the offense:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/2939669/1968-Houston-Veer

The veer scheme eventually powered the wishbone offense. The final wishbone powerhouse were the Oklahoma Sooners and Barry Switzer, who used it to win 3 national championships and 12 Big Eight titles. They also set the all time single game rushing record of 768 yards, as seen here:

The flexbone later grew out of the wishbone. The most notable current flexbone coach is Paul Johnson. This blog post details Johnson’s “If then” play calling methodology. This methodology is not only valuable to coaches looking to run veer based option offenses, but to any coaches who are looking for a methodology to systematically call their plays in order to exploit weaknesses in a defense.

http://footballislifeblog.blogspot.dk/2011/07/paul-johnsons-if-then-methodology-to.html

Perhaps the most famous current split back veer team is the De La Salle Spartans, known for their record 151 game winning streak. The highlights below show the birth of that win streak and display the speed and downfield blocking that continue to exemplify the Spartans.

In the following link, the architect of that team – Bob Ladouceur – details the ideals that formed the Spartans juggernaut. The article is not veer specific (though it does discuss the offense in some detail), but is essential team building material.

http://fastandfuriousfootball.com/wp-content/uploads/coachingmaterial2/De%20La%20Salle%20High%20Motivation.pdf

Finally, the most modern variation may only be a distant relative of the split back veer, but still incorporates the dive back, and the unblocked defender as the first man on or outside the tackle. Here, Colin Kaepernick uses the veer scheme several times during his record 181 yard rushing game against the Green Bay Packers.

Apr 132014
 

Prior to 2013, critics doubted whether Chip Kelly could succeed in the NFL.  Many tagged him with the dreaded “college coach” label.  Kelly – along with Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll – are quickly turning that label into a positive.  Harbaugh has done so with his power schemes and manic enthusiasm, Carroll with his passion and smothering defense.  Chip Kelly has done so with an emphasis on simplicity and execution, two qualities that are often overlooked in what has largely become a complex, matchup based league.

Kelly’s devotion to the hurry up no huddle is well known, with the extra repetitions gained in practice and games combining with a comparably simple playbook to improve execution.  His offense is no gimmick – it is based on sound football principles.  At his core, Kelly wants to run the ball.  The basis of this running game are his zone concepts.

Kelly teaches a counting system to his offensive line on zone running plays.  This simplifies their reads, as the line merely needs to count the defense in the box and block it accordingly.  The center identifies 0, the first in-box defender to the playside.  The playside guard blocks number 1 (the next defender to the playside), and the tackle blocks number 2.  The backside guard blocks number 1 backside, and the backside tackle blocks number 2 backside.  A tight end or extra blocker would block number 3.  Kelly’s famous “read option” (as it has become known) assigns the quarterback to “block” any extra backside defender with his eyes, if there is one.  If that player is aggressive on the handoff, the quarterback keeps the ball to the space he vacated.  If that player is not aggressive on the handoff, the quarterback has successfully “blocked” him from tackling the ball carrier.  If no such “extra” defender is in the box, the quarterback hands the ball off every time.  Thus, what has become known as a “read option” is nothing more than a zone run that gives the quarterback the ability to keep the ball if the defense brings more defenders than the offensive line can block.

The simplicity and execution of this counting system can be seen in LeSean McCoy’s 2013 week 1 touchdown against the Washington Redskins.

Before the snap, we see the Eagles in an unbalanced formation, with three offensive linemen to their left.  The play will be run to their right.  As one can see below, their counting system allows them to adjust to the defensive front with ease  – a necessity in the NFL, where defenses are ever changing and complex.  Note that the stacked defensive lineman and linebacker to the playside are both considered player 1 and player 2, necessitating a combo block from the right guard and right tackle (who in this case is a tight end).  This complex blocking takes time and communication to master, another reason why the simplicity of Kelly’s offense is a benefit to their team.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 1

As the play unfolds, we can see the linemen taking great angles to “cover up” their men.  This is a hallmark of zone blocking – it is more important to get a body on a defensive player and wash him towards the direction he wants to go than it is to attempt to blow them up off the ball.  We can also see Michael Vick “blocking” the extra defender in the box (#4). Additionally, McCoy’s momentum begins parallel to the line of scrimmage, towards the sideline, influencing Redskins defenders to fight towards the outside.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 2

McCoy has the ball now, and has made his hard cut down the field.  We can see that some of the Redskins are still moving towards the sideline, as their momentum – and the Eagles blockers – are taking them there.  The hole is large for McCoy, and not because any of his linemen have made a devastating knockout block.  None of the linemen have driven a Redskins player off the ball.  But they have put bodies on bodies, allowing a back with great vision and talent such as McCoy to find and exploit the opening seam of the defense.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 3

This allows McCoy to get into the open field with a head of steam.  He is among the hardest runners in the NFL to tackle when given such space.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 4

Kelly’s offense has always thrived on letting his athletes perform in space.  Here we get an example: McCoy hurdling a defender as he winds back towards the opposite sideline.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 5

And we see the final element of what makes Kelly’s offense tick: downfield blocking by receivers.  As in all “big play” running offenses, Kelly depends on his receivers to help turn long runs into touchdown runs.  Here we get a great example of McCoy reading Riley Cooper’s butt to cut inside, aided by the terrific cut block by Jason Avant to form a clear running lane.

Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 6

McCoy gives Eagles fans an example of what Oregon fans grew to know well – a runner in the clear with enough space to celebrate before reaching the end zone.

Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 7

Chip Kelly has done a tremendous job of creating a system that can take advantage of the talent he has on his teams.  The beauty of the system is that it is based on sound football principles.  Though it has been labeled a “space age” offense, perhaps the biggest innovation of the system is the return of simplicity to the NFL.   This simplicity also means that his system is duplicable at all levels of play.  Even if one doesn’t want to run the hurry up or the spread, teaching such a counting system to the offensive line is an easy way to improve their communication.  No matter how complex the defensive front is, it can always be boiled down to a simple count.  Much like Kelly’s offense, the beauty lies in the simplicity.

Mar 292014
 

The wham block is an underutilized weapon that will turn the aggressiveness of a dominant defensive lineman against him.

Related to the trap, the wham block sends a skill player to block a defensive lineman from an angle with an element of surprise.  Often utilizing motion, the wham discourages penetration by sending the message that the defensive lineman can never know when he will be blindsided along the line of scrimmage.

Wham 1

Diagram 1 (above) shows the blocking scheme for the play.  Delanie Walker is sent in short motion, giving him increased momentum to blast Ndamukong Suh.  Notice how the scheme, combined with trap and fold blocks across the line, allows 49ers offensive linemen to block down the field.  This downfield blocking is a hallmark of big plays in the run game.  The scheme turns the Lions aggressiveness against itself, wasting the defensive linemen who were quick to penetrate up the field.

Wham 2

Diagram 2 (above): The moment of impact.

Wham 3

Diagram 3 (above): The meeting of scheme and execution.  The 49ers scheme has worked to perfection – two defensive linemen (including Suh, the disruptive force who necessitates the scheme) are already behind the play, wasted to the defensive.  Four 49er offensive linemen are down the field to make blocks.

Also note Vernon Davis.  As the play unfolds, he blocks his man across the field.  In diagram 1, we see the defensive end lined up on Davis’s inside shade.  In diagram 2, Davis has locked him to the inside.  In diagram 3, Davis has begun to drive him across the formation.  In diagram 4, Davis has driven him off the screen.

Davis’s block as well as the 49ers offensive line’s ability to block downfield reminds us that no matter what the scheme, the most important predictor of success is the execution of fundamentals. 

Wham 4

Discouraging aggressiveness encourages passivity, which helps to control a dominant defensive line or a particular defensive lineman.  The wham – despite having faded in popularity – is a valuable tool in achieving that end.  It is one of the power elements that Jim Harbaugh has brought to the table in turning also-rans at the University of San Diego, Stanford, and the 49ers into contenders.