Jul 132015
 

I’ve recently been in conversations with californiagoldenblogs.com, and will now be writing posts for them in addition to totalamericanfootball.com. This means that totalamericanfootball.com will become somewhat Cal centric. It does not mean that there will only be posts about Cal.

Aside from being my favorite college team, Cal is also an exciting team to watch from a coaching perspective; Tony Franklin has long at the forefront of the offensive game (his “Tony Franklin System” is used by high schools across the U.S.), and Sonny Dykes is on the path towards a successful (and complete) program makeover/rebuild.

My latest post is up now, and details how talent + execution = probability of success in the context of a key third down conversion for Cal. Check it out here.

“…Colorado, however, does not stay in a two high safety shell.  They tip their hand just before the snap.  One of two high safeties creeps towards the line of scrimmage, while the other walks towards the center of the formation.  They have disguised the coverage for most of the pre snap period, but now their options are more limited.  Realistically, in this one high shell, only one defender will defend the out route by Stephen Anderson: the outside linebacker/nickelback who is aligned just to the inside of Anderson.  This is because Colorado must account for a vertical route by the #1 receiver (the widest receiver); the safety has too far to run from the middle of the field to cover this route by himself (or to help with an out route by #2), thus meaning that the cornerback must cover a vertical route by #1, therefore leaving only one man who can possibly defend an out route by #2: the inside linebacker/nickelback…”

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

Oct 082014
 

Not long ago, balanced, professional style offensive systems ruled college football. Just 10 years ago, the final 2004 AP Poll read like a randomly assembled list of traditional college football powers: USC, Oklahoma, Georgia, LSU, Florida State, Miami, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, and West Virginia. True, Texas ran a version of the spread offense, but to take advantage of one of the great talents in college football history (Vince Young), not because the coaching staff had a history rooted in a non-traditional offense. The only team running a true “system” offense was – not surprisingly – the only non-traditional power of the bunch: Rich Rodriguez’s spread option West Virginia Mountaineers.

Fast forward to October 4th, 2014. For the first time in the history of the AP Poll, five of the top eight teams lose in the same weekend. Oregon, which became a power on the strength of Chip Kelly’s hurry up spread option system, is cut down by the Arizona Wildcats, with – you guessed it – Rich Rodriquez at the helm. Juggernaut Alabama and their pro style offense are chopped down by traditional also-ran Mississippi and their version of the packaged hurry up spread. Mississippi State – another SEC second thought – dominates Texas A&M. UCLA is edged by former mid-major Utah. TCU – who from 1996-2011 bounced between the Western Athletic Conference, Conference USA, and the Mountain West Conference – takes out Oklahoma.

Come Sunday, half of the top 10 was made up of non-traditional powers: Mississippi State, Mississippi, Baylor, TCU, and Arizona.

“System” offenses have a set ideology and method for attacking a defense. It does not mean that they are unbalanced in terms of run/pass ratio (as many people assume), but it does mean that they have a strong identity of plays and formations and a consistent methodology for attacking a defense. The wing t did it with multiple series and an order of playcalling designed to put defenders in conflict. The split t, split back veer, wishbone, and flexbone did it by building around the triple option and taking advantage of defenses designed to stop that play. The run and shoot did it with after the snap option routes designed to defeat any defensive look. The list goes on…

The key to the hurry up spread – the current system du jour – is that any, and almost every, previous system can be adapted to the spread. Many teams couple the spread with the Air Raid, itself a simplified adaptation of the old LaVell Edwards BYU passing offense. Rodriquez, Kelly, and many others base their offense on zone running and option concepts. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn has coupled it with the wing t. Cal’s offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has roots in the Air Raid, but now seeks run/pass balance with a variety of creative runs passes, and packaged concepts.

The beauty of the variety of spread offenses is that most of these offenses do not require a roster loaded with 5 and 4 star recruits in order to succeed. Instead, a good personnel “fits” for the offense are of the utmost importance. An offense can be designed in order to take advantage of lower tier recruits who are hand picked to fill the roles that will make that offense successful. And – because the offenses are adaptable – they can highlight the strengths and hide the weaknesses of a roster that is built with lower tier recruits.

When pro style offenses ruled the day, the traditional powers dominated the recruitment of prototypical players to fit those offenses. With superior talent, the pro style quarterback could hand off to the prototypical running back or throw a play action pass to the future NFL tight end or wide receivers behind an offensive line made up of prototypical maulers.

Rich Rodriguez, with future NFL return man Rasheed Marshall at quarterback, helped changed the status quo. Now, if you couldn’t recruit the towering pocket passer with the rocket arm, you look to recruit the spindly speedster. If you didn’t have any luck finding the 6’3” wide receivers or the pro style tight ends, you put an under recruited, undersized athlete in the slot (Wes Welker at Texas Tech being perhaps the most famous example), and play without a tight end. Can’t find the future NFL road graders in the line? That’s okay – recruit speed and technique, and make it work in your system.

In short, the rise of the “system” offenses in college football has led to more coaches being able to better utilize the talent of more athletes, which has evened the playing field with the traditional elite programs. This evened playing field will continue to lead to more parity, more upsets, and a more exciting product. And it isn’t just the spread offenses that are making waves. Georgia Tech, with their flexbone triple option, which traces roots back to the Don Faurot split t of the early 1940s, lurks undefeated at the bottom of the top 25…

Jun 082014
 

It is always important for an offense to put the defense in conflict.  The throwback screen (note that this is not the only name for this play, but it is what I will use) is a classic – and underutilized – way to do so, particularly for a team that often uses sprint action with its quarterback.

The 1992 Houston Cougars were one such team. A record breaking run and shoot offense, Houston was known for lighting up the scoreboard with an offense that almost always had the quarterback sprinting to one side or the other. Not surprisingly, this forced Houston’s opponents to flow and devote more defenders to that side.  This is where the throwback screen comes into play.

The assignments on the play. The quarterback sprints to the right (as on a typical Houston pass play) while the linemen touch their defensive linemen and go.

The assignments on the play. The quarterback sprints to the right (as on a typical Houston pass play) while the linemen touch their defensive linemen and go.  After making his sprint, the quarterback turns and fires to the wide receiver on the left, who bends inside of the block by the left tackle on the cornerback.

The first step is the sprint itself. The defense must respect this movement and act accordingly to account for the possibility of a quarterback run or receivers flooding in the direction of the sprint.

Texas takes the bait, with the defensive line rushing hard and the linebackers blitzing to pressure the quarterback. Everyone moves in the direction of the quarterback sprint.

Texas takes the bait, with the defensive line rushing hard and the linebackers blitzing to pressure the quarterback. Everyone moves in the direction of the quarterback sprint.

We can see Texas doing just that, with linebackers blitzing and the coverage sliding in the direction of the roll.

All 6 Texas box players are now behind the Houston line, while the Houston offensive linemen move down field to make their blocks.

All 6 Texas box players are now behind the Houston line (wasted on the play), while the Houston offensive linemen move downfield to make their blocks.

This leaves the backside vulnerable.

The left tackle gets just enough of the corner back on a cut block to give the wide receiver a clear lane to the inside

The left tackle gets just enough of the cornerback on a cut block to give the wide receiver a clear lane to the inside.

Next, we see the ball being caught. The left tackle cuts the cornerback, giving the receiver a clear running lane. Four more offensive linemen head downfield to block – on only one defensive back.

More blockers than defenders = something good is going to happen

More blockers than defenders = something good is going to happen.

From there, there is nothing but open space ahead.

Highway to the end zone

Highway to the end zone.

The true value of the play goes beyond the 6 points that go up on the board. The defense must always be wary of the throwback (coach John Jenkins was known to run it repeatedly in the same game, using it as a staple play). This opens up the field for the basic offense to the sprint side – which is what Houston wanted to be running, anyways.  It also slows down the rush, by penalizing a defense who pressures the quarterback with too much abandon.  This, in turn, gave the Houston quarterbacks more time to throw.

The throwback screen is difficult to execute and requires extensive practice commitment.  The offensive line must be athletic and have great timing, the quarterback must be accurate enough and with a strong enough arm to spin under pressure and hit the receiver in the chest with the ball, the receiver must be fearless enough to take a hit if the defense isn’t fooled and fast enough to exploit them if they are, and the coach must be dedicated enough to install the play with patience.  If those elements are present, the throwback screen is a valuable investment for any team who uses sprint action extensively or who faces over-aggressive opponents.

The link to the play (at 9:00) as well as great end zone footage of the Houston run and shoot against Texas:

Below, Tony Franklin and Sonny Dykes show us a modern version of the play with the 2013 California Golden Bears: