Feb 202015

Super Bowl XLIX featured vintage Bill Belichick game planning – identify your opponent’s comparative weakness, and attack it repeatedly. Belichick is not unique in this strategy, but few teams have shown the ability to so successfully reinvent themselves schematically over and over again from week to week while maintaining excellent levels of execution. As noted here, however, it was unclear how the Patriots would attempt to attack a Seahawks defense with no clear weaknesses.

Belichick’s answer was obvious from the start: the underneath passing game. This makes sense, from both a personnel and schematic standpoint.

From a personnel standpoint, the Seahawks defense is filled with tall, rangy pass defenders; each of their top four cornerbacks are at least 6′ tall. While height has many advantages, a taller player with longer legs will have a harder time changing directions in small spaces than will a shorter player with shorter legs. Of course, some tall cornerbacks are special enough to match such short area quickness (Richard Sherman is one), but, in general, a quick footed short receiver has an advantage in tight spaces over a longer striding defender.

The Patriots under Belichick have a strong tradition of utilizing this lack of height as an asset – from Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Deion Branch (5’9”) to prolific Wes Welker (5’9”) to current players Danny Amendola (5’11”) and Super Bowl XLIX star Julian Edelman (5’10”). Running back Shane Vereen (5’10”) also figured heavily into the passing attack during the game, catching 11 pass while only rushing 4 times. Amendola, Edelman, and Vereen combined in the game to catch 25 (!!) passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. As evidenced by the 8.84 yard per catch average, these receptions were largely of the underneath, move the chains variety.

From a schematic standpoint, the Seahawks are primarily a cover 3 team. They are, in some ways, the anti-Belichick team – they win because they are great at what they do, and they dare you to beat them at it (rather than making drastic schematic changes from week to week). There was no mystery to Belichick regarding the Seahawks defense. Their cover 3 defense would primarily feature 4 pass rushers, 4 underneath pass defenders, and 3 deep pass defenders. In theory, Belichick could gain a mathematic advantage with his 5 receivers in either the underneath zones (5 on 4) or the deep zones (5 on 3). The skill of the Seahawks, however, complicates theoretical discussions. The cornerbacks align in press coverage while matching patterns and being responsible for deep zones. Because they take away quick, short throws in the flat with this press alignment, and are talented enough to turn and run with receivers to the deep zones (Sherman being the prototype for such a technique), they almost function as if running a 463 zone. When combined with the fact that Earl Thomas is one of the fastest/best free safety “centerfielders” in NFL history – seemingly covering the ground of two safeties -, the defense can feel like a 464 to the opposition, explaining why they are among the all time great units to play the game.

The advantage for the Patriots would come underneath, in the middle of the field. It is there where Belichick could get his speedy trio of short receivers – Edelman, Vereen, and Amendola – matched up (often with option routes) on taller, rangier defenders, where their shorter legs would give them a quickness advantage and allow Brady to release the ball quickly, thus negating the ferocious Seahawks pass rush while avoiding the top Seahawks pass defenders. Belichick would then also work matchups, scoring one touchdown by taking advantage of a Rob Gronkowski versus linebacker matchup on the outside, and, as explained below, by isolating Edelman on a taller cornerback on the game’s decisive score.

First, we see the alignment. The Patriots align with a 3 receiver passing strength to their right. They have a good idea that this will leave Edelman lined up across from 6’3” Tharold Simon, with plenty of space to operate. They know this because the Seahawks rarely swap cornerbacks – there is a high degree of certainty that putting Edelman alone on the left would give him a one on one matchup with a tall cornerback not named Richard Sherman, and this is the matchup they wanted to exploit.

Three receiving threats to the right, and Edelman on the left, with plenty of space to work with to his right or left.

Three receiving threats to the right, and Edelman on the left, with plenty of space to work with to his right or left.

At the snap, Edelman breaks to the inside as if running a slant. Note the space to the inside of the field. Simon has no help – he MUST respect the threat of the slant and defend it with urgency.

No help and space to the inside = must defend the slant.

No help, and space to the inside = must defend the slant.

Now, from a closer angle, we see Edelman’s Michael Jordan moment. Like a great crossover dribble in basketball, the whip route (in which the receiver starts on a slant before pivoting to the outside) forces the defender’s momentum to one side, and then uses that momentum against the defender as the offensive player changes directions. And, as with Jordan’s NBA Finals winning crossover against Bryon Russell and the Utah Jazz in 1998, Edelman uses his left arm to help usher the defender to the inside.

Simon's momentum is to the inside; Edelman's left arm helps Simon on his way as Edelman quickly pivots to the outside; the 6'3'' Simon can't keep up.

Simon’s momentum is to the inside; Edelman’s left arm helps Simon on his way as Edelman quickly pivots to the outside; the 6’3” Simon can’t keep up.

We see the separation as Brady releases the ball. Simon’s long legs cannot match the short area change of direction of Edelman, and Edelman (for the second time on the route in the game) only needs an accurate throw to complete the go ahead score.

Simon's momentum is only just recovering as Edelman breaks to the outside.

Simon’s momentum is only just recovering as Edelman breaks to the outside.

The catch is secured with Simon in no position to contest the reception.

The catch is secured with Simon in no position to contest the reception.

The catch is secured with Simon in no position to contest the reception.

Compare Edelman’s whip route to Jordan’s game winning shot:


There were many stars of Super Bowl XLIX. Tom Brady earned his third Super Bowl MVP with a surgical 4th quarter comeback into the teeth of one of the best defenses of all time. But Belichick’s ability to take advantage of his players’ abilities (in this case, the asset of short receivers) while attacking his oppositions’ weaknesses (in this case, the liability of tall pass defenders) paved the way for success, with Julian Edelman’s Michael Jordan moment as a fitting end to the scoring.

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…