Smart Notes – Defending Packaged Plays, Baylor’s Lazy Offense, Buck Sweep, Murder

Defending Packaged Plays.

Packaged plays are among the most deadly tools in the modern offense’s arsenal. These plays, sometimes also referred to as run-pass options, combine different types of plays into one while giving the QB the option to choose; they are a type of read-option that don’t require the QB to run the ball at all. They started years ago with combining inside runs with a built-in bubble screen, but they have grown and expanded over recent years and now frequently feature running plays — complete with the offensive line blocking for the run — with downfield passing routes designed to be open if the defense plays the run, which in turn keeps them honest and thus opens up the run.

This is why just about every team in college football now uses these plays, with teams as diverse as Baylor and Alabama alike profiting from them, and in the NFL the Steelers, Patriots, Eagles, Packers and many others have been using packaged plays repeatedly. And when they work, they are awful pretty.

run slant

Yet, like anything else new, defenses are getting better at defending packaged plays. Their purpose is to isolate a defender who is responsible for both the run and the pass, such as a safety or a linebacker, to put him in conflict, and to make him wrong. But if the defense simplifies itself and defines who is doing what — in other words, playing man-to-man coverage in the secondary while committing everyone else to the run — then there is no conflict and hence no read, and the defense should have numbers to defend the run. This is a sound response, and the rise of packaged plays is one reason defenses are playing more and more man coverage.


College Football Playoff: Should the Committee Pick the “Best” or the “Most Deserving” Teams?

While the College Football Playoff is an improvement over the old BCS system it, unsurprisingly, has not done away with controversy or debate regarding the identities of the top teams in the country. The College Football Playoff Selection Committee released their first ranking today, and the predictable result was a lot of back and forth on television and online regarding what the committee got right and what it got wrong. The problem is not the fact of the arguing — quite nakedly, engendering “debate” is the sole purpose of releasing ineffectual rankings rather than waiting to release the ones that matter — it’s that the arguments usually involve people talking past each other.

There’s nothing wrong with this opinion; indeed, it’s probably even in some circumstances correct: some people do think that a team being undefeated means it’s good enough to beat any team that isn’t. But that’s probably a minority view, and if someone is ranking the undefeated team over the one or two loss team it’s probably not because they necessarily think the undefeated team would beat the other team it’s that, being undefeated, they deserve being in the playoff more than a team with a loss.

Most people don’t always express their arguments in these terms — “best team” versus “most deserving” — but that’s essentially all it comes down to. This tension is why the playoff, despite being an improvement over the BCS, is not a panacea, either. I wrote about all of this for Grantland right after the end of the BCS era, and, two years into the College Footbal Playoff experiment, I continue to stand by every word:

The larger issue is figuring out how we should determine a sport’s “champion.” The wildly unpopular BCS was one method, while the new College Football Playoff will be another, but I’m referring to something more fundamental: What criteria should we use to determine who gets the title?

One answer is that the champion should be the season’s “best team,” possibly defined as the best overall team or the team we think would be favored to beat every other team on a neutral field. Another answer is the “most deserving team,” loosely defined as the team that produced the best overall season. These two things are not always the same. It’s perfectly possible for the best team — i.e., the most formidable — to lose a close game or even two on a bad kick or a fluke play, while another team runs the table by winning close games.


New Grantland: Football 101 – Why Power Running Works

It’s now up over at Grantland:

While many think the term “power football” describes an attitude or perhaps even a formation, coaches actually use it to refer to something more technical: the Power-O and Counter Trey run plays, which most coaches simply call Power and Counter, and which are foundational running plays in the NFL and college football.

Power and Counter are so effective because their very designs are forged from aggression. They’re deliberate melees built on double-team blocks, kick-out blocks, lead blocks, and down blocks, and preferably finished off by a running back who drops his shoulder and levels a defender or two before going down. And as this GIF shows, they can be things of beauty:


While football increasingly seems to revolve around quarterbacks who post gaudy passing stats in spread attacks, the inside running game remains the sport’s core no matter what offense a team runs. Let’s take a closer look at how Power and Counter were developed, why they work, and how teams are putting some new spins on some old plays.

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland (Shootaround): Alabama’s Spread Offense and Requiem for Mike Leach

I participated in Grantland’s shootaround following week one of the college football season, and I wrote about Alabama potentially embracing the spread offense and the inauspicious start to the season by Washington State under head coach Mike Leach. Some excerpts:

But Saban also likes winning, and after troubling losses to Texas A&M in 2012, Auburn in 2013, and Ohio State in 2014 — plus limited sympathy for his public complaints — it appears that he’s settled on an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach. Alabama’s offensive transformation began two years ago and took a big step forward last season under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, with the Crimson Tide setting school records in numerous categories. But the Tide’s Week 1 win over Wisconsin was the best evidence yet that Saban is a spread offense convert in practice, if not entirely in spirit.


Smart Football Round-Up 9/2/2015

In connection with the start of the season (and the new book), I’ve been doing some Q&As and podcasts. Below are some links:

  • Solid Verbal Podcast: Talking defense and the start of the college football season with Dan Rubenstein.
  • RotoViz Radio: A fun discussion with Josh Norris and Matthew Freedman about trends in the NFL, quarterback reads and progressions and the potential of some young receivers.
  • AndtheValleyShook Q&A: Q&A with Billy Gomila on LSU’s new defense, pro-style versus spread and college football trends.
  • The Oklahoman Q&A: A Q&A with Jason Kersey regarding the Big 12, Oklahoma, and the Air Raid offense Lincoln Riley is bringing to Norman.

New Grantland: Breakdown of Gary Patterson’s TCU 4-2-5 Defense

I’ve been working for a few months on a deep-dive analysis of Gary Patterson’s morphing, multifarious 4-2-5 defense for Grantland, and it’s now up. Patterson’s defense is intriguing on a number of levels, and not only because TCU is ranked #2 in the preseason AP polls: Patterson’s 4-2-5 is custom built for the kinds of wide-open, uptempo spread offenses that now dominate football at every level, but there’s a lot of nuance into exactly why that is:


Patterson’s 4-2-5, however, was designed with those challenges in mind. By playing five defensive backs, Patterson almost never needs to substitute to match up with the offense. But the system’s genius runs even deeper: Patterson has cleaved the very structure of his defense into pieces, simultaneously making everything simpler for his players and more complicated for opponents.

“We divide our defense into attack groups,” Patterson explained at a coaching clinic in 2011. Those attack groups are: (1) the four defensive linemen and two linebackers, referred to as the front, (2) one cornerback, the free safety, and the strong safety, and (3) the weak safety and other corner. For most teams, the calls for the front and secondary only work if appropriately paired, but that’s not the case for TCU. “Our fronts and coverages have nothing to do with each other,” Patterson said at the clinic. “The coverage part is separate from the front.”

Read the whole thing.

Amazon drops Kindle price of The Art of Smart Football to 99 cents

Amazon has dropped the price of the Kindle edition of my new book, The Art of Smart Football, to 99 cents.

My old book, The Essential Smart Football, is also only 99 cents right now. Note that you can read Kindle books on non-Kindle devices by downloading the free Kindle app for your computer or for iOS or Android.

The Smart Football Glossary

Football is bathed in jargon. Other sports have their wonky terms but anyone who even casually watches a football game is bombarded with a cascade of code words, while even experienced fans usually can’t make heads or tails of what coaches and players say to each other on the sidelines. Some of this is inherent in a game made up of a few seconds of action interrupted by breaks for communication. And the phenomenon of platooning — where offensive players don’t play defense and vice versa — creates additional opportunities for coaches and players to communicate, and, like any other pressure filled profession, from the armed forces to medicine, communication in these circumstances is condensed so that the most information is conveyed in the fewest syllables.

wordcloud1All too often, however, discussing even the most rudimentary and fundamental football concepts is needlessly offputting, something exacerbated as too many announcers and analysts use streams of buzzwords to sound intelligent without actually conveying any information (something I try very hard to not do, though undoubtedly with inconsistent success). Unless you’re sitting on an NFL sideline trying to tell your position coach what the defense is doing, you are better off using as little jargon as possible and instead trying to explain what you see in English.

But in football, terminology is often destiny, and some terms have become so ingrained that being familiar with them is critical for any intelligent fan; on the other hand, others have become so misused that using them actually deters rather than enhances understanding. The goal of this football glossary is simply to unpack a limited set of football buzzwords in a way that will make watching games on Saturday and Sunday more enjoyable. The important thing, however, is not to focus on the terms but instead on the explanations: if we’re all on the same page with those, the names we given the underlying ideas — whether you call it Smash, China or Shakes — what we end up calling it is simply detail, not substance. I’m sure your high school coach had his own name for each of these below.

Arm Talent: A notorious bit of scout-speak that is either a pseudo-scientific way to describe something obvious (“That quarterback has a strong, accurate arm”) or an extremely clumsy way to describe something better served with colloqiual english (“He has the ability to throw the ball from different angles to avoid oncoming rushers and still find an open throwing lane through which he can deliver the football”).

Bang 8 Post: A particular version of the “skinny post” or “glance” routes, the “Bang 8” or “Bang 8 Post” was developed by former San Diego Chargers head coach Don Coryell and calls for the receiver to run seven-steps straight downfield before breaking inside at an angle. The particular angle the receiver takes, however, depends on the leverage of the defender covering him: the receiver’s job is to take whatever angle is necessary to ensure he is between the quarterback and the nearest defender. (“8” is the number for a post in the Coryell route tree, see “Route Tree” below.) “Bang” indicates that the route is not thrown as a deep bomb but instead is a rhythm throw thrown by the quarterback on rhythm as soon as he hit the fifth step in his dropback. Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin of the Cowboys ran the Bang 8 better than anyone in NFL history:


Audio Round-up — The Art of Smart Football

I’ve spent the last few days doing a few selected podcasts and radio hits (and there’s more to come). They were all fun; links are below.

It also looks like Amazon has dropped the price on the paperback copy of The Art of Smart Football to $8.99 and the Kindle edition to $6.99.

The Art of Smart Football is Now Available on Kindle

The Art of Smart Football, my new book, is now available for Kindle.


The Art of Smart Football

You can read more about the book here, and you can also check it out in paperback. And if you get the book and enjoy it, I’d truly appreciate it if you wouldn’t mind spending a brief minute to write a review on Amazon. It would be much appreciated.