Gaining leverage on overhang players and access to the “alley” against odd fronts

[Ed. Note: The piece below is by Mike Kuchar, a defensive coordinator and researcher with the new site, X and O Labs. Mike previously wrote a piece for Smart Football called "Breaking Down Boise," about Chris Petersen's Boise State offense.]

Defenses across the college and prep ranks have been forced to adjust to the rise of four receiver spread formations.  Commonly referred to as “sub” personnel, our researchers at X&O Labs have found that many four defensive line teams have shifted to three down linemen structures to match speed with speed.  What started out as nickel packages has grown into an every down defenses.   Coordinators are replacing one of their defensive linemen with linebacker/safety hybrids to combat speed and defend the width of the field.

After surveying over 2,000 college and prep coaches, we’ve found that the most difficult challenge when facing odd front teams is finding a way to occupy the alley defender (usually an outside linebacker or drop safety).  Often taught to be the force player, it’s this overhang player that can cause problems for offenses wishing to push the ball to the perimeter.  Sure, it’s offensive pedagogy to attack the B gap bubbles vs. odd front teams, but it’s only a matter of time until defenses try to take that away by slanting or stemming to a four-down front pre-snap. Eventually, you’ll need to get to the perimeter, so why not save time by getting there immediately?  Our researchers at X&O Labs have sifted through feedback, and we’ll show you how to do just that below.

Case 1: Using Tight End Structures, Particularly 11 or 12 Personnel

Even if you don’t have a tight end in the program, start to develop one.  Over 80 percent of coaches polled by X&O Labs attack odd defenses by using various tight end formations. Whether by using 11 personnel (one tight end, one back), 12 personnel (two tight ends, one backs), or 21 personnel (one tight end, two backs), the tight end is pivotal in the run game.

We’ve all seen how productive spread offenses like Oregon, Boise State and Florida have been within the last three years.  What separates those teams from traditional spread teams is the implementation and execution of the tight end on normal downs.  According to our research, using a tight end in spread personnel accounts for two valuable advantages:

1.      It changes the structure of the defense: No longer can that safety/linebacker play in space, which is exactly what he wants to do.  Now he’s forced to cover down on a bigger, stronger opponent giving you leverage to get to the alley.

2.      It provides for an instant mismatch in the run game: Many of these hybrids don’t like to get their hands dirty.  These types, who usually weigh in the 180-210 pound range, are forced to balance up and fit in the framework against bigger tight ends.

X&O Labs’ Coaching Analyst, Mike Canales, who is also the associate head coach and offensive coordinator at the University of North Texas, contributed heavily to this Coaching Research Report.   Canales has modeled his spread scheme after studying a ton of what Oregon does to attack the perimeter with their speed sweep and option series.  “Anytime we’re going to get odd fronts, like we do when we play Louisiana-Monroe, we need to make some adjustments to our scheme,” said Canales.  “Teams are going to give you a six-man box, regardless of what you’re putting on the line of scrimmage.  Handling that overhang player with a six box is a bitch.  You can’t stay in 10 personnel with no tight ends because those slot receivers aren’t big or strong enough to handle safety types one-on-one, so you need to get into 11 or 12 personnel to force the defensive coordinator’s hand.”

(more…)

True spread, apexing

An interesting article out of CBS Sports:

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -The spread isn’t dead, but Missouri coach Gary Pinkel says the offense isn’t thriving like it was in recent seasons in the Big 12 and the rest of college football.

Defenses appear to be catching up to the dinking and dunking of the quick-pass offense, meaning it might not be long before a new fad crops up.

“It’s not based on empirical evidence, but I just sense so many people run versions of the spread offense – even I-formation teams – that people are getting better at defending it because they see it all the time,” Pinkel said Monday.

Pinkel’s comment came two days after his Tigers’ spread was limited to 99 yards passing in a 41-7 home loss to third-ranked Texas. Missouri, which had been averaging 405 total yards, generated 173 against the Longhorns.

Oklahoma and Nebraska also have shown a knack for slowing down the spread, but no one is doing it better than Texas of late.

The Longhorns have allowed an average of 166 total yards and 2.9 yards per play in their last four games, each against spread attacks.

Texas coach Mack Brown has made the recruitment of anti-spread defenders an emphasis.

He said all players in the secondary, safeties included, must be able to be shut down receivers in man coverage. Linebackers have to be fast and able to cover running backs or receivers coming out of five-receiver sets. The linemen all must be effective pass rushers so the need for blitzing is reduced.

So if the spread goes away, what will be the next hot offensive trend?

Maybe it’ll be the spread option, a descendent of the triple-option that Tom Osborne used at Nebraska to hammer opponents for 25 years.

Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads tried without much success to defend Navy’s spread option when he was defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh two years ago. The father of the spread option, Paul Johnson, was coaching Navy then, and the Midshipmen rolled up 497 yards.

Johnson now coaches 11th-ranked Georgia Tech, which ran on 71 of 79 plays while beating Virginia Tech 34-9 last Saturday.

“I don’t care what level of football,” Rhoads said, “that offense has a chance to be successful and it could indeed be more commonplace as we move forward.”

Texas’ Brown said he’s not so sure fans would accept the spread option because they have been so accustomed to the excitement of passing offenses.

There also is another drawback, he said: “Would you be able to come from behind if you got down three touchdowns?”

I don’t think that the spread option or flexbone will become that popular. (Though a part of me wishes it did, just to hear the NFL guys long for the days when colleges were producing QBs who threw it forty times a game from the shotgun. Didn’t know how good they had it.) But I think Mack Brown’s comments are instructive: If he can get top talent at every defensive position, and each of his defenders is better than the guy across from him, what do you gain by spreading him out to get a one-on-one? The answer is not much. Indeed I discussed this a few years ago:**

The offense has arguably become the opposite of an equalizer, it has become an amplifier: if you are talented you can really rack up the points because no one can cover Vince Young, Ted Ginn or the like one-on-one. But if you’re not, you just get sacked and no one gets open.

This is not to say that all “spreading” is out. I think there’s been a real change in the game, and athletes in space is never going out of style. I do think there already is a theme of contraction where certain players, like H-backs and the like are useful because they add blocking dimensions (both for running and pass protection) and can still leak out into pass routes. The spread stuff will be gobbled up into the whole but will still be present. But I think Pinkel is right that it doesn’t pay to just be four and five wide every single play. You become too predictable.

**FN: I looked back at that January 2006 article and saw that I said this: “(If I had to predict something [to be the wave of the future] I would say the jet/fly offense, but it has not caught on as much as I’d thought.” Was I right? Hello Wildcat!

(H/t Blutarsky.)