Washington State’s Spring Game: The Return of the Pirate

Spring games typically don’t make for very compelling watching, but anytime you have a new coaching staff, the interest is heightened somewhat because it’s the first and often only glimpse at how the new staff’s schemes will mesh with the existing talent. And of course I’ve been looking forward to the return of Mike Leach to the sideline, and to see how his offense may have evolved in his couple of years away from the game.

As expected, one answer is simple: Not much, nor should it be much different. The offense got lots of mileage early out of four verticals and the mesh concept, for example. But there’s some somewhat new stuff here, primarily in the use of pistol sets from the backs, some multiple runningback sets and motion with those guys in the backfield, and even some play-action and “pop” passes. Much of it is familiar to offenses run by other Airraid graduates, but is somewhat new to Coach Leach’s more traditional attack. I expect Washington State to have a few struggles in the fall, but it should be fun to see how quickly the offense comes together and what new wrinkles Leach adds in.

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“A very wise coach once told me, ‘If you really want play-action, you better pull a guard’” — Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III agree

The title is a quote from former Stanford and current San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, from the video clip below. And it’s absolutely true. While much is rightfully made about whether a quarterback does an effective job of selling a run fake on play-action, the reality is that the offensive line plays just as big of a role in convincing a defense that a play is a run. Indeed, the play-action pass is probably the best weapon offenses have, one far too often underutilized by modern spread offenses. As Bill Walsh once explained:

Let's go deep

The Play-Pass is the one fundamentally sound football play that does everything possible to contradict the basic principles of defense. I truly believe it is the single best tool available to take advantage of a disciplined defense. By using the play-pass as an integral pant of your offense you are trying to take advantage of a defensive team that is very anxious very intense and very fired-up to play football. The play-pass is one of the best ways to cool all of that emotion and intensity down because the object of the play-pass is to get the defensive team to commit to a fake run and then throw behind them. Once you get the defensive team distracted and disoriented, they begin to think about options and, therefore, are susceptible to the running game.

It is no surprise then that maybe the two best play-action teams in college football season were Stanford and Baylor, two teams that just so happened to produce the two best quarterbacks in college football, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. In reviewing the game film of both players, I couldn’t help but marvel at how many of their touchdown passes were well designed, well executed “shot plays” that, while impressive, pretty much just required both quarterbacks to throw the ball to wide open receivers. And a huge part of that was because both of their offenses involved heavy doses of play-action with pulling linemen.

Just think about what kind of effect that has on the defense. While both players were impressive in their play-action fakes — and someone like Peyton Manning is even more impressive — if you’re a linebacker or safety and you see a pulling guard, you basically can’t help but tell yourself: “It’s a run.” Especially since run plays that involve a pulling guard means one thing: “power,” in the lowercase sense of lots of bodies will be at the point of attack so the defense needs to match numbers as well. And in the case of both Stanford and Baylor it also means “power” in another sense: the “Power-O” play where the linemen block down and a backside guard pulls to lead. Stanford, being a more of a pro-style offense, runs the traditional Power-O numerous times every game. Baylor, being a spread team, typically used the vaunted “inverted veer” play, which is the spread offense’s read-based adaptation of the old Power-O. Regardless, for opponents of both, a pulling guard meant trouble for Stanford’s and Baylor’s opponents run defenses, which, through the use of play-action, in turn meant trouble for their pass defense. That Bill Walsh guy just might have been onto something.

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Noel Mazzone’s Offensive Philosophy and Inside Zone with Built In Quick Screens

Good stuff from former NC State, New York Jets and Arizona State assistant and current UCLA offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone. Particularly good stuff on practice philosophy and how to have base plays and how to solve problems (i.e. with constraint plays). Says he goes into a game with no more than about 32-35 plays, total. Also, make sure to watch the eighth and last video, as it covers Mazzone’s packaged concept where he combines a quick three-step pass combo with a slow screen to the other side, which I’ve discussed previously.

Update: The videos have been taken down. There’s a comment that the clinic asked the person who uploaded them to take them down; if so, I didn’t know they were uploaded without any permission. I will try to address some of Noel’s stuff in the future on here.

Get Smart about Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Spread

One of the best recent developments in the blogosphere has been the addition of my friend Ross Fulton to what was already one of the best blogs around, the Ohio State site Eleven Warriors. Ross has been a perfect fit, not least of all because he’s got great material to analyze in the form of Urban Meyer’s offense (along with offensive coordinator Tom Herman) are installing at Ohio State. Check out the links below for a learned preview of what we can expect from the Buckeye offense this fall.

The Real Deal: Longtime NFL O-Line Coach Larry Zierlein Breaks Down NFL Draft Prospects

Great stuff from the Sideline View, run by my friend Lance Zierlein, where his Dad, Larry Zierlein — longtime NFL and college O-Line coach, most recently of the Pittsburgh Steelers, breaks down the top NFL Draft prospects at center, guard and tackle.

Bonus: A fantastic presentation from Coach Zierlein on pass protection fundamentals, techniques, and concepts.

The Monster Defense, Overload Blitzes and Angle Stunts

Coaches and quarterbacks nowadays are exceptional at identifying and exploiting defensive weaknesses. Defenses now, with the rise of spread offenses, often give away their soft spots by how they line up, and the myriad of reads, packaged plays and options make exploiting those weaknesses ever simpler stuff.

But football is a game of give and take, and defenses are responding. And they are reacting to the up-tempo read-on-the-run offenses of today in two main ways: By becoming more flexible, with more hybrid type defenders to deal with hybrid type offensive players, and doing increasingly more of their own attacking.

We're coming

The key for defenses then is to attack, but to attack intelligently. Offenses will exploit obvious weaknesses, so the best approach is for the defense to combine aggressive tactics with sound schemes and even to set traps for the offense. And one of the best — and oldest — methods for doing that is to combine an overload blitz with angle stunts that go the opposite direction. This tactic is increasingly popular at every level of football, particularly against nouveau spread attacks, but it has old, old roots.

Specifically, the combination of overload blitzes to one side with angle stunts going the other way was a feature of one of football’s most dominating defenses, the 5-2 “Monster.”

In the old 5-2 Monster defense, the defensive aligned with five defensive linemen, two linebackers, and a “Monster” defender who lined up either to the wide side of the field or to the strength of the offense, typically the latter. With a nose guard lined up directly over the center, the defense had three additional defenders lined up to the offense’s left and four additional one’s to the offense’s right. This gave the defense the chance to overpower offenses to their strength side, where they typically liked to run to.

But, as the defense evolved over time, this increasingly became a trap for the offense. Against the 5-2 Monster, offenses typically liked to either call plays to the weakside of their formation, or even let the quarterback audible to them at the line, just as pro-style and spread quarterbacks today check to runs away from the defense’s numbers. Indeed, much of the modern run game is simply about identifying where the extra defenders are and getting away from them, and running away from the Monster seemed as good of a plan as any.

Except it was exactly what the defense wanted the offense to do. The reason for this was because most of those 5-2 Monster teams, despite lining up with extra players to one side versus the other, used “angle stunts,” or defensive line movements, away from the Monster player. The net result was that the 5-2 Monster was a balanced defense.

Thus the Monster’s great success — and it was one of the most popular defenses in football for at least thirty-years — was as much about psychology as it was schematics; there were unbalanced defenses and there were balanced defenses, but the Monster was uncanny at trapping the unwary coach and quarterback into running into the strength of the defense: Against balanced defenses, the offense wants to run to its strength, or to the tight-end. Against unbalanced defenses, offenses want to run wherever they have a numbers advantage, typically to the weak side. The Monster wreaked havoc with that kind of calculus.

While the 5-2 Monster may no longer be the defense du jour, defensive coaches have not forgotten its lessons, and instead apply them every week across football. It’s just a matter of adaptation.

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Smart Links – Kellen Moore, Louis CK, George Whitfield, Kevin Sumlin, WR NFL Draft Rankings – 4/13/2012

Gruden camp with one of my favorite college quarterbacks ever, Kellen Moore:

I don’t know what, if any, kind of pro Moore will make. I think arm strength in is general overrated, but Moore’s lack of arm strength does concern me. To me arm strength is not a matter of more is always better — JaMarcus Russell is proof of that — but you do need a threshold level of arm strength necessary for each level. And it’s not about chucking deep bombs; it’s about the ability to throw the ball on a line 25, 30 or even 35 yards from the far hash to the sideline. But Gruden spends a lot of time in this piece on Moore’s uncanny anticipation and that focus is exactly right: If Moore can succeed — indeed the reason he has been so successful so far — it will be because he uses his smarts, accuracy, and anticipation to overcome some of his limitations. As Gruden points out in the video too, Boise State’s multifarious offense is just awesome to watch, but it’s also not easy, making Moore well prepared for an NFL offense — if he can physically perform.

(Also gotta love Moore drawing up two classic pass plays, Sluggo Seam and Spacing.)

- Final column by Rick Cleveland.

- The rise of George Whitfield as the premiere QB guru, including mentor to Cam Newton and Andrew Luck.

- Pre-Snap Read fires up for 2012, with a look at the fighting Bob Davies.

- Behind the scenes with Kevin Sumlin.

- Ultimate Fighting and Math.

- Matt Waldman on this year’s wide receiver NFL draft class. I don’t know if there is a single, super dominant wide receiver in this year’s draft class like a Calvin Johnson or Randy Moss type, but I think there is a solid group of guys who will be consistent NFL contributors for a long time: I expect Justin Blackmon, Kendall Wright, Mohammed Sanu, Reuben Randle, Juron Criner, Marvin McNutt, Joe Adams and Ryan Broyles to all make NFL rosters and hang around with fairly consistent production for the next five to eight years, with at least a couple turning into pro bowl receivers.

After the jump, Mike Leach operates a crane because . . . why not? (H/t cougcenter.)

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The Future of the NFL: More Up-tempo No-huddle

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that huddling is an archaism destined for the dustbin. I say it’s a slight exaggeration because there is a value to huddling, primarily when you have a great leader at quarterback as a huddle is an opportunity for him to show his leadership skills. But otherwise, it’s inherently inferior to going no-huddle. It’s slower, which is a problem both in games but also in practice where your offense gets fewer reps, and, maybe most importantly, the safety net of a huddle leads coaches to transform plays that can be communicated in just one or two words into multi-syllabic monstrosities. That’s the sad secret of those long NFL playcalls: They convey no more information than can be conveyed with one or two words or with a combination of hand-signals.

I prefer to go fast

It’s doubly bizarre that the NFL, which has the most (i.e. infinite) practice time to develop no-huddle methods, and where the quarterbacks actually have a radio speaker in their headsets — shouldn’t it be easy? And it’s no secret, too. Despite being a copycat league, most NFL teams don’t do it while the best teams and the best quarterbacks — Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — kill people with it every week. And what is strangest of all is that the NFL was onto the no-huddle before most modern teams:

None of this is particularly new. In the 1980s and early 1990s, both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills used the no-huddle extensively, and college and high school teams have increasingly moved to no-huddle approaches over the last decade. In his 1997 book Finding the Winning Edge, Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh—whose West Coast offense fueled the growth of complex play calls—predicted that no-huddle offenses using “one word” play calls would come to dominate football. Walsh may have been a bit early, but Brady and Belichick are making his prediction come true.

But things may be changing, led by an influx of college quarterbacks comfortable in the movements of the no-huddle. As Tom Brady shows every week, there’s an art to manipulating the defense in the no-huddle. And there’s an incredible value to this, as NFL defenses become more and more complex.

Modern defenses want to match offenses in terms of strength and speed via personnel substitutions. They also want to confuse offenses with movement and disguise. The up-tempo no-huddle stymies those defensive options. The defense doesn’t have time to substitute, and it’s also forced to show its hand: It can’t disguise or shift because the quarterback can snap the ball and take advantage of some obvious, structural weakness. And when the defense is forced to reveal itself, Tom Brady can change into a better play. The upshot of this tactic: Brady, of all people, sees defenses that are simpler than those most other NFL quarterbacks go up against.

I’m somewhat more confident about seeing more no-huddle in the NFL both because there was more of it last season, but also because of those young quarterbacks. The “Gruden QB” camps are not the same thing as actual player evaluation, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting subtexts. Last season, everyone jumped on Cam Newton for his performance on Gruden’s show, when he was challenged about how simple his playcalls were at Auburn. The consensus was that because, in Auburn’s no-huddle offense, Cam would simply say “36″ instead of one of those long NFL playcalls, he was unfit for the pros. Well those predictions didn’t turn out well.

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What is the proper stance for a wide receiver?

This topic comes up fairly frequently and — while coaches have many different views on this — I am pretty set in how I think a receiver stance should look. The two most important things in the stance are to (1) get off the line quickly and (2) be balanced enough to deal with press coverage. Some coaches try to use different stances to accomplish this but given how unpredictable defenses can be, I don’t think you can swap stances.

Always a good model

Much of getting off the line involves two factors related to the stance and feet — namely avoiding false steps (having to take an initial step that doesn’t get you anywhere) and being in position to burst off of the line. On the other hand, defeating press coverage is typically about the receiver having certain moves he is good at, threatening the defender with his release immediately, and using his hands.

There is much to say about specific receiver techniques for releases themselves and obviously route-running itself, but the stance is the foundation for all of it.

For the stance itself, I don’t want it to be too much of a crouched sprinter stance, nor too upright and rigid. It should be a flexible, natural stance, recognizing that while the vast majority of time the most important thing for the receiver is to get vertical as quickly as possible, dealing with press man and taking other releases (either inside or outside) are integral parts of the repertoire and the stance should both lend themselves to those moves and not give anything away before the snap. Here are my coaching points for what I like.

  • Inside foot up, flat on the ground but weight slightly on the toes. 80% of weight on front foot, 20% on back foot.

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New Grantland: Tim Tebow and the Jets

You can find it over at Grantland:

This is exactly the role Tebow should have had in the NFL from day one. Former Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels famously traded up to draft Tebow in the first round, an exceedingly high spot for a player that is, and remains, a work in progress. Although it was preposterous when so-called scouts and experts claimed that Tebow should have been converted into a tight end or halfback (he will succeed or fail as a quarterback, the position he has played his entire life), it also was apparent that he needed to make significant progress in a variety of areas to be an effective NFL quarterback. Despite the tenor of the debates, in the NFL player evaluation is less about black-and-whites than it is about shades of grey and the interplay of two factors: roles and value.

Read the whole thing. This was originally intended to be a quick piece but it kind of ballooned out (the subject will do it to you). I do think it’s important to this story that Rex Ryan has been around football for a long time — and his Dad obviously even longer — so the calculus of the quarterback-as-run-threat is not lost on him. But of course Tebow’s long term success will be driven by his ability to read defenses and locate receivers more quickly than he has been able to so far.