Q&A on Holgorsen’s West Virginia “Airraid”

It’s up over at the great Clemson blog, ShakintheSouthland, in anticipation of the Orange Bowl between Clemson and West Virginia.

One clarification: In the Q&A I say I “agree” with Holgorsen’s preference for fullbacks over tight-ends. It should say that I “disagree”: (more…)

The Packers have allowed more yards than they’ve gained, but what does that mean?

After 15 games, the Green Bay Packers are 14-1. But this season, the Packers have been outgained by their opponents. In fact, the Packers have won more than half of their games while losing the yardage battle. How is that possible?

Is this a problem?

If a team is 14-1, the natural inclination is to assume that they’re an elite team with few flaws. And the Packers, as defending Super Bowl champions, certainly pass the eye test. So why has Green Bay been outgained this season? I suspect most people think there are three plausible explanations: (1) total yards is simply meaningless; (2) the Packers have given up a bunch of meaningless yards in garbage time because they always have a lead; or (3) the Packers simply play a ‘bend but don’t break’ style of defense, so measuring them by yards allowed is silly. Let’s look at each argument.

It’s tempting to just think that total yards is meaningless as a measure of team ability, but that’s not really the case. The team that wins the yardage battle has won 66% of all games this season. New England and New Orleans, the two teams most similar to Green Bay, have outgained their opponents in 19 of their 30 games this season. The Steelers, Texans and Saints are the top three teams in yardage differential while the Colts, Rams and Bucs are the bottom three. As a metric, yards and yards allowed have flaws; I would never use yards to rank a player or a team, and the same goes for yards allowed. But yards are still generally correlated with success. So let’s dig a little deeper into what’s actually happened for the Packers this season.

Green Bay ranks 16th in yardage differential, as only 14 teams have outgained their opponents. But Green Bay has lost a lot of possessions this season. A turnover ends your opponent’s drive and gives you a possession, except when you return that turnover for a touchdown. The Packers have seven interception, fumble or special teams touchdowns this season, depriving the offense of possessions. The Packers also muffed two punts (both against Minnesota) and lost a couple of onside kicks. The Packers have also had a few kneel down drives at the end of halves, where they only technically had a possession. Of course, the same has happened to their opponents, but Green Bay has disproportionately lost significantly more drives than the average team this season.

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A closer look at the New England Patriots defense

No one suggests that the Patriots defense is good, or even average. For starters, well, look at the starters. Here was New England’s starting lineup this weekend against the Broncos:

I'm working on it

DE	 Brandon Deaderick 
DT	 Kyle Love 
DT	 Vince Wilfork 
DE	 Andre Carter 
OLB	 Jerod Mayo 
MLB	 Dane Fletcher 
OLB	 Rob Ninkovich 
CB	 Devin McCourty 
FS	 Matt Slater 
SS	 James Ihedigbo 
CB	 Kyle Arrington

Casual fans have heard of Wilfork and Mayo, and McCourty was one of the top rookies in the league last season. But don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Deaderick (2010 7th rounder) or Love (undrafted) or Fletcher (undrafted from Montana State) or Slater (5th round draft pick — at wide receiver — who converted to safety in the middle of this season), and it’s not like Ihedigbo (undrafted, special teams ace for the Jets) , Arrington (undrafted, Hofstra) and Ninkovich (5th round pick by New Orleans) are high profile players, either. Now that Andre Carter — New England’s best pass rusher — is out for the season, the situation looks even worse. And among the “name players” on the Patriots’ defense, only Mayo (who missed several games earlier this season) isn’t having a disappointing season.

The Patriots do not have much talent on defense. So it’s not too surprising that the Patriots rank last in the league in yards allowed. But the situation is even bleaker than that. The 1981 Baltimore Colts were one of the worst teams in football history; they’re also the only team that allowed 5800 or more yards in the first 14 games of the season. Well, they were: now the Patriots have joined the list.

But the Patriots total defense is still better than the Patriots pass defense. Until this season, no team had ever allowed more than 3,910 passing yards after 14 games; the Patriots have allowed 4,154.

Part of that historical ineptness is because the Patriots often play with the lead. New England has faced the third highest number of pass attempts this season, and ranks 30th (as opposed to 32nd) in net yards per pass attempt. So instead of having a historically terrible pass defense, it’s probably fairer to just note that they have one of the league’s worst pass defenses. New England’s rush defense isn’t very good — the Pats rank 26th in yards per carry allowed, and because they face so many more passes than rushes, 19th in rushing yards allowed.

But New England ranks 14th in points allowed. That means despite a terrible pass defense and a bad rush defense, the Patriots actually have allowed fewer points than the average team this season. So what gives?

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How to Use “Backside Tags” to Attack the Entire Field in the Passing Game

This article is by my friend Dan Gonzalez, who, in addition to being an expert on offense and the passing game, has written a book about both called Concept Passing: Teaching the Modern Passing Game. Dan also previously collaborated with me on an article about the four verticals pass concept. I am honored to host his excellent article on Smart Football.

“Pick a side.” This common coaching directive, in which the quarterback is given the autonomy to choose his starting point on a pass play, has always bothered me. It’s an abdication of a coach’s responsibility: It’s the coach’s job to orchestrate the assault on a defense –- why isn’t the quarterback given a specific starting point and a full complement of options? Even as a college player, I would sit in meetings or pick up a game plan handout and roll my eyes when I saw these words attached to a pass play. My coaches were no slouches – there was an NFL pedigree throughout the staff, and they were fresh from coaching the first pick in the NFL draft when they came to my school. We were taught sound mechanics and fundamentals and our system was a complex pro-style system. Still, there was an abundance of mirrored pass patterns (see Diagram 1 below) in our system, where receivers on both sides of the formation ran the same routes. While these plays were sold as attacking the full field, I often thought to myself, “If everyone comes open at the same time, aren’t we really wasting half the field, and sometimes more than half of the eligible receivers?”

Diagram 1. Example of a “mirrored” pass pattern

I have always considered myself a sort of “free thinker” when it came to football. My talent would never have allowed for me to dream of playing after college (I considered myself blessed to be there), and I always knew I would go into coaching. When I studied our game tapes (I was in charge of the passing game quality control as a senior) and opponent scouting tapes, I was not only living in the “now” — I was also searching for the methodology that I would use when I finally got to run my own offense. Even then, there were two things I knew I wanted: (1) My system would establish itself with the dropback pass and (2) I was going to give the quarterback as many options as possible on a given pass play.

In the passing system I have coached myself (and have since installed for my clients on a consultant basis), pass plays have “frontside” and “backside” component. They fit together through a system of pattern variations, or “tags,” which I’ve created to give the quarterback a well defined method of attacking the full width and depth of pass defenses. There are three types of backside tags, each encompassing a specific way to affect the backside of a pass defense:

  • Provide outlets if the primary combination is covered.
  • Control safety rotation or displacement.
  • Prevent “matching” of the undercoverage.

For this article, I’m going to share a little of the thinking that goes into the first category of backside tags that we teach –- in our vernacular, these combinations are called “Scan Reads.”

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Smart Links – 12/20/2011

Resources on the 4-2-5, TCU’s vaunted defense.

- How the “Cowboy” (corner blitz) killed the wildcat. It’s because the “Wildcat QB” was not a passing threat. It’s a good read on what the wildcat did and does well (covering similar territory as I covered here).

- Sean Payton, circa 1992, on quarterbacking.

- Inside the mind of a college freshman quarterback.

- Breakout players of the 2011 college football season. What Watkins and De’Anthony Thomas have been able to do as true freshman is just incredibly impressive, especially given how many roles each play for their teams. I could watch highlights of both guys all day.

- Defending trips: Disguising schemes and staying disciplined. Very good link.

- How pedestrians behave.

- Ian McEwan and Christopher Buckley on Hitchens.

Grantland Blog: Evaluating Alabama’s defense

It’s up over at the Grantland Blog:

… Whether pro-style, Air raid, or spread-to-run, we’re living in offense-dominated times.

That is, except in the game that (rightly or wrongly) crowns the champion: LSU-Alabama. Indeed, that game features the country’s most dynamic and exciting defensive player in Tyrann Mathieu (who might end up no better than the third- or fourth-best NFL prospect in LSU’s secondary) and one of the most statistically dominating defenses of the past decade in Alabama.

There will be plenty to say about this matchup in the coming weeks. (Especially since the teams have already played — or hadn’t you heard?) But for now, despite all of the above evidence of offenses’ increasing dominance, because those offenses were in turn dominated by LSU’s and Alabama’s defenses there is no choice but to declare this season the year that, channeling William F. Buckley, those two teams stood athwart the march of history yelling, “Stop!” It was the year of defense.

Read the whole thing.

Paragraph of the day, red zone playcalling edition

Red Zone Play-Calling

On a first down Red Zone play, teams are more likely to score if it’s a run than a pass if they are at the 8 yard line or closer. Anything between the 9 and the 20 favors a pass on first down. That doesn’t mean that 100% pass is the optimal strategy, just that the play calling should favor the pass (or run inside the 9). For goal to go situations after first down, second down is the ultimate OC’s choice. From anywhere 10 and in on second and goal running and passing have nearly identical touchdown percents. On third and goal, the run still holds up strongly. A called run is more likely to score a TD on anything from the 6 and in than a pass, which owns 7 and up. Again, not saying the strategy should be 100%, but there is real value to favoring the run inside the 7.

There is more data driven situational analysis here.

Recommended reading, 2011 edition

I am frequently asked to recommend books for coaches or just people interested in learning more about the game. There really is no single one source — and I’m not sure there could be — but here are some suggestions of books I’ve enjoyed that tackle the strategic side of football.

- Finding the Winning Edge, by Bill Walsh. The bible.

- The Bunch Attack, by Andrew Coverdale and Dan Robinson. Probably my favorite passing game book of all time; don’t be scared off by the reference to the “bunch” only. Although that’s the theme, the book is really a comprehensive look at the passing game as a system, understanding defenses and coverages, protections, and how to build variations off of the passing game to make it all go. Coverdale and Robinson’s books on the quick pass game are essential as well.

- 2011 Offensive Line Coaches Handbook, edited by Earl Browning. all of the fancy stuff about the passing game and building a “pro-style” gameplan go out the window if you can’t block on some fundamental run plays and on pass plays, and the COOL Clinic lectures remain one of the best sources of information. I enjoyed this year’s edition, though you can find valuable information in almost all of them.

- Coaching the Under Front Defense, by Jerry Gordon. There are lots of good books on defense — including the all-time classic, Coaching Team Defense by Packers legend Fritz Shurmur — but I think Gordon’s book is a great overview and introduction not only to the 4-3 Under but the concept of team defenses generally. I also found it very helpful as a reference work, as out of the various other books and materials I have I kept pulling this off the shelf to see about defending runs pulling guards, certain pass concepts, and so on.

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Smart Links – 12/14/2011

Indiana’s buzzer-beater to beat Kentucky set to the theme from Hoosiers:

- Craig James runs for Senative.

- What happened to the Triangle Offense? And the last frontier of the Triangle, in Manila.

- Coach Hoover on Tebow.

- Amazon rewarding people who report on higher prices in stores.

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Mike Leach: Pistol offense maven?

Mike Leach, now head coach at Washington State, has gone out and hired someone with a little pistol offense pedigree:

One interesting note from the hiring and firing that occupies college football fans for the better part of the holiday season is the hiring of former Nevada and UCLA assistant Jim Mastro by Washington State. Mastro is schooled in the pistol offense, a run-first attack known for cranking out 1,000 yard rushers with regularity. It seems incompatible with Leach’s pass-friendly Air Raid scheme, but it may not be as inharmonious a match as you might think.

Leach protege Dana Holgorsen has worked with integrating the pistol formation and other variants of the scheme into his sets at West Virginia and Oklahoma State. In order to keep his attack fresh and unpredictable in his return to coaching, Leach may be looking to do the same thing by going straight to one of the attack’s sources. It’s a fun tweak, but don’t worry, Cougar fans: Leach will still throw the daylights out of the ball, and then probably pass some more even after he’s all out of daylights, so to speak.

I think this is right: Don’t expect Leach to junk his Airraid anytime soon, though you may see more pistol. What’s interesting is that Leach has talked about the importance of the pistol, contrasting it with, say, the wildcat, which he didn’t think is a lasting change. Instead the pistol, says Leach, will have staying power as it “changes the angles” in the running game. You can see this in the clip below:

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