The “Diamond” formation and other multi-back “pistol” sets

I like to often say that football is a simple game, and in that vein coaches, when designing offensive plays, have really only two choices: To change where the players begin (the formation), and where they’ll end up (the play design). Formations are often more important than plays, but also should be easier to get right: The guy should stand where he was told to stand. But they’re still fun to play with, and the past couple of seasons have seen some interesting wrinkles.

Probably the most famous new formation came about from the world’s smallest adjustment: Moving a runningback over a couple of feet. But no one calls it that; instead, they call it the “PISTOL OFFENSE” (all caps). Of course, announcers like to say a team is using the “PISTOL OFFENSE” (all caps) whenever the runningback lines up in the pistol, but really only a handful of teams use the set in anything that can be called an “offense” in the sense of a fully robust system, Nevada, of course, being among them with a mixture of downhill I-formation plays from the shotgun with options like the speed option and the veer play.

But I’ve been kind of down on the “Pistol” as something broad or novel, because most teams that have used it are still one-back teams and all they’ve done is move the runningback around a little, which is something good teams like Oregon or others were doing anyway, just not from the pistol. The real advantage of the pistol (the formation, not the offense), however, comes when you add a second back to the backfield. In the image below, West Virginia actually goes with three backs (more on that in a bit), but the point is simply that you can align a fullback (or two fullbacks) to add a strength to the formation.

A bit of overcrowding?

Now, West Virginia didn’t have much luck with the three back set, but the idea is a good one:

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Smart Notes – NFL Week 1, Northwestern’s tricks, 82-6, twitter wisdom – 9/6/2011

Football is back:

- Five things to watch in week one of the NFL. Among them:

Julio Jones vs. the Bears Tampa 2: Really anxious to watch the rookie WR play this Sunday in Chicago. I know he has talent, size and deep ball speed—but I want to see him at the line of scrimmage vs. Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 scheme. The Bears’ CBs (Peanut Tillman and Tim Jennings) will work to re-route the Falcons’ WR and force an inside release. Can he consistently win and get into the route stem when the Bears show their Cover 2 shell? Because if he does, then we get to see him work a deep half safety on the 9 (fade), 8 (post) and 7 (corner). That’s good football to check out.

- Northwestern with that sprint-draw from gun, via Sippin on Purple. Good breakdown of an underused play.

- So, that happened. Hal Mumme apparently scheduled for his McMurry University team — a Division III squad, meaning they don’t have scholarship athletes — to play Stephen F. Austin, an excellent FCS level school (i.e. whose roster is made up of scholarship athletes). The result, was, uh, ugly:

Hal Mumme’s McMurry University’s team took a record 82-6 loss to Stephen F. Austin last Saturday.

McMurry is a Division III team in Texas. Stephen F. Austin is ranked No. 14 in FCS, the same division that includes Eastern Kentucky, Jacksonville State, etc. Stephen F. Austin outgained Mumme’s team 668-120. McMurry quarterback Jake Mullins threw for just 79 yards and was sacked five times. The score was 53-6 at halftime.

Ever the Civil War buff, Mumme had a quote after the rout.

“I know how Lee felt after Pickett’s Charge,” McMurry coach Hal Mumme said. “It’s all my fault. I just asked them to do something they couldn’t do.”

I generally like Hal, but there must have been a payday or something involved. Wow. (Though McMurry is supposed to be transitioning to Division II.) Of course, Hal was also up to his old tricks. I’m not against going for it, but I’ve never heard the logic before that it’s actually better for the defense to give the other team the ball in red zone as opposed to their own twenty. Worth the trade-off of going for it, sure, but not that you were actually helping your defense:

With nothing to lose except a football game, McMurry went for broke from the start, going for it and failing on fourth down on its first four possessions. Three of those were in McMurry territory, including a fourth-and-8 from the 28. The Lumberjacks took advantage with a field goal and two touchdowns to take control before the game was eight minutes old.

“If I’d punted it, I didn’t think our defense could slow them down,” Mumme said. “Nothing against our defense, but we had to make big plays and get them off the field in three plays if we were going to stop them. It’s easier to do that when they’re in the Red Zone than when they’re back 80 yards away. They’re just like us — they throw it down the field real well.”

- Bill C on week one. Great stuff. See also this:

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It’s the process, recruiting edition

The article is a bit dated, but is still fascinating. Nick Saban on his recruiting method:

[T]he Nick Saban doctrine of recruiting. It is meticulous, methodical and relentless in every single aspect of the recruiting process. . . . Belichick, Bill Parcells and other player pro directors all influenced Saban and his recruiting approach. It’s a five-phase process that first begins with identifying needs of your current personnel based on attrition two to three years down the line out of a five-year player cycle.

Second, Saban sets a standard at each position, identifying key characteristics within each position with the offensive and defensive systems that he runs. Each prospect who is recruited, depending on the position, has to meet certain measurables (height, weight, speed, etc.), among other criteria. Rarely will Saban deviate.

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Smart Football’s college football viewing guide: opening weekend

After perusing the television listings and gametimes, I’ve set out a rough chart to see how much football I can force upon myself. Games of interest sorted by timeslot.

The best moment in football -- leading the men to the field

Thursday, Sept. 1.

- Murray State at Louisville (ESPNU, 6:00pm): Obviously watch the game to see the good work Charlie Strong has done with Louisville’s development on defense and as a team generally, but also watch because Murray coach Chris Hatcher is an old Airraid guru who continues to throw the ball around. Hatcher won a Divison II National Title at Valdosta St, but his stint at Georgia Southern didn’t go quite as well. It’d be a shock if Louisville didn’t control the game, but, hey, Pat Forde already picked the Cardinals to lose this one.

Friday, Sept. 2.

- TCU at Baylor (ESPN, 7:00pm): If you’re watching football this is your choice, and it’s actually a pretty good one. Art Briles and Robert Griffin III should continue to put on a show at Baylor, but Gary Patterson’s vaunted 4-2-5 defense should be able to control the game. Even if you don’t watch live (it’s unlikely that I will), it’s worth the DVR to study that Patterson/Briles matchup.

Saturday, Sept. 3.

- Appalachian State at Virginia Tech (11:30am, ESPN3): This one has a big point spread, but Appy State is one of the best spread offense teams around; as VT defensive coordinator Bud Foster said in just a bit of hyperbole: “They’ve got a great scheme and they’ve been doing it a long time. I’m not sure what they do wasn’t invented right there. . . . A lot of people take credit for it, but these guys run it as good as anybody.” Foster knows a thing or two about defense, and his team will be stretched by the Appy State attack. Anytime there’s a disparity in levels talent should win out, but this one could get interesting.

- Minnesota at USC (2:30pm, ABC or ESPN2): You can see my rationale for watching Jerry Kill’s debut over at DocSat. (It still could get ugly though.)

- South Florida at Notre Dame (2:30pm, NBC): Notre Dame has a lot to potentially lose in this game, as if Brian Kelly opens this season with a stumble against a (supposedly) lesser but still talented opponent, good will might be in short supply. South Florida shouldn’t roll over but neither should it score a lot itself; the outcome of the game will largely depend on if Dayne Crist can show why he was picked to be ND’s signal-caller. This isn’t so much of a DVR-and-study game as it is one to keep your eye on: If it’s close into the fourth quarter, tensions will be high and the natives will be restless.

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Smart Notes – Gameday, Minnesota’s simplicity, tackling – 9/1/2011

Gameday.

- Yes, that’s the ticket. I don’t know if Minnesota has the talent to succeed but new coach Jerry Kill will make them better:

“[The Golden Gophers' new offense is] kind of hard to describe,” said quarterback MarQueis Gray, more comfortable with running the plays than labeling them. “It’s not an option, but there are a lot of decisions to make like that, real fast.” . . .

Better that the defense doesn’t know — which is sort of the whole point of the Minnesota Method, or the Gopher Go, whatever you want to call it. According to [offensive coordinator] Limegrover, the Gophers playbook includes stray elements of the West Coast, the spread, the pro-style — sort of a chef’s surprise of play design, with one bedrock principle: Can the players execute it, and execute it well?

“The important thing is that everyone is comfortable with it, especially the players,” Limegrover said. “You can have the greatest play ever designed, the Mona Lisa of offense, and if your quarterback can’t pull it off or your line can’t block for it, what good does it do you?” Instead, coach Jerry Kill’s staff drills their players in being fundamentally sound, concepts that are adaptable in a variety of offensive sets. The offensive line, for instance, is taught only three or four basic blocking schemes, giving the players time to polish them. And every offensive play must fit into one of the blocking blueprints.

“Last year, we had a ton of plays for the offensive line,” said left tackle Ed Olson. “Now we can focus on just a few and get it right. Coach Limegrover is trying to make it as easy as he can for us.”

- Whither tackling? Tim Layden explores the state of tackling today:

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Bud Foster of Virginia Tech explains his “field dog” pressure

As I’ve previously explained, Virginia Tech’s “lunchpail defense” has gone through several evolutions, despite remaining one of the elite defenses in the nation:

In the nineties, many teams tried to emulate Frank Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s scheme, with its premium on defenders stacking the line to either stop the run or scare the offense into abandoning it and apologizing for having considered such a silly idea. Yet the spread has effectively run the eight-man front out of college football — at least as a base defense — with its reliance on quick, easy throws, quarterback runs and “speed in space” philosophy.

But here’s the rub: While the defense Virginia Tech made en vogue was effectively countered, the actual schemes Beamer and Foster have put into practice in Blacksburg have evolved, year-in and year-out, to maintain the most dominant defensive legacy in the country: Since joining the ACC in 2004, the Hokie D has rebounded from subpar years in 2002 and 2003 to finish in the top-10 nationally in both yards and points allowed five years in a row — despite overhauling their base defensive scheme, to zero fanfare. . . .

As Bud Foster told ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, “Back when they played two tailbacks, you could put eight or nine guys in the box. Now they’re making it tougher to do that because of where they place their people.” And so, he explained, with offenses “putting five or six athletes out in space,” the Hokies too had to “put athletes out in space.” . . . [And w]hat makes Tech’s “quarters” coverage particularly interesting is that they have not actually changed their old “G” front, they have merely removed one guy from the box and lined him up at safety without changing his aggressive responsibilities against the run.

Below is a clip of Foster explaining some of the nuances of one of his base zone blitzes from the new(er) split safety/Cover four look I explained previously:

What is the Inverted Veer / Dash Read?

In fall 2009, a reader emailed me about a spread run scheme TCU used to close out a tight victory against Clemson. The scheme featured a runningback and the quarterback running to the same side — as opposed to the traditional zone read, where the two ran in opposite directions, along with playside blocking from the line. I’d seen something similar before, possibly from Urban Meyer’s team at Florida, but apparently Clemson’s excellent defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele had not seen it, or at least not from TCU. Indeed, since he hadn’t yet seen the tape Steele wasn’t even certain of how to label the concept, but he noted that it had been a significant factor in TCU’s victory:

Inverted veer works better when this is your QB

TCU quarterback Andy Dalton found almost all of his success on the ground on Saturday by employing a new play that the Clemson coaching staff had not seen on film, and Dalton seemed to run almost at will through the line of scrimmage and beyond. . . . Steele said that the play with Dalton carrying was really the only play the Tigers had not seen on film as they studied the Horned Frogs last week.“They ran just one play that we hadn’t seen on film – but it was a good one,” he said. . . .

“Not to get too technical, but on the zone read, the quarterback fakes to the running back going this way and the quarterback goes the other way,” Steele said. “What they were doing was faking zone read one way, the quarterback would step like he was going this way but they would pull the guard and chase it the other way. It was a new look. We got over there and drew it up, got it adjusted out, but we were doing it on the fly and adjusting it on every call.

I couldn’t tell you if TCU got the play from somewhere else or dreamed it up themselves, but in our increasingly interconnected world, that play — which I dubbed the “inverted veer” because it had the same read as the traditional veer but “inverted” the option with the quarterback now the inside man and the runner the outside man — has spread across all levels of football. By the end of the 2009 season, several teams had begun using it, but it’s real significance would come last season: The play was everywhere. Big 10 teams like Ohio State and Purdue (to use two on the opposite end of the spectrum) used it; it spread across conferences like the WAC and Conference USA; in the first part of the season, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez racked up tons of yards with this play, most notably going for 240 yards against Kansas State on primetime; and, finally, Cam Newton rode the play to over 1,400 yards rushing, a Heisman trophy, and a national championship. And it goes without saying that, given the play’s popularity at the college level, countless high schools across the country installed it in the spring and fall.

But with the play’s popularity has come complexity and variation; we’ve evolved past the days of Kevin Steele diagramming the play and the defensive response on a greaseboard on the sideline. Let’s walk through the elements of the play, some of the choices available for blocking, and some of the defensive responses.

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Smart Notes – Hurricanes, Snakes, Stupid Sweep – 8/30/2011

That’s dedication. Despite the wrath of Hurricane Irene, football continued, even if in somewhat limited form as Virginia Union defeated St. Augustine 12-0:

What was billed as “The only game in town” became maybe the only game on the East Coast, which was hit Saturday by Hurricane Irene. Despite some of the worst conditions imaginable, the game went on, and Virginia Union defeated St. Augustine’s 12-0 at Hovey Field.

“We knew there’d be rain,” VUU coach Michael Bailey said. “But you don’t stop football for rain. You stop it for lightning and tornadoes. That wasn’t in the picture, so we felt like we could get it in. This wasn’t the first time we’ve played in rain.” . . . After the game, St. Augustine’s showered and changed in Barco-Stevens Hall, Union’s basketball arena. Ceiling tiles had collapsed, and puddles developed on the floor.

Virginia Union had to petition the NCAA to play this game, which filled a hole created in both teams’ schedules when Saint Paul’s cut its athletic program in May. Bailey said he didn’t want all that hard work to go to waste.

The wind was so bad, when Union punter Paul Jones attempted the first punt of the game, it went up, then stopped as if it had hit a wall and plunged straight down. The punt went minus-1 yard.

Jones had four punts for a total of 60 yards. When he had the wind at his back, he got one to go as far as 32 yards.

Though not all of the follies in the game were directly the result of the Hurricane (via DocSat):

- Snakes on a… what? When coaches tell you to fight through the elements, I don’t think they had this in mind:

Darrick Strzelecki, a star running back for Gravette (Ark.) High, is used to close encounters with linebackers on the football field. He’s not so accustomed to run-ins with reptiles on the field … or at least he wasn’t until a practice on Tuesday. That’s when Strzelecki took off his helmet during a water break and found what he thought was a toy snake. As it turns out, it wasn’t a toy at all, though he only discovered that when the reptile slithered away.

“It looked like a rubber snake, and I thought someone had played a practical joke on me,” Strzelecki told the Associated Press. “When I grabbed it by the tail, that’s when it jerked, and I dropped the helmet.”
Luckily, a Gravette assistant coach was able to confirm that the snake which hid in Strzelecki’s helmet was non-venomous after killing it shortly after it slipped out of his head gear. A day later, school officials made a clean sweep of the school’s locker room and all of the equipment used by its teams.

- Putting the defensive end in conflict, from Shakin the Southland.

- Go forth: Bill C. shares data on receiver targets, catches and close games.

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Alex Gibbs teaches the outside zone/wide zone to Dan Mullen, Steve Addazio, and Urban Meyer’s old Florida staff

This unbelievable set of videos is courtesy of Brophy. I don’t know what he had to do to obtain these (nor do I want to know), but you’re all the beneficiaries of what was undoubtedly some unspeakable sacrifice he made. Brophy has put up roughly six or seven hours of video; check out parts one and two.

The context is that Alex Gibbs, then offensive line coach for the Atlanta Falcons while they had Michael Vick at quarterback, visited with Florida’s staff to learn about potentially adding some quarterback read plays to his vaunted zone schemes (the same scheme they ran with the Denver Broncos). Florida’s staff, meanwhile had just spent their first season in the SEC to decidedly mixed results.

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Why being an NFL quarterback is not easy

Because you have to do things like this, even though this guy (some guy named Manning) makes it look pretty simple:

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