Gregg Easterbrook spread offense fail

Braves & Birds does an excellent job demolishing Gregg Easterbrook’s incompetent attempt to explain the Oregon offense. Easterbrook is a bright guy, but he’s incapable of seeing what is perfectly obvious on the field. I don’t know if it’s from watching too many years of NFL football that he cannot see things common to college and high school football, or what. It’s bizarre because he’s trying to be up to speed on the new trends but just has no idea what he’s talking about. It’s like he’s heard the words midline option, no-huddle, pistol, and fly pattern and he put them into a random number generator and produced an article.

Braves and Birds does a nice job with the details, to which I’ll only add that the entire premise of Easterbrook’s “blur offense” article is off-kilter — you can’t be called the “blur offense” as doing something new if it is not, in fact, new. The idea of a no-huddle spread offense is rather old (people may remember that the first iteration of Smart Football was called “The No-Huddle Spread Offense site,” and it came out in 1999 — and it wasn’t new then, either). And of course, Gus Malzahn (who wrote a book about the no-huddle) of Auburn and formerly of Tulsa (which leads the nation in total plays run) has been doing this at least as long as Chip Kelly.

Running and throwing the fade route against press coverage

This past weekend saw that old classic, the fade route, used to win a couple huge games in the SEC: The game winner in the LSU-Florida game was a fade (the second try), and South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffrey caught several big time fade passes against formerly #1 Alabama.


As simple as it seems — “Run out there and I’ll throw it up” — it’s a surprisingly subtle play, and is often taught improperly. Steve Spurrier, of course, is one of the masters of the fade, and this is not the first time LSU has won a big game on a well-thrown fade.

The first problem is the name, “fade.” This conjures up the idea that the receiver’s job is to release off the ball and immediately start “fading” to the sideline, where the quarterback has to throw it to an increasingly vanishing spot between the defender and the sideline. This is wrong.

1. The route, at least from the receiver’s perspective, should be thought of as an almost totally vertical route. Against press man coverage, he should get the defender’s feet moving; the goal is not to get “around” the defender but to get through him, by making the defender move and then having the receiver run on a path immediately past him. This isn’t always possible, and the fade is an outside release play, but that should be the goal every time it is called. Too often young receivers want to outside release, get jammed, and can barely get off the line of scrimmage or get run basically out of bounds.

2. Second, the receiver must leave at least six to seven yards between him and the sidelines. Some teach five yards but I prefer seven, because it leaves more margin for error. A simple way to think about it is to tell the receiver to get no wider than a yard outside the numbers (i.e. the big numbers on the field between the hashmarks and the sideline).

3. Third, consistent with the above two points, the receiver should actually try to lean into the defender as he bursts upfield. As I’ve said previously:

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Writing about sports in 2010: Four points about two (or three) articles

Ben McGrath’s profile of Gawker Media’s head-honcho, Nick Denton, in this week’s New Yorker, is a fascinating window into the world of professional blogging, where the pageview is king. (Gawker owns the sports site Deadspin, along with, in order of popularity, Gizmodo, Gawker, Lifehacker, Kotaku (video games), Jezebel, io9 (science fiction), Jalopnik (cars), and Fleshbot. In this list Deadspin would rank behind Kotaku and ahead of Jezebel.) Less informative but equally entertaining is Bill Simmons’s most recent column, which recounts the circumstances that led to his “accidental” tweeting of “moss Vikings” roughly thirty minutes before Fox Sports’s Jay Glazer formally broke the story of Randy Moss’s potential trade to the Minnesota Vikings. These pieces form the backdrop for my points below.

1. Pageviews, hits, unique visitors — these will drive the news and what articles get written, and not just for blogs.

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
– Samuel Johnson, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell.

It’s often said that the internet is the most democratic of all technologies, which may be true, but it is certainly true that it is the most capitalistic of technologies — products will be designed to meet the public’s tastes. One reason for that is that the internet reduces transaction costs, as exhibited by the ability of sites like eBay and Craigslist to connect buyers and sellers for really any products at all. But this is also because the internet allows the measuring of such tastes like never before, whether it’s products recommended by Amazon or movies by Netflix. And online writing is no different:

Paying bonuses for traffic meant not only keeping statistics about what readers did and didn’t like but sharing that information with writers—a supreme journalistic taboo, as it could easily lead to pandering. Pandering was precisely Denton’s aim, and he took it one step further when he started publishing his traffic data alongside the stories themselves. It almost felt like a sociological experiment designed to prove the obvious: that readers are herd animals, that heat begets heat. A photograph of an unidentifiable mammalian carcass on a beach, cleverly dubbed the Montauk Monster, is viewed two million times: go figure. “I think people are sort of waking up to it now, how probably the biggest change in Internet media isn’t the immediacy of it, or the low costs, but the measurability,” Denton told me. “Which is actually terrifying if you’re a traditional journalist, and used to pushing what people ought to like, or what you think they ought to like.”

It is terrifying. Most good bloggers I know try to have a kind of code duello, where although pageviews (which, at least on some level, especially for full-time internet writers), has to be the goal, there is still room for “ethics” in the sense that things won’t be done gratuitously or without sufficient support. But this line is hardly a clear one, and it’s difficult to compete when the other side unabashedly will do anything for digital eyeballs.

Denton’s receptionist sits beneath a large digital screen known as the Big Board, which lists the ten best-performing posts across the company network; these are determined by the number of new readers—as opposed to returning obsessives—in the previous hour. Denton says that the primary purpose of the Big Board is to encourage competition among his writers. A few months ago, he told the Times, “Sometimes one sees writers just standing before it, like early hominids in front of a monolith.”

And make no mistake, Gawker is taking not only eyeballs but advertising revenue from traditional media, who have increasingly gone online — where their content is measurable. Can they resist the temptation to pander? Are they supposed to?

2. “Sources” doesn’t mean what you think it means. The internet has done some interesting things to how stories are “broken.” If something is released by press release, wire service, tweet, or other official medium of the sender, no website, media company, or blog can lay any claim to having broken it — it just happens too quickly. Organizations that want to keep credibility tend to break information this way — when have you ever heard of a Supreme Court decision being leaked early? Of course, most stories are not broken in this way, and that’s because if you have an inside tip you now have power. I’ll let Bill Simmons explain:

With every media company unabashedly playing the “We Had It First!” game, reporters’ salary and credibility hinges directly on how many stories they break. That entices reporters to become enslaved to certain sources (almost always agents or general managers), push transparent agendas (almost always from those same agents or GMs) and “break” news before there’s anything to officially break. It also swings the source/reporter dynamic heavily toward the source. Take care of me and I will take care of you.

[…]

So that’s how it works — not all the time but occasionally, and only because of everyone’s obsession to be first. On the surface, this annoys me to no end. Who cares? It’s not like we have some giant scoreboard keeping track of everything. But my reporter friends all say the same thing: It’s not about one scoop but the entire body of scoops (not just for the reporter, but the company that employs them). Think of Ichiro grinding out 200 hits every season. Yeah, most of them are mundane singles … but they add up. For readers, that volume turns it into a “feel” thing….

So yeah, there’s no official scoreboard for scoops. We just subconsciously keep score. As do editors. As do media companies. Some will do whatever it takes to pad their stats, whether it’s pimping every decision someone makes to get repaid with information later, playing the odds by reporting something they hope is true (and if it is, they look like a stud), spinning every angle against someone who once butted heads with a favored source, whatever. The best reporters maintain relationships, avoid agendas, craft good narratives, never stop cultivating new sources and — occasionally — break news simply because it’s an outcome of being good at their jobs. That’s what should matter. And that’s how they should be judged. I wish that were always the case.

Of course, “payment” doesn’t always come in the form of leaking certain stories in the future or spinning a column a particular way. Sometimes payment means, well, payment:

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More on the zone read (or midline read) of the defensive tackle

The classic zone read, where the runningback runs the zone play to one side while the quarterback reads the backside defensive end, is a great play. But if you use it enough, two problems emerge.

Practice makes perfect

First, just because you’re reading the defensive end doesn’t mean you’ve made your blocks on everyone else — a stud defensive tackle you can’t block can still blow up the play. Second, the defense can simply play games on the backside; the zone read is no longer new. A common response is the “scrape exchange,” where the defensive end crashes down for the runningback, thus forcing the quarterback to pull the ball, only to run right into a “scraping” linebacker waiting on him.

An increasingly frequent solution to both of these problems is to read defenders other than the defensive end. One, you can read, instead of trying to block, the most dangerous defensive lineman on the other team. Two, this makes the “scrape exchange,” at least where it involves the backside defensive end and weakside linebacker, irrelevant, as you just block both of them.

DT

Oregon and Florida were the first teams I saw use this, but last week’s game between Purdue and Northwestern — Purdue being quite desperate and with a new mobile quarterback — went to this technique to try to manufacture some offense. As reported in the Journal & Courier:

[The Purdue quarterback, Robert Henry,] keyed on Northwestern’s interior linemen on the zone read plays, either keeping the ball or handing off to Dierking or Antavian Edison. Five consecutive running plays produced 34 yards and brought the Boilermakers to Northwestern’s 21-yard line. . . .

“We did some research, calling a bunch of buddies of mine that have made their living doing the different reads of the interior linemen,” Nord said. “I’ve always been involved in the drop back passing game, the misdirection and the play-action. I never did a lot of veer, option stuff.

“We have a guy that can execute it very well. He’s reading down linemen and doing what they’re not doing. If they’re biting on the ball carrier, he’s pulling it. If they’re biting on him, he’s giving it.”

. . . . The Boilermakers faced fourth-and-1 from the Wildcat 7 and called timeout.

“We wanted to make sure we had a chance to either hand it off or have Rob Henry keep it so we called a play where if the hole is there, we hand it off and if it wasn’t, Rob Henry would keep it,” coach Danny Hope said. “It gave us two options to score and win the game.” The hole was definitely there.

“I couldn’t have written up a better script,” said Dierking, who had five carries for 22 yards on the last drive. “I saw the hole open up so I jerked it from him.” . . .

“We knew they were going to run the quarterback; how they were going to run him we had to adjust to,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They changed up their scheme a little bit, and were reading our tackles as opposed to our defensive ends. There were times when we fit it very well, and there were times when we didn’t.”

When I wrote about this play yesterday I had only seen some of the game and spotted the tactic; the above article (courtesy of reader Brad), confirms my analysis. Video of the fourth down play is below:

This tactic has been adopted by other teams as well, including Nebraska. The question is whether it will provide a sustained advantage or if only work to catch defenses off guard for a little while — time will tell. Certainly teams like Oregon have made a living on the play. And the rules for how you might teach the play are quite simple too: On the frontside, your defenders keep their normal zone rules. Your center and backside guard leave unblocked the first man heads up or backside of the center, while the backside guard and tackle block the backside defensive end and weakside linebacker. Thus the zone read where the defensive tackle, instead of the defensive end, is the read.

But wait, say option coaches. Why call this the zone read, instead of what it is: the midline option from gun? They have a point. You end up blocking the same people and using the same read. That said, I think both get you to the same place, however, and the primary difference is whether you began with zone running and the zone read, or you began as a traditional option guy. See how similar the midline from gun is to what I’ve been discussing, as shown in the video below:

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Smart Notes – Norm Parker; inverted veer – 10/12/2010

Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker will return this season, despite having had his foot amputated as a result of his diabetes. Parker is both one of the great defensive coordinators out there and one of the good men in the profession. Check out the video below, courtesy of Brophy, of the Hawkeye Tackling Circuit:

For more on Parker’s defense, see here.

- Julio Jones played with a broken hand during almost all of Alabama’s loss to South Carolina. Cue Doc Sat: “The injury was bad enough (and presumably exacerbated by Jones continuing to block and catch passes all afternoon) to require surgery on Sunday to insert a plate and screw. That may not quite measure up to playing after losing a piece of your finger, but it’s tough enough to impress me. Jones’ return for this week’s visit from Ole Miss depends on his “pain tolerance,” per coach Nick Saban, who also said this morning the offense will be without starting right tackle D.J. Fluker, victim of a “pretty severe” groin injury.”

- Inverted veer, spreading. Nebraska’s speedy quarterback Taylor Martinez scored a couple of his long touchdowns on the “inverted veer” play, which I discussed previously here and here. Check out the clips below; the first example comes on Martinez’s second touchdown run about 18 seconds in. It’s really amazing how different Nebraska’s offense is than last season, if not totally in schemes then certainly in personality and dynamic.

- Zone read of the defensive tackle. How did Purdue beat undefeated Northwestern despite having less than 50 yards passing? One key tool — which had a large part in Purdue QB Rob Henry rushing for 132 yards — was Purdue’s use of the zone read of a defensive tackle rather than a defensive end. Check out the video below.

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Smart Links – 10/11/2010

Why is Norm Van Brocklin still a record holder? Surprisingly thrilling romp through the record books, courtesy of Chase at the PFR Blog.

Modern thoughts on the trolley problem.

This article is indescribable, but I highly recommend it.

– I agree with Bill Simmons about the Pats’ handling of Randy Moss.

Hand-wringing, Texas Longhorns style.

I hear his next child will be named “Battery acid.”

How do you beat Cover 2 with trips? Let me count the ways

Brian Cook of mgoblog put up some photos from last week’s game between Michigan and Indiana, where Michigan pulled out the victory but Indiana’s Ben Chappell threw for 480 yards and three TDs, by completing over 70% of his passes. Most of these yards came from underneath throws, but Chappell hit a few big plays, including a big gainer on third and 16. Brian put up the photo below, followed by much hand-wringing:

Indiana uses the snag route concept to break a man wide open (shown below), and the question arises as to who to blame and if players were out of position. The above photo, however, shows most of what you need to see: you’re probably in trouble. It’s a wide trips bunch (trips but detached from the formation), the corner isn’t in position to get a jam, and you’re outnumbered. Being third and 16 it’s not a given that Indiana could convert, but this defense is not well equipped for the formation. To illustrate, let me flip the question around: If you were IU’s quarterback or offensive coordinator (or if you were Michigan and IU lined up like this against you), what would you call? The answer, most coaches would agree, is most anything you like, especially with the techniques Michigan used.

Counting game. As anyone who reads this site knows, all football begins as arithmetic. Were it not third and 16, the automatic adjustment you’d see against this defensive look is the bubble screen.

This works because of numbers: there are three receivers against two short defenders; the deep safety is not in position to tackle the bubble for a short gain. (And if he is, you use the fake-bubble and go play.) But it was third and 16 so you need to find a way to get the ball down field, or at least give yourself a chance to do so. Indiana called the “snag” concept. The purpose here is to form a triangle read, which is formed by combining a two-man “vertical stretch, i.e. one guy high and one guy low, and a two-man “horizontal stretch,” i.e. one guy outside and one guy inside. As shown in the image, the corner route and the flat route form the high/low portion of the read, while the flat also forms part of the horizontal or out/in stretch, with the slant-sit or snag route forming the other part.

On the actual play, the corner sat on the flat route and the corner route — one on one with the safety who had no help to either the inside or outside, and thus had little chance to make a play — was wide open.

corner

This worked for the same reason the bubble screen worked: the cornerback (one guy) can’t guard two guys (the corner route and the flat route). But let’s say IU wanted to be more aggressive and wanted to attack more than just the corner; let’s say they wanted to put pressure — and get a numbers advantage — against both the cornerback and the safeties. How would they do that? With the trusty smash concept with the divide route.

We all know why Cover Two is called Cover Two: It’s because there are two deep safeties. Thus if you want to break someone downfield, you need to send three guys deep. The great thing about the smash is that you can outnumber the secondary both horizontally across the field (three guys running deep and stretching two deep safeties) but also vertically (high/low of the cornerback).

From bunch, the outside receiver widens on his hitch route to get the corner to widen and then simply breaks down. The backside safety is occupied by the backside split end going deep, and, as a result, the trips side safety has to make a very unfortunate choice between one receiver breaking for the post and another breaking for the corner. (Tampa Two refers to a variation of Cover Two where the middle linebacker drops back to cover the middle of the field; if they use this your speedy receiver might still beat him down the middle, but if not you have the runningback on a checkdown over the middle.) I’d say that if you play Cover Two against trips (which can definitely be done — more on that later), the first thing an opposing coach will try you with is the smash with a divide or seam/post right down the middle.

Now let’s say you are confident that you won’t get much pressure on your passer, and you want to hit a downfield pass, high/low reads be damned. In that case you pick the most aggressive horizontal stretch of them all, four verticals.

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What I’ve been reading

Coaching Football’s 46 Defense, by Rex Ryan. That’s  the link to the (five hour) DVD Rex made while at the University of Cincinnati. I just ordered book by Ryan and Jeff Walker on the 46 defense; I assume more of the same, but I’m a book guy. Either way (and not a surprise given his lineage), Rex knows all there is to know about this defense.

Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, by Ray Bradbury. I can’t write like Bradbury — he of Fahrenheit 451 — but this exuberant, infectious screed about the joys of writing makes me want to try.

Distress Investing: Principles and Technique, by Martin Whitman and Fernando Diz. This book is neither exuberant nor infectious, but it does a surprisingly good job explaining the nuts and bolts of workouts, liquidations and Chapter 11 and the effect that has on a company’s securities (stocks, bonds, etc.). As interesting (or as dry) as it was, it is of more academic than practical interest to me — I won’t be buying any syndicated loans participation rights for myself any time soon. (I’m more of an indexer myself.)

The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life, by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff. As far as primers on game theory go, this one is much better than Rock, Paper, Scissors, but there’s nothing particularly new here either and — after a furious train ride where I read about half of it in one sitting — I haven’t touched it in a month. I will finish it, eventually. (Or so I tell myself.)

Selected Tales and Sketches, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was always just ever-so-slightly wordier than I liked (an ironic criticism coming from me, no doubt), but these little stories are a pleasure to read, especially if you only have a few minutes.

The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. Excellent, melancholy — essentially what you’d expect from Pamuk. Although he is older, the characters here felt younger and less ironic than in his prior books.

And finally,  a question: In the last few months there have been a spate of books professing to bring football knowledge to the masses –The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays, the Jaworski/Steve Sabol book and Sports Illustrated Blood, Sweat & Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today’s Game, Tim Layden’s book, being two of them. I’ve flipped through them and read excepts, and though Layden is an excellent writer and Jaworski a guy I generally respect (at least in the context of his narrow football worldview), I find myself unable to pick them up; life always seems too short. Am I missing out? Are they enjoyable and informative romps through football history? Or are they aimed at a sub-Smart Football audience, the fan who has watched for years but never really bothered to learn the difference between a blitz and a zone run. Let me know.

Smart Links – Strategery round-up – 10/1/2010

Great analysis of the Indy Colts offense from Mile High Report.

- Brophy’s blog (which has really become a group blog) with all kinds of good stuff. Brophy talks defensive trends, while Hemlock discusses “Match Zone or Match Man.” Hemlock:

I would rather face a match zone team as a Run-N-Shoot coach than a pattern reading – spot drop team (more on this formulation in my next post). Why? Pure and simple: match zone teams, especially those that are heavy fire zone ones, by and large, always end up, regardless of shell, in a 1 Hi look. I can thus tell my people to disregard the other 6 generic shells we use to categorize coverage and instruct them to focus their attention on attacking the technique of the defender charged with matching them. So, for all intent purposes, match zone takes the thinking out of things for my receivers because for as far as they’re concerned all they’re facing is man.

Also at Brophy’s site, check out Chris Vasseur’s bit on the 30 Dime Package. Finally, check out Brophy’s pieces (one and two) on TCU’s “2 Read” defense. (See also RUNCODHIT.)

- Great new site, great new taste. The folks from Buckeye Football Analysis joined the SB Nation mothership and have an excellent site, Along the Olentangy. All the posts are must reads, but check out the breakdowns of Tressel’s offense (including its development over the last season). Check out analysis of OSU’s dropback pass game, run game and run/pass balance, zone runs, the zone read, sprint-draw series, and early season offensive review. Whew. Thank me later.

- RockyTopTalk discusses Florida’s offensive woes. Not mentioned? Playing Kentucky.

- MummePoll is back! So go sign-up now, and read all about it here. Do. Go. Now.

- Not strategy related, but read this article from the NY Times Dealbook about the talented and prolific Aaron Nagler of CheeseheadTV.

Deconstructing: The search for the perfect spread QB

I have a new bit up on Yahoo! (belatedly, after I sent the wrong draft… I owe the good Doctor mightily) comparing how Gus Malzahn uses Cam Newton to how Rich Rodriguez is using Denard Robinson. Hint: Newton’s favorite play is the inverted veer or dash package, while Denard’s is the outside zone.

Check it out. (Make sure the version you read begins with “Sometimes, in college football….” The first version that went up was based on an earlier draft, and was incomplete (my fault).)