Smart Notes 10/20/09

Wild thought. Here’s a question for discussion. The Dolphins this season have taken to using a very interesting personnel package for their wildcat looks: two tight-ends and four runningbacks (Ronnie Brown at the “wildcat QB” spot, Ricky Williams as a split receiver/motion back, and then a fullback next to Brown and the other flanker has been a runningback as well). My friend Jerry Gordon speculated that this might be particularly taxing on NFL teams because of the strict 53 man roster limits. Indeed, the Dolphins had a lot of success against the Jets, and Rex Ryan uses a number of six, seven, and occasionally more defensive backs on the field at the same time to bring pressure with. Plus, add to that the fact that the typical NFL “cover” cornerback is not excited about being blocked in the run game, and the extra runningback out there can be a key linchpin for making the jet sweep go, and the personnel in general for opening up creases. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

nicker

- Brophy, delivering. My man Broph has some great stuff up from the past couple of weeks, especially his in depth look at Nick Saban’s defense. I’ve discussed an overview of some of what Saban does, but Brophy provides a nice summary of a DVD series Saban did, with primary focus on single safety or “one-high” defenses — Saban’s favorite.  Brophy has broken the articles into three parts:

  1. Middle of the Field Safety Coverage Principles – Part I (overview)
  2. Middle of the Field Safety Coverage Principles – Part II (Cover 3)
  3. Middle of the Field Safety Coverage Principles – Part III (Cover 1)

It’s best to read all of it, but a couple of good Saban quotes to whet the appetites:

If you’re not matching the pattern and cheating the receiver, you’re never going to make it. You’re going to be watching completions all night long. You’re never going to make it [to the ball].

The simplest and best defense in football is man-free coverage. It covers everything, it stuffs the run, and it defends the middle of the field. It’s the #1 coverage in pro ball . . . basically because you can’t get away with playing Cover 3.

And then this explanation of the “RAT” call from Cover 1 from Brophy:

The main nuance of this coverage has to do with a challenging/conflicting assignments for the backers. Because the main thrust of the defense is to stop the run from the inside out and [to] keep[] the defenders playing fast, the premise is to keep the linebackers focused on the backs and TE. Saban uses an alert code (RAT) to prevent a potentially ‘coverage breaking’ route.

“RAT” is used to alert inside backers [that the] strong safety [is] passing off his responsibility ([i.e., the] tight end) to the inside linebackers. When the second receiver (tight end) stems inside ([i.e., like on a shallow cross]), the strong safety, [if he] ran with him, []would be immediately vacating the perimeter ([i.e.] where the run game would likely be attacking) as well as [getting in the way] of the (run game) pursuing linebackers. To [avoid] this hazard, when the tight end stems inside [as on a shallow cross], the strong safety will declares/yells “RAT!”. “Rat” means a guy is coming into the funnel (is being funneled) and the remaining defender in the hole should cut/reroute and jump this receiver as he approaches.

This call accomplishes two things. First, it alerts the next backer over (Sam) that the strong safety will take his assigned man (first back out), and he should now adjust to the second back out strong. Secondly, it tells the Mike, who is the “rat in the hole” that he is going to have company soon (crossing tight end) and can jump this route as it comes.

As I see this, it is Saban’s way of getting a “floater” or “robber” player while keeping exactly who he wants on the various backs, tight-ends, and inside receivers — i.e. controlling the matchups. As a bonus, again courtesy of Brophy, is a video of ‘Bama in Cover 1 looks. And, of course for more, you must read the “holy grail” of defensive playbooks, Saban’s 2001 LSU book.

- Pellini, (un)-interrupted. Tough week for Bo coming off a big and disappointing loss to Texas Tech. But Brophy came through again with audio of a clinic talk Pellini gave while still at LSU on his defense. It’s well worth the listen.

- The testing of Mike Leach. Speaking of Tech, I have previously noted that Mike Leach is particularly adept at producing one prolific passer after another, and credited much of that to his system of drills and pass-happy practices whereby all his QBs get lots of reps. That theory will be challenged this week, as the Captain will likely be forced to start third-string redshirt freshman quarterback Seth Doege, due to injuries to his first two quarterbacks, Taylor Potts and Steven (“Sticks”) Sheffield.

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Explanation and cut-ups of the “Power O” run play

I’ve discussed the “power” play here a few times, because it both quite ubiquitous in college and the pros and also because it is quite good. It’s been around for some time, though, like the counter trey, was made used maybe most famously by Joe Gibbs’s great Washington Redskins teams.

Redskins great John Riggins made a living off the "Power O" play

Redskins great John Riggins made a living off the "Power O" play

The play itself is very basic:

  • The lineman to the side the run is going (playside) essentially “down” block, meaning they take the man to the inside of them. For the guards and center, that includes anyone “heads up” or covering them, but for the playside tackle, he does not want to block the defensive end or other “end man on the line of scrimmage.” These lineman use their leverage to get good angles to crush the defensive lineman, and the fact that they don’t have to block a couple of defenders on the playside frees them to get good double teams and block the backside linebackers. To use Vince Lombardi’s phrase, the idea is to get so much force going that direction that they completely seal off the backside.
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  • They can  do this because they get some help to the playside. First, the fullback (or, more often nowadays, some kind of H-back or other player) is responsible for blocking the otherwise unblocked end man on the line of scrimmage (“EMLOS”). He uses a “kick out” technique, simply meaning he blocks him from the inside to out, in order to create Lombardi’s famous “seal” going the other way.
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  • The final piece of the puzzle is the backside guard (sometimes nowadays a tackle). He pulls and “leads,” meaning he retreats, looks first for the fullback’s block to cut off of, and then heads into the crease looking to block the first defender that shows up — typically the playside linebacker. He can block him whatever direction is best; it’s the runningback’s job to find the open lane.
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  • The runner takes a lateral or slight delay step, takes the handoff from the quarterback, and follow’s the pulling guard’s block. As stated above, he wants to cut off that man’s block and get vertical quickly. It is a power play so he has to be willing to hit the hole fast; it’s not as much of a “read the defense” run as are zone runs, though it is a good complement to it.
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  • If it all works well, the line should have crushed anyone to the inside of the offensive guard, while the fullback has kicked out the end man on the line, and the pulling guard is the runningback’s personal protector. The defender that the guard blocks should never be right, both because the guard has freedom to push him wherever, and the runner’s job is to cut off his block to make him correct — the runner cannot just guess.

 

Here are a few diagrams and examples. The beauty of the play is its versatility: it is probably the most popular run right now in the NFL, and it is also possibly the most popular run in college among spread teams like Florida, Auburn, or a number of others. (And it has the best name — “power.”)

The first is an example of how the Pittsburgh Steelers used the play a few years ago from a very traditional set, though they used an H-back in motion instead of a fullback. I previously discussed the play for the NY Times Fifth Down.

steelerscounter_updateA

The Steelers used it to great effect, as Willie Parker had a 75 yard touchdown run in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Watch how the H-back goes in motion and kicks out his man, while the guard pulls and leads.

Though when it comes to the “power play,” the most famous use of it this season has been as Ronnie Brown’s go-to play form the Wildcat. The first part of the ‘cat is Ricky Williams on the jet sweep, but the first “counter” in the series is for Brown to fake the wildcat and then take it himself with basic “power O” blocking. Indeed, this is a hint of why the Dolphins are so successful with it: to their lineman, it is the same play that they run from normal sets. Hence why they bristle when other teams try to call what they are doing gimmickry.

wildcatpower

Below is a video of the original form of power that the Dolphins ran with the wildcat, with an unbalanced line:
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A very simple explanation of the zone runs, and the difference between inside zone and outside zone

I wrote this up in abbreviated form originally for my breakdown of the OU-Texas game for Yahoo!’s Dr Saturday, but this is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. There is still way too much confusion about inside zones and outside zones. Part of this is that there are a lot of coaching points on these plays. Indeed, many NFL teams run nothing but inside and outside zone and maybe “power” and “counter,” and therefore spend hours every week coaching the finer points of these plays. But that’s not a reason why the basics have to be so confusing. So here is an imperfect but very basic explanation for what zone runs are, and the difference between inside and outside zones.

Many, many "zone gurus" learned from longtime NFL coach Alex Gibbs,

Many, many "zone gurus" learned from longtime NFL coach Alex Gibbs

Think of this as Newtonian physics for the run game. Yes, Einsteinian physics is more precise and is necessary if you want to understand certain extreme events, but Newtonian physics is extremely useful, easy to understand, and will explain pretty much all you need to know unless you’re currently an offensive line coach (and even if you are, my hope is that this is a pretty good reminder of some things.) Here goes:

On zone plays, the linemen keep the same blocking schemes, regardless of how many tight-ends or wide receivers they use. The aiming point for the runningbacks remain about the same. Many zone teams begin by focusing on the outside zone. Once that is established and the defense is flowing fast to the sideline, the offense comes back with the inside zone.

Yet there is much discussion of what “zone runs” even are. First, there is only so much “zoning” in a zone — much of it is still just blocking the guy in front of you. On all zone runs, the linemen must ask, “Am I ‘covered’ (is there a guy directly in front of me, aside from a linebacker set back a few years)? Or am I ‘uncovered’ (there is no one directly in front of me)?”

If “covered,” there is very little “zoning” at all: The lineman’s job is to block the guy in front of them. Fans, commentators, and even coaches often overcomplicate things. The “zone” aspect comes in with “uncovered” linemen. If “uncovered,” the lineman must step “playside” — i.e. the side the run is going to — and help double-team the defensive linemen along with his “covered” cohort. Once the two of them control that down defensive lineman, one of the offensive linemen slides off to hit a linebacker. It’s not that complicated. Indeed, let’s say the five offensive linemen are covered by five defensive linemen. In that case, each guy (save for maybe the backside offensive tackle) will just block the guy in front of them — there is no “zoning” at all.

It gets a little trickier regarding the difference between inside and outside zones, though this involves technique, not assignment. (And this is where the rabbit hole begins, as there are a zillion coaching points to doing this well, but that is better discussed in a coaching DVD rather than this overview.)

On outside zone plays, the offensive linemen take a bit more of a lateral first step and try to reach the defender across from them. He wants to get his body between the defender and the sideline. It’s important to note, however, that the very act of trying to reach the defender often gets him flying to the sideline, at which time the offensive lineman can then switch to driving the defender to the sideline. The runningback aims for a point outside the tight-end, though he can cut it upfield wherever a seam appears.

OutsideZone

Once the defense begins flowing too fast to the sideline, coaches typically dial-up the inside zone. The rules are the same — covered and uncovered — except this is more of a drive block as the aiming point for the runningback is inside. The play often results in a cutback if the defense is flowing fast for the outside zone, but the difference between the outside zone is one of technique, not assignment. And, again, it does not make a difference to the linemen (or at least not much of one) if OU runs this from a four wide set or a two-back one.

IZ-run

On the inside zone the runner aims for the outside hip of the offensive guard. Now, his read can vary by team. Some teams have him read that three technique defensive tackle, while others have him read the middle or “Mike” linebacker. In both cases the idea is for him to find the “vertical” crease — either straight playside off the guard’s hip or backside on a cutback.

A few concluding thoughts. There’s obviously more to it than this. The biggest thing offensive line coaches work on is the initial steps for their linemen (often called a “lateral” or even slightly backwards “bucket step”), and later they work diligently on the proper technique for double-teaming a lineman and then getting up to the “second-level” to block a linebacker. But again, if a defensive “covered” all the linemen, there is no zone. It still comes down to blocking the guy in front of you.

Finally, there are variances. One is the “pin-and-pull” variant of the outside zone or stretch play run by the Indianapolis Colts. Also, for additional reading check out these posts from Trojan Football Analysis on (old-school) Nebraska’s inside and outside zone plays.

Oklahoma and a walk on the outside

Links to two bits of mine that appeared today:

Dolphins Wildcat clips

I put this together for something I’m working on with Football Outsiders that is upcoming. The ‘Fins used a balanced, two tight-end set with their wildcat look. (And I think subbed in a runningback for the split receiver to the sweep side.) Note how on the jet sweep the fullback manages to crush the outside linebacker, Calvin Pace, thus springing Ricky Williams. On the second clip, the power play, watch how Jets linebacker Bart Scott is unblocked but nevertheless takes too wide of an angle, likely influenced by the jet sweep. The Dolphins get a great push, and Ronnie Brown is able to score. This clip is a nice follow-on to my recent NY Times blog post. For the game, the Dolphins used one form of the “wildcat” or another (I know the term is stupid) sixteen times for over seven yards per play.

Mummepoll Ballot

The ballot is below. Again, the Mummepoll requires you to rank the top five teams and then just select, in any order, the next seven. This intent is for a more original polling format. Also, there is still time to join, as voting is open to everyone. (And if you missed last week, they are allowing a mulligan on voting.)

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Texas
  • Cincinnati
  • Boise State
  • Virginia Tech
  • Miami
  • Iowa
  • TCU
  • Kansas
  • South Carolina
  • Ohio State

How the wildcat really works, and how teams defend it

My analysis of this is available over at the New York Times’s Fifth Down Blog. Check it out there. Apologies for the fact that the diagrams got a bit jumbled and are in the wrong order. I’m hoping to get that fixed now.

How Florida’s offense might evolve with John Brantley

My analysis is available over at Dr Saturday. It includes an in-depth look at the “levels” concept against a couple of pass coverage, and hypothesizes how Florida might use a true pocket passer instead of the multi-talented Tim Tebow.

New Blogpoll ballot

As usual, ballot below and brief commentary below the jump:

Rank Team Delta
1 Alabama 2
2 Texas
3 Florida 2
4 Virginia Tech 5
5 Boise State 1
6 Cincinnati 1
7 TCU 1
8 LSU
9 Miami (Florida) 11
10 Southern Cal
11 Iowa
12 Ohio State 6
13 Kansas 1
14 Penn State 2
15 Oregon 4
16 Oklahoma State 1
17 Auburn
18 Nebraska 6
19 Brigham Young 2
20 Georgia Tech
21 Wisconsin
22 Mississippi
23 South Florida 2
24 Missouri
25 South Carolina 8
Last week’s ballot

Dropped Out: Houston (#7), Oklahoma (#13), Georgia (#16), Michigan (#23).

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Smart Notes 10/6/09

Going for two. I’ve gotten a bunch of emails asking whether Rich Rodriguez should have gone for two instead of kicking the PAT to send the game to overtime against Michigan State. I didn’t get to watch the game closely, but we know what happened: Michigan kicked the PAT and Tate Forcier promptly threw an interception, and Michigan State scored to win the game. The logic of most people who say Rodriguez should have gone for two appears to be something along the lines that Forcier looked dog tired and they needed to win then, and that Michigan had all the momentum and should have used it on that play. I don’t know if I have a definitive answer, but here’s how I look at those judgment calls.

You’re basically comparing two probabilities: One, the chance of succeeding on the two-point play, and second, the chance of winning in overtime. Both numbers have some precedent but also can get clouded by who you’re playing at that moment, how well you’re playing, etc. If Wichita State miraculously gets into that same position against Florida, I’d probably tell them to go for two because, under the NCAA’s unique overtime format, each team has a roughly 50/50 shot at winning before taking into account talent differential, at which time Florida would dominate. We know that two-point tries are successful something between 40-50% of the time, and that is probably greater than the chance of going toe-to-toe with Florida — hence take your 45% chance of winning right there. For Florida, it is the opposite: you want the game to go on so your natural advantage can take over; so kick the PAT and let’s do this. It’s all an offshoot of David and Goliath strategies.

How does that play out in Michigan’s game? Well if Rodriguez thinks he has the better team — including momentum — then it seems to me you play for overtime. That’s because even if you’re better your chance of getting the two-point try caps out at about 50%, whereas the starting point for your chance of winning in OT is 50%, plus whatever natural advantage you have. Had they been playing Southern Cal, the decision is probably the opposite.

The other thing you notice from this is that slight differences in the probabilities can vastly change the right outcome. We know the estimates for overtime and two-point tries, but this was late in the game and therefore those probabilities were dependent to an extent on what had happened earlier. Not necessarily when or how Michigan scored, but fatigue, injuries, and how good the teams were coming in does matter to help revise probabilities going forward. (Again, I’m trying to distinguish revised estimates of forward-looking probabilities with backward-looking events that should have no effect on the decision to go for it or not.) Thus I think Rodriguez’s judgment call (in just this situation at least) was sound at least in the sense that there is no compelling argument that it was flat wrong. If he thought he had the better team — and the records of the teams going into it seemed to indicate that — then overtime seems the wiser move. The bottom line is two-point tries are not high-percentage plays.

(Here’s a thought experiment someone once asked me. This question assumes we know the probabilities with certainty, which if course unrealistic but here goes: You have the ball on the 23 yard line and are down three. Your team and the other team are completely evenly matched. There’s only one second on the clock; time for only one play. Your field goal kicker is mediocre, and is 50/50 from that distance (40 yards) — i.e. 50% of tying the game by kicking it. Or you could go for it and run a pass play, which you estimate had a 33% chance of succeeding. What do you do and why?)

- Big 10 Q&A. I did a Q&A over at The Rivalry, Esq. with the excellent Graham Filler. Topics including Juice Williams, Northwestern, etc. Tomorrow is a post involving me hemorrhaging about Purdue’s ineptitude.

- Mizzou’s run game. The very sharp Dave Matter of the Columbia Daily Tribune takes a look at Gary Pinkel’s Missouri’s running game.

- An easier case. If the Rodriguez situation above is a push, Raheem Morris is not so lucky. Brian Burke shoots up the new Tampa coach’s thought-process:

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