Beating the Blitz with the One-Back Offense (Bob Bratkowski)

The original one-back offense, the one that can trace its roots back to Jack Neumeier at Granada Hills high school and was popularized by Dennis Erickson, is both one of history’s best offenses and was a forerunner to today’s dynamic spread attacks. Bob Bratkowski, currently the offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, has been one of its oldest practitioners. He coached under Erickson at Washington State, Miami, and the Seattle Seahawks, before striking out on his own in the NFL. He’s most famous — or infamous — for the decade or so he spent as the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, where he coached some dynamic offenses but also was the target of a great deal of fan scorn.

In any event, below is an old coaching clinic he did about beating the blitz with the one-back back when he was with Seattle. The first twenty minutes or so or so is about wide receiver technique and releases. It’s useful stuff, but the meat of the scheme stuff comes after that. Regardless of your opinion of Bratkowski, I always found this a very useful tape.

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 – Strategery Round-Up – 2/27/2012

Strong Scrape Fire Zone and Fire Zone Adjustments:

scrape

I have borrowed a lot from Manny Diaz when it comes to Fire Zone adjustments. There are many adjustments that can be run, which include having the DT being a dropper at times, but there are two adjustments that I think are the most important. Diaz talks about how the coverage needs to be the easiest thing as far as Fire Zones go, so it is important that we not over-complicate things. If a defender blitzes the wrong gap, you may have a bad play but it won’t be a disaster. Now, if there is a mistake in coverage, that’s a disaster.

- Bill Belichick’s blitz package versus empty:

The Ravens have five potential pass blockers. It doesn’t take great mathematical abilities to realize that if the defense brings 6 rushers there will be a defensive player unblocked. New England gets a free rusher while only rushing 5 by having the Mike and SS execute a read out blitz based on the slide of the protection.

blitz

The SS is reading the block of the Left Guard. If the LG blocks the DT the SS blitzes and is unblocked. That is both what is diagrammed here and what happened in the video clip. The Mike is reading the guard to his side as well. If the guard is stepping toward him he will drop out, looking to cover the hot route from the opposite side. The Mike knows where the hot route is coming from because the protection and hot routes are linked. The offense can pick up 3 rushers to the defensive right of the center with 3 blockers. . . .

The offense is more likely to slide to the Mike linebacker than toward a SS. Bill Belichick is manipulating the pass protection by exploiting the offense’s expectation of the SS’s role on defense. A SS should be covering a receiver or a zone not walked up into the B gap to blitz. Where else can you find this pressure concept? In the Alabama playbook of former Bill Belichick assistant Nick Saban.

- In defense of success rates:

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Smart Links – Strategery Round-Up: two-tight ends, the 3-4 defense, rocket toss and “Iso” – 12/8/2011

Old school Green Bay Packers’ use of two-tight ends:

- Two good links from Ron Jenkins:

- Wisdom from Woody Hayes:

[W]hen I first starting coaching listening to Woody Hayes talk about designing an offense. He talked about you start with your schedule and rank all your opponents from one to ten in terms of toughness to beat. Then you base your offense on beating the top 3 or 4 teams. That’s it. Once you are done there you just make sure you’re sound against everything else.

- The importance of choosing your coverage in the 3-4 defense:

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Grantland: How and why Jim Harbaugh eliminated sight-adjustments in the 49ers passing game to make it go

It’s up over at Grantland:

A key reason for this is that Harbaugh has made the passing game easier for Smith, particularly when it comes to beating the blitz. Of course, coaches often say they are “simplifying the playbook,” but Harbaugh has been able to do it coherently and in a way that actually aids his quarterback’s ability to succeed rather than simply removes options.

One reason for this is that many NFL plays simply duplicate each other; you only need so many ways to throw the same pass to the flat or run off tackle. You might as well perfect the plays you have rather than keep adding new ones every week. But Harbaugh has also changed the entire theory behind how Smith and his offense approach the blitz, and this is where Smith’s greatest improvement has come. That’s because Harbaugh eliminated “sight adjustments” from the 49ers playbook. Indeed, this change has been so successful that, according to Pro Football Focus, Smith’s completion percentage, quarterback rating, average yards per attempt, and touchdown-to-interception ratio against blitzes have all been much better than Smith’s historical averages, but also better than his performance on all other downs.

Read the whole thing. Video diagrams after the jump (and in the article).

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Attacking “Psycho” fronts and other blitz heavy defensive looks

When asked earlier this season how he would describe the current trend in modern defenses, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton summed it up in one word: “confusion.” While there are few truly “new” ideas in football, there is a near infinite number of ways to hide, disguise, or slightly vary those ideas. One increasingly popular idea in the NFL is the “psycho front“, which simply refers to a defense that has two, one or maybe even zero defensive linemen with their hands on the ground and tends to stack the line of scrimmage. This may mean the defense is bringing a heavy blitz — or it might not. Often, the defense will show this look and then back out of it into some kind of coverage.

The advantages of the pyscho are many, but the biggest key is that confusion Payton talked about: it’s difficult for the quarterback and offensive line to determine which of the potential rushers will blitz — other than through mind reading — and with so many of them there is a high likelihood that there will be an assignment bust. Further, although the defense might give away what deep coverage it is playing, it’s not clear what kind of underneath coverage it will be — man, zone, and if zone how many underneath? Two? Three? Four? These are real issues.

Of course, the psycho itself is just a spin on some scheme done before; the fact that a defensive lineman takes his hand off the ground doesn’t, by itself, change the defensive structure. Indeed, these same issues have been presented by NFL-style heavy blitz teams in the past. The problem presented in the image below is the same one as in the image above, as the defense shows a seven man defensive front while the offense has only the five linemen and one running back as pass protectors. If the offense uses some spread run game they can tilt the numbers slightly back to their favor, but it’s still a big issue.

So how do you attack these looks? Ultimately the offense will need the ability to protect and complete some passes downfield, but that’s not where I would begin. Below is a short list of ideas (in no particular order) to defeat these heavy or “psycho” fronts where the defense simultaneously threatens all-out man blitz, confusing zone blitz, and no blitz, all at once. Note that this is from the perspective of either a pro-style team or some kind of pass-first or pass-balanced spread team.

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Bobby Petrino’s shallow cross concept – concepts, routes, and protection

The shallow cross is, quite possibly, the best pass play in football: Almost any quarterback can complete it; almost any receiver can run it (though there is more nuance than maybe one might initially realize to a good shallow route); it is a way to get “speed in space” without requiring a big arm; it works against most all coverages; and throwing a few of these tends to open up big plays downfield as defenders creep up.

Score... heh heh heh...score...

I’ve discussed lots of variants of the shallow, but one of my favorites remains Bobby Petrino’s. I see Petrino’s version as essentially the meshing of a pro style approach with a college sensibility; the reads are simple but there are nuances built in so that it works against almost any coverage. Petrino moves his guys around a bit, but, the key feature is that unlike the Airraid guys, he has his runningback and his shallow going to the same side: the back runs a wheel route to pull the underneath coverage to the sideline and up the sideline, while the other two receivers run a post and a square-in, and on the backside the receiver runs a comeback. The base play looks like this:

 

shallow

The post and the wheel are “alert” routes, in that they aren’t part of the basic reads but the quarterback can look at them first if the defense gives it. The most famous example of hitting the wheel was the second play of the game last season against Alabama. Alabama came out in a quarters or split safety look, but there was some coverage bust (it’s hard to say exactly but it was probably the cornerback chasing the post route all the way inside, as shown in the video below).

More typically, the goal is to hit the shallow, as the read is shallow to square-in to comeback on the backside. (Note that some people have said all routes should be read high to low, including the shallow. Although I think that’s a good rule of thumb, that’s all it is: the shallow needs to be the read before the square-in.) Below is a diagram and clip of the same concept, except Petrino now has the square-in/dig and the shallow coming from the same side.

shallow

Here, Arkansas runs the shallow and the wheel to the short and tight side (short side of the field and where there is only a tight-end). The corner and safety drop deep, and the advantage of running the shallow to this side is the tight alignment brings the linebackers in, and the shallow ends up able to outflank those guys.

The read is the same though: Alert (post/wheel), shallow to square-in to comeback. I’ve covered all of this previously, but it’s worth mentioning again because don’t take my word for it: Ryan Mallett explained it all to Jon Gruden recently. Jump to the 2:05 mark. (My favorite part of this is when Mallett begins discussing the hot reads and Gruden’s eyes light up.)
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Anatomy of a game winner – TCU-Wisconsin

Sometimes you can scheme it up, even execute it up, and then some guy named Tank bats the ball down and you go home a loser. On the final two-point play, TCU had this defensive blitz on:

blitz

On the two-point play, TCU made two errors: the weak safety failed to cover the tight-end/innermost slot to the three receiver side, and had a blitz error:

block

Wisconsin used a 4 man slide to the right to pick up the TCU blitz. This should not be problem for the DOG blitz, because 5 men will be coming with only 4 to protect. (4 From the dog side plus the nose.)

Just looking at the side of the Dog, someone should be free. Even if the Wisconsin center and guard pick up the D-Tackle and Sam Backer (which they did) the tackle should be in a lose-lose with the D-end and SS. The breakdown happens here. Wagner [the right tackle] made a great play by pushing the D-End down to the ground preventing the end from cutting inside of him, and then came off to block the SS #28 Colin Jones. It was impressive.

I have not seen nor think I will ever see an O-Line coach expect one his linemen to block 2 guys like this. It goes to show how good the Wisconsin offensive line is.

And yet….

“I was definitely on the blitz,” Carder said. “We thought they were going to run. Coach [Gary] Patterson put me on the blitz. I got blocked so I stepped back and he [Tolzien] cocked his arm back and I jumped up and swatted it down.”

Wisconsin had, really, the perfect playcall, but it didn’t matter, because TCU made the play. Credit for the above to Runcodhit. Read the whole thing.

The “smash” route against man coverage

I have previously discussed the smash concept, where an outside receiver runs a short flat or “hitch” route while an inside receiver breaks to the corner. The play works well against cover two zones in particular because it puts the cornerback in a bind: if he plays the man in front of him he opens up a big are for the quarterback to throw the corner route behind him.

smash

One reason this play is useful, however, is because it does more than attack this zone aspect. Again man-to-man coverage the corner route is a very good option — so long as the throw is precise and the route is good. One reason for this is because many defenses who play man coverage use inside leverage to take away the quick slant passes that can gash them for big plays and are easy throws.

Cover 1 RobberMoreover, many man defenses use a deep free-safety or an inside “floater” or “robber” player whose job is simply to read the quarterback’s eyes. The advantage of the corner route is that the throw is away from all these inside defenders who can gum up a normal “who has beaten his man” read.

Finally, the fact that it is the inside receiver rather than the outside one who runs the corner route can get the offense some favorable matchups: Most defenses put their cornerbacks in man coverage on the outside receivers; the inside receivers are thus often guarded by safeties or linebackers or substitute “nickel back” players.

All of these advantages were on display in Penn State’s game against Michigan, as the Nittany Lions scored on the same smash concept from the same formation against the same coverage (indeed, same receiver) twice. Below is a diagram of their play, followed by video, courtesy of mgoblog.

1SMASHGIF

Below is the video:

You be the offensive coordinator/quarterback: Dealing with the blitz

In my most recent post for Dr Saturday I discussed some of Florida’s struggles on offense. The particular topic was some of Florida’s struggles in pass protection in all phases: accounting for potential rushers, sustaining the blocks, the receivers getting open on time, and the quarterback delivering the ball on time. In the post I showed what went wrong on the play, as the video below shows.

But it’s much easier to show what went wrong than it is to answer: What would you have done differently? Specifically, let’s say you are the OC who can signal a play in or you are the quarterback with a menu of checks and calls at the line. Your squad lines up in five wide, on third and goal (your team is leading), and the other team is showing a man blitz. Here’s what you see (the receivers are all covered down by guys showing man-to-man).

1_empty

You know they have at least a possible six guys to blitz against your five, if not more if they don’t cover down on one of the slots at the snap. Below is a diagram of the play Florida had called — a double smash concept. Note that the rule for the outside receiver’s in man is to convert the route to some kind of pivot route to the outside.

1_EMPTYSMASH

So what do you do here? Here is a non-exhaustive list of options. You make the call.

  1. Stick with the play as called. Although they have one more guy than you can block, your other guys should protect well, the QB should step up in the pocket, and throw the corner route (or another route) before the blitzer gets there. It was an execution problem.
  2. Call timeout. You can’t block all their guys, and have a bad playcall. Try again.
  3. Check to a short, three-step pass. Yes it is third and goal but better to throw a short completion with a chance to run it into the end zone.
  4. Check to a three step fade pass. You need to throw it into the end zone but don’t have time for any other play that gets it into the end zone.
  5. No need for a check, but the play should have a “sight-adjust” built in, where if the QB and receivers both read blitz they break off their route for a slant. Yes this read can get muddied against zone blitzes, but this is the right situation for it. Everyone should read this on the fly.
  6. Check the play to a receiver screen. Same philosophy as the short pass — get it to an athlete with some room to run, though this time with some blockers.
  7. Check to a quarterback trap or draw. You have an excellent runner at quarterback, why not use him? Yes it is third and long but you avoid the dangerous play, and if you block the trap or draw right and their defenders are too aggressive, you might score.
  8. Stay with the same playcall, but make a call to shift one of the split receivers in tight to be an extra blocker. Yes they can always blitz one more than you can block, but might as well put on a full six-man gap scheme and force the extra rusher to come from further away.
  9. Shift a receiver in to act as a runningback for a more advanced run play, like the speed option or a zone read. This is basically a full audible with a change of formation and playcall. Note that the defense could adjust too, given this opportunity.
  10. Some other option I haven’t listed.

Now, no team would give their quarterback this many options at the line, but most teams give their quarterback the ability to get into at least three of these. Some (like the sight-adjust) is either built into the offense or it isn’t.

So what is it? You make the call.