The Science of the Post: Going Deep with “Mills”

When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherf—r in the room, accept no substitutes. – Ordell Robbie

I have an admission to make: while I love a well executed power sweep or double-A gap blitz, and I’m a sucker for a shallow cross thrown that hits the receiver on the run or a well timed screen, and while I even get a little tingly when I see a fantastic run fit that stuffs a runner or when a QB on the triple option fakes the pitch before cutting upfield, there is absolutely nothing — nothing — in football that I love more than a perfectly thrown deep post that hits a streaking receiver in stride for a touchdown. If there is one play — one image — that is totally unique to the sport, this is it: the play that would be illegal if not for the game’s early rule changes to permit the forward pass; the play that would be unfathomable without the game’s early innovators; the play that looks at the scrum at the line of scrimmage — the part of the game most tied to football’s past — and says, screw it, we’ll just throw the ball over the top of all that. It is, in short, the play that essentially makes the sport what it is.

“Let’s see if we can pitch and catch a post”

But like everything in football there’s a science to chucking it deep, and it’s only in the rarest of circumstances is the instruction from the sideline to simply throw the ball deep, regardless of the consequences. The trick to throwing the ball deep down the middle past all eleven defenders is (a) find a way to bring up the defense’s deepest defenders so you can throw the post behind them and (b) if those defenders stay deep, don’t throw the post. The way to accomplish both of those goals is to construct a sound concept around the deep post that can provide answers versus a variety of coverages — and strike like lightning whenever the opportunity is right. And for my money, there’s no better way of accomplishing those goals than the Mills concept.

In 1990, Steve Spurrier took over at Florida, vowing to not only turn around the Gators but also to bring an entirely new brand of football to the Southeastern Conference, namely an aggressive, pass-first system that had its roots in the offenses Spurrier ran as an NFL quarterback, as updated and refined in his years as a head coach in the USFL and at Duke. Before the first game against Oklahoma State, Spurrier elevated a young QB named Shane Matthews from fifth on the depth chart to starter. Just before the game, Spurrier approached Matthews:

“Coach Spurrier always liked to come around and talk to guys in the locker room while they were getting ready,” Matthews said. “He finally comes to me and asks, ‘Shane, what play do you want to start with?’”

“I’d never started a college game before. A lot of people were giving him grief already for naming me the starter. So, I said: ‘Maybe a screen or a draw?’ “

And Spurrier responded: “Shoot, they didn’t hire me to come down here and run the football. We’re going to throw it.”

That first play was a 28 yard completion from Matthews to receiver Ernie Mills, who had run a post route behind a ten-to-twelve yard dig or square-in route. Florida scored a touchdown for plays later en route to a 50-7 victory. The rest was, well, history, as Spurrier’s run at Florida would be one of the most successful tenures — and influential — of any coach in football history.

But it was also the start of something special for Mills, who is currently the receivers coach at Florida A&M University, and, eventually, offensive football itself. “His [Mills’s] senior year he caught [ten] touchdowns from me,” Matthews later recalled. “And I would say about eight of them came on that same deep post play. So after he graduated, Spurrier called that play, ‘The Mills Play,” and it arguably became the defining play not only of the Spurrier era at Florida but also the offensive revolution that has, over the past twenty-five years, rippled throughout the Southeastern Conference and ultimately football more generally.

Spurrier didn’t invent The Mills Play, which would eventually come to be known simply as “Mills,” but he called it so often and so aggressively — and was so successful with it — that you’ll see the play clearly labeled as “Mills” (or “Florida” or “Gator”) in playbooks of coaches who never even coached under or played for the Ol’ Ball Coach.

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The Evolution of the Inverted Veer/Power Read … and of Alabama and Clemson’s newest wrinkle, the “Toss Read”

For the last five or six seasons, the so-called Inverted Veer (also known as the Power Read) has been one of the most effective plays in football, and it has been the weapon of choice for some of college football’s greatest talents, including Cam Newton and RG3 and now Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Jalen Hurts. Yet, as is always true in football, defensive coaches do not stand idly by as offenses innovate and have begun devising better and better ways to shut down the play.

But the cat and mouse continues, as while defenses have gotten better at defending the Inverted Veer offenses have, in turn, responded with new wrinkles, particularly this season and particularly from the two teams who will be playing in the National Championship Game, Alabama and Clemson. But to appreciate those wrinkles one must understand why the Inverted Veer was developed and why it works.

For most of its early history, the play most synonymous with the so-called “spread offense” — at least the version that featured multiple receivers and a dual-threat quarterback lined up in the shotgun — was the zone read play, in which the offensive line blocked an inside zone running play while the quarterback read or optioned an unblocked defender. An ingenious evolution (typically credited to current Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez when he was at tiny Glenville State), the zone read allowed teams to dress up their traditional zone blocking by leaving backside defensive end unblocked and thus either eliminating the threat that he tackles the runningback or making the defense pay if he crashes down.

But the zone read, while a great concept, is essentially just a hypercharged bootleg, and works best as a constraint to control the backside for an otherwise effective zone running game. But traditional option football, which the zone read in part derived from, almost always involves reading a frontside, not a backside, defender. And the reasons are simple: numbers and angles.

As the diagram above shows, a well designed and executed playside option play should give the offense a numerical advantage as well as great blocking angles; in short, the playside of the line can ignore one or two playside defenders who are being read (and thus should be made wrong by the QB’s reads) as they build a wall to seal off the backside.

Birth of the Inverted Veer/Power Read

By the mid-2000s, the shotgun spread-to-run and specifically the zone read had begun sweeping across college football, both as pioneers like Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer lit up scoreboards and moved up the coaching ranks and also as bluebloods like Texas used zone read tactics to unleash rare talents like Vince Young. But it wasn’t until the end of the decade that spread teams found a way to successfully meld these shotgun spread tactics with old-school, playside reads. And one of the original vehicles for this innovation was an unexpected one: then TCU quarterback Andy Dalton.

Specifically, TCU, under head coach Gary Patterson and then-offensive coordinator (and current Virginia Tech head coach) Justin Fuentes, unveiled a new read play en route to an upset victory over a Clemson team coached by a first year head coach by the name of Dabo Swinney.

“They ran just one play that we hadn’t seen on film – but it was a good one,” he said. When one reporter asked [then Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin] Steele why the zone read was giving his defense so much trouble, Steele explained the difference between a true zone read and what Dalton was running on Saturday.

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Smart Notes — Harbaugh’s Coaches Clinic, Mouse Davis R&S Tapes, Twitter, Toenail Fungus

Clinic season. Springtime is when coaches get together and — to some extent against their own interests (though not entirely) — share information on the ins and outs of their schemes, personnel strategies and general program management. Sometimes this involves one staff visiting another, but the backbone are the clinics, where (typically) college and sometimes NFL coaches give presentations to (typically) high school and small school coaches. There’s an entire ecosystem around these, both as informal job fairs and also as increasingly corporatized events, but they remain tremendously valuable sources of information (even though coaches are more guarded in the age of the internet than they used to be) and an area where the culture of football coaching culture remains unique.

Just three guys talkin' ball

Just three guys talkin’ ball

While most of the name clinics are sponsored by coaches organizations or big companies such as Nike, many individual schools hold annual clinics, largely as a recruiting tool for the local high school coaches. Of course, anytime there’s a recruiting angle involved, you know Jim Harbaugh is going to up the ante, and his Michigan coaches clinic assembled a great roster of speakers — his brother John Harbaugh, Art Briles, Mike Martz, Teryl Austin, Dean Pees, etc. I wasn’t able to attend this year but fortunately another tradition in the coaching community involves the sharing of clinic notes. And, first, James Light picked up some interesting tidbits throughout, beginning with the joint panel with Jim and John Harbaugh and their father, longtime coach Jack Harbaugh (mgoblog has a full transcript of the panel here):

Jim Harbaugh – Coach Harbaugh talked about the type of coaches they’re looking for. Experts in their field. High character people that represent Michigan. Great motivators. Positive energy. Coach Harbaugh also talked about how to spot coaches that they don’t want. He doesn’t want people on his staff that “Coach like Costanza.” He talked about a Seinfeld episode where George reasoned that if you act frustrated and angry, everyone will assume you’re working harder. Doesn’t want coaches who are standoffish. Most times those coaches pretend to know everything because they’re afraid of getting exposed. Don’t be afraid to say I don’t know, but let’s work together to figure it out.

John Harbaugh – John went through a few of the staples of his coaching philosophy

  • Build it the way you believe in. Not what you think someone else wants. They’ll run you out either way.
  • Don’t do the job to keep the job. Do what you believe is right.
  • Coaches compete everyday. With each other (game plan) and against each other (practice)
  • Never stop learning, you can always get better. He talked about how he picked up some power run game ideas from one of the high school speakers, Akron Hoban (OH) Head Coach Tim Tyrrell.
  • It’s not about what you can’t do. Find what you can do. There is opportunity in everything and everywhere. He mentioned a free agent that they lost recently. Rather than dwelling on the loss, Coach Harbaugh said “We’ve got a different path now. Different opportunity. Maybe we can add another pass rusher now, or rebuild the OL to run some different schemes. Find a way.”
  • Football provides an opportunity that no other sport can. Everyone can be a part of the team and contribute in some type of meaningful way, scout team etc. Roster isn’t limited like basketball or baseball.

James Light also has good stuff from Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin (Austin: “We encourage good body language. Bad body language… fosters resent and divineness.” Light: “[Austin] use[d] specific plays from film as examples of bad body language to convey the point…. Coach Austin pointed out the reaction of Louis Delmas after the touchdown. That was the type of body language that they won’t tolerate…. It creates dissension within the team and shows weakness to the opponent.”) and new Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown:

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LSU Hires Dave Aranda as Defensive Coordinator

Aranda is an excellent hire for Les Miles and LSU. From LSU’s release:

Aranda1

I’m here to stop you

“This is a great hire for us,” Miles said. “Dave has an outstanding track record of producing some of the best defenses in college football. We’ve seen him up close and understand how difficult it is to have success against him.

“He’s everything that we were looking for in a defensive coordinator. He’s youthful with tremendous enthusiasm; our players are going to love him. He brings great defensive knowledge to our staff both as a technician and as a strategist…. Dave will bring different packages and an attacking style to the field,” Miles said. “Watching his defense play, they are tough to move the ball on and they are sticky in every situation. His defenses do a great job of getting off the field.

Given that he’s an up and comer there’s not an enormous amount of information out there on Aranda, but what there is — and the tremendous defenses he’s coached at Utah State and Wisconsin — indicates that he’s very good teacher and coach. I quoted him (very) briefly in The Art of Smart Football, and the below clip gives a bit of insight into some of his philosophy on rushing the passer.

Also the coaches I’ve met with seem to universally praise him, citing both some of the techniques he uses (often lining up his defensive tackles a yard or more off the ball to help with slanting), and his candor in taking full responsibility for Wisconsin’s blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game last season. (Here is an old powerpoint from Aranda on pass rush when he was a GA at Texas Tech.)

Aranda is also at the forefront of defending both read-option plays and has developed some interesting answers for packaged plays/run pass options in recent years.

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New Grantland: Breakdown of Gary Patterson’s TCU 4-2-5 Defense

I’ve been working for a few months on a deep-dive analysis of Gary Patterson’s morphing, multifarious 4-2-5 defense for Grantland, and it’s now up. Patterson’s defense is intriguing on a number of levels, and not only because TCU is ranked #2 in the preseason AP polls: Patterson’s 4-2-5 is custom built for the kinds of wide-open, uptempo spread offenses that now dominate football at every level, but there’s a lot of nuance into exactly why that is:

Robber_Bronco_A1

Patterson’s 4-2-5, however, was designed with those challenges in mind. By playing five defensive backs, Patterson almost never needs to substitute to match up with the offense. But the system’s genius runs even deeper: Patterson has cleaved the very structure of his defense into pieces, simultaneously making everything simpler for his players and more complicated for opponents.

“We divide our defense into attack groups,” Patterson explained at a coaching clinic in 2011. Those attack groups are: (1) the four defensive linemen and two linebackers, referred to as the front, (2) one cornerback, the free safety, and the strong safety, and (3) the weak safety and other corner. For most teams, the calls for the front and secondary only work if appropriately paired, but that’s not the case for TCU. “Our fronts and coverages have nothing to do with each other,” Patterson said at the clinic. “The coverage part is separate from the front.”

Read the whole thing.

Mastering the Sack

I recently stumbled across some pretty nifty cut-up videos of NFL sacks, which highlight the effort, techniques and schemes that result in losses for offenses. It’s an understudied area, as sacks and pressures that move the QB off the spot and force bad throws or decisions are often seen as results rather than processes: it happened or didn’t, but how and why remains hidden. And it’s hidden because (1) it’s an extremely technical, delicate ballet of footwork, leverage and hand placement and (2) it’s also a total melee in there.

This excellent post from Shakinthesouthland lays out some of the basic pass rush moves, and most others you may see are just variations of these:

There are several we’re going to cover here but all start with the proper stance, with weight over their feet and not the down hand, and correct alignment. The initial step is always important. Every man has a pass rush lane that he shouldn’t deviate from until he has to do so. Every man must constantly be moving his feet and his hands, no matter what. Every pass rusher will start with one or two in high school and progress from there, and some in the NFL may only use 3 or 4 different techniques with variants off of those. Here I’ll cover the basic pass rush techniques

  • Bull Rush
  • Speed Rush
  • Swim
  • Grab
  • Rip/Inside
  • Spin
  • Under
  • Counter/Club

Of course, the beauty of these moves is that, over the course of a game, a defensive lineman or even a rush linebacker can vary and set up moves for down the line: the bull rush works when the offensive lineman isn’t expecting it after dealing with a steady dose of speed rushes; the rip inside and the spin work well against a lineman who is well coached to handle the speed or bull rush; and so on.

And understanding these moves helps us in appreciating the really special players. J.J. Watt breaks countless “rules” in the moves he uses because he studies, because he plays psychology versus his opponents and because, well, he can:

When [Wade] Phillips first saw Watt try the maneuver, 35 years of NFL practices set off alarms in his head. “The first time you see it, you think about the old coaching adage, ‘You never go around the block,’” Phillips says. “Well, you do when you can make the play.” Coaches refer to these plays as calculated risks, and what Phillips and defensive line coach Bill Kollar soon realized is that Watt’s were more calculated than most. Because Watt watches so much film, he has an ironclad grasp on what plays to expect out of formations. Because he was quicker, he could recover faster. Because he has the best hands in the league, he could shed blockers more easily.

Here is a link to a PDF analyzing J.J. Watt’s moves, and here is Ben Muth on stopping pass rush moves from an offensive lineman’s perspective. After the jump are a few more video clips on pass rush techniques.

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Translating Nick Saban: Three Plays from the BCS Championship

Nick Saban did the full ESPN car wash today, and ESPN, to their credit, fit in a brief bit of actual football talk as they looked at three plays from the BCS Championship game against Notre Dame. The segment is definitely worth watching:

Although there was good information here, the segment was also a bit rushed and the hosts didn’t do much to get Saban to more clearly explain some of his technical football jargon. So let’s do that right now.

Eddie Lacy’s Run. This is the most jumbled presentation as they appeared to want to be able to freeze the footage and were unable to, but Saban still gives some insight:

Lacy13

  • Saban: “You picked one of our basic plays, which is a zone play.”Translation: The play is inside zone to the left, which is one of Alabama’s bread and butter plays. I’ve written about the inside zone extensively and Don Kausler had a very good story on this very play before the BCS title game.
  • S: “We’re in an overloaded Y-Y Wing type situation here.”Translation: The formation has two tight-end type players, or “Y” players,” to the same side, which can also be referred to as a a “tight-wing” formation. Remember, Saban is a defensive coach so even when he describes his own team’s offensive concepts, he’s often thinking about them in terms defensive coaches use. Here he ends up using three different descriptions (“Y-Y”, “wing” and “overload”) to describe the same idea: a tight-end with another tight-end or “wing” player to the same side, which presents an “overload” formation which the defense must react to.
  • S: “[It’s] a zone cut play where 31 is going to go back.”Translation: It’s very common on zone running plays to leave the backside defensive end unblocked — teams used to control him with the threat of a bootleg, but nowadays many do it with the zone read — but it’s also common to simply bring another offensive player to the backside to block that defender. The primary purpose is to seal that backside defender to help create a cutback lane, but it also gives a traditional zone play a bit of a misdirection element. Here 31 refers to tight-end Kelly Johnson, who acts as the “block back” player, also known as the “sealer” or “kicker”.
  • S: “Now we point out the MAC… Eddie Lacy does a fantastic job of pressing downhill and making a zone cut… we’re stretching the guard area….”Translation: The video can’t be paused and Saban ends up saying three non-sequiturs and isn’t really able to finish his thoughts, but there’s still real football here. “Pointing out the MAC,” which is another term for the middle linebacker, is something most zone teams do before every snap. The reason is that once the middle linebacker has been identified, all of them linemen will know who they are responsible for, both for defensive linemen and linebackers, typically through a “count” method which counts out from the nose guard or middle linebacker out.

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New Grantland: How the Ravens Will Try to Contain Colin Kaepernick and the Diversity of the 49ers’ Offense

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Making whichever choice this unblocked defender makes the wrong one is read option 101. It’s an idea that’s been around for more than a decade. When fully realized, San Francisco’s read option goes far beyond those basics, to places college teams haven’t even been. “We’ve gone down our own road and we do what we do, not just traditional things other teams have done,” remarked Roman this week. “We’ve taken it and are going down our own path.”

Most significantly, on many of the 49ers’ read plays, it’s not just the quarterback who is reading the defender. A lead blocker is often doing the same.

gore1

Fullback Bruce Miller isn’t given every option on every play, but generally, there are three possibilities as the lead blocker on these plays: (1) If the end crashes down for the running back, Miller’s job is to feign blocking him and arc around to seal any linebacker scraping for the quarterback; (2) if the end stays home but slides inside, Miller can block him, opening a crease for Gore to slip through; or (3) if the end goes for the quarterback, then Miller slips inside of him and blocks the nearest linebacker.

Read the whole thing. Also, as a bonus, I had originally intended to describe the 49ers’ use of the Inverted Veer in the NFC Championship game but didn’t end up having a chance. Below the jump are some bonus diagrams.

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New Grantland: How Joe Flacco’s Big Arm Can Exploit the 49ers’ Secondary

It’s now up at Grantland:

The key to the 49ers’ success in that game, as well as for much of the past two years, is rooted in a common misconception about their defense. It’s often noted that the 49ers play almost entirely with two safeties deep, splitting the field into halves while the remaining defenders play man-to-man coverage. This tactic, which also relies heavily on the front seven to stop the run, is known as “Cover 2 Man” defense. The notion that the 49ers use this coverage almost exclusively is, like most misconceptions, rooted in some fact. The 49ers do use this coverage a great deal, but if they used it on every down, San Francisco’s defense would be much easier to attack than it actually is.

What Fangio and the 49ers actually do is mix and match their two-deep, Cover 2 Man coverage with a variety of “pattern match” zones — zone defenses that transform into a kind of man coverage after the snap. The 49ers use a variety of these pattern-match schemes (each of which is differentiated by a subtle change in a defender’s rules), but one I’ve seen them use with success all season is known to many coaches as “Two Read.

f-post

Read the whole thing.

Nick Saban Doesn’t Teach Backpedaling?

Former Alabama and current Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick caused something of a stir when he told the media that he “never backpedaled at Alabama.” Apparently, this is something Bengals coaches value, as Kirkpatrick had to learn to backpedal. Some fairly questioned whether this was hyperbole — How do you not teach defensive backs to backpedal? — but, although he does teach backpedaling, Saban very specifically focuses on other techniques.

Seems to work pretty well

As Saban tells it, he used to teach backpedaling until he was with the Cleveland Browns with Bill Belichick. The ownership signed the legendary Everson Walls, who, much to the dismay of the young defensive backs coach, Saban, ran about a 4.8 forty yard dash and simply could not, under any circumstances, backpedal. He was awkward, couldn’t accelerate, and there were other guys on the roster much better at backpedaling.

Walls also, however, was being paid significantly more than his coach, and it was clear from the ownership that Walls would be starting. He also, it must be said, was still a great player, and just happens to still rank 10th on the all time list of most interceptions in NFL history. So Saban began teaching his now famous “shuffle” technique, rather than the traditional backpedal. There’s a good deal to it, and it can adjust depending on the receiver’s exact release, but essentially it is a three-step shuffle technique, at which point the defensive back may break on a short route or can turn and run and play the receiver down the field.

Complementing this is that Alabama’s cornerbacks spend about 90% of the game in a press coverage position, from which they either stay in press or can bail to a zone or off-man position. They do this because it threatens the offense and helps take away screens and quick passes, and they feel that if a defense doesn’t press it’s a huge advantage to the offense who is simply throwing routes on air. I have to say that having excellent corners like Saban has had at Alabama helps, but, as more of an offensive guy, I would much prefer my corners to show a lot of press (even if they bail a lot) and use the shuffle technique as opposed to the backpedal. There’s nothing easier than seeing a bunch of corners lined up at seven yards backpedaling at the snap; you can run just about anything at that, and they simply will not be able to react quickly enough.

I was reminded of this as I have spent a little time catching up on the games from the past few weeks. Of special note was the tremendous job Alabama’s Dee Milliner did against Michigan in week one. Other than a few extremely poor throws/reads, for the most part Denard Robinson’s throws were on the money, but Alabama and Milliner in particular shut down Michigan’s receivers, who were simply not up to the challenge. Watch and judge for yourself.

And next time you hear someone talk about defensive backs backpedaling, you can tell them you know of what is, at least in the view of many (though certainly not all) coaches, a better way.