Paragraph of the day

Unlike GERG [former Michigan defensive coordinator, Greg Robinson] he [new Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison] has patience with questions, especially football questions. GERG wanted little to do with the press and had no patience with anything resembling a football question. (I asked whether he would be playing “one or two gap” a couple of years ago. He looked at me like I was crazy (maybe I am/was, probably the question was idiotic) but he responded (and repeated himself) with “Let’s just say by the end of the season you’ll be happy with our defense.” Uh, well, not exactly.)

That’s from Craig Ross’s writeup of the coaching clinic at Michigan over at mgoblog. Read the whole thing.

What were the seminal offenses/defenses of each decade?

Inspired by this post, remember the definition of “seminal” when answering. Think of it (as it was in the original post) as The Great Gatsby was to books in the 1920s as X was to offensive/defensive schemes in Y.

Here are my picks. Add your own:

1900s – 1910s: Single-wing.

1920s: Notre Dame Box.

1930s: I’d like to choose the TCU/Dutch Meyer/Sammy Baugh spread offense but I’m not sure this counts as seminal. I leave this one for the readers.

1940s: T formation.

1950s: “Pro-style” offensive schemes of Paul Brown (Cleveland Browns), Weeb Ewbank (Baltimore Colts), and Vince Lombardi (Packers), and the 4-3 defense developed by, among others, Tom Landry as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. Almost everything in the current NFL is merely a footnote to the 1950s.

1960s: Veer.

1970s: Wishbone.

1980s: West Coast Offense and Zone Blitzes.

1990s: Zone blocking and multiple-eight man front defenses.

2000s: Run-first spread offense and, to a lesser extent (though incredibly important on the lower levels), the Airraid.

Football doesn’t have to be that complicated

Overheard at a coaching clinic:

Coach 1: “We just couldn’t stop you guys from hitting the speed out. We used our Tango technique, then switched to the Dragon Claw alignment, and even whipped out the Lombardi Kung Fu grip and we still couldn’t handle it. What are you guys doing to make that that route so effective for you?”

Coach 2: “Our fast kid runs it.”

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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Breaking down Boise: How the Broncos use leverage, numbers and grass to gash the opposition

[Ed. Note: The following article was written by my friend Mike Kuchar, who, when not writing incredibly informative articles, is the defensive coordinator at North Brunswick Township High School in New Jersey.]

It’s no secret that Boise State knows how to move the football — its 42 points per game last season led the nation — but it’s exactly how Boise moves the ball that makes them unique.  I became privy to this information when I spent a week with the Virginia Tech coaching staff back in early April as they prepared for their opener against the Broncos, a September 6 bout at Fed Ex field pitting two top ten teams against each other.  Indeed, the mere fact that Va Tech’s staff was breaking film down more than five months before gameday tells you something profound about how much respect Boise head coach Chris Petersen’s offense commands. I sat with Virginia Tech defensive backs coach Torrian Gray and defensive graduate assistant Steve Canter (who has since become Norfolk State’s QB coach) as they scouted Boise State’s games against Tulsa, Nevada, Fresno State and finally TCU last season.  Canter was given the important but not-so-glamorous task of charting every snap that Boise took on offense last year.  And after just a few minutes of watching tape with them my head began to spin, but Canter couldn’t spare to take his eyes off the screen.

To me, every play seemed like an entirely different scenario — a tiny but perfect little strategic masterpieces carved out by Petersen and his offensive staff for that situation alone.  While I struggled just to follow the ball (apparently the filmer in the press box had the same problem, as the camera often got faked out along with the defensive end or safety Petersen targeted) Canter diligently worked his craft, jotting each down and distance, all the personnel used, every formation, any motion and play. It’s a process he’s engrossed himself in as a former head coach himself: he mentored Vikings receiver Percy Harvin at nearby Landsdown High School (Virginia) and won a state championship in 2004. He’s earned the respect of defensive coordinator Bud Foster, one of the best defensive minds in the game. “[Boise] tr[ies] to do a ton of different things, but there has to be a reason for what they are doing,” said Canter.

Five months and a dozen scratch pads later, I’m not sure that the Hokies have Boise all figured out yet, but knowing Foster, they’ve certainly gotten some insight on them.  I took all the information from that visit and — mainly out of curiosity for my own purposes as a coach to see how a great offense works and how a great defense might prepare — to thoroughly study what Boise State does on the offensive side of the ball.  Once the studying was complete, I compiled a detailed and definitive report on what makes Boise, well…Boise. And more importantly, what the Hokies must do to win.

Personnel

“Maximizing personnel,” one of those football buzzwords that sounds like it was invented by Peter Drucker, is nevertheless essential to making an offense dynamic — and arguably nobody in the college game knows how to do it better than Petersen.  He learned it from his days working as the offensive coordinator under previous head coach Dan Hawkins where his direction thrust little known talents RB Ian Johnson and QB Jared Zabransky onto the college football landscape in 2006. [Ed. Note: Petersen also credits former Southern Cal head coach and longtime NFL offensive coordinator Paul Hackett for his football development, along with the time he spent under Mike Bellotti at Oregon where he worked alongside Dirk Koetter and Jeff Tedford.] Boise doesn’t always have the Tarzan’s on film — they don’t bang heads with the Oklahomas and Floridas in the recruiting wars — but they don’t need to.  Petersen is schooled in the art of allocation: he wants to best utilize the talent he has.  For example, five-foot-nine senior running back James Avery, rushed for 1,151 yards last season for the Broncos.  He’s not the fastest, but he’s elusive with an explosive burst. “He’s not the fastest guy in the world, you rarely see him get long runs” said Virginia Tech’s Gray.  “But like most Boise backs he has terrific start and stop skills; he can change direction quickly and he knows how to read blocks.”

Chris Petersen: smart guy, smart slacks

Avery is a patient, zone style back who looks for creases in defensive fronts. His skills are modeled after guys like Ian Johnson who had a stellar career running the same zone type runs.  Of course, it helps when those blocks are created by an offensive line that only surrendered five sacks last season.  And that success against the pass rush must be attributed to their knowing their protection assignments when picking up various blitz packages that teams throw at them at a weekly basis. In the Fiesta Bowl last season, TCU appeared to be in dial-a-blitz mode for most of the first half but still couldn’t get to Boise quarterback Kellen Moore, before largely giving up that approach as Moore never got flustered.  He knew where the weakness in his protection were and found a way to escape at the right times to avoid losses.

Moore is another anomaly: not scary on paper, frightening on film. Despite being barely six-feet tall, he has tremendous presence in the pocket.  He knows exactly where to escape when the pocket collapses and often finds receivers downfield simply because the defensive backs got tired of covering.  He’s quick and decisive with the ball — he threw only three interceptions in 431 attempts last season. His career completion percentage has been in the mid 60%s, he finished seventh in Heisman voting and was the WAC offensive player of the year.  His main target, senior Austin Pettis, had 63 catches from virtually every spot on the field: flanker, slot, split end and even out of the backfield; Petersen loves moving his chess pieces around.  Referring to Pettis, Virginia Tech’s Gray said: “He’s their tallest guy at 6-3 and they move him around a ton,” adding, “In the red zone, he’s lethal.”  Indeed, Pettis had 14 touchdowns last season, mainly on bootleg schemes — a Boise favorite in that part of the field.

Schemes

Boise State’s linebacker coach, Jeff Choate, once told me at coaching clinic two years back, “We run plays, we don’t have an offense.  It makes it difficult to defend.”  At that time he was working with the running backs.  Before this project, I wondered how an offense can’t be a system.  Coordinators pride themselves on establishing identities: “It’s what we do” is a common mantra among the coaching profession.  Urban Meyer at Florida has his spread option, Chip Kelly at Oregon has his QB run game, Steve Sarkasian at Washington has his pro-style offense that he developed at USC. Well, apparently Boise was the Seinfeld of college football — their lack of identity is their identity.  Although I may not have understood it then, the method behind this apparent lack of cohesion became much clearer to me after hours of study.

Boise specializes in getting defenses out of position to make plays by utilizing the three major essentials in offensive football:  numbers, leverage and grass.  “Numbers” means outnumbering the defense at the point of attack — i.e. more blockers than defenders on the edge, more receivers than zone defenders, etc.  “Leverage” refers to out-flanking a defense at the point of attack — i.e. you may not have numbers but the angles are on your side.  “Grass” harkens to Willie Keeler’s baseball adage, “hit ‘em where they ain’t.”  Run the ball where there are the fewest defenders.  As it turned out, Choate was right: Boise spends more time on distracting you then developing themselves.  But don’t get confused: the point is that although the Broncos have the talent to be one of the best teams in the country and could simply overrun certain opponents, their modus operandi is to be patient and to take what the defense gives them — a true reflection of Petersen, their coach.  The quintessential underdog philosophy, they wear you down by picking at four and five yard gains until they pop a big one.   Watching them on film, it’s never surprising they score, but to a football junkie, the methodology of how they score is a work of art.  Basically, Boise uses three distinct ways to score: (1) pre-snap leverage by the use of formation, (2) post-snap misdirection and (3) calling the unexpected — the dagger after lulling you to sleep.

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Wisdom on how to (try to) defend four verticals with Cover 3

Question: How would you defend the four verticals pass play with Cover 3? Answer from mgoblog contributor (and defensive coach) Steve Sharik:

Four verticals against Cover 3 [is] really a 2-on-1 against the free safety.

The QB is coached to look off the Free Safety and throw to the #2 receiver away from him. Well-coached safeties are instructed to not come out of the exact middle of the field until the ball is in the air. Four verticals against Cover 3 is not designed for the home run. The QB should deliver the ball on a relative line (a la Denard [Robinson] to [Roy] Roundtree in the spring game) at 15-20 yards downfield; i.e., behind the LBs and in front of the Free Safety.

Right where you want them

A properly coached Cover 3 defense will use its LBs to re-route and not give up easy seam throws. For a 3-3-5 defense, the alignment of the #2 reciever changes who is responsible for this. If #2 is a TE or Wing, then one of the Stack Backers (Sam, Will, whatever) is responsible for seam elimination (as we like to call it). If #2 is a wide slot, then either the Spur or Bandit is responsible.

The objectives are threefold:

1. Take away the quick seam throw by jamming and running with #2.
2. Widen the seam route to the Corner’s zone, or outside 1/3. Do not let #2 cross your face.
3. Get your eyes to #1.

Once the jam and re-route is accomplished, the LB will key #1. If #1 continues vertically up the field, the LB will continue to run with #2. If #1 throttles down, the LB will come off #2 and get to his zone. The Stack Backer will hunt a crossing route by #1 while the Spur/Bandit will hunt inside-out; i.e., curl to deep out to quick out. This is an easy read but hard to get to quickly. The Spur/Bandit must be a superior athlete. (This is one of my reservations about Kovacs. I don’t believe he can take away a seam and be able to get to a curl against quality QB/WR combos.) (more…)

Nick Saban on defending the wildcat

Thanks to reader Alex Bruchac, below are three videos of Nick Saban discussing how to defend the wildcat, which is something I have previously discussed at length. Let the master explain:

The other two videos can be found below the fold:
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Eliminating “daylight” from the axiom “run to daylight”

[Ed. Note: This post is by Jerry Gordon, a defensive guru (and good friend of mine). He recently authored a book on the 4-3 under, Coaching the Under Front Defense.]

The only way to stop backs like Herschel Walker is to eliminate their daylight by filling all the gaps.

The term “run to daylight,” made famous by Vince Lombardi through a book named just that, became a mantra for running back coaches across the country. It is also (unsurprisingly) exactly what defensive coaches fear the most — a runningback who can see the hole and run to daylight.

I was a college running back coach for six years in the early and mid 1990s and coached a kid, Rene Ingoglia, who did a bit more than simply havet a cup of coffee with the Buffalo Bills.** I asked him what he saw when he ran the ball and how he always seemed to find the hole. He told me that all he saw were flashes of color and he simply went to the hole where there was no color.

From us defensive coaches, it is up to us to provide a solid wall of color that encompassing every possible hole or gap. Although this seems simple in theory, it is much harder than it appears. Defensive coordinators are confronted with a number of problems.

First lets take a look at the I-formation, the formation of the great running teams of yesteryear. Over the decades the I has produced some of football’s most prolific rushers, including Archie Griffin of Ohio State, O.J. Simpson of Southern Cal, and Herschel Walker of Georgia. Any defensive coordinator worth his salt has to have a plan for the I.

As you can see in the image below, an offense in the I presents seven gaps to defend.

As stated above our goal is to put a player in each gap. The problem is that the gaps are not stationary. Let’s take a look as the offensive lineman come off the ball to our left .All the gaps have moved. Each defensive player must move and still fit into his proper gap. Remember the offense know the snap count, we don’t.

In the diagram below, all our gaps have moved to our left.

In the next figure, we are aligned an under defense, which a common front against teams that have a tight end and two backs in the backfield. Under defense is generally characterized by a linebacker over the tight end, defensive ends aligned in an outside shade on the offensive tackles, a nose shaded on the center to the tight end and a defensive tackle in an outside shade away from the tight end.

The important thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter what front we present to the offense — all gaps must be filled with color. A motto that I picked up from CoachHuey.com is to “play defense, not defenses.” It’s more important that we play well as team than to present a ton of different defensive looks to the offense.

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Smart Notes 1/18/2010

1 Is it possible for a defense to be “good against the run” or “good against the pass,” or is it merely good, mediocre, or bad? Chase Stuart, in two excellent posts heavy on the game theory (available here and here), shows that, at the very minimum, it’s difficult to say anything meaningful about a defense other than to comment on its general effectiveness; the two phases are too inextricably intertwined. For fans and commentators I think this is correct, though from a gameplanning perspective it remains possible to identify which defenders are most dangerous and what is most difficult to accomplish, not to mention whether the defense is tilting to the pass or run — i.e. extra defensive backs or guys in coverage, or extra run defenders.

2. Survivor bias on the gridiron. From the Freakonomics blog.

3. Tim Tebow’s loping release. During the broadcast of Florida’s bowl game, Brian Billick showed exactly what is wrong with Tebow’s release: It’s long, he brings the ball down too low (this motion generates no additional power or accuracy), and it exposes the ball both to a fumble and to a defender who might break on the ball. See it here (h/t Doc Sat):

The word I had gotten was that Scott Loeffler, Florida’s quarterback coach, had made significant progress with Tim on this but that come gametime, well, a player’s gotta play how he knows how. And Tebow had earned the right to play his way. Yet it is troubling to the lack of progress, and it will hurt him in the draft. But what if it was worse, than a lack of progress — what if Tebow actually regressed on this point? Check out this video which charts Tebow’s release over time, and you be the judge.

4. “Football Island”:
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