Downfield passes as the “pitch phase” of the read-option, as run by Russell Wilson, Gus Malzahn and many, many, others

Since the invention of the zone read from the shotgun, coaches have dabbled with creative ways to add a third option for the quarterback. Early on, teams added a second runningback or receiver looping around for a traditional pitch, while others have added bubble screens where the receiver can either get the ball right at the snap as a pre-snap read or as a late option after the quarterback has kept it.

And for at least the last six or so years — but probably more like ten — teams have given their quarterback the ability to throw downfield as part of the pitch phase. I don’t know who was first, as some say it was Rich Rodriguez, others point to the Todd Graham era at Tulsa when he had offensive coordinators Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris, but I first saw the play back in 2007 and it seemed to gain some momentum in 2011 as Graham at Pittsburgh and a flurry of high school teams scored touchdowns with it. But there’s no doubt the play hit the national consciousness when Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team scored their penultimate touchdown against Alabama in the Iron Bowl with the play.

play

When Auburn ran the play they ran it with as many as four options for the QB, though my understanding is they also sometimes just called it as a called keep for the quarterback where he could either run it outside or throw it downfield. The purpose of this wrinkle isn’t really to just hit an easy touchdown pass when the defense falls asleep — though it does that too, just ask Alabama — it’s to create real run/pass conflict for a cornerback who is a run “force” defender to the backside.

quadruplemalzahn

Against teams that use the QB as a run threat, like Auburn, defenses need to get secondary players involved in run support. Sometimes that means safeties but other teams a corner will be the “force” defender whose job it is to set the edge and funnel runs inside, as with Cover 2. The traditional bubble or pitch concedes the edge of the defense to the force player, while these concepts put him in what is essentially a high/low bind: either he stays with his man and gives up easy yards to the quarterback or he comes up and gives up big yards behind him. In Cover 2 it’s the safety’s job to get over to the receiver, but that’s why the WR doesn’t fly upfield on a streak route. Instead it’s a “hole” throw, just behind the corner and before the safety can get over.

This isn’t the basis for an entire offense and doesn’t represent any kind of football revolution, but it is a sound concept, which is why I’m not surprised the NFL has taken notice. Last night Seattle QB Russell Wilson threw a TD pass against the Packers on this very concept (h/t SBNation):

throw

After the game, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll copped to getting the play from Malzahn and Auburn:

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New Grantland: The Making of a Modern Guru: How Gus Malzahn Turned Auburn Around

It’s now up over at Grantland:

This season, Auburn has been anything but balanced — not that it has mattered. The 2013 Tigers are the first SEC team to average more than 300 yards rushing per game in almost 30 years. (The last team to do that? The 1985 Auburn team led by Bo Jackson.) But while Newton and current Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall both ran for more than 1,000 yards in Malzahn’s offense, they did so while using very different approaches. At 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, Newton was essentially Auburn’s power back, and Malzahn featured him on a variety of inside runs. Marshall, by contrast, is shorter and lankier than Newton but boasts great quickness and acceleration. As a result, Auburn’s 2013 offense has focused less on the core wing-T run plays and more on zone reads to get Marshall on the edges while allowing Mason to use his excellent vision and patience to find running lanes.

The backbone of Auburn’s current rushing attack has been an amped-up version of the zone-read, which gives Marshall as many as four options: (1) throw a receiver screen, (2) hand it to Mason, (3) keep the ball, or (4) keep the ball and then toss it to a receiver who can sit in an open area of the defense if the man covering him comes up for the run — a form of the quadruple-option.

FourOptions

[...]

Although Marshall running the shotgun zone-read is far afield from the old-school wing-T, these subtle adjustments are pure Raymond: They’re sequenced plays, in which the base play sets up the counter and the counter sets up the counter to the counter, all dressed up with misdirection.

Read the whole thing.

My favorite method for running a reverse to a wide (or slot) receiver

This method is very simple. I like it because it is not a reverse in the sense of being a true “trick” play, but instead you can actually count the blockers and evaluate your numbers at the point of attack and the associated leverage and numbers at the point of attack. The points are simple:

  • Fake an inside run to the side the reverse is going to, so the runningback can both fake a run and become a lead blocker to block an edge rusher.
  • Have the quarterback front out away from the side the reverse is going to.
  • The quarterback either fakes a quick swing or bubble pass or a true speed option away from the side the reverse is going to. Some kind of motion helps this; either “bullet” motion by a second runningback in the backfield or a slot receiver in “orbit” motion behind the quarterback, again in each case away from the side the reverse is going to.
  • The reverse player, the slot receiver, takes a narrow split and immediately begins his path towards the quarterback. His aiming point is two yards behind the quarterback. By taking the narrow split he can get to the opposite side quickly. The crease is often not all the way around end but instead just outside of it.

Gus Malzahn is the first I saw using the play, as shown below. Gus used it with orbit motion and a speed option look:

The above clip took place in Auburn’s spring game. In the first part of the video below, Gus shows how they used this very play to attack Alabama to the boundary side, as Saban and Kirby Smart have a strong tendency to bring a lot of “field pressure” — blitzes to the wide side of the field.

But Gus isn’t the only one I’ve seen use it. Dana Holgorsen has used it with much success the last few seasons, both at Oklahoma State and at West Virginia. In the first clip, Tavon Austin scores on an 80 yard touchdown run — in a blizzard — against Rutgers. In this circumstance, it is a great play in terrible weather conditions as it freezes Rutgers’ defensive players while West Virginia’s best athlete, Austin, gets the ball at full speed with blockers in front of him.

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Does anyone still use Vince Lombardi’s “Packers’ Sweep”?

Vince Lombardi’s “Packers’ Sweep” is probably the single most famous play in football. And, if it is not the most famous play on the field, it is undoubtedly the most famous play to have ever been diagrammed. Very few football fans cannot recall the famous “seal here, and a seal here and he runs…. in the alley,” even if they don’t even know what was actually being described; such was the magic of Lombardi:

Whether or not you understood the play itself, you certainly understood the import: A tough runningback turning the corner with a couple of offensive linemen as his personal bodyguards. But, of course, as Vince Lombardi himself explains, a play is just a play; there’s nothing magical to it. It’s about attitude and execution, and, as he also explains in the videos below, the right play comes to personify the heart and soul of an entire team; it makes the whole enterprise go.

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What is the Inverted Veer / Dash Read?

In fall 2009, a reader emailed me about a spread run scheme TCU used to close out a tight victory against Clemson. The scheme featured a runningback and the quarterback running to the same side — as opposed to the traditional zone read, where the two ran in opposite directions, along with playside blocking from the line. I’d seen something similar before, possibly from Urban Meyer’s team at Florida, but apparently Clemson’s excellent defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele had not seen it, or at least not from TCU. Indeed, since he hadn’t yet seen the tape Steele wasn’t even certain of how to label the concept, but he noted that it had been a significant factor in TCU’s victory:

Inverted veer works better when this is your QB

TCU quarterback Andy Dalton found almost all of his success on the ground on Saturday by employing a new play that the Clemson coaching staff had not seen on film, and Dalton seemed to run almost at will through the line of scrimmage and beyond. . . . Steele said that the play with Dalton carrying was really the only play the Tigers had not seen on film as they studied the Horned Frogs last week.“They ran just one play that we hadn’t seen on film – but it was a good one,” he said. . . .

“Not to get too technical, but on the zone read, the quarterback fakes to the running back going this way and the quarterback goes the other way,” Steele said. “What they were doing was faking zone read one way, the quarterback would step like he was going this way but they would pull the guard and chase it the other way. It was a new look. We got over there and drew it up, got it adjusted out, but we were doing it on the fly and adjusting it on every call.

I couldn’t tell you if TCU got the play from somewhere else or dreamed it up themselves, but in our increasingly interconnected world, that play — which I dubbed the “inverted veer” because it had the same read as the traditional veer but “inverted” the option with the quarterback now the inside man and the runner the outside man — has spread across all levels of football. By the end of the 2009 season, several teams had begun using it, but it’s real significance would come last season: The play was everywhere. Big 10 teams like Ohio State and Purdue (to use two on the opposite end of the spectrum) used it; it spread across conferences like the WAC and Conference USA; in the first part of the season, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez racked up tons of yards with this play, most notably going for 240 yards against Kansas State on primetime; and, finally, Cam Newton rode the play to over 1,400 yards rushing, a Heisman trophy, and a national championship. And it goes without saying that, given the play’s popularity at the college level, countless high schools across the country installed it in the spring and fall.

But with the play’s popularity has come complexity and variation; we’ve evolved past the days of Kevin Steele diagramming the play and the defensive response on a greaseboard on the sideline. Let’s walk through the elements of the play, some of the choices available for blocking, and some of the defensive responses.

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Did Cam Newton flunk the Jon Gruden test?

Setting aside whether there is (or should be) a Jon Gruden test, many on the interwebs have pointed to this video and decided Newton can’t make it:

The argument is that Newton just passes on the long verbiage call and, in not answering, fails the question. Now, it’s clear that Newton’s offense in college was not as complicated as what the pros do, I think the conclusion that Cam is automatically unfit is unfair. He didn’t forget his own plays; he says they did not have it in his offense because everything had to be done from the no-huddle. He says “36” might be the play name, and they call 36 and up and go. (For what it’s worth, in his book Finding the Winning Edge, put out in 1997, Bill Walsh said the future of football was in no-huddle offenses where the plays were called with single words.)

In the full segment, Cam diagrams a couple of plays and a couple of things were clear to me: (a) he’s a freak athlete, (b) he actually internalized his coaching quite well, as he remembered all the coaching points and axioms from Malzahn (and Gruden said he retained everything in their meeting quite well), and (c) he really does have a long way to go in terms of mastering a complicated NFL system. The upshot is that, while I like Cam’s potential, drafting him number one is risky. But he’s not incapable of mastering an NFL system.

But a final thought. Gruden — rightly, I think — emphasizes to Newton that he is going to have to prepare himself for complicated NFL playbooks and verbiage, because he will be a new employee and that’s what they do. Yet it’s not clear to me that all that verbiage goes to good use; I’m curious if Gruden, if he goes back into coaching, will choose to deluge kids with those insane playcalls or will instead do as Walsh predicted and as Malzahn does, and find a simpler way of doing business. As Cam says in the clip, “simple equals fast,” and as Holgorsen likes to remind his team, “if you’re thinking, you’re not playing.”

Thoughts on Auburn’s 22-19 win over Oregon in the BCS title game

Four thoughts on last night’s game:

  • Nick Fairley gets the game ball. As I predicted, the differences in the game were Cam Newton’s ability to do things no one else can do — convert short yardage plays, scramble for big plays on third down, and generally as reader/decoy to open things up for McCalebb and Michael Dyer — and Auburn’s superior defensive line, particularly Nick Fairley. Fairley was incredible throughout. Maybe most importantly, he didn’t tire out like we all expected. Much of this was because Oregon failed to get in their tempo for much of the night, as they couldn’t get consistent first downs and thus couldn’t sustain that tempo, but Fairley deserves a lot of credit for just being able to be on the field and keep his energy at a high level. Not easy for such a larger human. Yet the images that stick out to my mind are those where he completely destroyed Oregon’s attempts to read him on the midline option by blitzkrieging both quarterback and runningback and arriving at the option mesh point before the read could be made. I spoke with some coaches after the game who figured what Chip Kelly obviously did: if we can’t block him, let’s read him, except Fairley, when unblocked, took out everyone. A great performance. (And when Oregon got tired of that and tried to block him and read someone else, he split the double-teams. He’ll be a top five NFL draft pick, if not one or two.)
  • War Daddy

  • Stick to the plan. Oregon and Chip Kelly, however, did themselves no favors by coming out of the gates with a lot of funky stuff they’d never shown this season. I get that you want to do something different for Auburn — and that you’re Chip Kelly, a very bright guy — but that team averaged 49 points a game on the outside zone with a read from spread sets, and the Ducks came out with a bunch of three back sets with a triple option look off the inside zone. Now, Auburn’s defensive coordinator Ted Roof came out with a lot of fire zones and zone blitzes from the field or wide side to take away the stretch plays, but I’m still shocked that those runs weren’t a bigger part of Kelly’s gameplan.  It didn’t help that Darron Thomas, Oregon’s quarterback, struggled with his reads (though for good reason — see above).
  • Malzahn and Cam. Gus Malzahn (oh, I’m sorry, I meant “Guz”) called an effective game, and Cam Newton made some special plays. It wasn’t a Vince Young-esque domination, but Cam did things no one else can do. He also made three very costly mistakes: the shorthopped goalline pass to a wide open receiver on fourth down, the late fumble, and, to my mind, the worst, the overthrow when Gus had called a great double-move and his receiver was wide open. Only the last one really stung because it would have blown the game open in the third quarter while the Tigers led 16-11, but the kid played great. And from the second half on, Malzahn relied on the inside zone with a bubble screen to the opposite side — where Dyer got most of his yards and Cam Newton a lot of simple throws — and of course called that post-dig/wheel route combination for several big plays, including the touchdown. Sometimes you don’t have to be fancy to call a good game; you just have to call the right plays for the situation.
  • Defensive special? A lot of the commentariat claimed this was a defensive game — and most of my points above indicated faults I found with both offenses. But these two teams combined for nearly 1,000 yards of offense — 968 in fact — and featured multiple turnovers and goal line stands. I thought it was pretty entertaining, as it’s more fun to watch good coaches deal with good players and issues than it is to watch one of those steamroller-where-is-the-defense games. Those who tuned out because “there wasn’t enough scoring” can’t be faulted, but you can still appreciate what the teams are trying to do, and thus why a performance like Fairley’s was so unreal (i.e., yes he went unblocked, but that was intentional and it’s what he then did that was so impressive). It was a fascinating — though slightly sloppy and erratic — title game.

Deconstructing: Oregon’s and Auburn’s offenses as spread revolution

My breakdown of Oregon’s and Auburn’s offenses in anticipation of tonight’s BCS title game is up over at Yahoo!. Check it out.

Also, hat tips and thanks to Brophy and the Offensive Breakdown site for some great info (especially to Brophy for the image on the power scheme). Check out great info from both sites on Malzahn’s offense here and here.

Deconstructing: The search for the perfect spread QB

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

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

Of Malzahn and Miami, a look backward and forward

A couple of stuff from me from around the web: