Combining the “midline lead” and the zone read

The evolution of the traditional zone read to include “midline-esque” concepts like reading the interior linemen is a hot topic, so I’d like to throw open the comments to what you think the next evolution or wrinkle might be. I’m game to anything; for all the talk about the pistol offense, I see this subtle shift in the zone read to be the biggest “it thing” or “fad” across college football.

While you think about what adjustments might work, let me give my suggestion: the introduction of the “midline lead” into the zone read of the defensive linemen. How this will be integrated is one of my other questions but I think this will prove very useful.

The traditional midline involves the reading of the defensive tackle, where the fullback heads up the “middle” while the quarterback steps around. The midline lead has a lead blocker for the quarterback, typically a playside fullback or slotback, though it can also come from the backside.

Although it looks a bit dry in the diagram, the video below shows how that one block — that lead block — can make the difference between a nice gain on the inside read and a touchdown (Paul Johnson uses a wrinkle here where the back goes in motion and leads):

As shown in the video below, courtesy of tog, I don’t see this as a difficult adjustment for spread teams. You would just need to fold the tight-end, H-back, slot, or other player up on the middle or playside linebacker.

So what do you think? All ideas — crazy or not — welcome.

I’ve included some additional cutups of the midline below the jump.

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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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Oregon’s zone read of the defensive tackle

During last night’s Oregon victory over Oregon State, the announcers mentioned that Chip Kelly’s squad will vary their zone read by reading defenders besides the backside defensive end — namely, the defensive tackle or “three technique” player.

In the “normal” zone read, the line zone blocks one way while the quarterback reads the backside defender:

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There are a variety of counters to this, including the infamous “scrape exchange,” and in response offenses have added third options and bubbles and all manner of other ideas to the outside. But Oregon, along with several other spread teams, have also responded by moving inside, by reading the defensive tackle instead of the defensive end. See the diagram below:

3tech

This does a couple things for you. One, it can confuse the “scrape exchange” response, where the defensive end crashes to force a “pull” read by the quarterback while the linebacker loops outside for him, because the defensive end gets blocked and the QB should have a big gap inside. And, second, it gives you flexibility in who you choose to block versus read. As the old saying goes, if you can’t block them, read them.

For example, when LSU had Glenn Dorsey, Urban Meyer and Florida often used this same tactic to read him instead of trying to block him. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if Florida did this against Alabama’s mountainous defensive tackle, Terrence Cody.)

So what does this look like in practice? Fortunately, Trojan Football Analysis has already broken it down, after the Ducks thrashed Pete Carroll’s USC defense with it. Below is some of the photo evidence, though you should go to TFA to read the whole thing.

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Below is the same play from a sideline angle:

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Flashback: Oklahoma vs. Nebraska

I recently stumbled on these great (and long) clips on youtube of the 2000 Oklahoma-Nebraska game. Then #1 Nebraska got out to an early 14-0 lead before OU scored 24 points in the second quarter and went on to win 31-14. The game featured two of my favorite quarterbacks of the last decade, the brilliant Eric Crouch and the wily Josh Heupel, running two of my favorite offenses ever: the Nebraska I-option attack and the Airraid offense. (Mike Leach had installed the Airraid at Oklahoma and then left to become head coach of Texas Tech. In 2000 Oklahoma used the old school, Kentucky era Airraid, full of two-back sets and the staple plays like mesh, Y-corner, all-curl, and — on the famous post route to Curtis Fagan for a touchdown against an all-out blitz — Y-cross. Oklahoma would later evolve away from the true Airraid under both then offensive coordinator Mark Mangino and later current Kevin Wilson, among other coaches.)

Oklahoma of course had the better day against a Nebraska defense intent on blitzing. And Heupel, a noodle armed JUCO transfer whose receiver targets consisted of a slew of converted runningbacks and defensive backs (Stoops was only in his second year at OU), showed that being a great quarterback can be as much about brains and accuracy as it has anything to do with arm strength or raw athleticism.

(Incidentally, before watching these clips again I had forgotten what a good jet sweep team Oklahoma was at the time. I used to watch the passing cutups of the ’99 and 2000 OU teams over and over and over, but had forgotten this aspect of their run game.)

What’s wrong with Georgia Tech’s run game? (Is anything?)

dwyer1Fits and starts. Georgia Tech’s offense is, by most statistical measures, beating its marks from last season. In ’08 the Jackets averaged roughly 370 yards of offense, while this year they are second in the ACC with over 400 total yards per game. Scoring is up by over six points a game too, up from 24 to roughly 30. But the perception is that Paul Johnson’s vaunted flexbone offense is not doing so hot. Indeed, the perception vs. reality debate centers on Jonathan Dwyer, who, if you ask most fans (or see the emails I get), is having a disappointing year despite being third in the ACC in rushing yards per game.

There’s definitely some truth to the idea that Johnson’s offense has not been crisp. Exhibit A were the nationally televised games against Miami, where the Jackets fell behind and could not get the offense going, and Clemson, where a strong first quarter and gutsy fourth bracketed two quarters of very little production. And Dwyer’s 400+ yards rushing this year are muddied by his 66 yards against Clemson and seven against Miami. So what is the prognosis?

I talked to a few flexbone experts and the thoughts were these. The first let’s just get out of the way: Johnson is still using Chan Gailey’s players, and doesn’t yet have its own. I don’t want to harp on this but I am sure there is at least some truth to it. The line in particular was disappointing against Clemson and Miami, and Johnson will ultimately be judged when he gets a full roster there. But that doesn’t much help us in the here and now.

Second, and most interesting, is that there is sentiment that Johnson doesn’t totally trust his quarterback and is predetermining more reads than we might think. I don’t think that is as surprising as it sounds. Johnson said in clinic talks over the summer that he predetermined a lot of the reads last year, and there is some precedent for this: Tom Osborne said in the Nebraska heyday up to 70-80% of the reads in a given game might be predetermined by the call. I’m an option purist, and moreover from a viewing perspective I can’t always tell if a play was a bad read or a predetermined one. But that would help explain some of the stunted dives to Dwyer that have not seemed to go anywhere at times this year. (But don’t ask Mississippi State or North Carolina.)

Finally, there have been some changes in defensive tactics. Most notably almost everyone is playing Georgia Tech with a nose-guard to help stop the midline option and to either stop Dwyer up the middle or at least muddy that read. Miami in particularly played their base defense but simply moved one defensive tackle over to nose guard. This isn’t an end-all be-all scheme, as it has opened up some outside lanes and various counter plays, but GT has not always executed those plays well. Rewatching the Clemson and Miami games in particular one is struck by the fact that there are big plays to the outside to be had, but the Jackets just keep missing key blocks. Now credit both Clemson and Miami for fending off the myriad chop cut blocks and making tackles, but if Johnson wants to continue having success they will have to make teams pay for crowding the middle, and the passing game can only go so far.

The demise of Johnson’s scheme has been premature, though, like any other squad, it comes down to execution and GT will have to prove that its success will continue. The Jackets face a reeling Florida State squad this weekend, followed by a streaking Virginia Tech team. We’ll learn a lot about PJ’s boys in the next two weeks.

Paul Johnson bonus. Below are highlights from the 1992 Holiday Bowl, where Hawai’i, with Johnson as offensive coordinator, defeated Illinois.

TCU’s inverted veer option

daltonyReader Jay Miller passed along some great info from TCU’s victory over Clemson. Clemson’s defense this year has been stout, holding Georgia Tech’s flexbone below their averages and then completely crushing Boston College in one of the best defensive performances in recent memory. (Clemson held BC to 54 yards for the entire game.) Against TCU, however, in an otherwise solid defensive effort the Tigers allowed TCU’s quarterback Andy Dalton to rush 19 times for 86 yards, many of them on key conversions. After the game, Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele appeared flummoxed — or at least very caught off guard — by one spread-option variant in particular that TCU used:

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. When one reporter asked 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.

“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 don’t know if it’s just luck or if they are just that smart, but there were a couple of those calls that we really needed something to happen and we didn’t. The ones that were base defense calls against, we got it stopped. But the ones where we were trying to have some pressure and make something happen, we maybe should have just left those calls alone and just base defended it. “

Clemson linebacker Brandon Maye said the play was causing trouble because of TCU spreading receivers across the field.

“They were spreading us out and forcing us to play one linebacker and forcing that one linebacker to play two gaps,” Maye said. “All you can say is they did a good job scheming us up.”

I’m going to disagree with the description of the play as a variant of the zone-read, though all of these plays fall within the same spread option family. Indeed, this is a play I’ve seen Florida and Urban Meyer use before, though the pulling guard is a nice wrinkle. I call it an “inverted veer.”

In the typical veer play from a spread set, the line blocks down and double-teams the defensive linemen on up to the linebackers. They leave the defensive end unblocked (except when they run midline veer, in which case it is a defensive tackle) and read that man. If he steps down for the runningback, the QB just gives the ball and steps around him. It is just the old first-read of the triple option adapted for spread sets.

veer

But TCU ran a variant, one I’ve seen other teams use. They just “inverted” the runningback and quarterback: The runningback runs a sweep or outside zone action laterally. If the defensive end takes him, then the quarterback shoots up inside the defensive end. If the defensive end sits for the QB, the runner should be able to hit the corner. Remember, the defensive end is often the hardest guy to block, and especially so when you want to “reach” him to seal the corner.

invertedveer

In that way I disagree with the characterization of the play as a fake-zone read where the QB then runs back to the other way. You can see the runner is taking a wide angle. That said, I don’t know what TCU’s read was, but this is a play I’ve seen at least for a few years. And again, Meyer uses it at Florida with his fast runners heading outside and Tebow, the better inside runner, going inside. Below is video of TCU using it against Clemson. (Again, thanks to reader Jay Miller.)

Finally, the one wrinkle TCU has is the pulling guard. I think that was just designed to get better blocking at the point of attack, though TCU had them so crossed up he didn’t even end up blocking anyone. This scheme has a lot of similarities with how teams block the shovel play.

I suppose the reason Steele and Clemson had so much trouble with this hinges on what his linebacker’s reads were. I take it they were reading the quarterback and thinking backside with the zone read. If they read the pulling guard, for example, there wouldn’t be an issue with where the play was going. (This is one reason the veer blocking works so well, because the line steps one way and the play hits the other. The pulling guard can give this away.) It is just like on the famous counter trey play: if the linebackers read the pullers there are no issues with stopping it (though they may be weak to some other play), but if they read the fullback blocking away they can get crossed up.

It’s all a cat-and-mouse game. Point in this one to TCU.