“A very wise coach once told me, ‘If you really want play-action, you better pull a guard’” — Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III agree

The title is a quote from former Stanford and current San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, from the video clip below. And it’s absolutely true. While much is rightfully made about whether a quarterback does an effective job of selling a run fake on play-action, the reality is that the offensive line plays just as big of a role in convincing a defense that a play is a run. Indeed, the play-action pass is probably the best weapon offenses have, one far too often underutilized by modern spread offenses. As Bill Walsh once explained:

Let's go deep

The Play-Pass is the one fundamentally sound football play that does everything possible to contradict the basic principles of defense. I truly believe it is the single best tool available to take advantage of a disciplined defense. By using the play-pass as an integral pant of your offense you are trying to take advantage of a defensive team that is very anxious very intense and very fired-up to play football. The play-pass is one of the best ways to cool all of that emotion and intensity down because the object of the play-pass is to get the defensive team to commit to a fake run and then throw behind them. Once you get the defensive team distracted and disoriented, they begin to think about options and, therefore, are susceptible to the running game.

It is no surprise then that maybe the two best play-action teams in college football season were Stanford and Baylor, two teams that just so happened to produce the two best quarterbacks in college football, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. In reviewing the game film of both players, I couldn’t help but marvel at how many of their touchdown passes were well designed, well executed “shot plays” that, while impressive, pretty much just required both quarterbacks to throw the ball to wide open receivers. And a huge part of that was because both of their offenses involved heavy doses of play-action with pulling linemen.

Just think about what kind of effect that has on the defense. While both players were impressive in their play-action fakes — and someone like Peyton Manning is even more impressive — if you’re a linebacker or safety and you see a pulling guard, you basically can’t help but tell yourself: “It’s a run.” Especially since run plays that involve a pulling guard means one thing: “power,” in the lowercase sense of lots of bodies will be at the point of attack so the defense needs to match numbers as well. And in the case of both Stanford and Baylor it also means “power” in another sense: the “Power-O” play where the linemen block down and a backside guard pulls to lead. Stanford, being a more of a pro-style offense, runs the traditional Power-O numerous times every game. Baylor, being a spread team, typically used the vaunted “inverted veer” play, which is the spread offense’s read-based adaptation of the old Power-O. Regardless, for opponents of both, a pulling guard meant trouble for Stanford’s and Baylor’s opponents run defenses, which, through the use of play-action, in turn meant trouble for their pass defense. That Bill Walsh guy just might have been onto something.

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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: 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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What are the basic principles of dropback pass protection?

Pass protection is a deep and varied subject, but at least a little can be said to understand the very high-level basics of how the pass rush/pass protection chess match plays out on a given play. Essentially, there are two types of protection schemes: (1) area or zone schemes, and (2) man schemes. Some protections blend these two approaches, either explicitly or implicitly.

Stop.

(1) Area Schemes: An area scheme is where a group of blockers set up in a given area and then sort and pick-up whatever “trash” comes through. For example, if the center, guard, and tackle are responsible for one side of the protection, and the defense crosses and twists a couple defensive linemen and a linebacker, the blockers will take the one that enters their area. This is probably the soundest “protect-first” approach, and good teamwork will allow the line to deal with defensive creativity with a simple sound approach.

block

Problems with area schemes arise when you introduce runningbacks, tight ends, or H-backs into the equation. The problem is twofold:

(a) An area scheme could leave you with a terrible match-up, such as a runningback on a defensive end (or Lawrence Taylor).

(b) An area-assigned protector who is also a skill player (like a tight end, H-back, or runningback) has a difficult time releasing into the route if the defense does not blitz. So any of those skill players who you have assigned to an area scheme likely will not get out into the route, and you might only have three receivers trying to get open against seven pass defenders. For example, see the diagram below, where the tight-end and runningback (both skill players and potential receivers) end up in the pass route while the center and right-tackle end up blocking no one at all.

More specifically, the guard, tackle, and Y (TE) are playing an area scheme, making them responsible for the defensive tackle, the defensive end, and the stronside linebacker (Sam or “S”). Although we could handle a stunt or twist, with the middle and strongside linebackers dropping into coverage the tight-end and potentially the runningback have to protect, while interior linemen block no one. Indeed, the tight-end ends up blocking the defensive end, a potential mismatch. There are ways around this problem, but it is a definitely concern.

The most common “area” protection is slide or “gap” protection, where the line all slides to a gap. More on this in a moment.

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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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Smart Notes – Tressel, Triple Inside Fire Zones – 3/15/2011

I’m generally not a fan of sentencing guidelines, but the Jim Tressel, Cam Newton, and other stories indicate to me that some kind of guidelines would be helpful, even if they were entirely advisory. The upshot of what I mean is that it’d be nice if we, as the football populace, knew that if you violated rule or bylaw X or Y, your potential punishment range was between A and B, to be meted out by some NCAA enforcement body. Maybe there is more of this than I’ve noticed, but it all strikes me as so subjective. Pundits whinge and hand-wring, but their postulations are as arbitrary as the ones actually handed down. That said, I don’t want it to be completely rigid — that’s why I said there should be a range and the guidelines should be advisory, to be deviated from in appropriate cases. To do this properly would require the NCAA to research past sentences and to think hard about what punishments should be and to publish those findings. The incentive for such action has to be there now, however, with all these high profile enforcement cases.

- Bracket coverage. Runcodhit on bracket coverage.

- Understanding the vertical pass set. The most important pass protection technique in football right now (either to use or at least understand), this is a solid primer:

Vertical setting is essentially the OL equivalent of a backpedal.
We retreat backwards away from the LOS , looking for all 5 OL to remain on the same vertical plane. The OL steps should go:

Inside – Out – Inside – Out

basically we always step with the inside foot first, and then the outside foot. for all 90s protection we take 4 steps back before dropping we “Anchor”. Many teams only use this protection but I still use a separate 60s protection, that is the same thing but for 2 steps.

- Triple inside fire zone. I have previously discussed Dom Capers’ and Dick LeBeau’s use of the triple inside fire zone, and Coach Hoover has expanded on the topic, and has included some nasty footage here:

- The labor dispute: a legal roadmap. Good piece from Michael McCann on SI.com.

- Administrative Note: I’ve upgraded the comment system using the Disqus system. Please let me know if there are any problems or issues. I’ve tried to port over all the old comments — it seems to have worked on some subset of old posts but not all of them. Hopefully this comment system will be a little more conducive to discussion. The strength of the readership (from coaches and players to intelligent fans who bring expertise from other backgrounds to football) is one of the best parts of this site, and I thought the old comment system wasn’t interactive or attractive enough. Hopefully I can do a good job providing thought provoking posts to spark discussion.

Smart Football Super Bowl Preview: Manning vs. Brees

Give the media two weeks before the Super Bowl and they will find every weird angle to take to fill the void: Who has the best food (uh, not Indianapolis); what U.S. Presidents are like what Super Bowl (In a matchup between Super Bowl III, with Broadway Joe, against Thomas Jefferson, the third President, Jefferson won because he “wanted it more.”); and opinion from every blustery ex-player and coach that can be found. But now that the game is here, there’s one aspect that absolutely is at the top of my list: The game features arguably the two best quarterbacks in the league who run undoubtedly the best — and most interesting offenses.

Colts

The show Peyton runs is amazing not only because of its effectiveness, but also because of its simplicity. Indeed, in all but specialty situations they have basically two personnel groups — two wide receivers, two tight-ends, and one running back and three wide receivers, one tight-end and one running back — and they have run the same few plays for the last decade. They rarely shift and instead rely on Peyton to get them to the line and find the appropriate play.

The theory for all this is simple. Although a defense has some options and disguise some things, there are only so many things a defense can do: they might be able to disguise press or loose coverage, or rotate the secondary or send an unexpected blitzer, but they can’t move a cornerback from one side of the field to the other after the snap, and there might be blitzers but there are only so many candidates. As a result Peyton gets his team to the line and surveys the defense. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore typically sends in three plays: two passes and a run or two runs and a pass, and Peyton makes his choice among those three options. Typically, Manning gets the ball snapped with under six seconds left on the play clock; he both wants to take his time surveying the defense and limit late shifts before the snap.

And Manning’s menu of plays are both simple and have been constant for a decade. For runs, he basically has three choices: outside zone (the most common), inside zone, and draw (there are a few others mixed in as well). Believe it or not, the run game comes basically verbatim from what the University of Colorado did in the early 1990s (except for the option runs, of course) — football is not as complicated as people think.

For the passing game, on early downs they run a lot of play-action, where the goal is either to beat the defense deep (through post routes and go routes) or to hit a deep void with a deep crossing route or corner. (The deep crossing route concept is described here.) Another go-to concept is three-verticals, though Manning likes to look for the inside slight off play-action as a quick throw right behind the linebackers. (Video below courtesy of Brophy.)

Play-action from under center:

Play-action from shotgun:

On passing downs and when Peyton is in the shotgun, you’ll see most of the traditional routes that other teams run, but far and away his favorite is the “levels” play. It’s almost idiotically simple — the inside receiver runs a ten-yard in route (often Dallas Clark) while the outside receiver (Reggie Wayne, most typically) runs a five yard in-route. Typically the linebacker runs with the slot and the quick five yarder is open, but once he’s hit that a few times Manning will hit the inside square-in for an easy first down.

levels

I’ve described the “levels” concept (with video) previously here. Below is another diagram showing what typically happens with the coverage:

ds
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On Florida’s offensive struggles, especially in pass protection

Read all about it over at Yahoo!’s Dr Saturday. Thanks as always to the Doc for the digital space.

Aaron Rodgers: “For better pass protection, we need fewer blockers.”

aaronrodgersSpread offense aficionados rejoice — who needs blockers? From the Green Bay Press-Gazette:

With a couple of days to think about what went wrong in Sunday’s 31-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals — a game in which Rodgers was sacked six times and hit 10 times despite a game plan that relied heavily on six- and seven-man protections — Rodgers on Wednesday said the best thing might be for coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to let the front five on the offensive line fend for themselves.

“I think one of the things that happened last week was because of struggles (in protection) in Week 1, we’ve kept more guys in (to block),” Rodgers said. “Our backs were staying in a little bit longer, and so our stuff was all down the field because we didn’t have any of our check downs out.

“The push, hopefully, this is week is, ‘Hey you guys got to hold up up front.’ We need more options underneath the coverage. When they’re dropping off so far, you need some check downs.”

It might seem counterintuitive that the guy who’s been getting killed — 10 sacks and 19 hits in two games — wants less protection, but the logic is that by keeping in running backs and tight ends less often, Rodgers will have more options to get the ball out quicker if he’s facing pressure. Against the Bengals, many of his throws were deep because there were so few short options.

Rodgers’ theory might not be so far-fetched. McCarthy and Philbin have admitted in the days following the Bengals’ game that they may have given the line too much help.

Note too that you can have different types of pass protection — i.e. “slide” (also known as “gap”) protection or man (also known as “BOB,” big on big, back on backer). Slide protection is a little sturdier — the line, tight-ends, and/or runningbacks are each responsible for a gap, and just step that direction and zone or “area block” all stunts and twists, but man-protection, when done correctly, allows the line to just block the obvious rushers while the runningback can “check-release” a linebacker or safety and release into the pattern if no one rushes. Defenses have countermoves too, but in that way you can both max-protect and get five into the route if the defense only rushes four.

Finally, there are pass protections that use both schemes; many teams’ six-man protection scheme “man blocks” one side while “zones” the other:

passpro

It’s not clear what kind of pass protection schemes the Packers were using, but expect more variety this week.