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 — Christian McCaffrey’s Halfback Option, Holgorsen’s Power Football, Belichick on Marv Levy, Emory & Henry Formation

McCaffrey’s Y-Stick, Halfback Option

Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey narrowly missed out on the Heisman trophy in one of the most competitive races in recent years, as McCaffrey, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Alabama’s Derrick Henry each had remarkable seasons, with Henry taking home the trophy. But McCaffrey might be the most intriguing one of the bunch as he has tremendous skills but I’m still wrapping my mind around how he projects to the NFL, as while he weighs only around 205 pounds (by contrast, Rams rookie Todd Gurley is 225 pounds), he has preternatural agility and quickness, yet has thrived in Stanford’s bruising, power based system while rushing for 1,847 yards. But what makes McCaffrey truly special to me are his special skills as a receiver.

christian

Of course, McCaffrey has the pedigree of an outstanding “space player“: McCaffrey’s father was Ed McCaffrey, a thirteen year NFL veteran wide receiver (who could really ball); his grandfather, Dave Sime, was “ranked one of the fastest humans of all time“, won an Olympic silver medal in the 100 meter dash and at one point held the world record in the 100 meter dash; and his mother, Lisa, was a soccer player at Stanford who once (jokingly?) told Sports Illustrated, “That’s why Ed and I got together — so we could breed fast white guys.”

But it’s not just that McCaffrey is great in the open field, a fact evidenced by his insane 3,469 all purpose yards, which broke the record set by none other than Barry Sanders. McCaffrey also has a tremendous feel for the passing game and for running routes, as evidenced by how often Stanford used him in their “HBO” or “half-back option” schemes.

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New Grantland: Football 101 – Why Power Running Works

It’s now up over at Grantland:

While many think the term “power football” describes an attitude or perhaps even a formation, coaches actually use it to refer to something more technical: the Power-O and Counter Trey run plays, which most coaches simply call Power and Counter, and which are foundational running plays in the NFL and college football.

Power and Counter are so effective because their very designs are forged from aggression. They’re deliberate melees built on double-team blocks, kick-out blocks, lead blocks, and down blocks, and preferably finished off by a running back who drops his shoulder and levels a defender or two before going down. And as this GIF shows, they can be things of beauty:

counter

While football increasingly seems to revolve around quarterbacks who post gaudy passing stats in spread attacks, the inside running game remains the sport’s core no matter what offense a team runs. Let’s take a closer look at how Power and Counter were developed, why they work, and how teams are putting some new spins on some old plays.

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: Inside the Evolution (and Oregonification) of Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Offense

It’s now up over at Grantand:

At Florida, Meyer’s offense revolved almost entirely around the quarterback. From 2007 through 2009, Tim Tebow led the SEC in pass efficiency while also leading the Gators in rushing yards, and the lasting image of those UF offenses is of Tebow plunging into the line on power runs. That approach worked with a 6-foot-3, 235-pound rhinoceros at quarterback, but with Tebow off to the NFL in 2010, Florida’s offense began to fall apart, and the Gators limped to an 8-5 finish. Meyer stepped away from the game in 2011 to spend more time with family, and during that time he was able to study many of the sport’s most innovative coaches and schemes. When Meyer rejoined the coaching ranks and started searching for a coordinator who could mesh the newest trends with what Meyer had done before, he asked around for suggestions, and several of his closest friends in the business suggested the same name: Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Herman.

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: Lombardi Sweep Redux: How Eddie Lacy – and Green Bay’s Most Famous Play – Give Green Bay a New Dimension

It’s now up over at Grantland:

The 2013 Packers have also resurrected a version of the most famous play in Green Bay history, the legendary Lombardi Sweep, also known simply as the Packers Sweep. The play was the backbone of the Lombardi teams that won five NFL championships and two Super Bowls. On the Packers Sweep, Paul Hornung or Jim Taylor would sweep behind the blocks of pulling guards Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston, who would create, in Lombardi’s famous words, “a seal here and a seal here,” forming an “alley.” The 2013 Packers have repeatedly run a version of this play in order to get Lacy on the edge with pulling linemen paving the way.

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: Adrian Peterson and the Lead Draw: The Vikings’ Throwback Play for Their Throwback Runner

It’s now up over at Grantland:

The lead draw has a storied history. Dating at least as far back as the Johnny Unitas–led Baltimore Colts, the play had maybe its greatest renaissance when run by Emmitt Smith for the Dallas Cowboys. To this day, Smith — not commonly known for his rhetorical flourishes — waxes philosophical whenever asked about the play, as he details the subtle ways he played off the blocks of his massive offensive line and fullback Daryl Johnston to wear down, and then break, defenses. The play epitomized the running game of the great 1990s Cowboys teams. Defenses knew it was coming and still couldn’t stop it.

The lead draw works very much the way its name implies: At the snap, the offensive line and quarterback step away from the line just as they would on a pass play, in an effort to make the defense think they are trying to throw the ball — a “draw.” Meanwhile, “lead” refers to the block of the fullback or H-back, who initially looks like a pass blocker before leading the way for the runner. In short, the lead draw combines deception with power, which is also an apt description for Peterson’s running style. One of the best examples of Peterson running the lead draw came in the second quarter against St. Louis last fall.

Read the whole thing.

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New Grantland: Cam Newton and the Diversity of Carolina’s Zone-Read Package

It’s now up over at Grantland:

One of them is a play Newton made famous at Auburn — the “inverted veer” or “dash read” play. Unlike a typical zone read where the quarterback reads a back-side defender, the inverted veer reads a player on the front side — the quarterback and running back head in the same direction. Coupled with “power” run blocking with a pulling guard, the defense is outnumbered to the play side, and blocking lines up nicely.

Against the Saints, Panthers offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski took Cam’s old inverted veer one step further by running an outside run coupled with a read of an interior defender — a “sweep read.” Carolina ran this play several times against the Saints, but the best example came in the third quarter and resulted in DeAngelo Williams bursting around the left end for a 27-yard gain.

Read the whole thing.

After the jump is a good FishDuck article showing how Chip Kelly at Oregon uses a similar concept:

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New Grantland: Alabama’s Run Game — Simple and Deadly, But Is It Good Enough to Beat LSU?

It’s up over at Grantland:

That said, we should never count out Nick Saban. Alabama’s defense is arguably even better than LSU’s based on statistics (though I favor LSU owing to stronger competition and general fearsomeness). Alabama also boasts perhaps the best player on either team: running back and Heisman finalist Trent Richardson. Perhaps more than any other player in the country, Richardson has the ability to personally shred defenses, even those geared to stop him.

But can Alabama get Richardson loose? In the first matchup (or hadn’t you heard that this game was a rematch?), Richardson led the Crimson Tide in rushing and receiving but never really got free. Because we know what we will get from Richardson — primarily, if you’re an LSU defender, a face full of the kneepad-covered pistons he calls legs — Alabama’s success on offense Monday night will depend on offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and tight end Brad Smelley.

Read the whole thing.

Anatomy of a Beatdown: The key concepts Dana Holgorsen’s West Virginia Mountaineers used to crush Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl

I put together a short video showing and describing some of the key plays West Virginia used to crush Clemson. Of course, as big as these plays were, the turnovers and high tempo were probably just as important to WVU’s victory. But I still found these plays quite interesting and worth exploring, particularly how they fit together, as each base play had a counter (and sometimes a counter to the counter) mixed in the gameplan somewhere. As I always say, it’s not about how many plays you have, but how they fit together.

The last thing to note is I didn’t see a single concept that I hadn’t seen West Virginia run at some other point this season. It wasn’t an all-new gameplan; they just executed much better. If you want to learn more about Dana Holgorsen’s brand of the Airraid, you can read more here.

Adapting the Rocket Toss Sweep to Spread and Pro-style Offenses

The top four rushing teams in college football this past season — Navy, Air Force, Army, and Georgia Tech — each ran the flexbone offense or some variation of it. “Well,” you say, “those offenses run the ball a lot, so that inflates the yardage.”

Rocket: Just get it to the fast guy

To a point, yes, but even if you simply look at them on a yards per rushing attempt basis they were each in the top 10, with Navy last at 5.40 yards per attempt at 10th and Air Force and Georgia Tech tied for 3rd at 5.75 yards per attempt. And maybe the most impressive (or at least surprising) statistics of the season is that FCS power Georgia Southern hung over 300 yards rushing at over 7.7 yards per carryversus Nick Saban’s vaunted Alabama defense, a solid 230 yards more than the average for ‘Bama’s opponents. (It should be noted that the game was not close.) So it pays to study what plays and principles give them so much success.**

Obviously these flexbone teams use a lot of option principles, which may or may not be adaptable to what a given team currently does. This is especially so for spread-to-pass or pro-style teams that simply don’t have the time to work on a complex set of quarterback reads for option; it’s great stuff, it’s just a different offense and would require certain trade-offs. I am a big believer that many teams simply try to do too much and end up bad at a lot of things instead of very good at a couple of them.

But one play — really a series, rather than a play — that is criminally underutilized is the “Rocket Toss Sweep” or simply the “Rocket” series. See below for an example of the base rocket play.

The rocket similar in concept to a jet sweep, but with some notable differences. Specifically, because the sweeper takes a deeper path:

  • the play actually happens faster than the jet, because the pitch can occurs outside of the box rather than via a jet which usually takes place where the quarterback is standing;
  • this depth actually allows the offense to get additional lead blockers in front of the rocket sweeper — it’s the ultimate “numbers to the perimeter” play; and
  • because so much action is flowing to the playside, counters are even better off of the rocket action than they are from the jet sweep, as shown in the video clip below.

This last point is the real reason why I think the rocket sweep is a must include for any spread or even multiple pro-style offense, especially if they don’t use the quarterback in the run game. The difficult part in designing and executing any run game is controlling for two defenders: the counterpart for the quarterback and the runningback. In the traditional pro-style defense against a run play, it is the runningback’s defensive counterpart that causes problems: when a quarterback hands off and watches the play, a deep safety stays back to watch out for play-action, but some unblocked linebacker or defensive end can cause problems by taking away the cutback or simply causing confusion in running assignments. By using the quarterback in the run game with reads and options you can control that defender, but for many pass-first teams that’s not necessarily an option. You’re either Oregon or you’re not.

But the rocket series gives you some of that — it is a series — without necessarily requiring that you spend all the additional time required to use your quarterback in the run game. As one coach recently put it:

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