The crack toss sweep and the double crack screen against an overloaded defense

No matter what offense you run, it’s important to have counters. In the video clip below, legendary offensive line coach Alex Gibbs shows his “crack toss sweep” counter to an overloaded defense. The idea is that, if you’re successful running to the power side of the formation, defenses will often overload that side, specifically by playing man coverage and flopping their cornerbacks to cover your two split receivers, thus keeping both the numbers as well as the better run support defenders to the strong side. One possible counter is the old counter trey play, which has the advantage of getting extra linemen at the point of attack but has the disadvantage of being slow. Gibbs shows (flip to the end for the film cut-ups) a “crack” toss where one of the wide receivers cracks down on the defensive end while the playside linemen pull and lead to the outside. It’s a great, easy to install changeup.

But as Coach Gibbs notes, it’s not quite as good against zone, a primary reason being that it doesn’t necessarily account for the linebackers as opposed to just the defensive end to the pitch side. Moreover, as fast as the toss is it’s not that quick. That’s why I prefer, instead of the crack toss, a “crack screen” play. This play is faster, which then has the added benefit of better numbers at the point of attack because the offense shouldn’t need to block the defensive end as he will be outflanked.

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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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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).)

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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Visual evidence of the evolution of the spread offense

Compare Woody Dantzler running the Clemson Tigers offense under coordinator Rich Rodriguez:

…with the new school spread from Oregon, coached by Chip Kelly:

It’s not quite fair to draw major conclusions off comparing just these two teams, coached by different guys, but I see some themes that emerge:

  1. A wider variety of sets. Clemson uses only a couple of formations — mostly two-by-two with four receivers — while Oregon uses three receivers and a lot of sets with H-backs and tight-ends. Indeed, if there’s one change I can point to about the newest spread offenses is that they are less spread. Guys like Chip Kelly and Gus Malzahn use tight-ends as often as pro-style teams, though they integrate them into their offenses in slightly different fashion.
  2. A wider variety of reads. Much of the development in the spread run game has been to counteract advanced defense reactions to the zone-read, like the “scrape exchange.” A lot of Clemson’s runs aren’t reads at all, and rely on the surprise element of having the quarterback run at all, whereas Oregon employs significantly more deception and movement in the backfield, and the reads go well beyond the old “read the defensive end” of the zone read. Instead, they include reads of the defensive tackle and the outside linebacker for bubble screens built into the play.
  3. Increased polish of footwork and fakes. Chip Kelly does an excellent job of coaching his quarterbacks and runningbacks to carry out their fakes and to emphasize them, whereas with Clemson everything was so new the threat alone was often enough. (Rodriguez’s teams, especially at West Virginia, got very good at this as well.)
  4. Increased emphasis on “power” schemes. In the spread’s nascent days, almost all the runs were based off the inside and outside zones, with a few simple reads. And Rodriguez’s teams still emphasize the zone, much like some pro teams do. But other teams, including Oregon, have meshed spread principles like QB reads and an integration of slot receivers and a focus on angles and leverage in blocking with traditional “power” schemes, like the “Power O” and “Counter Trey.”

Those are the major themes I notice. Feel free to add your own in the comments. One thing I will add though is that the Clemson clip contains my favorite play out of those shown in the videos above — the “play-action” pass from no-back where the quarterback dips down as if it was a QB Draw and instead fires a pass downfield. Call it the predecessor to the “jump pass.

Explanation and cut-ups of the “Power O” run play

I’ve discussed the “power” play here a few times, because it both quite ubiquitous in college and the pros and also because it is quite good. It’s been around for some time, though, like the counter trey, was made used maybe most famously by Joe Gibbs’s great Washington Redskins teams.

Redskins great John Riggins made a living off the "Power O" play

Redskins great John Riggins made a living off the "Power O" play

The play itself is very basic:

  • The lineman to the side the run is going (playside) essentially “down” block, meaning they take the man to the inside of them. For the guards and center, that includes anyone “heads up” or covering them, but for the playside tackle, he does not want to block the defensive end or other “end man on the line of scrimmage.” These lineman use their leverage to get good angles to crush the defensive lineman, and the fact that they don’t have to block a couple of defenders on the playside frees them to get good double teams and block the backside linebackers. To use Vince Lombardi’s phrase, the idea is to get so much force going that direction that they completely seal off the backside.
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  • They can  do this because they get some help to the playside. First, the fullback (or, more often nowadays, some kind of H-back or other player) is responsible for blocking the otherwise unblocked end man on the line of scrimmage (“EMLOS”). He uses a “kick out” technique, simply meaning he blocks him from the inside to out, in order to create Lombardi’s famous “seal” going the other way.
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  • The final piece of the puzzle is the backside guard (sometimes nowadays a tackle). He pulls and “leads,” meaning he retreats, looks first for the fullback’s block to cut off of, and then heads into the crease looking to block the first defender that shows up — typically the playside linebacker. He can block him whatever direction is best; it’s the runningback’s job to find the open lane.
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  • The runner takes a lateral or slight delay step, takes the handoff from the quarterback, and follow’s the pulling guard’s block. As stated above, he wants to cut off that man’s block and get vertical quickly. It is a power play so he has to be willing to hit the hole fast; it’s not as much of a “read the defense” run as are zone runs, though it is a good complement to it.
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  • If it all works well, the line should have crushed anyone to the inside of the offensive guard, while the fullback has kicked out the end man on the line, and the pulling guard is the runningback’s personal protector. The defender that the guard blocks should never be right, both because the guard has freedom to push him wherever, and the runner’s job is to cut off his block to make him correct — the runner cannot just guess.

 

Here are a few diagrams and examples. The beauty of the play is its versatility: it is probably the most popular run right now in the NFL, and it is also possibly the most popular run in college among spread teams like Florida, Auburn, or a number of others. (And it has the best name — “power.”)

The first is an example of how the Pittsburgh Steelers used the play a few years ago from a very traditional set, though they used an H-back in motion instead of a fullback. I previously discussed the play for the NY Times Fifth Down.

steelerscounter_updateA

The Steelers used it to great effect, as Willie Parker had a 75 yard touchdown run in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Watch how the H-back goes in motion and kicks out his man, while the guard pulls and leads.

Though when it comes to the “power play,” the most famous use of it this season has been as Ronnie Brown’s go-to play form the Wildcat. The first part of the ‘cat is Ricky Williams on the jet sweep, but the first “counter” in the series is for Brown to fake the wildcat and then take it himself with basic “power O” blocking. Indeed, this is a hint of why the Dolphins are so successful with it: to their lineman, it is the same play that they run from normal sets. Hence why they bristle when other teams try to call what they are doing gimmickry.

wildcatpower

Below is a video of the original form of power that the Dolphins ran with the wildcat, with an unbalanced line:
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Rich Rodriguez on the spread run game

Nothing revolutionary, but good stuff.

Smart Notes 8/18/2009

The quadruple-option, now with video. I have updated my recent post on spread-option stuff to include video of the “quadruple option” I explained there — where the quarterback can hand it the runner inside, take it himself, or throw it to a receiver in the flat or downfield on a fade. People noted some understandable skepticism regarding whether linemen might get downfield. Remember, there is a two-yard cushion or safe harbor for them. Anyway, I found video of this concept from the Calgary from the CFL.

Canadian football is pretty wide open. But this is a good look at the concept, even if the QB does inexplicably pass up an inciredibly wide-open guy in the flat.

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NFL Coaches still fussing about the wildcat

ronniebrownJon Gruden will one day run the spread in the NFL. Either that, or he will die trying. People may not realize it, but Gruden coached the run and shoot under Walt Harris at Pacific, and gave some thought to committing to that offense full time. Instead he made a career choice to focus on the west coast offense. From that perspective (two NFL coaching gigs and a Super Bowl), it worked out. But he is not averse to being wide open, and he clearly is enamored with the wildcat and what the spread guys are doing in college. (Keep in mind that his brother Jay was an Arena league player and coach for a long time.) Gruden has spent the whole offseason focusing on the spread, including attending Urban Meyer’s coaching clinic at Florida this past spring (with Bill Belichick, who raved about Gruden’s clinic lecture). Anyway Gruden is back at it now that Vick has been signed:

Gruden is bullish on the limitless NFL possibilities of the spread offense and its baby brother, the Wildcat formation. It’s become all the rage in college football, and Gruden thinks the time is ripe to bring it in a big way to the pros. . . .

“I wanted to use it last year, but we had some injuries and shied away from it a little bit,” Gruden said. “But it’s been something I’ve been studying.

“When you pick up a college tape, 90 percent of those guys, you never see them under center. Ever. All you’re seeing is spread-read options. There are guys like Tim Tebow, who is going to be coming out next year, somebody is going to take him, and somebody is going to have a plan for him. Vince Young has struggled the last couple of years. But he was wicked in that Rose Bowl game against USC. He ran for 200 and threw for 200.

“Then there’s Vick. He’s certainly a candidate to run the spread. Everybody’s got a guy [who can run it]. Brad Smith with the Jets. Michael Robinson in San Francisco. Isaiah Stanback in Dallas. Everybody’s got a guy that can throw a little bit. I think there’s a wave coming.”

I’m inclined to agree.

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The zone-read, gun triple-option . . . and the quadruple-option?

White_readerIt wasn’t long after the zone-read was invented that coaches began dabbling in ways to turn the play into a “triple option” — i.e. with a third possible ballcarrier based on a second quarterback read. Both Rich Rodriguez and Randy Walker started doing it early on, and by the time Urban Meyer was running his spread at Utah, the idea of having a “pitch back” or “pitch phase” for the quarterback if he pulled the ball after reading the defensive end was here to stay.

Now, this enhanced spread run game should not be confused with the true triple-option stuff, as veer offenses, like Paul Johnson’s flexbone, have certain blocking scheme advantages in that the guys being “optioned” are specifically avoided so as to enable double-team blocks on other defenders — an advantage not present with the zone-read. (This is one reason why many spread teams, including Urban Meyers’s and Rich Rodriguez’s, run the veer nowadays.) But there is no question that, as the spread has gotten older and more entrenched, the cat-and-mouse game between offense and defense has also evolved.

The current evolution has us with the zone-read-triple with a pitch back, and its more nascent cousin, the zone-read triple with a bubble screen. But some coaches are working on even more exotic spread permutations, including what can only be described as the “quadruple option.”

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